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Some Films and Developers - a few thoughts

Perhaps the most useful Zone System attribute is that it’s a good shorthand for discussing print tones. That’s what the above guide is – that’s all. In fact I’m sick of all this bloody Zone System talk. It’s a good shorthand for print tones.


I don’t plot H&D curves with densitometers to determine film-developer characteristics. The emotional effect you’re after determines what you should use. Do you want glaring white snow peaks and black skies? – or a misty, amorphous atmosphere? - glowing white-on-whites or brooding dark tones? Past a certain experience level, assuming you’re not tone blind, print quality is always a personal characteristic, a choice. The West-Coast school says that there should be some pure black and pure white in every print. Rubbish.


And here’s something disquieting. Maybe it doesn’t matter much. Atget’s seeing was so perfect, print quality is irrelevant. Some painters use dazzling amounts of color, Andrew Wyeth used almost none. Annemarie Liddel doesn’t use any. You can’t measure any of these choices scientifically.


Kodak D-76


At RIT, back in the old days, Kodak used to give the photography school mountains of materials – especially chemistry. There were barrels of developer, stop bath, and fixer available for student use in a room behind the “cage.” (The stench of acetic acid permeated the entire floor.) Almost everyone there used Polycontrast paper. I used Ilfobrom, which was considered treason. The film developer everyone used was D-76 at 1:1, because (1) Kodak told us it was good, (2) no one bothered to test it against anything else, and (3) it was free.


D-76 has, or had, a very abrupt “shoulder.” Densities above Zone V would compress, with very little separation between them. Print tones had a chalky, featureless quality, and it seemed especially distressing with 35mm negatives. I can still tell a D-76 print from across the room, or in reproductions. How? The high values are harsh and compressed. The print quality is lousy. Like the sound quality from a spinet piano; that’s lousy too.


At RIT I never used the D-76, and although other students liked my print quality, and asked me about it; they all still used D-76, because it was free, and used Polycontrast paper because Kodak manufactured it. They never bothered to even try anything else.


Things are better today. Photographers tend to try things out more often, honestly assess them, and share the information. Back then everyone would parrot the standard boilerplate Kodak language because doing that was less work. Kodak’s information often wasn’t very helpful, but it served to bolster their profit margins and stock value; they were a coldblooded, money-obsessed giant.


Tri-X and HC 110


When I was in my 20s I used Tri-X film and HC-110 developer (Tri-X = triple X, HC = high contrast). That was what Fred Picker recommended in the Zone VI workshop, and Fred recommended it because that’s what Ansel Adams used. That’s why I used it. Wonderful. Now I could produce high contrast prints that showed most of the tones.


Tri-X and HC-110 produced lovely high value separation – creamy, smooth Zone V- IX separation. It also produced virtually no “shoulder” – with larger film you could overexpose by 3 or 4 stops and still get separation. But low values (II-IV) always looked too dark. David Vestal told me this once: “Adams’ and Weston’s low values always looked sick as hell to me.”


And for some crazy reason, the 8x10 and the 4x5 Tri-X films were completely different. The 8x10 version was very harsh and inflexible. The 120 standard film seemed about the same as the 4x5. I was so frustrated by the 8x10 Tri-X that I once gave it 5 stops more exposure to see if I could compress the contrast with about 75% less development. It had no appreciable effect! I stopped using it. Maybe another developer would’ve helped, but I’d had enough.


Triple-X pan and HC-110 imparted that classic “west coast” look. What’s that? – contrast. More specifically, the highest contrast print that shows most of the tones. I got tired of that too. Like playing Tchaikovsky symphonies at maximum volume - incessantly. My ‘palette’ changed, so I stopped using it.


In 2001-02, I consulted with Eastman Kodak about the new Tri-X formula. It was the same except that it allowed for a little longer development time, about 30%. I mentioned my experience with the 8x10 film. I made other recommendations too. They ignored every finding I made. For over a century, Eastman Kodak had Rochester NY and the photographic industry by the throat. Their haughtiness ultimately sunk them. Maybe they finally reaped what they sowed. That’s a pity.


Ilford FP-4 and FA-1027


In 1999-2000, I began using FP-4 film and FA-1027 developer. FA-1027 was a Phenidone – Hydroquinone developer. I found it a marvelous combination. FA-1027 was similar to Clayton F-76, but with a chemist’s attempt to boost the lower value density somewhat; F-76 was also designed for machine processing, FA-1027 was not.


