After getting into film photography a while back I recently decided I wanted to develop my photos myself. I don't want to print myself or anything like that, just open up my 35mm canisters and develop them using the paterson development tank. The goal is to save money on the whole lab fees, by just having my films ready and being able to see what's on it, before going to the lab and asking to print/scan specific photos

So I got the tank, Imma get the chemicals etc. But what I wanted to know was hands-on tips from people who already do it themselves. I've seen videos where people load up the film in the tank in complete darkness, isn't it possible to use a red light bulb for that?

  • @inkista Re the edit, especially the change of title: I may be wrong, but I initially read this question as a broader one, requesting general tips, not just about the red light?
    – Kahovius
    Aug 27, 2021 at 15:48
  • @Kahovius, yes. But all I did was retitle and remove the thanks. All the other text in the body of the question is unchanged, including the request for general tips. The original title wasn't even a question ("Want to start developping my own film"), and I thought it risked closure as "too broad" (i.e., questions are supposed to be a single, targeted question). Anything you can write an entire book about (like film developing) isn't a great question for SE.
    – inkista
    Aug 27, 2021 at 18:03
  • Related: Why is a dark-room safelight safe?
    – Michael C
    Aug 31, 2021 at 10:08

5 Answers 5


No, you can't use a red light bulb because your film is sensitive to red light if it's panchromatic film (unlike the paper used for B&W prints), so you have to train yourself to operate in the dark.

IMHO the less risky part of the from-camera-to-print process is the print, because spoiling a print just spoils that instance, while spoiling a roll of negative has a lot more consequences. Plus if your negative development is marginal the print shop may reject it. In other words, doing the development part only doesn't make much sense in an amateur process.

  • We did plenty of "roll your own" film canisters and transferred the rolls from the canister to the development tanks back when I was in high school. It was unbelievably black inside the little transfer booth we had, and I managed to ruin more than a couple of shots by not getting the film arranged just right on the spool for developing. It takes practice, but it also takes care.
    – FreeMan
    Aug 31, 2021 at 17:20

A few tips:

  • Firstly, as xenoid said, most (all?) modern film is panchromatic, meaning it is sensitive to the entire visible light spectrum. You need to make sure your darkroom / wherever you decide to load your films into the tank is absolutely pitch dark.
  • Loading film in dark is not terribly difficult once you get the hang of it. But it makes sense to practice with a scrap roll in daylight first. Also, when loading film in darkness, do this inside some sort of vat in which you've gathered all the necessary equipment, not just the tank and reel and film but also canister opener, scissors, etc. That way you won't need to "look" for some lost item in the dark.
  • In addition to the tank and the chemicals, you are going to need some accessories: a timer, graduates / measuring jugs, bottles for prepared solutions, canisters to store used chemicals in before disposal, a thermometer or two, maybe a second reel for the tank, those clippy thingies to hang negatives to dry, etc. You can save some money by getting some of these things second hand.
  • Depending on how often you develop, you will need to consider the shelf life of your chemicals. For example, I only develop rarely, so my developer of choice is Rodinal (actually Compard R09), which keeps almost forever undiluted. It is also relatively cheap. On the other hand, there are developers which can be reused, so that may make sense in a different kind of workflow. And fixer can be reused up to a point.
  • Be scientific about it. Everything is important: temperature, times, dilutions, agitation routine. Be consistent, try to keep things fixed, and only vary one variable at a time.
  • Something that may turn out to cause some frustration when you start developing your own films is negative drying marks. For a long time, I didn't use a wetting agent at the end of the process, thinking it wasn't important. But it makes a huge difference.
  • (Anecdotally, and related to the above point, some sources recommend wiping the wet negatives with a cloth to speed up drying and avoid drying marks. I did this when developing my first roll, and it was ruined (scratched) beyond repair. Be very careful around wet negatives. You can squeegee some water out using two fingers, but make sure your hands are clean.)
  • In general, it's a good idea to read a bit about common negative defects / developing errors, so you can troubleshoot what went wrong if something goes wrong. Old photography books tend to discuss these things extensively, but there is also good information on the internet.
  • Speaking of the internet, the Massive Dev Chart is a great resource for dev parameters.
  • Make sure to dispose of chemicals in accordance with local environmental regulations.
  • Finally, I would again agree with xenoid that doing the development part only may not make much sense in the long run. It is fairly easy to digitize negatives: all you need is a digital camera with a lens (ideally, a flat-field macro lens) and some sort of light box (you can improvise your own).

