Tutorial: Which Black and White Film?

One of the most frequent questions I get on a weekly basis is, “what film should I buy!?”. I admit, for a beginner to the world of analogue photography the choices can be a bit daunting. What is the difference between one film over another? What is available? Where do I start? As such, I’ve attempted to compile a list of available films with a short description of each and some samples to help!

PLEASE NOTE: I am only going to write about films I have direct experience with and those that can still be purchases fresh as of August 2014. I am fully aware that there are plenty of films one can find on the used market past their expiration date, but I like to encourage people to buy what is available now as opposed to learning films that are of limited supply. I am also going to focus strictly on black and white films for now and will do a color film tutorial in the next couple of weeks.

Kodak

Whenever anyone says the word “film” the brand name that instantly comes to mind is Kodak. For decades they were the biggest name in photography and despite numerous marketing blunders and near criminal corporate mismanagement in recent times, the quality of their films is still second to none. If you are a beginner, it is hard to go wrong with Kodak films as they tend to be the standard by which everything else is judged. In addition, technical information about Kodak films is abundant and readily available to anyone who cares to find it. Over the past decade or so, Kodak has whittled their film stocks down to a select few, but what remains is still among the highest quality and should be easy to find at any reputable camera shop, even shops that don’t carry a lot of film products.

Kodak Tri-X – I consider Kodak Tri-X to be the classic black and white film by which all other film stocks are judged. It has the classic look we are all familiar with. Nice even tonal ranges, sharp gritty grain, and without a doubt the most forgiving in terms of exposure latitude and minor variations in the development process. This stock has been around for decades and has been used by some of the most famous photographers throughout history. Technical information about Kodak Tri-X abounds and it is the film I would recommend as a starting point for any beginner.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120), Sheet Film

Kodak T-Max – Using what Kodak refers to as “T-Grain Emulsion”, T-Max film represents what is probably the biggest advancement in black and white film from a time when companies actually put research and development dollars into analogue mediums. It is incredibly refined and sharp to the eye. Available in ISO 100 and 400 this is the go-to film for people who want to work with higher speeds but don’t like grain in their images. T-Max film is not an ideal choice for beginners in my opinion as it a film that doesn’t hold up well to bad exposures and less than perfect development practices. It is also especially formulated to work with Kodak’s own T-Max developer so unless you want to buy specific chemistry to go with it, you are probably better off sticking with Tri-X.

Available Format: 35mm, Medium Format (120), Sheet Film

Ilford

You really have to hand it to Ilford. During an age when the photography community seems eager to put the final nail in the film coffin, Ilford has not only managed to continue churning out a profit, they have done so without discontinuing a single film stock since I started taking photography seriously in the mid-nineties. Ilford has always focused the bulk of their attention on black and white film and it shows. Quality with Ilford films is consistently strong and they carry enough variety in terms of emulsions, various film speeds, and formats to make them a very logical choice no matter what your chosen subject or choice of camera may be.

Ilford HP5 – Perhaps the most versatile film I have ever used. As an all-purpose film stock Ilford HP5 is nearly perfect. It can be pushed, it can be pulled, it comes in nearly every size one can imagine. It’s gritty, grainy, and beautiful. Even on my worst days I tend to get negatives from HP5 that are easily printable and run through the scanner with ease. With a base ISO of 400 it gives a good starting point for the typically overcast days of the Pacific Northwest but I have personally rated it as low as ISO 100 and all the way up to ISO 6400. Readily available at just about any film retailer, this is the stock I have on hand at all times and never hesitate to bring with me on just about any outing.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120), Sheet Film 

Ilford FP4 – Another all-purpose film from Ilford. It has a finer and softer grain quality over Ilford HP5 but also comes in at a slower base ISO of 125. A wonderful film choice for portraits this is one of those emulsions you really just can’t go wrong with. For some strange reason I frequently see this film being overlooked by serious photographers and I really can’t see why.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120), Sheet Film

Ilford Pan F – My favorite slow speed film on the market. At ISO 50 Ilford Pan F is meant for either strong light, slow shutter speeds, wide apertures, or perhaps all of the above. On the whole, slower speed films tend to be very high in contrast, but I find Pan F to be easy to tame with slightly cold development and gentle agitation. Detail and sharpness abound with Pan F if you are willing to go through the hassle of working with a slow speed film.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120)

Ilford Delta Films – Ilford Delta films often get compared directly with Kodak’s T-Max offerings and for good reason. They are incredibly fine grained relative to their film speed and very sharp. Perhaps even too sharp for my taste. Unlike HP5 and FP4 they aren’t quite as forgiving to variances in exposure and in my experience they tend to react to changes in chemistry temperature quite a bit during development. For this reason I use them a little less often than more traditional “old school” emulsions however there are times when the more modern look of Ilford’s Delta films really appeals to me. Available in medium ISO 100 and faster ISO 400 speeds.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120), Sheet Film

Ilford SFX 200 – Ilford refers to this film as a “near infrared” emulsion. A lot less temperamental than true infrared film like the old Kodak HIE or the current Rollei Infrared, you can still get a lot of infrared like effects with it. Kind of a lazy man’s solution to working with one of the more challenging film types out there. Pop on a deep red filter to your camera lens, measure for ISO 200, open up three stops on the aperture or shutter speed, and you are good to go. Pretty cool stuff and worth a try.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120)

Fuji

There was a time when Fuji black and white film was pretty much all I used. They had a perfect blend of classic tonality, fine grain, and the flexibility to push and pull whenever needed while still remaining very forgiving to less than perfect developing techniques. Sadly Fuji has whittled away its black and white offerings to just one stock and increased their prices to an unsustainable level and I suspect the last black and white film they have remaining won’t be around much longer.

