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Sunday, June 25

What's gone wrong with Barry Thornton's two-bath?

The answer, of course, is that nothing has gone wrong with it but something seems to have gone wrong with me. I was a big proponent of Barry's tweaked two-bath years ago and produced negatives that seemed to fulfil the promise of well-controlled highlights, sharpness and fine grain.

Then, something must have changed as I stopped using it. We're talking probably 16-17 years ago so I can't quite remember what it was exactly that caused BT2 to fall out of favour but it seemed to have something to do with somewhat flat negatives. However, having used up the last of my D76 and with a few films to develop, I thought just the other week that I should use up my dwindling stock of photo chemicals and mix up some BT2 again.

With the lack of contrast thing nagging away at the back of my head, I exchanged a few emails with Phil Rogers, who also used to use it, and decided to go with his suggestion of upping the sodium metaborate in Bath B for some extra snap. Barry himself recommended this course of action. Bath A contains the developing agent metol and an anti-oxidant in the shape of sodium sulphite whilst Bath B provides the alkaline environment necessary for the developer to start working. The more alkaline the second bath then the more vigorous the development process.

Here was may recipe:

Bath A
Metol 6.5g
Sodium Sulphite 85g

Bath B
Sodium Metaborate 20g

That's the theory anyway but it didn't really work out for me in practise. You can see that I used 20g of sodium metaborate - a third more than the standard BT2 recipe calls for - but the negs still emerged looking on the flat side. Barry recommended 7g, 15g and 20g respectively for high, medium and low contrast scenes. I said to Phil that the negatives - a roll each of Tmax 400 and Tmax 100 -  just lacked "oomph" and he agreed that it was this lack of brilliance that persuaded him to stop using the dev as well and go to HC110 instead.

The raw chemicals I used were 20 years old but they're in powder form and looked exactly as they did when new. I'm not aware that raw metol is supposed to lose its potency over time or that any of the other ingredients would have been susceptible to ageing. So now I'm left wondering what's changed over the years with my photography. If BT2 was once OK but isn't any longer then it's maybe just a sign that I now have a tendency to photograph less contrasty scenes. That would fit in with my love of misty, dreich weather conditions. Perhaps a couple of decades ago I wasn't so fond of the old melancholy Celtic soul thing.

The negatives scanned quite well - as lower contrast ones usually do - and it was easy in Lightroom to set the black and white points and then fiddle with the contrast a little to oomphify them. I've posted some of them here - and, yes, they are all lowish contrast, quiet country scenes. It won't be quite so easy in the darkroom, however. They'll need grade 4 at least to get a decent print out of them.

I think it's fair to say now that I won't be mucking around with any more developer combinations if I can help it. There are differences to be seen between various types of dev but none are as great as the differences between different films. If you want fine grain just use a fine grain film and any standard fine grain dev such as D76 rather than trying to reduce the grain on, say HP5+, to something more to your liking.

With the BT2 unlikely to be used for anything other than night photography scenes (I'll do a wee test to see how that goes) I'm now back in my usual place of having no developer left. It's familiar territory for me as I never "stock up" on developer simply because it has a limited shelf life - at least in liquid form.

I've written about this before but the best negs I've produced over the years (from a tonal point of view) have been HP5+ in Perceptual 1+3, Adox CHS 100 II in Spur's HRX3 and Tmax 400 in Rollei RHS/Firstcall Superfine. Since I'm entirely happy with Tmax 400 (and Tmax 100 if I need it) and have a wee stash of the stuff then it looks like I'll be spending some cash with Firstcall Photographic.


Herman Sheephouse said...

It's a tough one isn't it Bruce, and always on unrepeatable negatives. I loved the tonality I got with BT but ultimately stopped using it because of that lack of contrast. I wonder though - did you follow his tip of adding a pinch of Sodium Sulphite and letting it dissolve prior to mixing the Metol into Bath A? He said the Metol oxidised without it - it could be that you know. Just a thought - I only remembered about it this morning.

Anyway aside from that - those are superbly quiet photos (I love them all) - you've not mentioned the camera and lens, and I can't find a mention of it in your emails, so come on what was it?

