How Developing My Own Film Almost Killed My Love of Photography
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You don’t need to develop your own film to be a real photographer. You don’t need a Leica M6 to be a legit street shooter. You don’t need to shoot only Portra to be serious. We constantly construct these bogus barriers between what separates the “real” photographers from the rest, and I hate to break it to you but it’s utter bullshit. I learned this myself through some hardcore imposter syndrome.
When I first started shooting film just over two years ago, I never would have thought of myself as a “real” photographer. Hell I was shooting on an old Canon AE-1 I tripped across at the thrift store for $10. I didn’t develop my own film or have expensive, “professional” cameras. I didn’t think I could ever be taken seriously.
At the time, to me having your own home lab seemed like the ultimate goal, the sure sign that yes you are a “real” photographer who knows what they’re doing. I would scroll through the endless Instagram pages of photographers who wore the proud badge of “SELF DEV / SCAN” and sigh to myself, wondering if I’d never make it to that level.
It seemed so unattainable, such a moonshot away. I’d need to have the funds to be able to afford a decent scanning setup and all the equipment to develop on my own. When would that day ever come? I still seriously bawk at any camera at the thrift store that’s more than $20. People would tell me, “you GOT to start developing your own film!” and I’d feel like such a sham that I didn’t have the resources to do that.
Every roll I’d send off to the lab, I’d quietly scoff and think “maybe someday I’ll be a REAL photographer and I’ll be able to develop these myself.” It was a chore I grinned and bared knowing that maybe someday by some chance I’d be better than having to send to a lab.
Then one day in late 2019 a breakthrough came my way. As per usual I was perusing the aisles of my local Goodwill hunting for treasure, when I came upon a little scanner with the words “PLUSTEK” labeled across the front. I blinked for a few moments wondering if my eyes were seeing this properly. I picked it up and realized for real, this was an actual Plustek 7600i sitting humbly in the electronics aisle at Goodwill. I couldn’t believe it. I ran to my partner squealing with delight.
With no price tag to be found, I approached the cashier with some trepidation. Surely they’d speak with their manager and tell me they’d be able to sell it for some ungodly amount I couldn’t afford. I was even more shocked when the cashier took one glance at it and casually said “How’s $2.99 sound?” SOUNDS AMAZING RING ME UP.
Me and my partner ran out of the store with glee. I just nabbed a $300 scanner for 1% of the cost. I could now finally scan my own film and be one step closer to that seemingly elusive goal of being a real photographer who develops their own film. After several months of scanning and really learning the ropes of Silverfast and Lightroom, I started to wonder if I could pull the trigger on actually ordering developing supplies.
I pondered, and crowdsourced advice from dozens of photographers I know and respect who develop their own. I knew developing C-41 wasn’t easy but I felt prepared. I had gotten the advice from the best people I know. I had read dozens of articles and watched countless YouTube videos to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I figured I’d ruin a good few rolls before I found a routine that worked, but I was willing to go for it. I had researched the common pitfalls and felt ready. This is what you have to do to be legit, I thought.
I had a little money set aside and the up front $150-ish dollar investment seemed worth it. I loaded up my cart on Freestyle Photo and clicked buy. Several days later I tore into the packaging with anticipation. Got my chemicals, my tank, containers, dark bag, galore. Fuck me up with this at home developing.
The first two rolls were… not great. Which was to be expected, I was mainly just happy that images showed up at all. But they were wildly over developed and over done and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I followed the directions to a T. Had the chemicals at a strict 102° with a sous vide and all the times measured to the second with the prescribed amount of agitations. So what went wrong? I chalked it up to beginner struggles and figured if I kept doing everything by the book things would eventually start to work out.
Spoiler alert: they didn’t. The next two rolls were exactly the same. I decided I needed to experiment with making small adjustments. Something was causing my film to be overdeveloped and experimenting with developing time/temperature/and agitations seemed like the possible culprits. Roll after roll I tried tweaking little things here and there. I even went so low as to develop at 99° with 30 seconds shaved off and half the number of agitations. Nope. Still over developed.
Roll after roll after roll, and nothing got better no matter what I did. I called on my expert friends for help and sadly they were as stumped as I was. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was seriously going insane. I was shooting roll upon roll and getting the same shit results. I wanted to pull out all my hair and scream my lungs out. It got to the point where I just didn’t want to shoot film anymore. At all. The idea of going out with my camera and film just seemed torturous. What’s the point when it's all going to all turn to shit in developing anyway?
I felt so lost. Photography has been my main love for a number of years now. I didn’t know what to do and literally felt like I was losing my mind. I had convinced myself that I had to be able to develop my own film to be a real, serious photographer. I was crushed. Tons of other people get great results, why can’t I? Something must be wrong with me and I needed to know what.
Weeks went by and I started to think about giving film photography up all together. I just felt like such a fraud. I’d develop another roll and it’d be exactly the same, overdeveloped and unusable. I’d break down crying. Over and over again. After over 20 ruined rolls of film and two spent developing kits, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had to throw in the towel, my sanity depended on it if nothing else. I felt like a complete failure.
And that’s when it dawned on me: who the fuck cares if I develop my own film or not? It’s my art and I’ll make it the way I want. Perhaps I’m just too much of a perfectionist to enjoy the home developing experience. Plus there’s a lot to be said about sending to a lab. I’ll help support film labs which we need now more than ever. They’ve long since dwindled since the heyday of film, and I’ll be glad to give them my business and help them stay alive.
In the end, do what makes you happy with your art and don’t worry about what other people think. Develop your own film if that’s what you love or send it to a lab if you prefer. Buy the expensive camera if that’s your heart’s desire or just shoot the same beat up camera that’s worked for you for years. None of these are markers of a real photographer. What makes a real photographer is someone who is passionate about the field and captures images that speak to themself and hopefully others. And if you try something new and you realize it doesn’t work for you, it’s okay to change your mind. You’re not a failure, you’ve just learned more about what works for your artistic process. It’s your art, make it the way you want.
All the pictures shown in this article were taken by Danielle Wrobleski. To see more, please head to the links below: