Using negatives as a final image

When scanning black and white negatives, the moment when the negative image is inverted into a positive is captivating. No matter how much I study the negatives, they always seem blurry and difficult to interpret. The positives suddenly seem sharp and the scene presents itself clearly.

But sometimes a negative stands out on its own. It seems ethereal, or occasionally more real than when converted to positive. Some subjects work better than others - a human face often looks demonic in negative form as the eyes turn black with white pupils. But natural scenes and architecture seems to have their own charm as negatives.

As most photographs are subjected to some sort of post-production (whether in the darkroom or Lightroom), it seems that a conscious decision to not invert the negative is also a creative possibility.

Hybrid film processing (no darkroom needed)

Most people don't try film photography because they fear film processing lab costs or think they need a full-on darkroom to get the job done. I shoot black and white film which is easily developed at home for very little cost and without a dark room, but it takes a little time (the money-time compromise). I scan the images so they can be manipulated digitally and printed. I'll describe the entire process here.

NOTE: If you are in Houston and looking for overnight developing and scanning of your black and white film, you might be interested in my developing service.


I use purchased 120 rolls for medium format and sheet film for 4x5. I use bulk film for 35mm and load it into reusable canisters using a Lloyd daylight loader. Getting film from its box to the loader requires a dark-bag.

developing the Negatives

Ilford chemicals to develop film

This can be done in a kitchen or bathroom using a dark-bag. The only time darkness is required is getting the film from the roll/film holder into a light-tight developing tank. This even works for 4x5 sheets using the 'mod54' insert.

Four liquids are used in specific dilutions: developer, stop-bath, fixer and a rinsing agent. They are mixed in  plastic measuring jugs and brought down or up to temperature in a water bath (kitchen sink) using a thermometer. The stop-bath and fixer can be reused to save on cost and waste. 

Developing times and temperatures are determined based on the developer and film combinations used. See the massive development chart for suggestions. I use my smartphone as a developing timer.

After rinsing, film needs to be hanged to dry (i use wooden clothes pegs) and they are cut to length with a film cutter to fit into dedicated plastic binder sleeves


Using a 6D Mark ii and a lightbox to scan 35mm film

Darkroom printing requires a lot of extra equipment and a dark room. As much as I'd like to do this for fun someday, I currently use a hybrid method of shooting and developing film, but then scanning it and processing on a computer. A dedicated scanner can be used, but as I already have a digital camera, tripod and a macro lens, I simply place my film on a light box and take digital pictures of each frame. To make this process easier, I use the Canon's tethering software to use live view and remote shooting through my laptop. The images are high resolution RAW captures, and the resolution can be increased by stitching multiple images of different parts of the same negative.

Digital manipulation

Negative images can be inverted to positives using Lightroom or Photoshop (but not Adobe Camera Raw, the Photoshop Elements Organizer or Canon Digital Photo Professional, annoyingly).

A note on inverting photographs: I used to use Photoshop Elements for this task, but that means opening each image separately, inverting to a positive image, and saving the file (fortunately, saving can be done as a batch process). I have since started using Lightroom, and created a preset to invert a set of images automatically. This saves so much time it might be worth getting Lightroom for this reason alone.

With this hybrid approach, many digital techniques are now available: HDR, panoramas, spot/dust removal,dodging and burning, smoothing and sharpening, colour mapping, the list goes on.

The digital scans are effectively a backup of the physical negatives, which are stored in a folder and can be re-scanned with future technology at any time.

An image doesn't exist until it is printed, and I can easily send my scans to a print service or create a photo book.

In conclusion

There's a lot to think about when using film and developing at home, but it is not all that difficult and the process itself is part of the attraction of film photography.