Analogue photography has been on the rise, and Kodak’s reintroduction of Professional T-Max P3200 (after having discontinued it in 2012) is the latest event fanning the flames under film’s ascent.
“But wait,” you may be thinking, “there are already so many other choices of film stock. What’s the big deal?” Whether you’re new to film photography and haven’t a clue where to start or have just finished working exclusively with whatever your teacher recommended and want to see what else is available, this guide is for you. It’s by no means exhaustive, but I guarantee you’ll feel better-prepared to experiment with black and white film.
Why black and white?
Black and white (also dubbed monochrome) film is special in that, aside from its aesthetic and nostalgic qualities, there is a wide margin of customization possible in the developing stage. By selecting different film stocks, using different developer chemicals, adjusting developing times, and adjusting exposure away from the “correct” time, you can control the level of grain, contrast, and dynamic range evident in the resultant negatives. Because C-41 and E-6 (i.e., color and slide) films are generally processed by machine, they don’t allow as much latitude as black and white. You can request special processing or you can even process your own film at home! Let’s take a look at a few available film stocks.
Remember: at the end of the day, film quality—image quality as a concept in general—is a subjective measure. None of the films listed here are necessarily better or worse than any other. They all provide different tonalities and grain structures, which must be evaluated by the beholder. Beyond inherent qualities of a film, the way a film is developed and the way it is scanned both may impart different qualities to a digital image.
Kodak Professional T-Max 100
Kodak T-Max 100 provides incredibly fine grain (rated at 200 lines/mm) and is generally very push-friendly (see below for explanation of push/pull techniques). This is the film for the sharpness fanatic.
Kodak Professional T-Max 400
T-Max 400 was retooled in 2007 to provide the same 200 lines/mm as T-Max 100 (previously it provided 125 lines/mm). In terms of real-world results, modern T-Max 400 is nearly as sharp as T-Max 100 but two stops more sensitive to light.
Kodak Professional T-Max P3200
T-Max P3200 is actually nominally ISO 800, but is meant to be pushed to 3200 or even higher (see below). This film is not as finely-grained as T-Max 100 or 400, but provides a level of sensitivity that allows photos that would not be possible on a lower-speed film, like scenes in a dimly-lit restaurant or action shots. Kodak may release a medium format version of the film, depending on the success of the rerelease of the 35mm version.
Ilford ∆100 Professional
Ilford ∆100 is another ultra-fine grain low-sensitivity film. For studio photography or images without movement, a low-sensitivity film is the way to go. In comparing T-Max to Ilford ∆, a lot of the difference is subjective/non-qualitative—shoot both, and see what you like!
Ilford ∆400 Professional
∆400 provides 2 more stops of sensitivity than ∆100 with minimal damage to grain. It’s not the choice for studio work, but when you may need the extra sensitivity but don’t want to sacrifice too much in fineness of grain, this is the right film.
Ilford ∆3200 Professional
This film is technically ISO 1250, but meant to be pushed—or pulled. With an extremely forgiving chemical base, ∆3200 has been shot successfully from ISO 400 to ISO 12,500.
Kodak Professional Tri-X 400
The grain on Tri-X is coarser than T-Max, but can provide a “grittier” feeling of realism and is a solid ISO 400 level of sensitivity. With more inherent contrast, Tri-X is popular for documentary and street photography.
Ilford Pan F Plus
Pan F Plus has a grain structure similar to ∆100 but by nature is a much more contrasty film than ∆100 or T-Max 100. This can be used to great effect artistically, but you’ll get your best results under controlled lighting. With an ISO of 50, you’ll probably be using a tripod with this one!
Ilford FP4 Plus
FP4 Plus is one of Ilford’s workhorses. Rated at ISO 125, FP4 provides higher contrast images on a lower-sensitivity stock.
Ilford HP5 Plus
HP5 Plus is one of the most popular films for students. Providing a somewhat lower contrast image on a higher-sensitivity ISO 400 stock, HP5 is the yang to FP4’s yin.
Ilford SFX 200
SFX 200 is a film manufactured to respond to an extended visible-red sensitivity, which provides images that mimic the effect of true infrared film. Living subjects tend to be blown out, skies tend to be dark and contrasty, and people tend to look quite alien.
This film (along with its now out-of-production Kodak counterpart, BW400CN) occupies an odd position, being a monochromatic film processed in C-41 color chemicals. This allows for more convenient drop-off developing, as it can be done by machine right along with any standard color film, but provides results that are typically flatter and less finely-grained than “true” black and white film. That doesn’t mean you can’t get great photos, of course, and C-41 can be pushed one or two stops if you need a little customization.
Once you’re comfortable with standard exposure, you can experiment with pushing or pulling your black and white film. “Pushing” refers to underexposing film and developing it for a longer time; “pulling” refers to the opposite. Basically, this is how you can escape the constraints of the ISO (sensitivity) for which your film is rated. If you wanted to shoot a concert on 400 speed film, you could set your camera to expose as if the film were 1600 ISO and push it 2 stops. Developed normally, the image would come out almost black; by developing it longer, you will find yourself with normally exposed images! Most films can only be pushed 2 or 3 stops at most, and this technique comes with the risk of making the grain structure of your film a bit rougher (see example below; click to enlarge), but with practice it can provide you with an incredible amount of latitude. Our experienced film technicians will gladly work with you to get the perfect result.
Grain structure comparison
Click to enlarge any of the samples below!
Talk to the experts
Come in to any Mike’s Camera location—or visit any local camera store—and our imaging salespeople will be delighted to help you get the results you want from your film. We can develop your negatives, help you develop your own negatives, and/or help you print negatives (no matter who developed them). If you’d prefer to stay online, please feel free to use the contact form below!