Monobath film developers feel like the in thing for 2018. Whether you’re just thinking about jumping into home developing, or are an old hand, there has never been a better time to try them out.
In this article, I compare the results from six different film stocks developed in monobath film developers from Cinestill and Famous Format: Df96 and FF No.1. I’ll be taking a look at the developers themselves, the process and finally, the results.
In the interests of full disclosure, I received samples of both chemistry gratis from Cinestill and Famous Format for the purposes of this test, although I am not beholden to either company to provide specific commentary. In fact, they’ll be reading this the same time as you.
I’m hoping at some point to test out FPP’s Super monobath, ars-imago’s monobath and one of my own concotion at some point in the future, so watch this space.
Here’s how this review breaks down:
I won’t spend too long here. Just the basics: each of the six films were loaded, stored and shot on the same day on the same camera and lenses. Six scenes, two sheets per scene.
For the test, I used my 1953 Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic (the AEROgraphic), a Kodak Anastigmat 161mm f/4.5 lens and a Graflex Optar 135mm f/4.7 lens. Each scene was set up with the camera on a Manfrotto Carbon One 441 tripod mated with a Manfrotto 410 Junior geared tripod head.
For metering I used an average result from 4 readings taken on a Sekonic L-608 light meter using its 1° spot mode. Each scene was set-up, metered and shot twice (two sheets, one for each developer).
The sheets were developed in a Paterson tank using a MOD54 insert and once dry, the film sheets were scanned with an Epson GT-X970 (Perfection V750 Pro) using standard EPSON holders and the latest version of Vuescan. The sheets were scanned to 1600dpi TIF files and converted to JPG in Photoshop CS6.
FYI Rollei Infrared 400 is thin, so I placed a previously developed (blank) sheet of film on the non-emulsion side to double-up and make sure it didn’t slip out of the MOD54 during agitation.
I’m new to monobath developers and wanted to give these two a bit of a run for their money. With this in mind, I selected six black and white film stocks ranging from ISO 100 to 400, with varying sensitivity and grain structure. They are:
- Bergger Pancro 400
- Fomapan 100 Classic
- Fomapan 200 Creative
- Fuji NEOPAN 100 ACROS
- Rollei Infrared 400
- Shanghai GP3
I have used all of these extensively and typically develop in Rodinal, or Kodak HC-110. They may not be everyone’s go-to developers but you should know that is where I’m coming from with these tests.
The Bergger was my wildcard of sorts. It demands both a presoak to dissolve the anti-halation layer and an extra minute of fixing time. I don’t know what impact this had on the final results below but the other five stocks don’t seem to have suffered from extra bath time.
About the developers
The basic principle behind monobath developers is simple: a universal, all-in-one chemistry that will develop, stop and fix black and white film at room temperature.
The earliest monobath developers were created early as the late 1800s, and although somewhat derided over the past ~130 years, for not providing as much control in comparison to traditional multi-stage black and white film development processes, the results to my eye are more than acceptable.
As a quick aside, Stephen Schaub recently expertly covered Cinestill’s Df96 here on EMULSIVE and I encourage you to check it out.
In the bottle
Df96 comes with almost everything you need right on the label of its 1000ml bottle; basic development guidelines and the health warnings one would expect.
For full details, you really need to consult with the in-depth instructions provided by Cinestill in their PDF. It is essential if you want to understand how to best develop your film – normally, pulled, or pushed. In addition, the PDF provides exceptions and gotchas for films which require additional development/soaking times.
FF No.1 arrives in a more diminutive state; a tiny 250ml bottle, which must be diluted 3:1 with distilled water in order to make up the basic 1000ml of chemistry. It’s far more shipping friendly and Famous Format also provide PDF instructions to help you make the most out of it.
Timing isn’t everything
One of the advantages of monobath developers is the speed at which they develop film. Cinestill’s Df96 wins the race with only three minutes needed to develop a roll or sheet of film if you’re prepared to warm your developer up to 27°C (80°F) and constantly agitate it.
But speed isn’t everything. If you’re happy to wait for a little longer, the “normal” processing speed for each developer is 4 minutes for Df96 (at 24°C/75°F) and 6 minutes for FF No.1 (at 21-22°C/70-72°F).
