I have returned from a month long trip in America, and when I was there I took over 30 rolls of black and white film. Now that I'm in the UK, I'd like to get these developed. Because of the cost I would like to try and develop these myself, something I've never done before. The films are all black and white, and are a mix of Ilford HP5, Fomopan 400, Fomapan Retropan 320, Kentmere 400 and two Rollei Infrared films.

I've read several articles, watched several videos on the subject, and I don't think it's beyond me to do it. From all of my research though I've had one nagging question created by a few videos that mention the developer fluid.

A few sources have said that different fluids give different results to the negative, but I haven't been able to find any examples of what specific developers do to different types of film. I'd like to know from a purely artistic viewpoint, not so much whether one developer develops a film quicker than another. I've even seen instant coffee being used as a developer - but as I don't have a baseline for the other developers out there I'm not keen on making the coffee my first choice!

I'd be interested to know whether, actually, the developers make any difference to the final production of the negative or not. But as I said, I've not seen any definitive source on the subject.

  • 4
    Have you ever handled a meter long roll of film? Do you know how you will alternately put it into the developer, stop, fixer, and then wash? Using a "daylight" tank takes a bit of practice. Get some unexposed film and practice loading it in daylight with your eyes open, eyes closed, then with the lights off. Become proficient with this before you consider the processing. It's a teeny-weeny bit tougher than you can imagine to do this without touching the surfaces of the film. You can only touch the edges of the film without leaving a finger print, scratch, or oily smudge.
    – Stan
    Oct 4, 2018 at 13:50
  • @Stan Nope, never. But I have some rolls of spare film and ruined film that I've set aside to practice the loading of the tank. I am intending on using a "bag" as I don't have a suitable room dark enough to do it as a dark room. I've also made a note to wear gloves, for the chemical side and to prevent the fingerprinting of the film. Oct 4, 2018 at 13:52
  • 2
    Tip: Do not use a changing bag until you have much experience. It will limit your movements and make things much tougher to do. Do not use gloves when handling film as a sensitive touch is vital. Wash your hands and dry them well. You may want to have a light-tight bag to put things in (to take a break if things don't go well) mid-load. Work at night with the lights out to get your loading area dark enough. Stuff towels at the bottom of the door to keep the dark in. Use a can-opener to open the cassette if it isn't a re-useable one.
    – Stan
    Oct 4, 2018 at 14:43
  • 2
    Good tips @Stan — consider adding them to your answer. I'd say "bottle opener" instead of "can opener" though... I expect you're talking about a church key and not the type of can opener that has a cutting wheel.
    – Caleb
    Oct 4, 2018 at 20:09
  • 1
    Church key is what I meant @Caleb Thanx. General observation about the original question is that five different films, each with its own peculiarities, with a known processing regimen presents a significant source of variation, never mind the characteristics of a different developer that may be more suitable.
    – Stan
    Oct 5, 2018 at 4:29

7 Answers 7


First, I advise against developing the rolls from your trip. Beginners face numerous pitfalls, and what can go wrong will go wrong. Having said that, it’s lots of fun to develop film, so go for it -- just select sacrificial rolls until you get past the learning curve.

Now about developers: All developers are reducing agents, they reduce (split apart) the light sensitive salts of silver that are the goodies that make film work. Film consists of a transparent plastic base, over coated with a gelatin layer. The gelatin acts like a glue; it holds the light sensitive goodies in place. These goodies are crystals of silver plus a halogen (Swedish for salt maker). The halogens used are bromine, chlorine and iodine.

The silver halogen crystal is relatively stable if care is taken to prevent it from seeing light energy. When the shutter of the camera clicks, an image of the outside world is projected onto the surface of photographic film. Light energy bombards the film. The brightness of this light and shadow image is proportional to the vista being recorded. Thus, the silver halogen crystals receive photon hits and each hit weakens the bond that binds the silver to the halogen. The camera exposure is insufficient to fracture the crystal, however the tying bond is weakened.

