The year was 2013, a new voice had recently joined the Film Photography Podcast, one Mat Marrash. Mat had dived headfirst into the world of film photography and had not looked back and begun speaking about a type of developer I had never heard of before, Pyro developers. Well, I was instantly interested, having myself dived headfirst into the wonderful world of home B&W development. I was also looking for something outside the normal D-76, HC-110, and Rodinal developers. Well, this Pyrocat-HD stuff seemed interesting, but getting it shipped to Canada proved difficult at the time, so with a trip to New York City in the cards, I made a run at B&H Photo to see what they had in stock. Sadly they did not have Pyrocat-HD, instead of an older, more toxic and slightly different Pyro developer, PMK or Pyro-Metol Kodalk. Well, I got the stuff put in the green bin and wandered around the store a bit more before walking out with a new developer in hand to try at developing several of the vacation’s rolls in and after those first rolls out, I was instantly hooked. The development of PMK is credited to Gordon Hutchings, who sought to create a universal developer based on one of the oldest developing agents, pyrogallol.
Manufacture: Photographer’s Formulary
Name: PMK Pyro (Pyro-Metol Kodalk)
Primary Developer: Metol & Pyrogallol
Mix From: Liquid (2 Part)
While it is given that almost all B&W film developers out there are toxic, among the most harmful are Pyro based developers. PMK Pyro, like any Pyro developer, need to be treated with extreme caution with proper PPE used when handling and mixing the liquid. Work in a well-ventilated area and use protective gloves; if any liquid gets on your skin, it should be washed away immediately with soap and water. And keep the liquid out of reach of children and in clearly marked bottles. The developer is mixed from two liquids, Part A and Part B; you get more of Part B than Part A as you mix the working solution in a 1+2+100 dilution in almost all cases. You will also find in most cases; you will lose some film speed and, in most cases, over-expose the film; thankfully, the compensating nature of PMK Pyro handles the pull processing rather well. Processing times are longer in almost all cases, with most running at 10+ minutes. Temperatures are usually around the 24°C mark, so a good thermometer will make it easier to handle the developer. Because of the dilute nature of the developer, a simple water stop bath will suffice, and the TF-4 fixer is also recommended to help preserve the stain on the negative. One of the best parts is that if properly stored, cool, dry and dark, the developer will last for years, and no fixed expiry is provided. While this is true of plastic, the documentation recommends long-term storage in amber glass bottles.
While I would not go as far as to call PMK Pyro a magic bullet, it certainly works well with most films that you can pair with the developer. If you’re okay with slower film speeds, then PMK Pyro is a good choice also as a classic Pyro based developer. But the best application for any Pyro developer is its capacity for compensation, which makes it ideal for situations where conditions are less than perfect or if you’re working with the Zone System or Nick Carver’s Precision Metering Method. You need to take advantage of any film’s latitude of forgiveness. While mainly designed for use with large format sheet films, it works well with roll film. But the biggest draw for Pyro is the capacity for staining, which helps with printing. It’s like having a built-in contrast filter that works well with most Multigrade papers.
One of the first things I noticed about PMK Pyro is the harsh, almost hard contrast. And it appears in nearly every film I’ve developed using the developer. In some cases, it detracts from the image, and in other cases, it adds to the photograph. While I prefer a much softer contrast, it adds excellent tonal separation, which adds to the sharpness. And the tonal separation is impressive, with clean highlights, rich shadows and every shade of grey across the pallet. And that probably has to do with the compensating nature of the developer. When it comes to edge sharpness, look no further, the images are sharp in any format, and it even adds to the sharpness on already sharp films, so watch out which films you develop with PMK. I noticed that films that are not fine-grained, PMK will make the grain a bit more noticeable, not to the level you will see with Rodinal. It does have some smoothing on the grain, but not to the extent of Xtol, XT-3, or Microphen. I found that grain is more noticeable in older films like Efke and Adox than modern emulsions. The one amazing quality is how well PMK developed negative print. I have gotten some of my best darkroom prints out of my developed negatives, but you can smooth out that contrast with proper techniques and development.
If you’re looking for something a little different for your development, then maybe give PMK Pyro a try, but this isn’t a developer for everyone, and there are plenty of other good Pyro developers out there that are a bit safer. PMK is probably the most dangerous developer I used, and I made sure to use proper PPE when working with the stock, mainly nitrile gloves. You’ll want to use this near a water source so that if some does splash on your skin, you can get it rinsed off immediately. But you’ll want to work more with 510-Pyro or Pyrocat-HD for a much easier and safer time. Probably the best source for PMK Pyro is directly from Photographer’s Formulary or one of their retail partners. But watch out for any shipping restrictions to Canada, or find a local supplier of Formulary products.
Don’t just take my word on PMK Pyro. Check out these other blogs on the subject!
Film Shooters Collective – PMK Developer