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
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
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.
Michael A. Smith