My First Major Development Fail

I was really excited to go for a studio day! I’d never used anything other than natural light for photos so far, and I was going to get to learn the effects of different basic lighting rigs on a subject. We had coffee, biscuits, and all day to learn! I’d brought a small selection of B&W 35mm film with me to choose from, including some that I had been saving for just such an occasion. I must at this point say a massive thank you to David Fulford for opening up his studio to a few of us lucky folks from NWFP – it was a real privilege, and I genuinely learned a lot from the day!

Getting setup with Dave, Eddie and David – Cinestill 800T on the Olympus XA

So I drove home after a long day, thinking that I’d done a pretty good job working with the studio lighting, and that I might have a handful of portfolio shots that I was proud of too. I purposefully didn’t rush into developing the one roll of film I’d used during the afternoon shoot, as I wanted to make sure it turned out perfect. Spoiler alert: it did not go well.

What happened?

It started in the changing bag, once I’d got the film out of the canister I knew it felt different. This particular emulsion was much thinner than the standard consumer films I had been using up till now. Firstly I struggled to lead the film around the reel without it crumpling, and then once it had got around the first rotation it proceeded to crinkle, crumple, and bend its way in any other direction except the one I wanted. At this point, I’m starting to sweat. The light-tight bands of the changing bag start to dig into my arms as I pull the reel apart to re-spool the film again. I just could not get it around the reel without it crumpling and jamming everything up. By this point I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the roll will be damaged, and just wanted to get the damn thing onto the reel and into the developing tank. It took thirty minutes and about eight re-spool attempts taking it on/off the reel as I kept failing to manage handling this emulsion.

Eventually I got the whole roll onto the reel and into the developing tank. I took my arms out of the changing bag and downed a pint of water. What followed was fairly standard development using Adox XT-3, and actually the negatives themselves looked ok as far as the development itself goes. However, the results of my wrestling in the changing bag had took its toll on the emulsion, and it was covered (and I mean covered!) in long scratches from re-spooling it so many times.

Contact Sheet – Adox CHS 100ii developed in Adox XT-3, taken on the Nikon FM2.

At first I was absolutely gutted! This wasn’t the result I was hoping for after such a lovely learning day in the studio. Every single frame was affected in some way by my errors in loading the film onto the reel. After much discussion on the NWFP Discord at least I felt that I understood why it had been so difficult for me, and that with more experience I would learn to handle different emulsions with care in the future.

I was pleased to hear positive feedback from people via Instagram too, saying they felt the scratches added an element of movement and further interest into the photos. I have to say I wouldn’t want a repeat of this experience, and wouldn’t exactly call the results ‘happy accidents’ but at least I learned something from the whole thing.

Here’s a few more examples from the now infamous roll:

‘Double-Take’ – with Eddie Sheps
‘WTF happened?’ – with David Fulford.
‘Let’s think about this’ – with Dave Beatty.

Have you ever had results like this? Have you made mistakes because a film emulsion felt different to what you were used to? Let me know in the comments.

All photos were developed (very badly) by myself, and then scanned (with much sympathy) by the good folks at Come Through Lab in Ancoats, Manchester. Find them on Instagram here: @comethroughlab 

Thanks for reading, and if you live, work, or are from the North West of England and are shooting film, then check out North West Film Photo on Instagram, and consider joining the Discord for community chat outside of social media too. I look forward to sharing more of my photos and experiences with this community soon, in the meantime you can find me on Instagram here: @tedayre

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Subscribe here.

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

About The Author

44 thoughts on “My First Major Development Fail”

  1. Wow, those scratches are extensive!
    Sometimes it can seem like nothing is going right in the dark bag – it is rare, but it does happen. Heat and any moisture really don’t help at all. In similar circumstances, I’d have been tempted to put the film into something light-tight in the bag, remove my arms from the bag and have a re-group.
    The film must have a very thin emulsion – with that level of scratching, I’d have thought you had intended it.
    On a slightly different note, I notice that some of the early shots have a dark band on the top edge of the negative, suggesting the synch speed on the camera might be off (or that you were over optimistic about what the synch speed was). I have read that it changed from 1/200 to 1/250 during FM2 production, but even 1/200 was pretty leading-edge at the time, so I guess it doesn’t take much being off in calibration to be out.

