Stand Development with Rodinal

Go on, I’ll wait… read it? Good! Now we’ll take a look at stand development, my personal favorite. Stand development goes against the grain of a lot of photographers, especially those that have worked in or with professional developing labs because it thumbs its nose at most of the standard practices and gives the finger to the rest. Film should be developed at a tightly controlled, exact temperature… stand development doesn’t care.

You should have a stop watch on hand to precisely schedule each inversion cycle and total development time… nope, don’t care. Under no circumstances should two different brands or two different ISO rolls be developed in the same tank… well, maybe… nah don’t care. Normal developing methods are more or less an exact science, every photographer might have their own tweak on the manufacturers recommended times, but it’s just their own exact science. Stand development is grounded in some good science, but it’s much more an art form. Ask any two photographers how long you soup Tri-X in D76 and you’ll get pretty much the same answer every time, but everyone I’ve talked to about stand development has given me wildly different magic formulas for the perfect soup… and they all work.

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The reason it’s called stand development is very simple… the basic principle is you put film in developer, and just let it stand there. The way it works is kind of amazing. The first big difference between normal and stand development is that with normal souping methods you’re putting your film in a solution with way more developing power than you need for one roll of film. This is why you have to be pretty precise with when you take the film out, left in too long it will just keep on developing and give you way darker negatives than you want. It’s also why you can re-use a lot of the normal developing solutions over and over again, only a small part of its developing potential is used up every roll. With stand developing you’re mixing up a one shot developer with just enough developer for each roll you’re souping, no more; this is important. You can use stand developing with many different developers, the biggies are: Rodinal, HC-110 (favorite of Ansel Adams) and X-tol. I like Rodinal; not just because it’s readily available in my area, but because I find it gives really nice grain and sharpness, it lasts FOREVER and it’s really easy to work with. Xtol has to be mixed in 6 gallon batches from a powder, which is a pain. HC-110 is a thicker, and harder to work with as a solution at stock concentration, and I’ve just never liked the grain I get with it as much as Rodinal.

So after experimentation, I’ve settled with Rodinal at 1:100 dilution from stock, using 3.5ml of Rodinal per roll. If you’ve mixed your own chemical before you’ll notice this is a much more dilute mixture than with standard developing. Most times you’re mixing up solutions in the 1:5-1:10 area, so many people wonder how the hell such a weak solution can possibly develop a roll of film. The reason it works is because you’re going to give the film a chance to use up every last bit of developing agent in the solution. Most peoples soup times range between 20-120 minutes with stand developing, just slightly more than the usual 3-10 minute range 🙂 Remember how I said highlight area will develop faster and exhaust the surrounding developer faster than the shadows, this is the key behind stand development. With such a weak developer and little or no agitation your highlight areas are going to exhaust the developer around them and slow right down while the shadows are going to have tons of time to catch up and fully develop. This is why stand development is so amazing, this little bit of physics gives it so many advantages with drawbacks that are very easily compensated for.

Lets look at why this makes stand development so great. Well the main advantage, which the process was developed for, is pretty obvious; one of the big problems people run into is overdeveloped highlights that give you blown out white areas in your prints, and underdeveloped shadows resulting in black areas with no detail. You can either develop to control blown highlights and lose shadow detail, or develop for the shadows and get blown highlights. Stand development controls blown highlights because the developer around those areas of the film exhausts and prevents over development. It also lets the shadows fully develop, squeezing every last bit of texture out of them. This makes it amazing for pushing film way past its rated ISO. What you end up with is a compressed tonal range, giving you a flatter looking negative with less overall contrast. No worries, this can be fixed in post processing, we’ll talk about that later.

The second, and more subtle benefit, which even people that have used stand development before sometimes fail to realize is this: it doesn’t matter AT ALL what film brand or speed you use. With normal developing if you’re shooting T-Max 100 there’s a specific developing time for each different developer, push it to 200 or 400 and it’s a different time again. You shoot with Tri-X 400 and it’s different time again, push that to 1600, different time again… you get the point. Now lets look at the developing times for Rodinal 1:100 using stand development:

T-Max 100 = 1 hour

T-Max pushed two stops = 1 hour

Fuji Neopan = 1 hour

Ilford HP5 = 1 hour

Some mystery roll you found in a second hand camera = 1 hour

I could go on, but you get the point. As far as I know there isn’t a black and white film that won’t give you a developed negative after an hour in 1:100 Rodinal. It might not be the best possible negative, but if there’s an image to be got from a frame, you’ll get it. I think I should point that out, using stand development might not always give you the best negative, but the trade off is flexibility and reliability. I can take loosing a bit of quality because I know I’ll be scanning my negatives and can fix up any contrast issues later. If you’re going to be wet printing your negatives this might not be the method for you as it’s going to take some dark room magic to get your prints to look like you want them to. But back to the positives.

