Choosing a B&W Film Developer

Contents
Introduction
Developers
Getting Started
The Usual Suspects
Great Resources
Have Fun!

Introduction

Choosing a black and white film developer is often a deeply personal decision, but not necessarily. Certain films and developers are meant to work together as designed by their manufacturers and if you stick to the formula, you can expect specific, consistent results. The fun really begins though, when you start to mix and match for various reasons. It's these combinations that attract an almost religious following. Certainly if you're just starting out you might want to stick with a flexible, trusted combination until you get more experience and start to not only experiment - but learn to appreciate the differences.

Developers

Most of the developers available today have been around for a long time and have changed very little if at all. The champion of longevity is Rodinal, which was patented in 1891 and is the oldest currently available photographic product. Others have come along over the years and because of their properties have become staples in modern photography. Kodak D-76 and HC-110 are great examples of this type. Finally, there are the newest formulas which take advantage of modern films such as T-MAX and include T-MAX and XTOL developers.

Why so many kinds of developers? Much like film of varying speed and grain characteristics, developers are no different. They vary primarily by the developing agent or type and how it operates on the silver crystals of your film. Some are of a solvent type, which tend to reduce grain by eating away at or rounding the corners of the grain. The downside is that some sharpness is lost. Other developers are of a non-solvent type which holds sharpness, but as a result tend to be grainier. Then you have variables such as how they're supplied (powder or liquid), if they can be mixed straight from the bottle or require an intermediary working solution, properties such as contrast and tonality, development times, etc. Bewildering, no doubt - but it's these options that allow us to express our creativity by accomplishing a particular look - or just getting the job done as simply and reliably as possible.

So why would you want to use non-conventional combinations? This is where it gets interesting. Usually the properties of film and developer are used together to exploit certain aspects and provide a specific "look" to your images. One example is in using high-speed films with a developer such as Rodinal. This makes for grainy, contrasty images that many love and even associate with film itself. Others prefer slower films and a developer such as XTOL to produce exceptionally fine-grained, sharp and smoothly-toned images. That's not to say you can't make huge prints from grainy negatives - just keep in mind that the grain as well as the image details are enlarged. As you get into more specialized combinations, there's little room for experimentation and must be used with only a few, specific formulas. Films like the old Kodak Technical Pan or Adox CMS 20 (its current equivalent) for example. These have specific developer requirements and work best that way.

Another variation seen amongst almost all developers is the ratio of stock to water, so-called dilutions or ratios. This allows you to fine-tune or exploit development times, contrast, sharpness and other variables. Here, HC-110 probably provides the most extensive possibilities, whereas Rodinal or XTOL only provide a few well-known dilutions. If you push or pull your film (exposing for other than their rated speed), changing dilutions is a great way to make for shorter or longer development times. It is generally preferred to keep development times short for convenience - but not so short that timing is overly critical. It's worth noting that Kodak does not recommend developing times shorter than five minutes. So if your particular combination requires sub-five minute times, you can use dilutions to control this. With the advantages that modern plumbing provide us, temperature is often easily controlled - but sometimes you're working under less than ideal conditions and must work with particular dilutions due to temperatures that you can reasonably attain. Though this is more extreme, such as when you're working in the field or in a hotel room.

Time is a variable that's critical in all development. You can either use manufacturer-provided dilutions and times for particular combinations or change them as necessary to account for push/pull processing, contrast and tonality or achieving a desired effect such as shadow and highlight control.

Getting Started

For people just getting started, there are some classic combos that are simple, versatile and well-proven. For example, Kodak Tri-X film and D-76 or HC-110 developer. They have a long history and are stable products, with a wealth of information available on the Internet and in print. It's best to leave more exotic combos for when you have perfected your skills in developing and can produce consistent, reliable results. Only then should you start to experiment - as mixing ratios, development times and methods start to change, might not be "officially recommended" or just not documented by manufacturers. Likewise, only then can you truly appreciate why you might try different combinations. We suggest starting with one developer - learn its nuances, how it works with your favorite films and refine your overall technique before trying another. This will keep the number of variables (and potential mistakes) to a minimum.

For beginners, a great developer is the aforementioned Kodak HC-110, Ilfotec HC or an Agfa Rodinal/R09 equivalent. They're all extremely easy to mix and enjoy a lengthy shelf life for infrequent shooters, especially because they can be mixed straight from the bottle. If you prefer faster films, you might want to think carefully about Rodinal though; while it provides high acutance, it does tend to exaggerate grain (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but keep it in mind). Kodak D-76 and Ilford ID-11 are also excellent choices, but require you to mix a working solution as an intermediary step first; this solution has a shorter shelf-life than the pure syrup - which is why they're not as ideal if you develop infrequently.

The Usual Suspects

Kodak

T-MAX (Compares to Ilfotec DD-X)
  • Designed for non-replenished systems
  • Produces enhanced shadow detail
  • For use with roll films only
  • For normal or push processing
  • Liquid
HC-110 (Compares to Ilfotec HC)
  • Extremely versatile
  • Can be used in both replenished and non-replenished systems
  • For normal or push processing
  • Liquid
D-76 (Compares to ID-11)
  • For general use
  • Yields full emulsion speed and good shadow detail with normal contrast
  • Moderately fine grain, excellent development latitude
  • Replenish with Replenisher D-76R
  • For normal or push processing
  • Powder
XTOL (Compares to Ilfotec DD-X)
  • Suitable for most professional black-and-white films
  • Ascorbic acid developer
  • Yields full emulsion speed
  • Fine grain and high sharpness
  • For normal and push processing
  • Can also be used to replenish working-strength developer
  • Powder
Microdol-X (Compares to Perceptol)
  • Discontinued

Ilford

ID-11 (Compares to D-76)
  • Fine grained negatives without a loss of emulsion speed
  • Powder
Ilfosol 3
  • Particularly suited to developing medium speed films
  • Fine grain and good sharpness with full film speed
  • Liquid
Ilfotec HC (Compares to HC-110)
  • Particularly suited for developing fast films
  • Short development times and maximum ease of use
  • High quality, sharp results with moderate grain
  • Liquid
Ilfotec DD-X (Compares to T-MAX and XTOL)
  • Fine grain developer which gives full or increased film speed
  • Full range of tones, with depth in the shadows, a smooth transition through the mid-tones and bright, detailed highlights
  • Liquid
Perceptol (Compares to Microdol-X)
  • Extra fine grain developer
  • Optimized for use with slow films
  • Powder

Agfa

Rodinal (R09)
  • The oldest, a classic developer
  • Fine grain and high acutance
  • Ideally suited for large format negatives or slow films
  • Can make for largish grain on faster films
  • Extremely long shelf life
  • No longer distributed as Agfa Rodinal (though still made in the same factory) - available re-branded as Foma Fomadon, Adox Adonal and Compard R09
  • Liquid

Great Resources

When you're developing your own film, there are two great resources available on the Internet that bear mentioning. The first is the Analog Photography Users Group (APUG) forum, which covers just about every aspect and detail of traditional (wet) media. Another one is the Massive Dev Chart which is a crowdsourced collection of developing "recipes" (especially developing times) covering a huge variety of films and developers. Another interesting resource is the FilmDev site, allowing you to match up photos posted to Flickr with their "recipes" for development.

Have Fun!

Remember, there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to photography - but one thing that's certain is that everything is a compromise of some sort. If you change one thing, you adjust another... But it's how you adjust that can make a huge difference in the end result. Developing is a critical step with film for obvious reasons, but because of the compromise nature of photography, you can achieve an absolutely bewildering array of looks. Don't be afraid to experiment; in fact, it's encouraged! Only this way can you figure out what combinations you like and work best for the type of photography you enjoy. Take notes along the way and above all, have fun!