Interestingly, whilst Df96 requires you to add 15 seconds for each additional roll of film FF No.1 does not; simply use it for the published time until the developer expires. One less thing to remember.
As far as times go for all the films used here, they were developed in-line with the Df96 and FF datasheets for standard, box speed development.
How much film can you develop?
I have yet to fully test each manufacturer’s claims on the volume of film each monobath is able to develop (6x 4×5 sheets, 4x 120 rolls and 4x 135/36 rolls and counting).
In their latest advice, Cinestill and Famous Format tell us that their monobaths develop 16+ and 10+ rolls of (35mm) film respectively. As I’ve developed multiple film formats so far, I’m using this rough and ready conversion guide to help me keep track:
1x 135/36 exposure roll = 1 roll of 120 = 4 sheets of 4×5 = 1 sheet of 8×10
Based on my assumption above, this means I’ve developed 9.5 rolls of 135/36 exposure film so far and using the same (false?) logic, this breaks out to a development capacity of each monobath to:
Cinestill Df 96
35mm (36 exposures): at least 16 rolls
120 rollfilm: at least 16 rolls
4×5 sheet film: at least 64 sheets
8×10 sheet film: at least 16 sheets
Famous Format No.1
35mm (36 exposures): at least 10 rolls
120 rollfilm: at least 10 rolls*
4×5 sheet film: more than 40 sheets
8×10 sheet film: at least 10 sheets
* FF No.1’s guidance states “at least 12 rolls” for 120 film. I’m being conservative by rounding the rest down rather than up.
Both developers state the usual health and safety precautions: wear gloves and safety goggles, do not drink and wash areas that come into contact with the chemistry.
That said, I should note that of the two, Df96 is essentially odourless and I can easily see it being used in schools and classrooms. FF No.1 comes with a pungent ammonia odour and requires a very well ventilated space to work in. I develop film in my bathroom and used an electric fan to move air around and out with no issue.
To the meat of this article. The final scans below show each scene in pairs Cinestill Df96 on the left and FF No.1 on the right. You will find four frames for each film:
- 2x Web-optimised full-frame scans at 1200px on the longest edge.
- 2x 100%, 1000x1000px crops from the original ~7000x5800px 1600 dpi scans.
You can click/tap on the images to view them in a two image gallery and flip left/right to compare. I’d recommend you view these on a suitably large screen.
Stock 1: Bergger Pancro 400
Alphabetically first although chronologically the last stock I shot, I decided to shoot the Pancro 400 from inside a dark room looking out to an open door. This was probably the most difficult exposure to make, with the shadow area behind the door being some four or five stops below the door itself.
It wasn’t really the best end to the shoot… You’ll notice that the FF No.1 frame is a little blurry. This is totally my fault. I left the lens stuck in preview mode and didn’t realise until after pulling the darkslide out of my film holder. On the bright side, the long exposure time helped me to not screw it up any more than I had.
The frames were shot using a Graflex Optar 135mm f/4.7 at f/16 for 4 seconds and the rest get better the further down you get.
The 100% crop focuses on the knot in the middle of the bottom of the door.
100% crop (1000px)
Stock 2: Fomapan 100 Classic
Next up is Fomapan 100 Classic, a film stock that has quickly become a large format favourite of mine.
The frame was exposed to highlight and try to isolate the brilliant whites of the water lilies. I used some back tilt on the lens to help reduce the depth of field. The lens was a Kodak Projection Anastigmat 161mm f/4.5 at f/8. The 100% crop focuses on the lily in the center of the frame.
100% crop (1000px)
Stock 3: Fomapan 200 Creative
Sadly not as striking as it appeared on the ground glass, this frame was shot straight down off a small bridge. The trickle of water you see is actually a babbling brook and I’m convinced would have looked fantastic on colour film.
Like the Fomapan 100 Classic frame, these were shot on a Kodak Projection Anastigmat 161mm f/4.5 lens but shot at f/11.
The 100% crop focuses on the water near the second rock to the left of the frame.
100% crop (1000px)
Stock 4: Fuji NEOPAN 100 ACROS
Probably my favourite ISO 100 large format black and white film, there’s not much to say against ACROS. Fine grain, excellent detail and superb tonality.
