Posted on April 23 2021
In this blog post, Holly Gilman (ig- @schoolofholly) recaps the steps of black and white film development and opens our minds up to the potential of more sustainable film photography practices. Holly is part of the 35mmc blog team and through her work with film photography she champions sustainability, social justice and mental health in film photography. Keep reading to find out what changes you can adopt for eco-friendly black and white film development.
What's the Problem with Black and White Film Development?
I think there is a misconception that to be eco-friendly, you need to adopt some radical practices. And by radical practices I mean home-brewing caffenol or other ascorbate based developers, that you should be avoiding Stop Bath and you should be taking your waste chemicals to a specialist processing place. Obviously this is a sliding scale, to some this is radical, to others it’s fun - this article is perhaps aimed at the former.
Home brewing and other more labour intensive methods may or may not be the “best” solutions (I’m undecided) but I feel that it’s important that we all can access information that will help us be mindful of the environment whilst being realistic if we don’t have the time, inclination or ability to create our own chemistry.
One of my frustrations when it comes to being more environmentally conscious in film photography is the lack of transparency amongst the commercial suppliers. It is quite difficult, without in depth research, to understand what you need to do. Add to this the multitude of opinions that populate the online forums and you have a recipe for serious confusion.
Photograph of Ilford Chemistry, showing hazard warning symbols on packaging
How am I trying to make B&W Film Development Eco-friendly?
Alongside my friend Joris (@jorri_photo) I have set up a new Facebook group, Making Photographic Practices More Sustainable. In this group, we pick a topic each week to discuss and each topic gets turned into a handy PDF in the Units section for future reference. Our aim is to build a full library of resources for anyone to access, whether you are trying to make big or small changes to your practice.
Here I have gathered together 3 topics which fall under the black and white home development umbrella in the hopes that it can help you to make an informed decision.
Holly's developing set up
Details by Film Development Stage
I've also compiled key information split by the stage of home development i.e. into develop, stop and fix. You can download the relevant PDFs from my facebook group- Making Photographic Practices More Sustainable.
Eco-Friendly Film Developer
It is assumed that to be environmentally conscious in developing your own black and white film, that you need to be home brewing your chemistry. There are many individuals who, for whatever reason, don’t want to or aren’t able to home brew chemistry but unfortunately the information around commercially available developers is confusing and rarely mentions the ecologically relevant information. This makes it incredibly difficult to make an informed decision over what to use.
In the PDF Holly outlines how developer works, the most common developing agents, the ingredients often present in commercial developers and why they are there, the ‘ideal’ commercial developer, reviewing commercially available developers and other things to consider in how we use developers. Please check out Holly’s facebook page for some amazing PDF resources on all the above. In the meantime here is a summary of her findings.
How does a developer work?
Developer is one or more chemicals that work by converting the latent image to a visible image. This conversion is achieved by reducing the silver halides (which are pale coloured) into silver metal (which is black). This conversion happens within the gelatine matrix. The magic reaction acts more quickly on those particles of silver halides that have been exposed to light.
Here are the common chemicals found in commercial chemistry
- Ascorbic acid
Other common ingredients and why they are present
- Potassium Bromide - to prevent fogging
- Strong alkali - pushes the pH up to 11 or 12
- Sodium Sulfite - a preservative to delay the oxidation
What should we aim for and why?
Based on the research done we should be aiming for a Hydroquinone and Metol free developer (as it has been found that Metol is a skin irritant and cause of dermatitis and Hydroquinone is toxic and has a variety of safety hazard concerns). Ascorbic acid based developers are currently the lowest toxicity option.
Commercially available developers that are more eco friendly:
- Kodak Xtol
- Bellinifoto eco film developer
- Moersch Eco Film developer
- Ars Imago FE
Other things to consider
- Are you using your chemicals in the most efficient way possible? I.e. developing all the films you can from it before disposal.
- Lack of clarity of ingredients in developers- many commercial developers don’t label their ingredients which makes things more complex. Try and research exactly what is in your chemicals before using.
- Ensure that they mean ecological rather than economical when they list an item as Eco.
