Ilford XP2 – High Street Superhero – Film Review – By Ted Ayre

I like knowing how things work. This is partly why I took up film photography in the first place, because I wanted to understand how pictures could be made. However, I’m not in a position to have a darkroom setup, and at the moment I’m more interested in the results of using film photography as a medium. That means I love seeing my scans come through to my email, trying out different film stocks, and being present with my camera in that moment. For me, the development process is something I’m happy to leave to professionals for now.

So when there are many variables for B&W developing, how can I feel involved in that process? Well I could go down the home developing route, but as I’ve already said that’s not an option right now. I could pay more and have it developed at a professional lab, where I could choose the developer and customise that experience. Most of the time I’ve been sending my rolls of traditional B&W emulsions to independent or commercial labs, and for the most part I’ve been happy with the results. However, because I like to know how things work, I feel a bit ‘left in the dark’ about how to improve my B&W photography when the I’m not part of the development process.

This has meant that for a long time the B&W film stock I’ve compared others to has been Ilford HP5 – readily available, and giving me a consistent base to learn from. It has been forgiving of my rookie errors, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the photos after trying it out in different conditions and at various exposure indexes. However, recently I’ve been falling out of love with HP5+, and I have been branching out to try other film stocks for my B&W photos. Yes, I like knowing how things work, but I like finding consistency and reliability too – so it’s been worth trying some different films out, no matter where I stumble across them.

Why try Ilford XP2?

This is where the story shifts, as I find myself shopping in Boots, Trafford Centre for shower gel (bear with me!) and looking around the aisles for other deals. At the back there’s a photo section, and in amongst the disposables, and photo albums, was some Ilford XP2. Advertised as a highly versatile black & white film that can be processed on the high street (in C41 chemicals) I thought it was worth a go. After getting home, I did some research on it and found that it can be shot from ISO 50 to ISO 800 without any change in development! More information can be found on the technical sheet here.

Now I had to try this out for myself, so the first roll I shot at my mate’s New Year’s Eve party, setting it at EI1600 (indoors, no flash) and having it developed accordingly, and it worked a treat! I won’t share those photos here because of privacy, but I can tell you I was very pleasantly surprised by the results. This encouraged me to pick up some more XP2 for a couple of walks I had planned, one around Manchester, and another up in the Yorkshire Dales.

For the examples below Ilford XP2 is on the left, taken with my Nikon FM2 and 50mm f/1.8 pancake lens. On the right is Ilford HP5+ taken with my Olympus XA and its 35mm f/2.8 Zuiko lens. I tried both films at box speed, and then rated at EI800 and pushed one stop in development. I’ve also included 3 x landscape format pictures that are just on Ilford XP2 with the Nikon FM2, that I think typify my experience with this film. Now this article is not science but subjectivity, with me sharing what I think about each image, and what values I see in them. As someone who does not engage with darkroom culture, I want to share my results so that others can see another example of what they might expect back from their local lab. I do not claim to present this information as the definitive ‘version’ of the film stock, but just as a reference point along my own film photography journey.

Ilford XP2 and Ilford HP5+ at box speed (EI400)

In between the usual drizzle and attempts at snow, we have had some crisp, clear winter days here in Manchester, so I took myself out on a walk around the city. With the low winter sun creating lots of interesting shadow, it was a nice time to try out Ilford XP2 again, and compare it to my usual favourite Ilford HP5+ and see what I prefer!

 Example 1

Train tracks above Oxford Road – I think my favourite here is from the HP5+ as it just gives more drama to the way the light is falling. However, I love how much detail the XP2 brings out on this window-bays underneath the bridge.

Example 2

Monolith building off Deansgate – nothing much to separate the two here, although I think the XP2 is showing that it can render a lot of midtones and greys. The HP5+ looks a bit more dramatic to my eyes.

Example 3

Looking up the river towards Salford – I really like how XP2 handles the hazy direct-sunlight photo through the bridges, it has an atmosphere that makes me remember being there taking the photo in that light. The HP5+ on the other hand feels more dramatic, but just doesn’t feel true to the scene I wanted to capture.

Example 4

Albert Hall tower, Peter Street – this is the picture that I got back from the lab and went ‘wow!’ because XP2 has given me the crispness and detail that I imagined when taking this photo. Obviously the lens sizes will make a difference here, but the Zuiko lens with HP5+ is still very sharp, but it just has a moodier atmosphere than what I envisioned.

Example 5

Looking down the river at the Cathedral, towards Green Quarter – another one that’s hard to choose a favourite between! I really like how XP2 brings the river alive, but the HP5+ gives such depth and drama to the buildings. Choices choices!


Ilford XP2 and Ilford HP5+ pushed +1 stop (EI800)

After finishing my rolls at box speed, I was in two minds about whether to try XP2 at EI800 or EI200 for finer grain. However, the weather reminded me that it was still Winter, and I layered up and had a brief walk through town with both films set to EI800, with the HP5+ to be pushed +1 stop – the XP2 is doing it’s party trick here and is developed normally. The following week I was visiting my family near the Yorkshire Dales, and still had those films loaded, so the final few images are from my drive back.

