choosing negative developers

In one sense, choosing a negative developer is dead easy. Almost all developers do pretty much what they say they will. As long as you follow the instructions, you will get an image. And yet, it is also one of the most controversial and carefully studied subjects in all of photography, because getting a really good negative is another matter entirely.

Developer choice is certainly worthy of careful thought, but equally, you can get too excited about it. Finding the right developer-film combination for you is pretty much a matter of trial and error: what suits one person may not suit another. After this, getting the precise development regime right is a matter of refinement.

We would very strongly suggest that it is a better idea to get a good, workable development regime, even if you suspect it is not perfect, than to spend endless hours concentrating on development to the exclusion of all else.

Photography, after all, is about taking pictures, not testing developers. If from time to time you want to try some other film, developer or development regime, it makes perfect sense to do so, but unless you already have a standard against which to compare the new combination or regime -- which means having lots of pictures you have already taken -- it's all a bit pointless.

In this module, we look first at what we mean by a good negative; second, at what goes into a developer; and third, the different types of developer available. It is complemented by another paid-for module, negative development technique.

Barge museum, Faversham

Some film-developer combinations just 'sing', like this pairing of Paterson Acupan 200 and Paterson FX-50. If you use film and developer from the same manufacturer you can usually be reasonably sure that they will be well matched, for obvious reasons. With mix-and-match combinations, the results may be less predictable. Roger used a 50/1.5 Nokton with 2x yellow filter (B+W) on his Bessa R for this shot.

what is "good"?

We can all recognize a good print when we see one -- or at least, we can tell a better print from a worse print, which comes down to much the same thing. A good negative is therefore easily defined, albeit in a somewhat circular way, as one that enables you to make a good print, easily, on the paper grade of your choice.

All that really matters is comparing like with like, and what we like with what we like. Speed, grain, sharpness and resolution are easy to recognize and compare, and relatively easy to quantify, though different measuring techniques result in different sets of figures for grain and the acutance equation is alarmingly complicated. Even so, you can usually say which is finer grained, which is sharper, and which exhibits higher resolution if you place two prints of similar subjects side by side, one shot using one film or developer and the other using another.

Charger, vase, bud

A great advantage of larger formats is not having to worry anything like as much about grain and sharpness, because enlargement ratios are so much less for a given print size. All you need to worry about is tonality. This was shot on 56x72mm (nominal 6x7cm) Ilford HP5 Plus developed in Ilford DD-X. Roger used a Linhof roll-film back on a 4x5 inch Technikardan with 210/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-N

When you compare two prints you can also say which has the better tonality, but you cannot quantify it anything like as easily. In fact, it probably cannot be quantified at all. Terms like 'creamy' and 'gritty' and 'soot and whitewash' are bandied around. Mostly they are fairly comprehensible, but they are also more than a little subjective.

Tonality is the joker in the pack. Developers are fairly easy to categorize as 'speed increasing' or 'fine grain' or 'acutance' (high sharpness), and their performance in these areas with most films can be predicted with a fair degree of reliability, but with tonality, you can't predict anything. Any developer may deliver everything else it promises, but awful tonality. Or great tonality. You can't tell until you try it.


the importance of format

A good deal depends on format. Inevitably, for a given standard of photographic skill and similar qualities of cameras, lenses and materials, a big negative delivers better sharpness and tonality than a small one, and finer grain. It is really only fair to compare prints made from the same format when you are looking at print quality.

What is more, different formats impose different priorities, and so do different print sizes. The bigger the degree of enlargement, the greater the importance of fine grain and sharpness. The same photographer might therefore use a fine-grain or high-acutance developer with 35mm, but be a lot less worried about either with 6x7cm and not worried at all with 4x5 inch. And equally a photographer who made whole-plate enlargements from 6x7cm (6-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches, 165x216mm, just 3x) might have very different priorities from one who habitually enlarged to 20x16 inch (40x50cm, over 7x).



