What’s the best Developer for Pushing or Pulling Tri-X?

Tri-X is one of the most common film stocks on the market, and for good reason. It’s a classic Kodak film that is immensely flexible, and notable for beautiful grain structure and contrast. But there are many times when ISO 400 just isn’t enough for daily life. What if you want to shoot a fast shutter speed to capture late evening motion? Or for street photography after dark? 

Kodak’s Tri-X 400 is rated for exposure between ISO 200 and 3200, but can be pushed as far as ISO 12,800, and pulled down to ISO 50. In practice, Tri-X can be pushed or pulled one stop and developed normally without any significant changes. However, because of Tri-X’s inherent contrast, it loses a lot of shadow detail when pushed.

This film is one of the most flexible in the world, sitting just behind Ilford’s HP5, according to Bill Troop and Steve Anchell’s 2019 The Film Developing Cookbook. It has the finest grain of any Non-T-grain ISO 400 film and is prized for tonality and usability in any situation, making it the de-facto street and photojournalistic film. 

It used to be their number one most flexible film, but the slightly lower contrast of HP5 makes it more reliable when push processing. However, it’s the contrast at Tri-X’s native ISO 400 that makes it the most loved B&W film. Tri-X is one of the best-selling films on the planet, reportedly taking up as much as 80% of all B&W sales, according to Troop & Anchell. It’s a film stock that I’ve worked with a lot over the years, and here are my tried and true tips for getting the most out of this film stock. 

What is the best, all-around developer for pushing and pulling Tri-X?

Developer choice is largely a matter of personal preference, but there are some developers that will work better than others when pushing Tri-X. If you’ve looked around the forums, there is a large range of answers that come from different experiences — some of which date back to the old emulsion, which was reformulated back in 2007. The most up to date information typically comes from the Technical Data Sheets published by the companies, or independent, well-researched, professional sources like Troop and Anchell. So what do these resources say about developing Tri-X? 

The overall best developer for producing negatives with rich tonality and fine-grain structure is Kodak Xtol. This developer can be used to produce good negatives from ISO 50 all the way to ISO 6400.

Xtol is the latest, and likely the last, film developer to ever be created by Kodak. It was formulated to create fine-grain results, but when diluted 1:1 is known for keeping film sharp, and pushing extremely well. It’s also the most flexible developer for Tri-X — just take a look at the Massive Dev Chart to see all the possible known recipes. The other benefit is that it’s also one of the most environmentally-friendly developers on the market! There’s only one downside to Xtol. And it’s the fact that Xtol is a powdered developer that has to be mixed into a 5L solution. And once it’s mixed, that solution is only rated to last 6 months, but with good storage, it is possible to make it last longer

The closest developer to Xtol in an easy-to-use liquid format is Ilford’s DD-X. This is one of my favorite developers ever because of how well it pushes films. DD-X is an amazing solution that will reduce the appearance of film slightly, but maintains the sharpness and brings out shadow details in the negatives — especially when pushed. Despite the higher price, I’ve never been able to put DD-X away because the results, especially with higher-ISO films like TMax 3200 and Delta 3200 are just too good. 

DeveloperMaximum PushDilutionDevelopment Type
Rodinal12,8001+50Semi-stand* for 51 min
HC-11064001+3126 min, regular dev
Xtol6400Stock13.5 min at 24°C
DD-X64001+425 min, regular dev
D-7632001+116 min, regular dev
Development recipes for pushing Tri-X as far as possible. All of these will produce large grains and high-contrast negatives with reduced shadow detail. *Semi-stand explained below

Developers that Produce the Maximum Film Speed and Sharpness

One of the biggest choices that you have to make when choosing a developer is between grain size and sharpness. If you want fine-grain results, you’re going to sacrifice some acutance, or sharpness in the image. But sharpness typically comes at the cost of having visible grains — especially when pushing. This is because the largest grains are the most sensitive, so if the emulsion doesn’t get enough light, it won’t expose the smaller grains that fill in the holes between the larger ones.  

