The general advice on choosing a film/developer combination is to select just one (or two) and to stick to this until you have learned its subtleties. The snag is that I enjoy experimenting, so I find sticking to this advice difficult. However, aside from some specialist techniques like infrared or pinhole, I seem to have settled on a few combinations that I favour …
The combination I choose depends on subject matter, lighting conditions and photographic intentions.
The first decision revolves around how much time I have to compose a picture. Most of my work falls into two camps: fast candid street photography and slow rural scene work.
For street work I use 35mm format and my aim is get a picture with a balance of tonalities. I don’t get the time to take a meter reading and I can often be taking pictures into the sun or having to deal with a contrasty scene. So my preferred choice is Ilford XP2 Super (rated at EI200 if I do get time to meter). I develop the XP2 using a Jobo with C-41 chemicals. The XP2 does a great job in taming the highlights. I also like the fact that the grain is confined to the shadows.
In low light situations I prefer to use a film that pushes well. I don’t think you can beat Tri-X for that, but HP5 is my choice as I prefer to support my local manufacturer. In this situation I will underexpose the film by one or two stops and extend the processing by either 25% or 50%. My preferred developer for this situation is XTOL in a dilution of 1:3. XTOL is a speed enhancing developer and as it’s a solvent developer it helps to control grain size. I sometimes use HC110 but this developer does not enhance speed.
For rural scenic work I normally use 120 format, either my Hasselblad 503 or my favourite folder, the Mamiya-Six Automat. In this kind of work I have time to meter. I most often use HP5 and normally meter for shadow detail unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, like for example a snowy scene. All fairly standard. I rate HP5 at EI 320. I have not calibrated for this but it most often gets me in the right ball-park for printing purposes.
The developer that I couple with HP5 depends on the lighting conditions and the effect I am trying to achieve. If the contrast range is not high I tend to use Rodinal at 1:30. I love the clean look that it gives. If the grain is bothersome then a small amount of sodium sulphite will control this.
If the contrast range is high then I look to compensating development. Here I use Thornton Two Bath to tame the highlights or either PMK or PyrocatHD if I want adjacency effects. I prefer PyrocatHD using longer development and reduced agitation. PMK seems to need very vigorous agitation which I am not keen on given the nature of these particular chemicals. I will probably move my PyrocatHD reduced agitation to semi-stand as this seems to give beautiful results from what I have seen.
Here is an example of PyrocatHD reduced agitation:
So this is my normal set up. I have not tested these combinations against others. I am often sceptical of such tests that you see on the internet, as it’s very difficult to control all of the variables. I have simply found that these combinations work for me for the kind of photography that I do.