Candle and holder

This is from a 5x7 inch contact print, at which point grain and acutance are completely irrelevant -- but increasingly, we shoot this sort of picture on 56x72mm (6x7cm nominal) roll-film using a Linhof back and make just a 3x enlargement to 168x216mm, near enough the old whole-plate size (6½ x 8½ inches). With the right film this can be indistinguishable from a contact print. Gandolfi Variant, 210/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Sironar, Ilford Ortho Plus in Paterson Universal.

films, developers and papers

Some developers suit some films much better than others, and some papers suit some film-developer combinations much better than others. This is one of the more explicable reasons why one photographer can get excellent results from one particular film, developer or paper, or even from a film-developer combination, which offers nothing but sorrow to another. If a negative won't print on one kind of paper, try another. If it won't print well on anything, it's probably not a very good negative.

Before considering the range of film developers available, it is worth taking a look at the ingredients that go to make up a developer; at the relative advantages of liquid and powder developers (including home-compounded developers); and at the amount of developer you actually need to develop a film.

developer ingredients

The most basic developer you can compound consists of a developing agent and a preservative to prevent oxidation: Kodak D-23 is 7.5 gm/l metol and 100 gm/l sodium sulphite (anhydrous), both weight-for-volume (w/v), though the sodium sulphite also acts as an alkali and a silver solvent.

Most also contain an additional alkali (also known as an accelerator) to speed the action of the developing agent or agents: many developers contain two developing agents, and a few contain more. There may also be a weak silver solvent; a buffer to regulate the pH; a restrainer to reduce fog levels; and in a few very specialist developers, other ingredients as well.


The water used to compound developers is often taken for granted, but the best water is soft and free from dissolved oxygen. Distilled water, or water purified by reverse osmosis, is excellent: we use the water that is condensed from our dehumidifier. The risk from hard water is drying spots on the negatives; the risk from oxygenated water is oxidation of the developing agents. A very old trick, and one that remains useful today, is to make up all chemical solutions using boiled water that has been allowed to go cold. This will precipitate out a good deal of dissolved minerals and get rid of the vast majority of dissolved oxygen.



Well, Folklore Museum, Gozo

White-bearded ancients sometimes extol the benefits of well water, and describe how they used to get wonderful contact prints from negatives developed in pyro-soda. Of course the truth is that if you don't enlarge your negatives you can get away with virtually anything, including grit in the water. Frances shot this with a Contax RX and 35/2.8 Zeiss PC-Distagon. Film was Paterson Acupan 200 developed in Paterson FX39.


Once the developer has been compounded, take care to exclude as much air as possible. Decant into small bottles with no air space or use an inert gas such as Tetenal Protectan over the developer. This applies both to stock solutions made up from powders and to stock solutions bought as liquids. 'Concertina' bottles may be less use than they seem: some are made of plastics that are quite porous to oxygen.

developing agents

Development is the selective reduction of silver halides (see free glossary ) to metallic silver. Those halide crystals that have been struck by light develop faster than those that have not, and the results are in proportion to the exposure.

Innumerable chemicals can act as developing agents, but some differentiate far better than others between exposed and unexposed crystals. Those that differentiate poorly give high fog levels (that is, they develop too much of the unexposed halides) and give weak, thin images. On the other hand, others may give too much contrast, too quickly. The former, if they are any use at all, are described as 'soft working' developing agents; a developer that gives very little fog is known as 'clean working'.

Developing agents that are or have been more or less widely used include amidol, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and various ascorbates, chlorquinol, glycin, hydroquinone (quinol), Meritol, metol (Elon, genol), orthophenylene diamine, paraphenyline diamine, paraphenyline diamine hydrochloride, phenidone and related compounds (pyrazolines, pyrazolones, pyrazolidines), pyrogallic acid (pyro) and pyrocatechin.