    1. Yeah for sure this was one of those times when it just all went wrong Bob! I wish I could claim it was intentional, but it was definitely just me getting frustrated and struggling with the thin emulsion. Ah that’s interesting about the sync speed, something for me to plan for next time! Thanks for reading.

  2. Dear Ted,

    I guess it happens to everyone, myself included. Worst what ever happened is that I developed a roll with Mirasol by accident (someone hat put it in the Ultrafin box, and bottles look the same) for someone in our darkroom course. I already wondered why it foamed that much. The roll came out blank and now our running gag is ‘you can’t develop film with Mirasol’.

    Happy developing,

    1. Always good to hear that running jokes happen for others too Arne! Everyone has their own ‘disaster story’ so thank you for sharing!

  3. Uli Buechsenschuetz

    Thanks for sharing you experience. And yes, the photos now are really unique with the emulsion damaged.
    I have a couple of rolls of Adox CHS II 100 and I am warned now.
    Interestingly the first roll that I had developed and scanned by a lab here in Berlin came out way grainier than expected, and I assume they used some standard developer. That is why I‘ll probably have the remaining rolls developed by Adox themselves as they are outside Berlin (you can buy the development via, which is actually a company linked to Adox).

    1. Yes it sounds like using FotoImpex might be a good choice if you’re unsure! I’m going to be giving CHS 100ii another go soon, along with HR-50 as well so that I can get used to the thinner emulsions. The results can be fantastic, and so I hope you have good luck with your rolls Uli!

  4. Here’s a trick I’ve found useful when dealing with thin films. Assuming you have a short length of used (thicker) film available, tape a few cm it to the start of the thin film taking care to align the thicker piece ‘squarely’ with the film you want to develop. Put tape on both sides just to be sure. The thicker fim acts as a ‘leader’ to guide the remainder through the start of the spiral. This was recommended by the supplier of ‘Street Candy 400’ ( intended as a survelliance film?) in its original incarnation – I believe the latest version is thicker.
    John F.

    1. Thanks for the tip John, that is definitely a feasible option going forward. Although I reckon I probably just need a bit more practice, and a few more goes with thinner emulsions!

      1. I had the same issue with this film.
        I’ve been shooting film for about 10 years and this is the only roll I couldn’t load into the reel.
        Had to give up and send it to a lab.

        1. I’m sorry you also had this issue Ivan, it was certainly a trickier film for me to deal with in the changing bag. I’m going to try using it again soon, and hopefully take some of the excellent community suggestions on board.

  5. So what did you find out after discussing what happened with others on Discord? Just curious what caused you to have such a rough time in the changing bag. Was this your first time using this film?

    1. Good question Lance, firstly a lot of very sympathetic words from the Discord, and encouragement that the results were still interesting for them! However, this was definitely the first time I had ever used this film, and I just got caught out, then stressed, having to re-load the reel over and over again.


    It looks like goblins riding mini dirt bikes drove over your film. We’ve all been there, a painful part of the learning curve.

    No advice, no ‘shoulda, coulda’ comments.
    Actually, one piece of advice: grab a coffee, sit and have a nice pastry.


    1. Haha thanks Dan, best advice in the comments so far! Hopefully that pesky goblin biker gang won’t turn up again any time soon…

  7. I expect that most of us have experienced nightmares like this!! If it helps, I found that once the film leader is in the spool, wind fast, and I mean fast, this prevents it from sticking or jamming. Recently I have been scanning some negs taken in the late 1960’s and these looked very much like yours with very similar scratches. However, I found that with practice some time spent in Photoshop solved the problem. Your pictures are really good and well worth saving.

    1. Yeah for sure I’ve had a go with photoshop to ‘clear up’ the scratches, but I’d rather keep them there as a reminder. Thanks for the advice though John, I’ll consider that in future.

  8. Hi you might want to practice using a cheap roll of film in daylight. A few other suggestions:

    Moisture is the great enemy. Pick up some thin gloves that will be lint free. There are dedicated ones sold on photo sites, but latex ones from the hardware store work fine. If you are working in humid conditions without gloves, there is more likelihood of having the film get hung up in the reel, especially if your hands start to create moisture. Also make sure the reel itself is bone dry. I pass a microfiber clots around each segment of the reel beforehand.

    The Samigon reels are much easier to load than the Paterson reels. Samigon reels have a loading slot as opposed to the small entry nibs on the Paterson version.