Holly's chemistry bottles
Eco-Friendly Stop Bath
You’ll often hear people debating whether a Stop Bath is necessary and whether water is adequate to stop development. On the surface of it you may assume that water alone is better for the environment than more chemistry but is that the case?
Spoiler alert: I think Stop Bath, particularly one with a pH indicator, is actually better for the environment than water alone.
In this short PDF Holly teaches us about what a stop bath is, why you might need a stop bath over just water alone, how to dispose of a stop bath in the most environmentally conscious way, the ingredients in commonly available stop bath, some home brew recipes and closing the cycle- looking at more radical and experimental ideas.
What is a stop bath?
A stop bath is an acidic solution designed to immediately halt the development of the film or photographic paper.
Why would you use a stop bath over water alone?
In most cases you can use water instead of an acidic stop bath to halt the development process. Water will effectively stop development in most scenarios, with exceptions of short processing times (5 minutes or less) and in high activity developers.
The use of an acidic stop bath will also prevent the developer carrying over to the fixer, prolonging the fixer’s life and minimising the need to use more chemicals. Fixer is the chemical that is the most problematic to dispose of which we will discuss in another topic.
In a short YouTube video by FPP they mention that using a stop bath generally preserves water as well, as you are reusing the same water for up to 15 rolls of film.
Disposing of Stop Bath
Disposing of photographic chemicals down the drain is often frowned upon, but in isolation, stop bath is a little more nuanced:
- Homemade stop bath (citric acid or white vinegar are the most common)- you should use a pH indicator to work out when your solution is “exhausted”(no longer acidic but has neutralised). The neutral solution is safe to dispose of down the drain.
- Indicators- Many commercial stop baths such as Ilfosol contain Bromocresol Purple which is an indicator to tell you when the solution is no longer acidic- once the solution changes colour you should be able to dispose of it down the drain.
- No indicators- If you are using a homemade stop bath (or commercial stop bath which does not contain Bromocresol Purple) and you aren’t using a pH indicator, the safest option is to mix the stop bath and developer together to neutralise the solutions before disposal.
- Dilution- With all of the above methods it has been advised that you dilute the solution further with water. First with cold water to slow the chemical process, and then with hot water to further dilute the chemicals.
- Acids- Stop baths are usually created using citric acid or acetic acid. Acetic acid has a stronger odour and as such many people prefer the citric acid based stop baths. A working stop bath needs to contain about 2% citric acid or about 5% acetic acid.
- Hazardous effects- Both citric acid and acetic acid can have corrosive effects when they come into contact with your skin or eyes or are breathed in in concentrated form. Prolonged exposure to diluted forms can also have adverse effects.
- Biological industrially manufactured products- if we are using food grade products hopefully the production is less detrimental to the environment than industrial processes. However this would require further research into things like the working conditions of those creating the products and whether food grade products are used in commercially available stop baths.
- Bromocresol Purple (the pH indicator often used in commercially available stop baths)- has similar health warnings to acetic acidIt’s only in the pure form that it becomes an irritant and an issue.
- Citric acid:
2g of food grade citric acid per 100ml of water. Mix to dissolve fully (you don’t want lumps).
- Acetic Acid:
Equal parts distilled white vinegar to water (i.e. 100ml vinegar and 100ml water). As vinegar is liquid this will take less stirring.
Sustainable options (closing the cycle)
- Powdered citric acid or white vinegar
- Use a waste product or home grown acid - examples include the leftover vinegar from pickled onions or other pickled foods
- This will introduce the issue of other contaminants being present in your solution versus water +citric acid/vinegar, but those on the more experimental end of the scale may welcome this.
- In terms of quantities, you would most likely need to have a pH indicator to help you work out how much of each ingredient you would need, mixed with water to create the acidic environment needed.
Holly shooting with an interesting Exa 1C
The easiest way to explain what a fixer is, is to say that without fixer, your image would continue to react to light and you’d end up with fogged negatives or prints.
The chemicals are less of a concern here, the bigger issue is that at this point in the development process waste silver from your negatives are held in the fix and the concentration of silver in the solution increases until the fixer is considered “spent” or “exhausted”. Essentially meaning that it is too full of silver halides to continue to work.
