Lightbox darkroom

The basics of black and white film

If you’re starting out at shooting with black and white film, delving into internet forums and social media could expose you to too much detail. A lot of it is good (most of the time), but a lot of it is particularly elementary.

Here’s a basic guide into which black and white (known as B&W for hereon in) film does what, how to treat it when shooting; and, how that translates to scanning and, darkroom printing. For this article assume I’m mainly talking about 35mm film. I’ll state other formats (medium or large format) where appropriate.

Brands

There is a more varied range of B&W film than colour film. Colour film is almost exclusively produced by Kodak and Fujifilm. There are however more B&W film manufacturers, mainly due to the lower cost of film production compared to colour.

Kodak produce some of the most popular brands of B&W film, and Fujifilm did (they’re slowly killing their film production off). Ilford is the most well known other B&W film producer, based here in the UK. Other manufacturers of note include:

Of the list above, some produce many variations of film: Kodak, Ilford, Adox, Foma, Rollei. Whilst some manufacturers or brands make only one or two B&W emulsions; Bergger, Cinestill, Ferrania, Japan Camera Hunter, Kentmere, Kosmo Foto, and Lomography.

Additionally, depending where you are in the world, brands will be cheaper or more expensive. Ilford in the UK is cheaper than in the USA. Likewise, Kodak film is cheaper in the USA than in Europe.

Types of black and white film

Of all the brands, how do you choose which film to purchase? Types of B&W film can fall into categories that will make it easier for you to choose dependant on what type of photography you want to produce, and it’s mainly to do with the all-important ISO number. Film can also be categorised by grain type, but let’s start with the basics!

The magic ISO numbers

ISO dial

A film’s ISO number is an indication as to how sensitive to light the manufacturers have made the film. The lower the number, the less sensitive to light the film is. An ISO 50 film is going to need more light to create a correctly exposed image, compared to an ISO 400 film. Additionally, as a general rule, a lower ISO film will have a smaller grain (the silver halide crystals that form the image) size than a higher ISO film.

Low to medium speed ISO film

Ilford Pan F Plus 50

Photographers like to use low ISO films (ISO 20 to ISO 50) for landscapes, portrait work work where they have decent control of the subject lighting, architecture, etc. Basically, for situations where speed isn’t of the essence or where there’s plenty of sun light (or flash is used). Likewise, the same could be said for medium speed films (ISO 80 to ISO 200), perhaps used where the photographer has a little less control or availability of light.

Popular low ISO films include Ilford Pan F Plus 50, Rollei RPX 25, and Adox CMS 20 II.

Ilford FP4 Plus 125

Popular medium speed ISO films include Ilford FP4 Plus 125, Fujifilm Neopan ACROS 100 (soon to be discontinued), Kodak TMax 100, and Fomapan 100 and 200.

Higher ISO films

Kodak Tri-X 400

Anything from ISO 400 and above is considered a high ISO film with more sensitivity to light. Photographers will use these films when there’s either little light available (dull days, evenings or night time), or the amount of light available is very unpredictable or unknown; or, as is often my case, it’s the only film in your fridge!

Typically with B&W film, off the shelf, brands fall squarely into the ISO 400 category, and then the ISO 3200 category. Not ISO 800, or 1600. There’s good reason for this. ISO 400 sensitive films can also be shot at these ISO ranges. A photographer shooting at night would typical buy a roll of Ilford HP5 Plus 400 and ‘rate’ the ISO at maybe 800, 1600, or even 3200 on their camera’s ISO dial. The photographer pretends his film is a higher ISO film and tricks the light meter into believing so. Later on when the film is developed, the photographer (or specialist lab) would ‘push’ the chemical processing time to accommodate for the way the film has been shot at a different ISO speed.

The trade off when doing this is higher contrast and chunkier or more apparent grain visible in the image.

As an example, Kodak Tri-X 400 was the staple diet of press photographers for many decades. ISO 400 would be a very useable film speed during the day, and a roll of the same film could be rated ISO 1600 if light became limited. A one-film-fits-all-purposes. Press photographers were never looking for gallery quality fine art prints from their work, so the trade off of higher contrast and more apparent grain was acceptable if it meant getting the shot.

The most renowned high ISO 400 films are Kodak Tri-X 400 and Ilford HP5 Plus 400 (Ilford’s competitor to Kodak Tri-X). Fomapan 400, Kodak TMax 400, Ilford Delta 400, Rollei RPX 400 are some other well known ISO 400 films.