    I use the Photoflex square changing tent. It is relatively inexpensive, and gives a lot of room for the hands to work. I have never had an issue with light leaks with this tent.

    If the film gets hung up and you separate the parts of the reel, sometimes small indentations will result along the edges of the film. If it is pronounced, you can cut out that small sliver and roll the remainder in two passes. You might sacrifice a frame, but will salvage the rest. You can also use curved small manicure scissors to excise the damaged edge itself.

    1. Thanks for this advice Louis, it sounds like you’ve worked out your own fixes for these kind of ‘tricky situations’. Thanks for reading!

  9. Other suggestion, if the film is properly started, instead of twisting the reel halves, you can push the film into the reel to load it. Keep the film lightly tensioned and push the film, inducing a slight bow into the film with the feeder hand….If it won’t feed then you will only sacrifice the beginning of the roll.

    I was told early on to snip a 45 degree angle into each side of the leading edge, in between the sprocket holes. I am rarely able to get this right (no jagged edge in the cut), but I still do this every time anyway.

    If it is any consolation, after years of practice I am in and out of the changing bag in a few minutes.

    1. Another good suggestion Louis, thanks again. Yes I’m hoping that after some more practice I’ll get the hang of it!

  10. Ditch the dumb real. See about finding an “apron” strip. It’s a plastic lasagna looking separator sleeve. They used to be real common. I think it’ll give you fits in a changing bag though. No elbow room. I’ve had the same problem loading kentmere 400 onto my ratchet reel but only once and not as extreme as you got back, only a few scraped frames. I was just impatient. I’m better at it now.

    1. That sounds like an interesting suggestion Steve – I’ll take a look into the ‘apron strip’ method – thanks!

  11. I guess there are two ways to moderate this. Practice with a roll of the same film (expensive practice today) or get one of the plastic developing tanks that have easier reels to load. My own challenge was learning to load 220 on a regular reel, which was very deep and hard to reach inside.

    1. Ooof I reckon loading 220 is even trickier Steve! Yes I think that a bit more practice and time will hopefully improve things for me!

  12. Great article! Brought back some not so fond memories from long ago of struggling to load film in a changing bag in a corner of my parents’ basement in St. Louis. Most of the time, it went ok, but sometimes not, for whatever reason. Not sure if bad language helped to resolve the problem. Do remember I sometimes used a roll of clear plastic to wind the film with in lieu of a reel that worked pretty well. Can’t remember the name of that product now.

    Photography in the darkroom era was much more personal, when every shot counted and careful effort was required to produce images in a quality vs quantity manner.

    Thanks again for your article!

    1. Yes I’m sure it’s brought back memories for others too Jim – bad language was certainly heard during this particular roll for me haha! I agree that when we’re self-developing, or in the darkroom, the losses are felt more personal. I’m sure after some more practice I’ll avoid these kind of disasters in future!

    1. Haha thanks CP93! I’ve been surprised at how folks have enjoyed the ‘impressionistic’ look of these photos.

  13. You can start to load a 35mm film onto the reel in daylight. There is enough leader not to fog the exposures. In the dark carry on loading the film still in the cassette until the end. Then cut the film with a pair of scissors. Mind your fingers! 120 film is a different story.

  14. Loads of “shoulda-coulda-woulda” comments here, so I’ll add a few more! Firstly, I’m sure we’ve all been there. I’ve completely screwed up so many rolls of film in the past that it’s painful to think about. Luckily, a hell of a LOT can be fixed in post these days, so it’s not a completely lost cause.

    Every time it’s gone wrong, I’ve figured out why and added another precaution to prevent past failures. The merest hint of moisture will completely seize the spiral. My hands sweat – a lot. Hell, even my forearms sweat in the changing bag. I wear lint-free negative handling gloves – and also wear a long-sleeved shirt in the changing bag. Even if the spiral has been sat drying for 6 weeks – I dry it off with a hot hairdryer before it goes in the changing bag. I handle the spiral at all times with gloves on. I move the ball bearings to check they are free and moving freely. The films to be developed come out of the fridge a good 6 hours minimum before they are needed – and warm up while they are locked inside their airtight canisters. I cut the leader to shape with 45-degree cuts in daylight – and begin winding 135 film onto the spiral in daylight. One of my cameras (Minolta CLE) tends to leave film nearer the leader with a tight curl – this needs cutting off entirely or carefully bending back to be straighter. I don’t open the metal 135 film canister, but spool it directly from inside – and carefully cut the film when I reach the end. If the film does stick – I bang the side of the spiral hard and gently see if it will move again. Despite these precautions, if it still all goes pear-shaped – I don’t ever fight it – this will always nuke the emulsion. When things show the slightest hint of going wrong – film is most always immediately wound back inside the 135 canister (or carefully rolled up inside the Patterson tank for 120) – and left aside for another day. After 24 hrs of resting, and going back to it again, the film will invariably wind straight on the spiral with no problem whatsoever the next day. As you can see from the above text – I have had a LOT of failures, but they are a good opportunity for learning!

