Guide to Black and White Film Developers

Posted: 01/19/2021

The FPP Guide to Black & White Developers

One of the most rewarding things about film photography is developing your own film. You save time, money and developing your own film opens a whole world of creativity once you start mastering and understand the different types of black and white developers that are available. Not to mention the supreme satisfaction of pulling your developed negatives out of your tank!

You’ve heard the photo chemistry names – D76, HC-110, Xtol, D96 – all made by Kodak – and these are the types you’re going to hear (or read about) in the blog below. You may have also heard such names as Microdol-X, Ilfotec DDX  – those are simply Ilford products based on the original Kodak formulas. If you’re an Ilford user, consult the handy Kodak-To-Ilford Conversion Chart.

Whether you’ve been “souping” your film for year or just thinkin’ about getting started, the FPP Guide to BW Developers is a page that you’ll want to earmark as a resource.

In the audio below, Leslie Lazenby and Mat Marrash discuss the most common BW developers, what their strengths are and why you should consider them. Many of these developers are available right in our FPP on-line store.

What Chemistry To Home Process BW Film?

One of the most asked about and talked about subjects here at The Film Photography Project is BW Home Developing and what chemistry to use. We devoted a large segment on the subject on Film Photography Podcast. Below is the list of some terrific bw developers. Almost all of them are available right here at the FPP on-line store (at the best prices too!)

DOWNLOAD AUDIO (Right Click, Save As)

above: Kodak Tri-X processed in Leslie's favorite Xtol!

Kodak Xtol - First and foremost is Kodak's Xtol, it's my go-to, it is suitable for nearly all b/w films. It gives me true box speed, fine grain and high sharpness.  Xtol is a solvent developer, it produces fine grain by allowing silver to redistribute during development. This solvent action slightly reduces resolving power, the ability to discern 2 separate objects rather than a blur of the two.  For a less solvent action make a working solution with Xtol 1:1 rather than undiluted stock. One of the advantages of this developer is it mixes with room temp water. It comes as  a two part powder and not having to mix it at 125 degree allows me to use it sooner after mixing. When Michael Raso gets a new hand-rolled film in that doesn't have developing times I start with box speeds and Xtol. The disadvantage of Xtol may be more for the casual user than me, it's smallest unit makes 5 liters as packaged and sold in the US.  This is not a developer to overuse or keep on the shelf a long time, it dies quickly without warning and it's an ugly death. I keep track of the rolls I've ran and the date I mixed it, it really is the best way to keep from having any failures.  I am not one to find a false economy in extending chemistry, keeping track keeps my processing constant. This eliminates a variable when shooting different films or with different untested cameras.

above: Olympus OM-2n. 35-70 Zuiko Zoom / Film: FPP BW 400 (Orwo n74) shot at ISO 400. Developed in FPP D96.

FPP D96 - Powder to make 1 Gallon) - The Film Photography Project brings you FPP D96 BW negative developer powder in handy packages that makes 1 Gallon of developer when mixed with water. Long considered the go-to BW developer for the motion picture industry, D96 is a highly adaptable lower contrast film developer that enables you to increase the contrast by increasing your developing time or agitation.  We’ve tested this developer with cinema films like FPP Sonic25, FPP X2 (Eastman Double-X), FPP Blue Sensitive BW, ORWO Cinema Film and FPP LOW ISO BW and standard BW photography films like Kodak Tri-X, T-Max, Ilford FP4 and HP5 films to stunning results.

  • Powder Makes 1 Gallon of Developer

  • Long Shelf Life

  • Develop up to 50+ rolls

  • Average development time 7-8.5 minutes

This developer has a very long life, when you mix the gallon, you can store it on a one gallon jug OR store it in 4 one quart bottles. If you store in 4 separate 1 quart bottles, as you use it and the contrast begins to lower, start a second fresh bottle, and save the first one for extremely contrasty lighting or films. We recommend using it as a stock developer, use it without diluting and pour it back into your quart container for re-use.

What about diluting and using FPP D96 as “one-shot”? - You can also dilute it 1:1, but make sure you use fresh, unused stock for this and do not reuse this combination, it is one-shot. This developer will begin to lose contrast with use rather than completely exhaust.

