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Michael A. Smith


I have often heard it said, "The first time I saw a print come up in the developer it seemed magical, and that is what originally attracted me to photography." If you are one of those who have had this response, get ready for something that could easily top that experience.

For the first eight months of my photographing life I developed 35mm roll film by time and temperature, but when I began to use an 8x10-inch view camera that immediately changed. I had read that Edward Weston developed film by inspection, and in those days I said, "If it was good enough for Edward Weston, it's good enough for me."

The first step was to buy a dark green safelight filter. The second step was to figure out how to use it. As I recall, the only instruction I could find had come with the film. It said that you should use a 15-watt bulb and that you could turn on the safelight for a few seconds after development was half completed. Armed with that scanty knowledge, I plunged in. I can still clearly remember that first try at developing by inspection. After development was a little more than half over I looked at the film. The negatives looked black so I hurried the film into the stop bath. A few minutes later, after the film was fixed, I was surprised and disappointed when I saw that my negatives were so underdeveloped that they were unprintable.

I needed to learn something more about this and in short order. Since more than thirty years have passed since that darkroom disaster, I don't remember what I read that got me started in the right direction; I do recall, however, that finding specific information wasn't easy. But get started I did, and in all the years since then I have been exposing only large negatives and have been developing all my film by inspection. In this article, I will try to pass on what I have learned so that if you start developing film by inspection, you will have a much easier time of it than I had.

You may ask, "Why develop film by inspection? Isn't time and temperature good enough?" Developing film by inspection gives you more control over the development process. If you are the type who has spent halfway to forever doing film and developer tests, and whose shutters always work with precision and reliability, and if your light meter is always used properly and is, of course, in perfect calibration, and if you never make any type of mistake whatsoever, and if, as a result, you always have perfect negatives, read no further. You don't need to learn how to develop film by inspection. On the other hand, if you know that your equipment may be only reasonably calibrated, and if, being human, you might occasionally make mistakes, and above all, if you would rather be spending what all-too-little time you may have photographing things that are meaningful to you rather than doing film and developer tests and charting film curves, then you might find developing by inspection to be entirely useful.

If your negatives are not always perfect, developing by inspection allows you to modify the developing time to correct for things that might have gone wrong in your exposure or projected development calculations. By not being limited to a predetermined development time, you can take some negatives out of the developer sooner than others and park them in the stop bath. (Use an acid stop bath with occasional agitation-if the negatives are just in water they will continue to develop.) You can park them as long as needed while you continue to develop the others, or maybe even just that last one that doesn't seem to want to come up. That means you can most likely save those negatives that would have been unprintable as a result of the inflexible time and temperature method. And then, there is the thrill of seeing the negative come up in the developer. That perhaps is the most exciting moment of all. It's another magical moment. There is no need to wait nervously until the mysterious negative has been fixed to see how it came out.

How to Develop by Inspection

First of all, you will need a Wratten #3 safelight filter. That's the dark green one. Why a dark green filter and not a red one, or one of another color? I have seen it stated that one uses a dark green safelight because the film is less sensitive to green. That, however, is not the reason, as a film spectral sensitivity graph will quickly reveal. Green is used because that is the color to which our eyes are most sensitive. After you have been in total darkness for a few minutes, it is surprising how bright you will find the light from a dark green safelight to be and how much you will be able to see. Once you've gotten a bit of practice you will be able to glean much information with only a quick look.

The safelight should have a 15-watt bulb, and, according to the latest instructions that come with the film, it should be at least four feet from the developing tray, although I recall that the instructions used to say that the distance should be three feet. I have found a distance of three feet to be fine. After the film is half developed it loses some of its sensitivity and the safelight can be turned for a second or two and you can observe how development is coming along. But to minimize the possibility of the film becoming fogged, I recommend that you do not begin looking at the film until your expected developing time is about 75% complete. If you are in a plus development situation, I recommend waiting until the "normal" developing time has already been reached. The safelight should not be left on continuously, but it can be turned on briefly a number of times after the initial viewing.

Use a foot switch to activate the safelight since you don't want to be reaching for a hand switch while you're hands are wet from the developer. And put a piece of glow-in-the-dark tape or a dab of luminescent paint on your foot switch so you always know where it is. One time, when I had finished in the developer, I left the safelight on while the film was in the stop bath and fixer (something that you can always do), but I forgot to turn it off after the room lights came on. When I turned the room lights off to get the next batch of film out, the safelight was still on. Since I was not looking in the direction of the safelight, and since my eyes were overwhelmed by the bright light and my pupils had not widened yet, I didn't notice that the safelight had been left on until a minute or so had passed. And that was enough time for the film to fog. After this happened, I installed the foot switch with a momentary connection rather than with an on/off switch-it is only on while there is pressure on the switch. I recommend a foot switch with the same type of connection so this type of accident won't happen to you.

