Developing 4x5 sheet film with a Stearman Press SP-445 tank

Developing 4x5 sheet film with a Stearman Press SP-445 tank

Martin Wilmsen

Shooting sheet film may seem a bit challenging if you're new to it. But having to develop 4x5 sheet film was really intimidating. Or at least to me it was. In fact, I didn't start developing my own film until I bought a Cambo SC 4x5 studio camera. Shooting film isn't exactly cheap as I'm sure you'll know, but shooting sheet film is downright expensive. I knew that when I got into shooting large format, but I didn't realize that having 4x5 film developed by a lab would be that much more costly too. Sure, I should have figured that out before buying that Cambo in the first place, but shooting film isn't really about being rational is it ;) Anyway, buying my Cambo camera was the main reason I wanted to learn how to home develop film.

Cambo SC 4x5 camera
Phone pic of my Cambo SC 4x5

So, I watched a few YouTube videos, read a few blog posts and joined a few Facebook groups to try and figure out how to develop film in the first place, and secondly - what I needed to develop 4x5. Luckily, there is a lot of information on the subject out there. Just don't try to find a "best solution" because like with any other subject, there are as many opinions as there are people when it comes to what developer to choose, how to do it and so on. A friend told me that developing black and white film would be the way to start, and that a single step/monobath solution was really simple to use. So my choice of developer was Cinestill Df96. It's a ready made, single step solution for black and white film. Great for anyone starting out with home developing film. Based on relatively few reviews, the Stearman Press SP-445 developing tank for 4x5 sheets looked easy to use. Or at least easier than other solutions I came across. And so I ordered one from

Although this post isn't about how to shoot sheet film with a large format camera, it does explain how to load and unload your film holders - as this is obviously an essential part of the process of home developing your film.

Film choice

As for my first film, I decided to go for Ilford HP5 plus. I shot plenty of rolls (both 35mm and 120) HP5 already, and I was always kind of pleased with the results. I figured it would be best to go with something I knew already. I really do love the contrasty look you get with Kodak Tri-X, but although not exactly cheap, HP5 Plus sheet film is a bit more affordable. To give you an idea, Kodak Tri-X pan is currently 160 euro for a box of 50 sheets (calumet Amsterdam). By now I've shot other film too - such as Fomapan and Portra 160. I'll write about that later.

Loading the 4x5 holders

The camera seller included a dark bag and several film holders with the camera. As it turned out, one of the holders still had film in it. This was great because it gave me the opportunity to practice loading and unloading the film holders - and the SP-445 tank - in the light. Without having to sacrifice any new film. After getting a feel for it, I tried it a few times inside the darkbag - and it was actually simple to do. I didn't know back then as I was still sending everything to a lab, but I find it actually easier than putting 120 film on a reel.

What's in the box

Your sheet film comes in a double box and inside the box there's a light tight silver plastic bag (or pouch if you will). Inside that bag you'll generaly find two pieces of cardboard and your film sheets are sandwiched between those. The box is sealed and it's a good idea to cut the seals before putting the box into your darkbag. Without actually opening the box of course. Sheet film has cut out notches (see below photos) and it's best to keep the notches on the top right always. With these notches on the top right, you make sure that the area that you need to expose (i.e. the emulsion side) is on the correct side.

Ilford HP5 4x5 sheet film negative
Ilford HP5 4x5 negative

About the holder's dark slides

The film holders have dark slides. These slides usually have a white (sometimes silver) and black side. If the white/silver side is facing outward, this tells you that your film is unexposed. After taking your shot, you put the slide back in with the black side facing outward. Note that each holder takes two negatives, one on each side. Be careful with your holders. Squeezing the holders or putting something on top them may cause light to enter the holders, ruining your film.

Getting everything ready

Before putting your film and your holders in the darkbag, make sure the dark slides are in your holders with the white or silver side facing out. It's also a good idea to use a blower to remove any dust beforehand. When you load your holders, don't pull the slides out completely (see photo) as it will be difficult to get them back in without being able to see what you're doing. Just pull the slide out about half way towards yourself. You can of course do this before putting your holders in the bag.

Fidelity Elite 4x5 film holder
Fidelity Elite film holder with a practice sheet

In the dark, with the opening of the film holder at the top and the dark slide partially pulled out at the bottom, slide the negative all the way into the holder between its grooves. Be careful not to touch the film too much, hold the film by the edges. Then close the top lid (or flap) and push the dark slide all the way back in. It will go into the lid making it light-tight and preventing the lid from opening unintended. Then rotate your holder so that you can repeat the process for the other side. Finally, turn the small L shaped hooks. These will "lock" your holders, meaning that the dark slide can't come out.