St. Martin's, Noize

Here we have once again taken our own advice and used film and developer from the same manufacturer: Maco Cube 400c and a Maco developer. Roger used a KowaSIX with 85/2.8 standard lens. Printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

Each developing agent has its specific merits such as fine grain, clean working, different levels of contrast, longevity and economy, but there are countless ways of achieving identical or at least very similar effects via different combinations of chemicals. As a result, a relatively small number of combinations have achieved much greater popularity than the rest: they are easier to compound, or cheaper, or longer lived, or less toxic. Overwhelmingly the most popular developers are those based on metol and hydroquinone (metol-quinol or MQ) or phenidone-hydroquinone (PQ) though most modern PQ developers use phenidone derivatives that are less susceptible to hydrolysis (breakdown into inactive compounds in solution). Since the 1990s there has been a rise in the use of ascorbate-based developers, usually in association with other developing agents, but it is disputable whether these offer many real advantages over PQ or MQ.

At any time there are various 'cult' developers. Some appear to offer genuine advantages in return for their admitted disadvantages. The tonality of Pyro-Metol-Kodalk, PMK, for example, leads many to put up with its toxicity, though the claims that some make for fine grain are disputable and indeed are disputed below. Other cult developers seem to appeal more to those who believe that the more obscure and difficult something is, the better it is likely to be.

Superadditivity is the name given to the way in which, when two developing agents are used, both together are more active than would be expected merely by adding together their activities at the concentrations in use. The classic superadditive combination is metol-hydroquinone, where the mechanism appears to be twofold. First, the metol reduces the induction time (see the free glossary), and second, oxidation products of hydroquinone regenerate the metol. The same appears to happen with phenidone and hydroquinone.

Using more than two developing agents is viewed with widespread suspicion but a number of very successful formulae do exactly that: Geoffrey Crawley, for example, has a weakness for three agents. If anyone is scornful or dismissive of using three or more agents, rather than merely suspicious, they probably don't know what they are talking about.

The concentration of developing agents in a working solution may vary widely. A plain metol developer giving low contrast and fine grain may contain as little as 1.5 grams per litre, while Kodak D-19, an energetic high-contrast developer, contains 2.2g/l of metol plus 8.8 g/l of hydroquinone and Gevaert G-254, a powerful hydroquinone-only developer, contains 55g/l of hydroquinone. Phenidone is normally used at about one-tenth the concentrations of metol.


This stops the developing agent(s) oxidizing. The most usual preservative is sodium sulphite. As an anti-oxidant in a plain metol developer it need only be present in very small quantities, 10 g/l or less, though it is normally used at 25 g/l or more. At high concentrations it acts as a weak silver halide solvent: see below.


Private property


In the 1970s, when he shot this, Roger used either two-bath Leica developer or (as here) Kodak D-19, both of which he made up himself from raw chemicals. Both have extraordinarily good keeping properties; he recalls keeping stock solutions for a year or more in full stoppered bottles. This was shot on Ilford HP-5, before the Plus version, probably rated at EI 650 or 800. The camera was a Nikon F; the lens, a 21/4 'Mirror Up' Nikkor that was subsequently stolen in India.


The higher the pH (in lay terms, the more alkaline the developer), the more active most developing agents become. Sodium sulphite is a weak alkali and may be the only alkali in some low-energy developers.

The standard alkali is sodium carbonate; borax (sodium tetraborate) is also popular, and the least active. High-energy developers use sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) or potassium hydroxide. 'Kodalk' (what marketing genius thought that one up?) is a proprietary name for sodium metaborate which is less active than sodium sulphite and more active than borax. There are even organic alkalis such as triethanolamine.

Concentrations vary widely, but there must always be an excess in order to neutralize the hydrobromic acid that is formed when silver bromide is reduced to metallic silver. Sodium carbonate is normally used at between 10 and 50 g/l; sodium hydroxide at 12 to 25 g/l.


The idea of putting a silver halide solvent into a developer may sound eccentric, but it is common practice. It makes for fine grain, partially by encouraging physical development (the deposition of silver from the developer onto the developing image). Unexpectedly, silver solvents can also increase film speeds, apparently by uncovering development sites on the silver halide crystals.

Many fine-grain developers such as Kodak's immortal D-76 use 100 g/l of sulphite for its solvent effect, though other solvents include sodium chloride (common salt) and low concentrations of potassium thiocyanate or even sodium thiosulphate (hypo).



Door, Loches

As proof that you can get too excited about developers, we adduce this XP2 shot, commercially developed then printed (by Frances) on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. We do not believe that you could realistically expect a sharper-looking picture from 35mm. Roger used a Voigtländer Bessa-R2 and 90/3.5 Voigtlander Apo-Lanthar. For more about chromogenic developers, see below.


A buffer is the alkaline salt of a weak acid: most alkalis used as accelerators are of this type, and therefore act as buffers. In solution, the buffer dissociates into both an alkaline and an acid form to maintain a constant pH (alkalinity). When bromine is liberated into the bath it forms hydrobromic acid, which would lower the pH, but this is converted immediately into bromide by the alkali. This in turn would tend to lower the alkali concentration, thereby weakening the developer, but at the changed pH the buffer simply liberates more alkali and maintains the pH constant.

Maximum buffering (but low alkalinity) comes from a mixture of borax and boracic acid; sodium or potassium carbonate deliver more alkalinity; and the less often used combination of trisodium phosphate and disodium phosphate delivers low alkalinity and high buffering ability. Sodium metaborate (Kodalk) and trisodium phosphate have fairly high buffering ability and medium and high alkalinity respectively. Sodium sulphite alone and borax alone offer low alkalinity and a moderate buffering activity. Sodium and potassium hydroxides have no buffering action

A special case of a buffer is found in Kodak D76d, which contains extra borax plus boric acid, both at 8 g/l. On storage, the pH of unbuffered D76 cycles up and down between a pH of about 8.3 and about 9, enough to make a significant difference to contrast.


The dangers of fog have already been mentioned and some developers incorporate anti-foggants. The classic choice is potassium bromide at anything from 0.3 to 20 g/l, though you would only find 20 g/l in a very alkaline caustic-hydroquinone developer. Organic restrainers are also used: benzotriazole, 6-nitro-benzimidazole and 3:5-dichloro-2-amino-pyridine. These are used at very low concentrations, typically under 0.5g/l, as they rapidly depress emulsion speed.



It is possible to become overly exercised about fog. When Roger took up photography in 1966 -- shortly before meeting Dail, the first great love of his life -- he was given 800 feet of severely outdated Ilford FP3 that had been stored in a warehouse in Bermuda. Fog levels were impressive but you can always print through fog. The main drawbacks in this picture are a soft lens (a ratty 50/1.8 Super Takumar on a Pentax SV) and an almost complete unawareness of exposure, development and printing technique.

other ingredients

The other ingredients found in developers vary widely. Some concentrates use alcohol as a solvent to allow greater concentrations than would be possible with water alone. There may also be wetting agents, water softeners and even (in the long-gone physical developers) silver nitrate.

powder and liquid developers

From the point of view of function, neither liquid concentrates nor powdered developers are superior, but powder developers have two inherent advantages, both related to price. First they are (or can be) cheaper because you are not paying to ship water as well as the active ingredients, and second they are (or can be) cheaper because liquid developers often have to use more expensive ingredients, either to ensure adequate solubility or to avoid hydrolysis.

The inherent advantages of liquid developers, on the other hand, are convenience and freedom from dust. Developer dust can be a hazard both to health and to photographic materials, and it is unwise to mix powder-based developers in the darkroom.

