Choosing Black & White Films and Developers

 

Even today, as film is supposedly dying, there are a huge number of black and white films available to us. Many of them seem to be very similar; Kodak, for example, makes two 400 speed films (Tmax 400 and Tri-X). How do you decide what film to use, and how do you choose from the huge variety of black and white developers on the market, not to mention the hundreds of formulas you can make yourself?

On the Film Developing page, I have tested developing times for a lot of films, but I really only use a few films anymore. It is better to find one or two films that cover your needs and standardize on them. So how do you choose?

 

A cat climbing on a child's play house.

Kodak Tri-X 400 developed in Rodinal 1+50

 

Here's how I choose a film:

For street photography, portraits, and documentary work:

I mainly use 35mm 400 speed films, with Kodak Tmax 400 my favorite. Though slower films have finer grain, I don't bother with them in 35mm for several reasons.

I want to use 35mm cameras handheld. If I have to use a tripod, I might as well use a medium format camera, which gives far better quality than any 35mm can give. I like to use soft, overcast daylight. Where I live, that kind of light is too dim to use with 100 film handheld unless you use very wide apertures. A 400 film gives more freedom to choose the aperture I want to control depth of field.

I also use either Ilford Delta 3200 or Kodak Tmax p3200 in 35mm for night photography and indoor work by available light. These films are different than most. The box says "3200," but the real speed of these films is lower (around 1000).

The 3200 speed is achieved by push processing. Pushing is when you exposefilm at ahigher speed than its true speed, then extend the developing time to compensate. Pushing has disadvantages; it increases contrast and increases grain; and because extended developing affects the middle tones and light tones more than the dark tones, pushed film tends to have poor detail in dark tones. Delta 3200 and Tmax p3200 are designed to give normal tonality when pushed; if shot at their true speed they have low contrast. Pushing brings the contrast up to normal, so they give far better tonality than a 400 film pushed to 1600 or 3200 would give!

 

For landscapes and architectural work:

I mainly use slower films in 120 size. I usually use a tripod for landscape and architecture work, to get the highest sharpness, and slow films like Ilford FP-4 and Kodak Tmax 100 give the best resolution and grain. Recently, I have been using Ilford HP-5, developed in PMK, for much of my medium format work. I traded my Hasselblad for the much more handholdable Mamiya 6, so a faster film is nice for using the camera for handheld work. The combination of PMK developer and HP-5 gives incredible tonality and nice grain and sharpness.

If you do not have a medium format camera and want to get maximum image quality from 35mm film, these recommendations will work fine for the 35mm versions of these films. Use a tripod for highest sharpness, unless you're shooting in very bright light.

 

Sunflower plants on the edge of a field shrouded in heavy fog on a winter morning in rural Indiana.

Ilford FP4 Plus developed in PMK

 

Choosing a developer:

There are a huge number of black and white developers you can choose from. I've tested a lot of them and settled on four of them. The reason for so many is that some films work better with certain chemicals in my opinion, plus each developer gives different grain, speed, tonal rendering, and sharpness.

 

There Are No Magic Bullets!

Developers are subject to a lot of mythology and silly beliefs among photographers. Many constantly try different chemicals in the search for a 'magic bullet' that will improve their photographs, and they reject standard developers like D-76. The hard fact is that there is no magic bullet. Many of the world's greatest photographers used D-76, the world's most popular developer. I use it for most of my own work. Other developers CAN give a different tonal look, and are worth trying; but if you cannot get good results with a standard developer like D-76, you need to practice your photographic technique and processing technique. A different developer will not help you!

That said, here are my thoughts and recommendations on the four developers that I keep in my darkroom. D-76, Rodinal, and Tmax Developer are all very popular developers. PMK is something of a niche developer, and I don't recommend it to beginners because of its toxicity and its requirements for precise processing technique.

 

Kodak D-76 diluted 1+1:

D-76 is an old developer, introduced in 1927. It comes as a powder that you have to dissolve in hot water to make a stock solution that can be used straight from the jug or diluted 1+1. Its considered the the standard by many, and virtually all films made today work well with it. It gives good sharpness and grain and beautiful tonality. A good choice if you want a normal rendering. My favorite developer with Kodak Tri-X; it also works well for Tmax 100 and Tmax 400.

 

Rodinal diluted 1+50:

Rodinal was introduced in the 1880s, making it the oldest commercially produced photo chemical available today. It is a highly concentrated developer that is diluted in a great amount of water to use. Because of that, it is very inexpensive, though I don't think that should be a consideration as all developers are cheap on a per-roll cost basis. Rodinal can be developed between 1+25 and 1+100 but it gives the best results with most films at the 1+50 dilution.

Rodinal is a sharpness enhancing developer, but it gives more grain than usual. This increase is barely noticeable with slow films like Tmax 100 and Fuji Acros, but it gives higher speed films like Tri-X a gritty look that works well for some styles of work. Rodinal's tonal rendering is beautiful, with contrasty midtones and soft highlights when used on slow films, and a little bit harsher tonality with fast films that works well with the gritty grain these films give in Rodinal.

