Film

Fomapan 400 & Kentmere 400 Review – Battle of the Budgets – by Simon King

March 4, 2020

This article started as a write up about my time shooting these two emulsions over a long bank holiday weekend, where I had similar lighting conditions and was able to shoot similar exposures across both Fomapan and Kentmere rolls. However due to my slow shooting style I didn’t have these images ready in any kind of timeframe that would make sense, and have since shot a number of rolls of both, which has given me a little more to talk about. I thought it would be interesting to discuss the two, and make a few comparisons where appropriate in order to help guide people towards making a choice between perhaps the most popular budget black and white films on the market.

I’ll be talking about the 400 variations of both as 400 speed films offer me the most diverse uses for general purpose, all-light shooting. It will also mean that I can make a few comparisons to other, higher end 400 speed films, as they fill roughly the same space. I started shooting with Kentmere a few months ago, in the hopes that it would provide a cheap, versatile walk-around film for general purpose street photography. Fomapan is a film I tried when I first started out, but I was undertaking the learning curve of a film camera as well as film itself, and this meant that my results were not ideal. Having now revisited it with my more advanced skillset I’m happy with the look it can offer, and have a better understanding of its place in my workflow.

These films are reasonably similarly priced, at around £25 for a pack of 5x 36-shot rolls at time of writing.

Workflow

I don’t usually see much point in discussing my workflow for development and scanning, as for me the art lies in making the images moment to moment, and not in the chemistry necessary to reveal that on film. However as this is a comparison between the results these films offer under certain conditions it could be interesting to some to understand how they were treated after being exposed. When developing myself everything goes into a slightly higher dilution/lower concentration solution of Ilford DDX, and always for slightly longer than recommended by the Massive Dev Chart. This allows me to worry less about temperature, and I sort of just let things sort themselves out in the tank with as little agitation as necessary. These days I’m only really developing my own film when I have certain requirements, like push processing, otherwise I wait until I have a large batch to send off to AG in Birmingham. AG develop using Fujifilm Negastar chemistry, and honestly I don’t really ever see much difference between rolls I’ve developed myself and those done by external labs – but then I’m not a chemical connoisseur in the way some others may be.

Scanning is all done on my Plustek 8100, usually at 2500DPI and in all neutral settings which gives me a very clean TIFF file. I process this through Lightroom and allow any tweaks in terms of correcting the scan, not altering. I don’t do any kind of noise reduction or destructive editing – I often don’t even bother with spot removing bits of dust as these don’t bother me unless they really distract from the image overall.

Exposing for Shadow

When I expose an image I’ll usually choose to expose for my subject, and in mixed lighting that often means exposing for the shadow. This means whether my subject is passing through light or shade they will have detail in my frame. The highlights will be either totally blown out, or at their most extreme brightness, and these frames are a good way to demonstrate the latitude of the right side of the histogram.

Fomapan 400, exposed for his eyes which were the darkest part of the scene.Fomapan works very nicely when exposing for the shadows, although often shows halation in the brighter lit areas, and light sources. A lovely aesthetic, but definitely one to be controlled rather than allowed to get out of hand.

Fomapan 400, metered for the wall on the right. Notice the lost detail in both the figure and the highlight of the water.

I’ll meter Fomapan 400 for the shadows when I think there’s maybe a three-four stop difference between shadow and highlight, any higher and I’ll expose slightly further up.

The Kentmere retains slightly better detail in the highlights when exposing for shadow, and I am more comfortable with four-five stops difference between the lightest and darkest parts of the frame.

Kentmere 400, exposed for the interior of the car. You can see the loss of highlight at the top of the frame, but there are more shades of grey that are maintained.

 

Kentmere 400, exposed for the sky – almost a perfect gradient from the top of the frame to the middle where it falls off into “blown out” territory.

The Kentmere almost never dips into pure white, whereas the Fomapan does so very frequently.

Exposing for the Highlights

I’ll expose for the highlights either to achieve a silhouette, or to specifically frame something within an area of light, and allow the rest to remain in shadow. These images show how much information is available in these highlights when metered and exposed dead-on, as well as what detail is retained within the shadows and what is lost.

I think again the Kentmere has more detail here, less lost in the shadows and better definition in the highlights. However the overall effect is actually quite muddy, and unpleasing to my eye, whereas the Fomapan in the same condition is undeniably less detailed, but results in a nicer image (in my opinion).

Kentmere 400, exposed for the dappled light.