Quite apart from this, there are many much-loved and very good developers that are available only in powder form; but then, there are also many much-loved and very good developers that are available only in liquid concentrate form. We prefer liquid developers on the grounds that with the exception of price, any slight advantage of a particular powder is slight indeed when compared with its nearest liquid equivalent.

compounding your own developers

This used to be quite common many years ago, and indeed a few photographers still do it. We still do it occasionally. But it is ever more difficult to get the raw chemicals; the cost advantage has all but disappeared in the vast majority of cases; and the objections to chemical dust that were raised above apply even more strongly when you are starting from scratch. Today, compounding your own developers is hardly a part of mainstream photography, at least in the sense of taking pictures; it comes very close to being a separate hobby.



Matthew 8:20


These Ilford HP5 shots, which Roger took in the 1970s with a Nikon F and 58/1.4 Nikkor, would have been developed in a home-compounded two-bath developer. When we tried mixing up the same developer in the late 1990s, it didn't seem to offer any great advantages over other, simpler developers when used with HP5 Plus (as it had by then become). These houses have now been rebuilt and gentrified.

quantities of developer needed

A fundamental misconception held by many photographers is that you need huge quantities of developer. Some use as much as a US gallon (near enough 4 litres) to develop half a dozen sheets or 4x5 inch film.

With the vast majority of developers, this is nonsense. You need a tablespoon or two of developer to develop the film. The rest is there only to wet it quickly and evenly.

If you doubt this, consider developing a 36-exposure roll of 35mm film in a small tank holding 225ml of developer. Use a two-bath developer. A typical formulation is 5g/l of metol and 100 g/l of anhydrous sodium sulphite in the first bath, and 6 g/l of anhydrous sodium sulphite and 15 g/l of anhydrous sodium carbonate in the second.

When the first bath is poured out, at most 25 ml remains behind, and much of this is wetting the tank rather than soaked into the film. This is 0.025 x 5 g of metol, or 0.125g. And that is enough developing agent to process the whole film.

With peel-apart Polaroid films, a teaspoon or two of chemicals develops and fixes a 4x5 inch image -- or in the case of Type 55 P/N, it processes two 4x5 inch images (one negative, one positive), equating to about half the area of a 35mm 36 exposure film.

Whitstable Harbour

All right, not a wildly exciting picture, but it makes the point about how little developer you need! Roger used a Toho FC-45A with 120/6.8 Schneider Angulon to shoot this Type 55 P/N picture.

The only reputable developer manufacturers that we know of who recommend minimum quantities of any of their developers are Kodak with Xtol, and we strongly suspect that this is an oxidation problem: we have never received any other satisfactory explanation.

developer types

At last we come to developer choice. It is important here to distinguish between measurable characteristics -- grain, speed, sharpness -- and personal preference. Most developers from reputable manufacturers do pretty much what they say they will when used with the films for which they are recommended. Unfortunately, many photographers have a genius for persuading themselves (and sometimes other people) that they can see things which defy logic or measurement.

Royal Pavilion, Brighton

Frances shot this on Ilford Pan F (before the days of Pan F Plus); it could be quite a tricky film to develop. As far as we recall -- and our memories may be at fault -- this was developed in Perceptol, which still further lowered the speed of the film to about ISO 40. We regard it as one of our most successful Pan F shots; the tonality is as reminiscent of India in the 19th century as the Indo-Saracenic architecture. You almost expect an ox-drawn lawnmower. Camera was a Nikon F or Nikkormat; lens was our 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor, then recently acquired.

The more shrill and emphatic anyone is in their praise of any single developer, the more suspicious you should be, and as soon as they say that no-one needs any developer other than their favourite, you know they are not worth listening to. If they were right, after all, everyone would agree on the same developer, and all others would vanish. Alternatively, those who used the one miracle developer would produce far better pictures than those who didn't. As this is clearly some way from the truth, there is little more to be said.

