Whenever I tell someone I develop my own film at home I am met with a wide eyed stare as if I’m doing something that takes a great deal of time, space, and dedication. Yeah sure, film development is without a doubt a learned technique, but it isn’t nearly as painful as one might think. I actually get in more hours of television while developing film than I do any other activity in my life. Doing a search on the web doesn’t help matters much either. There are hundreds of developers and various chemical mixtures out there and it is difficult as a beginner to know where to start. I’ve spoken to a lot of budding photographers over the years who have asked me, “what do I need to develop my own film?” and my answer is always the same.
Buy some Rodinal and learn how to stand develop.
What is Rodinal?
To my knowledge, Rodinal is the oldest film developer still in commercial production. It was patented in 1891 and formerly produced by the now extinct Agfa Photographic Company. Now days you can easily find it from a variety of manufacturers including ADOX and Foma, usually under the product name R09. I’ve personally seen it under a few different names so just look for something on the bottle that says “Rodinal Formula” and you should be good to go.
It is no surprise that Rodinal is still popular among the do-it-yourself photography crowd as the developer has a lot going for it. What originally drew me to it is the fact that it comes as a concentrate liquid, so you don’t have to mix up a minimum liter or gallon like you do with developers such as D-76. All you do is mix up what you need for that particular moment. Even better, Rodinal is cheap and its keeping properties are excellent. I’ve kept bottles of Rodinal around for over a year and it still works just fine. This stuff just simply does not go bad.
There are of course trade-offs. When isn’t there? Rodinal is a one-shot developer, which means once you go through a roll of film you have to dump it. However, because it is so cheap to purchase and there is enough chemistry in a single bottle for dozens of rolls of film this is a complete non-issue for me. The second trade-off can be considered a strength depending on how you look at it. Rodinal delivers a lot of grain and by extension, a lot of perceived sharpness in your negatives too. I know a lot of photographers who will not touch Rodinal when using fast films or even 35mm. The grain becomes just too obtrusive for them. As far as aesthetics go, to each their own, but for me this has never been a sticky point. I like grain. More importantly I like sharp grain.
Why Stand Develop?
Stand development is often described as darkroom work for lazy people. This is somewhat true. However, I also like to think of it as darkroom work for smart people. In a nutshell, stand development involves making a negative with a small amount of chemistry over a very long period of time with little to no agitation. The process is just as the name implies. You mix up your chemistry and well…just let it stand there. I often think of it as heating up a bowl of soup with your stove set to simmer. It might take a while, but the result will be a tasty meal evenly heated throughout.
Relating that to film, during stand development the Rodinal will exhausts itself in areas which require greater development whilst remaining active in less-exposed areas, which has the effect of boosting shadow detail whilst preserving bright highlights. Through stand development, your result is a drastically compressed tonal range. I nearly always stand develop when I shoot film in bright sunlight with heavy shadows. It is the simplest and easiest way to keep detail in my shadows without skin tones blowing out to bright white.
Stand development is also largely insensitive to variations in exposure, and allows for the development of films rated at different speeds in the same batch. So if you are like me and often shoot a lot of different film stocks and wildly varying film speeds, you can mix it all up together and it just simply does not matter.
The biggest risk with stand development is uneven development. I’ve personally never experienced this and it may be due to the fact that I tend not to use large developing tanks nor do I work with really high dilutions of chemistry. So just bare this in mind. One also has to accept a certain lack of control during development. If you are the kind of photographer that always exposes your negatives perfectly and then follows a rigid development process by the book, stand development may not be for you.
So How Do You Stand Develop?
Do a search on the web and you will find a lot of techniques for stand development with a lot of minor variations. Some recommend a Rodinal dilution of 1:100. Others a dilution of 1:200. Some claim 45 minutes is the best amount of time. I’ve seen a few recommend as much as two hours. Most are probably correct in their own way. That is the thing about stand development, it doesn’t much matter.
So let me offer up a simple solution that works well for me, and I promise will work well for you too. Fix up your developer in a 1:100 ratio and get your temperature somewhere in the ballpark of 68 degrees F (20 degree C if that matters to you). Remember, perfect temperatures really aren’t necessary with stand development. Set your timer to sixty minutes and agitate your film ten inversions right off the bat. After thirty minutes or so do one inversion just to mix up the chemistry in the tank a little. After an hour, dump, fix, and wash. That’s it. The end. Your results will be a workable negative. You can fine tune your time, developer ratio, and temperature depending on your specific needs but this is a great starting point regardless of the film stock.