Bucket Processing
2008 Robert Schaller, used by the Handmade Film Institute by permission

Surprisingly good results can be had from simply processing film in a series of buckets. You don't need a special processing tank or a complicated processing machine! Your results will depend on how careful you are, but if you are gentle, you can achieve virtually scratch-free results using only the most basic equipment -- or as scratched and "hand-processed looking" as you want!

Darkroom

The most basic need is for a place to do the processing, and this is the "Darkroom". The term can be taken in at least two ways:

  1. a room constructed just for the purpose of processing film and working with it in the dark, such as the Darkrooms that exist in educational facilities and professional film processing labs. In addition to being dark, it will also generally have running water and a big sink, both of which are very helpful (!) for film processing. Further, a "real" darkroom will have (if its properly designed!) adequate ventilation, so that the vapors rising from the processing chemicals don't hang around and enter your lungs in excessive quantities.
  2. an ordinary room that has been "blacked out" and made dark by plugging up its light leaks. This could be any room that can be co-opted for this purpose: a closet, a storeroom, anything.

Which sort of space you decide to use depends on your circumstances and needs. If you're planning to do this repeatedly, even only over the next year or so, I would strongly recommend using a "real" darkroom. This could be a professional facility that you rent time in (many cities have such a place), or one that you or a group of friends build yourselves. Before throwing up your hands and deciding that this is too much work, consider that it isn't really so much work, and that even plumbing isn't so hard or so expensive. I have built a darkroom everywhere I've lived for the last ten years (which is four, so far), and in each case they were real, full-featured spaces with plumbing. Most cities have a stainless steel fabricating place that can make you your very own stainless steel sink that will set you back $800 or so, but it will last forever and it will be just right. Faucets and a valve that mixes hot and cold water can be put together out of inexpensive plumbing fixtures. Designing and building a real darkroom is beyond the scope of this discussion, but it's neither prohibitively expensive nor all that hard, and it is the path of choice for anyone for whom processing film is more than just a passing fancy -- or even for those folks, if the fancy lasts more than a month or so! Really, if you're going to do more than a few rolls, build a real darkroom! It's safer, healthier, and works better!

There are those, however, who are not ready to have their very own "real" darkroom: maybe they're trying it out for the first time and don't really know either how they like it or how it serves their needs; maybe they are moving soon, and just need to process a few rolls. In that case, an ad-hoc space may be all that's required. An ad-hoc darkroom space has several practical disadvantages compared to the "real" darkroom, which present technical and health issues that require special attention. To this end, I would like to offer a few points:

Equipment

The basic setup, ideal for 100' of 16mm film and up to 150' with reasonable comfort is presented as follows:

Chemical Solutions and Storage

Each process that you use will need particular photochemical solutions, but there are two general issues that are true of all of them: the desired volume and the storage method. Generally, for 100' - 150' of 16mm film, 2 gallons is a good volume to use for several reasons. It is enough volume that, with care, you can get virtually scratch-free results (if you want; you can process 200' or more, but scratches become harder to avoid); it fills the 10-quart buckets to a comfortable nearly-full; and premixed chemicals in the US typically come in packages to make 1 gallon, so you can use an even number of packages for each solution.

Using such large solution volumes also means that it might take a while to exhaust the solutions, so they need to be stored. Official storage containers for photographic chemicals are expensive, and not readily available in a two gallon size. The easier and cheaper answer is to use something readily available: the 2 1/2 gallon gas can. These are red, but also come in blue (for kerosene). Label them clearly for each chemical: for black and white negative, you'll need three: developer, fixer, hypo-clear. Keep a piece of tape an each, new for each batch, and record how many feet of film was processed in each. Two gallons of developer lasts for something like 1,000' of film, as does two gallons of hypoclear. The developer will stop working well after a while, but the hypo clear will look the same even when it's not working; it needs to be discarded after 1,000'.

In general, exposure to air is what kills photochemical solutions in storage. The gas cans help considerably. The next step would be to fill whatever airspace is left in the gas can with an inert gas like nitrogen, which is available at welding stores, but the tank and regulator will set you back about $300, so this is only for the serious processor. Using gas cans and nitrogen, I've used developers after a year or more, and they still work. Good storage is a boon to those of us who may want to use several processes, but not much of one at any one time: it lets you use you solutions over an extended period. Gas cans alone work almost as well, and are the economical solution of choice.

Make sure you store your solutions in a cool place.

Putting it together: Negative Processing

For the purposes of this discussion, I'll assume that you want to process Kodak 7231, Plus X Negative, as negative (that is, as it was intended!). Check the Developer-Film page for time/temperature combinations for other black and white films and processes. The color processes are already up here. The following procedure is for black and white negative, but the methods can be applied to any process.

