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Return to Film – Black and White Film

This is the third and final part of the Return to Film series that looks at film types.

Having already covered Slide and Colour Film this is obviously going to cover B/W film and like the other two articles it is going to be quite specific about which films it covers as this blog has no aspirations to become Wikipedia.

I am sure I have said before that when it comes to films, you really need to have a go at anything and everything to see what look you prefer and what works best for your style of photography but that at the end of the day, there are only three companies that produce outstanding ranges and quality of B/W film and they are Ilford, Kodak and Fuji.

Rollei makes some good B/W film that would fit into the arty category of film; Shanghai and Lucky make cheap film of very varying standard, Lomography use other peoples films and rebrand in this case Shanghai GP3 as their own and there are other smaller manufacturers that just don’t have a competitive film to compare to the big three.

Before I talk about films by type then, it is worth just going back into the make up of B/W film.

I guess from a chemistry point of view, this is the simplest film type to understand as the film is basically made up only of three layers;

An emulsion of Silver Salt in crystal form, a layer of plastic (commonly acetate or PET) and an Anti Halation layer.

The Silver Salt Crystals absord light when exposed and in development the crystals that have been exposed to light will turn to silver forming the black part of the negative and then when fixed, the remaining silver will be removed exposing the clear film – that will become the shadows in the positive image.

The size of the crystals is commonly called the grain and so small grains form slow films and large grains form faster films (hence the appearance of grain in fast films and low light).

The backing of the film does make a difference as some films use polyester for the film and this has a tendency to curl when drying and makes scanning more complex.

The Anti-Halation layer is to capture light that passes through the film, hits the back plate of the camera and bounces back to hit the back of the film. If this was to get through, you would get a halo style effect on the image that makes it look foggy. Films like the Lucky B/W films have almost no Anti-Halation layer and hence the image will never be crisp.

Some films have such strong layers that rinsing of the film is necessary until the bath is clean of the obvious pink dye used in the layer.

As perviously done in this series the following films are split into my view of what is Slow, Medium and Fast films.

Slow B/W Film

This is a massive category as Ilford produce some great very slow films at 50 ISO, Rollei do a 25 ISO film, as well as the 100 speed films from all the makers.

I’m not going to talk about 25 ISO film however, even though I have tried a few of them without any great results but will start with the amazing Pan F Plus 50 ISO film from Ilford.

This is a film for bright days and fast shutter speeds for me and produces a middling contrast level when developed in Ilfotec DD-X or T-Max Dev.

For older film cameras where the shutter speed is limited to 1/400th or 1/500th at best, this film helps make them usable in bright conditions where you don’t want to stop the lens down completely.

Ilford produce this film in 35mm and 120 but unfortunately not in sheet film. I have found as the summer has become brighter and clearer in Hong Kong this year that I am going to this slower film more than even the normal 100 ISO choices I have in the past and especially as this film tends to develop easily and be pushable to +3 without too much loss from grain size increases.

At 100 or there about, the choices for great film for me are; Kodak TMax 100, Fuji Acros Neopan 100, Ilford Delta 100 and Ilford FP4 125.

Fuji Acros Neopan is my all time favourite film at 100 ISO for outstanding sharpness, one of the best grains of any B/W film available and great contrast levels.

The following two images are from cameras that don’t excel in their ability – the Holga and my old Ukrainian Kie 4AM and still this film looks amazing. I think you can throw this film at any situation and even any developer and still always get consistent results.

I know many people will argue that the best film for 100 ISO is Kodak TMax – but the exposure range on this film is much tighter than the Fuji film.

I would say that this is as wide a use as the Ilford Delta 100 but with better grain and contrast.

Kodak TMax 100 is a film I have used a lot over the past 6 months with some pleasing results but I always choose the Fuji Acros in preference unless I cannot find the film in shops (which tends to happen more often with Fuji than Kodak here in HK).

Ilford Delta 100 is a film I have only recently started to use and am happy with the results – but again don’t think it shows anything in results or flexibility that Acros doesn’t.

In fact the grain is generally larger when rated like for like with Acros.

Ilford FP4 is rated at 125 and so many people would call this a Medium Film apart from the fact that it has very small grain and can be pushed and pulled by a number of stops.

It is not as fine as Pan F 50 or even Acros 100 or TMax 100 but for general use in good lighting conditions is not far off.

Development of this film is again easy in many chemicals and the contrast levels as medium like the other films at this speed.

For Slow Films there really is such amazing choice amoungst the big three producers and I haven’t even mentioned all of the slow films these companies do – so you don’t need to really look at other films – but having said that, it is sometimes great to have something different in your camera and for that I would pick Shanghai GP3 100 which is available in HK as either Shanghai GP3 or at a higher price you can buy the same film repackaged for Lomography B/W 100 film.