Kentmere 400, exposed for the sky

The detail of well exposed for highlights on Fomapan is less refined, and sometimes seem a little harsh even when I’m certain they were correctly exposed for. Shadow detail is close to non-existent in these situations, but I am usually happier with the look of these images.

Fomapan 400, exposed for the wall/tent light. Much brighter on the figure, much darker on areas not touched by light.

Fomapan 400, exposed for the sky.

Contrast

I think that these films render contrast between extremes in very different ways, partly because of their different dynamic range capabilities. Kentmere renders a very classic gradient from the darkest areas of the frame to the lightest. Fomapan features a more severe cut off, with well exposed images showing pure blacks and pure whites with only a very same-y grey in the middle. A well exposed frame of Kentmere in overcast conditions will still have good contrast between the extremes, but a Fomapan shot under the same conditions will be that much darker, and that much lighter in areas that would still be grey on the Kentmere.

Fomapan 400, exposed for the sky behind the driver’s cab.

Kentmere 400, exposed for the sky.

Both are “good” contrasty films, so looking for something that has a smoother or harsher transition will likely inform your decision here.

Grain

Grain is an interesting one, as different developers will offer different granular results. However I think there are some quite distinguished features to the grains of these films that should remain constant regardless of the technique used.

I’ve seen Fomapan described as having a tabular grain structure, the same as found in Delta, T-Max, and Neopan lines of film, as well as C41. I can’t find a “reputable” source to this, and there’s nothing mentioned in Foma’s technical sheets, so I’m really not sure what to think about this. There are definitely shared characteristics in the results of these films, but I think it’s more like that Fomapan 400 is a cubic grained film.

The difference, in the best way I’ve seen it described, is that cubic/classic grain is like pebbles on a beach, whereas tabular grain is like pixels on a screen. Order and structure, vs a more random pattern of sizes.

I’d say that Fomapan 400 is fairly low grain, but large grained – very visible, but not bad to my eye. Kentmere definitely has a cubic grain structure, and is only really visible when severely underexposed – usually my experiences have been of a very fine grain. It’s predictable, and has a very classic feeling to it.

Kentmere 400

Fomapan 400

Sharpness

My experiences with both of these films has been through sharp lenses – Leica, Zeiss, Nikon, some of the most reputable lenses for sharpness every produced. I think both films perform fantastically at rendering sharpness into their frames. Lines are clean, and micro-contrast is maintained. However I think because of the grain structure I often perceive the Fomapan to have a little bit of an edge in sharpness. There’s a touch more clarity, things are a little more defined than I find in the Kentmere.

I’ve never had an issue with a frame of film being too soft as a result of anything other than user error in terms of mis-focusing it. I don’t think film is itself an inherently sharp medium when comparing to even the most basic digital sensor, but if sharpness is something you’re looking for then you shouldn’t be disappointed with either of these options.

Kentmere 400, left. Fomapan 400, right.

Speed

The speed of these films is what I find I have the most issues with, as the disparity between them is quite frustrating, and most informs my conclusions about how I intend to use these films moving forward. Kentmere seems to be accurately rated at 400, and I’ve never been inclined to shoot it over/under, or even to push or pull it. I take my results at 400 and, more often than not, am happy with them.

Fomapan on the other hand seems underexposed when shot at box speed. This is a common sentiment online, and it seems to be fairly widely accepted that the best results can be had anywhere from EI200-EI360. In my experience it really shines one stop from box, at EI200.

I’ve experimented with Foma quite a bit to get results that I feel represent the best possible look from this film. I’ll soon be trying it at box and slightly overdeveloping it at a high temperature to see if I can achieve similar results to overexposing it by one stop. There’s any number of things I could try. The fact that this experimentation was necessary with Fomapan but not with the Kentmere is quite damning in my opinion. I’d like to be able to shoot 400 speed films either dead on as much as possible, and to use the latitude when in tricky situations to go slightly under when necessary. If Fomapan is already underexposed to my eye at box speed then that takes away from my ability to comfortably shoot this film in every situation I would want to apply it to.

There are several “5 Frames With” articles I’ve written here on 35mmc which look at some of the results from these different exposure combinations with Fomapan 400. I recommend having a look at the images found in those to assess the qualities to be found at each different methodology.

Character/”Look”

The character of these films comes down to a combination of the above factors. When shot with different exposures in mind, in different kinds of conditions, these films can produce quite a few “looks.” I think the character of these films are the elements that remain consistent through most use cases. Character is quite a subjective measurement, and different people will assess different qualities when discussing it.

