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Types of B&W film developer

Different developers have different characteristics

Many manufacturers make a variety of developers suitable for black and white film development. Trying various brands and types and judging their effects is part of the process you go through in finding the developer of your preference.
Many manufacturers make a variety of developers suitable for black and white film development. Trying various brands and types and judging their effects is part of the process you go through in finding the developer of your preference.

Many beginners are surprised to learn that there are a number of different developers for black and white film - some that increase contrast, others that decrease density, some for "pushing" film that was underexposed, some for maintaining grain structure in fine grain films, those that we call "normal" or general-use developers, and others.


There are a number of brands of normal developers. They were created for developing normally-exposed film, and result in good, sharp, properly-dense negatives of normal contrast and moderate grain with film that was properly exposed. This is the type of developer we particularly recommend for people who are beginners, but it goes without saying that, for optimal results, your black and white film should be properly exposed when using it.

You may find that you are totally satisfied using a general-purpose developer and have no desire to try others. This would not be surprising since many photographers stay with a developer that meets their needs and satisfies their style of photography, and brand name normal developers are proven products that give consistent quality results.

You could also find, over time, that you just don't like something about the look of your finished images and wish to try another developer, which may be another brand of general use developer or one that is more exotic.

Or, you might wish to experiment with the way in which you use your regular developer by changing development time, temperature, film exposure or developer concentration. A negative's density is dependent upon the developer's strength and temperature, the amount of development time and even the amount of developer agitation during the process. Changing one or more of these elements from the manufacturer's guidelines will change the outcome of the negatives. You want to be careful, when experimenting with these variables, that you do not do so with film that you believe has "keeper" images on it, but instead use film that contains test shots taken exclusively for your experiments.


When very big enlargements are made from small negative sizes, like those made from 35 mm film developed in general-purpose developer, the clumping of the silver grains in the negative may become noticeable. While this is not always bad, since some photographs benefit from the "grainy" look, it can be controlled by using a fine-grain developer.

The result is a reduced clumping of the silver grains. However, reduction in density variation across the image can result in a softer, more grayish-white look to the image, a look that is not always desirable or suited to the subject. Fine grain developers require increased development times compared with normal developers, and the negatives are usually relatively low in contrast.

Nonetheless, many 35 mm photographers (particularly when shooting with very slow film for sharp, fine-grained images suited to enlargements) employ fine-grain developer for virtually all of their black and white processing, relying on the fine grain characteristic for the particular look they want, while others prefer their images to have higher density variation and contrast.


These are generally used with process and line copy film types, but can also be used with normal black and white films - for example, when you have exposed a roll of film under an overcast sky and want the developer to increase contrast. High contrast developers do that - rendering tones as either solid black or untarnished white. A high contrast developer would be the one to use if you have photographed, for example, a pen-and-ink drawing or a solid line diagram that has no tonal variation.


These developers increase graininess, and add greater sharpness or definition. Contrast in details and at the images edges is greater. You don't want to use this type of developer with fast black and white films because of the exaggerated effect it will give your images. It is intended for use only with fine grain films of slow to medium film speed.


Note that the same black and white film that should be developed for seven minutes in one developer can require six, eight or even more minutes in another developer, or in the same developer diluted to a different strength. The data sheet supplied with film usually shows the times and temperatures for various developers.


Some film packages contain the message: "The developer you use determines Exposure Index." If you refer to the development table on the film's data sheet, you will see that using one developer, the film should have been exposed at ISO 400, but if you use another developer, the same film required exposure at a film speed setting of ISO 320 or ISO 200. Tricky business.

If you know you are going to use a particular developer, then be sure your camera is set for the film speed required of that film for proper development. Conversely, if you exposed the film at a given speed, then you must select a developer that will properly develop the film at that speed.

Further information...

The development process

Re-using developer
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