These frames were shot with a Graflex Optar 135mm f/4.7 at f/16 and focus was placed on the leaves you see hanging just above the doorway. The 100% crops focus on the same leaves.
100% crop (1000px)
Stock 5: Rollei Infrared 400
My big mistake…
My first sheet was not loaded correctly and popped out of the film holder when I returned the darkslide. I discarded the sheet on the floor and took it upon myself to take a phone snap of it through the ground glass.
You can see the bumps on the right of the frame where the film either slipped out and was sandwiched somewhere it shouldn’t have been in the holder.
The second sheet I exposed is below for completeness. It was taken using a Graflex Optar 135mm f/4.7 at f/5.6. As at this point, I decided to create something for me and not for you 😉
Stock 6: Shanghai GP3
GP3 was of the first 4×5 film stocks I ever tried and still one of my favourites.
Had I thought about it more, I would have swapped this with the ACROS, as some of the detail has been lost here. The camera was approximately 3ft/90cm from the subject and as you can plainly see from the scans below, there was a last minute change in light, which affected the exposure somewhat.
The lens used was a Graflex Optar 135mm f/4.7 at f/11 and the 100% crop is focused on the center of the frame.
100% crop (1000px)
Now for the hard part because overall, the results are very, very close indeed.
It’s very difficult to separate the two developers based on a cursory glance of the full frame scans. With the exception of the Bergger and Shanghai for obvious reasons, even I can’t tell the difference and at the risk of wrapping this up far too quickly, that’s good enough for me.
I have all of these films in various other developers and to someone who is critical of poor development, the results from these two monobaths are close enough to what I get from my regular, tried and tested approach.
My choice between the two would really only be the availability and the price at which I could have them paid and shipped to me.
But what about the amount of film you can develop? Famous Format have already revised the “film count” for FF No.1 once and my gut tells me that the real number of 35mm films you can develop with it is closer to 12-14 rolls. In fact with some care and maintenance (see below), both developers could probably be extended. 14 135/36 exposure rolls of film or nearly 60 sheets of 4×5 – which I where I see myself using it the most – is good enough for me.
If that curt conclusion has you wanting for more, take a look back at the shadow detail and contrast. Df96 produced negatives of a slightly higher contrast in some films (Fomapan 100 and 200 being good examples), while FF No.1 provided slightly better tonality, a bit more shadow detail and slightly softer negatives.
As a fan of push processing, Df96 gave me publicised times to scratch that itch and I have thus far not tried push processing film in FF No.1. I suspect it can be done but will need to test the theory.
Since completing these tests at the end of August using fresh chemistry, I have shot and developed numerous other films with both monobaths: Kodak T-MAX 100, ILFORD Pan F PLUS, Efke KB25, Kodak EASTMAN Double-X 5222, Rollei RPX 400, Kodak Tri-X 400 and Rollei Superpan to name a few. I like the results a lot and the allure of a fast, single stop process is not lost on me. Were I blowing up the negatives on an enlarger for big prints I might feel differently but for my hybrid workflow at least, they are more than acceptable and have helped produce some of my favourite photographs this year.
So then, these are my results and I based on them I’d strongly encourage you to try them out for yourselves. Great results, very convenient and pretty good value for money. You can buy Cinestill Df96 here and Famous Format No.1 monobath here.
Save for some tips on monobath maintenance and further reading links below, I’m done. Thanks for reading.
This may be old-hat to those of you who already use monobath or other premixed developers like Kodak XTOL, D-76, etc., but I found that both monobaths became heavily discoloured and contained a reasonable amount of sediment after the 4th or so roll. At this point, I began seeing some minor spotting on my negatives, although these were on ancient Tri-X and well-expired Efke KB 25 – your mileage may vary.
I took it upon myself to run each developer through a paper coffee filter (twice), in order to remove the gunk. In the case of the FF No.1, it retained its emerald colour from the Fomapan and the Df96 returned pretty much to normal.
I would recommend you do the same with yours in order to keep the quality of your negatives up, as well as extend the life of your developer.
A bit of history and monobath recipes:
Kodak HC-110 monobath recipe and invaluable information from the excellent Covington Innovations:
Alex Luyckx’s HC-M monobath recipe and thoughts:
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