For a long time I wanted to write a post like this one…finally I got the time and the experience to do it. The following “film reviews” are merely opinions based mostly on my personal taste and they should be in no way considered as technical…
Since I am a great fan of black and white negatives and a supporter for the company Ilford, let starts with Ilford B&W films first…
Ilford HP5 PLUS is a successor of the original Ilford HP5 which had been widely used as a “student film” mainly due to its wide latitude in exposure, its speed which suits for a wide range of lighting situations, and its ease of process. The relatively high ISO of this film is also greatly beneficial when a large depth-of-field is needed to compensate scale focusing errors for cameras like the Rollei 35 and the Agfa Billy I. Moreover, its wide latitude is necessary when shooting with toy cameras, like my Diana F+, which are often limited in exposure settings. Resolution-wise, the grains of HP5+ are fine enough for quality enlargements when used in medium format. My only complaint is that it gives less contrast than what I desire though this can be enhanced during post processing of film scans. (Please see here for a post I wrote especially for this film.)
Ilford FP4 PLUS is my prime choice in both medium format and large format whenever speed is not required. It gives beautiful tones with slightly higher than normal contrast which I both like. Unlike the more “modern” films like Kodak T-Max and Fujifilm Neopan which use tabular-grains to give higher resolution, FP4+ uses the traditional cubic-grain emulsion. However, unless I am shooting 35mm, the resolution and granularity of FP4+ is more than enough and I do prefer the “look” of cubic-grain film over the newer tabular-grain ones.
Ilford DELTA 400 is the high speed sibling of DELTA 100 and both give similar levels of contrast. Like its little brother, it is also a tabular-grain film which in general gives higher resolution than cubic-grain films of the same speed. For this reason, when maximum possible resolution is needed for handheld telephoto works, DELTA 400 would be my first choice. The following image was captured by exposing at the film’s posted speed (ISO400), using my ME Super and the Tokina 135mm lens . A 100% centre-crop is shown beside it.However, this is not where this film shines. Main strength of DELTA 400 lies in its extreme pushing capability when used with the right developer. I also has a dedicated article on this great film.
Ilford PanF 50 is the slowest panchromatic film offered by Ilford and is also one of the slowest in the market, with Rollei RPX 25 being a stop slower. When one need ultra high resolution and the finest possible grain but on the other hand for whatever reason medium or large format is not suitable for the task, the PanF 50 is always one of the good choices available. However, both exposure and development need to be spot on to achieve optimal results. Otherwise, the developed image will be very difficult to process even when digitally editing a film scan rather than making a darkroom print.
This film can also be pulled to one stop slower if one need to do extra long exposure. Below is a daytime long exposure made possible with the use of minimal aperture (f/22) of the Nikon 50mm Series-E, a ND8 (-3 stops), a Red-29 (-3 stops), and exposing the PanF 50 at ISO25 (pull -1 development in DD-X). Shutter speed was calculated precisely with the consideration of reciprocity failure.
Ilford DELTA 100 is a tabular-grain film like the Kodak T-Max. It is a good choice for ensuring the finest grain while keeping a reasonable speed for handheld shooting in 35mm. A good friend of mine who used to shoot mostly T-Max told me that the Delta 100 gives a more pleasing “film-look” than the “sharper” T-Max. Although the Delta 100 somehow gives less contrast than the FP4+, with some careful post-processing after film scans, satisfactory resutls can also be obtained. The FP4+, on the other side, requires much less time in post to obtain similar results.
Ilford XP2 Super is a type of chromogenic black and white negative film. In non-technical terms, it is a black and white film processed by C41 color developing process. Thus, it can even be developed in the one-hour lab of a department store. For this reason, its predecessor, the XP1, was my primary black and white film during my high school and college years because one-hour lab color process is much much cheaper than any professional lab’s black and white developing. In term of contrast, XP2 Super gives a higher than normal level which is similar to FP4+. However, it seems that tones from FP4+ is more “natural” the XP2 Super. Not long ago, I used XP2 Super in 35mm format as an all-purpose film especially when travelling. However, I had replaced it with HP5+ for its pushing capability and cheaper cost.
I did not shoot many non-Ilford black and white negatives. So, I can only give my opinion on the few ones below:
Kodak BW400CN is another chromogenic black and white negative film like the Ilford XP2 Super. Unlike the clear base of XP2 Super, Kodak BW400CN has an orange base just like ordinary color negatives. The orange base allows the film to be printed on color papers with “true black” (something the XP2 Super cannot do). This is a convenient feature for one-hour lab color printing but for those who scan their own film, the image file will have an orange tint cast on it which requires extra post-processing time to remove and convert to true black and white. This is what I do not like about this film although in some places, its “per-frame” cost is cheaper than XP2 Super. Besides, its granularity structure somehow gives a “digital look” on the scans which I do not prefer (I would just shoot digital if I want an edge-sharp look).
Fomapan Classic 100 is a black and white negative made by the Czeh photographic company, Foma. It is not well-known outside the photographer and photo-student circle because it is not as commonly seen as B&W films made by Kodak and Ilford. One of the main advantage of Fomapan Classic 100 is that it generally costs less than its competitors. Performance-wise, the specification claims that the film can be over-exposed by 1 stop or under-exposed by 2 stops without any change in processing. Beside exposure latitude, the grains are acceptably fine and tones are great although it lacks a bit behind FP4+. My complaint is that the polyester base of the 120 format is so thin that it curls very easily and is difficult to slide the strips into protective sleeves. However, the 35mm format does not seem to have this problem.
How about color films? Well, I only shoot color negatives and below are the ones I tried:
Fujifilm Superia XTRA 400 is one of the consumer grade (i.e. general purpose) color negatives that is still available in places like drug stores and super-markets. Being a consumer grade film does not mean that it is inferior. In fact, its grains are quite fine for an ISO400 film and color reproduction is great (a bit on the saturated side which I like). Exposure latitude seems to be quite wide too. The main benefits, beside its price, is its speed allows me to shoot indoor handheld with fast primes and outdoor with all-in-one zoom on the telephoto end. Today, I mainly use the Fujifilm Superia XTRA 400 for shooting color with telephotos and for testing newly purchased used cameras.
Fujifilm Superior REALA is my favorite color negative over the years. It boasts fine grain and natural color reproduction which make it a prime choice for professional portraits. Its color is not as vivid as Ektar but it still fills my “saturation” need. What I like about this film is how it performs on an overcast day without a warming filter. If it is not almost two times the price of Ektar 100, I would use REALA instead as my only choice in medium color negative.
Kodak Ektar 100 is the re-invention/2nd generation of the original Kodak Ektar series (in ISO25, 100/125 and 1000) introduced in 1989. Currently, only ISO100 is available for the new Ektar. Both original and new Ektar films boast ultra-fine grain and vivid color reproduction. While the colors of the original Ektar might be too saturated (IMO), the new one gives “realistically” vivid colors. For this reason, rather than a “specialty” film like the original ones, the new Ektar 100 becomes my carry-around all-purpose color negative whenever it is weather permitted. Also, it is only a little more expensive than the consumer grade Fujufilm Superia 200. One thing worth to mention, Kodak Ektar 100 is an “digital-friendly” color negative which is optimized for scanning and my experience shows that this is indeed very true. Thank you Kodak, for bringing back such a great film in the digital era (A little update: As of early 2012, although Kodak has filed its bankruptcy protection, it has decided to keep its film production going).