Selecting A Film Developer

I know I drone on and on about this film stuff but I figured all of you digital only photographers out there could stand a little more. There are still a few of us out there that shoot both. You might remember my hyperbole a while ago when I called the Massive Development Chart "the most useless thing on the web". I did receive some hate mail about that from a few people that thought it was a great resource. We chatted via email and kissed and made up. They didn't have an issue with my meaning - they took issue with the big "H" word.

Anyhows - I thought I would share a couple of random thoughts on selecting a film developer for those out there that haven't settled in on one and only one. Heck I have been developing film for almost 30 years and I still try developers here and there - it's fun. Please take these thoughts as guidelines for your own thought process, not as absolutes. In the world of black and white processing and printing one man's pleasure is another man's poison and I have seen fantastic results for film of all shapes and sizes when it comes to almost every developer. That is why I will talk about characteristics that I observe along with things that are clearly aesthetic opinions. Your aesthetic may vary. As a reference point currently my "main" one and only developer is Pyrocat HD for all film formats - 35mm, medium format, and sheet film.

Let's cover consistency, convenience, and cost first to get those out of the way. Virtually every developer I have used is consistent when used "properly". Unfortunately properly may mean making a fresh stock solution and then a working solution. Any developer that I have used where the stock solution has completely different working characteristics - as in it doesn't work anymore inside of one week is off the table for me. D76 was a very nice developer but a pain to mix and you did have to abide by it's shelf life recommendations for the stock solution, believe it or not this is one of two powdered developer I used with good results for a long long time at 1+1 and 1+2 dilutions. XTOL was the other one - I wish this worked out for me but I could not take dealing with the mixing and the really fast drop off in activity from fine to pooped out in like 2 days. No way, plus it costs a lot.

Then there is TMAX, great stuff but too expensive since I do everything "one-shot". Okay that leaves us with Rodinal, HC110, and a bunch of "boutique" or mixed from scratch recipes developers. Yea there were others but not readily available in pre-internet days. Tried HC110 and really really wanted to like it - all of the factors were there cost/convenience/consistency - too bad to my eyes it looked like absolute dog doo. I really wanted it to be a lot like D76 but the characteristic curve influence that it had was not at all to my liking - in fact it was opposite. I might be able to live with that but in my opinion it produced the world's ugliest grain at all dilutions as well. I don't mind grain I do mind ugly grain.

On to Rodinal - okay this was the answer - at least for me for a long long long time. Flexible, consistent, cheap, convienient, sharp, A hair less film speed but really - who cares is a 1/3 of a stop really going to make or break you? Yea you could see the grain but it was pretty grain if your film had pretty grain. Too bad it got really hard to get - now it is actually easier to get a Rodinal substitute like R09. Back before the on-line days I lived in places where you could not find Rodinal to save your life and mail order was crappy - esp with Rodinal - ground shipping. What if I needed more.

After Rodinal I ventured into mixing PMK myself. It had a lot of the same things going for it that I liked about Rodinal. Sharp, sharp, sharp, nice grain, and…. fantastic highlight rendition. Even better than Rodinal at 1+100. So PMK was my mainstay for a long long time. Then I tried Pyrocat - same as PMK, except there were some films on my no-no list that reacted in a way I considered unusable with PMK. Pyrocat HD every film I have ever tried had great results. On top of that the premixed solution in glycol keeps LONGER than Rodinal by a wide margin. Did I mention cheap, sharp, great highlights, great grain, great looking grain?

Flexibility - what does that mean? Well I mean that a developer can do a lot of stuff and carry out a wide range of tasks when called on to do so. Like stand developing - like a huge range of effects and activity via dilution - like a lot of films behaving "like they should" in the same developer. That kind of stuff. I really don't relish the idea of keeping 90 different chemicals up to date and fresh, nor do I like doing 500,000 tests to figure it all out.

So for me and my recommendation for choosing a developer right here right now I would say:

  1. Pyrocat HD - great characteristics all around, cheap, convienient, flexible.
  2. Rodinal - same, same, same as Pyrocat but not keep quite as long and has a different rendition of highlight and grain. If you don't like Rodinal grain but you do like everything else about it try Pyrocat HD
  3. XTOL - Nice all the way around, good to great film speed, sharp, not quite as flexible as above but does everything well except stand development, not cheap, not at all convienient does not keep that well so your process must be really fresh all the time. Not quite as sharp as Pyrocat or Rodinal. But if you are up to it no less convienient than any other dry to stock solution to working solution developer.


Ps. The associated image with this post was shot yesterday on 9 year out of date Ilford Delta 100 developed in Pyrocat HD and scanned using my patented ShittyScan™ technique - the print looks great. This roll was a bunch of quick around the house shots to test and see if the other dozen rolls of this stuff were worth shooting or they were history. I really get a kick that it is still pretty good after being abused for 9 years.

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