With six solid years of film photography under my belt, I’ve seen my way through a relatively small amount of black and white developers. For the first two years, I fumbled around in the dark with two of Kodak’s classics, D-76 and XTOL. The motivation to use these two were based on their ease of use, availability, and local expertise (Leslie Lazenby and my photography professor, Jeff).
After months of trying this and that film-wise, I started to delve heavily into the large format side of things. I was, and continued to be obsessed with the works of former and contemporary large format shooters, and wanted to emulate “the look” they were getting in their photographs. A few peeks into older View Camera Magazine articles revealed that the secret sauce were these developers called “compensating developers”, namely this two part developer referred to as Pyrocat HD.
Right out of the pages of its own .com, 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.”
Let’s breakdown this description a little bit further. A compensating developer is one that utilizes high dilutions to exhaust itself in the highlight region of the image, thereby lowering contrast. High dilutions mean this is NOT a developer that can be reused; Pyrocat HD is one-shot all the way. Compensating developers are especially helpful in getting printable highlights without foregoing shadow information in the negative.
Pyrocat HD is also a staining developer. Staining does two things; it imparts a color cast to the negative and does so proportional to the development, meaning a smooth gradation and less silver in the highlights and midtones. For ordinary silver gelatin printing and hybrid/scanning workflow, this doesn’t mean much, but for those using any alternative processes that require UV light, this stain really starts to shine. Long story short, Pyrocat HD is a developer that exceeds in maintaining highlight detail in some of the most extreme situations, all while granting good film speed, fine grain, and sharp detail.
I was drawn to Pyrocat HD for another reason besides all the cool kids that were using it. This stuff was very easy to mix at home, and a 4-5 year supply of this two part developer could be had for less than the cost of a box of 8x10” film!
There are two basic ways to mix Pyrocat HD, with solution A being dissolved in propylene glycol or in distilled water. The difference all boils down to shelf life. Pyrocat HD in glycol has a maximum shelf life of 2-3 years, but its variant in water lasts just about one year. For something I mix up in 1L batches and lasts for one year or about 400 sheets/rolls of film, Pyrocat HD is very cost effective, economical way to soup film.
In practice, working with Pyrocat HD is pretty simple. Measure out a small amount of solution A, either meet or exceed A’s amount in solution B, then add a lot of water, preferably distilled. Pyrocat HD needs an alkaline environment to thrive, so if you live in an area with hard water, spend the extra few bucks and buy a gallon or two of distilled water. The traditional dilution of Pyrocat HD is one part A to one part B, and one hundred parts water. Often you’ll see this expressed as 1:1:100. If you need a little more “oomph” in your developing, try 1:1.5:100 or even 2:2:100.
So now that we’ve covered all that’s great and wonderful about Pyrocat HD, onto the not-so-good bits. Pyrocat HD is a catechol-based developer. While it’s not the most toxic developer out there, I would advise using gloves and good ventilation at all times when using this film developer. Constant exposure and repeated, careless skin exposure are not recommended as catechol is in irritant, sensitizer, and can cause long term organ and tissue damage:
In addition to being a slightly more hazardous developer than others, negatives processed in Pyrocat HD need to be handled a little differently throughout the rest of the process. Development in catechol requires an alkaline environment, and needs to be alkaline to neutral to maintain good stain density. Anything that’s more than mildly acidic, like indicating stop bath and rapid fixer, will start to reduce the stain of the negative(s). Instead of standard stop bath and rapid fixer, my workflow utilizes water stop bath and an alkaline fixer, TF-5. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t much of a disadvantage, but does require more water and slightly more time for both steps.
At the end of the day, B&W film developers are a creative and personal choice. Use what best helps you achieve the look you desire from your film, and fits your workflow. From as basic as powdered coffee all the way to the mad science of modern developers, they’re all great! If you’re ever feeling “the itch” to try some Pyrocat, hit me up, I’m happy to help! :)
For some more examples of what I've done with Pyrocat HD over the years, here's every image I've uploaded to Flickr processed in catechol.