Alternatives to Azo/Amidol
Iím writing this as I look at a half-dozen prints. These prints have made over several months in my attempt to settle in on a paper/developer combination that is a good alternative to Azo developed in Amidol. This last eighteen months has been a difficult period for those of us who contact print. With the withdrawal of Kodak from the B&W paper market, we lost Azo which was the only silver chloride contact printing paper on the market (US market). We are left with silver gelatin projection enlargement papers; but in the last year, weíve also lost Agfa and now Forte, both makers of highly revered papers. Some are lamenting these losses to infinitum. Some are worrying about their artistic vision having to be changed. I say its time to move on.
Azo was a beautiful paper. Developed in amidol, it became regarded as the gold standard in terms of beauty. Iím thankful to have learned contact printing on it and enjoyed it while it was there. But itís gone and wonít return (well, maybe not quite; more on this later). If someone does bring a silver chloride contact printing paper to market, it wonít be an exact duplicate of Azo. Thatís impossible for several technical reasons. Even Kodak had some large deviations in its characteristics over the years. My belief is there are paper and developer combinations available that will make prints that I like just as well as my Azo/Amidol prints. And itís necessary that these alternatives be ones that will stay available for the future.
Perhaps the largest detriment to the Azo/Amidol combination was its cost. Azo was running about $1 USD per sheet while still in production. In recent auctions, itís been going for $3 USD per sheet. Normal price for Amidol is $50 USD per 100 grams. If you were lucky to get in on the Chinese Amidol deal last year, it went for about $50 per US pound.
From my Azo experience, Iíve become a great believer in using one particular type of paper and learning how to use it well. With all the losses of suppliers weíve seen recently, I also want a paper thatís secure in the market; one thatís going to be available for many years. I donít want to have to change papers again for a long while.
My thoughts on developers are along the same lines. I want one thatís close to Amidol; one that provides excellent contrast control, with water bath capability, without having to tailor the developer to each individual print. It would also be nice to have a developer that lasts a long time in both stock and mixed form. There was never any problem with exhaustion using Amidol, it had to be mixed right at the start of the developing session and its life was only about twenty-four hours. Twelve to twenty-four keeper prints is about the best I can do in twenty-four hours. Then that high-priced amidol goes down the drain. Hard for this olí farmboy to take. Iíve gotten to where I hoard my amidol for the really ďgood stuffĒ. Donít want to do that anymore.
Looking at the prints I have made, Iím quite convinced they look just as good as the one made from the same negative and printed on Azo/Amidol. They are not exactly the same; they canít be. But I like them just as well. Thatís the important thing. Here are my alternatives.
First, thereís Pyro Plus Paper Developer, or PPPD, which was developed by APUG member Donald Miller. The active ingredients are phenidone, catechol, and pyrogallol. Itís a very active developer, active enough to use the water bath for contrast control. In its standard formulation, the pyrogallol gives a good Warmtone. It can be made colder or warmer by varying the ratio of pyrogallol and catechol. I like this developer a lot. Everyone I know who has used it likes it. Itís not available on the market so it must be mixed from the raw chemicals. Hereís a link to the latest formulation.
The downside of PPPD is that it is short-lived like Amidol. Pyrogallol oxidizes fairly rapidly. Extended life can be gained by decreasing the pyrogallol and increasing the catechol; using catechol only, Iíve had it last about a week after mixing.
Ansco 130: This is an old standby developer, one that Iíve been wanting to try for a long time. It has not been made for a long time so it must be mixed from the dry chemicals. Pre-measured kits are available from the Formulary as PF 130. Tried for the first time yesterday; it rocks! Not quite as active as Amidol, but I could get the water bath to work with it in both 1:1 and 1:2 dilutions. It stayed active in the water bath for 30-45 seconds, which is the same as PPPD and another old favorite, Agfa Neutol (also no longer with us). The tone is neutral. The shelf life in both stock and mixed form is said to be several months, probably as good as it gets for a paper developer. Iím a newly-converted PF 130 fan and itís now my standard developer.
Tektol: Two new developers from Silver Grain are Tektol Standard and Tektol Neutral. The standard form is a warm tone; the neutral is a neutral tone. They are very similar to PF 130. Different chemistry, but the results are nearly the same. Advantage is that they come in liquid concentrate form so there is no dry chemical mixing necessary. Good stuff that merits a try.
I still believe that graded papers have a slight edge over variable contrast (VC) papers. That assertion is probably infinitely debatable, but lets donít go there right now. Plus, after Azo, I still like varying contrast between grades using the water bath and developer dilution. It just seems to achieve a finer degree of control than swapping filters in the enlarger.
Nuance: Very good paper, but I just couldnít get it to look like I wanted it to. Just didnít quite have the look I want. Other people are very happy with it. Itís made in Croatia and reportedly unaffected by the Forte closure. Itís becoming more widely available.
Kentmere Bromide: Excellent all around I think. Relatively neutral toned, I like the look of it. Available in grades 2, 3, and 4.
Kentmere Kentona: Excellent, with a slightly warm tone. One grade only which seems to be Grade 3.
Slavich Unibrom: New on the market from Freestyle, made in Russia; grades 2, 3,and 4. For Azo lovers, all grades and sizes are available in single weight, and double weight too.
Kentona and Slavich seem very close in characteristics. Paper speed is about the same with Slavich being just slightly slower. They are both very responsive to selenium toning. Slavich tones fairly rapidly. I found that both papers became quite red-toned while wet and in the toner, but after drying, the tone reverts back considerably.
I only tested the Slavich in grade 3, and with one negative. But donít discount it for one minute. I think it may have real possibilities.
A Silver Chloride Paper: Silver chloride contact printing paper is not quite extinct yet. If you want to coat your own paper, it can still be done. Ron Mowrey, known here on APUG as Photo Engineer, has developed a home-brew silver chloride emulsion that can be made in the home and hand coated on just about any base you want to coat it on. It works and works well. Hereís a thread I previously wrote about it.
In the bottom line, I'm liking the prints I made with the materials described above, as much as the Azo/Amidol print of the same negative, and comparing them all side-by-side. As the old saying goes, your mileage may vary. Azo is gone just like high octane ethyl gasoline. It was fun while it lasted but now its time to move ahead. Find a combination you like. Maybe its one of the above, maybe not. But the important thing I believe, is to find a combination that works for you and keep photographing.