My opinions on Black and White developing

Anza-Borrego in IR

I've tried to research black and white developing as much as possible before starting in on it, ranging from the writings of Ansel Adams to modern notes from other folks. It turns out that there's a fairly small number of absolute, un-arguable facts:

Otherwise, there's a lot of different opinions. For example, how you prevent these things is a matter of opinion more than anything else. Sometimes, you'd be taught to do something specific to work around the properties of old materials and then the materials would improve but you were never told it wasn't necessary anymore.

Anyway, I don't claim to be an expert on the subject. I'm just recounting what my research has uncovered and what works for me.

Things that you should really do

Developing gear

It's probably more fun to not use gloves, to not bother keeping records, and to just do whatever. I'm sure you'll get some great results occasionally and some really crappy results occasionally.

However, it's probably better to:

Now, many of these things are the sort of thing that can creep up on you. For example, if you spend a bunch of time rooting around in the chemicals, you might be able to get away with it. Or you might discover that you've caused yourself to develop a Metol alergy or worse.

Similarly, if you are not keeping track of things, you won't know why a roll turned out bad or how to recreate an interesting accidental effect.

Spirals and tanks

Tank & Spirals

There are both metal and plastic tanks. Different people prefer different tanks.

In either case, you can't drop them. If you drop a metal tank, you risk bending it just enough to bring it out of alignment and make it no longer fit well together and feed properly. If you drop a plastic tank, you risk it shattering and getting chemicals and ruined film everywhere.

I suspect that the reason why different folks like different tank types is that you get used to what you are currently using. You'll know exactly how it feels when it's going in right, so any change, even a different brand, will be obnoxious. Plastic spirals don't load when wet. Metal spirals are trickier to get right, so you will likely have more screwed up rolls at the start.

Metal tanks and spirals are quite standard. They all take the same amount of liquid and any spiral will work in any tank. Plastic tanks are very brand specific.

I keep thinking of getting metal spirals and metal tanks, but I use plastic tanks because I'm cheap and this way I didn't have to buy separate 120 and 35mm spirals. I purchased one tank and was offloaded an identical tank by a friend, so now I have two. I generally just give the spirals enough time to air dry.

I got a changing bag, but I don't like it. Apparently there's a huge difference between a cheap changing bag and an expensive one and my cheap one accumulates moisture so that I end up with enough humidity to make the film not load right. So I just turn all the lights out in my apartment when I want to develop.

Temperature Control

You generally want to keep everything at the same temperature. In the old days, the hottest you could ever think about working was 68 degrees F (20 degrees C) but in more recent times, they've managed to get the temperature up to 100 degrees.

So usually I keep a bottle of tempered water at the same temperature as everything else around to do any washing and I leave all of the chemicals in a tub of water at the desired temperature for a bit before I develop. Developer temperature is the most important, but if you let the temperature change too far in the rest of your process, you risk ruining the film.

Lab glassware (or "Why I don't like my landlord dropping in unexepectedly")

Measuring implements

It is not a good thing at all to mix up the order of chemicals. If you put fixer in before developer, you have just ruined the roll and there's nothing you can do.

I decided that the best way to do things is to dedicate a graduated cylinder for a given task and write the task on the side with a marker. My developer cylinder also has tick marks for the capacity of my tanks. I have my raw chemicals stored in labeled, differently shaped bottles, so that I don't get them messed up.

I've got some other plastic measuring beakers for other measuring tasks, like 1+4 dillution of fixer and T-Max.


There's a lot of opinions about pre-wetting film. If you check the current set instructions that Kodak (Technical pub AJ-3, June 2005) and Ilford ("Processing your first Black & White film", October 2003) have published give you, you will find that a pre-wet is not mentioned.

From what I can tell, manufacturers started out recommending that you pre-wet the film, simply because the film emulsion technology was not nearly as well understood or controlled as it is now. So, for example, my 1943 copy of "How to make good pictures" by Kodak recommends a pre-wet.

Some of the manufacturers, if you ask, will say that modern films have incorporated wetting agents to ensure that the developer is taken up quickly evenly by the emulsion and that air bells will be prevented from forming. Rollei's ATP 1.1 film specifically tells you not to do a pre-wet. Efke IR820c specifically tells you to pre-wet film. With the notable exception of the Rollei film, nobody seems to be saying that a pre-wet will actually harm the film.

