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Wednesday, October 12

A Developing Interest

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...


Kevin Allan said...

Your comment about the price increase of the Firstcall dev, which I use, sent me looking on their website. They only seem to have the 500ml softpack available at £9.49 for 500ml, so the real price increase is closer to fourfould compared to (I think) £5 for the 1 litre bottle.

'Tis a shame. I have been entirely happy with the product.

Bruce Robbins said...

You have me at a disadvantage there, Kevin, as I don't have my bottle to hand and I couldn't swear to the size. You may well be right, though. However, I'm wondering if the new Firstcall stuff is double strength? I remember there was a Rollei RHS normal strength (the original Amaloco AM 74) and a super concentrate. Perhaps that accounts for part of the increase in price. Otherwise, a fourfold increase is a hell of a hike. I'll have to find out.

Juha H said...

I have stucked to use HC-110. Nice big bottle of syrup. It's do the trick to me when I want to use stand development (mostly for medium-format old cameras) and "10 ml dilutions". Mostly I use now HC-110 because it suits all most all and I try to keep only one developer which I know with my overexpose tecnik. Films I mostly use is tri-x and RPX.

But those sunny days and and acros 100 @50 with Acurol-N, those I remember brightly.

Richard Urmonas said...

You were very quick to dismiss Rodinal without trying it. Years ago I standardised on Rodinal because I could get it very cheaply, and it kept well so would survive a period of non-use (mainly during super hot summer weather when keeping solutions cool was a problem). I did extensive testing using Delta 3200 comparing to DDX. Most people would gasp, but after spending hours staring at grain patterns under microscopes I concluded that the grain in Rodinal 1:25 was only 5% larger than with DDX, and the overall image much more to my liking. Rodinal also did not lose the sub-grain level detail like "low grain" developers. You need to use 1:25 though.

Kodachromeguy said...

Bruce, I recommend distilled water for mixing any developer unless you have extra pure well water at your house. Most municipal water is chlorinated and may have softeners in it, as well. The stop bath and fixer are less critical, but for developer, I recommend you use distilled to be sure there are no odd reactions. Cheers,

John Carter said...

I've looked at the chart you started with for years. And my conclusion was and is: if you get your EI (ISO)(ASA) right they (developers) don't really make a difference that I care about. And, again, you said that same thing at the end for your post.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi Bruce - I liked using TMX 400 in Rodinal - it worked very well and I used a lot of it, from the point of view that it seems to last for ages and gives very decent results. It all depends what you are after really.
With regard to Pyrocat, well yes at the moment I like it very much. (from my experience so far) you'll only get EI 200 out of the film though and longer development times to boot. But where you've got vastly mixed scenes on the same roll it really does the trick.
I liked HC 110 too, but preferred its look with traditional non-t-grain films . . if you are looking for a cheap as chips go, why not get a small pack of D76 off ebay and see where it goes . . . I used to use a ton of D76 many many moons ago and it's versatile and gives great results.