A comparison of black and white developing methods

I’ve been developing black and white images in my home darkroom (take that to mean bathroom!) for around four years now and have tried a number of different developing methods, to find out what best suits my temporary darkroom environment and also what method I find most enjoyable and most productive to work with.

When I first started shooting large format images, I was living in shared accommodation and so my darkroom was very, very temporary and small. Since then and now I’m living alone, there is more flexibility in my darkroom and while it is still a temporary set up, I have more space and have been able to light-tight the room a little more, which has opened up a few more options.

I will discuss the four methods I have used over the past four years, but please keep in mind my moderately limited experience in developing black and white negatives, compared with some of you old timers! Note this isn’t a full in-depth discussion on the various development methods, it’s just a round up of thoughts that might help people new to developing large format negatives!

Paterson Orbital

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My first foray into black and white sheet film developing was using a Paterson Orbital print processor, which I bought from eBay. I was lucky to find a motorised version of the Orbital in very good condition. The Paterson Orbital is a daylight print processor but is happy working with negatives too. My experience was only in developing black and white negatives rather than colour negatives or transparencies.

To enable the Orbital to work more successfully with sheet film, the general consensus is that it needs to be reworked slightly – by adding epoxy resin dimples on the base of the Orbital to stop sheet film sticking to the base and, as a consequence, not agitating correctly. It has also been recommended by some that the fins on the inside lid of the Orbital be removed. After developing a number of sheets initially without the epoxy dimples, I can confirm that those are a must.

The two great things about the Paterson Orbital is that it is a complete daylight processing system and by the nature of the device, it needs very little chemistry. I would, on average, run four sheets through the Orbital with no more than 180ml of developer. When using something like Rodinal, it means you need as little as 10ml of stock developer although you may need to check that your developer will actually do anything with such a tiny amount.

The process works by putting your sheet film in the device in the dark or using a change bag or change tent (this is the only part of the process that needs to be done in the dark) and then pouring your developer, stop and fixer in to the top of the Orbital as you get to each stage. The motorised base will agitate the chemicals and it’s mostly a hands off process. It’s very simple, very efficient and, by all reports, produces great results.

Why am I still not using this? It sounds like the perfect solution! Well, believe it or not, I simply didn’t get on with it. I would find the negatives I developed would have marks on them – possibly from the fins that I chose not to remove. Occasionally I would find that one or two of the negatives would lift out their sections (negatives are held down by small pegs) and would end up elsewhere in the processor and would ruin other negatives.

If you’re willing to persist with it and do all the DIY to make it work correctly, then this would be an awesome machine but I didn’t have enough success to want to keep at it. So, I decided to try my hand at…

Tray Developing

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The classic and, probably, most popular method of developing sheet film. It’s simple – three trays for your developer, stop bath and fixer. This was the second method I used, and still do from time to time. It requires a fully light-tight darkroom environment and trays suitable for your sized negative. Generally this means a 4×5″ negative needs an 8×10″ tray, 8×10″ negative needs an 11×14″ tray, etc. You also need enough developer to fully submerge your negatives. In my experience, I’ve found that 4×5 sheets in an 8×10 tray requires around 500ml of solution.

Agitating sheets in open trays requires practice. It is very, very easy to scratch and mark your negatives when you’re agitating them. Check out Ansel Adams’ The Negative or Fred Picker’s Zone VI Workshop books for methods on agitating.

I did frequently find marks and scratches on my negatives while developing in open trays and I know this is a complaint many people have. Luckily, there is a way to avoid this, which is the…

Slosher Method

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What is a Slosher? A Slosher is a tray insert that compartmentalises your negatives into their own little trays, which ensures one negative never comes into contact with another throughout the process.

My slosher is one I purchased from the Photo Formulary, however many people make their own. It allows you to developer six 4×5″ negatives at a time, but requires an 11×14 tray at a minimum.

You are able to transfer the slosher from one tray to another and your negatives should be completely scratch and mark free. I can confirm that since using a slosher, I’ve never scratched a negative during the process but have goofed a few times and scratched negatives while hanging them up to dry!

The size of the tray and the very fact you’ve got a large plastic insert means the required chemistry goes up. I have got away with around a litre of solution, which will cover your negatives just but you need to be a little wary while agitating. This can mean that you’re using a large quantity of chemicals and so obviously it’s not as economical a method as the Paterson Orbital or plain open trays. However, chemicals are pretty cheap these days (at around $8 for a pack of Kodak D76 which will give you four litres of developer – enough for 48 sheets of film based on a 1:1 dilution) so that shouldn’t stop you. If you’re using Rodinal at 1:25 or 1:50, you’ve even less to complain about.

I used the Slosher Method for around six months before wanting to try something new, which was…

BTZS Tubes

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BTZS, or Beyond The Zone System, is a method of calculating your required exposure and developing negatives, devised by Phil Davis. This method’s followers love it and are very passionate about the system. There appears to be a lot more involved in the initial testing stages, but it seems when you get it right, you really get it right.

I didn’t use the BTZS tubes using the BTZS method – I just used the tubes with my usual method of working out my exposure and developing as normal (with the required adjustments for continuous agitation). It is a mostly daylight developing method, with two points in the process needing complete darkness – initially loading the film into the tubes and secondly pouring the chemicals in to the tubes.

Once these are done, you spend your allotted time rolling the tubes in a water bath tray. It is by far the most noisy and vigorous method, compared with the three previous, and initially I was getting results I was very happy with. And then something in my process changed. And then every second negative seemed to fail. I’ve never quite figured out what might have caused this.

The BTZS tubes require very little solution – 60ml or 2 fluid ounces is all you need – so perfect for the skinflints among us. It’s also quite good fun rolling those tubes about in the bath and as most of the process is done in the light, it’s an ideal bathroom darkroom method. The tube method also has the benefit of you being able to develop different film types with different chemicals, all at once, if you need. You can develop one negative for longer times than other tubes, which makes it a very versatile method.

I did find that four tubes was easy to manage but six tubes could sometimes become a bit unwieldy. I used my tubes for around three months until something in my process broke. So I’m back to my faithful Slosher.

Other methods

The above four methods are ones I have worked with moderately extensively and the methods I know well. I have settled back to my Slosher as that has been the most reliable and consistent method and will continue to use that system from now on. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the other methods as many better people than me get wonderful results from them, but they simply didn’t work consistently for me.

Other methods I’ve not experimented with (but may well do at some point in the future) are based on the tubular 35mm/120 format developing tanks – the Taco method and the MOD54 processor.

And, of course, for the wealthy there are the various Jobo devices.

I felt it was important to find a method of developing that suited me best and it was interesting experimenting with these different methods. None of them were especially expensive, thankfully. I’ve found since returning back to the Slosher method, I’m able to set up my darkroom, develop my negatives and pull the darkroom back down in little more than half an hour. It would take longer than that to fill a memory card full of digital negatives, pick the keepers and then HDR them or process them in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Who says large format photography is slow?

If you’re using any of these methods, or something entirely different, I would love to hear about it. If you’ve got any advice or tips for anyone wanting to use any of the methods above, leave a comment below!