Choosing Black and White Films

To this day, we believe that if you want the finest possible black and white prints, black and white film is the way to go.

To this day, we believe that if you want the finest possible black and white prints, black and white film is the way to go. There’s already one module on choosing films and another on our materials. There is quite a lot of overlap between this module and those, but this one deals only with black and white; is about three years newer; and is aimed rather more at the beginner, especially at the beginner who started out with digital, in which case you may want to read Welcome to Film. And, of course, since the demise of Agfa, there are rather fewer film choices than there were.

Mono Lake, California

The film that is best for you may not necessarily be one that you expect. Frances shot this on Ilford’s SFX, originally a traffic surveillance film with extended red sensitivity. With heavy red filtration it behaves quite like a true infra-red film, but with more modest filtration it is like a rich, grainy, slower (ISO 200) version of Ilford HP5 Plus


Waterfall, Julian Alps




This is quite possibly Roger’s favourite landscape among all the black and white pictures that he has ever taken: Nikon F, 200/3 Vivitar Series 1 with Soviet-era orange filter, Ilford HP5 Plus. We had not used HP5 for years, then we were given some in Zurich in the late 1990s and fell in love with it all over again.




The most basic attribute of film is speed – there’s a module about ISO speeds, too — but as well as that there’s flexibility (the ability to stand over- and under-exposure and out-of-specification development), pushability, tonality, grain and sharpness. Aside from all this there is straightforward quality: the evenness and reliability with which the film is coated. Before we move onto the other attributes, it is worth looking at quality first.





When you buy film from a first-rank manufacturer such as Ilford, Kodak, etc., one of the things for which you pay a premium is quality control. There are unlikely to be any nasty surprises, in the way of bubbles, dirt and drop-outs in the emulsion, or stripes and other artifacts after processing. Good quality control also means high consistency: negligible batch-to-batch variation in film speed, consistent response to filters, developers, etc.






An important thing to understand is that there can be a big difference between pure technical quality, and whether or not you like a film. Frances is particularly fond of Kodak Tri-X, but greatly prefers Ilford’s XP2 Super to its Kodak chromogenic rivals, such as the Portra BW400CN she used for this shot. This is alchemy: nothing more, nothing less. Some films suit some people and not others – and you will normally know after a roll or two.





It is however possible to overstate the risks inherent in buying cheaper films. In particular, Roger likes Foma 200 very much, and we have never had a problem with it, either as Foma or when it was sold as Paterson Acupan 200. We have read accounts by others of problems with this film, but frankly, we have our suspicions that at least some of them were user error rather than film problems.

Even cheap films are rarely disastrous from the point of view of sheer quality control. For example, the Russian Svema brand really isn’t very good, either in our experience or in the hands of those labs who have tested it formally, but that doesn’t stop countless photographers using it to get excellent pictures. After all, if the picture is good enough, it can ‘carry’ technical flaws. As it sometimes has to with Svema.




Fomapan 200 is not one of the most expensive films around; it’s not ISO 200 (see below); and it’s quite grainy for its speed. Tonally, however, it can be gorgeous. Here Roger shot with a Voigtländer Bessa-R2 and a 50/1.5 Nokton with a B+W 2x yellow filter.





‘Own brand’ films

‘Own brand’ films are a very tempting way to save money, and indeed, you can buy absolutely first-class films this way. There are only two things of which to beware. The first is that because ‘own brand’ films are (by definition) dependent on external suppliers, continuity cannot always be guaranteed. A good ‘own brand’ supplier such as Freestyle in Los Angeles will change the films’ names when the supplier changes, and will not change too often. Fortunately this is the norm with black and white, unlike supermarket colour negative films where you can never be sure what is in three different boxes of apparently identically labelled ‘200 Speed Film’ except by looking at where they were made: it might have been Germany (Agfa) until they disappeared, then USA (Kodak) and then Italy (Ferrania) if Ferrania offered a better deal.

Second, the rule that you get what you pay for is not wholly abrogated. If a supplier offers a range of ‘own brand’ films, then as a rule, the very cheapest are probably nothing like as good as the more expensive ones. Quite possibly, you will get disproportionately better film for a comparatively small increase in price.

Church of St. Martin, Taizé

Maco films are a curious cross between ‘own brand’ and ‘original manufacturer’. Often, they are not available from anyone else, but the sources are often mysterious. They have offered Gevaert aerial films, Efke infra-red films, old Agfa stock (when Agfa went out of business) and, they say, films coated at the original Wolfen plant (Orwo) in which they may or may not have a financial interest. The difficulty lies in getting exactly the same story out of Hans O. Mahn, the suppliers of Maco, twice in a row. Many of their films are excellent, though they are often not on the market for long and prices are sometimes surprisingly high. This is Maco Cube 400, exposed in a KowaSix with 85/2.8 lens.