When the film is submerged in a developer solution, the silver halogen crystal is tested. If the bond is weak, the developer reduces (separates) the crystal into metallic sliver and a halogen. The halogen is water soluble; it dissolves into the developer, which is mainly water. It is the liberated metallic sliver that comprises the image, as this metal is opaque, as such it appears black. When the developing step is completed, an image has been formed. The metallic silver is present in proportion to the brightness of the vista.

There are countless different developing agents available to do this task. The developer you select will likely be comprised of combination of metol and hydroquinone. Either can be used however most developer formulas contain these two in various combinations. Metol yields images with softer contrast whereas hydroquinone yields higher contrast. Most fine-grain developers (allow superior ability to enlarge) contain solvents or other means to reduce the size of the metallic silver fluff that make up time image. Again there are countless combinations, each has advantages and disadvantages.

  • 2
    FWIW, 'halogen' is not a Swedish word.
    – jarnbjo
    Oct 4, 2018 at 19:26
  • halogen (n.) @ jambjo --General name for elements of the chlorine family, 1842, from Swedish, coined by Swedish chemist Baron Jöns Jakob Berzelius (1779-1848), literally "salt-producer," from Greek hals "salt" (from PIE root *sal- "salt") + -gen "giving birth to" (see -gen); so called because a salt is formed in reactions involving these four elements. Related: Halogenous. Oct 4, 2018 at 20:30
  • 2
    So, it is a word with Greek origins.
    – jarnbjo
    Oct 4, 2018 at 21:11
  • 1
    @JimMacKenzie Pyro developers are "staining" in that they add a warm chromatic "filter" to the silver areas of the negative to increase the gamma in a non-obvious way. This is done to affect the printing on orthochromatic paper emulsion in a way that some prefer.
    – Stan
    Oct 4, 2018 at 23:02
  • 1
    @ mickbukejnr -- The instructions enclosed with a product are derived via testing. I would follow those instructions provided they precisely match the film by name. Should this there be in conflict, the film maker knows best. If in doubt, split the differences. Let me add, final ISO and contrast can be influenced by your work practices. It is prudent to preform tests yourself. Oct 10, 2018 at 13:36

Be prepared to dive into a world of mystery. Using the 'only right'™ developer with a secret pinch of a raw chemical in a water bath kept at a fraction of a degree and stopping the development time at the correct tenth of a second is just as vital to an artistic photographer as it is for an ambitious luthier to have the tonewood for his violins to be logged on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first snowfall before winter or for the audiophile to have his equipment powered through oxygen free copper cables from a purified mains source.

But seriously, it is for most combinations of film and developer nearly impossible to see any difference at all. Unless you have very specific requirements and want to 'tweak' your negatives for a tiny amount in any specific direction, you will do just well with any general purpose developer. Ilford ID11 or Kodak D76 as suggested by Hueco (both are equivalent) is a good suggestion. The only specific suggestion I can give you is that with faster films (400 ASA or more), you might want to avoid developers typically known to emphasize the grain structure (like Rodinal), unless you are really going for a very grainy expression.

Remember though, that there is no 'undo' function when developing film. If you don't like the result, you can't rollback and try again with different settings. If the images from your trip are important to you, I would perhaps consider to give those films to a lab and practice with less important material.

  • Dude, +1 for that first paragraph alone. :-D
    – OnBreak.
    Oct 4, 2018 at 16:50

You're right. I also don't think it's beyond you; but, it will take some time and a few tries to get things as desired. Avoid learning with things you don't mind trashing.

The developer affects the grain structure of the silver halide, the acutance, resolution, peak density, and contrast (gamma) among other things.

Most everything about developers is a concession of one image characteristic over another. High acutance is usually at the expense of contrast and vise-versa.

There are compensating developers that work disproportionately in shadows more than highlights.

High-energy developers such as D-72 is typically used for big grain - called "popcorn." It is a low-acutance, high-contrast developer usually used for paper emulsions.

My favourite "solution" is a two-part, two-step, A & B developer which has a two, or three-minute soak (no agitation) in solution A, then remove, drain, and soak (no agitation) in solution B for the same time - continue with stop, and fix.