You should always have a bag of dry D76 or box of Ilford whatever handy!

Bruce Robbins said...

Yes, Phil, I remembered the pinch of sodium sulphite. I did wonder if the metaborate might have become less alkaline over time. Don't know if that's possible. The camera was a Contax 137MD and the lenses were the 28mm Distagon, 50mm Planar and the 100mm macro Yashica.. The top pic was with the wide angle and the wee groiup of trees was taken with the Yashica. The other two were with the Planar.

Herman Sheephouse said...

I think I remember reading on FADU that metaborate doesn't really loose its efficacy, so who knows what happened.

As for the lenses - wow - beautiful quality.

DavidM said...

Good morning,
Very nice to see you in harness again. May I make some comments?
Firstly, I agree that they are lovely quiet photographs and secondly I must say that I've never played with funny developers.
On my screen, they look a bit underexposed. Not quite enough detail in the shadows for me. I admit that this is a personal preference. Does the magic developer reduce film speed at all?
Then, if you examine the images, the tonal range overall is fine. There are bright lights on the backs of the sheep, for instance, and the shadows are dark. It's the mid-tones that are flat. As it seems to have been a flat day, it's probably a perfectly truthful rendering of the scenes. And of course, summer grass does photograph very flatly, as you will know. A few moments and a few tweaks in Curves would deal with this, of course, but in the darkroom I can foresee some interesting times. Multigrade paper might help, but this missive has gone on long enough.
Oh all right then... I'd print them pretty soft and light overall, and then give a short burst of number five to blacken the darkest bits of the shadows and improve the fine detail and texture, (plus any local dodging and burning that seemed sensible) but there are much more expert Multigrade printers than me.
Forgive me if I intrude too far.

marty said...

Hi, Bruce. I sympathize with you, been there done that... MY first and one successful roll in BT was a Delta 100 shot in very harsh and contrasty summertime light. Sharp negatives with beautiful delicate highlights and deep detailed shadows. After than that everything else came out grayish and flat, a grade four or higher as you envisage. I don't like printing at that high grade if I can avoid it, I feel it affects in a bad manner the tonality, but this is just my preference. I never came to understand what went wrong if anything did, that is. I've used the same raw chemicals for other formulas and they seemed to work just fine...My feeling is that BT is a developer that just works well to handle very high contrast scenes.The pinch of sulphite is a good tip, without it I noticed the solution takes instantly a very faint dark tinge when adding metol although I didn't notice a decrease in activity in the final solution. I stopped using BT in favor of more conventional developers although I keep it good for special cases that might require handling high contrast ranges.

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi David,
Constructive criticism is always welcome so have no fear on that score. The negatives aren't under-exposed - they have plenty of detail in the shadows. I processed them a little on the dark side in Lightroom since I think grey day shots look boring if the interpretation is too literal. But they are definitely flat in the mid tones as you say. If I have a go at printing them I'll try your suggested approach. I suppose I could also print for the midtones on a contrasty grade and burn and dodge either end but I'd really like to avoid too much complicated stuff as it can quickly become a time (and paper) sink. Unfortunately, I think flat mid tones are almost an inevitable consequence of shooting in drab weather. As you were suggesting, you can do just about anything to a file in software to get over that but, whether I'm right or wrong, I just don't see that as photography.

Alan C. said...

I first came across Thornton's 2 Bath Developer when I bought his book "Elements". I used it exclusively for several years, but like others here found it worked for high contrast lighting but gave flat negatives when the light was flat. At some point I discovered that his Bath A was very like a published Kodak film developer -D23 I think. This didn't square with Barry's comments that very little development took place in Bath A. So out of curiosity I tried developing a film just in Bath A. I think I gave it 8 minutes. I got printable negatives! This didn't square with Barry's advice to keep re-using Bath A for 10 films or more. Surely this would result in using a solution that was getting weaker and weaker. I wasn't happy, because I didn't understand what was going on, so I stopped using Thornton's 2 Bath.
Years later I came across several articles about 2 Bath developers, all with formulae somewhat like Thornton's. They all stressed that the time in Bath A controls negative contrast. 4 minutes might be ok for high contrast lighting but for flatter light the time in Bath A should be increased, apparently. None suggested re-usin Bath A over and over again. Use it once and discard it was the advice given. This actually makes it quite an expensive developer to use. I didn't try it again, having become happy enough with D76 at 1:2


Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Marty,
I think I'll do the same as you. It might come in handy for night scenes in particular.