Ron Mowrey (an ex-Kodak engineer who braves the Internet forums to try and explain things from the perspective of somebody who has spent decades of research on it) suggests that, except for two part developers or high dilution developers, a pre-wet helps. His research shows that you don't need to adjust the developing time.

I generally give rolls 30-60 seconds, sometimes with two changes of water. Sometimes I've forgotten and nothing bad happened.

One note: If you pre-wet, you'll notice that the water from a pre-wet will be weird colors with some films. This is the anti-halation layer (to keep the light from bouncing around in the film) and is perfectly normal. If you don't pre-wet, the developer will usually neturalize most of the dyes and it'll wash out just fine anyway and won't hurt anything. You pre-wet for enhanced consistency, not because of any dyes in the film.


Developer Chemicals

Most of the steps for developing and options you can try are about the film turning out right. If you don't do them right, you'll get pinholes or mineral stains or blank film or the negatives will turn brown in a year or two. Which developer you use and how you use the developer can actually change how the image turns out, so this is of much interest to folks.

There is no "universal" "silver-bullet" developer. Manufacturers want to convince us there is, so they tell us that just about every developer gives fine grain, a little extra speed, and high accutance. Furthermore, I suspect that most folks probably wouldn't notice the difference between most developers most of the time. I'm annoyed because I'd much prefer that they say "Oh, this is a middle-of-the-road developer" or "This developer gives extra speed at the expense of grain".

I try only to use developers where I can see the difference between them.

A brief tour of developer formulations

In the earliest days, there were a bunch of fairly legacy "obsolete" formulations out there, with Rodinal being the most famous still available developer. They all have their own properties that are unique and special (so you aren't wrong to want use them) but they are also not optimal for your average photographer. They are sometimes said to have magical properties that don't necessarily happen in the real world.

The first big event in developer formulation was when Kodak cooked up the notion of an MQ developer in the twenties with D-76, where you have some metol and some hydroquinone and various added accessory chemicals like solvents, restrainers, and accelerators. (Yes, you have to accelerate and restrain the developer chemical at the same time...) This gave you a very consistent middle-of-the road developer that stored well and was easy to work with. You can tweak the formula in various directions to get slightly different properties. There's an absurd number of metol-hydroquinone developers.

However, at the same time, you could do no better than D-76. You could easily make a worse developer, but if you increased one property, you'd reduce another. So, for example, if you tried to make D-76 finer grained, it would have less true film speed so you'd have to overexpose to get the same results. So if you start comparing developer formulas, you'll realize how similar to D-76 they are, just adjusted to be still fairly close to optimum but maybe with a little more of one thing or the other.

Eventually, Ilford discovered that a family of chemicals called Phenidone (there's a few variants, with slightly different properties. Ilford had a patent, so Kodak made their own formulation) that worked well as a replacement for Metol. Later on, people started working with Ascorbates (chemical cousins of Vitamin C) to replace the Hydroquinone. Both of these advances allowed you to actually better D-76 and get a real improvement in all areas without compromise.

Now, there's one effect that's important to mention. Compensation. You could take a series of exposed sections of film and plot the level of darkness the film reaches against the light the sections of film were exposed to and generate an H+D plot. However, if you were to take some pictures of ordinary scenes and try to match the measured light against the level of darkness on the film, it won't necessarily match. See, developing doesn't happen instantly, it takes time to happen and chemicals need to circulate. So the developer may be locally exhausted and so it won't be quite as dark as it would be with a carefully generated H+D plot.

This is, of course, even harder to measure and often times difficult to control.

There's some oddball diversions in developer technologies. One of them is "Pyro" developers which use Pyrogallol or Pyrocatechin as a developing agent to create a "stain" in the negative. There are some positive attributes to pyro developers, but they tend to be a fringe developing technology and none of the main developer formulations contain pyro. The big highlight is that the stain that develops will add printing density, so it can reduce grain, and it will also add compensation.

Also, there are "Two part" developers, where you put the film in two separate chemical baths. The most popular instance of this is Diafine, where you can use it at whatever your room temperature happens to be and put the film in the A chemical for about 3 minutes, followed by putting it in the B chemical for about 3 minutes, and then washing and fixing. These are fairly dependent upon the exact properties of the film... so some films will work better than others... and pretty much eschew any sort of pushing or pulling.

Developers come in powder or liquid concentrate forms. There's really no better way to do things.. eventually you need to add the liquid back to a powder developer. Most liquid developers use something other than water (things like glycol or triethanolamine) to result in a more concentrated liquid, so they tend to be more compact.

