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.

Introduction

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.