Rollei RPX400
Film Learning Journeys

A Personal Comparison of “Affordable”, Mid-Speed, Black & White Film Stocks – By Holly Gilman

December 23, 2020

I’m not trying to rehash content that’s been done to death. I’m not going to tell you which black and white film is the “best”. I’m just going to talk you through 4 film types that I’ve tried in the ISO 400 range, what I’m looking for, and my conclusions.

I absolutely stand by the notion that you cannot Google “what is the best black and white film” because that is a very personal choice. One person may like grain, another a cleaner image. One person may prefer muted greys and another, higher contrast. And all the variation in-between. As we all know, both those indicators are more of a sliding scale than one or the other.

My personal feeling is that shooting black and white film will help me to improve my overall technique. Another very personal decision but one that others may echo. In Ansel Adam’s book The Camera (1995) he talks about learning to “see in black and white” (Adams, 1995), a skill that I think is very valuable to have. It also helps that I develop and can scan black and white at home (I still cannot get my head around converting colour scans!); and this in turn pushes me to analyse the negatives as well as the final scans (and hopefully one day prints!). I’ve learnt a lot from looking at the negatives on the light box.

Before I start the write up, I wanted to qualify my use of the word affordable. In this particular article I am comparing 120 films that cost me £7 per roll or less. You may feel that this borders on expensive, but this was my decision and I felt it best to be transparent about that. I’m also sure that this does not cover all the options available, but it’s somewhere to start.

I think it’s also important to mention that I develop my films at home using Ilford’s DD-X developer. I know that different developer to film combinations will give different results. For now it makes sense for me to stick with what I have, so I am looking for films that work well with it.

Ilford HP5 – Shot through Pentacon Six TL

I thought I would start with arguably the most obvious film stock in the affordable range. Possibly the cheapest one I bought, but I can’t exactly remember.

I am not the biggest fan of HP5 in 35mm, so I didn’t have high hopes but I was pleasantly surprised. Processing this roll of film, I learnt that grain becomes less obvious the larger the format. I should have guessed, but sometimes we have to learn by doing. So I definitely preferred this roll to some of my HP5 35mm ones in relation to the grain.

The big draw to HP5 is its versatility. If you had no idea of subject or lighting, you could pack HP5 for an assignment and be confident that you could shoot it at whatever ISO you needed and get results. For me though, it doesn’t wow. It’s just good.

I’d like to try pushing and pulling HP5 in 120 format, similar to what I’ve been doing in 35mm, but at box speed, it is just alright. I know a lot of people will disagree with me but I will take this opportunity to reiterate that this is a personal journey of discovery and experimentation.

I’m sharing some of my favourite images from that roll.

Ilford HP5

Ilford HP5

Ilford HP5

Bergger Pancro 400 – Shot through Franka Sollida II.

I really liked this film. In daylight, it lends the images a vintage quality and at night it turned almost grungy. Not something I would reach for all the time but certainly one I would like to try again. In particular I would like to try some portraits with it and some architecture.

If you haven’t already, I would definitely recommend trying this out. I am ordering a very limited run of prints of one of these images from James Lane at Zone Imaging Lab. The profits will go towards helping me build my own darkroom so I can create my own prints. If you’d like to order one and support an independent lab (James) and a little known creative (me) then please get in touch. The prints will be 8×8 and will be £65 plus PP.

Again, here are some of my favourite shots from that roll.

Bergger Pancro 400

Bergger Pancro 400

Available to purchase

Bergger Pancro 400

Retropan 320 – Shot through Franka Sollida II.

A little unfairly these shots were taken in dramatically different weather conditions to the others. For the bridge shots I’ve shared below it was absolutely pouring with rain. The Ilford HP5 was shot in overcast but summer weather, the Bergger and the Rollei were shot on a summer evening.

This is another film stock that I would like to try on different subjects such as portraits. It’s one that provides a soft palette of greys and I felt paired very well with the softness of the lens on my Franka Sollida. Again though, this would not be my go to mid-speed film stock.

Retropan 320

Retropan 320

Retropan 320

Rollei Retro 400RPX – Shot through Pentacon Six TL.

I saved the “best” for last.

This is currently in the top spot on my list and will be the film stock that I reach for over and over again. Although that will have to wait until I have run out of film and need to restock. I’m working my way through a little treasure trove of assorted films.

What I love about Rollei Retro 400 is the beautiful silvery greys, which it has alongside deep blacks and nice bright highlights. I am a mid to high contrast girl, I love deep blacks in my images. It’s also not too grainy for a 400ISO image. I wonder what the 35mm version would be like in terms of grain? To be tested.

One of these images will also be available to purchase soon. Please get in touch if you are interested in purchasing. This will also be 8×8 and £65 plus PP.

Rollei RPX400

Rollei RPX400

Rollei RPX400

Rollei RPX400

Available to purchase

Conclusion

Film choice is highly personal. I prefer low grain with good contrast and bright silvery greys. However, I know many people for whom grain is a pure delight. I’d love to hear your recommendations for mid-speed black and white films, whether you push or pull any of the above films and what you look for in your film – are you a grain person? Do you like high or low contrast? Or are you simply after the versatility of HP5?

You can see 3 of the 4 rolls above in their entirety on my learning log, along with further comments on the images and the film stocks. You can also follow me on Instagram to see what I am up to or to contact me regarding purchasing one of my prints.

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Narayan Kaudinya
    December 23, 2020 at 10:28 am

    Beautiful essay on personal choices and learning. Black and white is like going into studying oneself and the life. There is no doubt choosing a film is a personal choice, yes it might better the whole outcome of an image, but personally apart from working with black and white images, what helped me was just one prime lens, for an elaborate period.
    Thanks for this.

    Nara x

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 23, 2020 at 1:54 pm

      Thank you, I definitely believe black and white is a good learning tool. I also think film photography in general has massively improved my knowledge

  • Reply
    John Earnshaw
    December 23, 2020 at 11:28 am

    Hi Holly, of late I have been using 120 Foma 200 and getting really good results in Ilford DD-X at box speed. You might be interested in giving it a go, the grain, when exposed correctly, is fine and the image very sharp. It doesn’t like underexposure though, it amplifies the grain which, for a 120 film, looks mushy and ugly. As I say though, exposed correctly (or overexposed for that matter) the grain looks very fine indeed and the images sparkle. An interesting write up.

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 23, 2020 at 1:57 pm

      Thank you, I’ve actually coincidentally just shot my first ever roll of foma 400 and digitised it last night. Still don’t like it as much as the Rollei at 400 but certainly a fantastic option for the price!

  • Reply
    brian nicholls
    December 23, 2020 at 12:23 pm

    I too was impressed by the Adams quote, but you need a tool (well, at least I do) by which to achieve this. Studio pros like Bailey ‘et -al’ used a Polaroid. For as long as I can remember I have always carried a pocket-sized digital compact mainly for this very purpose – nothing flashy, just around 5MP will do for a fiver off ebay. Appraise the results on the computer and then return later with the bells and whistle jobby to snap a winner!!

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 23, 2020 at 2:04 pm

      This is true. I suppose I am going down the most laborious route in just practicing seeing in black and white!

      • Reply
        Chan Chun
        December 24, 2020 at 11:04 am

        Since I’ve made the same mistake myself I remember it very distinctly, RPX400 is not retro400s.
        I too was amazed by the RPX400 immediately and wish to shoot it more often, then I got myself some retro400s and realise its a completely different kind of film with very high underexposure tendancy.

  • Reply
    Brian Nicholls
    December 23, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    Yeah, the ‘laborious route’ is certainly the way to flatten the learning curve (“I do, and therefore I understand”) I’ve done all that and am now enjoying embracing technology. I admire your resolve, best wishes.

  • Reply
    Rich Stroffolino
    December 23, 2020 at 8:27 pm

    Great piece! I’ve shot a bunch of Retropan in 35mm, but always found it to be a grainy flat mess (also developed in Rodinal which I know didn’t help). In 120 it definitely works better, but still my last choice out of the ones you profiled. Want to give it a chance in Foma’s recommended developer some day. Pnacro gets grainy in 35mm too, but has a more pleasing contrast to me. I always think of HP5 as the duct tape of b&w film, it may not always be the best choice, but you can almost always find a way to make it work.

  • Reply
    kodachromeguy
    December 25, 2020 at 2:01 am

    I would like to suggest the classic: Kodak Tri-X. You can add it to the next update to this article.

    • Reply
      Holly Gilman
      December 25, 2020 at 6:21 pm

      Hahahaha, I guess that I will have to do a follow up then!

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