Archive: Black & White Film Developing

Please see the previous article on printing, for context and an overview of the project I developed these techniques for.  As with that article, I’ve backdated this one to the time when I was still using this information. It was never my intention to use this blog for technical topics, or “how-to” articles. But as I’ve looked over my old notes, I realized there were piles of information, much of it based on original research and late-night trial and error. Maybe some of these formulas and techniques will be useful to someone. Or maybe they’ll just join the historical record or archaic processes.




I started my darkroom journey the way many young photographers do: by following whatever my mentors said, and then eventually straying. With this approach there’s often a missing sense of why to do something. This was especially true in the 1980s, which was late enough that darkroom work was already becoming old fashioned. The best sources on the topic, like the Ansel Adams books, were old enough to mention mostly obsolete materials. But it was also long before the internet, which fostered new cottage industries, along with online communities of anachronistic, outspoken, and often technically brilliant weirdos. Before this renaissance, we had to rely on trial and error. And lore.

My first mentor, the late David Swift, of Jackson, WY, turned me onto Agfapan 100 film. He said I’d love it. I adopted it with few questions, because I didn’t know the questions, and because it was different from the Kodak Tri-X everyone else was using. I liked that it was German, and seemed at least a bit esoteric. Sold. It turned out to be a very good film. It was a more modern, fine-grained film than Kodak’s equivalent (Plus-X), but still a traditional emulsion. The Big New Thing back then was Kodak T-Max, which promised to be revolutionary (new emulsion technology, crazy fine grain, crazy sharpness, much less reciprocity departure with long exposures, etc.). But the serious photographers around me regarded it with suspicion. I don’t remember exactly why. Just that they weren’t used to it, and they didn’t want to use it.

David advised me to develop Agfapan in HC-110, dilution-b, which I tried and thought was fine. HC-110 is a proprietary Kodak formula that’s been around since the 1960s, and is basically a black box. Unlike older developers, there’s no published version of the formula. I also don’t recall reading anything from Kodak on what’s in the stuff, what differentiates it, why you should buy it, etc. It’s the subject of much speculation and casual reverse engineering, but seems mostly enjoyed for its versatility and long shelf life. My college mentor, Charles Walters, suggested I switch to D-76. I forget why. This formula offers one concrete advantage: there’s a published recipe, so if you want to mess with it you have a starting point. This difference later proved important


Into the Wilderness


A couple of years after college, I moved from Colorado Springs to Providence, Rhode Island, where I leaned into the 1990s recession through a series of bottom-rung jobs in the service industry. I managed to scrape together a rudimentary home darkroom, which included basic stuff for roll and sheet film development and a nice enlarger. The closest running water was the bathroom; I had to fetch that with a bucket. Inspired by new abilities, and a visceral attraction to the crumbling urban landscape surrounding me, I was finally ready to get to work on a serious post-college project.

Over the ensuing months I produced some of the best work I’ve done. But more than occasionally, some of the negatives gave me grief. I most often ran into problems with the highlights. Despite good exposures and reasonable maximum densities, I’d get highlights that were very difficult to print. “Blocked up,” as they say. But not from overexposure or overdevelopment; in these cases I was fighting the film and developer’s characteristic curve. Essentially, the highlight values were packed too close together. If I’d had a densitometer*, I would have seen a curve with a long, very shallow shoulder. I also had occasional problems with streaking—lines of increased development along the edges of the negatives. These corresponded with the flow direction of developer in the tank (a Jobo tank used manually on a roller base).

By this time I’d gotten a copy of Steve Anchell’s Darkroom Cookbook—one of the first technical books written by and for a new generation of photo nerds. I devoured it, and instead of trying a different film or different off-the-shelf developer, decided to just tweak what I had. I liked everything but the highlights. Could I just fix those, without throwing out the baby with the bathwater?