My developer usage

I like Rodinal because it gives thick grain and high accutance, is cheap, and stores well. It is totally technologically obsolete and uses a chemical variant of Tylenol to develop the film (In fact, you can mix it yourself if you so desire). The thing about Rodinal is that it lasts for years with no problems.

I like HC-110 because it's middle-of-the-road, is cheap, and stores well. It's based on a Phenidone variant and Hydroquinone and is very expertly formulated to work as a super high dilution developer. It resists going bad fairly well, as long as you keep it in syrup form, although it doesn't have the sort of desirable properties that other Phenidone based developers have and doesn't really outperform D-76.

The thing is, I can really easily tell a difference between Rodinal and HC-110. This means, to me, that both are worth keeping around.

I'm trying out T-Max developer for a speed-enhancing developer. Apparently in the earliest days of T-Max film, it didn't have especially good shadow-holding properties, so they cooked up a developer that specifically enhances shadow detail. T-Max doesn't have that sort of troubles anymore, but the T-Max developer still works as an easily available liquid speed-enhancing developer. I was trying to decide between it and Ilford's DD-X. I ended up deciding that I'd be more likely to make it work with my remaining HIE stock without tests, given that Kodak's datasheet provides me with enough information to make sure that the contrast I get with T-Max is about the same as I'd get with HC-110.

The state of the art is XTOL, which is one of the most efficient developers. It's a speed enhancing developer that gives you fairly fine grain. However, it has poor working properties for the home lab. The smallest packet size they could make work gives you 5 gallons of developer and it'll go bad without warning, so I'm kinda not so keen on using it. And you can't make part of a powder packet; you have to make it all at once.

Liquid developers are generally packaged under nitrogen and sealed in such a way that they last on the shelves. Once you open them, you ruin that, so I decant fresh developer into small totally-filled brown glass bottles and open only one bottle at a time. This seems to keep them fresh so that I use them up before they die.

Both Rodinal and HC-110 are formulated to work at differing dilutions. I tend to prefer my grain to be crisp, so I tend to dilute HC-110 to reduce the solvent action. Both HC-110 and Rodinal also become compensating at high dilutions. I go back and forth. Sometimes I ask myself why I'm spending 20 minutes per roll and put more developer in. Sometime I dilute the heck out of the developer. But I do notice that the grain is crisper and less restrained when I do higher dilutions.

I did some experimentation with semi-stand Rodinal a while ago, but haven't been doing so lately.

Both Rodinal and HC-110 are sufficiently cheap that I use them one-shot. I don't really like the idea of replenished tank development because it increases the risk of developer failure or not-noticed-until-too-late developer exhaustion unless you also use test strips to keep track of things.

Agitation and stuff

If you just stick the film in the developer and leave it there, it won't look right. See, when the development reaction occurs, it puts off chemicals that as far as photography is concerned are called "Bromides". These bromides will inhibit further development and they will tend to descend in the tank, causing "Bromide Drag". On the other extreme, if you agitate too much, it'll start to destroy the emulsion.

So you have some level over the level of compensation of a film just by how much agitation you use. You may or may not notice this. Developers and film manufacturers all have their own recommendations, usually involving a certain number of inversions of the tank every 30 seconds or every minute.

Rodinal has, in theory, no bromide drag. So you can get away with letting it sit there on the film with no agitation, to get a lot of compensation. However, I'm not totally convinced, because I think I've seen bromide drag with it.

Also, you can get bubbles in the tank from all the liquids spinning and churning. If these attach to the film and stay there, development won't happen. These are called "Air bells". So every time you agitate the tank or change the chemicals, you usually want to rap it against something hard a few times.

Stop bath

Stop Bath

I found a study where somebody determined that they can't tell the difference between acid stop and water stop. In theory, you should get a smidge more compensation (so the shadows will be developed more than the highlights) if you use a water stop because the developer won't leave the film so quickly compared to an acid stop, where the developer will be neutralized rapidly. You can, in theory, control this by just leaving the film in the water without agitation for a few minutes.

Some film datasheets specifically recommend that you use a water, not an acid stop. And some modern alkaline fixers are pretty much incompatible with acid stops. On the other hand, for many fixer formulations, an acid stop may make the fixer last longer and reduce the risk of dichroic fog. And if you are doing short developer times, where 30 seconds starts to really matter, you probably need to stop development faster.