The correct agitation technique is vital. Too much and the edges of your image will be over developed and irregular compared to a proper agitation.

The temperature is an issue. All solutions must be and remain at the desired temperature including the wash water afterward. This can't be overstated.

I suggest that before you process shots you can't replace you shoot and process some "throw-away" local subjects until you can with some confidence proceed with what you have.

Every different film-developer combination will give you a different effect which will become evident only after you try them.

There is no certain predictor of how a latent image will appear with any given processing. We use curves and sensitometric data averages.

Edit: additional tip regarding changing bags: Get 8 blocks and 8 wooden dowels to construct the biggest knock-down frame that will fit inside the changing bag to make a roomy light-tight tent. I use the corners from a "tinker-toy" and longer hard-wood dowels from a hardware store. Store the frame parts with the folded bag. The benefit is that the resulting "roof" gives plenty of headroom to keep the fabric out of your way. This was handy for loading and unloading 8"x10" film holders in the field. I've also used the same bag for loading an unloading 35mm film magazines for cine which are big, heavy, and cumbersome to deal with. The sleeves go into the sides of the frame. Be sure to make sure the inside of your bag is free from dirt, lint, tape, and film chips. Inspect carefully. It will NEVER replace a nice clean counter space, though.

Knock-down "tinker-toy" changing bag frame

  • I use a bathroom for my loading area with a piece of plywood over the counter sink as a flat, clean, space to load my tank and the kitchen for the processing. It's relatively easy to darken a small bathroom and mine has no window.
    – Stan
    Oct 4, 2018 at 15:26

Theory of Development (How developing fluids affect B&W film)

To be practical, a developing agent must:

  • clearly differentiate between exposed and unexposed silver halide; i.e., be free from fogging;
  • reasonably stable in solution;
  • sufficiently soluble in water;
  • must not soften the gelatin layer; and
  • should be non-toxic.

Components of a Practical Developer The most successful and the most commonly used developers are organic compounds. The mechanism of development is a rate process depending upon time and temperature as well as concentration.

  • Developing agent(s) - to reduce silver halide to metallic silver
  • Alkali - to keep the developing solution at the proper pH (a base) for the developer activity.
  • Preservative - sodium sulfite) as an anti-oxidant agent that combines with developer by products that affect the rate of development.
  • Restrainer - potassium bromide to lower fog (from unexposed but chemically reduced halide crystals.

Characteristics of the Principal Film Developing Agents.

Hydroquinone (p-dihfdroxybenzine) Hydroquinone is a slow, powerful developer which is used alone where high density and contrast are required, as in (litho) process work, but more often with metol (see below). Alone it is greatly retarded by low temperature being practically inert below 55°F. Above 70°F excessive fog and stain may be encountered.

Metol (p-methylaminophenol) Metol is an extremely energetic, soft working developer not greatly affected by temperature or by the restrainers. Metol with sulfite alone is a useful negative developer where low contrast is desired. With the addition of an alkali it forms a more energetic but soft working developer which is useful for thinly-coated, fine-grain negative emulsions. It is usually used with hydroquinone. The speed of development (as measured by the growth of density and contrast) is greater for the combination than with the sum of both metol and hydroquinone separately. This is called “additivity.” Kodak called the stuff "Elon" in the event you find a can of it in a time capsule.

Paraminophenol This is a rapid soft-working developer similar to metol but is exhausted more rapidly. It is useful for high-temperature development and in the preparation of highly concentrated developers of excellent keeping properties. (Rodinal, Azol, etc.)

Phenylenediamine Para- and ortho-phenylenediamine are the only truly fine-grain developing agents but the low reducing energy and the solvent action on silver halide require a considerable increase in exposure. To avoid this, phenylenediamine is often combined with glycine, metol , or other more energetic developers. Although the grain is not as fine as with phnylenediamine alone, the speed loss is much less. The phenylenediamines are strongly toxic and contact with the solution should be avoided.

