Top 12 Black-and-White Film Developers to Try

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One of the best things about shooting film is the complete control you have over the process, from film choice and exposure to development and either scanning or printing. We spend a lot of time focusing on the different films you can use and then a lot of time on how to produce your finished images from that film, but there’s general oversight on the development stage. I’m certainly guilty of not paying much attention to developing since it’s become a more automated, mindless process for me in recent years, but every once in a while, I like to slow down and remember that black-and-white film development is a creative process itself.

Experiment and Test

Before you “develop” an affinity for that one special developer (or two or three), it’s a great idea to dabble with several to see how they perform with the kind of photos you like to take and the film you like to shoot. While one developer might be touted for being “fine-grained,” and that sounds nice to you, you might also realize that a fine grain developer and a fine grain film end up as a mushy combination. The effects a developer has on one film might be rendered differently on another, and really, experimentation and testing are the only ways you’re going to figure out what you prefer.

When first working with a new developer, it’s a good idea to try it out on a test roll. It’s important that this test roll is good film that you like to work with—there’s no point in testing a new developer with a film you’ll never use again. Basically, you want to limit the variables in the test so you can really focus on what the developer is doing. This way, when you try second, third, fourth, and even more developers over time, you’ll be able to make more valuable comparisons with the results.

With these ideas in mind, here are a dozen black-and-white film developers to try.

1. Kodak D-76

I’m going to squeeze Kodak D-76 in at the top because it is essentially the developer to which all others are compared. In the same manner Tri-X 400 is the standard film, D-76 is the standard developer. And don’t let that popularity dissuade you from thinking there isn’t anything special about D-76—it’s quite the opposite, actually. Think of this developer like a blank canvas: It’s open to your interpretation and can be used in a wide variety of ways and for a wide variety of films. I also want to start this list with D-76 because it’s the perfect choice to begin your film developer trials with; it’s a great constant for experiments and something you can rely on till you find your niche.

Kodak Professional D-76 Film Developer

2. Kodak HC-110

Next up is the first developer I became enamored with, and one of the classic solutions you’ll see mentioned in some classic technical photography texts from the likes of Ansel Adams—Kodak HC-110. This viscous liquid concentrate is a favorite of Zone System practitioners due to its ability to yield full shadow detail, a wide tonal scale, and full film speed. It’s a rapid-acting solution and intended for one-shot development, although it can be reused and replenished if desired, too. It’s also well-known for its very particular recommended dilutions, which are known by letters as opposed to just the plain ratios, including the popular Dilution B (1:31), the unofficial fan-favorite Dilution H (1:63), and the very fast-working Dilution A (1:15).

Kodak Professional HC-110 Film Developer

3. Kodak XTOL

The third Kodak developer I’ll bring up is another one of the classics: XTOL. Like the two above, XTOL is a very distinct and beloved solution, but is known as being a very fine-grain developer compared to the more moderate to semi-fine grain profiles of D-76 and HC-110. It has a notably different chemical makeup, too, trading in hydroquinone for ascorbic acid, which makes it easier to handle and an overall “friendlier” or gentler solution. XTOL has been my main developer for several years now due to its compensating nature that softens and reduces the appearance of harsh grain, which is perfect if scanning is your intended output.

Kodak Professional XTOL Film Developer

4. Ilford ILFOTEC DD-X

Moving over to the other major player in black-and-white, Ilford ILFOTEC DD-X is a somewhat popular but also somewhat overlooked solution. I only had the chance to try it a few years ago for the first time and wished I had looked into it sooner, since it’s a perfect partner for tabular grain films like Ilford’s Delta lineup and Kodak’s T-Max films. It’s generally a fine-grain, medium-contrast developer, which is why it’s perfect for these certain films that tend inherently to be a bit smoother and have higher contrast.