Further to the Stop Bath section above, an effective Stop Bath will help to prolong the life of your fixer.
In Holly’s PDF on fixers you will find out how fixers work, the main ingredients of fixers, the options available to recover silver from your fix and some home brew solutions.
How does does a fixer work?
Fixers work by stabilising the image on your negative or print. It removes the unexposed silver halide, leaving behind the reduced metallic silver that forms the image. The fixing process makes the film or paper insensitive to further action by light.
What are the main ingredients?
Fixation is often done by treating the film or paper with a solution of thiosulfate salt.
- Sodium Thiosulphate
- Ammonium Thiosulphate
- Mildly acidic compounds- adjusts the pH and suppresses trace amounts of the developer. This compound is often an alkali hydrogen sulfite (bisulfite) which also serves to preserve the thiosulphate.
Issues to consider
The chemicals used to create fixer are not considered to be the issue, environmentally speaking. The issue is in the silver halides which are present
- Metallic replacement - Using a trickle tank, a bucket with steel wool in the bottom.
- Electro plate process - Using a device that passes a current into the solution and acts as a magnet for the silver.
- The developer method - put the silver-saturated solution in a clean glass bottle and add to the solution a little bit of developer. You will see a metallic silver precipitate in nanoparticles and this will coat the walls of the glass bottle.
*Ilford suggests that by removing the silver from the fixer that you can effectively replenish the solution and extend its life.
Home brew solutions
In Holly’s facebook group the following recipe was suggested:
- 357g salt
- 1l water
“you'll need to leave it in the salt bath for 24 hours, and it's not totally 'fixed' and might fade over time. I did some pinholes a few months ago using cafenol and 'fixed' them with salt, they're still ok for now.”
Holly shooting with my pentacon six and Mia the dog
My Personal Environmental Development Practice
If you’ve read through the PDFs you’ll know by this point that it is not as cut and dry as it would first appear. Hopefully though, this has allowed you to make a more informed decision about your own practice.
Personally, when my current batch of developer is finished I’ll be looking into trying out Kodak Xtol alongside having a go at making my own developers at home (because I am that way inclined). I’ll continue to use Stop Bath because of the benefits around having a pH indicator present and extending the life of the Fixer. And finally, I’ll continue to use a commercial fixer because at this point I don’t see any benefit in making this myself at home.
I believe that much of our environmental impact can be reduced through our behaviours and so, in a future article I’ll be exploring that idea in more depth.
And finally a disclaimer. I am not a scientist, nor am I an expert of any kind in film photography. I am someone who is enthusiastic about sharing knowledge, reducing our environmental impact and simply trying to do better. The Facebook group has been created to bring people together to share their knowledge and these documents have been created out of that shared knowledge, my own research, and knowledge I have acquired through workshops with people much more qualified than myself. If you notice any errors, you have some suggestions to put forward or you simply want to get involved in future conversations, please join us. These PDFs are living documents and can be updated as and when new information is shared.
Side 1- A conscious film supplier Northern Film Lab (@northernfilmlab on instagram)- again reused cartridges, backing paper, and spools, no plastic pots and a lot of care goes into plastic free packaging.
Slide 2- One of Holly's favourite black and white films - Santa Rae. They reuse cartridges, don't use plastic pots, reuse 120 backing paper and spools and it's just gorgeous film.
Holly with her Kodak instamatic
Find out more!
If you’d like to see more of Holly's updates you can follow her on instagram @schoolofholly. And check out her recently launched Youtube Channel! Holly started her channel to 'document and discuss attempts to reduce the environmental impact of my film photography and darkroom practice'. I'm sure we will all learn a lot from watching Holly's wonderful experiments, hopefully making us all into much more eco-friendly film photographers. So make sure you subscribe!
Such a brilliant and informative read. We all want to do our bit for the environment and know how increasingly important it is, eco-friendly black and white film development is a great place to start. This article was written in such a comprehensive yet concise way, finally making information on black and white film development (what can be a pretty complex subject) accessible to everyone. It is so inspiring to see momentum for environmentally friendly film practices building throughout the community, and the knowledge really growing in this area, let's keep the conversation going!