Fuji Neopan Acros – A fairly slow speed film at ISO 100, Acros film is much beloved for its very fine grain and wide tonal range. It is incredibly easy to retain detail in the darkest areas of your negative while still keeping your highlights under control. I’ve spent a great deal of time with this film over the years and I still buy it on occasion despite Fuji’s obvious trajectory to leave their black and white film stocks in the dust bin of history.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120), Sheet Film

Foma

Foma is an often overlooked film brand which is incredibly unfortunate. Their films are of consistent enough quality and incredibly cost effective making them a good choice for beginners on a budget. Foma films have a very classic and “retro” look to them which essentially means you will never get the finest grain or the greatest tonality in practice, but sometimes that old gritty contrasty black and white feel is just what I’m looking for. Foma films are also surprisingly available in a large number of formats, from 35mm all the way up to 11×14 sheet film. The only real downside to Foma films is they can be hard to find in brick and mortar stores and technical data such as good starting development times can be difficult to come across. Despite this, I strongly feel they are worth a look if you have the patience to experiment.

FomaPan – Foma makes three all purpose films which are essentially the same animal in three different ISO speeds, 100, 200, and 400. These are classic emulsions that render a nice black and white image. I admit I haven’t had a lot of success in pushing or pulling these films but if you are willing to just take them for what they are and experiment a little, tailoring your development times to your own liking, I think these are worth using. The budget price makes them perfect for toy camera or pinhole work as well.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120), Sheet Film

Rollei

For the most part, Rollei seems to be more of a boutique film manufacturer. Their films tend to be on the pricey end and are highly specialized toward specific tasks. For the fun of it, I’ve experimented with Rollei films but due to their relatively high cost you don’t see me buying them in particularly large quantities.

Rollei RPX – The only “all purpose” film in the Rollei line and their newest release. There is a lot of buzz about the fact that RPX film is similar to the old and much beloved Agfa APX stock. I have personally found this to only be somewhat true. It’s a lovely film, but at over eight dollars a roll I see no reason to use this over more readily available and similar emulsions from Kodak and Ilford. Still, it is available in a variety of film speeds all the way down to 25 ISO and as high as 400 ISO and seems to be gaining a loyal following from the analogue photography crowd.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120)

Rollei Infrared – My personal favorite film from the Rollei line and to my knowledge the only true infrared film still readily available. With a native ISO of 400 (unfiltered of course) it is surprisingly fine grained and very flexible which is a very welcome quality to have when attempting infrared work. Rollei Infrared looks particularly gorgeous when scanned.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120), Sheet Film

Rollei ATP1.1 – Rollei ATP1.1 Advanced Technical Pan film is a super-panchromatic film, made at the modern Agfa-Gevaert plant in Belgium and is a great substitute for the discontinued Kodak Technical Pan. Low sensitivity with extremely fine grain and extremely high resolution, it offers excellent tonality and controllable contrast. I’ve never been a big fan of tech pan style films, but if you like the look then you can’t go wrong giving this a try.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120) 

Rollei Retro 80s – A panchromatic aerial film with a spectral sensitivity into the near infrared. This characteristic makes it highly suited toward portrait and figure photography and in theory will make skin defects less visible. The film is also well suited as an aerial film, penetrating through haze, fog, or other atmospheric conditions.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120)

Adox

Adox is a bit of an upstart in the film market and I’m excited to see where things go for them. Their main focus seems to be resurrecting old Agfa formulas and for the most part my experience with Adox products has been in the realm of photo paper and development chemistry, both of which are consistently excellent. Still, I’ve used a couple of their film stocks as well and they are worth checking out if you want to venture away from the more conventional brands and try something different.

Adox CMS 20 – A very slow speed film with virtually no grain at all. I found this film to be quite a challenge to work with, not because of its slow ISO rating, but more in the sense of taming down the extreme contrast that tends to result in films this slow. Adox makes a developer especially designed for this film called Adotech and I would recommend using it if you want any sort of tonal variation at all in your results. I’ve only used this film in 35mm but I would be very curious to see what happens if one tries it with a larger format. I imagine the detail could be quite spectacular.

Available Formats: 35mm, Medium Format (120), Sheet Film

Adox CHS 100 – Under the right circumstances, I adore this film. It is difficult to describe, but blacks seem very heavy with CHS 100 and gray tones tend to lean toward the darker side, creating an image heavy on the drama and a good film to use when your image involves a lot of play with shadow and textured surfaces. I also find it to be quite forgiving when it comes to exposure and development making it a decent film for beginners. If you like that gritty, dark, film noir sort of look in your photographs, you really can’t go wrong with CHS 100.