How to develop color negatives in C-41, the easy way


From the train, Kershaw 120

One of the best reason to still shooting film is the ability to use negative color film. It has been perfected for decades, and now is at the vertex of its evolutive path. For this reason you can shoot on amazing films like Ektar – to name but one – that give you beautiful colors and extremely small grain.


The problem

Problem is: good labs, especially if you don’t happen to live in a very big city and / or don’t trust the postal service with your precious pictures, are getting few and expensive. It’s much more common to get back the films all scratched and full of dust, with someone even sending back the negatives uncut and just rolled up and locked with a wristband – yes, it happened to me!

The obvious choice at this point would be developing the films at home. But, unlike black and white developers that are pretty much easygoing in terms of temperatures involved, C-41 – the name of the chemical process used to develop color negative films – is quite tricky. In theory, it requires you to maintain a temperature of 38 °C / 100.4 °F ± 0.3 °C during the entire process. A 0.3 °C margin is restrictive enough, but the real problems here springs from the 38 °C temperature. It is a really difficult threshold to maintain. During most of the year the water you use for the processing and the stock chemicals will be both at a much lower temperature.

To have the bottles of chemicals and the tank reaching 38 °C you will have to immerse them in hot water in some kind of basin or tray – and they will tend to float. But how will you be able to stop the heating process exactly at 38 °C? And what will happen when the water in the basin will starting to cool down? Yeah, you can add more hot water, but let’s be honest: there is no way you can control the temperature in a ± 0.3 °C range without an expensive and bulky color processor. And no, an aquarium heater is not a viable alternative. In many forum I read about this suggestion, but guess what: even setting aside the fact that it would lack the necessary precision, the goal of an aquarium heater is to let the fishes survive – duh! – so it will not run hotter than 32° C / 89.6° F; as you can see not hot enough by a long shot.

Pino Collito

The solution

So what, we give up? No way! There is an alternative, and if you have read some previous post of mine you may start guessing what I’m referring to: stand development at room temperature.

Yes, exactly like a black and white film. And that is possible mostly because the first developer of a C-41 process is, in fact, just a plain black and white developer. It is the next phase, the bleach or bleach-fix in some kits (blix for friends and family) that will remove the metallic silver and, so to speak, make the colors appear.

I first read about this technique on Lomography and I’m using it with just a couple changes. The results I’m getting are just plain great, without the awful and unpredictable color shifts caused by the imperfect control of time-temperature when trying to develop the films by the book at 38 °C.


The instructions

So let’s cut to the chase; these are the steps you need to follow to develop color negatives at home:


VARIATION 2 baths (for example: Tetenal C-41 kit)

Pre-soak = 3m (no agitation)
Developer = 45m (1m continuous agitation at first)
1st wash = 3m (changing the water every 30s)
Blix = 60m (1m continuous agitation at first)
Final wash = Ilford-style
Stabilizer = 1m (no agitation)


VARIATION 3 baths (for example: Rollei C-41 kit)

Pre-soak = 3m (no agitation)
Developer = 45m (1m continuous agitation at first)
1st wash = 3m (changing the water every 30s)
Bleach = 60m (1m continuous agitation at first)
2nd wash = 3m (changing the water every 30s)
Fixer = 1m continuous agitation and then 10s every minute for the amount of time given in the instructions
Final wash = Ilford-style
Stabilizer = 1m (no agitation)


Keep in mind that if your tap water is way colder than room temperature, say 5 or more °C degrees, like it happens in winter at my place, you should bring it to more or less room temperature or, better still, around 20 °C / 68 °F. No need for precision, just use the mixer faucet!

Strada delle Vette, Pentax ME Super 40mm pancake


Just plain water. It swells the emulsion leaving it prepared to receive the developer and removes the anti-halo layer – this is why the water will come out of the tank with an heavy coloration.

1st wash
You could actually avoid this step, but it makes the blix last longer – and probably gives you better colors too, even though this is controversial.

This is simply a combination of bleach and fixer that some kit uses to combine two steps into one.

Blix & bleach
The times for blix and bleach can be extended up to 50% – with respect to the ones reported in the instruction booklets that come with every kit – without harm.

Ilford-style wash
It is an archival washing method devised by Ilford. Basically you fill the tank with water and turn it upside down 5 times, than you empty it. You repeat the process, but this time you turn it upside down 10 times, then you empty it. And for the last time you repeat the process, but turn the tank upside down 20 times before emptying it. That’s it; at this point you will have saved a ton of water – compared with the traditional 15′ wash – and your films will be still archival-quality clean. And yes, you can and should use it also when you process b/w films.

This step has three functions: it hardens the emulsion, disinfects it agains fungus and bacterial contamination, and lets the water flow away out the film surface without forming drops.


After all this just hang the films to dry in a clean room – the best possible place is in the shower, after you run hot water for a minute to clean the air from flying dust particles – and come back in an hour and a half or so. Your pictures will be ready to be cut in stripes and scanned!

How to get good colors from the scans will be the argument of the next post.