Do you learn more from experimenting, or from following predefined steps? Yes, a rethorical question indeed. One of the nicest things about developing your own black and white film is that it allows for experiments. It keeps it fun, since there is always some other thing to try.
But sometimes, you do need some predefined steps to get to guaranteed results. Sometimes, you just need to get results, instead of fooling around. Experiments should leave one with a couple of solid recipes to keep around for those times you need predictable outcome.
Now, up front, I must say: I’m not an expert. My experience with developing black and white films goes back only a couple of years. There is still plenty left to learn. And that’s OK: I like experimenting and trying different things.
Even so, over time a couple of recipes have surfaced. Most of the time, I will use these recipes. They’re tried and tested for my purposes. As long as I expose reasonably well and stick to the times, they deliver. So, worth sharing with whoever may be interested.
Choices, choices, choices
There is an awful lot of choice for films and developers, and some choice of how the development is done too. While it would be fun to try everything, there are some requirements I do stick to:
- Film must be reasonably available, and decent prices. Luckily, this isn’t creating much of a limit at all. But, for example, Fuji Acros 100 tends to be twice as expensive as Ilford Delta 100 where I live. And while I really liked Acros 100 a lot, it does generally rule it out.
- I don’t like films that curl a lot. Finding out it does, pretty much rules out me buying it again. It’s a nuisance.
- It must get along with my scanner. The automatic feeder of my Coolscan doesn’t seem to like very transparent filmbase (like Rollei Retro80s). That makes scanning more of a PITA.
For developers, it’s a bit simpler:
- Long shelf life; if I have to create from powders, no issue as long as it stays good for 4-6 months.
- Long shelf life. Really, it shouldn’t expire too quick.
- Long shelf life. See above.
- The option to be able to mix enough for a single roll from ingredients is also OK. In such a case, shelf life is irrelevant. But in all other cases, it should be long.
So the recipes that work for me are not obscure films most never heard of, but really normal unsurprising choices. Developers – well, it’s the area where I don’t mind experiments. But not always, as in the case of today’s recipe.
So, what do we eat today?
My bomb and bullet proof recipe. Rock solid, uneventful but utterly reliable. If I’d have to choose one film and one developer for the rest of my life, this would be it. It ticks all the boxes above easily.
Kodak HC110 is a great developer to always have available anyway. It stays good for a long, long time. It plays very well with nearly all films out there, and can very reasonbly be used to push films quite hard too. The only downside that I could think of are short development times if you mix up the chemicals according to Kodak’s prescriptions. The recommended dilution (dilution B) is 1:31 from the syrup directly; I use the unofficial dil. H, which is twice that (1:63). That doubles the development times, making those easier to control.
Practically: 6ml syrup (measured with a syringe, it’s the easiest way) in 380ml of water. It’s more than I need for a single rol of 35mm film, but Kodak warns against using less than 6ml. For 120 film, it’s 600ml total, using 9,4ml of syrup.
HC110 comes in 1 litre bottle, so with just 6ml for a 35mm film that will last long enough, and make it reasonably economic too.
For the film I just buy them per brick of 10, rolls of 36 exposures. For 120 film, which I use very little, I buy per 5 rolls. HP5 is a traditional ISO400 film, a high quality item. There may be cheaper choices (esp. Fomapan 400), but HP5 is utterly reliable.
So simple and straightforward. Shoot at box speed, ISO400. Develop in HC110 for 11 min at 20 degrees Celsius with above mentioned ‘Dilution H’. Stop, fix, wash. Enjoy.
Correct times with 1 minute per degree celsius (so 10 minutes for 21 degrees, or 12 minutes for 19). On a technical note, tap water in my region is good quality, and not very hard or soft. Stop bath and fixer are bog standard (either Ilford of Foma chemicals).
If you use colour filters for contrast, it works much as expected. Red filter will be very hefty, orange a nice compromise, or dark yellow. Compensate filter factor as written on the lens – really, as expected, no surprises.
It scans very well, and definitely not too grainy. Shadow details remains good, highlights good. In contrasty light, it has plenty contrast. In flat light, it doesn’t get too muddy mid-tone grey murky stuff but keeps reasonable contrast.
My litmus test is the silver sheen that you get with low angle sun on the water. I love the look of that, and black and white film can make that look so nice. But get exposure of development time wrong, and it just becomes a mid-grey mud. With this recipe, it really works well.
My experience with darkroom printing is very limited, but I managed to print these negatives just fine, on multi-grade paper with a grade 2 filter. Once I get better at printing, perhaps I can say something useful. For now, I can only say: it works even in the hands of a complete n00b.
Both HP5 and HC110 are easy to get. So you should not need alternatives. But in case: replace HC110 with Kodak D76 or Ilford ID11. Results will be pretty much identical, but both those developers do not score as well for shelf life.
For the film, Kodak Tri-X should be the closest thing, but somehow it isn’t, or I just never got the hang of Tri-X (got a recipe for it I like, but it has a very different look than this one). Fomapan 400 is a reasonable replacement, and works well with HC110, but more grain in my experience, and less sharp. I haven’t tried Kentmere 400 yet, it might well be the option – no idea.
The whole piece is drenched in words as reliable, safe choice, middle of the road, ‘it just works’. But that’s the whole point for me about this combination.
Indeed it doesn’t yield a particular look, a distinct recognisable style. It doesn’t surprise with wild results. No serendipity, no unexpected gems in the rough. It gives you solid, good-looking, traditional black and white negatives. Each and every time. That may not be the most fun, or very exciting. But having something very solid to fall back onto, that is a mighty useful tool in the shed.