My Favorite BW Developer - Kodak Xtol!
The Highlights and Shadows of Kodak Xtol BE Developer
by Leslie Lazenby
Kodaks's Xtol film developer is my go-to film developer, I think everyone has one. In my long film developing career I have tried many, but used consistently about 3, first Microdol-X, T-Max and Xtol. My shelf now consist of Xtol, Rodinal, HC110 Photographer's Formulary's TD3 and Diafine. Xtol does 90% of film developing work load. Here's why.
It is suitable for nearly all black-and-white films giving true box speed, fine grain and high sharpness. Xtol is an ascorbic acid, vitamin c developer, and we all know vitamins are good for us so it must be good for your film as well. Xtol is a solvent developer, it produces fine grain by allowing silver to redistribute during development. This solvent action slightly reduces resolving power. For a less solvent action make a working solution with Xtol 1:1 rather than use undiluted stock. In spite of it, many even like to push film with Xtol, personally I like Acufine and Diafine for pushing.
above: Film: Rera Pan 100 127 BW, I00 ISO - Processed in Xtol 1:1, 9 minutes, 68 degrees, 5/5 - Camera: Montgomery Wards 25
Here's one big plus for Xtol, you can mix from it's powder form with room temperature water. Your water need not be 125 degrees hot, allowing it to be used sooner after mixing. It's supplied in two parts A and B. Mix as package recommends, "A" first until it is all dissolved, be prepared it is pink, then add "B" and it all clears up.
Now here comes the first caveat, the smallest package size mixes to 5 liters, not the standard quart or gallon mix like most other Kodak developers. No metric vs non metric discussions here but in the US most photographic chemical containers are still supplied in only these two sizes, so mixing up 5 liters and having only quart containers or 1 gallon is irritating. Be prepared in advance for the extra. If you are a long time user of Xtol you may remember it was originally offered in a 1 liter package. I loved that size, but many users reported sudden rapid failure before use-exhaustion and short storage times. One day it works great and the next not at all. The problem seemed to trace to two problems, first the small packaging for the liter did not keep out air and humidity out. I do remember some of the powder was clumped together at times. The second reason was Xtol was performing poorly at higher dilution like 1:2 and 1:3. This was probably due more
to water quality than anything. The convenience to use tap water is a big deal for most of us so we mixed with water directly from the tap. Kodak no longer offers anything smaller than a 5 liter mix and no longer publishes any dilution higher than 1:1. I still use 1:3 if I have just made fresh stock, and never dilute to working dilutions from used stock. If you are having inconsistencies with Xtol check your water source, this developer is more sensitive to iron, chlorine and hard water.
above: Svema 64 bw film processed in Xtol.
I also favor Xtol because it because it is a bit more environmentally safe, it uses ascorbic acid, a phenidone developer, rather than the more toxic metol or hydroquinone developers. Even if it wasn't so easy to mix or safer for me and the environment I would not use it if it didn't preform well. I love it with Fuji, Kodak, Svema, Ultrafine, FPP EDU films, not that I do like it with Ilford but I rarely use them. Others love it with HP5. It gives me consistently beautiful results, but Xtol can die an ugly death, when it goes it goes quickly. I save the 35mm film leaders I cut off before developing, some are to test my fixer and some to text Xtol if it is a bit aged. For Xtol just pour a bit of stock solution out and immerse the test piece, if it doesn't turn dark don't use the developer. If you are having inconsistency with Xtol mix it with distilled water and always store as air tight as possible.
above: BW 110 film? You bet! 110 Orca BW processed in Xtol!
Everyone has their favorite developer, if they didn't have different properties then there would be no reason to have more than one. Xtol works wonderfully with my film choices, developing style and local water source. I use it when testing films and cameras because I know what to expect from it, it's consistent, my go to.