    1. Moisture is the enemy, so I’m careful to keep things dry.
    2. I wear gloves to avoid contamination and handle the spiral gently.
    3. Films warm up outside the fridge before use.
    4. I cut the film leader in daylight at a 45-degree angle.
    5. I spool 135 film directly from the canister.
    6. If the film sticks, I gently tap the spiral.
    7. If things go wrong, I don’t force it; I let it rest for 24 hours.

    1. Stainless steel reels can be loaded when wet. But it’s better to give them a quick wash & dry before loading.
      Patterson style reels can be loaded when wet. Here’s the procedure:
      In the darkroom, fill a clean dishpan with room temp. water. Submerge the reel in the dishpan. Turn the lights off, open the film, and gently submerge the film in the dishpan. With the film & reel totally wet, gently ratchet the film onto the reel. It will load. Place the tank, center post & cover under water. Place the reel into the tank, secure the cover, then take the tank out of the water and pour out the water. Develop as normal. This is an extreme operation to save badly damaged film (usually crumpled sprocket holes). Film emulsion may be damaged. Stress level will be high. I’ve used this technique a few times when teaching my high school photo classes. I was taught this by a newspaper photographer in the mid-1970’s.

    2. Wow thanks for sharing your experience Alan! There’s certainly a lot of hints and tips for others I’m sure will find useful – thanks for reading!

  15. Yes, me too, I think the film was RPX25, thin acetate base not helped by sticky reels. I now wash reels regularly in hot water to remove wash aid residue and they work like new. One thing to take from the experience is not to use unknown materials on an important shoot. Something I learned the hard way.
    Fulford and Beatty shots are excellent and the scratches, with the image titles, work well. Better luck next time!

    1. Thanks Geoff! Good to know I’m not the only one struggling with thin acetate based films – and good advice about the reels, I’ll keep that in mind.

  16. Ted, looks like you had an unpleasant experience with this film. I do relate to it, as I had a very similar one, a few months. A roll of Svema Foto 400 was impossibly thin and I never managed to mount the darn thing onto the dev reel. Buckled and crumpled; it was so thin, that the ball bearings could not arrest the film when fed. Got this sorted only when I discovered that piece of advice where you tape a piece of film onto the leader, which really worked.

    That said, this is an experience, and as you learn from it, it becomes knowledge 🙂 .

    1. Ah sorry to hear you had such a hard time with that film Julian! Yes I’ll certainly be trying that trick next time to see if it improves things. Totally agree with your last statement too.

  17. Ted, I remember, that in the 90s, my fellow photographer had similar problem to yours. He was using some old steel reels, when developing. I had Paterson plastics, which I prompted him to try. He did, and was happy as there were no more scratches or loading struggles.

  18. Great honest article Ted. So helpful to read about issues people encounter. A frank account like this can make us all more cautious. It takes nerve to get back to developing in the first place, so full credit. I still don’t feel quite ready to tackle it, yet I used to do it reasonably well in the 80s. I have learned from your article and the received comments Thank you.

    1. Thanks for reading Paul, I always hope that by sharing my journey and being honest that we can all learn together! All the best.

  19. No advice to offer here. Just a thank you for sharing your experiences and results. I have been developing my own film only for a few years and there have definitely been some interesting “opportunities” to reflect on what had just happened. You seem to have a great attitude about it; and fortunately, you have also received kind words and feedback from many. I will join others in saying that I do rather like the images. All the best to you.

    1. Thank you for reading Eric! Haha yes indeed, seeing these results as ‘opportunities for learning’ is a great way for us all to keep learning. Thanks for the kind words mate.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top