Many people on forums and Facebook are talking about how to get fine-grain results on film. There have been entire books published on the subject, and millions of dollars in research over the last 100 years on how to achieve the best, finest-grain results without sacrificing image sharpness.
I’ve been developing my own rolls for the past three years now, and I’ve come to learn a lot about making exceptional, fine-grain negatives — even when push-processing Black and White film. So how do photographers get the smoothest results when shooting film?
As a general rule, photographers reduce the appearance of film grain by over-exposing, using fine-grain solvent developers, or by stand-developing their rolls. Each process changes the scannability/printability of the negatives, so it’s important to know which one best suits your needs.
There are hundreds of variables out there that’ll change the outcome on your negatives. That’s one of the beautiful things about film — there’s always so much to learn. In this article, the advice I’m giving comes from my own experience, along with the experiences of experts in the industry. By far, the best guide on developing films is The Film Developing Cookbook by Bill Troop and Steven Anchel, which will be referenced heavily in this article.
Choosing T-Grain versus Conventional Grain Films
When you’re choosing a film stock, probably the biggest choice you’ll have to make is whether to buy a T-Grain film like Kodak TMax/Ilford Delta, or a conventional grain film like Tri-X/HP5+. It’s a hard choice. Some people love the sharpness of T-Grain films, where others prefer the rich tonal variations achieved by classic film grains.
According to Troop and Anchell, T-Grains are a modern emulsion that came about in the 80s. The grains are flat — like a skipping stone, while regular grains are rounded, like pebbles. The flat grains allow the manufacturers to use 30% less silver than traditional grains for the same speed. But they provide a sharper image with less grain, making them a favourite for many film shooters. In comparing Delta to TMax, the Film Developing Cookbook authors note Delta is a bit grainier than TMax due to their smaller T-Grains, but Delta shows finer detail and gradation in the highlights.
The downside of T-grains is that they don’t provide the same gradation and flexibility as regular films. Troop and Anchell describe the T-Grain films as delicate, noting that just a 10% change in development time can make major changes in contrast and density.
I’ve written in the past about my love for HP5+, which is the most pushable, and flexible B&W film stock on the market today. It’s a tried and true formula that’s been perfected over the years by Ilford. It responds well to every developer on the market, and can even show some remarkable fine-grain results when combined with solvent developers or when over exposing the negative.
T-Grain films are sharper and have finer grains than traditional films. But traditional film stocks show better tonal gradation and are far more flexible during development, and when pushing or pulling the film.
Exposing film to reduce the appearance of grain
So you’ve chosen your film stock, and now you need to know how to shoot the film in order to get the finest-grain results possible. Luckily there’s a really simple formula for making sure you’re getting fine-grain results every time. It’s something that gets brought up every single time I talk to someone about film, because it just works.
The best way to ensure fine-grain results is to slightly over-expose your film. Over exposure allows more light to react with the smaller grains in the emulsion to fill in spaces between larger grains, thus reducing the appearance of graininess.
This is a really interesting phenomenon that was discovered by Kodak scientists, and written about in this publication. It’s not the grains that make film appear grainy, but the microscopic holes between them.
Most films contain grains of different sizes that are spread out across the emulsion to pick up variations in light. The larger the grain, the more likely it will collect enough light to become developable. So by over-exposing the film, you are more likely to make the smaller grains developable to fill in the gaps and make the image appear less grainy.
The amount of over-exposure depends on the photographer. I’ve heard a wide range from over-exposing by 1/3rd of a stop to a full stop or more. But the one consistent factor is that color films are more tolerant of overexposure than B&W.
Ilford Technical Datasheets don’t recommend over-exposing your film by anything more than 1 stop. Going further than this can cause your negatives to lose contrast and sharpness. As well, dense negatives can be very difficult to scan — and let me tell you, Epson ISO noise is not pretty.
How do fine-grain developers affect the appearance of grain?
Every black and white developer has a different effect on the film grain. It’s really easy to get confused when you’re new to film developing and have to make choices between so many commercially available film developers. The sheer number of them still available is enough to make your head spin and turn you back to developing C41, where it’s just one process for every colour negative film on the market.
