Film Review: Learning to Love Ilford HP5

For years my go to film was Fuji Neopan 400. To me, it was the perfect film; nice creamy tones, smooth grain, and very versatile as far as push and pull processing is concerned. Sadly Fuji decided to do away with this film which left me in a bit of a pickle.   

Ilford HP5 with a Mamiya 645e developed in Rodinal

Those who aren’t photographers often have a hard time grasping how painful it is to loose a film stock you’ve learned to use effectively, and as a consequence learning to use something new. The best analogy I can come up with is to imagine you are a guitarist who has been using the same Gibson Les Paul from the beginning of your career. You’ve written hundreds of songs with it. You’ve toured around the globe and played it in front of thousands of people. You’ve spent countless hours in the studio plucking its strings and collaborating with your fellow musicians.

Then all of a sudden the gods of industry rip it from your hands and plop a Fender Stratocaster in front of you. Sure it’s a guitar like your old Les Paul, with strings and frets and pickups. Sure its basic operation is the same.  Heck, it is probably a fantastic instrument. However, it just simply isn’t your old friend and it feels awkward to the touch. You make the best of it, but you can’t help but long for the familiar that has worked for you year after gloriously creative year.

I’ve had the same struggle since the loss of Neopan 400. I’m getting used to the new tools available to me, but I am still longing for what I knew so well.

For the record, I am well aware that Neopan 400 is readily available in 35mm. I rarely photograph in the 35mm format as I very much prefer a larger negative. When I do use 35mm I tend to stick with ISO 100 film, usually Fomapan. Besides, call me crazy, but once a specific film is gone in one format, it’s only a matter of time before the rest go as well.

Ilford HP5 with a Mamiya RB67 developed in Rodinal

So when Neopan 400 in 120 format officially became the stuff of legends yore, my first instinct was to switch to Kodak Tri-X. Tri-X has been the standard by which all black and white emulsions have been judged for decades and I have used it extensively in the past so I am quite familiar with its character, look, and general vibe. However with wet tears still falling from my face over the loss of Neopan 400 I was hesitant to throw any time and energy toward a company on what could kindly be considered less than sure footing. Let’s face it folks, Kodak is so piss poorly managed these days it’s remarkable they are able to produce shipping labels for their products, let alone actual photographic film. The only reason they still exist at all is due to the amazing work of brilliant minds and passionate people from decades past.

The other alternative is of course Fomapan 400, which is a film I like as well  and I continue to use A LOT. However, Fomapan is not typically available in local brick and mortar stores. I buy it online often, but I like to spend at least half of my film budget in local shops. The way I keep that commitment is by buying 100 speed film on-line and 400 speed locally.  A little dorky perhaps…but there you have it.

So with all of that in mind I decided to go with Ilford HP5. I’ve always liked, or at least been intrigued by HP5 and now would be as good a time as any to get more familiar with it. Due to the fact that Ilford is not run by completely incompetent monkeys I can buy it in medium format in at least three local shops which is very helpful. Best of all, the price is not totally unreasonable at less than $5.00 a roll.

Ilford HP5 with a Mamiya C330 developed in Rodinal

One thing I noticed very early on when working with HP5 is how incredibly forgiving it is of shitty exposures. This is incredibly fabulous for a photographer like me! Not only am I pathetically lazy when it comes to measuring a scene with my light meter, but I also tend to use a very eclectic mixture of cameras, the majority of which are at least a few decades old. This means I have a lot of cameras with shutter speeds that aren’t totally 100% accurate and my exposures vary rather extensively.

Working with a film tolerant of mistakes, or shall we say, inconsistencies on the part of the photographer, is a godsend and a quality of HP5 I am really learning to appreciate quickly.

I have also learned to appreciate the reciprocity characteristics of HP5. What is reciprocity you ask?  Well, lets quote Wikipedia as it does a far better job of explaining it than I ever could:

In photography reciprocity is the inverse relationship between the intensity and duration of light that determines the reaction of light-sensitive material. Within a normal exposure range for film stock, for example, the reciprocity law states that the film response will be determined by the total exposure, defined as intensity × time. Therefore, the same response (for example, the optical density of the developed film) can result from reducing duration and increasing light intensity, and vice versa.

For most photographic materials, reciprocity is valid with good accuracy over a range of values of exposure duration, but becomes increasingly inaccurate as we depart from this range: this is reciprocity failure. As the light level decreases out of the reciprocity range, the increase in duration, and hence of total exposure, required to produce an equivalent response becomes higher than the formula states; for instance, at half of the light required for a normal exposure, the duration must be more than doubled for the same result.

Ilford HP5 and a pinhole camera developed in Rodinal

Ok, so how does this apply to film photography? Well basically with long exposure times all films become less responsive, meaning you must expose them to light for longer periods of time beyond what your initial meter readings may suggest. Film sensitivity decreases as exposure times increase.   This comes into play a lot with pinhole photography where my exposure times are often several minutes (an absolute eternity by photographic standards).

I have never been one to study film charts. There are all sorts of graphs, formulas, and even smart phone apps to help photographers compensate for reciprocity failure. I never bother with them personally and prefer to guess. Thankfully HP5 is incredibly predictable in this regard, far more than Neopan ever was. The loss of sensitivity seems to fall at a very even rate as exposure times increase. I can honestly say that even if Neopan still existed today, I would probably switch to HP5 for pinhole work regardless.

As with any film, there are compromises one must learn to accept and with HP5 that compromise is grain. Lots and lots of grain.

Now before I dive into this too far it is worth noting that I do most of my developing with Rodinal. Anyone who has any experience at all with Rodinal will tell you it is perhaps the one developer you don’t want to use if you have an aversion to grain. I am fully aware of this.

However, it is not the amount of grain that bothers me, but rather the character of the grain itself. With HP5 the grain feels more “fuzzy” as opposed to smooth and round like I used to get with Neopan. It’s as if the film’s emulsion was coated on by splattering paint across the service as opposed to stroking it on with a smooth brush. It has a far more energetic quality than any film I have ever used before.

Ilford HP5 with a Minolta Maxxum 7 developed in Rodinal

This is where my earlier “Gibson vs. Fender” analogy comes into play. I don’t mean to come across as sounding like I think the grain on HP5 film is ugly, because it isn’t. It is however different than what I am used to. A lot different.  Every time I see it I tend to go through three emotional stages. First I am surprised. Then I start to miss my beloved Neopan. Finally, I just accept it.

I am hoping over time that I will be able to dismiss the first two stages entirely and replace them with a full embrace of HP5 but I am not quite there yet. I think I will get there some day, hopefully sooner rather than later.