You are reeling your film into the developing tank for the first time, but somehow the film got stuck. In complete darkness, it’s difficult to tell what’s wrong. It’s getting very warm and stuffy because you’ve blocked out all the windows with old rags to lightproof your bathroom. You feel anxious as you start questioning if you’ve made the right decision to invest so much into a hobby. A hobby that costs so much, not just money or your time but your emotions as well.
Every roll of film is precious. It could be a 1-year-old time capsule, a holiday to a place where you’ll never visit again, or a week’s worth of allowance. Developing on your own can be a terrifying experience, and for many, it’s not something you play around with.
Film photography is cheap
I wouldn’t say that I started out loving black and white film or even film photography. It was just the cheapest way for me to get into photography. One of my best friends gave me his old Minolta Hi-Matic 7s II and all I had to do was to pick up a roll of film for a couple of dollars and I could start immediately.
I shot a few rolls of colour films and my lack of understanding of exposure often left my colours looking dull and off. Black and white film, however, is more forgiving and I have fewer variables to take care of. When it was time to develop my films, I was shocked to find out that the cost to develop one black and white roll cost almost thrice as much as the C41 process. I had little choice except to explore developing on my own.
If you can make soup, you can develop film
I started off with half a packet of D76 powder that was leftover from my friend (the same one who gave me my first camera) who was migrating overseas.
I began developing once every few months when I finally stopped being lazy. I didn’t care much about the quality. As long as there was an image, I was happy. Then came a day where I was forced to give more thought to my developer when my D76 powder turned black. I picked up the Kodak Tmax developer from my local film shop because, well, it was the easiest; I didn’t have to dissolve any powder.
I didn’t quite like the way the grains form on the TMax developer. The image seemed very flat to me and often produced very large grains. From my observations, the developer tends to favour the highlights which I don’t quite prefer.
While my Tmax solution was finishing, I stumbled across a YouTube channel ‘Denae & Andrew’ where developers were being tested and Kodak Xtol caught my attention.
My first rolls with XTOL were beautiful and I loved how smooth the images were. I mainly shot with Kodak Tri-X and the way the blacks were rendered was very pleasing and the fine grains created made the images look almost sharper.
My perfect formula
It wasn’t until I had decided to push my Kodak Tri-X 2 stops that I found my perfect formula. Kodak Tri-X film + Expose at 1600 ISO + Develop with Koda Xtol at 1600 ISO timings. The strong contrast created a very strong mood that I like for my photography. The steep gradient from black to white in the photographs creates a strong punch. And my favourite part is how the blacks turned out in the images.
I started out just wanting to take photographs. But now, film photography has turned into something that’s not just about capturing an image — it’s almost like a study, like the research of an alchemist or an apothecary looking for a solution; a research where you create a hypothesis based on other’s research (internet comments), you isolate variables, and you test it out.
Photography became a process of image-making.
This formula is what I like best, though everyone has different preferences. I’d encourage everyone to be a part of this ring of home-brew alchemists, where we have fun, play, and understand more about our world through image-making.