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.
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.
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.
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.
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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