The advice from experienced darkroom printers is that it is best to get to know well one film and developer combination rather than frequently chopping and changing between different ones. I agree with this advice but at some point, the time comes to extend options. This post discusses how I am doing this.


Getting to know one film/developer combination takes a good deal of effort. Personal speed tests, exploring various developer dilutions and agitation methods and matching the combination to a printing paper takes a lot of time and film. But it is time well-spent since I have found that a wide range of ‘looks’ can be teased from a particular film/developer combination.

For some time my default combination was Ilford HP5 coupled with Ilford ID-11. However the shelf life of ID-11 requires quite a bit of film through-put for it to be economical. So I switched to Rodinal which has a very long shelf-life. Differing dilutions of Rodinal together with different agitation methods give a wide range of expressions of tonality, accutance and grain. In very dilute solutions with minimal agitation Rodinal also acts in a compensatory way. Learning this has been more beneficial than switching film and developer types to achieve the same effects.

One thing I have learned is to ignore most of the advice, much of it conflicting, that you can read on internet photography forums. Of course some exceptions apply, but it seems that many people give advice without having had direct experience of what they talk about. Rather, I experiment and I study sources that I trust who I know have direct experience – other darkroom printers that I know and books by the likes of Barry Thornton, Eddie Ephraums and others where the results of film/developer combinations are shown.

There is no magic combination of film/developer that will give everything because some of the combination’s attributes are in opposition to others. For example, smoothness of tonality and grain can be in opposition, So too accutance and fine grain. Some developers, such as Ilford ID-11 and Kodak D76 are good all-rounders because they make acceptable compromises between these attributes. But at times I come across situations where these compromises do not give me the look I am seeking to achieve. Hence the need to expand my options.

Criteria for choosing

In arriving at my standard options I have thought about a number of criteria as follows:

  • Subject brightness range (SBR)- This often goes with subject matter. For example the SBR of an indoor still-life is likely to be less than the SBR of a landscape scene. Hence for landscapes, I will usually want some compensation.
  • Subject matter – for example for portraits I want sympathy to skin tones but not high accutance.
  • Cost – Film is getting quite expensive. So some regard to this is important. For 35mm, access to bulk-loading makes sense, especially if there is to be experimentation. Also the ability to make my own developer is important. It not only saves money but also I can amend the recipe to give a particular expression.
  • Ease – The development process must not be too fiddly and if possible be tolerant of minor fluctuations of temperature. I favour two-bath regimes for that reason.
  • Shelf-life – One of the reasons why I like Rodinal.
  • Safety – All developers are harmful, but some more so than others. I always use a gown, gloves and a respirator when mixing from powder. But safety is always a consideration.
  • Accessibilty of film, developers and chemicals in the UK
  • Finally, simplicity. I do not want a large range of film and developer combinations – too confusing, too many decisions.

Standard options

Below I have drawn a chart showing my standard positions. This is not to say that I will not depart from these, but there would need to be a specific reason for doing so.

Let’s start off with large format. Here I’m looking for smooth gradation but also sharpness. For smooth gradations I think traditional emulsions rather than t-grain ones give a better result. In this format grain is unlikely to be a problem. Here I favour HP5 in Rodinal (or Pyro for landscape). LF film is expensive, and I’m not yet convinced that HP5 in 4×5 and 5×7 gives any improvement over Fomapan. This is something I will need to investigate.

For medium format and 35mm work I’m using HP5, Tmax 400 or XP2 depending on the situation. For walk-about work, almost exclusively using 35mm cameras, I am unlikely to be metering a scene and I need a film that is very tolerant. XP2 fits the bill as I have a Jobo.

For landscape work, both medium format and 35mm, I really like what I have seen of Tmax 400 in Rodinal 1:50 or in Barry Thornton’s Two Bath developer to tame the subject brightness range. Occasionally I will use one of the pyros, Pyro-HD or 510 Pyro, but I don’t think they are suitable for all situations as some suggest.

For night work, I see no reason to depart from XP2.

For the rest, still life and portrait work, a combination of HP5 and a suitable dilution of Rodinal or HP5 with D-23 where some softness is required, give good options.

6 thoughts on “Film and developer combinations

  1. I am a degreed ex commercial photographer gone high school film teacher (after digital killed the field). I have been avidly shooting film since 1988. Can’t agree more with you on so many points in your article. The amount of people posting info, knowing relatively nothing about film photography is mind bending. It is like people think, hey let’s shoot some film and see what happens, come on along for the ride. But then they post nonsense later on as gospel as if they have exceptional knowledge. People often call me a film snob but it’s a science and I take it seriously. I subscribe to the Ansel Adams school of thought in many aspects. You might not find his subject matter your cup of tea (which is crazy) but he is undeniably the master of film. And his philosophy of photography is what literally helped photography come to light as a viable art form. So when I ask large format photographers if they shoot the zone system, and they respond that they use a modified version, the conversation can end there. People just don’t want to invest the time in seriously studying the information available to be the best shooter possible. People want everything fast… but it’s not digital, that’s the whole point. And how about the darkroom??? Why be so critical about development when it never makes it past a scan anyway. I can only give credence to those willing to actually print from their own negs. That’s why I laugh like hell when YouTubers sing the praises of kodak gold developed at home. I’m like, you never color printed a day in your life did you? When I worked in a pro lab, we would cringe when kodak c41 came in because it was always the battle of dialing out warm tones. Oh how I digress…lol. You are absolutely correct in praising the fact that the photographer should concentrate on a particular developer and not jump All over the place. Damn I miss edwal fg7 though. That was the best ever, hands down. As an avid large format (and zone) shooter, I will kindly disagree with the comparison between fomapan and I think you said Tri-x. I shoot plenty of foama because it is inexpensive for the classroom and even tried some LF sheet film, and I will say there is a huge difference. For large format I will pay up for the good stuff. It pays off in tonal range. I would strongly recommend Kentmere instead of foama. And if you want a good cheap LF film, try some Shanghai. They will cut whatever size you need. I found them when I was looking for 3 1/4x 4 1/4 film for my press camera. They were the only game in “town”. Seriously it comes over on the slow boat. Takes a month to get so plan accordingly. But in general, I figure if you are going to shoot big, and spending all that time shooting and developing, I say just pay up and shoot the best you can afford. Tri-x and Tmax are the most beautiful LF films of all time. In my opinion of course:) peace and great article. Keep it up!!! Sorry if I came off as a snob

    1. Thanks very much for reading my article. Not much that is good comes easily. It’s only by doing things (and getting them wrong) that we progress and break new ground.I look a lot up on social media, but almost never treat it as objective. Don’t know about Edwal FG7, but I couldn’t find a formula except that it uses P-benzoquinone. Agree about Adams.
      Kind regards

  2. Totally agree, about learning to use Rodinal and not film hopping. I never got into HP5 mind you as I shoot landscape and city stuff. I’m partial to Pan F when I want contrasty images and fine grain. FP4 is my usual, for tonality and flexibility. To be honest I’ve tried out other B&W films but I’m used too FP4 and PanF. I know what to expect. I did started to use Agfa APX 100 too which is PAN 100.

    I’m printing again in darkroom these days. Having good negatives well developed and exposed for is most of the battle. For me it’s all workflow until the final print. For me negatives and shooting film is collecting material to make artwork whatever the process is.

    I do like contact sheets to help plan what to create in the next darkroom session. I use to scan my negatives now I don’t. I’ve started scanning my final prints for Internet sharing etc..
    There’s just no joy in scanning negs but I do enjoy a good contact sheet and a loop before bedtime!

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