Kodak D-76, published version


Water: 750 ml
Metol: 2 g
Sodium Sulfite, Anhydrous: 100 g
Hydroquinone: 5 g
Borax: 2 g
Water to make 1000 ml

What’s going on here? Hydroquinone and metol are developing agents; they actually do the work of reducing the silver salts (silver chloride, silver bromide, silver iodide) to metallic silver, in a standard redox reaction. Hydroquinone is the higher contrast of the two.** Borax is the “accelerator,” which is photo-speak for base or alkali. Developing agents need an alkaline environment; the stronger the alkali, the more active the developer. Sodium sulfite is a preservative that keeps the developing agents from oxidizing prematurely. But at 10%, this is way, way more sulfite than you need for this purpose. Here it’s also being used as a solvent, to eat away at the edges of the silver grains as they’re being reduced to metallic silver. This is part of a process that reduces the appearance of grain (and may also reduce the appearance of sharp detail). This high concentration of sulfite makes it a solvent developer. Sulfite influences development in other ways that are beyond our scope here.

Why does D-76 cause blocked highlights on Agfapan 100? I don’t know. I’m an artist, not a chemist. I just tried messing one at a time with every variable. I never made such a big change as to break everything. In fact, I was able to continue doing my work without interruption while conducting these experiments. It took 12 trials to arrive at the following:


Glycin-Phenidone-Hydroquinone Developer (Raphaelson GPQ)

Water 750 ml
Sodium Sulfite 100 g
Borax 4 g
Hydroquinone 1 g
Phenidone 0.1 g
Glycin 3 g
Boric Acid 3 g
Potassium Bromide 0.5 g
Water to Make 1000 ml

My notes: “This developer was created for slow, thin-emulsion films like Agfa Pan 100. It should be used with medium to short developing times (7 minutes).Large changes in activity should be induced through changes in borax level, not time changes. Can be diluted 1:1 for greater softness/more compensation (N- contractions). Results will be similar to D-76, except for the following–slightly more highlight compensation, more evenness, slightly finer grain.”

You can see that the basic template is still D-76. The modifications: phenidone replaces metol (it’s less toxic and has a longer shelf life. At 1/10 the quantity you can expect similar activity). Hydroquinone is reduced 80% and supplemented with glycin (I’d been using a glycin paper developer and grew to love its qualities. It also has a reputation for being the most even-acting, streak-free developing agent). Potassium bromide is added (a restrainer that reduces fog, especially with very active developers). Instead of straight borax, a borax-boric acid buffering system (this allows you to separately control the pH and the total amount of titratable alkali available for the reaction. You can have moderately low activity, for example, but never worry about the accelerator being depleted).

I used this for a little while with good results. But the process made me restless, maybe even a bit cocky: I had toyed with the very building blocks of the universe—as Homer Simpson said, “now I know exactly how God feels!”

So what other dark mysteries would submit to the skeleton keys of my potions and dirty apron? That was easy: T-Max. The film that was supposed to be objectively better in every way, but that according to my friends and mentors, no one really liked. So I got a box of 100 sheets and started testing. This was a tougher project. The film really did seem to respond differently from what I was used to. But lessons learned during the previous experiments were useful. This time using GPQ as a starting point, after 13 trials I arrived at the following:


Glycin-Phenidone-Hydroquinone Liquid Concentrate Developer for T-MAX 100
(Raphaelson GPQ–T)

Distilled Water (55°C) 600 ml
Sodium Sulfite 50 g
Sodium Carbonate 26 g
Diethylene Glycol 100 ml
Hydroquinone 20 g
Phenidone 2 g
Glycin 30 g
Distilled Water to Make 1000 ml

(Dilute 1:9 for normal development,
1:14 for N– development)

My Notes: “Dissolve in order shown. Filter after cooling (to remove any insoluble crap). The solution is almost saturated with glycin at room temperature, so this agent precipitates out in cool weather. The amount of chemical lost to this is inconsequential. There are also, often, some insoluble impurities in the glycin that filtration removes ). Stock solution color will vary depending on nature of glycin, but if it’s a dark brown, the glycin was probably too old and oxidized. Working solution will range from almost clear to the color of white wine). Store in an amber glass bottle. Shake gently and dilute immediately before use.

