Philosophy & Reflections

The Alchemy of Film Photography – finding my perfect formula – by Joseph Tan

November 29, 2019

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.

Kodak D76 on Kodak TriX (Olympus Mju)

Kodak D76 on Kodak TriX (Olympus Mju)

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.

Kodak TMAX on Kodak TriX (Konica Hexar AF)

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.

Kodak Xtol on Kodak TriX (LEICA 21mm f/4 SUPER-ANGULON)

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.

Kodak Xtol on Kodak TriX at 1600 ISO (LEICA 21mm f/4 SUPER-ANGULON)

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.

Joseph Tan

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  • Reply
    November 29, 2019 at 10:17 am

    Splendid and I feel inspired! The one of the two women by the lake is a cracked too.

  • Reply
    November 29, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    Hi Joseph,

    Nice article! I’d really like to know two things.
    1) Do you have any experience with Pyrocat HD? I know that it’s usually a medium and large format photographer’s developer but I can’t help being amazed at the quality that you get compared to other developers. From what I’ve seen on YouTube and Flickr.
    2) Seeing as the final stop is often scanning the image for digital use, how much do you think the developer plays a role in the final image. Personally, I would think that anyone should want the flattest image possible so that they could add contrast either when they are scanning or when they are editing the scan.

    • Reply
      November 30, 2019 at 5:14 am

      Hi Vernon,

      I haven’t heard of Pyrocat HD. Thanks for sharing, would look it up.
      About the flatness of image, that is something I’ve definitely not considered and should start thinking about. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    • Reply
      Loris Viotto
      November 30, 2019 at 8:26 pm


  • Reply
    November 29, 2019 at 4:42 pm

    Thanks for the article, really good. The question unanswered is how do you get from film to print? While doing your own developing is indeed cheap it’s the next step that can be very expensive and absolutely a requirement. Any advise?

    • Reply
      November 30, 2019 at 5:18 am

      Hi Curt,

      This is a question I can’t help you with and I’m sure many others here are knowledgeable at that. It is a next step that which I haven’t taken the plunge because of the time, money, and skill required. Would love to do it in the future with some buddies.

    • Reply
      Castelli Daniel
      December 1, 2019 at 2:17 pm

      May I give you two options?
      First, the traditional darkroom. You can work in a dedicated space (I have a built-in darkroom in my home.) but, I know people who use a closet or a bathroom for temporary use. Awkward, but it is a workable solution.
      Second, scan your negs using an inexpensive flatbed scanner and tweak them in a program like p/shop. Obtain a inkjet printer optimized for printing photos. Then, have fun!

  • Reply
    Shaz Hassan
    November 29, 2019 at 8:23 pm

    Inspired to start developing myself!

    • Reply
      November 30, 2019 at 5:19 am

      Hi Shaz Hassan,

      Thanks for reading! Have fun!

  • Reply
    George Appletree
    November 29, 2019 at 9:18 pm

    I was told more than 25 years ago to increase developing time 25%, and that’s what I do since then. I agree HCB when he told the most difficult in photography is to properly reel the film. But I already do it well nearly always. My alchemy is visual, and as read from many great photographers using simple procedures increase the probability of success. For instance using a single camera, or at least not one everyday.

    • Reply
      November 30, 2019 at 5:25 am

      Hi George Appletree,

      Thanks for reading and sharing. Wise words from a master of the craft! I love the textures of your photographs.

      • Reply
        Jorge Manzano
        November 30, 2019 at 11:32 am

        Many thanks for visiting, Joseph. By the way the first shot is exquisite (Kodak D76 on Kodak TriX (Olympus Mju))

        • Reply
          November 30, 2019 at 1:39 pm

          You are too kind!

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    November 30, 2019 at 4:53 am

    I’m coming up on 50 years of shooting b&w film, developing & printing the negatives in my home darkroom. You hit upon a combination of film/developer that works for you. Good. Here are my observations for anyone taking their film photography to the next stage by processing their own film:
    1. Standardize the entire process. Use one film and one developer to the point that when you prepare to take a photo, you will know how the negative will come out. In practical terms, this could take up to a year if you’re a casual shooter.
    2. Repeatability: Process your film the same way every time. Follow the directions from the manufacturer of the photo chemistry to set you on the correct path. Everything from mixing the solutions, to using the same mixing vessels, to using an accurate digital thermometer, to the repeatable agitation methods. Don’t deviate until you’ve built up enough confidence to know what to change to obtain a specific outcome.
    3. Social media is a good place to see how other people handle film processing, but remember, they are telling you/me/us what works for them. They may be sloppy as a drunk sailor on shore leave or as precise as the late Ansel Adams. The best tutorials and information I’ve found come from the Ilford Company. Look them up.
    4. Your goal is to produce a negative that is as perfect as possible. This negative will make your darkroom sessions creative. It will give you a negative that will scan with ease. You don’t want to spend your time fixing sloppy processing mistakes. That’s tiresome and will lead to resentment rather than fun. I’ve been there.
    5. You must learn the rules before you break the rules.
    I wish you continuing success in your photography and processing.
    – Dan

    • Reply
      November 30, 2019 at 5:28 am

      Hi Daniel Castelli,

      Thank you for taking the time to share your insights. I wished someone would have told me this at the start. Indeed, it has taken me about one year to come up with a solution that works for me. You sound like you will be a great chemist.

  • Reply
    November 30, 2019 at 10:27 pm

    I have kind of a mantra – the negative is step one. the negative is step one.. in other words, it shouldnt be judged on its own. The negative is not the final image. You want as much information on it as possible on there, so you have more creative space in the darkroom or the lightroom. I dont understand people who shoot, develop, scan – you give up half of your creative control. You took all this time to shoot, dev and scan your images – you cant spend 5 minutes in lightroom to get that full control? Hell, the time it took you to develop at 1600 ISO over 400 you would save on by like 10 minutes if you shot at 400 and cranked contrast in lightroom.

    Not that pushing is bad per se, but it always gives me that nagging feeling that the shot would have been so much nicer had I been able to dodge and burn a bit, get those deep inky blacks in some parts while keeping others more as box speed. See:

    • Reply
      December 1, 2019 at 6:01 am

      Dear Sabine,

      This is something that I’ve definitely not thought about. I’ve tried tweaking around lightroom to get the contrast that I want in vain, but I didn’t realise that I should have use dodge and burn instead. Thanks for sharing, this is really insightful.

      Also, do you think that I would be able to get the same grains ‘texture’ on lightroom?

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