Outdated films

Another way to save money is to buy outdated films, and in black and white, you need to be fairly unlucky to encounter quality problems with reasonably fresh film (less than a year or two out of date) if it has been reasonably stored. Indeed, if it has been well stored (in a refrigerator or preferably in a freezer) it may exhibit little or no loss of quality even if it is several years out of date. We have no compunction in using the occasional roll that has been lurking at the back of our refrigerator for months or even years beyond its expiry date.



The main problem with outdated film is loss of contrast, usually as a result of increased base fog. ‘Base fog’ simply means that unexposed silver grains develop alongside the exposed ones, adding an overall greyness to the image. Even fresh films exhibit some base fog, but as they age, they tend to exhibit more. The easiest way to compensate for this is to use ‘clean working’ developers (a euphemism for ‘non-fog-inducing’) and to increase development time a bit: anything from 10 to 50 per cent.

Second, the film may well lose some speed, to the extent that anything from 1/3 stop to a full stop of extra exposure is needed, e.g. an ISO 100 film might work best at EO 80, 64 or even 50.

The third probability with outdated film is that grain will be bigger and more obtrusive, and this will of course be accentuated by increasing exposure and development.

Fast films deteriorate faster than slow ones, so an ISO 400 film is likely (though by no means certain) to deteriorate faster than an ISO 125 film. Really fast films, with a box speed of 3200, are degraded even by cosmic rays, so storing them in the refrigerator or even in the freezer will not have anything like as much preserving effect as with slower films.





Fields, Spain






Infra-red films – this is Efke 820 – are often especially sensitive to poor storage and should be kept in the refrigerator or even freezer, and preferably not used too long after their expiry date. The main problem is likely to be quite high fog levels.






Of course, loss of quality with ageing is a gradual process of deterioration: it is not as if the film will be good one day, and no good the next. Some manufacturers’ films seem to deteriorate faster than others’: an Ilford spokesman once ruefully remarked, “I sometimes think we should make our films to go off faster, so people wouldn’t be so tempted to use them when they’re out of date.”

If you are going to buy outdated film, it makes sense to buy as much as you can, of the same batch number, and thereafter to store it in your refrigerator. That way, you can test it for speed and fog, and process all subsequent rolls in the light of this. The drawback to this approach is that if it turns out to have been badly stored, foggy, slow and grainy, you have invested a lot more money in bad film.

This is why, if you can afford it, there is no question: it makes more sense to buy top-quality in-date films. We use mostly Ilford, though Frances also uses Kodak Tri-X a lot and Roger, as already noted, likes Foma 200.


Films were traditionally grouped into slow, medium, fast and ultra-fast. Slow films require more light to form an image; fast ones require less. Although the actual film speeds associated with each group have gone up over the years, the idea of four groups remains useful to this day. ‘Slow’ is ISO 50 or below; ‘medium’ is normally ISO 100 or 125; ‘fast’ is ISO 320 or 400; and ‘ultra-fast’ is over 400.


Brighton Pavilion

Ilford’s Pan F Plus is just about the last survivor of traditional slow films from a major manufacturer, and (we’ll be honest) we don’t use it very much, simply because it doesn’t normally suit the sort of hand-held photography we normally do. With the right subject, and on a tripod, it can however be quite magical, with a gorgeous tonality, very fine grain and high sharpness.

Slow Films

Slow films can be further divided into general-purpose slow films, of which Ilford Pan F (ISO 50) is the only real survivor, and special-purpose slow films. General-purpose slow films are slow, fine-grained and sharp, though actually, Ilford Delta 100 is sharper than Pan F, though not as fine grained.

Slow films are often derided as inherently contrasty, but this simply isn’t so. Like any other film, the contrast is controlled by development, but the shape of the characteristic curve is such that they are more sensitive to development time than many faster films, so that contrast builds rapidly with over-development.

This is especially true of special-purpose slow films. These are usually microfilms or other special-application films, not designed for general photography, and require special developers to prevent excessive contrast. Even then, the tonality is often rather peculiar, and speeds are often very low indeed: EIs of 12, 6 and below are not unknown.

One of the best known (now deceased) ultra-slow films was Kodak Technical Pan, which was ideal for applications as diverse as microscopy and solar flare photography, but not so good for such things as portraits and landscapes. It was incredibly sharp and fine-grained, but in our view, that was about all you could say in its favour. Well, that, and the fact that it wasn’t as bad as microfilm.