There is no point in listing individual brand-names of developer because the manufacturers themselves describe them fairly accurately, subject to the caveats listed below.

general purpose developers

The meaning of this has changed over the years. The old general-purpose developers such as pyro-soda were extremely coarse-grained and have been supplanted almost entirely by fine-grain general purpose developers, of which Kodak D-76 is one of the oldest and certainly the best known. To some extent its modern equivalent is Kodak Xtol, which some reckon has a slight edge over D-76 in all three desirable characteristics (good speed, fine grain and high sharpness), though others are less impressed.

Many people reckon that these developers give the best combination of speed, grain and sharpness but others prefer to sacrifice one or two of these in return for better performance in a specific area.

Most film manufacturers use general-purpose developers for ISO speed determinations. There used to be a standard ISO developer but when it became apparent that it flattered some films and gave an unfair account of others, the ISO rules were changed so that any developer could be used as long as the manufacturers stated which one.

speed increasing developers

These genuinely do give more ISO speed (free module) than general-purpose developers, but the penalty is bigger grain: you can't get something for nothing. Typically you get about 2/3 stop extra speed, so ISO 400 goes to ISO 650, but some films in some developers give as close to a full stop as makes no difference. Do not believe anyone who tells you that their developer gives you more speed without any increase in grain.

At least two films (Fomapan 200 and Paterson Acupan 200) use speed increasing developer to get the ISO 200 speed. In our tests, and those of many others, the true speed of this film is very close to that of Ilford FP4 Plus in most non-fine-grain developers, i.e. ISO 125 to 200.

True ISO speed increases are nothing to do with pushing, which is obtaining more toe speed by increasing development time, with the inevitable penalty of increased contrast.

If you want maximum ISO speed (or for that matter maximum pushing speed) remember that as stated above you will get a small toe speed increase at a given contrast from constant agitation.


State Bank of India, Dharamsala

Ilford DD-X is a speed increasing developer and does indeed give significantly larger grain than Ilford Perceptol, which we also use with Ilford HP5. Even so, we normally bother with Perceptol only when shooting 35mm; with 44x66mm on an Alpa 12 WA, as here, the extra grain size with DD-X rarely worries us. And with 35mm, we might as well shoot Paterson Acupan 200 at 200 in Paterson FX50 -- only about 1/3 stop slower than HP5 in Perceptol, and the Acupan is cheaper and finer grained while still delivering exquisite tonality. The lens was a 38/4.5 Zeiss Biogon. (Roger)

We have seen it asserted that if you want to push a film, you will do better to use a general-purpose developer and prolong development more. In the words of someone who knows far more about the subject than we do, it is hard to see the logic in this argument.

fine grain developers

Fine-grain developers are sometimes known as ultra-fine-grain developers, from the days when general-purpose developers gave very coarse grain and Kodak D-76 was regarded as a fine-grain developer. Today's fine grain developers do indeed give finer grain with the films for which they are recommended but they also deliver less speed: anything from 1/3 stop to a full stop, though rarely more. Perhaps surprisingly, they may not be especially sharp, either.

If you use these developers, try re-setting the meter a little slower until you get the tonality you like. Regard with great suspicion anyone who tells you that their developer gives extremely fine grain and full film speed, or (worse still) that it gives extremely fine grain and a speed increase.

acutance developers

Acutance is a mathematical measure of sharpness at an abrupt transition from light to dark. It can be artificially enhanced by using a weak developer and minimal agitation so that at the boundary, the edge of the dark area is slightly darker than it would otherwise be and the edge of the light area is slightly lighter. This is accomplished because of bromide build-up at the boundary on the heavily exposed side, some of which migrates to the little-exposed side, depressing the action of an already weak area of development. Simultaneously, the higher developer concentration on the little-exposed side means that some of the developer migrates to the more exposed side, boosting development till further.

It is not hard to see why you need weak developer (or there would be enough developer to continue to act on both sides) and minimal agitation (or fresh developer would wash away the bromide and resupply the little-exposed side).

The importance of acutance can however be overstated, and it is far more important with high degrees of enlargement than with more modest blow-ups. It is hard to see why anyone who is making contact prints from large format negatives should care at all about acutance, and quite honestly, sharp lenses and a sharp film often matter more with medium format than acutance.

Although acutance developers do indeed deliver better sharpness, they are rarely very fine-grained and speed is normal or a little above.


Vendage, La Buttiere

Paterson's FX-series, designed by Geoffrey Crawley, are probably the best-known acutance developers but we have to say that we use them for their tonality rather than for their acutance potential. Paterson Acupan 200 in Paterson FX39 delivers exquisite tonality at about ISO 160. We do however find it important to decant FX-series developers into small bottles to minimize oxidation and to keep a fairly close eye on expiry dates. Roger used a Voigtländer Bessa R2 with a 35/1.7 Ultron and a weak (2x) yellow filter from B+W for this shot.

compensating developers

A compensating developer works in somewhat the same way as an acutance developer: it exhausts in the heavily exposed areas, so that development there slows, resulting in an overall compression of the tonal range. This can be useful if you want detail in both the shadows and highlights but do not want to dodge or burn while printing (paid module). The penalty, inevitably, is some loss of differentiation in the mid tones, which is why many photographers (including ourselves) see no advantage in them for general use. On the other hand they are a useful shot to have in your locker if you cannot otherwise get tonality that you like with a particular film.

Compensating developers are normally weak and of feeble alkalinity and again, agitation must be kept to a minimum. One formula (from Glafkides) is 1 g/l metol, 3 g/l hydroquinone, 40 g/l sodium sulphite and 10 g/l of borax; this is roughly the equivalent of diluting Kodak D-76 1+1 but with ten times the borax levels, and even then, the compensating effect is modest. Indeed, some people have found no compensating effect at all when using Kodak D-76 at 1+1 and very little at 1+3. With most Paterson liquid concentrates, diluting 1+19 instead of 1+9 will give significant compensation.


Tug, Ramsgate Harbour

As hinted elsewhere, we had trouble with Fuji Acros when we first used it. We found it fine grained, yes, but slow (we are not the only ones to rate it at EI 64) and we didn't like the tonality. Also, the lower part of the tug is dodged quite heavily.

After trying a number of developers and development regimes we found that a compensating developer -- Paterson FX39 at 1+14 or even 1+19 instead of 1+9 -- gave us the best results.

If Acros were the only film we could get, I am sure that we could learn to extract excellent negatives from it, on a regular basis; many photographers do. But as it is not the only film we can get, and as there are others we find more congenial, we use other films instead. This is especially true in 120, where the very fine grain of Acros is much less important. Roger used his favourite Alpa combination for this: 38/4.5 Zeiss Biogon and 44x66mm back.

two-bath developers

These are variously praised for their compensating effect and for fine grain. The theory is simple. The first bath contains the developing agent and preservative. Used on its own it would be a slow, low-contrast developer delivering very fine grain. The second bath contains the alkali. The film is immersed in the first bath, where the gelatine soaks up the developer, then (obviously without an intermediate rinse) it is transferred to the second, where development is completed. Obviously, as there is no more developing agent being supplied, exhaustion in the highlights occurs first as the developer is used up.

Solution A of the classic Leica 2-bath is 5 g/l of metol and 100 g/l of anhydrous sodium sulphite, which is like weak Kodak D-23 (7.5 g/l metol and 100 g/l sulphite). Solution B is 6 g/l of anhydrous sodium sulphite and 15 g/l of anhydrous sodium carbonate. The time in bath A varies with the film -- 2 to 4 minutes at 18° C, 65° F, because it is a very old formula -- followed by 3 minutes in B.

They work, but most research has indicated that you can achieve exactly the same objective results via diluted developers, extended development times and reduced agitation. Whether the tonality is the same is harder to say.