The package makes 1 gallon of developer, which is about a 50% savings over buying it by the litre and if you store it in 4 one quart bottles it’s like getting 3 developers in 1, stock for re-use, stock for dilution for one-shot and a lower contrast bottle of used stock for hard lighting and high contrast films!

We are testing with many films but have found a lot to fall within 7 to 8.5 minutes. Massive Developing chart has a D96 developer option as well. Many report getting at least 50+ rolls from this quantity.

above: FPP edu 200 processed in Rodinal.

Rodinal - One of my specialty developers is Rodinal,  in terms of actual usage is perhaps one of the most versatile developers made. It is virtually indestructible, it can survive for years in a half used bottle and still be good. While it can be used in a range of dilutions, the one I use the most is the 1:100 or 1+100 dilution. This dilution is usually used with very long developing times like 1 hour, commonly referred to as stand developing. When the times are this long and the developer is so diluted it is almost impossible to screw up your film processing. 6 minutes compared to 60 has advantages. If you accidently add or subtract a minute from that 6 minutes it makes a big difference in the overall success of your negatives, but a few minutes when your film is in the soup for an hour is no big deal. Rodinal is dependable and cheap due to the high dilutions you can use. If you do not have developing times available just soup those negatives in Rodinal, 1:100, 68 degrees, stand development for 1 hour and success will be at hand. Not many developers have been around as long as this, it has been available for over 100 years. It kind of fell out of grace when miniature films, 35mm, came into greatness, it is a bit grainer and when you are enlarging 35mm rather than 120 or 4x5 you'll noticed the grain structure. But, it has a found it place in our modern times and is still a worthy and viable product. Rodinal comes as a liquid and normally is mixed into a one shot working solution rather than a stock solution.

above: Kodak HIE Infrared Film in HC-110

HC-110 - The next bottle of developer on my shelf is another old standby, Kodak's HC-110. It comes supplied as a thick liquid syrup. Even though you can mix it to a stock solution further dilution is needed before using. Most find it easier to just mix it for a one shot working dilution right before use. A nice advantage when you use these liquid supplied developers is it is so easy to quickly get to your proper processing temperature. HC-110's selling points are ease of use, versatility, and reliability. The concentrate keeps for years; (4 to  5 years air tight) Buy a bottle and fill with marbles as you use it or pour some into smaller bottles and cap then use out of only one until it's gone. All types of black-and-white film can be developed with HC-110,  and results are consistent. Once again Kodak made the following comparison to their own D-76, they indicate that HC-110 (dilution B) produces, slightly less shadow detail or true film speed, slightly finer grain and slightly lower acutance. Apparently, HC-110 has somewhat more solvent action than D-76, but less than Xtol. Opinions differ about the effect of HC-110 on grain, some report coarser grain than with D-76 and others report finer grain. In reality this is probably a function of dilution and agitation rather than the nature of the developer. Where HC-110 really shines for me is with old outdated films, it gives surprisingly little base fog even with very prolonged development. Old films have their fair share of age fog and HC-110 gives me a better chance of a useable negative. Like Rodinal, HC-110 keeps very well and gives very reproducible results. It is a good choice when failure would be costly.

above: FPP edu 200 film shot at 500 iso! Processed in Diafine.

Diafine - A classic specialty developer I have used from my days in a retail darkroom is Diafine. It's been around a long time and still comes in cans rather than envelopes or packets. It comes in two parts, and mixes up as a part A and a part B. If you buy a quart or gallon unit you will need two containers respectively, they are not mixed together in fact if you ever contaminate B into A, throw it out. Once mixed it lasts lasts at least a year. It is really an amazing developer to use and incredibly easy, so many rules of standard developing do not apply to Diafine. It has a fixed developing time without regard of temperature or film used. I as most, do not even bother taking it's temperature. Time and temperature really have no effect on the out come of your negatives.  There is one developing time with a reasonable ambient temperature of 75 to 85. Fast, medium and slow films can all be developed in the same tank, and contrast is not amplified by this
developer. It gives the greatest effective speed of films developed meaning this developer is used for push processing. It is very fine grain considering the push and has high resolution. I also use this for older films that have lost speed due to age just to get them back their box speeds. Diafine is simple to use but you must follow the directions. Here they are:

  • 1. Do Not pre-wet.