“Use short (5 minute) development time. Compared with D-76 will give more highlight separation, more evenness, somewhat greater sharpness, and finer grain. Using 1:14 (40 ml / 600 ml) at normal time will increase compensation and give N–1 contrast compression, with no noticeable speed loss. For N–2, dilute 1:19 (30 ml / 600 ml) and add 1/2 stop exposure. For N+, either increase developing time (6.5 minutes), normal time with selenium intensification (unaltered curve shape, no speed increase) or increase concentration to 1:6 (85 ml / 600 ml) and keep normal time (brilliant results—greater highlight separation, but more risk of blocked values).”

Almost everything’s different in this formula except the developing agents. Quantities are all higher, because it’s a liquid concentrate that dilutes 1:9 for normal development. This is necessary, because I dropped the sodium sulfite in the working solution from 100g/L to 5g /L. This is too low to function as a preservative for longterm storage. The idea is that there’s no need for its solvent action on this naturally micro-grained emulsion. The 2.6g/L sodium carbonate is much stronger than the borax/boric acid blend in the old version. My experiments showed that T-max likes very fast, very active development. If I could achieve optimal contrast in just 5 minutes of development (continuous agitation), this gave the film the finest grain, the most shadow detail, and a very long straight-line curve up into the highlights. Most of my trials involved tweaking the carbonate to give the correct contrast with 5 minutes development***. There’s no restrainer (potassium bromide) because it’s not needed. Fog is extremely low. Diethylene glycol is a solvent, necessary to achieve a 3% solution of glycin in water. Thanks to a scientist at Sprint Systems for advising me on this over the phone.

This was the endgame for me. No more need to monkey around with formulas. For the next many years I could just concentrate on getting my work done.

Pile of papers scribbled with experiment notes


A Couple More Potions


Presoak Additive

Water 70 ml
Sodium Metaborate 30 g
Water to make 100 ml

The is a 30% solution of metaborate. Adding roughly 3 ml per liter of presoak water will turn the presoak weakly alkaline–it will cause the emulstion to swell, allowing for faster and more even diffusion of developer into the emulsion. The result will be greater evenness with sheet film. This is helpful especially with short development times like what I’m recommending with T-max.


Intensifying Hypoclear (N+ Treatment)

Rapid Selenium Toner 110 ml
Hypo Clear Stock 180 ml
Water to make 1.0 l
(1:8 Selenium/Hypo Clear)

This is my preferred method for increasing contrast for N+ development. For N-, I like to increase developer dilution and maintain the development time. For N+, I’d rather not increase either the concentration of the time. Boosting contrast with selenium toner does not affect grain or the shape of the tonal scale. It will likely also improve the negative’s archival permanence.

After fixing, rinse negatives for 5 minutes. Then agitate in intensifying hypoclear for 5 minutes (this will achieve maximum intensification). Then wash for 5–10 minutes.
• Capacity: 40 4×5 sheets/Liter
• Stain on bottle from anti-halation dye comes off with bleach.


Why Bother?


Seriously, why not just use one of the near-infinite off-the-shelf formulas? A reasonable question. Maybe I just inherited the can’t-leave-well-enough-alone gene. I also enjoyed the added intimacy I felt with whole process, after having explored literally every ingredient, and arriving at something unique. This approach also offered the advantage of letting my work continue without interruption, because with the exception of switching film stocks, I only made one incremental change at a time.

Whether or not this process (or my formula) appeals to you, I will make a case for using a published developer rather than something proprietary. Whoever makes your favorite secret commercial formula WILL change it someday. They may discontinue it. They may new-and-improve it. And if they do, they may lie to you and say your results will be the same. The company may be bought, split up, dissolved. Your heart will be broken, and your work disrupted. This is the whole history of the medium, and if it hasn’t happened to you, it just means you’re not old enough. Yet.

You can’t avoid this with film or paper. Even if you hand-coat platinum paper, who’s to say that your favorite European cotton watercolor paper stock will be around forever?

But you can inoculate yourself against chemistry heartbreak. Hydroquinone and sodium sulfite will be available at least until the zombie apocalypse. And mixing these formulas is about as challenging as making pancakes. Maybe a bit more poisonous. But you’ve probably got similarly deadly stuff under your kitchen sink.