Ilford ILFOTEC DD-X Developer

5. Ilford Perceptol

Another developer from Ilford I’d like to highlight is Perceptol, which is an ultra-fine-grain developer that performs best with slower-speed films. I’ll fully give Ilford its credit for this developer, but I have to admit one of the reasons Perceptol is a popular solution is because it is such a suitable replacement for the much-missed Kodak Microdol-X. Ilford’s take on this fine-grain, high-sharpness, and full-film-speed type of developer is great with any film you’re looking to tame, but, in my experience, it really shines with something like Pan F+. It seems contradictory to use such a fine grain developer on such a fine grain film, but the combination is special.

Ilford Perceptol Developer

6. Cinestill DF96 Monobath

For something quite different, one of the most exciting, and recent, developments in the film-developer world has been Cinestill DF96 Monobath. While it’s a new product, the monobath concept and the standard developer after which it’s modeled, D96, aren’t new. As a monobath, this unique solution does everything in one go, sort of like all-in-one shampoo/conditioners. It’s a self-completing chemical that develops and fixes your film with the same solution, works at room temperature, and doesn’t need to be diluted, and the same developing time can be used for pretty much any film. It’s one of the easiest and most convenient options out there. Oh, and in terms of quality, it will give fine grain and medium contrast; nothing too exciting, nothing too dramatic, but very functional.

Cinestill DF96 Monobath for Black & White Film

7. Acufine Diafine

The next-easiest solution out there has to be Acufine Diafine, which is one of the most popular full-film-speed developers available. What it’s best known for, however, is that developing time and temperature hardly matter when using Diafine, meaning you can throw in a roll of Tri-X, HP5+, APX 25, T-Max 3200, and whatever else you want in the same tank and get usable results on all rolls. Shadow detail will be impressive and consistent among films due to the forgiveness of the developer. It’s a great option to keep on hand if you’re someone who isn’t very consistent with their film choices, or if you just want to keep your developer solution consistent regardless.

Acufine Diafine Powder Film Developer

8. Adox Adonal

Adox Adonal is next in line and is a great, classic choice that’s certainly better known by its former name: Rodinal. There is a great deal of history, myth, and legend to go along with Rodinal, and it’s also one of the most polarizing developers out there. Some swear by it, claiming it’s nectar from the gods and vowing not to go near another developer ever again, while others can’t stand its distinct look. But distinct it is, because it’s one of the few developers that seemingly accentuates film grain as one of its characteristic effects. It’s a high-acutance solution, which means it gives extremely high apparent sharpness, and it does this by giving film a “crispy” look. Besides this effect, Rodinal, or Adonal, is also known for its extraordinarily long shelf life and its high-concentration, one-shot design that calls for dilutions between 1:25 for typical use all the way up to 1:100 or even 1:200 for stand development. Rodinal is a developer everyone should try at least once, and try in several different ways, too.

Adox Adonal Developer

9. Foma Reversal Process Developing Kit

Cheating a bit, now, I’d like to introduce the idea of reversal processing, which is made viable through kits like the Foma Reversal Process Developing Kit. All of the other developers I’m talking about here are for processing black-and-white negative films into negative images; this reversal kit does just the opposite and will yield black-and-white positives from your negative film, which can then be projected in a slide projector or scanned as positives. Besides this just being a cool effect, it also achieves a distinct look, with rich black tones and silvery highlights.

Foma Reversal Process Developing Kit

Pyro Developers

Finally, I’d like to close out this list with a trio of developers from Photographer’s Formulary. What these three solutions have in common is that they are all pyro developers. These are distinct from the above developers in that pyro developers are staining developers, which is exactly like it sounds—the film becomes “stained” during processing. (Since we’re talking black-and-white films, this colored stain is completely acceptable and just affects contrast.) What does this actually achieve, though? Well, pyro developers, with their distinctive stain, sort of mask the typical grain pattern of film for a reduced grain effect that also benefits tonality in the highlight regions. This stain also contributes to improved highlight and tonal separation and overall acutance due to how the silver halides physically react during development. Now, this all sounds too great to be true, right? Well, the downside of pyro developers is, namely, the developing agents themselves—either pyrogallol or pyrocatechin—are both quite toxic. In photographic use, though, these issues can be easily avoided by wearing rubber or nitrile gloves when handling and a face mask if working with powder solutions.

