Saturday, April 30, 2016

Using Kodak HC-110 for that grand gesture

Higgins, Ilfosol study #1, 2013

Matt Higgins' new book-length exposition on chemigrams - their history, their workings, and perhaps where they're heading in a not so distant future - is finished at last, although as yet unpublished.  You'll remember that we teased you with it back in 2013 as a glimpse of things to come, when we had no idea it would be this good.  It's called Chemical Potential: The Darkroom Upside Down and delivers on the promise of its title, leaving little that hasn't been tried in the chemigram-friendly darkroom.

Higgins, Ilfosol study #2, 2013

I've been browsing it lately and thought we might want to take a few pages from it for further discussion, so today, to pick a topic, we'll try to figure out what it is he's doing with Kodak HC-110, or Ilfosol-3, the more-or-less Ilford equivalent - we'll get to the differences in a moment - and show you some examples and some how-to.  For Higgins fans, a cautionary note: this matter is not major stuff for him, and he treats it almost in passing.  So while on the evidence he has had great fun exploring it, it would not be warranted to grant it much of a central role in his work to date.  Once you learn from him how to handle it however, and can pirouette boldly down the paper with it, it may easily seduce you and find a home in your own darkroom work.

HC-110 and Ilfosol-3 are both advertised as film developers, which doesn't mean you can't use them for paper as well - you can.  They have a surprisingly long history: their patents, in both America and the UK, go back to the 1960s and HC-110 was brought onto the market in 1962.  They are concentrated developers, designed to be used in dilutions which can be extensive if not homeopathic, 1:32, 1:63, even 1:100, which is a boon for the budget-minded photographer.  In appearance HC-110 is straw-colored, very viscous and syrupy, Ifosol-3 clear and somewhat less viscous.  Their applications in film development will not concern us here, but let us just say, in the shorter dilutions or even undiluted, as we would most often use them, their developing action is vigorous, not to say precipitous.

Chemically they are not particularly unusual products; it is the physical character that is exceptional.  Both are hydroquinone-phenidone based developers, with common accelerators, restrainers and the rest.  What distinguishes them is a heavy debt to glycols at the expense of water as the functional solvent, especially, in the case of HC-110, to diethylene glycol (DEG).  DEG is a large molecule and is perhaps most responsible for the high viscosity, the wonderful thickness of the product, and the reason we're even here talking about it. 

So let's start.  For equipment you'll need lots of paper.  Higgins says RC paper is best, and I would bet on expired paper as a check on the development speed of modern papers.  A syringe, plunger, or squeeze bottle is practically an essential applicator tool.  Also, bring to the task the quick reflexes and persistence you honed in your dip-and-dunk chemigram phase. Alright, here we go.  In daylight you wet the paper and you drip or squeeze a blob of HC-110 onto it.  Quickly the blob shifts into development mode, changes shape, possibly colors, oozes here or there, slides around - and turns everything black.  You blew it, be faster next time, start over.  You have to learn to squelch what you set in motion - not easy. 

Higgins, Ilfosol study #4, 2014
If you're successful and move quickly you'll get one like study #4, where Ilfosol was dripped, this time, from an extended arm position, allowing the droplets to shudder back and forth on impact to create a winsome effect.  In general, the basic setup for Higgins is a tray with just a few millimeters of water in it and the paper lying just below the surface, at which point you hit it with your chemistry.  If you increase water depth you obtain different effects, as the developer diffuses on its way down, which of course may be a short way down.

Higgins learned of the method on a trip to Nevada in 2013 to visit Nolan Preece, who had been using it since around 1999.  Here's a very early one by Nolan, done with HC-110 on Oriental paper:

Preece, Vessel, 1999

In perhaps a take on this, Higgins did the one below in 2013, using Ilfosol.  'I wet the paper and laid it on a flat surface, then dropped concentrate over it and finally let a sizeable amount of water run over it,' he says.  'You have to be careful to get all the concentrate off.'

Higgins, 198-3, 2013
Both Higgins and Preece report on methods within methods, for instance they may put Ilfosol in the refrigerator to make it more syrupy, or for the same purpose they may let it stand a couple of days in a tray to let the water part of its formulation evaporate.  In our nonfigurativephoto testing lab (NFPTL) we couldn't confirm the efficacy of this, in limited testing, but in theory it sounds good.  A further area of investigation is in toning, and in treating these imaging activities with booster chemicals like potassium hydroxide or ammonium thiocyanate.  Again, we haven't gone there yet.  Our first foray with HC-110 produced the one below, and the one below that.  Don't judge us too harshly, we're just testing.

NFPTL, HC-110 test, April 2016

NFPTL, HC-110 test, April 2016

This post wouldn't be complete without the powerful and disturbing image that kicked it off, from Higgins' book:

Higgins, 527-2, 2013
The Kodak HC-110 technical data can be found at

The shelf life of both Ilfosol-3 and HC-110, while not infinite, is very long, much longer than with other developers, and this is another attraction in using them.  Their longevity is perhaps due to their very low water content, which tends to oxidize materials in the formulation.

For further information on any of the above contact Matt Higgins directly.


  1. A fascinating method. It seems so simple yet depends so much on incalculables like judgment and experience. Where can I see the formulation of HC-110?

    1. This seems to me the epitome of freehand drawing on photographic paper and, in that view, it is surprisingly underutliized by our cameraless confreres. So go for it! The patent is found at, which may help you understand what's in it.

      I expect we'll revisit this material in a future post. Thanks for your interest.

  2. Whew, I had a moment and thought I'd check in. Great work Matt. You nailed it with the 3D qualities of this little exercise. I teach it to my workshop students and we haven't been disappointed yet. Once again the method of application is the secret to this process.

    1. As those who have tried it will soon find, it's not only how you apply the developer to the paper, but how you get it off quickly enough to escape with a readable image. It's smart to have running water nearby and maybe a tray of fixer too. It's a simple process but the learning curve is challenging. Higgins emphasizes the importance of having a lot of photo paper handy.