Since I started shooting film again, I’ve only shot black and white film. Usually either Ilford FP4+, Kodak Tri-X or Kodak TMAX. But when I first started to enquire about having it developed, I was confronted with some pretty ridiculous prices. £12 they wanted, just to develop a £4 roll of film. That’s when I decided to develop for myself and got my cost down to £0.25 per roll.
But why is it so expensive to have black and white film developed in a store when colour film is arguably more expensive for us to develop at home? That’s what’s discussed in this video from Nicolas Llasera as he talks about some of the reasons behind this seemingly strange price discrepancy.
I have to admit, it’s not something I really thought much about before. I only shot black and white after I went back to film alongside digital in 2012, so I didn’t even realise colour was so much cheaper. But according to Nicolas – and he makes a lot of sense – the main reason for the price difference, despite how cheap the chemicals are, is the logistics of having to develop somebody else’s black and white film.
With colour film, everything is pretty much a fixed standardised process and there are plenty of machines out there that have been in use for decades that automate the whole thing. You load up your canister into one end, push a button and it spits out your developed film and some prints at the other end. Every brand and every speed of film goes through an identical process and requires minimal input from the person operating the machine.
Although all black & white films use largely similar developing chemicals to each other, different speeds of film or different brands and types of the same speed film can have very different development requirements. And certain films will actually respond better to specific developing chemicals. This means that each roll essentially has to be done by hand, manually loaded, developed and monitored throughout the process.
If a lab has a hundred colour rolls to develop, they can just feed them through production line style. If a lab has a hundred black & white rolls to develop, it can potentially take several days to do them all manually, especially if they’re all different speeds and types of film that might need to be pushed or pulled in the developing. Even with multi-spool tanks to do several rolls at once, you can only match like films that have identical chemicals and timings.
With black and white, there’s much more time and labour going into the roll’s development, and that’s what you’re paying for.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Well, buy yourself a developing tank, a changing bag, some black & white developing chemicals and learn to do it yourself. At the prices I was quoted in 2012, I picked up all the bits I needed and enough chemicals to develop 100 rolls for what it would’ve cost me to have four developed at my local camera shop.
Personally, I prefer developing my own film. There’s no waiting (assuming I’m not procrastinating), it’s cheaper and I get absolute control over how it’s developed. I also have the freedom to experiment and try different developing techniques and unusual chemical combinations that you just can’t really have a lab do for you, just to see what happens.