One other concession: If I were to use black and white film now, I might not bother with with my own custom formulas. I might try something super ecologically friendly, like a vitamin-c based developer. As long as I’m getting adequate speed and shadow detail, and the highlights aren’t too dense, and the grain stays fine, I don’t have to care about the tonal scale anymore. Because I now scan my negatives and print in ink. With darkroom prints, moving the tonal scale around requires great skill, responsive papers, and a functional arsenal of developer formulas. With Photoshop, you just draw the tonal scale in whatever shape you want. There’s just much less justification for being a martyr.


Is Digital Printing Similarly Vulnerable?


Not quite, not with inkjet. Your favorite paper might vanish. Your favorite printer might be discontinued. Your favorite inkset might be new-and-improved. But through the magic of digital color management, you’ll still be able to achieve results that are, if not identical, almost magically close. You may well find the improvements to be actual improvements.****

One of the paradigm shifts with inkjet printing is that you can choose your inks (often tied to the printer) and your paper separately. And unless you’re working with images that have an unusually large color gamut—like, orchids or tropical fish—most good papers can match the image of most other good papers, essentially perfectly.

I choose my papers based on the surface texture, the base color, and the overall quality of the stock. I don’t have to worry about the contrast or how the colors will render, because the differences between any papers that meet my quality requirements will be completely unimportant. I don’t have to do rounds of tests. At most I’ll have to make a custom ICC profile, which is tedious, but takes no special skill, and the results are predictable.

For years now I’ve been able to make prints 17″ wide or smaller myself, and have larger prints made by a commercial studio. The results match perfectly, and they do so without any intervention. Philip at Skink Ink hits the “print” button, and matches the results that I achieved at home. This is especially impressive because we don’t use the same paper. I use a Hahnemüle baryta paper from Germany, because the soft satiny finish reminds of Agfa Portriga Rapid from back in the 20th century. Philip uses a Canson baryta paper from France, because he finds the Hahnemüle’s surface to be too fragile for handling large prints. This kind of flexibility never existed in the darkroom.

So far I’ve had just one gotcha: Hahnemuhle discontinued my paper in the 17 x 25″ size, which is the perfect size for proportionally fitting a 2:3 aspect ratio image to 17″ wide paper. I threw a Weston-scale fit, and ended up on the phone with Hahnemüle’s national distributor. The guy told me they just couldn’t sell it, even though, as he acknowledged, it was perfect. So here’s a downside: the customer base making decisions for you may not be very smart. At least in this case, I’m not sunk. I can have someone else make my 17×25 prints for now (on large roll paper that’s cut to size). And my next printer will take roll paper, so I’ll eventually have the same capability.

Moral: it’s an imperfect world. You’ve got a little bit of control over how badly it can ruin your day. Don’t squander it.


*In my old notes, there’s actually some densitometer data. One of my jobs in Providence was at a commercial photo lab; I probably borrowed their instrument. Embarrassingly, I don’t remember.

**It’s been demonstrated that at D-76’s level of alkalinity, hydroquinone may actually do nothing at all, unless you’re re-using the developer repeatedly. Then it prolongs the working life of the solution. I haven’t tested this. Sounds bizarre, but it’s reported by people who know more than me.

***I’ve recently learned that Kodak has changed the formula of T-max, and (sort of) changed the name. What was once “T-max Professional” is now “Professional T-max.” Seriously. Perhaps the marketing department did not survive Kodak’s bankruptcy reorg. More importantly: developing times for the new version are shorter, so it might make sense to slightly reduce the carbonate to maintain a 5-minute developing time. I’d worry about getting uneven results with times shorter than this.

****But what if some new technology comes along, rendering inkjet printing obsolete in they eyes of the majority, leading to printers, papers and inks being discontinued? If history teaches us anything, we know this will happen. But I don’t think we’ll have to worry about it for a long, long time—because we’re still in the early days of the medium’s maturity, and  a superior technology hasn’t even been proposed yet. I think it would be like worrying about the fate of gelatin-silver paper in 1940. You’ll have worse things to worry about—including dying—before this becomes an issue.

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