Film development – DIY or lab?

When I started shooting film again this was one of the big questions: Should I start playing around with Jobos and chemistry again – as I had done back in the days  – or should I follow the advice of many film photographers to find “my” local high quality lab, let them do the wet work and live happily ever after? For color film and transparencies the decision was a no-brainer, as I didn’t want to home-process E6 and C41 chemistry. But b/w was a different story. Lacking space for a proper darkroom in our house I first decided to check out local labs for those too, but I wasn’t convinced. Having no influence on the developmental process was something I didn’t like. FP4, HP5, TriX and TMax all looked basically the same, when coming back from the lab despite their different film characteristics. Besides, some of the lab processed b/w films showed minute but detectable artifacts supposedly caused by improper film handling during development. The only solution seemed to be to go for Jobos and chemistry again – and this is what I did. I bought a changing bag, could get hold of some used tanks of different sizes, secured a box of originally sealed Rodinal bottles from the old days, a new bottle of HC110 for the grainier films, and two canisters of distilled water – and I was ready to go. Photographers often prefer to use a single combination of film and developer as this is the best way to learn how the film behaves under different conditions and how the developer influences the negative. This ensures constant results and enables the photographer to predict the look of the image already when tripping the shutter. But I still like to play around, especially with 35mm film. The only combination I wouldn’t change anymore is TriX400/HC110 when shooting 120mm with my Agfa Clack Pinhole. Due to the slight blur typical for pinhole shots, the images look like gray-tone paintings and this film/developer combo supports that beautifully. My first rolls of 35mm when I started shooting film again were TMax100. They were all developed in a lab and for me they kind of lack the typical b/w film look. They are too clean, almost like a digital image. Comparing e.g. TMax and FP4 negatives feels like looking at an air-brush picture next to an oil canvas. And I definitely like the oil canvas better – at least in b/w. But as said, I haven’t decided which film I like best. HP5 is certainly more versatile than FP4 due to its higher speed and push performance, but so is TriX which I haven’t tried as 35mm. Delta100 and PanF are also waiting in the fridge to be tested. And there are many more brands on the market. This is the fascinating aspect of film photography. You can choose a certain look of your film material matching the subjects you are going to shoot. Some digital cameras like the Fuji X-series have algorithms programmed into their software to mimic these film characteristics. The results are quite impressive and the fact that such post-processing algorithms exist shows that “the Ektachrome look” or “the Acros feel” means quite something to people. It adds a certain emotional touch to the images, which the digital sensor alone cannot produce. And here is the good thing: shooting film is the direct way to get this. If only Kodak would produce Ektachrome again…

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