One of the many enjoyable things about film photography is the uncertainty about some of the processes. I don't mean that in the current hipster fashion where those who aren't particularly on top of what they're doing when it comes to developing film have cock-ups that they sometimes find "interesting" and "creative" (sorry hipsters). It's more to do with the fact that some things, like developers, still carry a mystical air that prevents them being reduced to just numbers on a chart.
The best developer of them all? There's no single answer, is there. The range of available developers just isn't reducible to a single winner based on testable, scientific criteria. Well, it possibly is if everyone could agree on what those criteria should be but that's never going to happen. You want the finest grain? Maybe Xtol? Perceptol? Pyrocat HD? The obvious one I've probably just missed? What about push processing? Compensating? Edge effects? Ask ten photographers and you'll end up with a plurality of answers. And a good thing, too, I say!
As I mentioned a couple of posts back, I need to send off for some developer for the wee pile of films - mainly Tmax 400 - I have awaiting development. I still haven't come across my bottle of Firstcall Superfine - my staple for the last couple of years - after our house move. What do you mean your move was ten months ago? That's a mere blink of the eye in the history of the planet. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that it will be well past its sell by date if I do come across it. So I've spent a day or two ruminating about its possible replacement. What fun! We might have lost some film and paper over the years but we still have plenty of developers to think about - and that's not even counting the ones you can make yourself.
Before the research got underway, my plan had been quite simple: buy another bottle of the Firstcall dev, which had been about the cheapest on the market when I started using it. I've used up two bottles of the stuff - one Firstcall sent me to try out and the one I then bought myself. The negs it's produced have been excellent. It's an easy developer to use, semi-compensating with no quirks or surprises. The film dries in a very clean fashion with no nasty residues apparent. The grain seems to be (with the Tmax 400 that I've been using) on a par with D76 and that's one of the top developers recommended for that particular film. Sharpness seems to be of a high order and the tonality is nice, at least as far as the negs look as I haven't made any prints from this combination yet.
The problem? The price of the developer has almost doubled since I last bought it. It's now at a level where it has a lot of competition from the old faithfuls. So I thought it would be wise to check out its rivals to see if there were any performance gains to be made. I now refer the reader back to the first paragraph...
It's genuinely been enjoyable reading up on all the various developers and how well or otherwise they do with Tmax 400, in a way that choosing, for example, an SD card for a DSLR isn't. In the digital world, performance testing tells you what the best memory card is, those that are a bit below it and those at the bottom that will just about do a job. The decision then boils down to the amount of cash you want to spend. Not so with developers. Oh, no.
I've spent time on the forums reading up on the issue and I can't honestly say I'm any the wiser. What is it they say about opinions and belly buttons? Well, everyone certainly has an opinion about the best developer to use with Tmax 400. The problem, of course, is they can only speak about the developers they've personally used - and there aren't many people who have used them all. Some people even recommended Rodinal as the best brew for Tmax 400, for Pete's sake. Well, maybe if I wanted to negate the reasons for choosing Tmax 400 in the first place...
Xtol is a popular choice for US photographers but can only be bought in five litre amounts and can go off quite suddenly and with no warning colour change if it doesn't like your water quality. I reckon distilled or filtered water is a must with this developer just to be on the safe side. HC110 is also popular but doesn't seem to offer any advantages over D76/ID11. Perceptol is nice but you lose a stop. Ilford's DDX is another sometimes recommended but it's pricey. And on and on.
Which brings me to Pyrocat HD, the staining developer. I asked on the Film and Darkroom Users Group if there was any proof for the claims of some pyrocat users that it's the bee's knees. I got two good responses, one saying it is and the other saying it isn't. They both gave cogent reasons for their opinions. What I'd really like is to see prints from identical negatives, one done in pyrocat and the other in, say, Perceptol. That way there would be something concrete to compare.
Phil Rogers has been getting into Pyrocat HD over on his blog and is one who thinks it might have some special properties. Mind you, Phil sees special qualities in old Leica glass. (Don't go there - Ed) Me? Haven't a clue. Why would I when I haven't even tried the stuff yet - or DDX, or Xtol, or HC110. So what to do?
When I picked Tmax 400 as my film, I wanted something that was readily available, fast enough for handholding and with reasonably fine grain. I've decided that I'll restrict 35mm enlargements to around 6x9 inches on a sheet of 10x8. That's not going to stress the film too much so I don't think I need a 100 ISO emulsion for finer grain. I picked Firstcall Superfine as my developer for no other reason than that I had a free bottle to try. Yes, it's true what they say about we Scots. I remain of the belief that the differences between films of the same type and developers designed to do a similar job are so slight that they are likely to be swamped by inconsistencies in the photographer's working method. In other words, it's not as important to pick the very best as it is to get to know the materials you're using.
That's why, after getting a quick education on the merits and demerits of potential Tmax 400 developers, I'm going to stick with the Firstcall dev. There might be benefits from using another developer or there may not but they're not going to be of earth-shattering proportions. I did think of mixing up some D76 from the raw chemicals I have but I want to get the best out of the exposed film and it usually takes one or two rolls to gain confidence in a new combination. Plus, I don't know where the raw chemicals are either! Probably sitting somewhere in a box keeping my Firstcall developer company...