MC’s Guide to Black and White Film

Words and images by Naz Kawakami, Dru Hara, Tien Austin

In the age of Instagram filters, shooting on actual film can be an intimidating thing, and cracking into it can be daunting.

A major hurdle for many getting started—and also one of film photography’s greatest strengths—are the options. The sheer number of directions one can take and styles one can pursue in the medium is both appealing and demotivating. It is, very simply, a lot. While there’s technically no shame in asking your local film dealer to explain the difference between stocks, that doesn’t stop us from feeling a lot of it. In order to spare you that shame (and out of irritation of people saying, ‘all this shit looks the same!’) we crafted this quick guide to some of our favourite consumer-grade, 35mm/120mm black and white film stocks in the hopes that you’ll get inspired, or at the very least, not embarrass yourself by asking the clerk what the numbers on the box mean.

Shot with Kodak Tri-X. 

1. Kodak Tri-X

  • Exceptionally sharp for 400 ISO
  • Well suited to urban environments
  • Can give dramatic contrast
  • Good choice for architecture/more graphic subject matter
  • Da classic

Kodak is probably the oldest to ever do it. With a lifespan stretching over a century and a quarter, they’ve had a lot of time to perfect the art of crafting quality photographic emulsion. Tri-X is the fruit of that labour. Graded at 400 ISO (though sometimes available in 320), Tri-X is a mid-speed, versatile film. A classic of photojournalism, this film has been crafted in such a way that allows it to fit every role, meet every need, and get the job done. It is the standard in black and white film that other stocks are compared to. It is what Richard Avedon used to shoot 17,000 portraits. It is what Weegee used to shoot several years’ worth of murders. It holds an exalted position in the minds of lab nerds and art school dropouts. It is the stuff of legend. Though, if we’re being honest, we might prefer HP5+. 8/10

Shot with Ilford Delta 100. 

2. Ilford Delta 100

  • Go-to film for large format and studio photography
  • Fine-grain, smooth contrast, exceptional detail
  • This is pro shit

I often like to think of Kodak as being the Bruce Springsteen of film in that it is identifiably, though not usually obnoxiously, American. Ilford, then, is perhaps David Bowie? Maybe Paul McCartney. I’m getting lost in this analogy. Ilford is a UK-based photographic materials manufacturer producing primarily black and white film, paper, and chemistry. Where Kodak’s Tri-X has a hint of grit and an arguably thicker grain, Ilford’s Delta 100 and 400 are sleek, fine-grained, and generally more exact in exposure and detail. Delta films use a technology exclusive to Ilford that is separate from the traditional black and white emulsive recipe, which they call Core-Shell. What this means is that the crystal structure on the film reacts to light in a way that is more efficient and precise than previous films. All of this to say, it’s generally sharper than your average film, and can offer a smoother tonal range, which means the transition from light to dark (for example, the shadows in a photo of a person’s face versus the bright, well-lit parts) will be smoother and truer to how it is being viewed. More simply, as Dru says, ‘this is pro shit’. 8/10

Shot with Kodak T-Max 3200.

3. Kodak T-Max 3200

  • Best choice for nighttime and low light interior
  • Pronounced grain structure can produce surreal quality
  • Magic film
  • Way better than shitty Ilford Delta 3200

In case you aren’t familiar, ‘ISO’ refers to how sensitive that film is to light. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive that film is to light, which means you’ll have to compensate by exposing longer or opening your aperture wider. The higher the ISO, the reverse of what I just said. In low light situations where there isn’t a lot of light available for that film to soak up, you want a film with a higher ISO because it’ll soak up that light faster. While there are a few options for high-ISO black and white films, we feel that T-Max 3200 is top of the line. We feel this way because T-Max’s tabular grain allows for a smoother gradient and continuous tone. This is important because very often, the higher the ISO, the bigger (or thicker) the grain, which can make a photo look muddy, or even out of focus. T-Max 3200’s chemical structure allows the film to confront that problem and keep your images looking smooth even in the crappiest of lighting conditions. Damn. A lot of science is involved in film, aye?

Shot with Ultrafine Xtreme 400. 

4. Ultrafine Xtreme 400

  • It sucks

We wish to be clear that this is not one of our favourite films. Ultrafine Xtreme is notoriously poor quality, extremely tonal, low contrast, and largely unforgiving. Ultrafine is not sharp, either. Its crystal structure may not be set in such a way that keeps reacts to light effectively, causing contrast points to bleed. So why do we include it on this list? Because shooting on it will make you better. It is an earnest challenge making this film work for you, and that’s probably why a lot of colleges and universities force their first-year photography students to learn on it. Another reason to shoot on it: it is dirt cheap. I mean, it is the cheapest you can get. By our calculations, on average, you can save roughly $3 per roll choosing Ultrafine over Tri-X or HP5+. If you buy five rolls, that’s $15 staying in your pocket for a fancy lunch and a bus ride home. Ultrafine is offered in ISO 100 and 400, though we recommend the 400 as it offers greater lighting versatility, and we speculate, packs a bit more contrast. 4/10

(Cheat code: push process the 400 for greater contrast and possibly sharper detail. If you’re processing at home, leave it in the Dev a minute longer. If you process at a lab, show this article to the clerk and he will know what it means, then thank him for his dutiful service.)

Shot with Ilford HP5+. 

5. Ilford HP5+

  • Best film to travel with
  • Extreme latitude allows you to push or pull to suit any lighting condition
  • Wide range of contrast possible depending on lighting, exposure, developer
  • Most forgiving BW film

Ilford’s HP5+ is by far the crowd favourite. It is versatile, sharp, medium contrast, handles pushing and pulling, and is all around a great consumer-grade film. I mean it when I say that this film is genuinely difficult to mess up, even in the harshest of lighting conditions and most chaotic of scenarios. The ‘Plus’ series is different from Ilford’s Delta series in that it follows a more traditional chemical structure, and therefore yields more traditional results, meaning if you’ve shot other consumer black and white films, HP5+ is a more predictable, comfortable choice. This film is not only versatile in shooting, but in processing as well, being compatible with literally hundreds of black and white developing solutions. This film (admittedly, along with Tri-X) are also beloved for ease of scanning, and if you’re really into it, ease of darkroom printing. This is a film that I shoot concerts with, and then portraits the next day, and then flowers in a field that evening. As far as we are concerned, HP5+ is a winner. 9/10.

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