Going analogue – making real photos digital, on the cheap

First, sorry for the lack of content here recently – my holiday, followed by a broken laptop and then a big project for someone who pays me on time has eaten up a lot of spare time lately.

Anyway, this article is something of a diversion from the purely digital too. On my recent holiday, I shot a lot of photos in black and white on my Nikon SLR. Processing and printing can cost a fair bit, and so too can a high resolution scan if you want to put the photos online.

So, I’ve been experimenting a little. First purchase was a secondhand Canon FS-4000US from eBay; this is a proper film scanner, with a batch scanning mechanism – that is, you can load six negatives in the holder and it will scan them all, moving the holder automatically. There are a few new film scanners still available; the bargain basement ones are little more than a cheap digital camera in a plastic box, and some of the ‘proper’ ones, like the Plustek OpticFilm models, lack the batch mode. I figured it was worth hunting down a scanner like the FS-4000 because batch mode saves a lot of time.

Next, I had to find some scanning software – the old Canon stuff won’t work on my Mac. There are two main choices, Hamrick’s VueScan and LaserSoft’s SilverFast. I went for the former, partly because with SilverFast the software is tied to a particular scanner model, and VueScan also allows me to resurrect the flatbed scanner in my old Epson Stylus Scan 2500, for when I need to scan documents.

VueScan works a treat; it takes me about 45 minutes to scan a complete 35mm film, and you can see some of the results in this collection on Flickr.

Next steps

Having mastered the scanning, I’ve decided to turn my hand to developing; sending a black and white film to Ilford Labs is simple, but still a bit pricey. More affordable are Snaps Photo Services in Bournemouth, who developed my Italian reels for me, and they’ll also do a scan as well.

But, I was inspired to have a go, partly by someone who commented offhand that it’s pretty simple. And a bit of research reveals that yes, that is the case. Ilford, makers of fine black and white film, has a helpful PDF on their site that explains the process.

There are also quite a lot of web stores where you can buy ‘starter’ kits for developing, though they tend to concentrate on the ‘hardware’ side, such as graduated cylinders for measuring, tools for opening film canisters, trays you might need for doing prints, but don’t need for negatives, and so on. They don’t include the chemicals, and by the time you’ve bought a kit, plus some chemicals, you’ll find you’ve racked up quite a big bill.

Fortunately, AG Photographic, from whom I’d previously bought the film I used on my holiday, have an introduction to developing kit that’s cut down to the bare essentials, and is based around the chemicals, not the hardware. In terms of hardware, all you get is the developing tank, and a thermometer. There’s no changing bag, no graduated measures, or anything like that. It really is pared down to the basics.

Getting set

So, armed with my kit, I set aside reading the instructions from AG, and working out what else I might need. Jugs, for mixing the chemicals. Three of them, probably, which necessitated a trip to the local pound shop for two 99p plastic jugs. The fixer and stop bath both have to be diluted before use, and this is where you usually use the graduated cylinders included in other kits. Stop bath is 1:19 and fixer 1:4, so for a 300ml solution, which is what fits in the developing tank, you need to measure out 15ml of stop bath, and 60 of fixer, then make each one up to 300ml. The 300ml is easy – it’s marked on the side of the jugs.

My handy solution to doing this without spending any more money was the little cups that come with things like cough syrup these days, one for each solution. To store excess developer and stop bath, I washed out and dried a wine bottle and an old Gaviscon bottle respectively, rather than buy special storage jars.

Film bottles and measuring
Old bottles and medicine cups are used for measuring and storing the developing chemicals

The other thing to learn was loading the film onto the developing spiral, which has to be done in complete darkness – usually a special changing bag. I started practising with a short strip of negatives, in daylight, until I was confident I could do this ok. Then I practised under the duvet – with the lights out, it was completely dark there, and I could get the strip of negatives into the spiral, and then into the developing tank.

Rather than spend ages trying to prise open the film canister with a bottle opener, I simply rewound the film carefully (probably much easier to do with my manual SLR); as soon as I heard and felt the click of the film coming off the take-up spool, I stopped winding, which left almost an inch of leader poking out of the canister, sufficient to pull a little more out and trim off the end. That worked well, and it was easier than I expected to load the spiral under the duvet.


The processing itself was straightforward – the hardest bit was cooling the developer down to the right temperature (it’s recommended that you use it at 20 degrees). It steadfastly refused to cool down below 21, so rather than develop for the 8 minutes, I used the Massive Dev Chart information to calculate the shorter time required (about 7 mins 22). In fact, I bought their app for my iPod touch, and edited the timings suggested for the film and developer combination to match the notes from AG Photographic.

And, it all worked surprisingly well; my first film appears to have developed ok, and is drying as I write this. Much simpler than I expected, and no need to buy lots of kit that you might not use if you decide it’s all too complicated.

Update: The next morning, the film had some marks on it, so I washed it again, with a little more washing up liquid – I suspect the eco-friendly stuff I use is probably not as good as a wetting agent. I still have a couple of streaks from drying, but on the whole the results are pretty good, and you can see two of them in this set on Flickr.

The results are much better than I expected for my first attempt. In terms of the cost of the chemicals, I’ve calculated that it’s about £1.30 per film, if you don’t reuse the fixer, and use the developer at stock dilution. That’s partly of course because the pack sizes in AG’s kit are small – you don’t want to be left with lots if you decide you’re no good at it. Bumping up the pack sizes to five litres of developer and fixer (the cost of the stop bath, at about 3 pence a film, is not worth worrying about) would drop the cost per reel to about 80 pence.

Thanks to the people at AG Photographic (follow them on Twitter) for advice on the phone.

4 Replies to “Going analogue – making real photos digital, on the cheap”

  1. Ah that takes me back “a few years”. I experimented with this when I was a lad – but soon got bored with it ! A wooden blind, some draught strip round the door, and a towel across the bottom of the door soon transformed the downstairs loo/shower room/boiler room into a darkroom.
    A cupboard hid a socket for the enlarger (a portable unit that dismantled and stored away in it’s own case which doubled as the base), and a safe-light with pull-cord switch.

    PS – thanks for the tip about scanning software. We’ve an OfficeJet 9130 at home – long since abandoned by HP. VueScan works with it, although only via USB, not the network.

  2. Like Simon I had all the cameras and kit as a lad. In fact I still have them but they have remained untouched since my first digital camera.

    The digital world is so quick, convenient and capable that I cannot imagine going back to film. Buying new film processing kit today seems perverse. Doing it in order to scan the negatives to get a digital record seems bizarre in the extreme.


    1. It might seem bizarre to you, but I have a decent SLR, and I don’t think I could afford to replace it with something equally as good.

      And, there’s also a degree to which many people still enjoy being in touch with how things are done, whether it’s developing your own films, or making furniture instead of buying it, or fixing your own car.

      Quick and easy isn’t necessarily always the best, or most satisfying way for everyone.

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