Devotees of Technical Pan sing a predictably different song, as do devotees of many other ‘trick’ films, but we have seen very few pictures we actually like that were taken with any of them. By all means explore such films once you have learned to expose and print less demanding films, but steer well clear of them if you are a beginner. In fact, we would advise you to avoid even Ilford Pan F, which is vastly easier to use, until you have cut your teeth on something more flexible (see below).


Medium-speed films


The traditional speed for these was ISO 125, and Ilford FP4 Plus and Kodak Plus-X Pan are still this speed, but otherwise, ISO 100 (1/3 stop slower than ISO 125) is the standard. As noted elsewhere, Foma 200 is best treated as an ISO 125 film, while Ilford’s SFX (used for the first picture in the module) is indeed a true ISO 200.







Slow, sharp films often look less sharp than they really are, especially if they are enlarged from medium format (this is a Hasselblad shot on Ilford 100 Delta), because we are accustomed to seeing grain.


At this point we run into the differences between so-called ‘old technology’ films (such as FP4 and Plus X) and so-called ‘new technology’ films (such as Ilford Delta 100/100 Delta – they changed the name and confused everyone – and Kodak T-Max 100 or TMX). The crystals of silver halide in ‘new technology’ films are much more uniform in size and shape, and the shape itself is optimized for sensitivity. This gives finer grain and higher sharpness for a given speed, but also a more or less reduced flexibility (see below).

In practice, the differences between ‘old technology’ and ‘new technology’ have been decreasing ever since ‘new technology’ films were introduced, so which you prefer will normally come down to questions of grain, sharpness and tonality. ‘New technology’ films are normally much superior in both grain and sharpness, but many people prefer the tonality of ‘old technology’.


De Gaulle’s Nose

Sorry, Mon Général, but this reminded us of a thousand cartoons. Frances shot it on Kodak Plus-X Pan, ISO 125.


Even so, developer repertoires tend to be different between ‘new technology’ and ‘old technology’. Although the former are a lot more tolerant and flexible than they used to be, it is still entirely possible to run into a film/developer combination which gives poor speed, bad tonality, big grain or any combination of the three. ‘Old technology’ films can put up with a lot more.



Frances, who took this picture on Kodak Tri-X, has printed it many different ways, from a soft, misty, low-contrast version to the fairly contrasty version above, which best reflects the hot morning with the last of the mist burned off the water, but a haze beginning to form above the trees. As Ansel Adams said in his famous musical analogy, the negative is the score, and the print is the performance. It’s also important which paper you choose: maybe the paper is the orchestra. Some films certainly suit some papers better than others, though in our experience, Ilford Multigrade Warmtone accommodates just about everything, very gracefully.


Fast films


These are almost all ISO 400 (nominal) though some kinds of ‘professional’ Kodak Tri-X are 320 (1/3 stop slower). Again there are both ‘old technology’ films (such as Ilford HP5 Plus and Kodak Tri-X) and ‘new technology’ films such as Ilford Delta 400/400 Delta and Kodak T-Max 400 (TMY/TMY-2). Differences in grain, sharpness and tonality are akin to those for slower ‘new technology’ and ‘old’ technology ISO 100/125 films.





Land Rover in the Pyrenees


A good deal of nonsense is talked about the inherent contrastiness of films. It is perfectly true that there are ‘short toe’ films (where contrast builds very quickly with extra development) and ‘long toe’ films (where contrast builds much more slowly). But contrast can always be controlled via developer choice and developer routine, as witness the Kodak Tri-X shot on the right and the one immediately above.


One further category in fast films is ‘chromogenics’. As their name suggests, these use a similar technology to colour films, forming a dye image at the same time as the silver image which is then bleached out to leave only the dye image. Ilford’s XP2 Super (successor to XP2, successor to XP1) has been described as ‘a black and white film with dyes added’, while Kodak’s version (which has changed its name several times) has been described as ‘a colour film with the colour taken out’.


The Ilford version is better for wet printing in the home darkroom (which is the way we do it); is sharper; and is about 1/3 stop faster, despite their both being nominally ISO 400.

Kodak’s version is finer grained, and is better for printing in mini-labs on colour paper.

Whichever you choose, chromogenics have two enormous advantages. First, they can be processed in any minilab or other C41 line, alongside colour films. Second, they are ideal for scanning, as there is no silver grain, just a dye image. This pretty much removes problems with grain aliasing, where grain comes out looking far bigger than it should.


Fafan’s Bar

More than once, we have seriously considered switching to Ilford XP2 Super as our principal black and white film, home-processed because it’s quicker, cheaper and easier than going to a lab. We love the tonality and it removes all concerns about developer choice and development regime – which is precisely why some traditionalists hate it.

