I have finally replaced my three classic developers | Pictorial Planet Blog

I have finally replaced my three classic developers

Finding your favourite developers is important for both consistency and expression of your work. Here's how I replaced the developers I used in the past with modern and better equivalents.


I've been wanting to help you understand the difference between the developers I provide in the shop and this blog post idea came to mind. And the more I thought about it the more I realised it was spot on. 

I remember back to BP, that is Before Pyro. In those days, I used three classic old school developers most of the time! The first was Acutol, the original Crawley developer of sublime tonality. This was my go to day-to-day soup. It just did all things well being nice and sharp, well graduated in the mid-tones, and it performed with all my medium and slow films of choice.
If I wanted extra definition, extra sharpness, I pulled out the Johnson of Hendon’s Definol. What a marvellous developer Definol was! It was sharp, very sharp, but maintained a long pictorial tonality that Crawley’s high acutance FX2 just couldn’t match. Johnsons of Hendon had really got it right with that developer and it consistently provided me with some of my sharpest negatives. 

Aculux was my developer number three. It was much better with fast films, being a solvent type developer, but still had that Crawley look, that sharpness, no mushiness, and a tonality I’d grown so fond of. I used these three developers for years, rarely straying from the comfort of their results. They were easy. They always worked. But then Johnsons of Hendon closed shop and Paterson stopped selling their chemistry. As I wrote in my book, I started looking around for replacements.

I looked at Rodinal. It had always been a great standby for me. It’s keeping qualities are legendary and if one of my bottles of Acutol looked yellow and possibly problematic, I’d pull out the old Rodinal and use that. It’s a lovely developer but very grainy with fast films, especially at 35mm. Of course I could make ID-11 but, although very popular, my three wonder developers, Acutol, Definol, and Aculux had spoiled me. 

And then came Pyro. 

It seems funny to me now, as I look back, how people in those days had shunned pyro. There were a few diehards using ABC Pyro, especially Edward Weston’s version, and of course they were getting significant results, but most photographers had deserted the pyro chemical a long time previously preferring the new kid on the block, metol. Metol, when formulated into developers, took the photographic world by storm! Metol had much finer grain, and it was this attribute that had suddenly become important. The movie industry had taken off in the early 20th century and they'd chosen 35mm as their size of choice for filming and projecting moving pictures. The side effect of this choice was a market created for a small format, portable cameras. By the way, this is why we have sprocket holes in our 35mm films. So film cameras and projectors could run the film through quickly and accurately.  120 film shows you don’t need sprocket holes to advance the film accurately in a stills camera. But I digress.

So, after the metol revolution, pyro lay, pretty dormant, its crowning achievement probably Edward Weston’s ultimate rejection of metol and subsequent return to pyro. Those few diehard photographers who held on to Weston’s ways and formula continued developing with ABC Pyro, happy knowing that they had something very special in their tanks. And they did because, ultimately, we are back again, using pyro chemistry to develop our negatives beautifully, in developers that Weston would surely have been very interested in.    

Two Types Of Pyro

There are two fundamental types of pyro as a developing agent of choice. These are Pyrogallol and Pyrocatechin (AKA Catechol or Catechin). Pyrogallol saw a resurgence in 1977 with John Wimberley’s WD2D (standing for Wimberly Developer #2 Version D) and again later with PMK (standing for Pyro Metol Kodalk) formulated by Gordon Hutchins in the 90s. These are both good developers, if a little grainy for 35mm, especially with fast films. They also oxidise quickly in the developing tank, thus providing good stain but making them prone to uneven development and less useful with rotary processing. Hutchin’s PMK is particularly prone to uneven development if it’s not agitated every 15-30 seconds. Later, 510-Pyro, the fine grain developer by Jay DeFehr was formulated. Although it too used pyrogallol, it came with fine grain and enabled rotary development because of better control of oxidation. 

The other type of pyro, pyrocatechin, became popular through Barry Thornton’s diXACTOL two bath developer and Sandy King’s single bath Pyrocat HD. Thornton said he preferred pyrocatechin for a couple of reasons including that he recognised pyrocatechin conferred a different stain colour that he said was more consistent from film to film. He also noted, with particular interest, that the stain colour was better being a brown colour instead of the green/yellow of pyrogallol. The brown stain of pyrocatechin, when used with multigrade papers, acted as a variable safelight filter, which is in key with the negative - particularly in the highlights. So the stain in the highlights controls the contrast and the negative prints more easily with more highlight definition and tone. Unfortunately, the green/yellow of pyrogallol acts like a soft grade filter with multigrade papers, so reducing the contrast of the sky. I rarely want this in my landscapes where I want good clouds definition and contrast. The upshot of all this is that pyrocatechin developed negatives are easier to print with much less burning in required of highlights. 

I mention diXACTOL Ultra and Pyrocat HD as though they are the same developer but they are not. Pyrocat is simpler using just pyrocatechin and phenidone as balanced developing agents. diXACTOL Ultra however, uses no less than three developing agents; pyrocatechin, phenidone, and photographic glycin. Photographic glycin, is rarely used these days because it’s so expensive but in diXACTOL Ultra’s case Thornton realised it really adds to the tonality of the developer. I’ve tried the formula without glycin and know that Thornton was right! 

diXACTOL is also the sharpest developer I’ve ever used. This is probably due to its higher PH as well as that balance of developing agents again. diXACTOL really has replaced my Definol of old. Very sharp but with wonderful tonality. It shows me that Thornton, just like Geoffrey Crawley, balanced his three developing agents perfectly and achieved something special.

But what of my Acutol, what have I found that replaces that? Well, it’s become Prescysol. It’s Peter Hogan’s twist on an all purpose pyro developer. His developer is also a staining and tanning pyro developer and, just like Thornton, he uses three developing agents (more Crawley influence?). I see it as an excellent fine grain all-purpose developer that cleverly straddles the boundary between pyrocat and diXACTOL Ultra. 

The interesting thing about Prescysol is the third developing agent. It isn’t photographic glycin, like diXACTOL, but is in fact metol! This is a rather clever idea because of the way metol works with film. Metol is fine grained and strongly affected by bromide development by-products and because of this, it’s well known for being gentle on highlights. Take D23 for instance, a well known Kodak metol developer. It is a soft working and kind to the highlights. With D23 the highlights build slowly and controllably, the bromide development by-products slowing the highlight development creating wonderful long tonality and good contrast. Hogan has used this idea to the max and created a marvellous developer that produces good highlight separation and contrast. This makes it nice and easy to print. It’s definitely the closest to my Acutol of old with the same kind of sharpness and gradation through the mid-tones. It also adds to the Acutol look by bringing more acutance and, frankly, better highlights. I’m so glad my Acutol is back.

But what of my Aculux? What can I use for those faster films in 35mm? Prescysol EF (Extra Fine). This developer has that lovely fine grain and long tonality; from the luminous shadows (and fine grain) is provided by photographic glycin, to the bright highlights provided by metol what's not to love? It’s great with fast films and sharp due to the acutance from the pyrocatechin. Oh, and the brown stain, so easy to print with or scan. 

So now I have my three developers back. Yes, they’ve taken on alternative forms but the results are very pleasing with all my films of choice. Prescysol is my all-purpose Acutol, diXACTOL is my super sharp Definol, and Prescysol EF is my fast film Aculux. 

Don’t tell anyone, but I still have my old bottle of Rodinal on the shelf too. It’s not used much these days, but you know how it is. The coolest darkroom dudes always know where their Rodinal is, right?