Quick tip

To remind you how many sheets you've taken from the box and how many there are still left, it's a good idea to put a note with such info on your film box. If not, the only way to know how many sheets you have left is to put your box in a dark bag and to count the number of sheets by touch. Also, it's best to store your film in the fridge.

Marking your film box
Mark your film box

Loading the SP-445 tank with exposed film

Once you're done shooting, you need to repeat the process of loading your holders - but in reverse. Remove the top lid from the SP-445 and insert the tank and the lid into your dark bag, together with your holders. In the bag, remove the first holder from your SP-445. Then position your holder in front of you with the lid facing away from you (the part where you grip onto the dark slide towards you). Turn the L-shaped hook so that you pull out the dark slide, pull it out only half way. Open the top flap. There's a small indentation underneath the flap so that you can put a fingernail underneath the film to lift it up. You can see this round shaped indentation in the above photo of the Fidelity holder. I've found that it's much easier to get a hold of the film edge by turning the holder upside down. This will create a bit of space between the holder and the film.

Insert the film into the SP-445 holder
The SP-445 holder with film

With the SP-445 holder in one hand, pull out your film with the other hand and slide it into the SP-445 - between its grooves. When you slide the film into the tank holders, it's also a good idea to keep the notches on the top right, i.e. emulsion side facing out. Now you can remove the other sheet from your holder by turning it over and repeating the process. Finally insert the SP-445 holder into the tank and follow the same steps once more for your second holder. The SP-445 can take up to 4 sheets, but you can develop fewer sheets too of course.

When you're done, firmly put the top lid into the tank. You can't do it the wrong way around. As you can see in the photo, both the tank and the lid have an extruded part to tell you which way around the lid should go into the tank.

Sliding the SP-445 holder into the tank
Inserting the SP-445 holder back into the tank

Developing with Cinestill Df96

After shooting my first couple of sheets with a studio setup using Elinchrom strobes and a Skyport trigger, I decided to start with developing just two sheets - although the tank let's you develop 4 sheets at once. I was a bit worried I’d mess things up.

Cinestill Df96 - as my friend told me - is indeed very simple to use. I bought the liquid kit which is ready to use straight from the bottle. There's also a powder version available which you'll need to mix before use.

Use an app to track your steps

To keep track of time and which step to take next, I use an iPhone app called "Develop!". You can get it from the AppStore. It's easy to program different developing recipes and the app will tell you when to agitate, when to start rinsing and so on.

Chemicals and agitation

Warm up the developer to 27 celcius by putting your bottle into a tank that's filled with hot water. The temperature is important, so you will need a reliable thermometer. I'm using a long Paterson thermometer myself. When ready to go, remove both caps from the SP-445 and poor 475ml into the opening that's labeled "Fill/Drain". Then start your timer (see below) and screw the Fill/Drain cap on. Now gently squeeze the tank until the developer reaches the top. You can see this when you look into the opening that's labeled "Vent". These steps will prevent leakage when you invert the tank. Finally, screw on the second cap and start agitation. At 27 celcius you use constant agitation for 3 minutes and 15 seconds with fresh developer. Note that you need to add 15 seconds every time you reuse Df96. As a side note, I currently develop 35mm and 120 film with Df96 at 24 celcius with intermittent agitation. But for now I'm sticking to constant agitation with 4x5.


After the developer has been poured back into its bottle, rinse under running water for 5 minutes. I prefer to empty the tank completely several times as opposed to just letting it sit there under running water. Finally, I used Adoflo in distilled water for one minute. This last step helps the drying process and using distilled water instead of tap water helps against drying stains from scale in the water. You can buy bottles of distilled water in most supermarkets where I live.

Spearman Press SP-445
Pulling out the holders from the SP-445

The first time you pull your sheets out of the tank is a special moment. With so many uncertainties, I was stoked so see there was actually something on there. At the time I didn’t own the Mod54 drying rack, so I used the Kaiser film drying clips to attach the film to a cord for drying. This is not great because the negative edges are very small and those clips make holes in your negative. Since then, I've bought the Mod54 drying rack. Its clips are firm, even when holding onto only a small piece of the film edge - without leaving any marks on the exposed part.

Final thoughts

Once you have your film developed, get ready for the next challenge; how to get good scans. But to finish this post, the studio portrait below is one of the first photos that I took and developed. It was scanned directly on the glass of my Epson V850 which is why the scan isn't as sharp as it could be. Scanning 4x5 film is a subject for another post :)

Studio portrait of Danii on 4x5 Ilford HP5
Studio portrait of Danii on 4x5 Ilford HP5

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