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Old film development: my process

Posted by amirko on 2010.05.12 at 22:09

I develop old still film exposed long time ago. I do it almost every week. This is my hobby. How old is the film? The age of the (succesfully developed) rolls ranges from relatively new (say, 20 years) and back up to 70 years. This page briefly summarizes my experience -- i.e. how one can develop film rolls exposed decades ago and stored under unknown conditions in some garage, basement or attic. Of course, since the area is so complex and every roll is so special none of the recommendations below can be considered and used as direct "how-to". Nevertheless, one can use them as a starting point in his/her quest to the unknown image.

Well, let's say we have a roll of exposed film, known or unknown type, rollfilm or 35mm cassette, and it is old.

Color or Black and White?
Black and White film is the original photographic invention; it had been around from the beginning of the photography. Color film became popular in late 30s. Many of the films I found are color films, but I always develop them as black and white and there are two good reasons for this:
- Fist, the the color processes these films were created for are all obsolete; kits are expensive and often outdated even if you manage to find one.
- Second, every color film, negative or slide, has black and white layer and this layer hold image much better compared to dyes of color layers.
So, if we are talking about in-home amateur processing, black and white development is the only option. If you want color, leave it to professionals (see below).

Temperature: warm or cold?
After some experimentation I settled on highly concentrated active contrast developer at very low temperature. It is boosting the contrast and lowering the fog. All the stages including developer, stop, fix and wash have to be done at the same temperature. Keep in mind that some of them (fixing, for instance) will take longer under these conditions. The lower the temperature, the longer it should be. I use fixing times up to 15 minutes in Kodak hardening fixer. The temperatures I use are in 35-52F range (2-12C).

Washing cycle.
I am in Miami and the tap water is always warm here, even in winter. I have no source of very cold water other then my refrigerator. I cool the water for washing films in my refrigerator; for one roll you do not need a lot of it if you are using method recommended by Ilford. Here it is:

to do the final washing, fill the tank with water, invert it 5 times, drain. Then repeat few times (usually 3 times), increasing the number of inversions 10-20-30. Then, fill the tank with PhotoFlo solution, let the film sit there for one minute, quickly drain and hang the film to dry.

Pre-soaking in cold water
I started pre-soaking all the rolls from the beginning and it helped to get rid of anti-halation on some of the rolls. I do not pre-soak now and I see no difference. No traces of anti-halation layer on any of the developed rolls. So my recommendation: don't bother with pre-soaking.

Development: Step 1. Loading.
Task number one is to get the film properly loaded in the spiral inside the developing tank. We also going to need few pieces of the film for the development tests and this time is the best opportunity to cut it from the roll.

The loading is often tricky. The old roll film could be curled badly; same for 35mm film; the backing paper of the roll films sometimes got stuck to the film and has to be carefully separated. Roll film had many odd formats ranging from 17.5mm-wide "Hit-film" up to 100mm wide. So this is not easy but it is all doable. I do not remember a single case when I couldn't load the film into the tank (by the way, I use standard universal Paterson plastic tanks). I've done many things. I used 3M tape to fix narrow stripe of 17.5mm Hit-film to a piece of new 35mm film emulsion side out and then loaded this "hamburger" into the tank. It worked. I have used universal Paterson tank's spiral to load odd roll films after adjusting it to the width I needed and fixing it into the position with tape...there were many little on-the-spot inventions and all of them worked. Try it. Be persistent. Take your time. And always load the film in the complete darkness.

Development: Step 2. Development test.
The purpose of the development test is to determine the development time. The developer and the temperature have to be chosen before the test. For the developer I recommend HC-110 at the concentrations higher then usual (start from "A" and I often use higher concentrated dilutions). HC-110 is very good, low fog developer and the contrast can be regulated by dilution (the more concentrated the developer, the more contrast you are going to get). Before settling on HC-110 I tried many other developers, including Kodak D-76, Ilford ID-11, Kodak D19, Kodak Dektol, Diafine and several others. HC-110 is on pair with D19 and it is much more convenient and also very cheap.

See above for the temperature.

Now, set your timer to 6 or 7 minutes and in a full room light start developing small pieces of film with different times. Now I usually do this by lowering a stripe of film into the developer with one minute intervals while finally it is fully submerged in the developer. Now wash it and fix.

The test is done, now is the time to analyze the results. We supposed to have a stripe of film with pieces of different density, from almost transparent to very dark:

Each of these represents development time: the darker the piece, the longer the time. Judging by the density, we have to pick the right time. There is a delicate balance between developing the film to a desired density and keeping the fog under control. The general recommendation is to pick not the darkest point but somewhat lower density. This is based on the experience; if you want more scientific approach read >this< post.

Development: Step 3. Development
Now it is time for the actual development. It is done the same way as a regular fresh film development. The difference is in time/temperature/concentration as discussed above. Don't forget to agitate; I tend to do very active agitation to boost the contrast.

Development: Step 4. Post-processing.

This is very important and time-consuming stage. Most of the rolls will yield the images of very poor quality. Still, something can be done to improve the quality of the final images. Digital post-processing, chemical treatment and printing duplicate positives all can be used to improve the quality of the final image.

Digital post-processing

While it is possible to print pictures from developed old films the "old school" way and I have the enlarger and everything necessary for this, I prefer scanning for number of reasons. The scaner's advantage is the ability to pull images from very dark as well as from very weak negatives. The post-processing in Photoshop/Gimp/any other graphical editor will give additional room for enhancement, allowing acceptable quality prints from bad negatives.

Special post-processing

Sometimes the developed film thus much dark so scanning is not an option. This is often true for color films: they all have very strong brown mask and it could be very dense. The mask can be reduced chemically as described here:

I thied this approarch and it worked -- see the scans before (left) and after the treatment (right):

The other possibility is to make positive contact copies on a sensitive panchromatic film. You need to build a copy frame with non-transparent base and etched glass to cover the films. I tried this, too, and it worked very well, -- see scans from the original negative (left) and from the copy positive (right):

The internet reference guide on the subject: http://oldfilmproject.emirco.net/


(Anonymous) at 2017-01-14 11:29 (UTC) (Link)

ExposedE-6 slide & movie film & only 15-25 years old?

I would like to develope a roll of E-6 and a roll of a slide film which was once available as re-wound movie film (Kodak, I believe) from an outfit that had you mail the film back to them for processing into prints & slides, at a saving over buying new consumer 35 mm film; and they would send back new rolls of fresh film with your photos. There are unknown family pix of my daughters - now 28 & 30 years old, and us.

Since the film is relatively new, and was stored room temperature, it seems likely to look good as black and white. Will the cold developer / stop / fox system be needed, will it produce noticeably better results than 68 or 72°, and if so how cold should I start? I'm assuming the colder the more variable the results due to small tanks – Especially stainless steel, – or make up as you work… I am interested in getting the best results on the first try, since this is Phil is personally important to me. Not just an experiment. Thank you so much for your article. Reply to outdoorjanitorial@icloud.com or PO Box 686, Georgetown, TX 78627
amirko at 2017-01-15 03:05 (UTC) (Link)

Re: ExposedE-6 slide & movie film & only 15-25 years old?

replied in email
(Anonymous) at 2018-05-25 19:22 (UTC) (Link)
I have a 1950’s hit spy camera with the film still inside, where would i go to get this film developed? Is that even possible?
amirko at 2018-05-26 21:47 (UTC) (Link)
Well, I did develop the film once from the same type camera and got some images. I'd send it to Film Rescue, they are known to be good: http://www.filmrescue.com/

Edited at 2018-05-26 09:48 pm (UTC)
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