Ilford Delta 3200

That leaves us with ISO 3200 films. There are two on the market. Ilford Delta 3200, and the recently reintroduced Kodak TMax 3200. These films are a good choice if you know for certain there’ll be little light available – night time, concerts – or other applications where you’d rather favour a high ISO on your film for specific camera settings (like being able to shoot with a wide open aperture in okay light).

Grain, tone, and preference

Why not simply purchase high ISO film and have the flexibility to shoot in most circumstances? Many people do this, but, as mentioned, you will miss out on finer grain in low-to-medium speed films, and a more even or subtle tonality across the ranges of greys between black and white.

I love shooting Ilford HP5 Plus 400 at ISO 400, 800, 1600, and even 3200. I like contrast and find it prints to my liking. However, I also love shooting Ilford FP4 Plus 125 because I love the tones it produces when darkroom printing – an almost dreamy like tonal quality that HP5 Plus just doesn’t give.

The general rule is: the lower the ISO, the less visible grain and more tonal balance. The higher the ISO, grain becomes far more visible and more contrast will be apparent.

By the way, if you’re shooting on a medium format camera with much larger negatives, grain becomes less of a consideration than with 35mm film. Because of the size of the negative, you have to enlarge to a pretty big size to start seeing prominent grain.

Developing

I don’t want to get into the details of how to develop black and white film since it’s been documented well enough elsewhere (and you should be booking yourself onto a Lightbox Darkroom workshop to find out!)

There are some quick pointers to watch out for though:

Scanning & printing from film

There can be big differences between what film looks like when scanned, and when printed traditionally in the darkroom. Scanning film tends to be very clinical and emphasises grain, particularly when any form of sharpening is used. When printing from film in the darkroom, the enlarger tends to be more forgiving of grain emphasis and the tonal quality takes on a far more visceral feeling.

Of course, you can manipulate a scan to mimic a more traditional print feel – boost contrast, don’t over sharpen etc. Likewise, I’ve scanned 35mm FujiFilm Neopan ACROS 100 and the results are so impressive, it almost felt like a high resolution digital camera image (so I er, stopped shooting with ACROS 100, smirk.)

Since opening Lightbox, I’ve become less and less reliant on scanning because I much prefer the qualities of a print (and I have free access to the darkroom.) But what you want the final image for will dictate how you produce it. To get images on Instagram, Flickr etc, a scan can be quicker. Maybe even for publishing zines, a scan will be faster (though I’d argue that scanning a darkroom print would be more rewarding). For prints, the darkroom may be better. For gallery or sale prints, I must insist that darkroom prints are best, of course.

My personal preference

Ilford HP5 Plus 400

Since I live in the UK, Ilford film is generally the cheapest here. Fomapan once was, but has since become more expensive than Ilford, just. I buy Ilford HP5 Plus 400 by the bulk roll. A 17 metre roll will get you about 12 rolls of film (for roughly the same price of 7 ready made). You do have to make it into 35mm film cassettes, but that’s pretty easy with the right kit. If money were no object, I would prefer to shoot Kodak Tri-X 400. I generally prefer the contrast and tone of Tri-X over HP5, but it becomes less apparent in a darkroom print than in a scan.

Most of the time, I rate HP5 at a higher ISO. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever shot a roll at ISO 400 in the past few years!

More recently, I’ve tried Bergger Pancro 400, at ISO 400. It printed beautifully and remind me a little of the qualities of my next favourite film…

For medium to low ISO films, I love Ilford FP4 Plus 125 - especially in medium format (a larger film format). Most of my favourite prints have been shot on FP4. The tonal range is gorgeous, and its contrast is also beautifully balanced. I don’t often shoot much lower than FP4’s ISO 125. I’m not a massive fan of Ilford Pan F Plus 50, but appreciate it’s quality.

In closing

If you find this useful, let me know. If you think I need to add to it or amend it, also let me know; I’ll keep it a living document.

Depending where you are in the world may dictate what film is affordable to you. Don’t get too caught up in the world of film and their respective pros and cons, it’s a means to getting a good print or image on your screen. Find a film or pair of films you like, and shoot as much of it as you can!

Where to buy film

Check out one of the first articles I wrote for this website, Where to buy film in the UK. I do keep it up-to-date so it’s safe to bookmark.

Final pro tip

Did you know that the ‘HP’ in Ilford HP5 Plus means Hypersensitive Panchromatic? (The 5 being version 5 of the emulsion). And, did you know that the ‘FP’ in Ilford FP4 Plus means Fine grain Panchromatic? (I’ll let you figure out what the 4 is for.) Keep that for parties – the perfect chat up lines.

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