I was recently given a relatively new product made by Ilford, a one-time-use black-and-white film development chemical kit called the Simplicity Starter Pack. This kit comes with all the chemicals a shooter will need to develop two rolls of 35mm film, or one roll of 120 film. The chemicals are pre-measured, creating a system in which the shooter need only add water to develop their first rolls of film.
There are considerable barriers to entry for photographers looking to develop black-and-white film at home, especially for those new to the hobby. The process can seem complicated and daunting. This kit looks to eliminate some of those barriers. And it does eliminate some, even if it does so in an imperfect way.
What is it?
The Ilford Simplicity Starter Pack is a one-time-use kit for black-and-white film development. Inside the cardboard box are four small, plastic packets, each containing one necessary chemical for processing black-and-white film.
The first packet contains 60ml of film developer (Ilfosol 3), the second contains 30ml of stop-bath (Ilfostop), the third contains 100ml of fixer (Ilford Rapid Fixer), and the final packet holds 25ml of Ilfotol wetting agent. These quantities are deliberately measured so that the user need only pour the contents of each packet into a measuring vessel and then fill the remainder of the vessel up to 600ml. The ratios for each chemical will then be correct to ensure proper development. It should be noted that the last packet, the Ilfotol wetting agent, only requires two capfuls be poured into the final rinse of the development process.
The photographer follows the standard recipe for development (found on Ilford’s website or the Massive Dev Chart), and by the time all four packets are used, he or she has a freshly developed roll of film.
I’ve been developing black-and-white film for years, and I find the process to be simple, if a bit boring (a necessary chore, really). Putting myself in the imaginary headspace of a new shooter, I can see the Simplicity Starter Kit taking all of the guesswork out of the process. I don’t have to worry about developer-to-water ratios, or how much fixer to use. The pouches do the work for me. I empty them into a vessel and then fill the vessel to 600ml with water. I used it to develop a roll of Ilford FP4 and some Kodak T Max 100, and there’s no question that it developed these very well and streamlined the process.
But is it a good idea?
On the surface, the Ilford Simplicity Starter Pack is an interesting idea. It’s a convenient and seemingly low-cost kit for developing film at home that will likely encourage thousands of new shooters to develop their own film and, by extension, shoot more film. That’s good for the industry and the hobby, I suppose.
But when I really think about this product, I start to wonder. After using it myself and talking with the rest of the writers here at the site, I’m not sure it’s such a great idea.
To start, that’s a lot of packaging waste to develop two rolls of 35mm film. Ilford addressed this issue on their YouTube channel, acknowledging that the current packets aren’t the perfect choice for the environment. They’re non-recyclable, and that’s just kind of a bummer (though let’s be honest – both film and digital photography aren’t the most environmentally neutral pursuits).
Putting aside the concerns of chemical disposal and plastic waste, I’m still not sure I see the Simplicity Starter Pack being very useful beyond a few extremely limited situations. Let’s try to think of situations for which this kit is perfectly suited.
For someone who wants to shoot and develop their first black-and-white roll of film at home, I guess the kit makes sense. This hypothetical new shooter is at the camera shop when they decide to try black-and-white home development. They buy a couple rolls of HP5 Plus and a Simplicity Starter Kit, and by the end of the week they’ve shot and developed their first roll of black-and-white film.
Okay, that makes sense. But wait a second – this hypothetical purchase isn’t quite so simple. For that same new shooter to develop their first roll at home, they can’t just buy film and a Simplicity Starter Kit. They also need to buy a light-tight changing bag, a film leader retrieval tool, a Patterson two-reel development tank, a thermometer (if we’re being serious), and at least one 600ml measuring vessel (though Ilford suggests using three separate vessels). All of that gear constitutes much more of an investment than just the hypothetical film and an Ilford Simplicity Starter Kit.
Even if this perfect scenario does unfold the way I’ve imagined it, the Simplicity Kit is a product of limited value. After this first one-time purchase, that hypothetical ideal customer is essentially done buying the Simplicity Kit and will almost certainly either buy full-sized bottles of chemicals or never self-develop black-and-white film again.
Could the kit fulfill a need in an academic or classroom setting? I don’t think so. These places will have a stockpile of chemicals. Could it work for a one-day workshop, like, say, if Casual Photophile hosted a “Learn How to Develop Black-and-White Film With James” event? It could, but I think the hosts would rather buy development chemicals in larger quantities to cut down on waste.
Could it work for travelers who perhaps don’t want to travel back home with undeveloped film? I suppose. Shoot two rolls of film and develop on the road with the Simplicity Starter Kit, and avoid x-ray fogging (which has never happened to me through many years of traveling with film, for what it’s worth). But where are these chemicals going to be disposed of when backpacking on a mountain?
Could it work for shooters who only develop black-and-white film once in a while? Would an infrequent shooter like this rather have single-use packets of chemicals rather than large bottles? I guess so, though I question the thinking behind this. Even opened bottles of developer and fixer have a long shelf life – mine perform fine even eight months after opening. And unless we’re pouring the used chemicals down the bathroom sink, we’re still going to be storing open chemicals with the Ilford Simplicity kit (albeit used, rather than new).
And then there’s the issue of cost. At just over $17.00, the kit isn’t very economical (as should be expected). In comparison, a 500ml jug of Ilfosol 3 (the developer used in this kit) costs $9.95. One liter of Ilford Rapid Fixer costs the same $9.95. A jug of stop bath is $7.95. It’s arguable whether we even need a wetting agent (or stop bath for that matter). Fiscally speaking, we get eight times the amount of developing chemicals for five dollars more when we buy normal-sized chemicals.
The Simplicity series also offers pre-measured packets of each individual chemical in five-packs, but here again the economics are hard to justify. $18 gets you a five-pack of 60ml film developer packets. And then you’ll need fixer, stop bath, etc., which rockets the price up further. A full complement of Simplicity five-packs will bring our total cost up to about $55 for 300ml of liquids, where the normal 500ml bottles of the three chemicals will total $27.
That’s a lot more money for supposed convenience, and a lot more non-recyclable plastic waste compared with buying the normal-sized bottles of chemicals (which are recyclable).
The best and most useful products all have one thing in common – they fill a need and they solve a problem. I’m not sure the Ilford Simplicity Starter Kit does that, and if it does, it only does so while introducing new problems.
If the Ilford Simplicity Starter Kit gets people interested in shooting film who might otherwise not, that’s great. I love that. I also applaud Ilford for trying things that might help the hobby and industry reach more users. That’s what we need. But I can’t say with confidence that this kit is the right answer.