Black and White Film for Beginners

Why use film when we’ve got digital cameras?

First of all, what’s the value of shooting film and developing it yourself in the digital age of 60-odd megapixel mirrorless cameras? My personal experience with film goes back to when I first developed black and white images in high school some ten years ago. After a short break, I have been using film again for the last 2-3 years, and now I’m revisiting the development process. Having an active hand in more steps of the creative process is important to me, as I believe it helps to take a step back from the Instagram-centric screen-focused photography of today, to focus in on the craftsmanship behind making a photograph.

The limitation of only 36 (or less) shots per roll makes you appreciate that each photograph is part of a physical process of exposing film to light; in turn you think more and compose more carefully than you might on a digital camera. Besides this its also just a whole lot of fun – there is a great sense of achievement and anticipation when you go to see your developed negatives for the first time.

So you still want to shoot black and white film? Here’s a quick guide to getting started.  Simply put it’s: make a photo, develop the film, digitise/print.

Here’s the full list of what you’ll need:

  • Camera plus lens (35mm or medium format)
  • Film
  • Film developing kit (tank, reels, graduated cylinders, thermometer)
  • Film developing chemicals
  • A way to scan (and print) your film

My recommendations:

  • 35mm: used Canon AE-1, Pentax K1000, Nikon FE (or any basic SLR variant thereof); medium format: used Yashica Mat 124G, Bronica SQ-ai, Mamiya 645. Go support your local camera shop.
  • Lens: fixed 50mm (or equivalent).
  • Film: get a variety of Ilford and Kodak. Pan F, Delta, FP4, HP5. Tri-X, Tmax.
  • Check out Paterson Dev kits in the UK or B&H stocks in the US.
  • Ilford has great chemicals. Also see Kodak.
  • Plustek 8100/8200 (35mm), Canon V600/750 flatbed (medium format), or DSLR scanning.

Step one, expose some film. Film has a surface coating of light sensitive emulsion. In order to expose it correctly, you need a camera and a lens to direct that light onto the film for a certain amount of time. I would recommend starting off with cheap used 35mm SLRs and a fixed lens (50mm is my preferred focal length). Lots of these have built in light meters otherwise there are plenty of easy to use phone apps. Simply put, go take lots of photos.

Step two, develop the film.* First load your film into a development tank (in the dark), then there are four phases of developing: development, stopping, fixing, and drying. The film needs contact with an alkaline solution to develop. This takes the form of a chemical developer (I use Ilford Ilfatec DD-x). For instance you might leave Ilford HP5+ 400 in Ilfatec for 9 minutes agitating every minute to properly develop the negatives, We now need to stop this reaction before it goes too far, this is where the stop bath comes in. About 30 seconds neutralises the reaction. Fixer then does exactly what it says on the tin. For consistent results start by following the manufacturer’s instructions and see how it goes. Wash away the residual chemicals in water, hang it up to dry and you’re done.

Lastly, you now need to either digitise the negatives or use traditional darkroom techniques to print your images. I like digitising with my DSLR but there are equally lots of great scanners on the market. (More on printing specifics in a separate post coming soon.) Printing your images is the all important final step in the process; it is the translation of your negative, exposed to light, into a physical object.

One of the best resources for learning all things photography and film is a series of three books by Ansel Adams: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. Fair warning, it’s a deep dive, but invaluable.

I know. It’s a lot to wrap your head around. It feels like a small margin for error (and things can go wrong). But that’s also half the fun. You get to enjoy learning a craft and experimenting with different film stocks and developers. You’ll have a better holistic understanding of the creative process that goes toward making an image. Visualising the final outcome is an important part of photography, so knowing how to control exposure, development, or what you can expect your negatives to look like gives you more creative freedom in the long run. The making of something physical is an incredibly rewarding process which I believe has been lost in the hustle of modern life. This is one easy way to reintroduce this into your creative process.

The bottom line is go make some photos and enjoy the process!


*(For development specifics, follow the recommended instructions listed on the product).

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