Fine grain developers contain a solvent that dissolves part of the film grain during development. The solvent action will reduce the appearance of clumping grains on the negative, but in the process, can also reduce film speed and image sharpness. Many film photographers use fine-grain developers at high dilutions to balance the solvent action and image sharpness.
According to Troop & Anchell, the appearance of grain has been a primary concern for film photographers and movie studios since the advent of film itself. The reduction of grain became especially important with the introduction of 35mm film stocks. When these films are magnified in the printing and scanning process, the appearance of grains can significantly affect the quality of an image. Modern films have become much better than the films in the 30s and 40s, but shooters are still looking for ways to increase image quality. Solvent developers were extensively researched throughout this time, and still remain favorites by photographers to this day.
A quick guide to the available fine-grain developers
D-76 – powder – The first ever moderately fine-grain developer made in the 1920s, and still in production. A good all-around developer that reduces grain without compromising speed. Troop and Anchell describe this as the developer by which all other developers are compared.
HC-110 (dilution A) – liquid – A staple developer on every film photographer’s shelf because of its flexibility. Dilution A is a particularly useful fine-grain developer that produces excellent results when pushing film. HC-110, like most solvent-developers, loses its fine-grain attributes when diluted further than Dilution A.
Xtol – powder – The newest developer on the market, and quite likely the last commercial fine-grain film developer to ever be formulated. Xtol is an environmentally-friendly developer, and is one of the most flexible options available. It works well with T-Grain and regular emulsions. Anchell and Troop call it the ‘State of the Art’ developer, producing high speed, reliability, along with remarkable negative tonality. The only downside is that Xtol is exclusively available in powdered form, made to produce 5L quantities at a time. Although the exact formula is available online for enterprising developers looking to experiment and make smaller batches.
Ilfotec DD-X – liquid – My personal favourite developer for use with tabular grain films like TMax and Delta. This developer creates stunning tonal rendition, and excellent fine-grain results when pushing films a high degree. Because DD-X cannot be diluted beyond 1:4, it is likely the most expensive developer on the list. But it is a unique developer, and is a fantastic addition to every photographer’s shelf when developing and pushing high-ISO films. Being a liquid developer, it’s also one of the easiest to use.
ID-11 – powder – Ilford’s almost identical D-76 clone. This is an all around developer that produces moderately fine grain while retaining film speed. It’s a great developer for pushing films, and in Ilford’s own words, for rolls that are shot at varying film speeds.
Ilfortec HC – liquid – Ilford’s answer to HC-110. It doesn’t last as long as the original HC-110 formula, but provides a formula that creates the exact same results that made HC-110 Ansel Adams’ favorite developer for a time. This is a fine-grain solvent developer at low dilutions, and is an economical choice for anyone looking to develop a large number of rolls over time.
Further on Xtol, Troop and Anchell spent a lot of time talking about the developer in their book. It’s likely one of the greatest all-around fine-grain developers on the market. Even when diluted 1:3, it produces excellent sharp, yet fine-grained negatives. But the best part about it is that it’s one of the most environmentally-friendly developers available. It used ascorbate acid, known as Vitamin C, instead of caustic agents like hydroquinone, phenidone, or Pyrocatchetin.
“Xtol is for the foreseeable future, the last film developer which will be researched with the monumental thoroughness that only Kodak has had the financial and intellectual resources to achieve. The future now belongs to individual innovators. They will need to have patience and luck on their side” — Troop and Anchell in The Film Developing Cookbook
Learn more about choosing the right black and white film developer in this handy article.
How to reduce grain when pushing films
There’s a time in every film photographer’s life where they have to push film. We’ve all heard the dangers of pushing film — it’ll lose detail in the shadows, grains will appear larger, and the contrast will get out of hand. And that can happen, but when you need to get the shot, you need to get that shot no matter how dark it is outside. I personally push more rolls than I shoot at box speed, so I’ve become somewhat of an expert at keeping grains to a minimum.