Herman Sheephouse said...

I once made up some D23 - the negatives were flatter than a pancake under a steamroller (if that makes sense) - to paraphrase Nigel Tufnel - "None more grey!"

Bruce Robbins said...


You've got me thinking now. D23 is indeed like the BT2 A bath but with more sodium sulphite for a more alkaline environment. BT2 hasn't got enough sodium sulphite in it for the necessary developing environment (that's the theory anyway) so very little development is supposed to take place in bath A. BT2 calls for 85g of sodium sulphite and D23 100g. I know from my own experience that the density of my negs didn't change noticeably when I was developing multiple rolls in BT2 so the metol must manage to keep fresh in the 85g environment. Increasing the sodium sulphite to 100g is supposed to provide enough alkalinity. Now, since I still have a little metol and sodium sulphite left it would seem daft not to give D23 a go. :) It's something I've never considered before.

Bruce Robbins said...

I replied to Alan's comment before seeing yours. Back to square one then.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Well, that was just my experience Bruce - have a search around and see what happens.
Personally, were I to go for a developer that (whilst not giving full speed, but again that might have been a accident in mixing) allows for an incredibly broad tonal range, doesn't blow highlights and renders fine detail in a sort of BT-with-balls manner . . .Pyrocat-HD. Yes the development times are quite long, but, to be honest and for my purposes, it's as near a perfect developer as I have found. It was expensive to mix admittedly, but seems to be fairly long lasting so far and very economical.
But then again, good old Perceptol is damn fine too - no excuses for not having a box around, there's plenty on ebay.

Omar Özenir said...

Bruce, from first hand experience: bath A of BT2 can develop film to normal gamma, given enough time. Also, time, temperature and agitation in both baths does effect the result. Too little agitation in bath B gave me bromide streaks with 135mm Tmax400. I eventually thought two bath dev's to be too much fuss for no visible advantage. Went back to D76.

Keith Tapscott said...

Two-Bath devs by nature tend to yield flat negatives due to the compensation it provides. BT's formula is really just a minor modification of Ansel Adams formula.

The Leitz Two-Bath formula gives negatives with grain as fine as the above mention developers but with higher acutance.

Metol 5g
Sodium sulphite 100g
water to make 1 litre.

2nd Bath; sodium sulphite 6g
Sodium carbonate, anhydrous 15g
water to make 1 litre.

I gave up using two-bath developers a long time ago.

JimW said...

Mr. Thornton commented in "Elements" that changes in film structure led him to abandon the divided developer in favor of a couple of new formulae he developed. I have used a modified form of the divided developer to control contrast - standard D-23 with an afterbath of either borax or metaborate. I do reuse the D-23, but replenish it with the formula provided in Anchell's Darkroom Cookbook. Frankly, it's more trouble than it's worth. My standard developer is now D-23, either straight and replenished, or 1:1 as a one shot. As mentioned above, development does occur in the A bath of a divided developer and the time in that bath will determine the extent of development. Also, agitation variations will affect contrast - the more you agitate (the film, that is, not blog posters), the higher the contrast.

Anonymous said...

The problem as I remember from the late 90´s when I was testing divided developers is that tabular grain films and in general new emulsion films don´t work ok with this technique. They ended very flat that could work well for very contrasty images but not for normal or low contrast. With old Tri X and HP5 worked well, Plus X. I can´t find here in Buenos Aires old kind of thick emulsions, I wonder how would work this with Adox or other rich silver emulsions. The other reason I left to use this developers is that I develop occasionally and Is very difficult to know how will work solution A after one or two rolls used and left for three or four months, sometimes more. Is very impredecible.