I began processing my own large format film because I wanted to shoot more, and home processing drastically reduced my costs. Although I had a lot of experience processing film when I was younger, I hadn’t developed film for 10 years when I returned to it. Overall I found that large format film processing is a little bit more difficult than roll formats, but still pretty easy as long as you are organised and methodical. That’s not to say I didn’t my fair share of problems to begin with! There is not too much specialist info on processing sheets in tanks, and what there is can sometimes be contradictory. In the end I had to do my own testing and experimenting to come up with a method I was truly happy with. I wasted quite a bit of film along the way so let’s hope you don’t have to.
These are my Top Tips for Film Processing
Split your film holders into different batches.
One of the great advantages of large format is that you can develop each sheet seperately. If you work as I do and shoot each holder as a pair of near identical images, you can make sure that each image goes into a separate development batch. This is a great insurance against film processing problems. It can also give you the chance to push or pull the second sheet of film if the first one wasn’t exposed correctly.
Loading film into the tank.
I use a Combiplan tank for developing. It’s easy to load, takes up to six sheets of film and uses a litre of developer. One thing I have found is that it is very useful to make sure the the film emulsion is facing away from the filling point of the tank. In some rare circumstances I have found that developer can splash on onto the film as you fill the tank. This creates little points of uneven development. Once loaded I always check the gaps between sheets with my fingers. I also pull very gently on them to check they are securely loaded.
If you use a tank with a relatively slow fill time you might find that developer dilutions that only need a short film processing time will give you uneven development. I have decided to go for using one shot dilutions that take about 10 minutes and have had no problems. It is also easier to be more consistent with longer development times.
Agitation is the part of film processing which I found the hardest to get absolutely right. It’s much harder to get an even negative with 4×5 film. Most of the advice online seemed to recommend quite vigourous agitation, especially when using trays. At first I followed this advice but it did not give me the results I was looking for. My first few negatives seemed fine. However, when I did some studio shots with a plain background the uneveness was obvious. As I tested I found that surge marks were a greater risk than too little agitation. Initially I had thought too little agitation was the issue and ended up adding inversions and making things worse. Uneven development would appear around the clips that hold the film in the film carrier. If you are looking for a daylight developing tank I would be very cautious of any with a holder that blocks the even flow of developer across the negative.
I settled on a method where I performed one agitation in three seconds and then and did three of those agitations per minute. It is important to agitate gently as being too vigorous could dislodge the negatives. I found this way to be more repeatable than manufacturers advice. It’s easy to to add or subtract agitations if you want to see if it changes in contrast.
Prepare your wash water the night before.
If you live in a cooler climate like me, you’ll find that your tap water can drop to 10 degrees celsius in the winter. Washing a negative in water that is too cold runs the risk of cracking the emulsion (reticulation). I like to prepare two 5 litre containers of tap water the night before I do some developing and let the come up to the correct temperature. I then use this water to to mix up solutions and for washing. It saves a lot of time trying to bring things up to temperature.
I use the Ilford Photo archival washing method for my films. It uses very little water and is quick and easy.
- After fixing, fill the spiral tank with water at the same temperature, +/- 5ºC (9ºF), as the processing solutions. Invert the tank 5 times.
- Drain the water away and refill. Invert the tank 10 times.
- Once more, drain the water. Invert the tank twenty times and drain the water away.
- I then soak my film briefly in rinse aid before leaving it to dry.
This method also means you can avoid very cold running tap water in the winter as it only uses 4 litres of water.