If you have a camera with a red window for the film counter (an older 120 film for instance) then you will struggle to read the numbers on the backing sheet of this film as they are really poorly printed. I think it is worth persevering with this film though as it gives slightly higher contrast levels than the other 100 films, is really easy to develop and gives a very distinctive grain.

These images were taken on the 1980’s Chinese folding camera, the Hong Mei hg-1 on 120 Shanghai GP3.

Medium Speed Films

Medium speed in B/W for me is really just 400 ISO.

The only 200 film I know of is the SFX 200 from Ilford that is an extended range B/W film that you need to use in conjunction with a Dark Red filter like the Hoya R72 – to get Infra Red style images.

As the filter is almost black – you either need an off camera meter or to take readings through your TTL meter before adding the filter. You also will be unable to see to focus so you either don’t bother and shut the lens down and focus at infinity or do this before adding the filter.

With the filter in place you need to rate this film at +6 or even +7 – so that is ISO 12 or ISO 6 and only use it on a bright & direct sunny day with lots of green foliage that will turn white on the film for you. (Perhaps this should have gone in the Slow Film category).

I have tried this film on 35mm and 120 across lots of cameras and can honestly say that constancy is not something you get with this film. For home developing I always use Ilfotec DD-X for best possible results and am very careful about storage of the film.

The below two images are from a Holga where electrical tape and guess work were employed to get this and my Mamiya MSX 1000 where the image was rated at ISO 6.

At 400 ISO I have tried Ilford HP5, TMax 400 from Kodak and Fuji Neopan but end up going back to using Tri X 400 from Kodak for the simple reason that this film is the best to develop time after time. It pushes well as a film, the grain is not too much although contrast increases at a scary level when pushed + 2 or more.

HP5 is the favourite film of many home developers but I really have never found a way to make it work without an orange tint unless I use the very expensive Ilfotec developer.

Tri X is a versatile work horse of a film that requires little attention from you and is very forgiving if your metering is a little out. Shadow density is all you have to meter for with this film as highlight density is something you can adjust digitally or in developing if you are not batch processing.

The below three pictures were all taken on the 6×9 Fuji GW690II and the first one is on TMax 400 with the next two on Tri X 400.

And finally Fast B/W Film

There are films like Ilfords Delta 3200 – which is actually a 1200 ISO film and I believe TMax do a film rated at 1200 but again this is a one horse race until stock run out with the Fuji Neopan 1600. This film was discontinued in November of last year and so the thing to do here is go and buy stock whilst it is still is readily available and the prices haven’t skyrocketed and then put it in the freezer for a few years.

Daylight and with flash, this film works really well and with sufficient light does not suffer from too much grain.

Before I finish this small review of part of what is currently available for B/W and what works for me (and not necessarily for you); I should also mention the Ilfod XP2 and Kodak BW400CN – which are both B/W films that are made to be developed C41.

Before I started to develop my own film I did occasionally use these films as B/W lab processing can take days and is generally not of a very high quality due to the reusing of developer in the machines.

Now I develop my own film and due to the fact that these two films are not ever great to look at, I don’t use them any more.

I would also say that on 90% of the lenses I use with B/W I do use an Orange filter (not yellow) to improve contrast. On the couple of lenses I own that can’t use a filter at all, I don’t think I notice too much loss in contrast and nothing that a tweak in aperture won’t fix.

As this is only a slice into the world of B/W film, I know I have been sometimes quite generalist in my views but I think that the more pictures I take the clearer I see the options on film.

I am finding that instead of keeping a host of different film, I am keeping more of the same and so to finish this last of three articles – here are my picks for all types of film that cover for me every possible use I have from architecture to portraiture and from street to family;

Colour Reversal

Kodak E100G

Kodak EliteChrome 100

Fujichrome T64 Type II

Colour Negative

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak Portra 400 (New Version)

Black and White

Ilford Pan F Plus 50

Ilford FP4 125 (for use in 4×5 sheet film)

Fuji Acros Neopan 100

Kodak Tri X 400

Fuji Neopan 1600

Posted by simon on August 10, 2011
5 Comments Post a comment
  1. 02/9/2012

    I bought a Yashica Mat for Christmas and this was dead handy – I used to shoot Ilford Delta a long time ago, when I had a Holga, but I’d never really taken the time to compare all the different films. So far my favourite is Ektachrome, but it’s early days.

    • 02/9/2012

      Thanks for the comment and glad you have gone for a camera now. TLR and 6×6 are two of my favourite things along with the waist level finder….

  2. 01/17/2013

    Thanks for such an awesome post!

    I was having a hard time deciding between the ilford delta 100 and the fuji acros 100. Personally, I think the contrast on the delta is better that the acros.

    What say you..?? 🙂

  3. 09/13/2013

    pretty much agree with his pics except hp5 has been indistinguishable from tri x for me. have had great success with both. the tmax 400 was my favorite image of his. fuji acros rocks. shanghai sucks. I also use tmax 3200. grainy but good. too bad it’s gone.


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