10. Wimberley WD2D+

The first pyro developer I’d like to point out is John Wimberley’s WD2D+, which is an updated formula to the original WD2D that was one of the first pyro solutions intended for modern emulsions. In addition to pyrogallol, this developer uses metol as a developing agent to give full film speed and fine grain.

Photographers' Formulary Wimberley WD2D+

11. PMK Pyro

Second is PMK Pyro, which is one of the most well-known and readily available pyro solutions. Developed by Gordon Hutchings, this solution has been dubbed a “universal developer” due to its ability to render high sharpness, fine grain, and full film speed, and its suitability for Zone System use.

PMK Pyro-Metol Kodalk Developer for Black & White Film

12. Pyrocat-HD

Finally, I’d also like to highlight Pyrocat-HD, which was created by Sandy King in 1999 as a very high-energy solution. As King writes, the “formula is carefully balanced and gives, with proper agitation, negatives of high acutance, a tight grain pattern, and when used with minimal and semi-stand development, enhanced adjacency effects. Pyrocat-HD also gives a slight speed gain with many films... especially with the 1:1:100 dilution.”

Pyrocat HD Film Developer

These are a dozen developers I think are worth trying, but keep in mind that this is just scratching the surface of what’s available. B&H carries a wide selection of film developers, as well as a huge variety of bulk chemicals if you want to get even more creative and start mixing your own developers from scratch.

What are some of your favorite black-and-white film developers? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

7 Comments

This is one of the best articles I have read in years that summarizes the characteristics of B&W film developers that are currently available.  Back in the 1960's into the 1970's when I was active in photography with a home darkroom & lab, I had pretty much settled on two films and three developers.  For film, it was Plus-X and Tri-X, and for developers, it was D-76, Microdol-X, and the original Acufine.  Every once in awhile, I would experiment with Rodinal, which back then was too fussy to fully learn and appreciate when I was young and impatient.

Yes, each developer has distinct characteristics with each film type I used.  This is certainly a part, and the joy, of the working with B&W film photography.  This is also why, many years later in this digital age, I am using my digital equipment less, and finding great pleasure returning to film-based photography, and in particular, B&W photography.  Not to say I do not find film-based color photography enjoyable, but I am now enjoying the purity of light and form with B&W.  I suppose now in my later years, I am returning to my roots.

Thank you B&H and Bjorn Petersen for this very excellent article.

Back in the day, as they say, I really liked using Microdol-X but it doesn't appear to be available anymore.  After reading a few film/darkroom articles in explora, I'm thinking about firing up the old Canon A1 again.  Is there a current developer that will produce results similar to Microdol-X?

The closest black & white film developer we currently carry comparable to Kodak’s Microdol-X would be the Legacy Pro Mic-X Film Developer (Makes 1 Gallon), B&H # LE749710.  This is a Special Order item that is not kept in our inventory; we do not place an order for the item until we receive an order from a customer.  There is a 7-14 business day arrival estimate after purchase, depending on the manufacturer's availability.  For more information, you can see the following link by either clicking directly on it or by copying and pasting the link into your internet browser's address bar:

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https://bhpho.to/2Z5yDdy

Thank you so much!  I will definitely check into this developer...I'm really starting to get the film bug again!

When I become Certified as a Professional Photographer, I might try to have an Assistant in Darkroom to find the way out of how to make chemicals before developing Black and White Negative Films, all at once!!! This might be my first time, indeed!!! Soon, it will be and to the new "James Mitchell Photography (JMP,)" indeed!!!

What's the holdup with getting the Patterson kit and accessories in stock? It's been quite a while...

As of today  July 7, 2020, we do not have an ETA on the Paterson Film Processing Starter Kit, B&H # PAPTP574U. If you have already place the order for it, please contact our Customer Service Department at 1-800-221-5743 or via Live Chat today until 6PM ET so they may check your order status.

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