Judging by various forums on the web, many film photographers seem to obsess about things that don’t really matter. One never-ending debate is about which combination of film and developer is ‘best’.

I’ve learnt that as long as you capture sufficient shadow or highlight detail (depending on what you are trying to achieve) and that you know what compromises you are willing to make (there are always compromises), then many combinations will get to a printable picture. After all, the most important things are the subject, the light and the skill of printing. Not so much the chemistry.

I try to keep the combinations that I use down to a minimum for two reasons:

  1. Firstly, it’s important to control negative contrast through knowing your personal film times and knowing how to change film development times to suit the tonal range of an image. it is impractical to do this across many combinations, and if you multiply this up with the camera and lens options, the task becomes impossible
  2. Secondly, having fewer chemicals makes for a simpler process of ethical waste disposal.

My choice of combination is based on the following criteria:

  • Ease and cost of access to film and developer
  • Versatility of the developer in different dilutions
  • Keeping properties of the stock developer
  • Ability to dispose of chemicals safely

Ilford HP5 film is available in all the formats that I use (35mm, 120, 5×7), is made in the UK and not as expensive as Kodak. It is medium speed and produces acceptable results in many conditions. It can be pulled and, within limits, pushed. It is more tolerant to exposure or processing error than Tmax or Delta.

D-23 is a middle of the road developer that produces nice tonality and is easy to make . It can be used at different dilutions to control contrast and compensation. It can be used in a two bath divided development. It can be replenished, and hence can have a long shelf-life. It was good enough for Ansell Adams.

Rodinal has been a favourite but I have gone off it. At a dilution of 1:50 it produces nice pictures but it is very difficult to access Adox Rodinal in the UK, and Paranol isn’t the substitute that it is often made out to be. Furthermore, I made some Rodinal in the belief that a litre would last me many years. A few weeks ago I discovered the development time had increased from 15 minutes to nearer 30. So quite a bit of deterioration since I made the Rodinal about a year ago.

I have two other combinations that I use in particular circumstances:

  • Thornton 2-bath (metol version) with HP5 – however, this is not that different to divided d-23.
  • 510-Pyro or Pyrocat-HD for when extra acutance or stain-induced compensation is important.

Finally, a mention of safe disposal.

I choose metol-based developers (D-23, Thornton) and 510-Pyro or Pyrocat -HD because I know that I can dispose these safely by taking used developers to my local chemical bank for safe processing. 510-Pyro is said to oxidise quickly and at the concentrations it is used (1:100 to 1:300) it is possible that it isn’t that harmful. However I take used Potassium Dichromate (used in Bromoil work), Pyrocat-HD, used fixer and used selenium to the recycling and reprocessing chembank and so it makes sense for me to also include 510-Pyro on my monthly recycling trips.

Keeping things simple enables me to be consistent, to appreciate that self-imposed limitations can be liberating and to help in safe disposal.

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