This is a great developer for Ilford Pan-F, Kodak Tmax 100 and Fuji Acros 100, where it gives high sharpness, beautiful tonality, and fine grain. I use it on ocassion for Tri-X, which produces a grittier look than you get with D-76 and Tri-X.

 

Kodak Tmax Developer:

This is a liquid developer designed to develop Tmax 3200 and for pushing 400 speed films. It works beautifully for those tasks and is the best developer that I have tested with Tmax 3200 and Ilford's Delta 3200. It is ok as a general purpose developer to replace D-76 for those who do not like messing with powdered chemicals, though it does not have as nice a tonal rendering as D-76. Grain is good though. Dilute 1+4 for 3200 films and 1+7 for 400 films.

 

PMK:

PMK is a modern developer based on Pyrogallol, a developing agent that was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is unique because it imparts a greenish-brown stain to the image that is proportional to the amount of exposure. So, highlight areas stain more than shadow areas. The stain makes up part of the image density, so it provides smoother gradation and better separation of values than an image made up of just silver.

The downside is that there is a speed loss of about a stop with most films, and the developer is finicky to work with. It requires a different agitation method than most developers, and it is more toxic.

I've been using it extensively for Ilford FP-4 and Ilford HP5, because of its unique tonal rendering, which gives an image that looks like you could almost reach into it. Worth the effort, but not really a good developer to learn with because of its quirks. It also works well with Ilford Pan-F, Kodak Tmax 100 and Tmax 400, and Fuji Acros 100.

 

Shopping carts buried in snow next to a big-box store.

Kodak Tri-X developed in D-76 1+1

 

I now use the following film and developer combinations for most of my work:

Click the names of the films to see examples of it in different developers. Since developer choice affects the effective speed of the film (see the film developing page), you should decide what developer you will use before you actually shoot the film.

 

35mm Films:

Kodak Tmax 400:

Tmax 400 is the world's sharpest and finest grained 400 speed B&W film. It gives better image quality than any 100 speed film, with the exception of Tmax 100. The tonality is beautiful developed in D-76 1+1 or Tmax Developer, though grain is much finer in D-76 1+1. I use Tmax 400 for 95% of my 35mm work.

Tmax 400 does require more precise developing technique and has less exposure lattitude than Tri-X, which may be a better choice for beginners to learn with; but if you are precise with your exposures and you can keep your developing times and temperatures precise, the image quality is magnificent.

 

Kodak Tri-X 400:

Tri-X is the world's most popular 400 speed B&W film. I used to use it a lot, but I prefer Tmax 400 now. The grain is not as fine as Tmax 400, but it gives a grittier look that many people like for documentary and street photo work. D-76 1+1 gives smooth tonality and finer grain, and is considered the traditional standard developer for Tri-X. Rodinal 1+50 gives sharper grain and a harsher, grittier tonality that works for some types of images.

Tri-X is a good film to learn with because it has more exposure lattitude then Tmax 400 and is more tolerant of imprecise developing technique.

 

Ilford Delta 3200 or Tmax 3200:

These are my lowlight 35mm films. I use them for night photography at carnivals, street photography in the evening and nighttme, and candid portraits indoors. There's really only one developer that I have gotten truly great results from: Tmax Developer. That developer was designed specifically for Tmax 3200, and it works beautifully for Ilford's 3200 film too. Ilford DDX and Kodak Xtol are also said to be excellent developers for these films, though I have not tried them. D-76 gives awful tonality and excessive grain with the 3200 films.

I used Tmax 3200 for many years, until Kodak discontinued it. I then used Ilford's Delta 3200. I've switched back to the Kodak film now that it is back in production, as I like its tonality a little better. Delta3200 is available in 120 size if you want to shoot it in a medium format camera.

 

120 Films:

Ilford FP-4:

This is an extremely fine grained film with beautiful tonality and fine detail resolution. I use it for landscapes and architectural work (abandoned buildings, mostly). It is gorgeous in PMK Pyro, and looks good in Rodinal 1+50 (with a grittier tonal look).

 

Fuji Acros 100:

This film has the same fine grain and high resolution as Tmax 100, but with the bonus of having virtually no reciprocity failure with long exposures. I have used it for exposures in very dim light as long as 5 minutes. I use it for interiors of abandoned buildings. At very long exposure times, it is actually a faster film than any of the 400 speed films (they lose speed in very dim light) and still has very fine grain. I don't like it as well for work in normal daylight conditions because it has rather flat midtone tonality compared to Tmax 100.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The knowledge that I am sharing took many years of study and practice to attain. If you find it valuable, please donate through my Paypal button below. My creative work is how I support myself and my son. Thank you!

 

 

 

©2021 Christopher Crawford

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