Something that is not immediately obvious is that film speed is somewhat related to colour sensitivity. Silver halides are inherently sensitive only to blue, violet and ultra-violet light, but by adding sensitizing dyes this sensitivity can be extended to longer wavelengths without, astonishingly, losing any of the basic blue sensitivity. ‘Ortho’ (orthochromatic) emulsions are sensitive to green light as well as blue, but not to red, and first appeared as a result of Vogel’s experiments in dye sensitization in 1873. ‘Pan’ (panchromatic) emulsions are sensitive to red as well, and were first commercially available in 1906, but ‘ortho’ remained cheaper for many years.


One way to get extra sensitivity is to use dyes which take the sensitivity further into the red, the so-called ‘hyperpanchromatic’ films (a term that has not been current for a long time). This has the additional advantage that the films lose little or no speed under tungsten light, whereas an ortho film can lose a full stop (ISO 80 drops to ISO 40) and an ordinary pan film can lose 1/3 or even 1/2 stop.

Most modern fast films are hyperpanchromatic, and therefore respond slightly differently to filtration from some slower films. They lose less speed with a red filter, and with or without the filter, their tonality is slightly different. All ultra-fast films are of necessity hyperpanchromatic.


Drummer, New York City

When TMZ (Kodak T-Max P3200) first came out, we frequently pushed it to the most ridiculous exposure indices (EIs): this is 12,500, insofar as such a speed means anything. Nowadays, we tend to stick to the box speed, or indeed, a little lower, because we prefer the tonality. But it’s still fun. Frances used a Nikkormat and 15/2.8 Sigma fish-eye for this.

Ultra-fast films

It is disputable whether there are two or three of these. Ilford Delta 3200 and Kodak T-Max P3200 (TMZ — P-for-Push) both have box speeds of 3200, while Fuji Neopan 1600 has a box speed of 1600. Unlike slow, medium and fast films, however, these are not true ISO speeds. These three films are especially designed for ‘pushing’ (see below) and will give good results at their box speeds, but these are not their ISO speeds.

Fuji’s Neopan 1600 may just about be able to get in sight of ISO 800 in a speed increasing developer; Kodak’s TMZ P3200 is hard put to top 1000; and Ilford Delta 3200, the fastest (and also the grainiest) can reach 1250 or so. In fact, one may regard Neopan 1600 as being (in the words of one emulsion chemist) ‘a very good, very pushable ISO 400 film’: it is less than 1/3 stop faster than Ilford HP5 Plus. This is why we say that it is disputable whether there are two or three ultra-fast films.



Graffiti, Pzszcyna



Frances quite often uses Ilford Delta 3200 even in good light, because she has a ‘benign essential tremor’ which makes it hard for her to hand-hold slower speeds. Quite apart from this, though, she also likes the tonality, even when (as here) she uses a tripod. Provided you don’t mind the grain, and if you habitually shoot ‘deep field’ compositions, the main disadvantage of Delta 3200 as a general-purpose film is simply that it is a good deal more expensive than ISO 400 films. Here it was loaded into a Zeiss Ikon SW body fitted with an 18/4 Zeiss Distagon.



ISO speeds

Most films are very close to the ISO speed stated on the box. Those who believe otherwise are generally not very clear on exactly what ISO speeds mean. They refer to the minimum amount of light required to produce a specified density at a given negative contrast. As soon as you choose a different density or contrast, you are no longer working to ISO Standards.

There are however four important caveats to enter here.

The first is that there is a small amount of rounding in ISO film speeds. The ISO standard allows for variations of +/- 1/3 stop, so an ISO 80 film may legitimately be sold as ISO 100. This was originally to allow for batch-to-batch variations, but as manufacturing techniques have been improved, it has increasingly been used to sell slower films as faster ones. Thus, for example, if one ISO 100 film is significantly finer grained than another ISO 100 film that uses similar technology and is developed in the same developer, it is likely to be slower. We are not alone in finding that Fuji Acros (nominal ISO 100) is both the finest grained and the slowest of ‘ISO 100’ films.


Ramsgate Harbour

Fuji Acros is extremely fine-grained and sharp, but we had some difficulty in getting a tonality that we liked, despite trying a wide range of developers and dilutions. We also found that we could not get tonality we liked at ISO 100, but preferred EI 80 or even 64. To some extent, this must have been sheer bad luck: we know others who have found Acros perfectly to their liking at first use, though presumably they used different developers from the ones we chose (mostly Paterson, some Ilford).


The second point is that ISO speeds can be determined with any developer of the manufacturer’s choosing, provided that the developer is named. Given that ISO speeds can vary quite widely with developer, an ‘ISO 400’ film such as Ilford HP5 Plus, for example, may exceed ISO 650 in a speed increasing developer such as Ilford DD-X or Microphen, or drop to ISO 200 or less in a fine-grain developer such as Ilford Perceptol. Fuji Acros is probably ISO 125 or better in speed increasing developers.