Most importantly though: have fun! :)

  • 1
    @Anthony - Get a Film Changing Bag such as amazon.com/darkroom-bag/s?k=darkroom+bag . It takes less room and avoids claustrophobia. Aug 26, 2021 at 19:21
  • I get more consistent results from a scanner than a camera. It's less trouble to set up and tear down and easier to manage dust (keep the lid closed, use a rocket blower, cover it when not in use). Plus I get positives from my negatives and that's one less fiddly bit later. YMMV. Aug 27, 2021 at 4:26
  • @user10216038 I prefer a collapsible tent/room to the flat bag. Inevitably, I will cut the inner liner of my changing bag with scissors. YMMV. Aug 27, 2021 at 4:29

No, most film is still sensitive to a red safety light. That's more for seeing what you're doing when wet-printing, where you can find photo paper that isn't. But most folks scan and go digital these days if they're printing, not so much the oldschool methods with an enlarger and chemical trays.

But. You also don't have to be in completely darkness to load a tank. You can use a changing bag, which is how I learned to do it in high school; no darkroom required. You stick the tank, reel(s), roll(s) of film, and a bottle opener (or other method to get the cannister open), and scissors [to cut off the leader, and snip the film off the cannister reel], make sure the seals are light-tight, stick your hands in, and do it by touch. The trick is cranking the film onto the rolls properly so there's no binding/jamming/doubling up. Cutting the leader at a 45º angle rather than straight across, so there isn't a sharp corner from a mid-sprocket-hole cut, can avoid that sort of catching in the reel.

If you have access to a developed, uncut roll, I'd recommend practicing loading a reel with that, before risking your first undeveloped roll.

You'll also need measuring cups, bottles for storage, a thermometer, and a way to time the process. And you definitely want to look up how to dispose of your used chemicals, (mostly the fix, because silver is a hazardous waste).

  • Instead of a can opener, I stick a blade of my scissors in the slot of the canister and twist. Then pull the slot open. One less piece of gear and the scissors are there already. YMMV. Aug 27, 2021 at 4:16
  • 1
    I find it's easier to make sure the seals are light tight before putting my hands in. ;) Aug 27, 2021 at 4:18
  • With Paterson reels, the binding is always from the corners of the leading edge. Cutting them at a 45 degree angle avoids it. With 35mm it's usually because the leader was cut off through a sprocket hole. With 120, extra care is required to make a very small cut to reduce the odds of cutting into the first image. Aug 27, 2021 at 4:22
  • @BobMacaroniMcStevens, thanks! I'm going off 25+ year old memories, here. :) Edited. But couldn't find a good place to mention the 45º cut on the leader.
    – inkista
    Aug 27, 2021 at 5:34
  • @BobMacaroniMcStevens. Oh, wait, found one.
    – inkista
    Aug 27, 2021 at 17:55

At The Outset, photo materials only responded to the shorter and thus more energetic wavelengths (X-Ray, ultraviolet, violet, and blue). Hermann Vogel, Professor of Photography at Berlin Technical, was experimenting, trying to solve the problem of “halation”. This is a halo like artifact that often surrounds highlights. These are caused when the lens projects bright spots of light. Often the brightness is such that the exposing light traverses the film, hits the support behind the film and reflects back into the film from the rear. He reasoned that if he dyed the film yellow, this coloration would block blue and violet and deny exposure from the rear.

This scheme worked but to his surprise, the films, previously sensitive only to violet and blue, now reacted to green light energy. In 1837 he named this new expanded sensitivity orthochromatic meaning it more correctly reproduced the colors of nature. Vogel had discovered that adding dyes to film formulas altered their sensitivity to the various colors. Orthochromatic film remained insensitive to red, thus this type of film could be handled and developed under red safelight which is void of blue and violet.

Early in the 1900’s photo scientists were able to find dye combinations that increased film sensitivity into the red region of the spectrum. These films take on the prefix “pan” Latin for all meaning sensitive to all colors thus panchromatic. Panchromatic films are least sensitive to green. We can handle pan films under a super dim green safelight but only for a few minutes. A valid darkroom technique when handing pan films is to don night vision goggles. These allow us to see via infrared light. Such instrumentation was highly welcome in the photofinishing industry.


I just want to compliment the other answers, not making another one.

  1. The red light is safe only for black and white paper or for orthochromatic film. The orthochromatic film, using the word "litho" is a high contrast film. It was widely used in print reproduction, but it was an interesting medium to explore.

  2. If you are going to use a bag, do not use it under a bright light. It still can have some leaked light, so use it on a really dim light, I am thinking of a night safety light just in case.

  3. You probably need to put your scissors and canister opener inside the bag so you do not risk light leaking when you move the hands out of the bag. One assistant is really useful to put the bag around your arm.

  4. On the concept of "saving money" is relative. You can always ask for "develop only" and not ask for prints until you know which ones you want.

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