The film photography & darkroom work of David Kirby

How To: Develop Your Own C-41 Colour Negatives

Unlike most people I started off doing C-41 processing before I did black and white.  Most people start on black and white as its generally done at room temperature and there is slightly more room for error.  However, many that get used to black and white seem to be under the impression that C-41 processing is very complex and near impossible to do at home - but that just isn't the case as you will go on to see.  If you are an avid colour negative film shooter (I find myself mostly shooting black and white these days) then processing your own C-41 film is something you should give serious consideration as it saves a fortune on lab costs and you can shoot, process and scan/print your film within the space of a few hours.

What You Need

There are a few different methods of processing C-41 film.  The key with C-41 processing is maintaining your chemistry temperature at 37.8oC.  Some people get good results just using a tub full of water and heating it up, and if you fancy that route (lets face it, its cheaper) then go for it.  Personally i use a rotary processor - a Jobo CPE-2 to be precise.

There are numerous models of Jobo on available on the used market, and these are readily available on Ebay.  All they are is a water bath with temperature control and a rotary motor which agitates your tank for you.  Some better (i.e. more expensive) models also have a lift which let you add and remove chemicals to the film tank without having to lift it off the rotary.  I find though that the CPE-2 easily meets my needs.

As for chemicals C-41 is a standard process which means all C-41 chemicals are pretty much the same.  Unlike black & white developers which are numerous and all have different characteristics, C-41 chemicals are designed to do one thing - get that film developed to the set standard.  I am a big fan of the Rollei Digibase C-41 kits.  I tend to buy from AG Photographic or Silverprint who are based in the UK as I have always had excellent service from them and they tend to be a little cheaper than everywhere else.  These kits come in a variety of sizes but I tend to go for the 1L kit which lets me do 4 batches of 250ml - around 20 films in total.  These kits also have a long shelf life (when unmixed) which I find very handy as I often have a month or two where I don't have any films to process.  The only drawback is that the instructions that come with these kits aren't the best.  I don't know who wrote them but they clearly didn't have the novice in mind at the time of writing!  There are washes missing and personally I think some of the times are off for processing which is why it took me so long to get my procedure nailed.

So, equipment you need should be as follows:

  • Rotary Processor (or big tub which can be filled with water)
  • C-41 chemicals
  • 4 Chemical bottles which will fit in your Jobo/water tub
  • Film changing bag (the biggest you can afford)
  • Tank and spiral for processing
  • Stopwatch
  • Film hanging clips
  • 2 jugs for water
  • Accurate thermometer

Setting Up

So, what is my procedure?  Well, the Jobo tank I use allows for 1 x 120 film (or 2 x 35mm) to be processed (well, technically 2 x 120 films can go onto one reel but I don't like to do that).  I prefer to do my films one at a time simply for quality control - if something goes wrong during development then I haven't ruined multiple films.  I fill my Jobo with water (preferably warm as it means that you don't waste time and electricity heating cold water) and leave it to heat up to around 38C (C41 should be processed at 37.8oC +/-0.5oC).  I like to leave it to heat up for about an hour to make sure the temperature has stabilised.  Whilst the water bath is heating up I mix my chemicals following the instructions included with the kit.  The instructions say that the solutions must be mixed with water at 49oC, and I am fortunate in that I can hit that temperature with the hot water from my taps.  If you cant then boil a kettle, pour the water into a jug and wait for it to cool down to around 49oC.  The kit comes with multiple syringes - you need to make sure that you use one for fixer, one for stabiliser, one for bleach etc.  Use permanent marker to label them otherwise you will end up cross contaminating your chemicals.  Unfortunately there aren't enough syringes included in the kit for 1 per chemical so I use the same syringe for parts A,B and C of the developer.  Some people may be renounce this but it works ok for me so I do it.