Example 1

Looking at Beetham Tower from Castlefield – I feel like my eye is drawn to different things in each photo. The one on the left with XP2 I feel compelled to follow the two figures walking around the corner, but on the right HP5+ is drawing me along the railway bridge. It’s interesting to see how they both handle highlight detail differently here as well (forgive the dust on the right)

Example 2

Sheltering from the rain, looking at Castlefield Bowl – now this shot I know I metered the same for each camera, because I had time while I sheltered between these two buildings haha! However the HP5+ has the cloud detail, and the rich blacks of the pipes on the left, compared to the evenness of XP2, which I tend to prefer here.

Example 3

Over the hills and far away, Yorkshire Dales – this is where XP2 starts running away with it for me, I just love the even tones and balance it brings, from the woods in the foreground to the snow-capped mountain in the background.

Example 4

This tree was patiently waiting for Spring, in the Yorkshire Dales – this feels like they’re quite similar in balance, and although I prefer the evenness of XP2, the HP5+ on the right has just a bit more drama from the extra contrast pushing development brings.

Example 5

I’m looking directly at the sun, and the sheep is looking directly at me! – this feels more like the internal meters on both cameras were trying hard to find a balance between the foreground and the bright sky. Despite that, it’s safe to say that although the sheep is in shadow, and backlit, XP2 handles this scene with grace and calmness. Whereas HP5+ really delivers that bold and dramatic look from the sunlight, clouds and muddy ground.

Three Landscape format examples of Ilford XP2

Example 1

Gotham building, King St, Manchester – Ilford XP2 at EI400

Example 2

Looking out over the Yorkshire Dales – Ilford XP2 at EI800

Example 3

Local quarry site on the way back from visiting family – Ilford XP2 at EI800


Final Thoughts on Ilford XP2

Well I hope you found the comparison interesting, this would 100% be something I would do anyway regardless of sharing it here on the blog, as I try to find film stocks that I like and suit my own taste/style. At the start of the article I talked about knowing how things work, and I think that with XP2 I’ve found a film stock I find reliable within the C41 process I know from colour film. If you’re coming from shooting mainly colour film, then Ilford XP2 is such a good B&W film to start with because they share the same processing standard, which means it is cheaper to develop, and it shares similar characteristics due to it’s chromogenic design. I am intrigued by trying it set at a lower exposure index in the summer, such as EI200 or 100, and see how the results change. I’ve been interested in trying to get a light, airy, summer look on B&W film and think that XP2 may shine (pun intended!) at doing that.

Honestly, I think that I will be using Ilford XP2 for a long time, because of its convenience, fine grain and latitude. I’ve not had to do any edits after receiving scans back, and it has the sharpness, fidelity, and flexibility I’m looking for in a B&W film stock. In regards to knowing how things work, just for now, I’m happy to leave the magic of the darkroom for another day.

What is your opinion on using Ilford XP2 over traditionally processed B&W films? How do you go about improving your own B&W photography? Let me know in the comments below.

For more articles on 35mmc using Ilford XP2 click here.

If you’re interested in Ilford XP2 being developed in traditional black and white chemistry click here.
If you want more technical information on Ilford XP2, please view the data sheet here.

EI400 scans were developed and processed by Jacks Lab in Bristol. Find them on instagram here:
EI800 scans were developed and processed by Come Through Lab in Ancoats, Manchester. Find them on instagram here: @comethroughlab .

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to sharing more of my photos and experiences with this community soon.
You can find me on Instagram: @tedayre

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14 thoughts on “Ilford XP2 – High Street Superhero – Film Review – By Ted Ayre”

  1. Hi Ted,

    You can develop your film at home without darkroom, just use a changing bag. I do so. Developing and darkroom printing are such fun! For printing you could revert to a community darkroom or find another one (I do so here in Wuppertal at the open university called VHS in Germany).

    Ilford XP2 works very well with Caffenol they say. I didn’t yet try XP2 in Caffenol but many others. Here are some recipes (soluble strong coffee and anhydrous soda – otherwise multiply soda by 2,7 when pentahydrate):

    Have fun!

    Best regards,
    Arne Heeringa

  2. Nice article Ted – love your shot of the Gotham Building, although I do wish that they’d clean it. XP2 is a excellent film, fine grained and wide latitude. I tend to use it where I need those characteristics – either cut down to 110 or in my simpler cameras. You know that you can rely on XP2 to compensate for any exposure issues and you’ll get something. I also use it for street photography – if a shot presents itself and I don’t have time to meter (using a FED-2) then I know that it will save the day. If you do want to try your own development then consider 510-Pyro. It’s a staining developer, like C41, but with the simplicity and much lower cost of B&W 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment Martin, yes I like the versatility of XP2 for similar things as well. That sounds like an interesting developing tip thank you!

