The Trouble With Rodinal

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

Everything comes and goes. You stick around long enough, you’ll see a lot of things come around again. I’ve been around for long enough to have seen not one but two brand-new/revelatory/breakthrough English translations of The Brothers Karamazov (among Dostoevsky’s novels, the last and greatest, and Susan Sontag’s favorite book). The latest is by Michael R. Katz. This supplants the previous new revelatory breakthrough translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Twenty or thirty years from now there will be a new must-have translation, unless we are all cooked by then*.

So now Rodinal is popular once again among B&W film users. Sad. It’s a poor-ish pictorial film developer, in my ‘umble opinion, especially for small formats: not always terrible, but not very good. The reason is that it depresses the mid-tones with most films, and accentuates grain. If handled well, some pictures look okay. With average skills or below, most pictures will be overlaid with a fog of depression and despair; tones will look grimy and dirty; sunlight shining on the World will seem like it gave up before it got here; pictures convey a grim mood and feeling. Spirits will be oppressed and reality made to look airless and hopeless.

Other than that it’s okay.

It’s also okay if that’s the view of the world one is trying to convey, like a cynical Holden Caulfield with a camera. Maybe Rodinal is the developer for disaffected teens.

Magic bullet, dept.

Oh, but what about acutance? It’s a high acutance developer. When someone says that to you, ask them to define acutance. Put them on the spot; don’t allow them to go look it up. And what makes them think it is high acutance? Oh, they heard it is. Yes, I heard it. We all heard it. We heard it over and over, so it must be. Acutance is something good, we think, and it is something Rodinal provides. We think.

Piffle and balderdash. D-76 1+1 has just as much acutance, without the emphasized grain. And if you really want to see what acutance is, with your eyeballs, try D-76 1+3. This will extend the development times considerably, but we got your acutance for you right here.

Rodinal was formulated in 1891. The great innovation was not only that it could be supplied as a liquid, but as a liquid concentrate. Maybe it was high acutance by the standards of 1891.

Betsey 1922Edna Leighton Tyler (1879–1970), Betsey, 1922. The

kind of tones that Rodinal was made for, and best at.

Okay, I’m being half tongue in cheek.

The other bad developer everyone uses is HC-110 dilution B. Because Ansel Adams used it. Here’s the thing to remember about that: he was Ansel Adams. And, um, you’re not. (And he used it with sheet film, which, while it was “Tri-X,” was TXT in his day, not TXP or TX.)

Here’s what normally happens with HC-110B (or used to):

  1. Newbie, green, wet-behind-ears photo-infant hears about how great it is, Ansel used it, etc.
  2. Uses it with 35mm, seeking specialness. (Magic bullets being what you think you should be after when you’re green.)
  3. Turns out that it’s rather balky and hard to control, because it’s too active and requires short development times which increases timing errors and agitation irregularities, and…
  4. …Pictures don’t look all that good. Certainly not like Ansel Adams prints.
  5. Continues to use it, all the while thinking and asserting that it is special, albeit with, shall we say, subsiding enthusiasm.
  6. Eventually, quietly gives up and finds a better developer. And in so doing becomes less of a newbie, less green, and less wet-behind-the-ears, having gone through one of the standard trials by fire we all go through.

Nine people were in my graduating class in the Photo Department at the Corcoran School of Art in 1985, but 15 people were in the class in our sophomore year, the first year students picked a specialty. One, whom I will not name even though I remember, was a young guy with very little photography experience. He had some resources, though, which a lot of us did not have. He had two brand-new Nikon F3T bodies, the F3 being the top professional Nikon at that time and the “T” meaning the top and bottom plate were made of titanium so it could cost extra. His lens was the 55mm Micro-Nikkor, because that was the sharpest lens Nikon made according to what he read. He only shot Panatomic-X film (or maybe it was Technical Pan? It’s been a minute), because it had less grain than any other film. And of course he used Rodinal, see above re: acutance. Maybe HC-110B. Pretty sure it was Rodinal. The photo paper he used was whatever had the blackest blacks.

Of course his prints looked awful because he didn’t know how to expose and develop, which is more important than what equipment and materials you use. Highlights were hopelessly blocked and he tried to print down through them so a lot of the dark tones were forced into pure Dmax. He was mystified by these failures, and our teachers were no help because they didn’t really teach technique unless you bugged them to. (In case you’re wondering, they taught judgement, artistic meaning and effect, working methods, and ideas, among other things. Just not a lot of nuts and bolts.) I offered to help him with his technique, but he didn’t see the reason to change film, developer, or paper…wasn’t he already using the best of everything?

