KISS- Keep It Simple, Stupid. A piece of advice that was often used by engineers. I first learned how to develop my own b&w film in the early 1970s, as I was in an informal photo class in my high school. My first self-developed film was Kodak Plus-X from my Instamatic camera, and yes, i still have those negatives. It would be another 25 years before I was developing my own film again, and that first whiff of fixer brought it all back to me. Enthused about this new aspect of my photographic hobby, I was eager to try a lot of new things. With all of the b&w film choices, developer choices, and so forth, I realized early on that the temptation to try everything would lead to never getting a handle on what a good result should look like. In 1999, the films that were available were amazing, especially in monochrome. Likewise, all sorts of developers, toners, and so on. I learned a lot, and made mistakes like anyone else. I also learned how to be consistent in my developing routine, and what worked well for my photography. Now it’s 2016, and film choices have shrunk, as have the choices of developers, and so forth. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. One can do quite well with only using a film like Ilford FP-4+ or Ilford HP-5+. If you have never had the opportunity to use any other film developer than D-76, that’s not a bad thing, either. Using it mixed 1:1 produces excellent results, with longer developing times. KISS applies so well in the darkroom. You don’t need a darkroom to develop your own film, either. A changing bag or darkbox works fine as all of the rest takes place in a daylight tank. While all my stuff is in my darkroom now, before I had a darkroom, I kept all of my developing equipment in one of those wheeled plastic sets of drawer units and a couple of shelves. Make sure every bottle is labeled as to the contents.
For an absolute beginner, start by reading up on developing practice. The very basic guide by Ilford is a starting point. www.ilfordphoto.com/webfiles/200629163442455.pdf There are lots of developing resources out there, and the one I use for times and developers is the Massive Development Chart (www.digitaltruth.com/devchart.php). But before you begin, you need only the very basic equipment to develop b&w film:
A plastic 600ml or larger graduated cylinder or measuring cup
brown plastic jugs for your developer, fixer, and stop-bath (gallon size for the developer and fixer).
a Paterson developing tank and reels
scissors (for cutting leader from 35mm film and at the end of the roll)
bottle opener (for opening film can -if 35mm)
Large plastic container for mixing up fixer and developer – a 2 gallon bucket is perfect.
Changing bag or dark-box.
clips to hang film to dry.
That’s the very basic to get started for B&W. Guess what? It’s pretty much all you need to develop color film, too. Only difference — 1 L bottles for the chemicals, and a small tub to keep the hot water to control your developing temperature.
For B&W developing, I have three favorite developers that I use according to the film and situation — Rodinal, Kodak HC-110, or D-76. Others may tell you that XTOL is all you need. In reality, D-76 is about as all-purpose a developer for film as you can get, as it has been in use for over 60 years. Since Kodak sold off their chemical division, others are making the D76 product. I recommend the Freestyle Photo’s (http://www.freestylephoto.biz/) Arista 76 Powder (makes 1 gallon). The Arista Arifix Powder (makes 1 gallon) is a good fixer, and you can use water as a stop bath. Mix the gallon sizes and store them in gallon jugs. Do not try to mix a partial batch. That comes to about $12 in chemicals, and will develop many rolls of b&w film. Use the Arista 76 mixed 1 part of developer solution to 1 part of water (given as 1:1) as given for D76 in the developer charts for your film. Freestyle also has rebranded Arista film made by Kodak, Ilford, or Foma. All are good. To start with, I suggest Ilford HP-5+ or Arista EDU Ultra 400. Keep notes on your developing for each roll of film. Time and temperature are important.
You can source a lot of the equipment you need from Freestyle, B&H, Adorama, and The Film Photography Project Store (http://filmphotographyproject.com/store) (FPP). Also, if you have a community of local photographers and they know you are interested in film, someone may have extra equipment available. The FPP site has a lot of tempting films to try, and if you use one to start, I suggest the FPP 200 B&W. Buy a few rolls and see how it works for you.
To reiterate — Keep It Simple. Become proficient in developing technique and your results will be better and predictable. Get to “know” what a film is capable of and if the results it gives you are what you are seeking. From there, you’ll know if a different film affords you something that is really different in “look” or not.
If you are only shooting color film, do not despair. I HIGHLY recommend the FPP C-41 powder developing “kit.” A 1L kit will develop at least 15 rolls of film, saving you a LOT of $$$. The great thing about home-developing color film is that it does not matter what color film you shoot – the development time is the same. Don’t be like me, and not try doing it for too many years, only to find that it’s really, really, easy.
Lastly, be kind to your negatives. Store them in archival plastic sleeves. The negative is the original source. You can make traditional silver prints in an enlarger, or scan them in using a scanner like the Epson V700 Photo, and then have prints made via inkjet or a service like Mpix.com. Share them on Flickr, etc. Show your work!
About the author – Mark F. O’Brien is the writer of Random Camera Blog (http://randomphoto.blogspot.com/) , which has been ongoing since 2004. He’s also on Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mfobrien/). He’s also the managing director of the Ann Arbor Area Crappy Camera Club, which has been going since 2006. The site is a2crappycameras.org if you would like to know more.