  3. I believe one can use any black and white developer with XP2 though I am not sure of how results compare with say Ilford DD-x, Rodinal and HC110 for instance.

  4. I used to use Ilford XP2 back in the late ’80s and early ’90s while working as a freelance photojournalist. I had access to a fully equipped darkroom at the university, and also worked part time at a camera store that developed pretty much every film type available at the time.

    Using XP2 gave me a huge advantage, as if I had time, I could process and print my film in the darkroom for publication, or if I needed it in a hurry, I could pop into any 45 minute processing lab, and get it done while I grabbed a quick bite to eat.

    I still have a bunch of current XP2 in the fridge at home, for use in the same film cameras I had available in the ’80s/’90s. I can process it at home, or drop it off at the local lab.

  5. Thanks for the article. I’ve been using Ilford XP films since 1981. I agree that XP2 is a useful, high-quality film. I would be a bit cautious about assuming that films have set characteristics in terms of tonal rendition. That is somewhat true for XP2 with the C41 process, as C41 processing is usually tightly controlled for consistency. However, conventional black and white film processing is subject to many variables that can significantly affect tonality. For those who can get past the techspeak, some reading on the subject of film sensitometry may be useful. Link to a very basic sensitometry workbook:
    Scanning parameters also affect tonal rendition. Without knowing the parameters of the processing of the HP5, and the scanning parameters for both types of film, it is tricky to make a direct comparison.
    One useful characteristic of XP2 is that, unlike nearly all conventional black and white films, it can be scanned using “Digital ICE” technology, resulting in greatly reduced dust issues relative to conventional films.

  6. Ted, I like your approach and methodology and that’s how one is supposed to go around comparing the emulsions and deciding what emulsion is best for certain light conditions and your mood. Still I think you can learn an order of magnitude more if you start develop and scan your negs yourself. Certainly you may relay on the lab to process C41 for you — the process is highly standardized and you should be getting consistent results. When it comes to the classic bw film you cannot delegate processing and scanning to others, not looking at negative placing them side by side and understanding how you get the certain result. Basically, once you delegate scanning to someone you are essentially saying : take this roll and make the best you can from each frame. With bw film it’s not that hard to get reasonably well graded shot from any frame where image can be discerned at all. Lab scanner is specifically programmed to do just that. So what your experiment actually shows is that both films can produce reasonably good shots in wide range of exposures – something called film latitude. And for bw the latitude may be 3-5 steps depending on the overall light. That’s well known feature of bw films. The critical differences between emulsions and developers start emerge when film is placed in critical condition – like very large dynamic range – you see that in the pictures taken against the Sun , they do show a lot of differences. Same will be true when you have to deal with deep shadows – again this is where different emulsions and developers show their character. So for detail oriented person like you it’s very important to start develop and scan films yourself. That will give you real insight into the negative process. On another hand , if you plan to digitize all your images , you can safely stick with one emulsion giving you the best latitude , scanning film at high bitness and then digitally manipulate images until you visualize your vision of the scene. Good luck!

  7. I like XP2 a lot, both for its results and the ease of development. I use it a lot with my Minolta cameras.

    Your results mesh with mine, that XP2 likes a contrasty situation. Yet, I wonder how much the differences between your shots with XP2 and HP5 are the result of films used as with the lenses used.

    Anyway thanks for the interesting post.

  8. As said above, the need of a darkroom for developing film is a common misunderstanding. Another one is that developing film would difficult or hard. It’s pretty easy, and fun.

    I like Ilford XP2, it is really nice film. From your scans, though, I tend to prefer the HP5 ones – nicer highlights and a bit more contrast. The tricky bit is whether the scans were done identical or not, and whether or not the scanning software applied any correction.

    If you’d start developing at home, though, I would not recommend XP2 really. Mostly because there are plenty “real” B&W films out there, at much nicer prices (where I shop, HP5 is cheaper than XP2, and Foma films again a good step more affordable). Most don’t have the extreme latitude of XP2, but one gets used to having to work with a single ISO setting throughout.
    Finding a good combination of film and developer, and then pulling the negatives from the development tank and see your images – it’s such a nice moment. Even more sense those negatives being really yours, more sense of accomplishment, it puts a dot on the i.

  9. A really interesting article Ted. Plenty of thought provoking detail. I think I would agree that cameras and lenses will have made a difference, but some of the examples you showed were I thought, stark enough to be a little more than that. My return to film is only recent and I too am finding my way. My first experience with XP2 produced mixed results in that the little camera I ran it through performed far better than expected but the film not so well. I didn’t get scans as it was only a test of the camera. I already had doubts about the lab the film went to and I stopped using it. I’ll try XP2 again soon as I have much more faith in the labs I am using now. I want to return to darkroom work but despite having a changing bag, I share your concern… there is more to it than just a bag.

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