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

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Pyro Developer - Part II

Why don’t more people use pyro developer? From the posts I’ve read on the Internet over the past six months, it boils down to the following (in decreasing order of importance):

  • It’s toxic. Well, most photographic chemicals are toxic, but I suppose that pyro is more toxic. Pyro is certainly more hazardous to your health when it is in powder form and can be inhaled. But in water, you can treat it like you treat any other mildly toxic liquid. You avoid getting it into your eyes, nose, and mouth, just like you would chlorine bleach, ammonia, and weed killer. Also, you have to avoid getting it on your skin as it can be absorbed through the skin. If you are careful, it won’t poison you (keep in mind that it used to be used as a hair dye, and that a current hair dye for men is a solution of lead acetate, another thing you don’t want to ingest). I do wear kitchen gloves while developing with pyro, but that is simply because my tanks are more light-tight than fluid-tight. If you buy the pre-mixed developer, you can eliminate the greatest hazard, i.e., inhaling the power while mixing up the stock solution. I use PMK Pyro and haven’t tried the other formulas. So from now on, whenever I mention pyro, I’m referring to PMK Pyro.
  • It’s fussier than most conventional black and white developers. If you are lazy or try to multitask while developing your film, you won’t like pyro. It has a tendency to streak if you are not rigid in following instructions. You’ll get the idea when I go through the workflow below.
  • It may not work well with your favorite black and white film. As I mentioned in the previous post, it does well with older style films rather than the new, tabular films, and it doesn’t work well at all with some slow films.
  • It isn’t made by Kodak, Ilford, Agfa, Paterson, Edwal, or Ethol, so you probably won’t run across it in your camera store. You can get it pre-mixed from Photographer’s Formulary. If you like it, buy The Book of Pyro by the guru of PMK Pyro, large format photographer Gordon Hutchings.
  • You’ll need to change from your usual fixer, and you can forget the acid stop bath. Pyro is a staining developer, and acid removes the stain. So you should use water instead of a stop bath, and you need to use an alkaline fixer. Photographer’s Formulary TF-4 Archival Rapid Fixer is ideal.

I mentioned that it is fussier than conventional developers. Pyro gives you a usable negative by staining the areas of exposed silver, and it is prone to streaking. You might want to write down the work flow as it is the strangest set of directions I’ve ever had for a black and white developer.

Before you mix up the stock developer, you should mix the fixer (1+3) in distilled water. TF-4 fixer concentrate is a turbid solution with thick layer of fine, white sediment that slowly dissolves in the stock solution. You need to agitate the concentrate to put the sediment into suspension, measure out the appropriate amount of concentrate, and then mix it with 3 parts of distilled water. You have to be sure that it is crystal clear before you use it or you will have thousands of tiny white specks appearing on your prints. Just to be safe, I mix the fixer before even loading the film in the tank.

To make a working stock solution of PMK Pyro, you mix the two concentrates with distilled water in a dilution of 1+2+100 (some lower-staining films require half the amount of water). A mixing syringe works very well for this. Within a few minutes, the solution darkens a bit, to the appearance of apple juice. To be sure that there is enough pyro to completely stain the film, use 5ml + 10ml + 500ml water for each roll of film.

Here is the workflow:

  1. Pour the developer into the tank and cap the tank (I use Paterson).
  2. Invert the tank several times and thump the base of the tank to dislodge bubbles.
  3. Invert the tank twice every 15 seconds.
  4. After each inversion, set the tank down and rotate it 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise (do one or the other, but be consistent). This will give more uniform staining without streaking.
  5. Continue the inversions for every 15 seconds for the prescribed development time.
  6. Pour the used developer into a jar or beaker (do not discard it). You won't confuse it with your fixer. By now it is probably the color of amber beer.
  7. Instead of a stop bath, use plain water (I use four complete refills of water in the tank).
  8. Pour the crystal clear fixer into the tank, following the fixer’s directions. Do not exceed the recommended fixing time.
  9. Pour out the fixer and pour the used developer back into the tank. Agitate every 30 seconds for two minutes.
  10. Discard the now twice-used developer.
  11. Wash in gently-running water for 20-30 minutes.

Okay, I said it was fussy, and pouring used developer into the tank after fixing does go against your instincts. But fixing the film exposes the silver a bit more to the staining effect of the develop, staining it a bit more deeply. Apparently the water cycle also increases the staining.

Which films work best with PMK Pyro? I’ve just scratched the surface. Ilford FP4+ works well. I recently bought some Fomapan and Fortepan. I’ll report on those results when I get them. Don’t use slow films unless you’ve read somewhere that they stain well with Pyro. I’m hoping that the cheap European films fare well with it.