My favorite black & white developers

January 08, 2017  •  2 Comments

Over the past couple of years, I've tried a number of developers for B&W film. Here is my top three picks that each have their own role one of which might fit your needs:

Rodinal, an Adox product, is the longest continuously produced developer in existence having been patented in 1891! Why is it still so popular? As Ed Buffaloe says, Rodinal "produces little fog and no stain even at high temperatures, is relatively fast-working, is less temperature-dependent than other agents, can be mixed and stored in very high concentrations, and retains developing potential even at very high dilutions." It’s not a fine grain developer so best not used with 135 or 120 format.

Xtol, a Kodak Alaris product, is IMHO, the king of B&W developers. As Mark Covington says "Xtol is one of the few developers that do not contain hydroquinone. It uses derivatives of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and Phenidone as developing agents. Claimed advantages include low toxicity (important for environmental reasons as well as occupational safety), easy mixing (but see below), and an unusual combination of fine grain with high film speed (true shadow speed, not just push-processing)." Its a true fine grain developer and can be used with push or pull developing. The only pain is that it comes as two powders which have to be mixed with water (not so easy in fact) to make 5 liters of developer solution that then must be stored in airtight containers. I use 0.75l wine bottles with Vacu Vin wine stoppers to do the job.

Pyrocat-HD, "is a semi-compensating, high-definition developer, formulated by Sandy King. The advantages of formula include greater effective film speed, shorter development times, consistent staining action, lower toxicity, and no streaking or mottling with reduced agitation. Users have reported reduced printing times with UV light sources due to the different stain color, as well as reduced base plus fog density in rotary processors." If you plan to contact print your large format negatives in silver, as well as, platinum this is the go to choice. Silver development with visible light ignores the stain and gives a thinner negative. Platinum development with UV light recognizes the stain and gives a thicker negative needed for this kind of printing. Make sure to get the version with the B solution using Glycol. It's less toxic than alternatives. Pyrocat comes in many flavors, none of them drinkable! Pyrocat-HD is particularly good with rotary processors. Pyrocat-MC might be the other version to consider.

Now if you are stuck in some remote place and can't access regular developers why not mix up some Caffenol? I kid you not, you can develop film in instant coffee, baking soda and vitamin C!

B&W Developer Choices
  Rodinal / Adonal Xtol Pyrocat-HD  
  Rodinal_DeveloperRodinal_Developer XTOL_DeveloperXTOL_Developer Pyrocat_HD_DeveloperPyrocat_HD_Developer  
Fact sheet Here Here Here  
Price Low Very High Low  
Shelf Life when unmixed

Long (years)

As a powder - long (years)

Unmixed liquids A and B - long (years)  
Shelf Life when mixed One shot - use right away When mixed and in airtight containers - months One shot - use right away  
Toxicity Low Low Medium - use nitrile gloves  
Features Some grain, best with large format Very fine grain, box speed, can be used with 135, 120 and large format Staining developer, can use the same negatives for Ag and Pt printing  
Where to buy Freestyle B&H, Freestyle Photographers' Formulary  



Angus Parker Photography
@Brian: You are most welcome. Pyro is certainly a different world to Xtol but both have their place. Rodinal is just so easy its hard to turn down, especially for ULF.
Brian Wiese(non-registered)
Great review - I very much appreciate this. I was just recently collecting some notes on developers, and this short and sweet summary on the top 3 and the purposes for each is well targeted and a great reference. I've heard of Gordon Hutchings "The Book of Pyro" and other LF photographers praise it's gradual "shoulder" of a tone curve towards the highlights - but it sounds like this may be because it is a staining developer. Some day I hope to get into Pt/Pd prints and experiment with it... though for now it's mostly XTOL!
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