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The (al)chemist: formulary and chemistry books

For those that keep track of this blog somewhat regularly will not be surprised when I tell you that I am technically inclined. I have an interest in the chemistry of analog photography and recently purchased a few books on the topic. While I am reading them one by one, I am also writing reviews so you know which ones to get yourself.

In this post, I will maintain a list of resources for you to consult and I provide mini-reviews of each. You will find links to the full reviews in the descriptions. This post will be a rolling release, so to speak, and I will try to keep it up to date.

Release: 2018-04-09

Developing – The Negative Technique

This book (ISBN 0 240 44770 0, 1976), written by C.I. and R.E. Jacobson, is different from many other photography books in that it is written by people that are primarily chemists, rather than primarily photographers. This shows in the more academic writing style and the more elaborate explanations about the chemical processes. What I find especially interesting about this book is the explanations on how a developer is composed, how the components work together and why you may choose the one ingredient over the other. It gives plenty of insight, without going into the full chemical analysis.

The formulas are sorted by function, e.g., ‘general purpose developers’, ‘extreme contrast developers’, etc. and make for a very complete and comprehensive set.

I bought my copy online from a secondhand dealer at for €3,86 including shipping. If you don’t need a hard copy, you can also read the text online.

For the full review of this book, click here.

Foto-Chemicalien en Recepten

A dutch book by J.J. Hansma for the darkroom printer of the 50s. It offers an introduction on how to safely use chemical components, how store them and in what type of bottle, and many recipes for all kinds of (black-and-white) chemistry. Especially useful is the extensive glossary that is included in the book that lists all names of the used ingredients and alternative names, including a description of their appearance and use.

The book offers a complete collection of formulae, but I recommend caution in following all the advice given. For example, in the 50s the use of asbestos was still considered safe, but should no longer be used in home environments.

I bought my printed copy for 7 euro from a small book store. It does not have an ISBN, so finding it might proof a bit tricky, although the seller had multiple editions sitting on the shelf at the time.

The Photographer’s Master Printing Course

Tim Rudman never intended this book (ISBN 1-85732-407-2) to be a formulary book. It is a guide for beginning and more advanced darkroom printers, but includes some formulary in the appendix named “Reference Data”. The list of formulae is not exhaustive, but includes many interesting recipes nonetheless. They could use some additional explanation, though, especially on what to expect from usage. What I like very much, though, is that Mr. Rudman included the potential hazards of handling the most common darkroom ingredients. When trying these formulas at home, safety should be your number one priority.

For a full review of this book, click here.

A Textbook of Photographic Chemistry

John and Field authored this book in 1963 and give a step-by-step explanation of the physical and chemical processes that drive the photographic process. With its many forward references, I found it a bit annoying to read. However, it explains things often very well and discusses topics that I did not see discussed elsewhere yet: the formation of the latent image. Overall the book serves as a good introduction to photographic chemistry at a higher level than for example the book by Eaton farther down this overview.

For a full review of this book, click here.

The Agfa-book of Photographic Formulae, Ed

This book is available under ISBN 978-1-332-43205-9 and is a reproduction of the original. It was originally published in 1910 by Berlin Analine Works located in New York and edited by George L. Barrows. The book offers an interesting look into the photography industry of the early 1900s, but not much more than that for the practical darkroom enthusiast. Some of the recipes can be useful, but are then also available in some of the other books in this list. The biggest problem with the listed recipes is that they use proprietary names by Agfa for the chemical substances, e.g. “Agfa”-Intensifier and “Agfa”-Rapid Fixing Salt. If you are interested in the history of photography then this is a worthy addition to your collection, but otherwise you will not miss anything.

Photographic Chemistry – in black-and-white and color photography

In comparison to some of the other books on this list, this one can be considered almost pocked sized. This book by George T. Eaton (ISBN 0-81700-066-0) has seen several editions since first being published by Eastman Kodak Company in 1957. This review concerns the third revised edition of 1980. As the preface already explains, this book is intended to give a general introduction to photographic chemistry and physics, so that the people that work with it on a daily basis get a better understanding of the materials they work with and how to process them successfully. It is by no means intended to be exhaustive, which explains the pocketable size. Eaton provides a clear and concise introduction on the topic, which I believe to be accessible also to those that had limited exposure to chemistry in high school. If you are looking for formulae you will come up empty handed, as these are – with the exception of two or three examples – nowhere to be found. If you have no or little background in chemistry, this is a great place to start before moving on to other books in this list.

Photographic Processing Chemistry

Where the previous entry offers a good introduction for the layman, this book by L.F.A. Mason (ISBN 0 240 50824 6, second edition, 1974) is at the except opposite end of the spectrum. This is by no means intended for the layman or the chemistry novice. It can be considered an introduction to the topic for the practicing chemist and provides an extensive literature review of the available scientific literature. Chemical compounds are often referred to by their standardized chemical names, instead of their more colloquial counterparts. The level of depth is exciting to me, and I have referred to this book on multiple occasions. Recommended reading for those truly interested in photographic chemistry beyond being able to mix a solution from recipe.

The darkroom cookbook

Eight years after the release of the third edition, Steve Anchell updated the infamous ‘darkroom cookbook’ and released the fourth edition in 2016. In the words of Gordon Hutchings, “… this book is essential for all darkroom work …” — a statement that is especially true for the fourth edition (ISBN 978-1-138-95918-7). The annoying typos and omissions of the third edition have been fixed and new content has been added. What I find especially interesting, is the section on lith printing and the corresponding formulae. It is formulae in which this book excels, and the quantity is perhaps only matched by “Developing” by father and son Jacobson. For those that know what they are looking for, there is an alphabetic list of recipes included in the front of the book, and another one right after that where they are sorted by category/application. If you are interested in mixing your own photographic solutions, I highly recommend this becomes the next addition on your bookshelf.

Books that will be added soon

(updated 9 April 2018)

  1. Kodak’s “Chemicals and Formulae”, (1949)
  2. Steve Anchell’s “The film developing cookbook”, (1999)

Do you have any suggestions for other books that I should add to my collection? Please let me know via e-mail or Twitter!

Also, I want to get into alternative processes too and I am looking for good reference books. If you have any suggestions, I’d be happy to receive them.

Published in Darkroom Bookshelf In the Lab