Fomapan gives a high contrast result in most situations, including even/overcast light. It has more highlight bleed and halation than Kentmere, but this is rarely overwhelming in the way it may be on something like Cinestill 800t. The grain is blocky, but not distracting.

Fomapan 400, metered for the goat.

The Kentmere is a little flatter, often towards a muddier, more even toned image. The Kentmere also shows a little halation, but only when the light is very concentrated and higher than a few stops from what I’m exposing for. The grain is fairly fine.

Kentmere 400, metered for the mid-tone. Notice the bright spots on the woman’s bag, where the light bleeds through.

Kentmere 400

Kentmere 400 feels like Tri-X with less dynamic range. The images more often than not remind of me Tri-X at box speed – that prevailing grey-tone is distinct. I think people looking for that aesthetic and willing to be less cavalier with their metering would be happy with the lower cost of Kentmere.

I don’t think I have as direct an analogy with Fomapan 400, it’s more of it’s own thing. Definitely a characterful film with quirks, and requiring experimentation before a user can be comfortable with what it offers. It has lower dynamic range, and must be treated carefully regardless of what it’s being shot at. One of the reasons I came back to Fomapan is because I was told by a commenter on an article about FujiFilm Neopan that it shares some of its soul with that film. I think that overexposed by a stop it definitely shares characteristics, there is some equivalency between the rendering of the grain, and the achievable contrast in flat light.

Fomapan 400, metered for the batons. Noticeable halation.

Blind Comparison

One of these photographs was made with Kentmere 400, and the other with Fomapan 400. See if you can guess which is which in the comments!

Conclusions

My conclusion is that in comparison between two box speed 400 films the Kentmere wins outright. As a “truer” native 400 speed film it is more practical for someone looking to get the best results at a higher speed. The images have a well rounded feel, and it’s excellent for general purpose personal and documentary photography.

The Fomapan suffers at 400, with a blockier rendering, and a foggy grey tone in the blacks which somewhat spoils the aesthetic, unless that’s something you’re especially looking for. However it absolutely shines as a character film when over exposed – I really do believe it to make more sense as a 200/300ish speed as many online similarly claim. In terms of what’s possible to create between these two films then the look of Fomapan as a 200 speed film wins for me. The contrast, larger grain, and character is the best I’ve found at this price point. That being said, settling on using it as a 200 means that I’ll shoot it less frequently, reserving it for spring/summer use. The Kentmere is the real all rounder.

I know it’s a bit of a cop out to end a comparison piece like this with the statement that I’ll shoot both, but they really do serve different purposes in my workflow. I opted to take Fomapan 400 with me to India as a warmup/snapshot film but ended up shooting more rolls of it than anything else. The high contrast results really lent a wonderful aesthetic to those images, and I’m glad I didn’t choose to take Kentmere. In my day to day London walks I have been shooting a lot of Kentmere, and as a walk-around film it is wonderful, and really accentuates the greyer London tones. As a winter/autumn all rounder the Kentmere is serving me well, and Fomapan as a high-light film makes a lot of sense.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article! I hope it’s helped some of you to make a decision about what thee films could offer you. If you’ve enjoyed my photographs here I have a larger selection available on my Instagram, from all different kinds of films and projects. I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.

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30 Comments

  • Reply
    John Grzinich
    March 4, 2020 at 10:39 am

    Thanks for the through writeup Simon. Can you talk about what developers you used? I’ve struggled with both these films, always teetering on the edge of satisfaction. Fomapan 400 does well with Fomadon LQN and pretty good with HC-110 in my experience. I’m still not sure about Kentmere 400. D-76 is OK. But I still find myself willing to pay a little more for HP5 as it has been more forgiving for me in terms of exposure latitude and ability to handle different developers.

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 4, 2020 at 10:44 am

      Thanks John! I mentioned in the “Workflow” section that the bulk of work shown was in either DDX or Fujifilm chemistry. I’m not an authority on development – my interest lies in the shooting experience, and for me this ends when the shutter is pressed. HP5+ is an exemplary film, and definitely worth the extra cost. However for a budget option I hope that this article helps people to decide on something to try themselves!

  • Reply
    Leo Tam
    March 4, 2020 at 11:01 am

    So by exposing for the shadows, you’re basically over exposing it 2-3 stops and thus placing the shadows off the toe and onto the linear part of the film curve?

