Film and Developer Commentary by Iris Davis
Even More Fun With Film
Waiting 13 years to update our comprehensive film tests of 1992 might seem like a long time to anyone who’s never suffered through this kind of torture. Imagine shooting nearly 200 rolls of film of the same subject: a corkboard with towels in varying colors that correspond with a grey scale. Are your eyes are glazing over yet? Now, imagine processing all this film in ten different developers and then doing it over, because manufacturers recommendations are rarely related to one’s own darkroom experiences. For the three of you who are still with me on this, imagine doing all of it with your ex-wife!
It is a symbol of our commitment to traditional photography, FILM, that my former husband and I braved the close quarters of a darkroom for untold hours to try and make sense of the changes Kodak and Ilford have made to their products over the last few years. We wanted to see if, as we suspected, Tri-X was no longer “god’s film” and whether or not we should just hang it up and go digital. (Obviously, this is not an option for me, as I am way too stubborn to give up on a fine print that can only be made by getting one’s hands wet.)
A question I found myself asking repeatedly during our first round of film testing in 1992 crept back into my mind during these exhaustive rounds as well: Who tests this stuff, anyway? As just one example of the difference between manufacturers recommendations and our “real world” results, Ilford’s development times for PanF+ in every single developer we used were, consistently much shorter than the film needed.
PanF+ and Tmax 100 are the two finest grained films! we tested, though Delta 100 does give them both a run for their money. As with our tests in 1992, I still can’t see a reason to shoot a 50 ASA film when you can get grain just as fine and 100 ASA to boot. I was stunned by the results of Tmax 100 in HC110 dilution B. I did not expect to see finer grain and better contrast combined with more film speed in HC110, but that’s just what we got.
Whereas in 1992 we found that Tmax 100 looked very muddy in just about every developer except Tmax, that was not the case this time. In fact, we got a true 100 ASA out of Tmax 100 in 4 different developers and 80 ASA in several others. Delta 100 really is almost as good as Tmax 100. It gives you a good 100 ASA in FG7 with a 9% sodium sulfite solution and a very nice 80 ASA in Ilfotec HC diluted 1:31. And since Ilford has shown a much stronger commitment to traditional photography recently than just about any other film manufacturer! * I am happy to highly recommend their films. But in the case of fine grain and film speed, I still prefer the look of Tmax 100. One thing to note about Tmax 100 is its propensity to get dichroic fog. Tmax 100 processed in Tmax developer (not Tmax RS, by the way) is much more likely to have this nasty stuff than any other film I’ve ever processed. With the new results in HC110, I don’t expect this to be a problem anymore.
We weren’t able to get a true 125 ASA out of 125PX or FP4+ in any developer we tested. The best 125PX ever looked was rated at 64 and processed in Xtol. It was flat and ugly in everything else. Ilford’s FP4+ was only marginally better. Again, almost all of Ilford’s recommended processing times were considerably shorter than necessary for good contrast. FP4+ does have very fine grain when rated at ASA 64 and processed in Xtol, but again, when you can get a true film speed of 100 with Tmax 100 processed in HC110, why give up half a stop?
Thirteen years ago we rated Tri-X at ASA 400 in 5 of the 10 developers we tested. In this round of testing we didn’t get a good 400 for Tri-X in one single developer. We found it to be a very good 320 in Ilfotec HC and FG7 with a 9% sodium sulfite solution and HC110 dilution B. The grain was noticeably finer in Ilfotec HC, but HP5+ stole the show this time around. Certainly if you’re attached to Kodak (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) you’ll want to choose Tmax 400 over Tri-X. Kodak appears to be more committed to their Tmax films than Tri-X and Plus-X. Is it just too cynical to think they’ve found a cheaper way to manufacture these films? Whatever changes they’ve made to Tri-X and Plus-X have not been beneficial to the working photographer.
While Tmax 400 does, indeed, give you a good 400 ASA in several developers, there’s just something missing. At its best, Tmax 400 just seems to lie there on the paper. HP5+, on the other hand, looks quite good in a number of developers. In my real world experience I rate HP5+ at 320 and process it for 10 minutes in Xtol, and that right there is proof that these processing times should be considered starting points for your own tests. I am convinced, however, that any conscientious photographer will get acceptable results with the times outlined in this book, and I’ll be happy to show you the dozens of ugly 8x10 test prints to prove manufacturers don’t work in a darkroom anything like yours or mine.
I have seen mixed results with Delta 400. Our tests showed it to be a beautiful 400 when processed in Xtol, but the film that has come through my lab has looked consistently under-exposed. I am very surprised that Ilford’s films don’t seem to perform any better, and often not as well, in their own developers. While Delta 400 looks quite good in Xtol diluted 1:1 and even Perceptol used straight (rated at 400 and 320 respectively), there’s nothing at all special about the results you get in Ilfotec HC or ID-11. It’s also interesting to note that Ilford is now recommending ID-11 be used straight rather than diluted 1:1 as we did in 1992.
We tested Delta 3200 and Tmax 3200 in just a few developers. Obviously, some developers with very long times were out of the question for our “practical” results. We gave them both a shot in Xtol straight, hoping for decent film speed without giant grain. No luck with Delta 3200, but Tmax 3200 gave us relatively fine grain and an effective ASA of 1600. Based on some of my own clients’ results pushing HP5+ to 1600, we tried that too. We were able to get an acceptable 1600 ASA with HP5+ processed in Tmax developer at 75º for 8 minutes, and finer grain than either of the 3200 films. While we did get an actual film speed of 3200 ASA with the Tmax film processed in Ilfotec HC 1:31, we decided Tmax RS gave us a good 2400 with finer grain.
After months of shooting and processing film in all these developers, comparing shadow and highlight detail, grain structure and effective film speeds, it was finally enough to get my teatotalling former husband to share a bottle of champagne with me. Everything looked much better after that.
* After we were too far into this to add any more film to our tests, Fuji came out with a refreshing press release stating their commitment to traditional photography: Silver halide photography, which is fundamental to photography, has advantages over digital in such areas as power of expression, long term storage capability, reasonable prices, easy handling and a highly established and convenient photo development and print infrastructure.
We intend to continue our silver halide photography business and to further cultivate the culture of photography, and in so doing, continue to support our customers and retailers and all those who enjoy photography.
(Iris Davis, with unique style and class, owns and operates a quality custom photo lab in Oakland called Davis Black and White. She welcomes questions and comments through her web site: www.davisblackandwhite.com/)
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