Black & White film photography – classic 35mm Black & White films

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This is the first of a series of blog articles that I want to write about film photography. Film is not dead. In fact, it is alive and well. Obviously film photography is not what it used to be. Prior to the advent of digital photography that only took place some 25 years ago, film was the only game in town. So there is abundant history in film photography. There is also another dimension that does not exist in digital photography – the nuance in character of different types of film.

Nuance and Character

In a sense, all digital cameras use the same kind of “film” – digital sensors. Not all sensors are the same, of course, yet they all yield a raw digital image that is converted to either a TIFF or JPEG file format. Take photographs with two different cameras, with two different sensors, and produce a seemingly identical image. Same character, no nuance in appearance.

Film has character

Film photography offers a whole range of character, and a plethora of nuance that can be tweaked in post-processing, ahem, I mean development of the original image. Extended development times, stand development, alternative developers, etc. give an wide array of possibilities with any given film. Even more nuance is possible in the darkroom in printing the negative. The great photographer, Ansel Adams, mastered the art of producing black and white prints.

Film is not dead. If you do not already own a film camera, there are many, many used film cameras on the market, some very high quality professional cameras. These can be had for a fraction of their original price points when first introduced. The pro models are made to last, as well. Working pro photographers of some 20 – 25 years ago have likely traded much of their film camera gear for newer digital cameras. Lots of this equipment is still available, and with a bit of effort some in very good condition can still be found online. Find one that suits your budget and have some fun with film!

Practice with old and expired film

For even more fun, get onto ebay and search for some of these old (and certainly expired) films. Whatever you find that’s inexpensive, grab some and just expose a few rolls with your camera to see what happens. Process the film yourself in whatever developer you have handy and have fun! What? You don’t develop your own black and white film? Eeh gads, we must cover this in a future blog article then!

Kodak Classics

Academy/ Panchromatic 200

This was a low cost, wide latitude, black and white film marketed in Europe, Asia and India up until 2000. The Panchromatic 200 name was used in the Philippines from about 1995-2000. It has a coarse grain but was tolerant of variance in development times that provided for contrast adjustment.

BW400CN

This film was the second-generation of general purpose C41 process chromogenic B&W film with a wide exposure latitude. Competitor to Ilford XP2 Super, it succeeded the Kodak T400CN chromogenic B&W film in 2004, and stayed on the market until 2014.

High Speed Infrared

This specialty black and white film was infrared sensitive. A high-speed film with moderately high contrast, it was sensitive to light and radiant energy to 900 nm (the visible spectrum of light ranges from about 700 nm or red, to 400 nm, or violet). So the infrared spectrum is at longer wavelengths than the visible spectrum and is invisible to the human eye. It is useful to detect haze penetration and for special effects in commercial, architectural, fine art, and landscape photography. This film had an exposure index (EI) of 80 in daylight, and an index (HIE) of 200 under tungsten illumination. 

Panatomic X

Panatomic-X, or Pan-X as it was referred to was a very fine grain, general purpose film. With a film speed of ISO 32 (ASA) it was a slow film that would almost always require flash or other artificial lighting indoors. It had the capability of producing beautiful fine-grain prints with properly exposed negatives. Kodak ended production of Pan-X in 1987, and was replaced by TMAX 100 film.

Plus X Pan

Plus X Pan (PX) and PLUS-X Pan Professional (PXP) films were general purpose medium-speed panchromatic films for outdoor or studio photography with extremely fine grain and excellent sharpness. Originally introduced in 1954, the film speed was ASA 50 and later improved to ISO 125. These films offered excellent separation of highlight tones and very fine grain. It also had a fairly wide exposure latitude of about a six f-stop range: two stops underexposure to four stops overexposure.

T400CN

The predecessor to general purpose C41 process chromogenic B&W film BW400CN this film provided photographers who routinely processed color film by the C41 process the ability to co-process black and white images along with those shot on color negative film stocks. The film had a fairly wide exposure latitude, and was sold until 2004 when it was replaced with BW400CN.

Technical Pan

Kodak’s Technical Pan Film was an ultra-high definition, high-contrast microfilm emulsion that was made panchromatic through the addition of sensitizing dyes. Special developer was needed to tame the extreme contrast for use in pictorial photography.  This film had a 20-year run, from about 1984-2004, and another specialty use was in preparing 35 mm presentation slides (used in a slide projector) for monochrome text and graphics in the days before computer technology provided the niceties of software such as PowerPoint.

More Modern films

T-Max 100 

Kodak still manufactures photographic films but following its chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012, responsibility for distribution and marketing was given to Kodak Alaris, a separate company controlled by the Kodak UK pension fund.  T-MAX 100 has a very high resolution of 200 lines/mm, and is often used when testing the sharpness of lenses.