    Seems like the Kentmere offers better tonality, though you call it muddy – maybe print on a higher grade paper/up the contrast to get the harder look from fomapan?

    I like the compositions of your sample images a lot

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 4, 2020 at 11:13 am

      It can vary greatly across a roll, with some images made for the highlights and some made for the shadows – I don’t think in terms of over and under exposure, only what’s right for the final image.
      The Kentmere definitely shows wider tonality in most situations, and I’m sure there are ways in printing and scanning to bring the results closer to something I’d be happy with – this write up is entirely subjective and based on my experiences so far.

      Glad you like my work, thank you! 🙂

  • Reply
    Paul Mulherin
    March 4, 2020 at 12:32 pm

    Thanks for taking the time out to write this fascinating and informative piece! I love the look of the Kentmere and think I will be being purchased very soon…

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 4, 2020 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks Paul! Really glad you found it useful! Happy shooting! 🙂

  • Reply
    Peter
    March 4, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    A thorough article and greatly appreciated.

    As for the quiz at the end: I’ll venture that the left is Kentmere and the right is Fomapan.

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 4, 2020 at 4:29 pm

      Thanks Peter!
      I deliberately chose frames with similar tones – so it would be a bit trickier.
      The one of the left is the Fomapan.

  • Reply
    Huss
    March 4, 2020 at 9:43 pm

    Some great shots here, but the man smoking in the bus is just terrific.

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 4, 2020 at 9:44 pm

      Thank you, I really appreciate it! 🙂

  • Reply
    Matthias Steck
    March 4, 2020 at 10:52 pm

    Hi Simon,
    thanks for the comparison. There are some real good fotos inside. For your last two pictures I can only guess. I’d say it’s Kentmere on the left and Fomapan on the right.

    Regards Matthias

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 4, 2020 at 10:55 pm

      Thanks Matthias! Glad you liked it!
      The one on the left is the Foma! 🙂

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    March 5, 2020 at 12:14 am

    Hi Simon,
    I always like your reviews and commentaries…they come from a perspective of a ‘workingman’ photographer. You write from your shoes on the ground…and no tree shots. Ansel Adams did good tree work. Too many reviewers shoot their backyard trees. Trees don’t move. I want to see what a film or lens does on the street or around people.

    Let me start by tell you I’m surprised at the cost of film in the UK. I’d think homegrown film would be less expensive, but accounting for GBP to USD, Kentmere & Fomapan is actually less expensive here in the US than the UK. Go figure.

    A couple of years ago, I spent the summer shooting different B&W films. I really disliked Fomapan 400. Fomapan 200 suited me better. Kentmere is not an easy film to shoot. I found you had to be more accurate with exposure (i.e. – less forgiving) than HP-5 or Delta 400.

    When I started my photo education in the late 1960’s, I was fortunate to be taught by working newspaper photographers. In their world, it was imperative to get the shot (a few were still using 4×5 press cameras) so each step of the process carried equal weight: exposure, developing, printing. They weren’t having any of that ‘artsy’ stuff. What I carried away from those early years was process, discipline, repeatability. That stuff came in handy as I dabbled in ‘that artsy stuff.’ 🙂

    I have the feeling that you and I work in a similar style. You’re working in the profession, and I’m a happily retired photo educator.

    Recently I switched over to DD-X from ID-11. Mixing the ID-11 and waiting 24 hours to use it was getting old. Now that I’m retired, I like instant gratification – slip into the darkroom whenever I need to process film…pour, dilute, temp check, time/temp compensate and process. Pop in a blues CD and I’m in the zone. DD-X is already to go.

    Thanks again for another informative article.

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 5, 2020 at 12:19 am

      Thank you Daniel! Glad you enjoyed this piece. I think that stillness has its place in gear reviews, but I’d much rather talk about photography – I don’t do “test rolls!”
      Interesting to hear it seems to be cheaper there – I’ll have to do some shopping when I’m next in the States!
      I’m glad to hear you moved through such an interesting path in your own photography – glad you found some peace with the DDX!
      Happy shooting!