FP-4 didn’t have the forgiveness – latitude - of faster films, but I found it infinitely flexible to use with FA-1027. I could expand and contract the tonal range very easily, and with quality results: expansion incurred no excess fog and kept the high value separation distinct. (As opposed to expanding contrast with Tri-X and HC-110 where the tones didn’t expand much, and there was a disturbing density increase.)


FP-4 really stood out with contractions (minus development). It was possible to reduce development with FA-1027 and beautifully control sun and shade extremes. Notably, the lower values remained intact – they didn’t drop out. The image remained vigorous with the development reduced. I’ve tried Clayton F-76 with Foma 400 recently and wasn’t particularly impressed.


I don’t see much need anymore for expansions and contractions. I’m pretty much after one effect – one “palette” – and I design the negatives for that. I change contrast in printing rarely, more often with 120 film; with sheet film negatives it’s occasionally just for a slight tweak up or down.


A Word About Foma 400


This is a quirky film. It seems to be a quintessential “thin emulsion” film. It doesn’t expand or contract especially well with any developers I’ve tried. It works best when you aim for a normal contrast negative, with contrast tweaked occasionally in the darkroom. Low value separation with Foma 400 is lousy to adequate, and below a certain development threshold, it drops out completely. If most of the tones in your prints are Zones VI-IX (high key), that may not matter.


And too, low value separation isn’t very good in any film. If I have a scene heavily dependent on Zones III-V, I always expose more and print it down later.


This film imparts the character I like, that’s why I use it. I’d never tell anyone else to use it just because I do. And what you use should allow you to work efficiently with minimal fuss. No one ever cared what kind of eggs Andrew Wyeth used to mix paint.


X-Tol and EcoPro


These are modern “eco” developers. They use ascorbic acid as a developing agent. You mix them at room temperature in A and B solutions, then combine the solutions. They’re popular, lots of people use them. X-Tol is marketed under the Kodak brand. I spoke to someone at the facility where both of these developers are manufactured. She told me they’re both exactly the same formula. EcoPro costs a few cents less than X-Tol.


I directly compared EcoPro with with Arista Premium. In one day’s photographing, I made (2) Foma 400 5x7 exposures of every scene. The odd numbered negatives received the Arista development at 1:7, and the even numbers were developed in EcoPro for 9 minutes.


The EcoPro negatives were very good – they had very full low value detail, better than the Arista. The high values were very well separated also. I can see why this developer is popular. It produces a very standard, workable negative. Like the Clayton F-76 negatives, but more so. Unlike Arista, there’s no noticeable film speed loss.


I’ll quote Vestal again: “What is a good negative? One that’s easy to print.”


For photographers who enjoy a great deal of print manipulation to make the ideal print, EcoPro might be perfect. It produces a ‘neutral’ negative, it’s ‘vanilla.’ You can easily print it soft, or very contrasty, or pinch it in-between; depending on how you work. EcoPro developer might also be very good for 35mm work, providing good average density on an entire roll. (35mm negatives also have higher base density – more on that later.)


Eco developers aren’t to my liking. This is where philosophy comes in – you might love it. The Arista developer produce negatives with the type of “edgy looking” tones I’m after – the IV-VII local contrast is higher. I’m able to duplicate that effect somewhat with the EcoPro negatives, but it takes more print manipulation. That’s the type of laborious darkroom work I’d rather not do. And Eco Pro costs more, and you need to replenish it. But the primary reason I don’t use Eco Pro is that is doesn’t easily make the type prints I’m after. But – it’s good stuff. You might find it ideal.


Legacy L110


I heard different reports about this film developer, mostly comparing it to HC-100. I thought it might be worth a try, particularly if it gave better low value density than HC-110 which I’d also heard. And HC-110 is now close to $40 a bottle.


I tried Legacy L110 with Foma 400 film on some sunlit snow scenes, and some forest and stream pictures later when the snow was gone. Compared to Arista, L110 performed adequately. The local contrast in the high values was good - the high value separation was very good – a lot like the HC-110 characteristics I remember. But like the old HC-110, the overall contrast was just too high. Areas metered at Zone V were at IV or even lower – this in comparison to other developers.


I also found this developer very weak. Diluted at 30ml to 900ml for 7 minutes, the Zone VIII densities were thin. With the need to strengthen the working solution significantly, this developer might not be very economical.


