What are film developers made from?

10 min read

Since the digital revolution, there have been very few advances in film developing science. Most film developers that exist today are based on old formulas that have existed since the ’70s or even earlier.

Yet, while there are a number of places to find film developer formulas published online, it is still hard to find a single, complete list of film developer ingredients.

This is likely because film photography died off just as the Internet got going, so much of the information can only be found in books, like The Darkroom Cookbook by Steve Anchell (find it on Amazon here). These books contain a lot of up-to-date information on the most popular film developer formulas, ingredients, and what they do in combination.

So if you’re wondering what ingredients are being used to develop your film, how to handle them, and what their environmental impact is, you’re in the right place. Here are the most common film developers that are used today.

Developing AgentCommon Film DeveloperDeveloper Effect
Common film developerDeveloper type
HydroquinoneDD-X, HC-110 (Ilfotec HC), D-76 (ID-11), Ilfosol 3 (Ilford Simplicity), Dektol, D-96, DF-96 Monobath, TMax developer, PQ Universal developer, Microphen, BromophenFull speed developing agent.
P-AminophenolRodinalAcutance (sharpness)
MetolD-76, Perceptol, Photographer’s Formulary PMK,Fine-grain, slow developer. Usually a superadditive, except in the case of Perceptol
PhenidoneXtol, Black White & Green, Legacy Pro Ascorbic Acid developer, Bromophen, Environmentally-friendly, fine grain, low-contrast
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid, sodium isoascorbate)Xtol, Black White & Green, Legacy Pro Ascorbic Acid developer, CaffenolEnvironmentally-friendly, fine grain, low-contrast. Common superadditive
Catchetol (Pyrocatechin) Pyro-type developers, Photographer’s Formulary PMK, 510 PyroHigh-contrast, acutance, staining developers
Dimezone DD-X, HC-110, Ilfosol 3 (Ilford Simplicity), TMax developer, PQ Universal developerFine-grain, low contrast. Common superadditive
These are the most common film and paper developing ingredients used today.

What class of chemicals are film developers?

All film developing compounds come from a chemical class called phenols. These are extremely common in nature and can be found everywhere from the basil plants in your garden to crude oil.

Some photographers have even gotten away with developing film in their own urine, but that’s for another blog post.

Throughout film history, the cheapest and most robust supply of pure phenols has come from the oil and gas industry. Phenols like metol, dimezone, Phenidone, catchetol, and hydroquinone are all byproducts of the petrochemical industry — just like most of the artificial flavors we consume on a regular basis.

The only chemical on this list that is not related to the oil and gas industry is Vitamin C. For the other ingredients, you can almost always trace the precursor ingredients to oil.

And while it is possible to grow phenols in your garden, the refining process of garden vegetables is more costly and likely too unreliable to make on an industrial scale (at least so far).

For example, if you develop film with basil, the developing power will change year to year and garden to garden. Recipes are only partially transferable from batch to batch, based solely on the phenol content of the soil at that particular time.

These are four of the five most environmentally-friendly developers available. Blazinal is the Canadian version of Rodinal. Not pictured: Legacy Pro Film Developer.

Which film developers are the most environmentally-friendly?

The most environmentally friendly film developers are Caffenol, followed by Phenidone-ascorbate developers like Xtol, Black, White, & Green, and Eco Pro Ascorbate film developer.

The most dangerous chemicals in the caffenol recipes are the washing soda, which is a strong base that is needed to make the phenols active. Otherwise, the chemicals are non-toxic, and can easily be dumped down the sink (followed by some stop bath to neutralize the base) without worry.

Phenidone has a slightly different story. The developing chemical in its concentrated form is toxic. But phenidone is extremely active, and can develop film with 1/10th as much phenidone as other chemicals in solution.

So once the developer is diluted, the concentrations of the toxic solution are indistinguishable from background levels in the environment. Flush it with water and stop bath to be extra certain that it’ll be unreactive.

Find out more about the most environmentally-friendly film developers here, or learn more about making your developing habits more eco-friendly in this article.

Are film developers safe to handle?

Since most of the phenols come from the petrochemical industry, they are not the nicest chemicals to handle. Most of these chemicals cause skin and lung irritation, and some are suspected carcinogens.

But in their diluted forms, these developers are fairly safe to handle in an irregular state. It’s when they are undiluted, or in their powdered forms (if breathed in) that they cause the most harmful side effects.