Pyro (pyrogallol) (1,2,3-trihydroxyhenzine) Pyro, has been almost completely superseded by metol-hydroquinone (MQ) and other non-staining developers. Pyro produces two images, one of silver and the other a dye image which is an oxidation by-product of the developer. The density of the stain image depends on the amount of sulfite but is influenced by the temperature, dilution, and other factors that affect the rate of oxidation. Pyro is often combined with metol, less frequently with glycin. With diaminophenol, it develops without alkali.

Pyrocatechin (catechol) (o-dihydroxybenzene) Pyrocatechin resebles pyro in many ways. Its stongly marked tanning action has been used in compensating developers. The fine-grain developer, Meritol, is a compound of pyrocatechin and paraphenylenediamine.

Phenidone (1-phenyl-3-pyrazolidone) Alone Phenidone is an active developer but of exceptionally low contrast. It is used chiefly with hydroquinone, being much more efficient than metol.


Developers can be broken down into a couple of large categories:

Fine Grain Developers / Solvent Developers

Examples include Kodak D-76 and XTOL. They tend to soften the grains, creating a very fine grain look at the cost of some acutance.

Non-Solvent Developers

Examples include Rodinal and HC-110. These developers leave the grains full-sized and are often used in highly dilute solutions (1+100 for example) which brings out the acutance even more. Until you have a bit more experience, I'd stay away from non-solvent dev's. By all means, play around with them, just not on any shots you wouldn't throw into the "test" category.

Getting into the grain structure of each film and how different developers and techniques can change things is a long discussion. I'd encourage you to post more targeted questions on the matter as you have them.

For now, my best advice to you is to use something tried and true, as the results should be good for you. Kodak D-76 is a great place to start. If you're ever unsure of your dev times, the internet is here to save you.

As for getting the film on the reel - I understand predicaments. My wife and I had to spend time in a 500sqft studio with a massive window and in the city, causing there to not be a light-proof room in the whole place. The bathroom door gapped so bad I would have had to plaster towels all the way around it, even at night. So, the use of a change bag was necessitated.

This, however, is not ideal - especially as a beginner. Though, I will say it's not impossible. Just make sure that you become very comfortable handling film first, in loading a reel in the light...second, loading in the dark...and third, loading in the dark in a change bag.


I second the advice to practice on unimportant, locally-shot film before processing your valuable holiday shots. But definitely learn how to develop film - it's a lot of fun and quite rewarding.

As to what developers to use, there are many, many choices. If you want a good technical starting point, I might point you to the Film Development Cookbook, by Steve Anchell. (His Darkroom Cookbook is equally interesting, and also covers paper development and other chemicals, including toners.) I think you'll find them to be good reading, and you'll learn a bunch. They're both in print and fairly easy to find, as far as I know.

But to get back to the question, I strongly recommend you start with Kodak D-76 or Ilford ID-11 (they're interchangeable). They're powders so they're inexpensive to have shipped, and are fairly easy to mix up. You mix up the powder into a stock solution, which in some cases you can use as-is or you can also take some stock solution with varying amounts of water to make a working solution. With D-76/ID-11, I prefer a 1+1 dilution, i.e. equal parts developer and water. Mix up only what you need from your pre-mixed stock solution, and discard after use.

D-76/ID-11 is a very forgiving developer that is not overly sensitive about errors in processing time. It's the gold standard of developers; all films are designed to work well with it. It's inexpensive, easy to find and easy to use.

Many darkroom workers prefer liquid developers, and they have their advantages, but they are more expensive to ship due to the greater weight. The one liquid developer I keep in my darkroom is Rodinal. It's based on a completely different chemistry from D-76 and while it tends to make for grainy results, has a nice tonal range. I would try this developer after you've developed a few dozen rolls in D-76/ID-11. The stock solution lasts almost indefinitely, which is a nice plus. (D-76 is good for about six months in full closed bottles.)