Legacy L100 is contrasty. L110 low values are bleak; nowhere near as good at EcoPro and worse than Arista’s. L110 gives empty low values, doesn’t give the mid tone local contrast I like, but the high value separation is good. It’s contrasty - not a solid overall “vanilla” developer like EcoPro, and contrastier than D-76 Metol-Hq developer. I don’t care for the overall high contrast in L110.


Arista Premium Liquid Developer


I’ve used this film-developer also with Foma 400. Arista Premium does a decent job of imparting strong local contrast in Zones III – VII.


Arista Premium Liquid is not the same as Clayton F-76.[1] Clayton F-76 was designed for machine processing. The Arista isn’t as concentrated as the Clayton, you need more of it. For the equivalent of Clayton at 1:9, the Arista needs about a 1:7 dilution. And the Arista is oddly “harsher”; there’s greater local contrast.[2]  I’ve tested it several times and this is the result. (The MSDS are identical for both, but that’s only chemical content.)


The first time I noticed this was with some 5x7 negatives of wet trees. The images seemed to vibrate, there was an “energy” to the mid-tones in the trees. By comparison, the F-76 negatives were smooth and more proportionately graduated. The Arista Premium mid tones were interesting. For contact printing, this Foma -Arista combination works okay. But to see all the tones distinctly, I sometimes need to expose beyond the minimum time through the clear film. There also seems to be a slight loss of film speed compared with Eco Pro type developers.


Something else about Arista Premium. It won’t give you optimum well separated high values, at least with Foma 400. So if you do lots of snowscapes, you might not like it. The high values “bunch up,” or to use cool photo tech-jive, they “pile up on the shoulder.” They look chalky, not well separated. My work doesn’t depend much on delicate high value separation. I might sacrifice it for the greater local contrast elsewhere.


With Arista Premium and Foma 400, I find it best to reach an optimum development time and use that. You can’t use minus development,[3] and there’s minimal advantage to plus developments, although I’ve done it occasionally - no more than one zone.


This film-developer combination doesn’t expand or contract very well. In fact it doesn’t contract at all – if you reduce development beyond a certain point, everything below V drops out. Expansions will work, but it’s probably best to just tweak the contrast up in printing if need be. And with modern papers, it’s always better to go up, not down.


(What if there’s an extreme sun-and-shade situation? Rather than use development below N, I make a choice and sacrifice something. Usually this isn’t a big deal because my pictures don’t depend on large swaths of Zones VIII – IX. Almost never do all the tones in a pictures have the same importance anyway. If the picture fails, so what? There are plenty more.)


I’ve used Arista Premium developer because I like the character, the atmosphere it imparts. I’ve never measured any of these findings with densitometers, just as I’d never measure cadmium yellow with a spectral meter. I’m interested in how it looks, the expressive ring it produces. It isn’t perfect, but it works for me most of the time.




I haven’t tested everything. There might be a magic, optimum film-developer combination out there but I doubt it. I like a developer that does what I need and has minimal bad habits.


My aim is to make negatives that print well easily; with minimal fuss – minimal print manipulation, contrast changing, and bother. The ideal – for me - is the negative that produces the print quality (form) that best compliments my subject matter (the content).


Arista Premium seems to do that. But if you must have maximum high value separation, and don’t care about lower values; you won’t like it as much as the L110. If you like maximum low value separation (II-IV) you’ll like Arista better than L110, but might be better off with EcoPro. If you print with lots of contrast changes, and burning and dodging, EcoPro might be ideal. It produces a negative with good separation everywhere; but it has no “edge” it’s vanilla.


All this is subjective, yes. Ultimately you need to look at prints, make your own assessments, and adjust.


How important is all this? It might not be that important if you can see well. If you can see the outside world as a stunning metaphor – consistently – it probably doesn’t matter what film and developer you use. The message still gets through. Mozart through a cheap speaker is still lovely.












[1] Clayton F-76 has nothing in common with Kodak’s D-76. 20-plus years ago, Lowell Huff told me that Clayton used the “76” designation because it was recognizable.

[2] I don’t know about the regular Arista liquid in the white bottle – I’ve never used it. I suspect it’s Clayton F-60.

[3] If minus development is attempted at all, the dilution should vary, with the time at least 9 minutes.

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