I develop from eight to twelve sheets of film at a time, and, since I use Super XX film, I rarely have a minus development situation. I usually view the film when the "normal" time has arrived and then take another look every one to four minutes thereafter, depending on how soon I expect development to be completed, which is based on how the film looks.

Okay, the film is in the developer, the time has come, you have turned the safelight on, and now-what do you look for? How do you look? Do you look at the film by transmitted light by holding the film up and looking through it at the green safelight, or do you hold it so that you are seeing it by reflected light? And which side of the film do you look at, the emulsion side or the base side?

You look, always, at the base side. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that the first time I developed by inspection my film appeared quite black and I thought its development was complete. My mistake was in looking at the emulsion side. Unless you have seriously underexposed the film, you will find that when you look at the emulsion side, the film will always look dark. You will think it is overdeveloped, and you will probably be wrong. Look instead at the base side. The base side will appear to have an opalescent milkiness to its surface. You look at this opalescence to see how much the light tones or highlights are coming through. When doing this, you look at the film by reflected light. You want to stop the development when the light tones or highlights come through strongly, but not too much. The light tones or highlights will, of course, be the dark patches on the opalescent-looking surface.

Sometimes when I have photographed a subject with an extremely limited number of tones, I am not certain to what degree the highlights are coming through the base. Then I will hold the negative up and view it by transmitted light. When doing this, I sometimes hold a finger behind the negative and compare the density of the darker tones (light print values) to the absolute blackness of my silhouetted finger. My finger becomes a value ruler. If you view the negative this way, look for densities that are not as dense as your finger will look, but yet not too thin either. In doing this, be sure to keep the negative at least four feet away from the light and keep viewing times as short as possible to avoid fogging. Position your safelight behind your sink and not overhead. Otherwise, when viewing the negatives by transmitted light, you will end up with the developer running down your arms.

Does it matter which film you use? I have found that with every film I have used, and over the years there have been many, it makes no difference in evaluation of the negative under the dark green safelight. There are great differences between films in developing times, of course, but you should always be looking for the same thing in regard to proper densities.

Does it matter which developer you use? Here, the answer is yes. With negatives developed in Pyro, the tones of the light print values (the dark tones on the negative) do not need to come through as much as they do when the film is developed in other developers. This is because Pyro is a surface developer and does not develop into the depths of the emulsion as do other developers. (A major reason why negatives developed in Pyro are extremely sharp is because there is less irradiation-the spreading of light as it passes through the depths of the emulsion. Although, because films made today are all thin emulsion films, irradiation is less of a factor than it was years ago.) And remember that Pyro is also a staining developer and that contrast is achieved in part through the stain, rather than through the density of the silver.

Before you jump right in and develop valuable negatives by inspection, you might want to run a test. Make a few negatives of a contrasty subject, a few of a "normal" one, and a few of a flat one. Develop the three sets of negatives separately. For each set, inspect the film at regular intervals, and take one negative out of the developer and into the stop bath each time you inspect. Because this is a visual rather than a mechanical process, try to remember what you are seeing on the negatives so that you can reference that information when you develop your next batch. Also, in recalling what you saw when developing the film, you will know when you print each negative how the densities translate into print values.

You won't have to mark the negatives in any way when you print them because the denser they are the more development they will have had. (If that statement is not painfully obvious to you, do not develop film by inspection. Review the relationship between exposure and development until you understand it completely.)

The more you develop by inspection, the better you will get, although I do believe that after you do it even once, you'll have the hang of it. Developing by inspection is not something that takes a long time to learn.

The above method is the conventional method of developing by inspection, but there are also other ways. One is to desensitize the film in pinkryptol green, a desensitizing agent, which unfortunately is quite expensive. When you do use pinkryptol green you can keep the dark green safelight on throughout the total time of development, making it easier to judge the progress of the negative. I know one photographer who develops his film this way, but I have never done it myself. (Edward Weston said that he did not need to desensitize, and again, I took him at his word.) The other way that I know to develop by inspection is to have an infrared light source on and to view the negative through an infrared viewing scope. I once watched as a photographer friend used this method and it was amazing. While looking through the scope, it was as if I was seeing the negative on a light table. The drawback to this is that infrared viewing scopes are extremely expensive.

Good luck with developing your film by inspection. It is a time-honored method, one in use since the early days of photography.

© 1999 Michael A. Smith

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