Once you've gotten your feet wet with these, then you will probably know what directions you want to go. Kodak HC-110 is a liquid concentrate that works quite well with most films. It's thick and syrupy so a little bit of a hassle to work with, but it's a good product. I also use pyrogallol-based developers like PMK in some of my work, but I'd try these well into your darkroom career. They actually stain the emulsion which helps to mask some of the grain and deepen density, but require a little care in using and are fairly hard to find (you often have to mix them from scratch). (If PMK sounds intriguing, check out Gordon Hutchings' The Book of Pyro.)

Good luck and have fun! Just don't get too crazy too fast! Get to know one or two films and one developer - get really used to them, and then diverge and experiment.

PS - wait until you start printing your own black-and-white images on real photographic paper, and we can have this chat again about all the different print developers. :) (Hint: Kodak Dektol and Ilford Bromophen; wild card nominee: Ansco 130.)

  • 1
    It's going to require you to learn a little Italian, but some of the content in Foto Ricettario is also very good!
    – OnBreak.
    Oct 4, 2018 at 22:33

I too destroyed my first roll of film (120 type), because I could not get the curling ends into the spiral of the Patterson tank. (Patterson Super System 4, recommended.) It contained irreplaceable photos, of course. :-(

35mm film is much easier, if your camera leaves the end out of the cartridge. You can just stick the end into the spiral before you switch off the lights, and a minute later it's all in the tank and you can switch the lights back on for processing. Learn to cut the end of the film in the dark. Ilford cartridges were (are?) easy to crack open without tools, if the end should not stick out. Practice with an expendable film !

As to developer and fixer, I would just go with whatever the photo store sells, it's not like you've got a lot of choice these days. I used Nivenool (single use mini bottles), but despite the name my negatives always came out high contrast. Store the concentrate in the refrigerator, it has a finite shelf life. If it's dark then it's spoilt.

Developing: temperature and time and agitation matter ! You'll need a good thermometer and a clock. Mix warm and cold water to the desired temperature and then add the developer concentrate, is all. Rinsing with water stops the development, all via the light-proof hole of the tank of course. Fixing is not critical at all, and the diluted fixer can be used multiple times. Halfway the fixing you can open the tank to take a peek. Then comes a lot of rinsing.

Drying the negatives without scratching or dust is difficult, do not rush ! Wet emulsion is soft and sticky. Add a few drops of surface tension relaxer to the last rinse. Buy a pair of clamps to hang the roll from a clothesline in a dustfree room. No swiping, no blow dryer, just patience.

Please practice first, do as I say, not as I did. ;-)

  • The stop bath is critical to timing the developer. It immediately changes the pH to acid so the developer can't work. Water does not stop development. Further, the alkaline developer will raise the pH of the fixer so that it does not work optimally after a few runs.
    – Stan
    Oct 5, 2018 at 16:47
  • The rule for the fixing time is "twice the time it takes to clear." This means: take a scrap of film and place it in the fixer and start your timer. When the film appears transparent, stop the timer. That's the time it takes to clear. Double the clearing time to get the proper fixer immersion time for your processing.
    – Stan
    Oct 5, 2018 at 16:51
  • Wash for archival preservation. One hour at least or years from now you'll see brown silver oxide rather than silver negatives which will fade and mottle until they become unprintable. Wash at the same temperature as you process. Save resources with a product called Heico Perma Wash which is a highly concentrated fixer neutralizing liquid that not only saves a tremendous amount of time and wash water, but even more importantly provides archival permanence in both films and papers.
    – Stan
    Oct 5, 2018 at 17:00
  • 2
    "Fixing is not critical at all" - down voted for this sentence alone. I agree with @Stan - stopping is critical as well. Also, while you can take a peak while fixing...don't. The film is on a reel and you can't see anything anyway. Leaving it on the reel makes everything easier, so why screw with that?
    – OnBreak.
    Oct 5, 2018 at 17:10
  • "As to developer and fixer...it's not like you've got a lot of choice these days" For real? My local store carries at least 8 different developers and I can find even more online. Even more if I decide to make my own using the ol' cookbook. There's a mind-boggling amount of ways to develop film.
    – OnBreak.
    Oct 5, 2018 at 17:12

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