So if every film soups for the same time, that means you can develop two different brands or ISO’s in the same tank. Take that one step further, if you can soup a roll of Tri-X 100, and a roll of the same film pushed two stops in the same tank… that means you can actually change what ISO you shoot at mid roll. I’ll repeat that; you are no longer bound by one of the biggest advantages digital has over film, you can change ISO on the fly. This is huge. Large format photographers have always had this advantage because each frame they shoot is seperate, so they could develop each negative differently according to whether it was pushed, pulled, high contrast, low contrast etc. Because 35mm frames are all on the same roll and get developed together, we’ve been stuck with developing them all at once, so you kinda have to stick to roughly the same ISO throughout. It’s so ingrained that some photographers I’ve talked to that use stand development still stick to one brand/ISO per tank and the same ISO for the whole roll, it’s as automatic as breathing.

The last big benefit is how reliable and easy stand development is. Most developing has to be done at a constant and controlled temperature, if you’re off by more than a degree or two it can seriously affect your end product. Because stand development happens so slowly and the dilution is so high, temperature is much less a factor. I generally just use the water straight out of my cold tap, except in the winter when it can be almost icy. As long as you’re within the 15-25 degree Celsius range, you’re fine, colder the better as it helps keep the grain smaller. Time is also much less a factor, your highlights will be mostly developed in the first 15-20 min, after that they exhaust the developer around them and pretty much stop. The rest of the time is to give the shadows a chance to develop, and since they’ll never overdevelop, anything from 20-120 minutes is perfectly acceptable. There’s also only just enough developer in the solution for each roll, so once the roll is developed fully, all the active solution is used up and it’s impossible to develop further. I’ve tried experimenting with various different times and have found around an hour is my sweet spot. After 20 min most of the developing is done, but I do find I can squeeze a bit more out of the shadows by going up to an hour, especially if I’ve pushed some or all of the frames. Between an hour to two hours not much happens, but some people swear they get even more shadow detail, but I haven’t seen too much benefit from it. Plus, an hour is just long enough to watch one or two episode of whatever TV show I happen to have on my computer, so it’s an automatic film timer… bonus!

**UPDATE** One last benefit I forgot to mention: it’s really economical! Because you’re only using 3.5ml of Rodinal per roll, a bottle will last a really long time (depending on how prolific a developer you are). One tip I came across to keep your Rodinal, or any developer for that matter, fresh; go to the dollar store and pick up a bag of plain glass marbles. As you use up the developer, drop some marbles into the bottle to raise the liquid level up to “full”. This keeps unnecessary oxygen out and also makes it easier to use a syringe to get the developer out. Just make sure the marbles are plain glass, not coated with any kind of gloss, glaze or paint coating, who knows how it will react with the developer.

OK so now you know the why, here’s the how. Before you mix up your 1:100 Rodinal solution, using 3.5ml of Rodinal minimum per roll of film, take a look at the math and make sure you have a big enough developing tank. If you want a 1:100 dilution with 3.5ml of developer per roll, you need a tank that can hold a minimum of 353.5ml of developer for each roll. If you don’t know the volume of your tank it’s easiest to just divide the number of rolls it can fit by two, to be on the safe side. I’ve got a three roll Patterson that JUST fits enough developer for two rolls, but it’s pushing it. Metal tanks have even less volume per roll, so make sure there’s enough room. Once you’re sure your tank can fit enough developer, start your routine as usual. Film goes on the spool, spool goes in the tank, tank’s filled with developer… shark’s in the developer… our shark… Start with ten inversions like normal, give the tank a few taps on the counter to get rid of bubbles and go watch TV. That’s it, that’s all.. an hour later rinse, fix and hang. That’s stand development.

Now technically what I do is called semi-stand because I do give my film three inversions at the half way point. Some people will say you shouldn’t do this with stand development because you’re giving the highlights a rush of fresh developer but I’ve just found I like the way my negatives look when I do this. They’ve got a bit more contrast than with pure stand, and it help give you even development. If you don’t agitate at all, you’ll sometimes find that developer settles at the bottom and gives an uneven gradient of development from top to bottom. One agitation cycle seems to prevent or at least minimizes this to the point where I don’t notice it. I find I also adjust my methods on the fly. If I know I’m souping film that’s been pushed heavily or is going to need some pop to the highlights I might do inversions at 20 and 40 minutes instead of just at the half way mark, or do inversions every minute for the first 5-10 minutes to really develop the highlights then let it sit for the rest of the hour to take care of the shadows.

I learnt how to cook by taste, the chefs in my family rarely pay attention to recipes, using terms like “a pinch” and “a dash”, things that drive others batty. You can never ask my Grandmother for one of her recipes because no matter what’s written down on her ancient recipe cards half of it was in her head at the time she wrote it and it’s evolved up there in the intervening decades. I find this has really carried over to my film developing; I adjust my times and inversions differently for each batch by feel and I might never get exactly the same results twice, but as long as it keeps turning out well I’m not too bothered about it. If you take a look at the mouse over text for all the images in this post you’ll get a sense of some of the different recipes I’ve used in the past.

And that’s it! Stand development is super simple, really reliable and as idiot proof as developing gets. As I mentioned before, it’s not the best method to use if you plan on wet printing your negatives, but I really like the results I get out of it from a scanner based workflow. It takes some tweaking to get the contrast back, and you have to pay close attention when you do your scanning, but the results are worth it. I’ll go into more details of how to properly scan a stand developed negative next time.

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