Effectively a variation on the two-bath method is water-bath development. The film is either transferred to and fro between the developer and plain water, or just from the developer to water. Most modern authorities agree that while it may have suited the films of many decades ago, it is at best pointless today and may give rise to streaking and other problems.

staining developers

Some developing agents -- notably pyrogallol and pyrocatechin -- tan and stain the gelatine at the same time as they develop the silver. In theory, this should give you something for nothing: the stain has density, but no grain. In practice, the most popular staining developer, PMK (Pyro-Metol-Kodalk) is not a particularly fine-grained, because the silver grain that you do get isn't very fine: its real attraction is the tonality. PMK may also have some compensating effect: certainly, there are classic compensating developers based on pyrocatechin in the literature (Glafkides again).

chromogenic developers

Modern chromogenic developers can only be used with films that have dye precursors in the emulsion. A dye image develops in step with the silver image and in direct proportion to its density. When the image is fully developed, the silver is bleached out leaving only the dye image. The developing sequence is exactly the same as for C-41 colour negative films: a developer, followed by a bleach-fix.

Chromogenics are normally very fine grained for their speed, but not as sharp as conventional films. Furthermore, the finer the grain, the lower the sharpness. This apparent paradox is easily demonstrable and equally easily explained: more dye means finer grain but less sharpness. Kodak's films tend to be finer grained; Ilford's are sharper.



Young Tibetan monk, Chhauntra

Ilford's XP1 (on which this was taken in the early 1980s) was the first successful chromogenic film; an Agfa film was launched at the same time but was soon discontinued. Today's XP2 Super should really be called XP3; it is at least as different from XP2 as XP2 was from XP1. Roger used an M-series Leica with a 35/1.4 Summilux for this shot.

'taming' developers

These are essentially compensating developers for use with extremely fine grain films that were designed for microfilming and other non-pictorial purposes and which would be hopelessly contrasty in normal developers. Very dilute developers will usually work, but a popular 'lion tamer' is POTA (1.5 g/l Phenidone, 30 g/l sodium sulphite anhydrous). POTA comes from 'Photo-Optics Technical Area' at Fort Monmouth and was favoured for Kodak's now-extinct Technical Pan Film. There are numerous modifications of POTA , some with hydroquinone, some with pyrogallol, some with glycin, some with benzotriazole...

As far as we are concerned, these are all solutions to a self-imposed problem. Why try to make oversize enlargements from 35mm? They almost always look awful anyway. Make smaller, more sensible enlargements, or buy a bigger camera.


Reservoir, Malta

Infra-red films -- this is Maco's excellent IR 820c -- can be developed in most conventional developers but may be very sensitive to exposure and development regime. It is essential to test both the optimum exposure index (we go as low as EI 6 or even 3 with this film, and find that 3 as used here gives the sort of 'dripping with light' effect that is associated with Kodak's HIE) and the optimum development time. As usual, the manufacturers' recommended times and developers are the best starting point: this was developed for the recommended time in Maco Supergrain. Roger used an M-series Leica, 35/1.4 Summilux and visually opaque IR filter with a T50 of 715 nm.

the bottom line

As with film choice, so with developer choice. Common advice is to persist with a particular developer such as Kodak D76, even if it doesn't give you results that you particularly like: by fiddling about for long enough with dilutions, development times, temperatures and agitation, you should, say the proponents of this approach, be able to bend it to your will.

We believe they are completely wrong. Buy a small bottle or packet of any developer that you think should do what you want. Develop the first film. You should be able to see from the very first film whether it is unsuitable; workmanlike; or magical.

By all means lengthen or shorten development time for the second film, if you need more or less contrast. Change agitation regimes too, if you feel inclined. But if by the time you have finished that bottle of developer you are not getting the results that you want with the film of your choice, then try something else -- either another developer of the same general kind (Kodak Xtol instead of Kodak D76, for example) or a completely different kind of developer (fine grain, speed increasing, acutance, whatever).


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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks