The Ilford Alternative – Ilford Film Development Chemistry
When I first learned how to develop my own black & white films, I learned with Kodak Chemistry, good old Kodak D-76, the jack-of-all-trades developer who can handle film and paper. But when I first started developing film on my own, my first three film developers were Kodak HC-110, Rodinal, and Ilford Ilfosol 3; in fact, the first roll I ever developed at home myself I used Ilfosol 3. And for much of those early days, I kept using Kodak primarily. But in 2015, when I started reviewing cameras, that first main set of reviews, I decided to make a point to use Ilford chemistry. And went with Ilfosol 3, DD-X, Perceptol, and Microphen. And sure, Perceptol and Microphen became mainstays for certain films and methods of shooting film, but I stuck with Kodak as my primary chemistry source. But of late, there’s been some quality issues with these chemicals. First, the change to the HC-110 formula to make it easier to pour (longevity is still up in the air), then the bad batch of Xtol and the brown Dektol and D-76. I started to look again at Ilford to find an alternative. Today, I will present seven film developers from Ilford that may be worth another look.
- Ilford ID-11
- Ilford Ilfotec HC
- Ilford Ilfotec DD-X
- Ilford Ilfotec LC29
- Ilford Ilfosol 3
- Ilford Microphen
- Ilford Perceptol
If you’re looking for a jack-of-all-trades developer, look no further than ID-11, Ilford ID-11 is a direct clone of Kodak D-26 and can share the exact times and dilutions of the popular Kodak developer. Based around Metol & Hydroquinone as the primary developers. Unlike D-76, ID-11 is available in more than one size, that big 1-gallon bottle that seems to last forever. Instead, you can pick up pouches that can produce either 1 litre or 5 litres. Mixing is done quickly through two pouches of powder, Part A and Part B. A full bottle will last six months, and the stock dilution will develop ten rolls of film per litre. Alternatively, you can dilute it down 1+1 or 1+2. ID-11 is a no-nonsense choice that will get your film developed and show what the film can do without anything special. While you can push and pull develop with ID-11, I would limit yourself to only a single stop, either over or under. But where ID-11 shines is when you’re shooting the film stock at the box speed. And it doesn’t matter what film you’re working with, fast or slow; ID-11 will give you a baseline on the film stock. ID-11 will let the film’s true nature shine, neither adding nor subtracting when used at the stock dilution; once you start diluting it, you’ll see some loss of contrast and a bit more sharpness and increase in grain in some films.
Ilford Ilfotec HC
As you’ve probably already guessed, Ilfotec HC is Ilford’s version of the iconic Kodak HC-110. While there are some similarities between the two, there are some differences. Both are based around Hydroquinone as the primary developer and is a highly viscous liquid. However, the Ilford version lacks that Kraft Dinner orange colour right out of the bottle. Instead, it starts slightly yellow and deepens slightly as it ages. Ilfotec HC does pour slightly better than old school HC-110 but is much different from the modern version. But all the information points to that it has the same long shelf life as old-school HC-110. You can easily translate all the HC-110 times and dilutions over to Ilfotec HC and vice versa. However, Ilford does have slightly different published times for their films compared to HC-110. Ilford HP5+, for example, Ilford has it listed at 6.5 minutes in 1+31 (Dilution B) instead of a flat five minutes in a similar dilution of HC-110. When in doubt, stick with the manufacturer’s data. Also, all the dilutions are mixed right from the syrup, and the dilutions are listed plainly. 1+15, 1+31, and 1+47. Plus, my favourite unofficial dilution 1+63 all work perfectly. You can also use the same time/dilution calculations from HC-110 with Ilfotec HC. The one application that Ilfotec HC is good for is the zone system, especially if this is your first dip into that pond. The reason is that Ilford provides the time adjustment needed for Normal (N) and N+ or N- times to help bring your image into those Five Zones. From there, you can quickly start expanding into that wider world without the added trouble of sifting through the Internet or old photography books. And once you get into the more dilute mixtures, you get plenty of compensation.
Ilford Ilfotec DD-X
While the previous two developers have been direct analogues of Kodak developers, DD-X is similar but not a direct translation. Ilfotec DD-X is Ilford’s dedicated developer for their Delta line of modern emulsion films, similar to Kodak TMax Developer. But don’t use the exact times between these two developers. DD-X is also different from Ilfotec DD; DD is designed in large-scale labs and automatic film processing machines, and DD-X is used in home and tank processing. Based around Hydroquinone as the primary developer, DD-X is tuned perfectly to get the best results out of Ilford Delta 3200 and is a compensating developer making it excellent for both push and pull processing. You can dilute it down either 1+4 and get some reuse out of the working solution, although you will need to add additional time to your development the more rolls you run through the solution. Or use a more dilute 1+9 and use it one-shot. Although I recommend always using DD-X one-shot, the more rolls you run through, the more the image will fall. D-X can give you is excellent tonality with beautiful greys, excellent deep blacks and bright whites.
Ilford Ilfotec LC29
If I wish one Ilford developer were more readily available in North America, Ilfotec LC29 is that developer. LC29 is based around the same technology that goes into Ilfotec HC but combines the ease of use of Ilfosol 3 and outputs a constant image no matter how you use it or what film you process. Using Hydroquinone as the primary developer, LC29 is a highly economical baseline liquid developer and is perfect for those starting their journey in home development. There are three dilutions to choose from 1+9, 1+19, and 1+29, and there is little difference in how the developer acts on the film; it all depends on how long you want the bottle to last. I found that 1+19 is the best balance between shelf life and economy. The shelf life of a sealed full bottle is pretty long, and even opened, despite turning a sickly shade of yellow, is equally long. It’s probably not as long as Ilfotec HC, but it still makes it handy to keep around. LC29 does the job of developing the film; it will also help tame contrast, reduce grain, and maintain edge sharpness. Oh, and you can also use LC29 for both stand and semi-stand development. Examples I’ve found online call for a 1+100 dilution and then left standing for three hours. Or, if you’re looking for a shorter time, a 1+120 dilution with a time of one hour with two inversions at the thirty-minute mark.
Ilford Ilfosol 3
When it comes to Ilford developers, my first experience and my least favourite is Ilfosol 3. Based on two developers, Dimezone and Hydroquinone, Ilfosol 3 has one major weak point, shelf-life. But don’t let that stop you; Ilfosol 3 is a great general-purpose developer perfect for the starter. It’s easily poured, produces excellent results and is mixed from a liquid in either two dilutions, 1+9 and 1+14. However, I highly recommend the 1+9 dilution as it helps reduce the chance of the developer oxidising beyond use. As a GP developer, it has little effect on how the images turn out; for best quality, Ilford recommends working with the 1+9 dilution as you’ll see a little more grain and less contrast with the lower dilution. It works best on mid to slow films; I got less than ideal results on films greater than ASA-200 as it does little to help tame the grain. If you need to use the stuff for only a few rolls, you can pick Ilfosol 3 up in single-use pouches for the Ilford Simplicity pack.
Not to be confused with Microfine, Microphen is Ilford’s equivalent to the discontinued Kodak DK-50 and is a magic bullet when push developing after under-exposing films. Microphen is an excellent developer if you have an issue with too much grain, either because the film itself is grainy or because of under-exposure. Coming in only one size, 1 litre, you can either use it at stock dilution or dilute it down 1+1 or 1+2; when using straight stock, there’s enough to develop ten rolls of film with a shelf life of six months. Mixing is done with two powder pouches and comes together quickly. Film stocks like Delta 3200, ORWO N74, and Streetcandy significantly reduce visible grain without affecting edge sharpness. When under-exposing and pushing, there is a taming of both grain and contrast while compensating for that under-exposure. Perfect for both fast and slow films and when you’re unsure how you’re going to shoot.
If you liked Kodak Microdol-X, then Perceptol is a developer for you, designed specifically around slower films stocks; it is designed to bring out good sharpness fine-grain and keep contrast under control to bring out the best tonality. It is mixed and handled like Microphen, from two pouches of powder makes 1 litre of stock solution and has a six-month shelf-life. However, the stock solution is suitable for only four rolls of film, making it far less economical. Although you can extend the life of the stock solution by adding 10% to your time each roll after the first four. You will see a bit of a speed loss depending on the film, sometimes as much as a full-stop, but honestly, you get the better results by over-exposing the film. Perceptol does a fantastic job producing sharp fine-grain images designed to maximise enlargement in a traditional darkroom and digital printing. But the sharpness and fine-grained nature of the developer makes photos genuinely magical. Every detail is held in high regard without too much increase in grain. Or if you want to milk as much grain reduction out of faster films.
There are a couple of things to remember for us here in North America when it comes to Ilford. Ilford products have never seen a significant recall, and the people behind the company know how to roll with the times. When Harman Technologies purchased Ilford Photo, they quickly moved to a smaller production line, allowing for a demand reduction. The management at Ilford are huge supporters of the film photography community and stand behind their products. If you get something defective, they’ll replace it, plus they’re all super friendly. Sadly being in North America, the products cost more than something from Kodak, but they also do not cut corners. Hence, you pay for good quality chemistry manufactured directly by Ilford. So, in the end, they have my loyalty as I’ve never seen anything go wrong or off-spec with Ilford chemistry. And if you’re looking to support a good company, good people, and supporters of the community, Ilford is certainly worth a second look.