He didn’t last long. I think he left before the end of the year, although I might be wrong.

And of course you can make Rodinal look good, with the right film and paper. But—this was Phil Davis‘s thing—photographic technique gets a lot easier when you use materials and methods that fall naturally into the way you wanted your pictures to look in the first place. Most people who use Rodinal end up fighting it, and then wondering why the craft of photography seems to be so hard.


P.S. Take this article with a grain of tolerance…er, salt. I kinda got going. No offense to anybody. Opinions are those of the author, etc.

*I say this, but I’m going to get the Michael R. Katz translation. Because I am a sucker for the idea that a newer translation is a better one. This is not rational, but there you go.

Related post: How to make digital B&W look better.

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Featured Comments from:

Olybacker: “If I recall correctly, Technical Pan film requires a purpose-made Kodak developer. Theoretically, so do the Kodak T-Max films although a Kodak Company representative told me at a Trade Show in the UK, ‘You will get better results with T-Max using D-76. We have done or own lab tests to prove it, but don’t tell anybody.’ In my view the current Kodak T-Max 100 and 400 ISO films are the best B&W films going. Please don’t tell Ilford I wrote that!”

Mike replies: That’s true. I was a pre-release beta-tester for the T-Max films (I was told I was the first person outside of Kodak to get any—one roll of each!), and if memory serves I believe D-76 was the developer used throughout the films’ testing phase. I also ended up preferring D-76 for P3200 too.

Marten Collins: “Oh Mike I must partially disagree with you over Rodinal though I have no experience using it pictorially if that means landscapes. I used it shooting portraits and families in a studio with APX25 and diluted 1:50 for many years or at least till Agfa on their way down stopped making APX25. I reduced agitation and rated the film at ISO 12 and was presented with quite ‘heavy’ negs which gave me wonderful grain free images and cool whites together with the ability to dig details out of the blacks if I wanted or needed to. Oh yes I was beyond my teenage years when I started to use Rodinal and it was, for portraits, my favourite dev+film coupling; in fact I wrote an article about my usage for the late lamented Darkroom User magazine edited by Ed Buziak.”

Mike replies: I wrote many articles for Darkroom User, albeit under a pseudonym—the publisher of the magazine I worked for didn’t want my byline appearing in other magazines. You chose wisely—APX25 was one film that Rodinal worked well with.

Dave: “Another great ‘nuts and bolts’ post.

“In the book Pentax & Single-lens-reflex photography, by Robert Fuhring, he mentioned that one magazine editor would tolerate new photographers’ pet processes for a while. Eventually, the new photographers would fall in line and let the lab process with D-76 and whatever paper they used. The results with D-76 were better than the ‘special processes’ the new photographers championed. (I really like how Mr. Fuhring wrote his various versions of that title. Easy to read and not too technical sounding, with several stories included to show the importance of the point he was covering. Just the information you needed to understand the camera and to help take better photos. Even those new-fangled electronic flashes were covered.)

“Less grain than any other film? It had to be Tech Pan. Of course, that was ‘graphic arts’ film and had to be coerced into good pictorial photography results with a different developer. Lord help you if you didn’t have the exposure and dynamic range under control!”

Mike replies: Yes, in direct comparisons D-76 (Ilford’s version is called ID-11 and is in some ways superior in terms of handling) usually won out over everything else. It had many different looks depending on how you used it. In the ’90s there was a great cult around pyro developers, thanks to Gordon Hutchings and his Book of Pyro and its many admirers. Phil Davis, of Beyond the Zone System and the de-facto technical editor of Photo Techniques, did a series of demonstrations that proved D-76 could be made to look exactly identical to pyro…but he refused to let me publish his results! He knew it would be a pointless hornet’s nest of disputation and he just didn’t want to get into it. 

Ed Hawco: “No need to apologize for the tone, Mike. Personally, I like it when you tell it plainly as you see it, and it even makes me giggle a bit.”

Mike replies: Of course people can use whatever they want to, and the good workers will do good work. I partly just thought there should be a little counterbalancing somewhere on the Web to all the gushy blabber about Rodinal.

Andrew L: “You just try telling me that Fomapan 100 (or Arista Ultra 100) looks bad with Rodinal. Just try. Also, Acros II. Good day, sir. I SAID good day!”

Mike replies: Ahhhh…it looks great with those films? (Edges toward exit)


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