It is always important to be cautious when handling film developers and other film chemicals. As someone who suffers from eczema, I will always wear thick nitrile gloves and a lab coat when developing film.

These precautions are extra important when you’re making prints in the darkroom, where you are much more likely to come in contact with the developing chemicals. However, even when developing film in a Paterson tank, there will always be at least a couple of drops spilled.

A roll of B&W super 8 film in the fridge with a cheeky note.
This good advice is not only for kids. Photo by Orion/Flickr Creative Commons

Are film developers safe for kids?

Film developers are safe for kids if the proper precautions are taken. Make sure that your children are able to wear proper personal protective equipment (including safety glasses) and know not to touch anything before washing their hands.

The best film developers to use with kids will always be the least toxic options, like Black, White, & Green film developer or Caffenol.

How do I dispose of film developers and fixers?

Back when we didn’t know anything about film developing chemicals, it was common to just dump them down the drain and forget about it. And while that still persists today, there are better ways to handle these chemicals so that they don’t pose a risk to our aquatic ecosystems.

Disposing of hazardous chemicals can be difficult. I spoke with the team at Recycle BC in my home province about this issue a while back, and the best way to get rid of film developers and fixers is to take them to a center in your region that specializes in this kind of disposal. Some landfills will also have space to dispose of hazardous liquid waste, so long as it is properly labelled.

However, there is another way if you are unable to take the chemicals to the right facility. The next best way to get rid of film developers is to dry the developer in cat litter or Dicalite powder. Dicalite specifically is used to clean up liquid spills (including oil, strong acids/bases, and other chemicals) in warehouses, on roads, or other areas where they can enter the water stream.

Once the developer (and other film processing chemicals like fixer) are dried in this powder, they can be thrown out with the solid waste without issue. This was suggested by Recycle BC as an alternative method when it isn’t possible to get to the recycling centers.

You can simply dump stop bath down the sink. All stop baths are either made of acetic acid or citric acid, which are common household chemicals that won’t cause any environmental problems down stream.

Photo by Niklass Tjerna/Flickr Creative Commons

Where can I buy film developing ingredients to make my own developers?

Once you start learning about the different developing ingredients, or the long list of legendary film developers that are no longer commercially produced, you’ll quickly want to dive into the lovely world of mixing chems.

There are a few places online to buy your own chemicals. But every country or economic zone has its own rules, so you will likely have to search their website when looking into shopping across borders. I know it’s usually the most difficult to get liquids across the Canada/US border, but powders are usually okay. Many shippers still don’t like mailing these across borders because of the general uncertainty.

So here are some of the suppliers that I have found and personally used for sourcing chemicals.

Country/RegionFilm Chemical Supplier
USAThe Photographer’s Formulary (Condon, Mt)
Art Craft Chemicals (Altamont, NY
Bostic Sullivan (Santa Fe, NM)
CanadaArgentix (Quebec)
Flic Film (Alberta)
EuropeWolfgang Moersch Photochemie (Germany)
Silverprint (UK)
AsiaAlibaba (China)
These are the suppliers that I know of. Feel free to leave a comment on this blog if you have any suggestions for film photographers in other parts of the world like the Middle East and Asia.

What other ingredients are used to make film developers?

Most film developers need an alkali base to develop film, so they use a few different ingredients to raise the pH to levels above 8 or 10. The most common ingredients to raise the pH of film developer solutions are Borax, Kodalk (sodium metaborate), washing soda, or caustic soda (sodium hydroxide).

Most of the other ingredients in the developers are simply preservatives used to keep the active ingredients active for six months or longer. In many cases, this includes sodium sulfite, potassium bromide, or ethylene glycol, among others.

Here’s a photo of a bird. This is a very dense article and needs some breaking up with nice images.

Final thoughts

The information in this dense article all come from two main sources of film photography information: The Film Developing Cookbook by Steve Anchell and Bill Troop, which is the most up to date book on the developer formulas, chemistry, and science behind film photography. It’s published by Routlege, so you can trust that it’s coming from a high-quality source.

The next book that I sourced much of the chemical information from is The Darkroom Cookbook by Steve Anchell. This book contains the biggest list of film developing chemicals with their properties and uses, and is one of the best sources of information for film photographers looking to go deeper.

Without these two books, I wouldn’t be able to publish many of the articles on this blog. They’re referenced almost everywhere because of their rich information.

Was this article helpful? Or is there more information that you were looking for? Let me know down in the comments below!

By Daren

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. Discover his newest publications at Soft Grain Books, or check out the print shop.

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