Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Monday, June 12, 2006

Pyro Developer - Part I

I generally minimize disappointments by sticking with the tried and true in photography. My most often used lens is a “normal” lens (40mm to 55mm), I usually use TRI-X rated at the nominal ISO of 400, and I have historically used reliable D-76 in developing. I also like Rodinal, one of the oldest developers still commercially available today. So deciding to fiddle with pyro developer was out of character for me. Why fool with a 19th-century developer originally made from Chinese gall nuts that very few photographers even think of using today?
  1. It seems to work best with “older” emulsions. I wouldn’t recommend it for the newer tabular grain films. But with the conventional black and white films available from Europe and China for half the price of their newer cousins from Kodak and Ilford, I can afford to burn twice as many rolls each week. Ilford FP4+ is my favorite moderate speed film, and it works very well with pyro developers.
  2. It seems to work best with faster films. TRI-X and other 400 ISO films fare much better with pyro than do slower films such as Ilford Pan F+ (ISO 50). I don’t shoot many rock formations, ice sculptures, or bowls of fruit. Everything I shoot seems to be moving, so I need higher speed films. Agfa APX 100 is as slow as I can usually tolerate and still get usable frames.
  3. It stains the negatives. Why would anyone want a developer that stains the negatives a nauseating greenish-yellow? Because the stain goes right where the film was struck with light, and the intensity of the staining is proportional to the amount of light having hit the negative. Even this would not have made pyro developer appealing to me had I not used chromogenic black and white films for the past several years. Chromogenic black and white films are those that must be developed using C-41 processing, the same processing as color negative films. Instead of silver metal grains forming the image on the film, there are “dye fields” that are formed. The result is prints exhibiting very little visible grain. I have produced prints from 400 ISO chromogenic negatives that look like they were shot with 25-50 ISO silver halide film. Finer grain while maintaining high film speed is very appealing. Once you have shot Ilford XP2 or Kodak BW400CN film at ISO 400 with little grain, it is hard to go back to TRI-X; the grain appears gargantuan. The staining produced by pyro developers reduces the perception of grain associated with TRI-X and other fast silver halide films. One can use a grain solvent developer to reduce the grain of TRI-X, but then you reduce the apparently sharpness.
  4. It has a long shelf life. If I shoot with any regularity, my stock pyro solutions will be used up long before they have a chance to poop out. Better yet, pyro solution reportedly looks different when it is losing its potency. Mine hasn’t yet, so I don’t know the look of dead pyro yet. I’m not so trusting of other developers such as D-76 and XTOL. My rule of thumb is to dump down the sink anything older than 60 days even if it was in an amber bottle filled to the top.
  5. It takes up very little space. Like Rodinal, you can get pyro pre-mixed as a liquid. Unlike Rodinal, pyro is in two bottles, a small one with a light brown liquid, and a larger bottle with a clear liquid. My wife has appreciated the gradual disappearance of the 1-gallon amber chemical bottles littering the kitchen and my office.
Why not use pyro? If the above arguments are compelling, why doesn’t everyone use it? Perhaps a better question is why don’t I personally know another human on earth who uses it?

That’s the topic of my next post.

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