Finding “Your” Film

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

One of the biggest recommendations when shooting with film (rather than digital) is to stick with one film stock until you get to know its characteristics and matches your personal aesthetics. Doing so allows you to know(pre-visualize) how your images are likely to turn out in various scenarios. Of course, this may be a simpler task to recommend than to actually achieve.

I am currently in the process of doing just this and have, so far, had mixed results. Or more to the point, been somewhat surprised how some films I expected to love turned out to be the opposite.

I grew up during the era of film photography. All images seen in newspapers, magazines, and billboards were all shot on film. And for black and white work, one of the top films used by photojournalists was Ilford’s HP5 Plus. Almost all the images seen in European newspapers were taken on this film stock. It’s also one of the longest-running lines of film stock still available today (only matched by Kodak’s Tri-X for similar age).

Excerpt from Ilford’s website:

ILFORD HP5 PLUS is a high speed, fine grain, medium contrast black & white film making it an excellent choice for journalism, documentary, travel, sports, action and indoor available light photography.

Nominally rated at ISO 400, HP5 PLUS produces negatives of outstanding sharpness and fine grain under all lighting conditions. It has been formulated to respond well to push-processing and can be rated up to El 3200/36°.

Its wide exposure latitude makes it a great choice for beginners, those returning to film as well as the more experienced professional users.

I’ve shot several rolls of this classic film, and I have to say, I’ve not been overly happy with the results. To me, the images have been lacking contrast and appear flat. I’ve also tried it on both 35mm and 120 roll film format, and not overly liked it on either format. The roll in the image above is actually over 20 years old and will need to be shot approximately 1–2 stops over to allow for deterioration of the materials. Also, it will likely be the last roll I shoot of this film for the foreseeable future. Although I will say spending some time in my “digital darkroom” (read Photoshop) adjusting curves has yielded some better images.

Now onto the other films in the image, ones I haven’t tried yet.

Kodak Tri-X is another long-running film stock and was the direct competitor to Ilford HP5 Plus for photojournalist work. The black and white images you saw in American newspapers or magazines were predominantly shot on Kodak Tri-X.

Excerpt from Kodak’s website:

KODAK PROFESSIONAL TRI-X 320 and 400 Films are high-speed panchromatic films that are a good choice for photographing dimly lighted subjects or fast action, for photographing subjects that require good depth of field and fast shutter speeds, and for extending the distance range for flash pictures.

TRI-X 400 Film (400TX) is available in 135 and 120 sizes. You can retouch the 120-size film on the emulsion side. TRI-X 400 Film is recommended for push-processing applications

JCH StreetPan is a relatively new film for photography, and it intrigues me a lot. Originally developed for use in traffic cameras, it is quickly gaining popularity among film photographers.

Excerpt from JCH’s website:

The spectral sensitivity is extended in the near infrared range of the energy spectrum, colour sensitivity: panchromatic up to 750 nm. As a result, the film offers excellent penetration through haze, fog and other atmospheric conditions liable to affect the image quality. Due to the reduced scattering by the atmosphere, images are sharp and well edged. The near IR sensitivity and the strong response to red light allow for nocturne red flash photography as well as daylight photography.

Although featuring high speed, the graininess of the emulsion is low thanks to the 2-layer emulsion architecture. The low granularity makes the film very scanner-friendly and the scans deliver noise-free images in the image highlights. The low fog level at standard processing temperature and at high temperature processing makes the film even more suitable for development in large and small processing machines.

The image contrast can be controlled by the processing parameters. JCH StreetPan 400 can be processed as a low contrast film for good and average weather photography and as a medium contrast film for bad weather photography.

Although high speed and near-IR sensitised, this film shows excellent storage stability before use and low latent image drift after exposure.
JCH StreetPan 400 has a gelatine back coating to prevent scratches on the back of the film which could be picked-up by image scanners. Base substrate layers provide permanent anti-static properties to the film, at exposure and after processing.

Cinestill BWxx Double-X negative is a very intriguing film stock, as it is actually a repurposed motion picture film. The possibility of a “cinematic” feel to the images is something I certainly want to explore.

Excerpt from Cinestill’s website:

CineStill BwXX is a high speed, classic black & white film emulsion, with an EI of 250 under daylight and 200 under tungsten lighting. Recommended development in Kodak D-96 developer, but is compatible with D-76, HC110 and all other black and white film developers.

Double-X is a classic black and white film stock left relatively unchanged since its release in 1959 for still and motion picture use. CineStill BwXX is an excellent choice for those looking for a classic film stock to fill the void left by the discontinuation of its wonderful sister films, Kodak Plus-x (discontinued in 2010) and TXP320.

You will have noticed that there are two color film reels in the photograph. That’s because I am also trying to identify which color films to have as my primary choice. These are the only two 35mm color films I have currently, so they are going to be facing off against each other. But with the big ISO difference between them, the Cinestill (ISO 50) doesn’t have the flexibility/versatility of the Kodak (ISO 400). Also, the Cinestill is a bit of an “outlier” as it is repurposed motion picture film stock. And with the removal of the anti-halation backing (so it can be processed in normal C-41 chemistry), it produces a distinctive look if there are light sources within the image borders.

As you can see, I have quite a few films to try out and see which one (or more) best suits my aesthetic. And these are just a small selection of films available today. Despite any claims to the contrary, film is far from dead. While there may be fewer film manufacturers and films available, compared to the heyday of film, you should have no problems finding a film that fits your needs. So grab your favorite film camera/lens combo and try some out for yourself.

Originally published Oct 1, 2018

Ian Mildon

Ian Mildon spends his days working as a software application developer. When not doing this he is a keen photographer, working with various formats; digital (full frame, APS-C), film (35mm, 6x4.5, 6x7), mobile (phone), instant. Ian is also a fairly prolific writer, mainly on subjects pertaining to photography, although he does not limit himself to just this subject matter.

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