Steps 2 - 6 need to take place in COMPLETE DARKNESS for most Black and White camera films. This is because they are Panchromatic, meaning "sensitive to all colors of light". For film stocks that are sold as "Black and White Negative," you can't use a safelight. There are a few other film stocks that can be shot in the camera and processed as negative. One of the most common is Kodak 7363 or HiCon, which is not panchromatic, but rather orthochromatic, which is to say not sensitive at all to red and orange and some yellow, but completely sensitive to green and blue (the word "ortho", from the Greek "steep", refers to the steepneess of the rise in sensitivity when graphed versus wavelength of light). You can use a red or yellow safelight with these films -- although it depends on the film! 7378, the sound track film, can use a red safelight, but not yellow! Do a test if you're not sure, exposing a strip of film to the safelight and developing it to see if there is any density. The remaining instructions will assume a panchromatic film.

 

Step 1: Prepare the solutions. You want the light on for this! For Plus X Negative, you want these chemicals:

Step 2: If your developer solution is the right temperature, put your gloves where you can find them in the dark, make sure the timer is accessible, make sure you can find the water faucet, and turn off the lights! Once the lights are off, let your eyes adjust before proceeding, and look around to make sure there is no light leaking into the room. If there is, black it out with black duct tape or something. When no light is coming in, you're ready to go on!

Step 3: Unroll the film into the water rinse. In complete darkness, take the spool or core that the film is on, hold it in one hand from the center so that it will rotate, and unspool the film with the other hand into the half-full water rinse bucket. Don't be tempted to save time by dumping it off the side of a core -- this will cause horrible problems with tangles later on. Take the time to do it the long way, being careful not to leave any twists or tangles. When the film is thus neatly unspooled into the water, turn the running rinse on -- this should be about 68°F/20°C or as close as you can make it -- basically, room temperature. Cold is better than hot! You do not need to wear gloves for this step; in fact, you shouldn't, so that you can feel the film.

Step 4: The developer. This is the step that actually makes the image visible. It is the only step in which the time and temperature actually need to be precise, because they actually effect the quality of the image. For Plus X Negative, you want to process the film for 6 minutes in D-76. Once the film is unspooled into the water, pull the developer bucket forward. Set the timer for 7 minutes. As the timer runs, find your gloves and put them on. Pick up the film gently, letting the water drip back into the water bath. When the timer gets to six minutes, submerge it in the developer. For the remaining 6 minutes, agitate it gently as follows:

Step 5: Water Rinse: As soon as the 6 minutes are up, lift the film out of the developer, let the excess developer drip back into the developer bucket for a few seconds, and then return it to the water bath. Rest the timer to 6 minutes. Push the developer bucket back, and pull the fixer bucket forward.

Step 6: Fixer: This step removes any remaining light sensitive emulsion (silver halide), "fixing" the image so that exposure to light will no longer effect it. If you skipped this step, you'd be able to see the image just fine, for a while, but the film would slowly turn all black. Your image would disappear! When the timer approaches 5 minutes, lift the film out of the water, let it drip, and when the timer reaches 5 minutes, submerge it in the fixer. Use the same agitation pattern: stir for the first 30 seconds, and then the last 10 seconds of each 30 seconds. You can even turn it over if you like.

Step 7: Water Rinse: As soon as the 5 minutes are up, lift the film out of the fixer, let the excess fixer drip back into the fixer bucket for a few seconds, and then return it to the water bath. Rest the timer to 3 minutes. Push the fixer bucket back, and pull the Hypoclear bucket forward.

Step 8: Turn on the lights! Now that the film has been developed and fixed, it is no longer sensitive to light.

Step 9: Hypo-clear: This step helps wash off the fixer, which is important because fixer will, in a few years, degrade the silver image, turning it yellow. It's tempting to call the film done at this point, but it's really not. Don't be tempted to skip this step! When the timer approaches 2 minutes, pick the film up out of the water, again letting it drip. When it gets to 2 minutes, submerge the film in the hypoclear bucket. Use the same agitation pattern as before. While it is in there, dump the water out of the rinse bath, and refill it. When the 2 minutes are up, move the film to the newly filled water bath. At this point, you can remove your gloves.

Step 10: Final rinse. The film should sit (ideally) in a running rinse for five to ten minutes.

Step 11: Photoflo and Hanging: This solution breaks the surface tension of any water drops on the film, and greatly speeds drying. When the final rinse is done, transfer the film to the Photoflo bucket by finding one end of the film, and pulling it by that end into the Photoflo bucket. This will require untangling the film; be gentle! The result will be film neatly stacked in the bucket, with the other end on top. It need only be there about ten seconds before you proceed to hang it up, as follows:

Leave the film to dry!

The film is done! Spool it onto a daylight spool or a reel of your choosing. A pencil makes a good axle for a daylight spool.