One of the best moments of shooting analog is when finally you pull the film out of the developing tank. But it is a long way from shooting to holding the film strip in your hands. Let’s look into the step of developing today with talking about a very simple but magic technique: stand development.
In general a development technique – the kind of developer used, its dilution, number of agitations, and developing time – must fit all other circumstances. The brand of film matters and its ISO as well as over or under exposure of the film, and also the contrast of each scene photographed.
In the dark room developer temperatures matter as well as precision in measures and timing. Many things have to be kept constant for reliably consistent results.
The shorter the developing times, the more any deviation from the norm will affect the final image leading to less constant results in a series.
What if circumstances are not as predictable as in a professional photo lab? A self-built travel lab will not have consistent temperatures. When out a whole day one roll of film will have to capture a variation of light conditions, contrasts, as well as over and under exposures.
One solution for all of these issues together is stand development. This technique is the simplest of all and at the same time one of the most powerful – and about the opposite of all the other techniques.
Precision is not really important here. A few degrees of temperature up or down? No matter. Developing a few minutes shorter or longer? Same results in the end. You forgot to have loaded a more sensitive film and now all images are over-exposed? Don’t worry stand developing will correct automatically.
But how can this be?
The Stand Technique
Stand development is a technique of developing with a highly diluted developer. Actually the extreme dilution is responsible for solving all problems above.The highly diluted developer is given a very long time to work on the film, up to several hours.
Already Ansel Adams had used stand development for some of his photos, making use of its benefits especially with compensating for high contrast captures. The technique itself is very simple.
Get the film ready, pour highly diluted developer into the tank, give it a few agitations, put the whole thing aside, go watch a movie or cook a dinner and forget about your film developing for an hour, or two, or three. Don’t touch it, don’t move it. In the end stop the development. That’s all, done!
The more detailed version:
- Pre-wash the film for 10 minutes
- Pour in the highly diluted developer
- Agitate slowly but continuously for the first 30 seconds
- Wait an hour or two depending on your dilution chosen
- Pour out the developer and wash for 10 minutes
- Fix 5 minutes
- Wash 5 minutes, add a drop of wetting agent in the end
- Take out the developed film and dry
Don’t tell me that was complicated. Try it once and you’ll fall in love with this technique.
The high dilution in combination with no agitation for an hour or more has a very special effect on the developing process.
When developer comes in contact with the film it starts to develop. During this process the developer slowly loses its power since it gets used up. With agitating the tank we usually ensure to regularly get a fresh layer of developer to cover the film.
Highlights tend to develop faster than shadows, which means they use up the developer much faster than the shadow parts of an image. No problem with a technique where we agitate from time to time, adding fresh developer over all of the film again and again.
If now in the stand technique the film gets in contact with fresh developer only at the very beginning, in the fast developing areas around the highlights the developer quickly loses its power, bringing the highlight development to an early halt, since without agitation no new layer of developer will be added anymore.
The shadows continue developing since they use up the developer slower. That means after the highlights are done with developing in the stand technique the shadows are given time to further develop alone.
But don’t we risk over-developing if keeping the film in the developer such a long time? No, never. The trick is to pour exactly the right amount of developer for one roll of film into the tank, not more.
Best case in the end of the development all of the developer in the tank is exhausted. It has fully done its work – and we are hopefully done with dinner to check for the results.
The Visual Effect
Since the developer exhausts early in the highlights while the shadows continue to develop, we can achieve a compensation effect for high contrast captures.
Doing it right, due to the long time given for working on the darks, stand development will pull a lot of detail out of the shadows which would be simply black in a standard technique.
As with shooting digital, where you should always keep post processing capabilities and limitations in mind, with film also we have to shoot with keeping our preferred development technique in mind.
When opting for stand development we expose for the blacks. The stand development technique will pull back your highlights automatically.
Also you have to care less whether one shot on a roll is pulled and another one pushed. You will always end up with the same development time.
Negative Side Effects
On the other hand the compensation effect for contrasts can lead to flat negatives. If your photographed scene lacks contrast a contrast reducing development might not be what you are looking for. So keep this in mind when shooting.
Another side effect of the stand technique is the possibility of getting halos along high contrast lines, for example in twilight and night architecture photos. Some like the effect, others less.
With stand development you also risk uneven development. Only during the 30 seconds of agitation at the start of the developing process developer is distributed over the film. Due to the stand afterwards we do this once only – without a chance of correcting afterwards.
In a standard technique several agitations every minute would ensure to get developer swept over the film regularly, compensating for a slightly uneven distribution in the beginning.
Semi Stand Development Technique
Therefore some film/developer combinations (like Tri-X developed in Ilford HC or Kodak HC-110) might perform better with a semi-stand technique.
Initially agitate 30 seconds then do a few soft agitations after a while (and maybe even once again after some time more). Now let it stand.
