This week I thought I would discuss the exposure and development process I’ve been using for my mysterious project, which involves Ilford Pan F Plus film and Kodak HC-110 developer.
I’ve been testing some box cameras I’ve already mentioned — the Spartus “120” and the Agfa B-2 Cadet — and have been mentally somewhat preoccupied with my processing, so I thought I would discuss it here.
For this project I decided to use Ilford’s Pan F Plus film exclusively. I was influenced in part by the price — it’s among the cheapest panchromatic films left that can be easily obtained. Beyond that, I love its grain structure. It’s a cubic grain, so it may not be quite as fine as T-grain films claim to be, but it really is exceptionally fine.
Pan F Plus is also a very slow film — rated at only ASA 50 — which works well with my shooting style these days. I’ve been enjoying shooting in bright or fairly-bright sunlight, and the SMC Pentax-6×7 45mm f/4.0 is such a lovely piece of glass at f/5.6 or f/8, the slow film lets me take advantage of the shallower depth-of-field even in a bright scene.
At the same time I’ve been trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned from Henry Horenstein’s Beyond Basic Photography since I mentioned it in this column a few months ago. I feel I’m genuinely starting to refine my exposure technique, and next up is my developing.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m pretty dedicated to processing my black-and-white film with Kodak’s famous HC-110 developer, the Zone System-friendly soup recommended by Ansel Adams in The Negative.
I can’t claim to have a lot of experience with other developers, frankly. I tried some of Ilford’s Ilfotec DD-X first, and found my early Delta 100 and T-Max 400 negatives grainy and unsatisfying. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know enough to know what impact the developer and my technique really had on the negatives.
Looking for alternatives, I noticed that there were dozens of articles about different ways to use Kodak HC-110, and that there were developing times for virtually every film in existence available online. Add that to the extreme value you get in a bottle of syrup, and my mind was made up to try it.
It didn’t hurt that Tim Rasmussen recommended it, telling tales of the glory days of newspaper photojournalism when a hundred rolls of Tri-X a day were souped in HC-110A for just a couple minutes to get photos ready for the evening edition.
And so I bought my first (and so far, only) bottle of HC-110 about four years ago. I know, I know — it’s probably getting old, but it still seems to be working just fine. And it is almost empty.
There’s been some worry online about packaging changes, but the big 1L bottle you’ll find for around $30 at Freestyle and elsewhere is reportedly exactly the same as the 500mL curvy Kodak bottle I bought for $15 back then.
The Unofficial HC-110 Resource Page lists virtually everything you could need to know about its chemistry, its many dilutions and a variety of uses. HC-110 is also a component in a lot of monobath developer recipes.
I’ve never actually tried Dilution A — one part developer and 15 parts water — because the development times for most films are so short I fear the grain would be out of control. Many are under four minutes.
I started with Dilution B: one part developer and 31 parts water. With Dilution B, development times for most films are somewhere in the neighborhood of four to six minutes, and most of my results were really very good. Contrast with pretty much any film was great, and sharpness, too. But I was still hoping to cut down the grain a bit.
I quickly moved to the unofficial Dilution E: one part developer and 47 parts water. I definitely felt this cut down on the grain noticeably, with virtually no reduction in contrast or sharpness. The downside was finding development times for many film stocks, especially when I started trying to do things like pushing Tri-X to ASA 1600, though most wound up in the five to seven minute range
That led me to where I am now: another unofficial (not listed in the Kodak documentation) dilution. Mixing one part syrup with 63 parts water results in the highly-regarded Dilution H. I find that the contrast and sharpness are still fantastic, and with the right film, the grain is creamy and subtle. I love it.
Of course, the next step is to try Adams’ reported formula: one part developer to 119 parts water. Ansel apparently used a semi-stand developing technique. Stand developing typically involves virtually no agitation; Ansel’s formula involved some agitation, but it was very minimal, if I recall correctly.
Film’s incredibly wide latitude makes it easy to come up with a decent, printable (or scannable) negative even if you don’t nail the exposure. To make a good negative, and especially a great negative, you have to put in more work than that.