This film is a medium-speed panchromatic black and white negative film characterized by extremely fine grain structure, high sharpness, and resolving power. With the TMAX films Kodak introduced a T-GRAIN technology emulsion, having a grain pattern that resembles a patterned, tabular form. The result is keeping effective film speeds while reducing the appearance of grain during enlarging or scanning. This film (TMX) has a nominal sensitivity of ISO 100/21° and is also available at ISO 400 (TMY-2) and 3200 (TMZ).

In addition to processing as a negative in standard black and white chemistry, T-Max 100 is also suitable for reversal processing using the T-Max 100 Direct Positive Film Developing Outfit for creating copy and duplicate work.

T-Max 400

TMAX 400 is high-speed panchromatic black and white negative film featuring the unique T-GRAIN emulsion technology to provide a very fine grain structure with a high degree of sharpness and edge detail.  In 2007 Kodak revised TMAX 400-speed film, giving it the name TMY-2 instead of TMY. In the process Kodak improved the resolution from 125 lines/mm to 200 lines/mm, which matches that attainable with TMAX 100.

Tri-X Pan

Kodak introduced Tri-X film around 1940 in sheets rated at 200 ASA and tungsten 160 ASA. Tri-X was one of Kodak’s first high-speed black and white films. It was released in 35 mm and 120 formats in 1954. Currently it is available in two speeds, ISO 320/26° (320TXP, sheet film only) and 400/27° (400TX). Tri-X 400 is the more common of the two, available in 24-exposure and 36-exposure rolls of 35 mm film. It is also available in rolls of 120 format as well as 50 ft and 100 ft bulk rolls of 35 mm.

Tri-X has been around for a long time, first introduced on November 1, 1954. It is still in demand and remains among the fastest black and white films today. While it has a characteristic grain (that can be coarse or tamed somewhat by choice of development processing) it has one feature unique among its Kodak peers: extremely wide latitude. Tri-X has a whopping 9 (yes, nine!) f-stops of exposure latitude: tolerant of 2 stops underexposure and 7 stops overexposure from nominal. This is the primary reason that Tri-X is my favorite B&W film!

Tri-X is also a versatile film: push-processing Tri-X to a higher “exposure index” of EI 800 in a standard developer yields very good results, while further pushing to EI 1600 requires more sophisticated processing but still can yield good results.

Ilford Films

HP5+

After having gone through a number of versions, HP5+ is the main competitor to Kodak Tri-X 400. It is a traditional and versatile panchromatic, general use film that can be used in a wide variety of shooting conditions. Like competitor Tri-X, HP5+ has a wide exposure latitude, and this film responds well to use in mixed and difficult lighting.

HP5+ tend to be less expensive than Tri-X these days, so if you have never shot a B&W film getting a few rolls of HP5+ is a great way to start.

Delta

Delta films, available at ISO 100, 400, and 3200, are tabular-grained black and white emulsions that were released as ISO 400 specifically to compete with Kodak’s TMAX. These high-speed black and white negative films featuring core-shell crystal technology in order to produce high sharpness with a fine, uniform grain structure. It is well-suited to handheld photography and working in difficult lighting conditions. Ilford Delta also has a broad tonal range and a wide exposure latitude, which (at ISO 400 rating) is capable of being rated between EI 200 to EI 3200 and being pushed or pulled during development in order to maintain consistent contrast.

FP4 Plus

FP4 Plus from Ilford is a traditional, medium-speed, black and white negative film having a fine grain structure. It is well-suited to enlarging and scanning due to its characteristic high sharpness. It has a nominal sensitivity of ISO 125/22° in standard chemistry, and with its very wide exposure latitude enables exposing up to two stops under or six stops over while retaining usable results.

Try it, you’ll like it!

If you have never used either the Kodak or Ilford films, it really is worth a few dollars to try them out. Compare and contrast each one you try and see which you like the best. This endeavor may just open up a new area of creativity in your photography.

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Happy Shooting!

3 thoughts on “Black & White film photography – classic 35mm Black & White films”

  1. Hello, I have used a few cameras before as I am a photography fan myself but I have never used a good Nikon one. My favorite is the Canon 4000D 18MP DSLR. 

    Also, the series on film photography you are doing seems very interesting, I shall be following it. Thank you for trying to bring film photography back to the forefront.

    Reply
    • My first SLR was the Canon AE-1, and it served me well for over 25 years. Since then I have been a Nikon shooter and have 3 Nikon DSLRs and two film SLR cameras. There are many used film cameras of many brands available online these days, and they can be great bargains. Find yourself a good deal and start shooting film! Remember that film negative and slides last well over 50 years – they are archival.  I do not have the same faith in my digital files lasting that long!!

      Reply
  2. Hello,

    Thanks to your article I ma being nostalgic of old cameras where you had to actually buy a film and take it to a professional photographer to actually get proper pictures! Nowadays everything is so quick and I am sure that many people don’t even know that films have existed at a point in time. Anyway, I enjoyed the different film options you introduced in your article. And I didn’t know that Kodak still existed as a company, so I learnt something! 

    Thanks once again for this beautiful piece!

    Reply

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