Most film speeds are determined with ‘middle of the road’ developers, but a few are obtainable only with speed increasing developers. The most notable is Foma 200, which is within sight of ISO 200 when used with speed-increasing developers, as is Ilford FP4 Plus, nominally ISO 125. Indeed, the speeds of FP4 Plus and Foma 200 are just about identical in all developers.


The third consideration, as already noted above, is that the speeds on the boxes of ultra-fast films are not ISO speeds, but usable exposure indices (EIs).

Fourth, the ISO speed (or the speed on the box) is not necessarily the speed that will give you the results you like best, given your equipment, subject matter, metering technique and chosen developer. If you use a spot meter, and always read the darkest area in which you want texture and detail, you should find the ISO speed entirely satisfactory. If you use a broad-area reflected-light meter, or an incident light meter, or a through-lens meter, then you may well find that you are happier with the tonality and shadow detail if you set a speed that is 1/3 stop, 2/3 stop or even a whole stop slower than the actual ISO speed (never mind the box speed). For further explanation of why this is so, go to the module on metering for negative films.



Lily pads


It is disputable whether there really is an ISO standard for the speed of chromogenic films such as the Ilford XP2 Super that Frances used for this picture. Last time we made a direct comparison, XP2 was 1/3 stop faster than its Kodak rival but Kodak has reformulated and renamed its chromogenic films a good deal more often than Ilford – some would say, because they needed to, though each generation is an improvement on the one before.


Which film speed should you choose?

The traditional advice was to use the slowest film possible, as this would deliver the highest quality: the finest grain, the best sharpness, and so forth. Also, it was usually the cheapest, though this is no longer necessarily the case: rarity value may well mean that slow films that are not in great demand may cost more than faster films which are more widely used.

Although there is still a certain amount to be said for the slowest-possible-film approach today, it has to be said that modern films are so sharp and fine-grained that many people simply standardize on what was traditionally regarded as a ‘fast’ film, ISO 400. Also, unless you shoot off an entire roll under the same lighting conditions, you may find a slow film (or even a medium film) to be inconveniently slow as twilight falls. Indoors, under normal domestic lighting, you can generally get a perfectly adequate exposure with ISO 400 film at 1/30 and f/2. With ISO 100, you’re going to need 1/15 at f/1.4.

Then again, countless first-class pictures were taken in the 1930s with very slow films. Even on the eve of World War Two, Agfa Ultra Speed was probably just below the equivalent of ISO 200 (of course, ISO or even ASA hadn’t been invented yet) but was regarded as a super-speed film, rather like Delta 3200 today. Most ‘fast’ films were the equivalent of about ISO 100-125 today: Perutz Peromnia, Gevaert Panchromosa, Kodak SS Pan, Ilford HP2 (Hypersensitive Fine Grain Panchromatic). Standard slow films such as Ilford’s Selochrome were about ISO 25, and Selo FP (Ilford’s standard fine grain miniature film) was about ISO 12.

Admittedly, a lot of these great 1930s low-light pictures were taken at f/1.5 with shutter speeds of 1/10 or even 1/5 second, hand held, or resorted to a tripod. Often, too, the film was ‘pushed’ (overdeveloped) and the shadows were completely empty.

It’s also worth noting, though, that some people went the other way and favoured ultra-fine-grain developers, which could easily depress speeds by a couple of stops or more. Imagine shooting Selo FP at ISO 3. That’s 1/15 second at f/5.6 in bright sunlight.

Arnolfini Bar, 1970s

In those days, Roger tended to use his 58/1.4 Nikkor on a Nikon F rather than his 50/1.5 Xenon on a Leica – partly, it must be said, because the Xenon was prone to appalling internal reflections, with light sources at the top of the picture appearing sharp and upside down at the bottom.

Even so, he now wishes he’d gone for the Leica (which he could and can hand hold for much longer exposures) and slower film: Ilford HP5 rated at its box speed instead of pushed to EI 1000 or more, as here. The skin tone is OK but the coat is pretty murky, even in the original print.

Going in the other direction, today’s ultra-fast films may be inconveniently fast in many cameras in good light. Rate Ilford Delta 3200 at 3200, and you need about 1/2000 at f/16 in bright sun. Many camera/lens combinations simply cannot deliver this: the shutter stops at 1/1000 or even 1/500, and the lens stops at f/16. A stop of over-exposure is unlikely to do much harm but it certainly reduces your options when it comes to such tricks as panning or using selective focus: you may find the bokeh module of interest.

We have to admit that for hand-held photography we pretty much standardize on Ilford HP5 Plus or Kodak Tri-X in good light, switching to Ilford Delta 3200 in really poor light. Because Frances has a ‘benign essential tremor’ (medicalese for ‘shaky hands but don’t worry about it’), she uses a lot more Delta 3200 than Roger does, and uses very little Foma 200.


Seafront café, Collioure

Like everyone else, we can’t resist trying new films from time to time, and this was one of the weirdest. It was called Maco Scanfilm and was basically a rather grainy Gevaert aerial colour negative film without the usual orange base cast. Maco claimed (not entirely accurately) that this made it easier to scan, and meant that you could also print it on ordinary black and white paper – which gave predictably nasty tonality. On the other hand, it gave a wonderfully grainy nostalgic look in colour, and it was astonishingly good for lith printing, as here.


We normally rate Ilford HP5 Plus and Kodak Tri-X at 320 (in-camera meter) or 500 (spot meter), developing in Ilford DD-X for a true ISO of about 650; Ilford Delta 3200 at 2500, developed at the time recommended for 3200; and Foma 200 at 125, typically in DD-X again which gives ISO 160+. In other words, we normally rate the film at least a third stop slower than the full film speed, because we prefer the tonality that way – though partly, too, this is a matter of metering, as explained in the module exposure for negatives. You may also find it worth while to read about the markings on old Weston meters, even if you don’t own one, as it may help you understand more about metering technique.



A photographer (and armourer) of our acquaintance memorably described Ilford HP5 Plus as ‘the AK-47 of films’. By this he meant that it will withstand unbelievable abuse: over- and under-exposure, development in almost anything, whether over- or under-developed, rotten temperature control, anything you can throw at it. His party-piece as an armourer was to throw an AK-47 into a barrel of oil; go to lunch with his recruits; pull the gun out after lunch; shake the oil out; wipe the exterior; and fire off a full magazine.




In the mountains, we tend to prefer longer-than-standard lenses; yellow filters; and either Ilford HP5 Plus, as here, for Roger, or Kodak Tri-X for Frances.


The current incarnation of Tri-X seems to be similarly tough, though the previous version (until the early 21st century) was sometimes prone to reticulations, a microscopically fine wrinkling of the emulsion if badly processed, especially in solutions of widely differing temperature.



At the opposite pole were the earliest incarnations of ‘new technology’ films, especially Kodak TMX and TMY, though today’s versions are vastly superior. They were very critical on exposure: slightly too little and there was no image, slightly too much and they were dense and huge-grained. They had a very small developer repertoire: use the wrong developer, and you got rotten results (loss of speed, huge grain, poor sharpness…). They were extremely sensitive to under- and over-development, with much the same results as under- and over-exposure. And they could hardly be pushed at all. Worse still, Ilford’s ‘Delta 400’ was nowhere near ISO 400: it was 320 at best.

Bar, Jaca, Spain

Early TMY (Kodak T-Max 400) was incredibly sensitive to exposure and development. Get both right, and it repaid you handsomely. Get either wrong, and you’d wish you’d stayed with Tri-X. The current version, TMY-2 (used here), is vastly more flexible for both exposure and development. Likewise, Ilford’s current Delta 400 is vastly more flexible (at rather faster) than the original version. But in neither case is the tonality the same as their ‘old technology’ counterparts.

Far too many photographers remember those early ‘new technology’ films and remain unreasonably suspicious of them. It’s true that we generally prefer the tonality of ‘old technology’ films, except for Delta 100 which is one of our favourite films in 120, but this is a consequence of the subjects we shoot and the way that we work. We have seen superb results from ‘new technology’ films, but even to this day, they do remain a little more finicky than ‘old technology’ so for the beginner we’d recommend the latter. As soon as you have mastered ‘old technology’ films, though, you might be well advised to try their ‘new technology’ rivals. This is especially true for scanning, where big grain is often rendered even bigger by the scanner.



If we didn’t print in the wet darkroom, we’d probably standardize on Ilford XP2 Super, though we might still process it at home in order to get a water wash instead of just stabilization, which is all that is normally done at a mini-lab. Not only are processing and scanning easy: XP2 can also be exposed over a wide range of speeds, from about EI 800 (at which point it tends to be quite grainy, with noticeably poorer tonality) to about EI 50 (where it is much finer grained but dense and significantly less sharp). For hand-held photography with a through-lens meter or broad-area meter, we normally rate it at EI 320 on a cloudy day or EI 250 on a sunny day.


At the developing stage there are two ways to ‘push’ a film to increase its sensitivity. One is to use a speed-increasing developer such as Ilford Microphen or DD-X, and the other is to develop for longer.

‘Pushability’ is akin to flexibility, and some films are much more ‘pushable’ than others. Ultra-fast films and Ilford HP5 have already been noted for their ‘pushability’, and while slow films often respond well to a speed-increasing developer to give a higher true ISO, they normally respond quite poorly to over-development, building contrast very quickly without much useful increase in speed. For example, Ilford Pan F Plus in Ilford DD-X can give a true ISO 80 (a 2/3 stop push) but prolonging development is not a good idea.

As a general rule, ‘old technology’ films push better than ‘new technology’ but the flaw in this general rule is well demonstrated by the fact that both TMZ and Delta 3200 are ‘new technology’ films.

Transylvanian folk dancers

Normally we would use Ilford Delta 3200 for pictures like this, but this was getting towards the end of a trip and we had run out. Frances therefore loaded a Leica MP with Ilford HP5 Plus, carefully marking the cassettes PUSH 1000, and shot with a 90/2 Summicron wide open. You can see that the white blouses are ‘blown’ in the brightest highlights, and that the darkest parts of the skirts disappear in the darkest areas, but given that this was highly directional stage lighting we were not too unhappy with the final prints.

True ISO speed increases (via developer choice) of much more than 2/3 stop are rare to the point of invisibility, and while another 2/3 stop or so is often perfectly feasible without an unacceptable rise in contrast, this is about the limit of things for most normal subjects if you want anything like normal tonality, except with specially-designed ultra-fast ‘push’ films where you may be OK for as much as 1-1/3 stop while retaining good tonality.

Thus ISO 125 +2/3 stop (developer) = EI 200, and with 2/3 stop from extra development you get EI 320 or so, though 250 is probably a better idea. With ISO 400 the corresponding figures are 650 and 1000, again with 800 a better idea. Ilford Delta 3200 is already at its ISO limit at around 1250-1300, but a 1-1/3 stop push gives you (surprise!) 3200. As already noted, we normally set the meter at 2500…

If anyone tells you that they are getting much higher speeds than this, take a look at their pictures. It may be that because of the subject matter, their pictures are entirely successful. It may also be that they are truly awful, with soot-and-whitewash contrast and completely empty shadows where you would really like to see some detail.

Ice skaters, Bristol, 1970s

It’s an alarming thought that these two could easily be grandmothers now, but as well as illustrating the passing of time, they also make the point that the precise choice of black and white film is normally a lot less important than simply getting out and taking pictures. This isn’t the greatest picture in the world but there is an immediate rapport, a shared humanity and joy, in it. Roger used his Nikon F with 58/1.4 Nikkor for this shot, loaded with Ilford HP5 (pre-Plus) rated at 1600 or so.

Some, too, sing the praises of ‘compensating’ developers which give good detail in both the shadow and the highlights, basically by developing the shadows more or less normally and overdeveloping the highlights: Diafine users are particularly quick to sing the praises of their favourite brew. The price you pay for compensating developers is a compression of the mid-tones, which may or may not harm the overall tonality.

A slower film in a speed-increasing developer will normally give finer grain and better sharpness than a faster film in a fine-grain developer, and may be cheaper too. The choice between Ilford FP4 Plus in a speed increasing developer, or Ilford HP5 Plus in a fine-grain developer, is therefore likely to be a choice based on grain and tonality rather than on the speed difference, which might be 1/3 stop or less.


This is the hardest aspect of a film’s performance to quantify; the one which offers the greatest opportunities for variation in personal preference; and one that can be extensively modified by exposure as well as choice of developer and development regime, though it is usually easier to change films if you really don’t like the tonality of a particular film.

As already noted, most photographers (including us) prefer the tonality that comes with a little extra exposure (1/3 to 1/2 stop), even though extra exposure means reduced sharpness and (with conventional films) bigger grain.


Rochester, New York c. 1940

Frances’s father W. Arthur Schultz shot this on Kodak Plus-X a year or two after it came out. Exposure meters were rare and expensive in those days, and most photographers relied on experience, erring on the side of over-exposure if they were wise. Many reckon that the films of that era have never been bettered for tonality, and from the evidence of this picture, they have a good case. Grain and sharpness are however another matter.


It is possible to get over-excited about tonality, of course, just as it is possible to get over-excited about pretty much any aspect of photography, but we have always found that we can see whether we are going to like or dislike the tonality of a film within the first roll or two. There are still enough films on the market that there seems little point to us in struggling with a film you don’t like, piddling around with all kinds of developers and dilutions and times.

For us, tonality is perhaps the most important aspect of black and white photography, more important than sharpness or grain or film speed or anything else, though we have to admit that flexibility also plays a significant part in our choice: we don’t want to have to tie ourselves to a single outlandish, hard-to-find developer, even if it gives the finest tonality in the world.


