Having issues: defeat streaky development in 2017

Develop your own film? Here's a common development issue that can pop up from time to time. It's a streak of extra density running across the short dimension of roll film, visible especially in light areas such as the overcast sky seen this example. It can happen with both 35mm and 120 size film, this one is on some 120 Ilford FP-4+. I've cranked up the contrast a bit in the scan to make this devil more obvious.

 In the negative...

In the negative...

 As a positive.

As a positive.

What is the cause? This problem occurs during the initial seconds when developer is being poured into the developing tank, especially with 4 or 8 35mm reel size tanks.  As the tank fills developer comes in contact with the film before the reel is totally immersed. The time between contact and full immersion is long enough for development to begin in the area of contact. This creates uneven density in an area where it should be uniform. Not good.

Happily I can think of many solutions to this problem. Let's dive in.

  • 1. Get fundamental. First thing is to to check your pour technique. You should be aiming to have the tank filled within 15-20 seconds. Tip the tank slightly as you fill to allow air to escape and then pour pour pour. Then cap the tank and agitate with vigor. If that doesn't work:
  • 2. Give up. Send your film off to a lab and let someone else worry about it. Upside: More time to do other things. Downside: additional expense and the loss of control over a crucial part of your work process.
  • 3. Give in. Accept that an occasional streak or spot, bleep or bloop is just a natural part of an organic process and just proves that your pictures aren't made by an unfeeling machine but by a flesh and blood person keeping it real. Downside: some people won't get it and will just think you're sloppy.
  • 4. Give over. Figure that it will happen once in a while so shoot only dark and busy images that will hide a random streak, or if you do wish to photograph some lovely light grey tone, take a page from your cousin the "professional" photographer and spray and pray. Downside: wasting film and becoming your cousin.
  • 5. Modify. Change something in the hope that the problem will go away. For instance try a different film type. Maybe HP-5 will be ok if FP-4 wasn't. Downside: giving up on a film that you otherwise like, creating limitations for yourself as you eliminate film types one by one, still experiencing the issue since in fact you're not actually addressing the problem.
  • 6. Slow down. Change your developer or developer dilution so it's less active. In theory this will give you more time before development begins. Downside: Development time is longer. There may be changes in image quality that you may not care for. Difficult to know how much dilution is enough before you risk exhausting the developer.
  • 7. Scale down. Develop all your film one roll at a time in small tanks. Downside: takes much more time that you might wish to use to do other things.
  • 8. Scale up. Get a processing machine like a Jobo. Downside: expensive, takes up more space, not very portable.
  • 9. Presoak. You will find a fair amount of debate over the efficacy of presoaking your film in water. On the one hand the manufacturers say it's not necessary as modern films have incorporated surfactants to encourage even development. On the other hand many people have had complete success using a presoak, including Ansel Adams. Jobo recommends a presoak for their rotary process. The theory is that a presoak will encourage even development as the water absorbed by the emulsion will be displaced by developer slowly, with the added benefit of bringing the tank to the process temperature.

Personally I used a presoak for many years (largely because of Ansel's recommendation) with little issue. Oddly, one issue I did have was with X-tol developer in a rotary Jobo processor, I was getting the dreaded "wagon ruts", bands of uneven development running the length of the film. Jobo support recommended skipping the presoak which did in fact eliminate the problem. But I digress. For many years now I've not used a presoak but I feel pretty safe in saying that there's little risk if you do. Downside: one more step added to the process, some small adjustment in development time may be needed. 

  

 The handy lifting rod.

The handy lifting rod.

  • 10. Get a lift. This one requires the fewest changes, but does require that you develop your film in an actual dark room and have a second developing tank on hand. A lifting rod is very useful, but not completely necessary. For the big 8 reel tanks (and larger!) this is the best method to ensure not only even development but to be certain that the film on the top of the tank is being developed for the same time as the one on the bottom.

How to? Place your loaded reels into one tank, using the lifting rod if you have one. Fill the second tank with developer. Turn out the lights, open the film tank and lower the reels into the developer, smooth and steady. Cap the tank and agitate as normal. Now you can switch on the lights and continue as usual. Downside: you need a darkroom. 

Issues with film development can creep into the process of even the most careful worker, or lab. Hopefully one doesn't cost you a once in a lifetime image. If you take the time to understand the problem and to review the fundamentals you should be back up and running with confidence in short order.