In an age of never-ending comparisons, “which product is best for me”, “should I buy product A over product B”, and “top 10 products to buy for blah blah blah”, consumers are constantly in search for the best of everything.
For photographers, gear is often the product to which we incessantly research and read about. Prior to the days of the information superhighway (anyone remember that term?) people researched cameras and lenses by reading magazines, newspapers, or by visiting a camera store and handling them for themselves.
For film photographers, when you have the camera or lens that you want (or can afford), you still need film, and a way to develop it so there’s a whole other realm of comparisons to be made.
Today, with film usage slowing creeping towards popularity again, there are many excellent sites out there comparing current film emulsions and the chemicals that you can buy to develop them yourselves. These sites are filled with insightful commentary, A/B comparisons, and tutorials for how best you can achieve quality results yourself.
But film isn’t new. People have been doing this for a long time, and there’s already plenty of websites with development tips on them, but why reinvent the wheel when we can learn from those same comparisons and commentary that has already been done in the past.
In this week’s Keppler’s Vault, I bring to you a 12-page article from the March 1961 issue of Modern Photography called “Which Film? What Developer?” by John Wolbarst. Below it is a bonus 4-page article from the October/November 1963 issue of Camera 35 which more specifically looks at high-acutance developers like Kodak Microdol-X and a couple homebrewed chemicals.
The article starts out with a claim that is still as true today as it was 58 years ago when it was first printed, which is that no commercial photofinisher can possibly afford to process your film with the care and attention that you can…if you know what you’re doing. Only you know whether the film you shot was done in a dark dingy bar that would benefit from a little more developing to bring out the grain you are looking for. Perhaps you know your camera tends to overexpose highlights a little and you want to compensate for that. Maybe you aren’t a fan of very high contrast images and like bringing out shadow detail in your images. These are all things you can do yourself with your film that a retail film lab won’t take into account.
The article goes a good job of covering the basis for home black and white film developing. It explains the difference between a single shot developer and one you can use over and over, it touches upon what kind of equipment and materials you need, and it emphasizes the need for a consistent processing technique.
This might all sound intimidating to the novice who has yet to develop their own film, but as someone who was once there, I can wholeheartedly say that doing your own film developing not only saves you a TON of money, but is extremely rewarding, and a lot of fun. Plus, for someone like me who is constantly rotating through many different cameras for reviews on this site, it affords me a cost-effective way to experiment with cameras that are of questionable working condition by shooting some film in them and not worrying that if I get no images, I haven’t wasted much money.
Pages three and four of the article talk about selecting the right film. Of course the choices of film in 1961 aren’t the same as they are today, but there are similarities. You can still get ultra slow ASA 6 speed cinema film from places like the Film Photography Project, or Rollei RPX 25 is a “spiritual successor” to Kodak Pan-X and AGFAPan 25, Ilford Pan 50 is still widely available as a low grain medium speed film, and of course there’s still Kodak with TMax 100, 400, and 3200 still available.
Next is a short intro to the various developers that are mentioned in the article. There is about a 50/50 split between single shot developers that you throw away after each use, and conventional developers which can be reused. Many of these developers are no longer available, but long standing favorites like Rodinal, Kodak D-76, and Ilford ID-11 can still be purchased today.
A notable omission is the absence of my preferred developer, Kodak HC-110 which wasn’t introduced until 1962, a year after this article was written.
Pages seven through ten are two separate full page tables breaking down recommended developing times for various films available, their concentrations and times required to get appropriate results. Of course with any black and white developer, recommended concentrations and times are merely starting points that you may adjust depending on your specific requirements.
Not all of the information in these two articles is relevant today, and there are certainly easier tutorials out there for the beginner, but it’s interesting to see what challenges people faced nearly 60 years ago when these two articles were written. Do we have it easier today or not? You be the judge.
Here’s a second article with a little more information about Black & White developing from a 1963 article of Camera 35 magazine.
All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2019.