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SP-ultra LF: a developer optimized for large format film

Tim Gilbert

"Every film developer manufactured in the last 80 years has been optimized for 35 mm film." 

Okay, there are a few exceptions but for the most part, it's true. We won't spend any time defending our thesis; frankly, it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that we decided that the world needed a new film developer optimized for large format film.

We started with three objectives:

First, it needed to be optimized for large format negatives. Yeah, that's whole point but what does that mean? Mainly, we don't need super fine grain (a major issue with 35 mm); instead, we want great tonal separation/graduation.

Second, we wanted a speed increase. Not a “push” (which sacrifices shadow detail) but an honest increase in the ISO rating. After all, in the large format world, you're often shooting at very high f/stop numbers, any increase in speed is appreciated.

Third: we wanted a powder-based formula. Mainly because we were tired of paying to ship water around. Shipping water is expensive and frankly, rather silly (if you don't have a good source of water, you've got bigger problems than picking a developer.)

After almost a year of experimenting, we have our formula. We're calling it SP ultra LF (for Large Format). And it comes with some surprises.

First, it comes in a mylar/foil pouch with a screw cap, weighs around 5 oz and is almost flat; cheap to ship. Just add 500 ml of hot water (125°F/52°C), put the cap back on and wait. We're pretty proud of the pouch idea: it's easy to store and ship; it helps reduce any dust issues and you can “squeeze” it to eliminate excess air. It takes a little practice to get used to but if you can handle a kid's juice box, you'll figure it out.

The formula gives an honest speed increase of about 1/2 a stop over the manufacturer's box speed. In practical terms, the increase is even more significant. For example, I usually shoot Foma 200 at ISO 100 when processing with any other developer (you can see our data for SP-76EC on our tech page.) With SP-ultra, I shoot at ISO 250-320! That's about a 1 and 1/2 stop increase over my standard exposure. This was shot after sunset (Foma 200 @ ISO 320):

We've uploaded some sample images on Flickr .

More importantly, our alpha testers have loved the tonality and contrast of the negatives. Here's a silly test shot:

So when can you get it? Hopefully next month. We're finishing our accelerated shelf-life testing; our chemist has finished her analysis and the packaging is just about finalized. Pricing will be in the $12-$14 range; diluted 1+9 and used single shot, each pouch will process ten tankfuls. (Some of our alpha testers are really cheap (I'm talking about you Jason) and have reused it multiple times with no change in image quality.)

However ...

We'd like some more “real world” testing before we make the first production run. So we're looking for around ten beta testers. Here's the deal:

1. We'll send you a free pouch of SP ultra LF, postage paid (in the USA).
2. You agree to shoot at least ten photos and process them in SP ultra LF.
3. Scan the negatives and upload them to us.
4. We'll need all the exposure data, processing information etc.
5. You pick the film and subject (as long as they're not too racy.)
6. And we need everything within two or three weeks.

Notes, disclaimers and other boring details:
1. We probably won't be able to accommodate everyone who wants to participate. Sorry.
2. Preference will be given to people who have a “step wedge”, a densitometer and are familiar with using them. We'd really like a test wedge processed with each tankful so we have something other than “oh, that looks great” to go on.
3. We'll need to permission to use your photos on our website for marketing/advertising purposes.
4. Obviously, no warranty expressed or implied.

If you're interested, send an email to

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