  • 2. Develop in Part A for a minumm of 3 minutes but it is ok if it goes over, rap for air bells, gentle agitation is suggested, I use the rod to agitate not my usual inversion method. Drain Part A back into your original container.

  • 3. Do Not rinse

  • 4. Pour in Part B the same time for A at least 3 minutes. Here again it is very important to have very gentle agitation. Pour Part B into your original container.

  • 5. Drain and rinse for 30 seconds NO stop bath. Fix, wash, hypo clear, wash, and Photo Flo if you use it.

Just a example of the speeds recommended are Kodak Tri-X and FPP400edu @1600, Panatomic-X @ 160,  FP4 @ 320 and I am currently using ISO 1.5 Svema Blue @ iso 6, I think it will do 8 or even 10. This is a fantastic field developer when conditions like temperature control are difficult and a must in my book for pushing film.

above: Svema MZ3 processed in TD3.

TD3 - The last developer on my shelf is  TD 3. It is a liquid concentrate and is mixed to make a working solution,  and is perfect for slow, contrasty films. I use it with Technical Pan  and with the microfilms sold by FPP. Now that Technidol is no longer made it was good to find this and have it for remaining stock as well as having much greater success with the microfilms.

Image by Michael Raso / Kodak Kodalith Ortho Film 6556 at an asa of 12Canon EOS Rebel G / Processed Kodak D76 (Stock Solution) 6 min at 68 degrees.

Kodak D76 - Ok so why does the industry and everyone else compare their product to Kodak D76? If a small camera store only carries a few developers why is one of them D76? Years ago before the Massive Developing Chart, why were even the most obscure films giving only developing times in D76? It is and has been an industry standard due to its proven reliability for many years and you do not get there without proving yourself again and again.

This classic developer is what a lot of us learned on. Today it is still  used by most schools with a film program. It works great with any film type, any brand, just look up your time up and process your film for dependable results. This developer is durable, many abuse past the suggested roll count without issue. It is easy to replenish and for schools with students plowing through many rolls a week this stuff just keeps turning out normal negatives.

Unlike Xtol, D76 has a slow decline due to exhaustion, you will notice your negatives getting a little flatter, less contrast which will continue with each roll, unlike xtol which dies a total death quickly and with no warning.  Even on it's way out you will still have very usable negatives. There may be other developers which give slightly sharper negatives or a bit finer grain but the reliability, final look and tonality is just why people still use it. You have to love a developer that can handle pulling or pushing film speeds with ease like this developer. I love the fact that this developer is offered in a 1 litre size as well as a 1 gallon size. If you are an occasional developer you will love the smaller size. Most use this developer as a stock developer, measure it out, use it and pour it back for reuse, but can also use it as a one shot mixing stock solution further with water in equal parts for a working solution.  Diluting smooths the grain a bit.

D76 was first introduced in 1926 as a movie stock developer and when Tri-X 35mm came onto the scene in mid 1950s it was match made in heaven. When it comes to D76 the old saying of "If it ain't broke don't fix it" fits perfectly.

There you have it, my tried and true developers, each one has earned it's place on my shelf of honor, it's what I'm using.

Want to get started? The FPP offers a complete Starter Kit! The kit comes with everything you need.

Other darkroom supplies are available at The FPP -

All photos by Leslie Lazenby (unless otherwise noted)

Leslie Lazenby fell in love with photography when she was given her first camera, a GAF 126, at the age of 10.  Her first job in a camera shop with a custom and commercial photo lab turned into a 20-year adventure in film; leading to positions in darkrooms, customer relations, and as head of purchasing.  For the past 15 years, Leslie has owned her own business, Imagine That, retailing traditional photography products, photographic restoration, custom printing and video conversions. She finds her Zen next door at her studio, the Mecca, where she plays with her film cameras, processes film and holds small classes focusing on teens and young adults. @leslie_lazenby on Instagram / on Flickr


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