There are three main ways to reduce the appearance of grain when pushing films, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.
- Overdevelop the film by one stop more than you shot it at
- Using a higher concentration of a fine-grain developer
- Use stand development to reduce contrast when pushing the film
Let’s start with overdeveloping. It’s a simple technique that works by pushing the film further. If there’s limited shadow detail in the negative, this will give the developer additional time to bring those details out. This works by allowing the developer to act on more of the fine grains in the emulsion that might not have been developed otherwise. This will fill in some of the holes around the large grain clumps, and make the image appear less grainy overall.
The downside of overdevelopment is that it can increase the contrast on the film and reduce the fine details in the highlights. Some films like this process a lot more than others. For example, Ilford Delta 3200 is actually rated at ISO 1000, so shooting it at ISO 3200 requires 1.5 extra stops of overdevelopment. So when I shoot this film at the native ISO 3200, I always use the developing times for ISO 6400 in DD-X and find this produces amazing results. It takes extra five and a half minutes, but it’s well worth the extra time.
Using fine-grain developers is by far the simplest solution. These developers are specifically formulated to reduce the appearance of grains and clumping. Solutions like HC-110 (Or Ilfotec HC) dilution A, or D-76 (ID-11) will reduce the appearance of grains through solvent action. The downside of fine-grain developers is that they can cost some film speed, and reduce the sharpness of your negative over longer development times. This is one reason why many photographers choose to embrace the grain, or go with longer development times at higher dilutions.
Stand development is the longest process that helps reduce the appearance of grain on film. But it’s extremely rewarding when it’s done right. Stand development keeps contrast low, and provides some serious speed increases to film. Using HC-110 diluted 1+100 or Rodinal (Blazinol in Canada), you can push a film three stops without too much contrast by letting it stand in the developer solution for an hour or two. Gently Agitate the solution for the first 30 seconds, and then go read and book or watch a movie on Netflix.
Anchell and Troop describe the theory behind this process by noting that the highlight portions of a film will exhaust the developer much faster than the shadows. By letting the developer stand, the exhausted solution in the highlights won’t be replenished, and will stop acting on the film. But the extra time without replenishment will keep the solution actively working to build density in the shadowy regions of the negative. This keeps the contrast to a minimum while producing dense, rich negatives with the maximum amount of tonality possible. It’s also the cheapest solution, since it requires a minimal amount of developer. Diluting 100+1 means you’ll be using less than 5ml in a 500ml tank!
Fine-Grain versus Super Fine Grain developers
There’s another class of developers that are commonly found on a film developer’s shelf. These ones are a little bit more niche, but when used with the right combination of exposure and film stock, they can create some miraculous results. These films are called super fine grain developers because they have an increased solvent action.
Super fine grain developers were originally intended for large-format photographers who wanted the smoothest, highest quality images. Large format takes in a lot of light, and doesn’t require much enlargement, so these developers worked extremely well and produced some beautiful results with finer, low-speed films. But they never really took off for roll film, or 35mm shooters because they tended to eat away much of the sharpness on the tiny negatives.
The main super fine grain developer on the market right now is Perceptol, made by Ilford. Kodak recently discontinued their sper fine grain developer Microdol-X, but there is a clone of it made by Legacy Pro currently available.
Fine-grain developers will do the trick for most people who want to reduce the look of grain in their images. But when you want an exceptionally smooth negative, or when you overexpose the negative too far, Perceptol can be a great option. The developer is recommended by Ilford for when photographers inadvertently over-expose their film for this reason. However, these should never be used with high-speed films like Tmax P3200 or Delta 3200 because of their intense speed-eating qualities.
This is one of the main reasons that super fine-grain developers aren’t very common. For one, film grain has become so minimal over the years that these developers aren’t all that necessary. And second, retaining image quality is more important than ever — even in artistic photography fields.
What are your favorite techniques for reducing the appearance of grain on film? Let me know in the comments below, or make a post about it on our growing Facebook Group!
Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.