One of my friends offloaded some indicator stop on me, so I use it sometimes, generally with films from Kodak, Ilford, and Fuji and usually when I know I'll be juggling development of several rolls at the same time. The rest of the time, I just do 2 changes of water with constant agitation for 30 seconds.


I use a clipping of the leader in the fixer to determine fixing times. Basically you toss a piece of the same film that you are developing in the fixer and see how long it takes to clear... and then leave it in for twice that time. If you don't fix enough, the film will decay early. If you fix too much, the fixer will start to attack the image.

There are three parameters that basically describe a fixer: Standard or rapid, hardening or non-hardening, and smelly or odor-free.

I am currently using Ilford Rapid Fixer, which is a Rapid, non-hardening, smelly fixer.

Generally you want to use a rapid fixer because it won't take nearly as long. There's basically no benefit in using non-rapid fixer for any conventional film. Designer-grain films (so T-Max, Acros, Delta, and probably a few other examples) are especially harsh on the fixer, so it's much better to use a rapid fixer here so that you don't spend forever fixing.

Hardeners are a touchy subject. Apparently they made a lot of sense a long time ago when emulsions weren't always properly hardened. Nowadays, most films are quite well hardened, so a hardener isn't necessary most of the time. Furthermore, hardeners only effect what happens when the emulsion is wet. If the emulsion is dry, all the hardeners in the world aren't going to help you prevent it from getting scratched. Finally, hardeners make the emulsion need much more washing time. As a result, I use a non-hardening fixer.

The way I figure it, fixer is awfully cheap when reused, so I mix up fixer 1 liter at a time and then toss it a few rolls before the datasheet indicates it's spent or when the clip test at the beginning of the developing takes too long.


Washing stuff

I don't use any HCA or wash aids or things like that. I just use water. My water is sufficiently mineral-free that I just use tap water for all but the final rinse.

Ilford claims that if you use a non-hardening fixer, all you need to do is fill the tank with water, do five inversions, dump and fill it again, do ten inversions, dump and fill it again, and do twenty inversions. There's some debate about this. I've read a paper that suggests that you really need to be careful with this and shake out all of the parts of your tank before you fill it up again.

The chemistry involved is fairly subtle. For example, a small amount of residual fixer -- generally, enough so that it's below the archival standard but not zero -- makes film last longer. And, it's not just about fixer, either. It's also about residual developer compounds and wash aid, which will not be detected in a residual fixer test. And then on the other hand, the more you leave the film in the water, the more it's going to swell, until it starts to fall off the film. And all of this is directly related to how hard the emulsion is, how fast the water is changed, and how much agitation you use.

I've ended up deciding that it's better to wash it in flowing water for a few minutes while I clean, and then do the Ilford washing sequence.

For the final rinse, I use distilled water and photo-flo, mixed according to Kodak's recommendations, and that seems to result in perfectly clean negatives with no mineral drying marks, without needing me to use a squeegie or anything.

There's some subtle weird properties with certain modern films, mostly T-Max and Acros. See, both of them have a habit of putting off some sensitizing dye (not anti-halation dye) that's pink or purple after they come out of the fixer. And usually the fixer is tinted a little bit after using them. So I usually wash them until the dye stops being so evident in the water and they aren't visibly colored. Fixer that's just about expended is more likely to exhibit this.


When I started out, I'd get excited and pull it down as soon as it looked dry. This turned out to be a bad idea. It would be tacky and stick to things or would end up with particles of my gloves or dust embedded in it.

Now, I leave it hanging overnight in the bathroom with the fan on.

I put clips up top and at the bottom.

I also leave it in the sleeve with a little bit of weight atop it before I scan it, so that I can make sure it's maximally flattened.


I agonized about all of this for a long long time and read a bunch of books on the subject before I got up the nerve to order things and start developing. However, it's a great way to economize and you get a lot more control over things.

My approach is primarily oriented towards shooting film for digital scanning. Yes, this is a little weird and some might say that I'm ruining the "purity" of film, but I don't really care. This way, I get to do the ultimate in split-toning and split-grade papers. Because of this, I found that pulling doesn't really seem to help as much as I'd thought -- it's usually just as easy to pull in a low-contrast scan with normal development as it is to pull it. Also, it's working against the scanner, which generally works best to have most of the scene spread out across the sensor's range, not bunched up to fit on grade-2 paper.

Pushing is still useful, however, as you do get a bit more toe speed, plus it works with the scanner instead of against it.

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