Darkroom & Dev Kit

Learning to develop film with the Cinestill Df96 Monobath – By Rob MacKillop

April 7, 2020

I’d been shooting film alongside digital for about a decade, and once took a course in b&w film developing. Unfortunately, I suffered an allergic reaction to the chemicals, which induced a major asthma attack. I was bitterly disappointed with the experience and put to the back of my mind any thought of ever developing my own film at home.

Well, recently I saw a video of someone using Cinestill’s Df96 Monobath, which requires only a three-minute development, is pretty much odourless, and offers a much more user-friendly experience. I wondered if I would have the same reaction, but reasoned that if I could get the film into the developing tank, then I could use the chemicals outside in the fresh air.

So, I took the plunge, ordering not only the monobath but all the necessary paraphernalia to go with it: AP tank with two reels, thermometer, dark bag, spool opener, funnel, wetting agent for the final wash, etc. I watched a few videos, and convinced myself that I could do this.

Well, things didn’t quite go to plan, but I do feel I have achieved something I can now work with. Here’s the story of my first three reels, first three attempts…

Reel 1

I practised getting an old film onto the AP reels, and the reason I chose them instead of Patterson reels is that they have a lip to help guide your film onto the reel. I had instant success with eyes open, eyes closed, and in the dark bag. I highly recommend these reels!

I had just finished shooting a roll of Ilford’s Delta 400, and full of misguided confidence decided to jump ahead and use this reel for my first development. I have to say it was a partial success, partial failure.

Here’s the good news:

…and the bad:

 

But first, the process:

I warmed the tank (with film in place) with water matching the temperature of the developer, 80F/27C, poured it out after a few minutes, then poured in the monobath. One video from a lab technician at Emulsive recommended not doing the inversion technique, instead agitating by turning the stick in the centre of the tank. He suggested four turns forward, four back, for three minutes. I then poured the monobath back into its bottle, and washed the film for ten minutes.

As soon as I hung the film to dry, I could see a streak across the central ten or so shots. Having no experience of this before, I looked online for advice. Most people said the fixative in the monobath was not working as it should, and I should add some fixative, and wash it out again. Well, I didn’t have any fixative, just the monobath. As most of the negatives looked okay, I decided to just leave as is, and accept my loss. At this stage, I was not too happy with the Cinestill monobath! I hasten to add that I was too quick to blame the developer.

I was pleased with many of the shots, though they had more grain than I was used to seeing with Delta 400, but the sensitivity I was seeking in that first shot above was just what I had hoped for. However, the light streak seen in the second image had me doubting the whole process.

Reel 2

 

This time I decided to use the inversion method of agitation in the belief that the rotating stick version did not allow the monobath to reach the whole film. The result was a complete film of images, but with a catch. After initially warming the tank again, I added the monobath, but for some stupid reason I had forgotten to empty the warm water first. Suddenly there was a mixture of monobath and water overflowing the tank – and the clock was running! I quickly emptied the mixture, and poured in the remaining monobath, for which there was just enough left to cover the reel. In my panic, I couldn’t calculate how much time the monobath should be active. With each subsequent use of the monobath you are required to add fifteen seconds of development time, and I added another 30 seconds for the mishap. Wrong, I should have subtracted 30 seconds!

The result is that the film was overcooked. But on a positive note, I accidentally discovered how to push-process!

The film was Ilford HP5, which thankfully has a lot of latitude – useful for numpties like me! The negs were grainy and the contrast was very high. In Lightroom I reduced Contrast a little, and suddenly the images were acceptable, some more than others.

Reel 3

This time I got smart, and decided to shoot 36 random shots around my house, without any thought at all for composition – I just wanted to practise developing.

Since my first two efforts I had been advised that Ilford do NOT recommend a pre warm-up wash, so I went straight in with the monobath. I used the inversion agitation technique again, and added another fifteen seconds – now 3’30” – for development, before washing the film out, and hanging to dry. The film immediately looked more successful.

This looks more “normal” for HP5. I like the grain level, and there is enough tonality there to play with (if I had wanted to) in Lightroom. The whole film looks acceptable. I’ve chosen to share this particular shot as it accidentally looks composed, yet was no more composed than any of the 35 other shots taken within five minutes that day. Don’t be alarmed, that cup is used for watercolour paint, not tea!

Conclusion

It helps not being a numpty! I made mistakes with my first two attempts, but now have my technique down: no warm up, just the monobath for three minutes (plus fifteen seconds for each subsequent development) and a ten-minute wash. I leave the film to dry overnight.

I have had no breathing problems, no asthma attacks, and I can carry out the whole process in the bathroom. And there is no smell 🙂

The Cinestill Df96 makes home developing so much easier than the traditional method, though seasoned traditional developers will find this hard to fully accept, and quite naturally will stick to their tried and tested methods. But for anyone wanting to get into home developing but who is (like I was) a bit nervous about the whole procedure, the monobath method from Cinestill works really well. In the future I might explore a more traditional method, but for now I am happy with how this works for me. Sure, I’ll refine the process over time, but I have a working method which is easy.

It couldn’t be simpler: add monobath, agitate by inversion, wash and dry.

I now know how to get normal and pushed results with Delta and Plus films from Ilford, and as I rarely use anything else, I am happy to stick with what works. My understanding is that some films work better with Df96 than others. See the Cinestill website for details.

One negative is that the developer has a fairly short working life, so once opened you have four to six weeks in which to get the best out of it, in which time it will take up to 16 rolls. Now, that’s a lot of rolls per month! So you will either be encouraged to shoot a lot more film, or you should save up a dozen or so films before opening a new bottle. It also comes in powder form for dilution.

Seriously, if I can do it, you can too! Just (ahem) don’t start with your best shots!

Rob MacKillop

https://imagesRM.com

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21 Comments

  • Reply
    Andrea Bevacqua
    April 7, 2020 at 10:42 am

    Thanks for your sharing Rob!
    As a newbie, I started with Cinestill and I find it very easy…I mean, easier than making all the combinations of various liquids in order to develop a roll.
    As you very well described, it is easy to obtain a result but of course it takes a bit of care to obtain a good result.
    For me, this mono bath, is a thumb up!

    Cheers,
    Andrea

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      April 7, 2020 at 12:11 pm

      Cheers, Andrea. I think it is an excellent way for beginners to get started developing their own films. But the big plus for me is being able to do so without getting ill. It might end up being the only way I can develop my own film, but I’m happy with the results I’ve been getting since writing this article a month ago.

  • Reply
    Terry B
    April 7, 2020 at 10:49 am

    Rob, thanks for this entertaining, and informative post. After about 42 years of doing my own d&p, I totally succumbed to the lure of digital and my interaction with film now is to scan from my large number of negatives. I wasn’t very good at curating, trusting to memory, and what a mistake this has proven to be.
    Out of general interest, I followed up your post with finding out what others thought about it, and from one of the only UK stockists that seem to have stock, is the following comment:
    “Works with any black and white film, and is designed for traditional cubic-grain emulsions with high silver content, like BwXX and Tri-X. Tabular grain, high speed and specialist films will require different processing and ISO rating – refer to the data sheet under Other Information.

    Native ISO development:
    27°C for at least 3min : constant agitation
    24°C for at least 4min. : intermittent agitation
    21°C for at least 6min. : minimal agitation
    *Below 20°C renders pulled contrast negatives
    Temperature tolerance +/- 1°C”
    You may find the development criteria interesting, and no mention of a pre-soak bath.
    Decades ago, there was a monobath dev/fixer on the market, but it never proved that popular. Photographers wanted more control over film/developer combinations.

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      April 7, 2020 at 12:13 pm

      Cheers, Terry. It works with most regular films, and can be adapted for most others. I’ve been getting improved results since writing this review.

  • Reply
    Jack
    April 7, 2020 at 1:29 pm

    I used CineStill Df96 monobath for the first time yesterday. Good results. Shot CineStill BwXX film exposed at ISO 250. Developed at 70 degrees F (21 degrees C) for six minutes. Ten seconds gentle agitation, then five seconds gentle agitation every minute, per the instructions provided with the product. It will be interesting to see how this product works with a variety of other films.

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      April 7, 2020 at 1:36 pm

      Good to know, Jack. I might try the minimal agitation next time. So far I’ve just done the full agitation for the shorter period, which has worked well.

  • Reply
    Floyd K. Takeuchi
    April 7, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    Terrific review, Rob. I’ve just started using DF96 mostly for 120 and 4×5 (and a few oddball 2×3 cut film sheets). As you noted, there’s a bit of a learning curve. The last time I souped black and white film was the Fall of 1971.

    I’m shooting mostly Arista Edu Ultra 100 for 4×5, and find that film benefits from a prewash to get the dye out. I live in Hawaii, and have found that using the developer at room temperature (about 71 degrees F) is fine. I’m finding development times of about 6-7 minutes results in a good negative. I don’t do much agitation.

    So far I’ve developed the Arista (which I believe is rebranded Fomapan 100), and a couple rolls of Tri-X 120 and 135. I’ve got film holders loaded with CatLabs 80 4×5, so we’ll see how it does in the monobath. Overall, though, I’ve found it pretty forgiving.

    I decided to go this route mainly to use it in when I travel. I’m incorporating 120 and 4×5 along with digital into a couple of large documentary commissions I’ve got in Oceania. I’m hoping I can soup the film at night by taking the DF96 in powder form, a couple of 1 liter bottles, a processing tank, and a hanging system to dry the film in the bathroom. Now if I can also rig a digital camera “scanning” system, I’ll be in business.

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      April 7, 2020 at 2:40 pm

      Hi Floyd. Yes, it is a great system for travelling with. Good luck with the Oceana trip. BTW, since writing the article I have developed three medium-format rolls, with great results. Really pleased with them. Ilford HP5. 71 degrees room temperature, eh? We only get that one day per year in Scotland! Normally only 60 degrees. Cheers.

  • Reply
    Andrew Lossing
    April 7, 2020 at 8:58 pm

    Hey, nice write-up. I’ve used DF96 enough to have some familiarity with its character quirks. There are a couple things I would qualify about what you’ve said.

    – Adding extra time for the mishap with the pre-soak: if you read carefully through CineStill’s info on DF96, you’ll see that adding extra development time does NOT increase development. The temperature is the only thing which affects development strength. The agitation is the only thing which affects fixing. DF96 is basically balanced between developer and fixer with the chosen temps and agitation strength being what biases your negatives one way or the other.

    – Delta 400 recommends twice the development time. So, instead of 4 minutes, you would do 8. In regards to the uneven development you’re seeing, I think maybe the spinning agitation was too hard, but I don’t really know what caused that. My roll processed so far of Delta 400 came out quite even.

    My tips so far on DF96 are that it handles pushing one stop quite well, with temps around 80 degrees. HP5 shot at 800 and pushed one stop look really nice. Pushing two stops (higher temps) have been hard to get good results, probably because I haven’t used a warm bath for the whole thing, so temps decrease during development. I also haven’t been super impressed with the minimal agitation method – results are best smack in the middle. Middling temps, middling agitation, pushing no more than 1 stop. Your mileage may vary.

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      April 7, 2020 at 9:43 pm

      Hi Andrew. That’s a really interesting comment, so thanks contributing. I guess I just didn’t really understand that “adding extra development time does NOT increase development. The temperature is the only thing which affects development strength”. I’d been developing at 80F, so might try the middle path, as you suggest. I realised very soon after writing the article that Delta 400 should have twice the development time. It says so on their website – I just didn’t check. Read the instructions! Thanks again for your comments.

  • Reply
    James Evidon
    April 7, 2020 at 10:00 pm

    I also have been playing with DF96 both with the new Lab-Box and with conventional reel and tank method. The Lab-Box is somewhat fiddly and I haven’t got it right yet. I have been unable to get the film to feed properly onto the reel and therefore came up with a lot of streaking. My success with the reel and tank method has been better. Now for the DF96. I find that it does an excellent job and processing is very quick as is the post process washing and drying. Reading the instructions carefully, you will find that processing longer in the tank doesn’t harm the developing as the chemical reaction runs to completion and then stops. The way to push-pull processing is to raise or lower the temperature. Again, I stress, read the literature and you can’t go wrong. Ilford Delta is tricky, and the literature tells you so . DF96 does not like the anti-halation layer and it may not completely remove it. I took the unreeled just-processed film and just soaked it in the DF96 for a few more minutes with a little agitation and it was removed successfully. I ran another roll of Delta 400 and I could not get the anti-halation layer to completely disappear. I think it is best to avoid this combination. The literature also tells you to avoid using it with Bergger film due to its anti-halation layer as well as with T grain films. But with the more conventional films, the DF96 works very well in my experience and its convenience and short processing time is hard t beat.

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      April 7, 2020 at 10:38 pm

      Cheers, James. I looked at the Lab-Box, but it seemed more fiddly than a dark bag and traditional processing tank. Good luck with it! And you are right about Delta and Df96 being strange bedfellows.

    • Reply
      Stephen
      April 9, 2020 at 6:31 pm

      Hi James,
      I found after a couple of mishaps spooling film with my Lab-box that I needed to ensure the two reels were really tightly installed, and torqued in the correct direction on the “reel hub” (the central hub that they turn on) to ensure the negatives wouldn’t touch each other during development. Also took great pains to ensure I was clipping the metal clamp on the film leader at the exact middle to ensure it doesn’t pull to hard off in one direction.

      Agreed that extra time on the DF96 seems not to have an affect on development and I often continue agitation a little longer than “needed” to ensure everything is cleared and fixed, and have had no adverse results

  • Reply
    Marc Wick
    April 8, 2020 at 8:45 am

    Great job Rob! The results of your final development look very good. I really like that you did not give up after the first frustrating results. It was worth to stay on the ball! I used the Cinestill C41 Kit and it is also very simple to use. But like you, I also switched to the inversion method, which is to me the better solution.
    Keep on going!

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      April 8, 2020 at 9:46 am

      Cheers, Marc. I’m getting better results now, and saving money too, which is always a good thing!

    • Reply
      James Evidon
      April 15, 2020 at 10:16 pm

      Steven,

      My conclusions match with yours about the Lab-Box. It is a great idea, but anything that requires very precise fiddling that purports to be easier the the old fashioned developing tank is really not worth the effort. A changing bag and a decent ( not Paterson) reel is much cheaper and in the end, more reliable and repeatable. As for Cinestill monolith chemicals, as long as one sticks to the more conventional grain films the results could not be better and easier. My next challenge will be Cinestill C41 and color film.

  • Reply
    Huss
    April 8, 2020 at 5:16 pm

    Great stuff Rob and nice work on your website.
    It has inspired me to order up the gear so I can dev at home too. With my local camera Store/film processor being shut down over the Covid, it seems a good time to roll my own so to speak!

    Be well.
    Huss

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      April 8, 2020 at 6:03 pm

      Great idea, Huss. We should all try to use this time positively. Cheers.

    • Reply
      James Evidon
      April 15, 2020 at 10:18 pm

      Sorry about the typos.

  • Reply
    Eric Norris
    April 10, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    I switched from standard dev/stop/fix to monobath last year, and I’ve never looked back. Currently on about my 20th roll in CineStill’s monobath, and I’ve gotten consistently great results.
    With labs either closing down or extending the time it takes to process film, I’ve also decided to try CineStill’s two-step color process. Chemicals should arrive soon, and I have a couple of rolls of color ready to go. If it works, it will be great–I calculate the cost of chemicals at about $1 per roll, compared to $10-11 for processing at a lab. I’ll scan the negatives at home on my Epson V550.

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      April 10, 2020 at 4:44 pm

      Cheers, Eric. Sounds like we have had a similar experience and motive: money! It is certainly a lot cheaper to roll your own, so to speak, and more enjoyable too. Keep it up, and good luck with the colour. Rob

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