This is pretty much self-explanatory, but it can be divided into two groups: size and shape. As a rule, faster films have bigger grain than slower ones; ‘old technology’ films have bigger grain than ‘new technology’ films; and speed increasing developers give bigger grain than normal-speed developers, though there are also developers (such as Rodinal) which give poor speed and big grain. ‘Crisp’, clearly defined grain generally looks better than ‘mushy’ grain, and while Rodinal excels at this, so do many other developers that give more speed.


In the 1970s, when Roger shot this, the fastest black and white films you could easily find were ISO 400: this is Ilford HP5 in its pre-Plus incarnation, rated at 1600 or so and mercilessly overcooked in Ilford Microphen. Even with an ultra-fast lens (58/1.4 Nikkor) there is subject movement as well as camera shake. Yes, Kodak 2475 and 2485 Recording films offered a true ISO of 1000 or more, but at the price of a very small developer repertoire and even bigger grain than this. They were also hard to find and very expensive.



Many photographers make the mistake of conflating fine grain and sharpness, but to a surprisingly high degree, the two are mutually exclusive. The finest-grained films are seldom the sharpest, and with the same film, the developer which gives the finest grain will not give the maximum sharpness. By the same token, the developer which gives the maximum sharpness will not give the finest grain.


The sharpest general-purpose black and white film on the market is Ilford Delta 100, and because it has quite a wide developer repertoire, you can choose whether to sacrifice the ultimate finest grain in favour of the maximum possible sharpness, or vice versa. Delta 100 in medium format is one of the few films where we quite like Rodinal, because the (relatively) coarse grain and high sharpness work well together at about EI 80 (probably the true ISO, at that). Others have found the same with Fuji Acros in Rodinal at EI 64 or so; again, probably close to the true ISO.


Mao in the Hutongs

As well as the film, of course, sharpness is a function of the lens, the format and the enlargement size. Roger shot this in Beijing with the legendarily sharp 38/4.5 Biogon on 44x66mm film – at which point the fact that it was ISO 400 Ilford HP5 Plus was fairly irrelevant. Remember this when you admire the sharpness of a particular picture: it may not have been shot on 35mm. The camera in this case was an Alpa 12WA.


When you are starting out, it makes overwhelming sense to chose a ‘safe’ film: one that’s hard to muck up. For reasons we hope are clear above, our first choice would be Ilford HP5 Plus, or Kodak Tri-X. Other possibilities would include Ilford FP4 Plus or Foma 200. Or, perhaps unexpectedly (and at a higher price) Ilford SFX. ‘Own brand’ films can be excellent, but equally, you’ll be in trouble if they change suppliers. At first, major manufacturers make sense.

We do not, however, endorse the view that you should pick one film and use nothing but that for three months or six months or a year or the first 100 rolls or whatever. By all means, if you want, buy a couple of rolls of Delta 100, a couple of rolls of Fuji Acros, a couple of rolls of Kodak T-Max 100 and a couple of rolls of Foma 100, and try them all. Or Ilford Delta 400, Kodak T-Max 400 TMY, Fuji Neopan 400. You may find one you love, and a couple you hate. THEN is the time to stick with the same film for a while, at least 10 rolls and maybe 20. Maybe even forever, or at least for years. If you’ve bought ‘own brand’, now is the time to buy 50 rolls, or a couple of 30-metre rolls for bulk loading.

Develop either in a middle-of-the-road developer such as Ilford ID-11/Kodak D76 or Kodak Xtol, or Ilford DD-X. We recommend the latter because it’s easy to mix (a liquid concentrate) and keeps half-way to forever. Then follow the manufacturers’ instructions, supplemented if necessary by modules on this site such as how to handle 35mm and 120 film, how to choose a developing tank and how to develop film.

Ruined convent

Frances photographed this on Kodak Tri-X with her Zeiss Ikon SW and 18/4 Distagon. This is cropped from the middle of the picture: the height was fine, but the left and right hand side contained little of interest. Besides, the bushes and brambles were fairly ferocious.

Once you’ve chosen your film, we’d recommend you stay with your initial developer. You may want to see what happens with other developers, and we would be the last to discourage you, but equally, unless you have a ‘standard’ developer as a reference point, you’ll probably find it hard to get a handle on what you’re doing. Certainly, it’s a rotten idea to keep changing developers, according to what’s cheapest and what’s available. We would also recommend that at first you avoid ‘trick’ (non-mainstream) developers and such techniques as ‘stand’ development (minimal agitation), no matter how loudly their devotees may sing their praises. Yes, they work well for some people and some subjects, but there are also many more ways in which they can go wrong: consider just why these developers and techniques are not the ‘standards’, and do not attempt to run before you can walk.

And that’s it, really. It’s not difficult. It’s not (particularly) expensive, especially if you develop your own film. And it’s fun. What more can you ask?