When you’re looking for maximum sharpness, speed, economy, and shelf-life, Rodinal (Blazinol in Canada) is the ideal option. This developer is a high-acutance developer, meaning it doesn’t at all reduce the appearance of grain on film. If you love grains and only develop film every now and then, Rodinal is the best choice for developers. There’s a common joke that the shelf life of an opened bottle of Rodinal is longer than the shelf itself. Rodinal is an especially interesting developer, in that it can be used to push films like Tri-X as high as ISO 12,800! But what happens when pushing Tri-X by five stops?

Be warned that just because you can shoot Tri-X at 12,800, doesn’t mean you always should. Under-exposing, or pushing film to this degree will greatly reduce the amount of detail in the shadows. Pushing any film 5 stops will result in extreme contrast and shadow loss.

The next choice most photographers make is Kodak’s own HC-110. HC-110 is technically a fine-grain developer at Dilution A. When it’s used at Dilution B, much of the solvent action that reduces grain appearance disappears. That flexibility to make it fine-grain or high-acutance is a big reason why it’s a staple on every film photographer’s shelf. However, the new formulation doesn’t last as long as the older ones. So make sure to separate it into smaller bottles to keep it lasting as long as possible. 

D-76 is another well-loved option by shooters of Tri-X. It’s known by Troop and Anchell as the de facto standard developer that every film is tested on — if the film stock doesn’t look good in D-76, it’s back to the drawing board. This is one of the oldest developers on the market, and was the first truly successful Kodak developer invention, because it maintained negative speed while slightly reducing the appearance of grains. The biggest downside to it is that it’s also a powdered developer and can’t push Tri-X past ISO 3200. 

Check out this article to learn about the top developers that increase sharpness in your negatives.

A classic Tri-X photograph shot with a Bronica ETRS.

How stand developing can save your shadow details

One of the major benefits of using a traditional structure film like Tri-X over a T-grain film like TMax 400 is that you have much more tonal flexibility. Traditional grains typically have a wider latitude and tonal range than T-Grains. But they sacrifice a bit of sharpness, and have larger-appearing grains. But this wide-tonality is what makes traditional-grain films so good for pushing and pulling. 

But as mentioned about, pushing more than 2 stops will usually result in a huge loss of shadow details. To give your film the best chance of having anything in the shadows, there’s a technique called stand development that works wonders. 

Stand developing is when you use a very dilute solution like Rodinal 1+100 and only agitate the film for the first minute. After that, let the film stand without agitation in the tank for up to 2.5 hours. 

The theory behind stand development is that the developer will quickly exhaust itself in the very dense highlights. In the shadows, though, the developer keeps working, finding new grains to reduce into metallic silver. If you agitate the film, it’ll bring more fresh developer into the highlights, which can become so dense that they’re essentially unworkable. Semi-stand developing works the same way, but it requires gentle agitation every hour or half hour depending on the recipe. 

This is a brilliant solution that can ensure you’re getting everything possible out of the shadows without creating unworkable contrast. Be sure to try it out when you’re push developing! 

What are the best developers for pulling Tri-X? 

If you’re shooting in a high-contrast situation, a common technique to produce stunning, fine-grain, darkroom-workable negatives is to over-expose. Over-exposing by 1 stop or more can produce dense negatives that are far more flexible when printing. Many photographers swear by always over-exposing film by a stop or more to produce the best possible film results. 

The best developers for pulling Tri-X are Perceptol and Xtol. Perceptol is known for reducing image speed and producing exceptionally fine-grain results. Xtol doesn’t have as much solvent action, but will produce beautiful, dense, and sharp images when Tri-X is overexposed one or more stops. 

It’s important to note that pulling too far can reduce the sharpness in negatives. If you’re scanning with a DSLR or Flatbed scanner, producing negatives that are too dense can require these machines to increase their ISO, immensely reducing the quality of the scanned image. As well, Ilford technical data sheets note that negatives that are too dense will often lack contrast, and reduce the sharpness in the resulting negative. 

That said, film negatives love light. They can typically resolve much more detail in the highlights than they can in the shadows. This means images will be the most flexible when exposing for the shadows. That way you can get as much detail out of the scene as possible. 
How do you shoot and develop Tri-X? Leave a comment below, or send me a DM on Instagram! I always love hearing what everyone reading is doing with all of these insanely fun films.

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.

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