The concepts of Adams’ Zone System still feel a bit complicated for me, and they are reportedly difficult to apply with roll film since each exposure likely needs slightly different adjustments to development in order to make the most of it.
For that reason I’ve been trying to follow the concept “expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.” With this method, you essentially overexpose the film by a little bit — and it needs to be consistent throughout the roll for this to work — and then reduce development time so that the highlights don’t blow out.
Given the wide latitude of the film, you can increase exposure by a stop or two in order to capture plenty of shadow detail, and count on the film to still capture highlight detail. Assuming you’d exposed the film two stops over based on your center-weighted averaging meter, you might have overexposed those highlights by as much as four or five stops in a scene with a wide dynamic range, but that’s probably not enough to have lost highlight detail.
Take that negative, though, and develop it as if you had over-exposed the film by those few stops — reducing the time. The little bit of detail in the shadows develops quickly because it doesn’t exhaust the developer in contact with the emulsion. The highlights — the most dense part of the negative — take much longer to develop fully, both because they need so much more developer and because they exhaust the chemistry close to the emulsion very quickly.
By shortening your development time you can stop the highlights from overdeveloping and blowing out all the latent detail caught on the film that would be lost if you used the so-called “correct” development time. If you go too far, you could find yourself with a much flatter negative, even lacking in contrast. The ultimate goal, though, is a balanced negative with both the highlights and the shadows pushed right up against the limits of the film — using as much of the latitude as you possibly can.
Once you manage to make these great negatives, printing them should be much easier. Of course the real goal is to give yourself all the detail you want in the negative so that you can make decisions about what detail to leave in or let go of when you’re making the print. This level of control is what allowed Adams to make his superb prints, and how he was able to make such different prints from a single negative, as he famously did with his image, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.”
I’m nowhere near Ansel’s level yet. Heck, I don’t even make optical prints. But I’m working hard to make negatives that will be worthy of the effort once I start. And with this project and the images I’m making this summer, I feel for the first time like I’m really succeeding.
For pretty much ever I have used developing times cribbed directly from the Massive Dev Chart, and a pretty standard agitation scheme. I’m perfecting my technique on my own, now.
Since I’ve done so much work with the same film, on similar subjects, in similar lighting, and in a short span of time, I’ve had my first real opportunity to truly fine-tune my process for my specific set up.
I came up with the development time of eight minutes and 30 seconds initially for Pan F Plus in HC-110H. I felt my negatives were a little too dense at this time, and adjusted to eight minutes flat. All of this is at 68 degrees Fahrenheit — I keep the house somewhat cool and it’s easy to keep the chemistry at 68, so I go with that.
I’m extremely pleased with the density now, though I still find the highlights a tiny bit blown out sometimes.
That’s where I think agitation comes in. Agitation is the practice of stirring the developer in the tank, either by spinning the reels inside or, more frequently, by inverting the developing tank gently and then returning it to upright. After any agitation period, be sure to tap the tank gently but firmly on the counter to reduce bubbles in the developer.
I’ve been using an agitation scheme that starts with a full minute of inversions, and then inverts the tank four times at the start of each minute of development time. I have found that the developer begins to foam up a bit if I try to develop more than a couple tanks’ worth (I do three rolls at a time in a large Paterson tank).
My thinking is that I may reduce the initial agitation to 30 seconds of inversions, and then invert twice every minute. This would cut the total amount of inversion in half and should slightly reduce the development of the highlights, while significantly reducing the foaming of the developer. I hope to lose just a tiny bit of density, and with it, any blown highlights.
After we just finally got done replacing Kate’s car (totaled by a pickup truck in June), her brand-new-to-her 2005 Civic got T-boned by another pickup that ran a stop sign yesterday. The damage isn’t as bad visually, but this time there’s a cockeyed wheel involved and I suspect the new car will be totaled, too.
That’s made it a pretty tough week, short though it’s been so far. And so I leave you with a photo of a chipmunk we found on Grand Mesa on our way back from the North Fork Valley last month, because I feel an intense desire to be far away from the city and its careless drivers.