So, you have measured out your chemicals and mixed them with water.  Pour them into their bottles, stir them well and put them into your water bath.  Whilst you wait for your chemicals to settle to 37.8oC load your film onto your reels (if you don't know how to do this or even what i'm on about check youtube, there's lots of videos there that will help you out).  You're all set now and ready to develop (once your chemicals have heated up).  After about an hour dip a thermometer into your developer and check the temperature is stable at around 37.8oC.  You will also need some jugs of water at around 38oC too for washing your film later.  I like to fill a jug with a narrow bottom and stand it in the spare space in my Jobo bath so the temperature keeps up.


Once you're all heated up put your developing tank onto the rotary and set it going at full speed for 5 minutes (there are multiple speeds on most rotary processors - mine has a 1 and a 2 setting - i use the 2).  This brings the tank and film up to a similar temperature to your chemicals which will stop your film being 'shocked' when you suddenly pour in some hot fluids.  Some people like to prewash their film.  They heat up the tank and then fill it with water for 3 minutes or so.  I used to do it but have personally gotten far better results by not doing so I am dropping this step from my developing procedure.  If you google it you'll see a tremendous amount of debate covering this topic with everyone having a differing opinion about what effects prewashing/soaking has on the film.  If you do choose to prewash don't be worried when the water comes out a vivid colour like purple or green, this is the anti-halation layer and dye being washed off your film, just like when you prewash black & white film.

After 5 minutes it is time to start pouring in your chemicals.  Start your stopwatch and pour in your developer.  Put the lid on the tank and rotate the tank by hand 3 times so as to get coverage of the developer over the film (just as when processing black & white film), give the tank a solid tap on the floor/work surface to dislodge any air bubbles (remember this - it will make your film easier to scan later) then put the tank onto the rotary.

My developing procedure is as follows:

  • Preheat - 5:00
  • Developer - 3:15
  • Bleach - 6:30
  • Wash 1 - 3:00 (6 washes of 30s)
  • Fixer - 6:30
  • Wash 2 - 6:00 (6 washes of 1m)
  • Stabiliser - 1:30 (to be done at room temperature)
  • Hang to Dry (preferably in a dust-free environment)

With each step allow 7 seconds or so to pour out the first chemical and pour in the next e.g. pour the developer out at 3:08 and pour the bleach in at 3:15.  The washes are important steps but they are not included on the Rollei instructions.  The first wash should come after the bleach and consist of 6 changes of water every 30 seconds.  This makes sure that the tank is fully cleared of bleach before you pour in your fixer.  The second wash comes after fixing and consists of 6 changes of water every 1 minute.  Again, this stops the stabiliser being contaminated by fixer.  Some people wash between developer and bleach but you really shouldn't do that as it can be detrimental to the process.

Stabilising should be done at room temperature.  When you come to stabilise just pour it into your tank and rotate it by hand for the required amount of time.  I used to stabilise at 37.8C but I was advised by a fellow processor to do it at room temperature; to be honest though I cant see much of a difference in my negatives.

The above steps should take you around half an hour to complete.  Once you're done you can take the lid off your tank and remove your film.  The film should be covered in foam from the stabiliser - don't wash this off.  Just hang your film up to dry naturally (in as dust-free an environment as possible).  If you really want to you can wet your fingers in the stabiliser and run the negative gently between them, thus removing the excess foam and gently wiping down the film.  Once its dry take it to your scanner or your enlarger and see how it looks.  All being well you should have a well developed negative that scans nicely (Kodak Portra film was especially designed to make scanning easier).  I should point out here that C-41 negatives are orange when processed so don't be alarmed when you open your tank for the first time and see some bright orange film staring back at you!

This is just a summary of the C-41 process.  As with black and white film you can push and pull the film depending on the light conditions you were shooting in, and you can process slide film in C-41 chemistry for the cross-processed look.  For now though it is good to get to grips with the basics of the process and enjoy shooting some of the wonderful C-41 films currently available on the market.  Of course, this tutorial only covers processing the film.  As always, printing is another matter entirely...