A few weeks ago I did something I’ve been meaning to do for years: began developing my own black and white film again. After a 30+ year hiatus, the time had finally come.
Up until last year I’d been fortunate enough to have one of the best pro film labs in the country only minutes away. I’d always told myself when they shut down, I’d begin. Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances that time came last year, but I held on, continuing to search for a suitable alternative for the next several months. A few weeks ago I finally said Uncle and put in an order to B&H.
I suppose there are reasons that seem suitable at the time why we do things like wait… and it’s easy to second guess decisions in hind-site. But I’ll say this: I wish I’d done this a long time ago. Today’s film processing is essentially the same as 30 years ago, with a few key differences. Patterson tanks and reels are one of those differences. The last time I tried to wind a roll of film onto the old, stainless spiral reel it was a catastrophe. The Patterson reels are easy as can be. Another reason is the lack of dark room. A nice, big changing bag took care of that. The chemicals and process are all pretty much the same – and now it’s actually fun – especially when compared to the alternative -sending it out, waiting for at least a week. And there’s the cost. Dramatically less developing yourself, even after gearing up with fresh, new supplies.
Then there’s the creative control you have over your films. For whatever reason the ILFORD Delta family of emulsions has always resonated with me. I shoot other films too – but gravitate back to the ILFORD films when the fridge is empty and it’s time to reorder. It’s simply not a feasible request; asking a commercial lab to custom develop your film with different developers than they’ve standardized on. With that, I’ve always wondered just what qualities in the film I’m missing out on by not experimenting with different developers and simply accepting the lab’s standard. Now I know, and will never go back.
Recently I’ve been considering something else I haven’t completely thought through, but will give it a go here. There seems to be many who become interested in photography – using the digital camera as a gateway. This can be a great thing. The digital camera’s immediate feedback provides invaluable tools for learning about light, composition, exposure, etc. About 10 years ago I was amongst this group. I’d been involved in photography for many (many) years prior, and to be honest, had just grown a little bored with it. There were times I’d go on a trip, shoot lots of film, then simply leave it undeveloped in my file cabinet – sometimes for years. Along came the digital camera and immediately I was enthralled. The curtain was pulled back on the seemingly long, mysterious process of going from the snap of the shutter to viewing the final image. There it was on the camera back; no more mystery. No more anticipation. What seems to happen with people who become newly interested in photography through digital cameras is – they grow bored with it. It turns out for me that mystery and anticipation was actually one of the benefits of the process, not a detractor -as I think it might be for those who get a digital camera and have a “perfect” image handed to them milliseconds after its exposure. Once the novelty wears off it becomes less interesting. This isn’t always the case, but I have seen this pattern repeat itself.
My stint with digital lasted about 3 years before migrating back to film. Now I enjoy both digital and film, but admittedly leave my digital camera home unless there’s a specific reason to bring it. Now, developing film again has deepened my commitment to film and made me even more focused. It’s such a treat to shoot and develop a roll yourself within the span of days rather than weeks or months. The quite satisfying feeling of actually making something with your hands returns.
I’ll encourage anyone who’s ever thought about developing film passingly but deemed it too complicated or expensive – to think again. It has been said to me and I agree; if you can bake a cake you can process your own film. Take additional comfort in this: I don’t believe I’ve ever successfully baked a cake of any kind – but my film turns out fantastic every time. Give it a try.