How often to agitate and when is a matter of preference. One quarter of the total time and half of the total time are good starting points. For agitating only once during the process I’d start with testing at a third or half of the total time.
Disadvantage of the semi-stand technique is that with each agitation (with each interruption of the stand) fresh developer will be swept over the film plane.
Instead of exhausting the developer to death in the highlights, with a semi-stand technique they get fresh food to develop again. Therefore with more agitation the effect of contrast compensation and highlight control will be reduced.
Ideas of Variation
When shooting film sheets the developing process can be optimized for each capture. Shooting a roll of film like common in small and medium format photography, kind of an average developing has to be applied to the whole roll.
Stand development by itself is a magic tool compensating for a variety of challenges but it has its limits.
So experiment with
- Dilutions: The thinner the dilution the stronger the “stand effects”.
- The amount of developer in the tank. It makes a difference whether you use 3ml per roll of film or 10ml since the whole developer will be used up in the end.
- The amount of agitations in a semi stand.
TIP: Before starting to develop film yourself read about the effects of varying absolute amounts of developer, varying dilutions, the effects of changing agitation during development, about acutance and grain. Once understanding the dependencies you will be able to fine-tune development for your purposes.
Not every developer is good for stand development. Among the highly favored ones you will find Rodinal and Kodak HC-110 (or the corresponding Ilford HC). Furthermore not every developer will be a good combination with every film choice. Tri-X for example stand developed in Rodinal results in accentuated grain. Some like the effect, others try to avoid.
Each film and developer combination requires a specific minimum amount of developer in the tank. With Tri-X and Kodak HC-110 for example the minimum amount of developer per roll of film is 6-10ml officially. With experimenting you can also go less, some even work with 3ml per roll.
But be careful with reducing the amount of developer. If not having enough developer per roll of film in the tank, the developer will be exhausted before the film is fully developed. Unless experimenting on the arts side of photography you might want to avoid this effect.
TIP: Before buying developer make up your mind about which film you would prefer to shoot for your style of photography, think about the effect you want to achieve with your photos and which development technique and developer will support this. It’s all about the optimal combination of film, developer, and development technique. No general recipe can be made; details depend on how you want the look of your photos to be. On travels keep the possibility of limited access to some products in mind.
Many people struggle with mixing the dilutions for developer. I agree, with a math aversion these numbers look scaring. But it’s much simpler than you might think.
For a dilution 1:100 (more precise is 1:99) you have to mix 1 unit of developer with 99 units of water. In practical terms this means you put 1ml developer in a jar and then fill the jar with water up to the 100ml mark. That is as complicated as it gets. No need to get confused with the dilutions.
Now, 1ml developer is not enough for a roll of film, nor is 100ml enough to cover the film with liquids. Let’s say we need minimum 6ml of developer for a roll of film. We will have to take all our ingredients by six. With a syringe take 6ml of developer and put them to a jar. Fill the jar with water up to the 600ml mark. Ready!
Another example: For a dilution of 1:150 (more precise 1:149) you take 1ml of developer in a jar and then fill up with water up to the 150ml mark. If you need 6ml developer as a minimum per film, well, take 6ml of developer and then fill the jar with water to the mark of 900ml (6x150ml). No more exercises needed, right?
By going through the math examples you already see that for stand development larger development tanks than usual will be needed. Due to the high dilution a higher amount of developer-water-mix is necessary for each roll of film. Keep this in mind before starting with the development.
My Personal Recipe
For my present series I work with Kodak Tri-X 400 medium format roll film. As said one of my favorite developers for this film would be Kodak HC-110. Since not having access to this developer here in Bangkok I had to switch to Ilford HC.
Due to very unstable circumstances in my self-made travel lab (in the bathroom), and due to pretty high ambient temperatures I opted for a very thin dilution, giving the film a long time to develop. My dilution here is 1.200 about.
Usually in this thin dilution I’d let the film develop for more than two tours. But due to pretty high room temperatures (28°C and more) I reduced the time of developing to 1.5 hours. Chemicals work faster in higher temperatures.
Here in Thailand the tap water for washing the film cools down just in the late hours, so in the evening after 9pm I head to the bathroom and start the developing process. Deal with the circumstances given.
As mentioned above in my eyes Tri–X benefits from a semi stand treatment. So I add a few very gentle agitations during the development process. How many exactly and when? Come on, you have to leave me some secrets.
Stand development is not the one and only best technique, it is one out of many. It has to fit your captures as well as the style of images you want to achieve.
- Keeps highlights under control
- Pulls shadow detail
- Compensates for high contrast scenes
- Very simple technique
- Needs no attention during developing
- Economical and less damaging for the environment
- Can result in flat negatives with low contrast scenes
- Risk of uneven development
- Halos along high contrast edges
- Less films can be developed per tank at a time
- A long wait to see your results
Sand development is one of the most flexible among all developing techniques. On top it is the simplest and laziest approach of getting your film developed.