  • Reply
    Victor Doroshenko
    March 5, 2020 at 6:29 am

    Great shots, Simon!
    Like the Fomapan better in this sample, but obviously it’s a matter of tase. The look of Kentemere reminds me of those “surveillance” films, or JHC400, so maybe that would be the most direct comparison. Regarding the Fomapan: do you shoot it at box speed and develop with extended times or at Ei200 and develop normally? That could be quite a difference. I ask because my 30.5m of hp5 are close to the end, and the next one I wanted to try was Fomapan 400 😉

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 5, 2020 at 11:32 am

      Thank you Victor! Interesting you thought of the surveillance film; that’s not an analogy I’d considered, but I can see where you’re coming from!
      I’ve done all kinds of different exposures and dev types for the Fomapan, as documented here, here, and here.
      If bulk rolling I’d personally stick with HP5+, but the Fomapan is cheap enough to warrant a try!

  • Reply
    Ph
    March 5, 2020 at 6:36 am

    Great article Simon! I want to try the films out myself now. I’d guess the image on the right is Fomapan and vice versa.

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 5, 2020 at 11:24 am

      Thank you! It’s actually the other way around – Foma on the left!

  • Reply
    Michal
    March 5, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Left: Kent, right: Foma

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 5, 2020 at 11:23 am

      It’s the other way around 🙂

  • Reply
    Marius
    March 5, 2020 at 3:12 pm

    Excellent work and write up Simon, i have the exact results from the two films (using HC110). Kentmere is the easier and faster film, i have been able to get as good results as HP5+, and i somehow have this feel that the grain is smaller or less visible, may be completely objectively wrong. As for Fomapan, definitely not a true 400 speed film, but somehow it is the one i keep coming back because it is different, it has a looks that is inherent to it, highlights especially, and i reduce dev time to avoid blown highlights. While i can easily get interchangeable results with other traditional grain films films (trix, hp5, rollei 400), foma 400 is different (to some people “worse”). Have you tried Bergger pancro 400? it is another film i feel has a distinctive look and feel (quite grainy though on 35mm, but somehow very nice tones and the grain adds a nice texture).

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 5, 2020 at 5:04 pm

      Thank you Marius! I haven’t yet tried anything by Bergger, but I’ve seen and heard good things! I’ll have to try it now; thanks for the recommendation!

  • Reply
    Igal
    March 5, 2020 at 4:23 pm

    Fantastic review!
    Thank you for sharing these shots and your thoughts and observations.

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 5, 2020 at 4:58 pm

      Glad you liked it!

  • Reply
    Kodachromeguy
    March 5, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    Simon, nice job! I love your city scenes. Give good old Kodak Tri-X a workout. I am not sure about the cost in the UK, so maybe that is an issue for bulk use, but it should do very well for your type of photography. Cheers!

  • Reply
    Lee
    March 5, 2020 at 5:56 pm

    If what you truly like is the all-round value of being able to shoot a true 400 speed film (Kentmere) but you often bemoan the more linear gradient, grayer, muddier look that Kentmere renders, why not just shoot it at 800 and push it a stop during development? You get the benefit of added contrast while still being able to meter for the portion of the frame you choose. I personally enjoy pushing Kentmere and think it’s forgiving tonal range leads to better images when pushed. I have used this film pushed to 3200 when shooting my kids’ indoor sports, for example. FWIW, I develop at home using HC-110 and Rodinal. Another suggestion would be to shoot Kentmere 400 at box speed, but through a yellow or orange filter to boost the contrast. Yes, in that case you would be cutting into the film speed a bit, but you could still get more of the look you like while shooting the film you prefer.

    • Reply
      Simon
      March 5, 2020 at 6:10 pm

      Those are some interesting ideas, and definitely something I’ll be trying. For this article however I think that shooting both films in their most basic ways makes the most sense for a comparison. I’ll tweak things in time and see if anything can be made to work better for me, but for now these are my opinions on each emulsion!

  • Reply
    RW Jemmett
    March 5, 2020 at 8:19 pm

    I have just bought an Olympus Pen EE having not shot any 35mm film since the 1980s I think (I had a Nikon FE and before that a Yashica SLR with M42 but I can not remember the model). So this post is very helpful – many thanks. The Pen EE has not arrived yet….. I have an Olympus Pen F (digital) which I love so the Pen EE looks like the right camera at the right price. If everything goes well I will save up some pennies for an Olympus Pen FT…

  • Reply
    Willem Dirks
    March 5, 2020 at 8:26 pm

    totally agree with the article. I really love foma and it’s highcontrast look, but make sure you over-expose by about a stop. Very little shadow detail, but great when you know how to use it.

    Kentmere is better in general, more dynamic range. My negatives always look really dull.

    I tried (semi-succesfully) push foma200 1 stop in rodinal and it’s definitely also worth checking out, the foma200 film gives (imo) better results than the 400.

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