What Black and White Film Should You Start Out With? Five Popular Stocks Compared

So you've read all my articles on film and decided: "You know what? I'm going to give it a shot!" Great! You're about to embark on a rewarding, sometimes frustrating journey into the old school! However, one of the first questions you'll have to answer is: What film should I shoot with? There are so many choices out there with varying brands, speeds, grain structures, and formulations that it can be daunting to select a few to try out. I know that when I first started out, I had no clue what to try. Hopefully, this guide will serve as a broad primer on some of the most popular stocks and take some of the mystery out of picking your first film.

First off, a Little About the Methodology and Some Disclaimers

There is no way I could possibly create a comparison of film stocks and account for every single factor that could possibly influence how a film will turn out. Some people like to over/under-develop their film. Some like X developer and some like Y developer. Some like X and Y together. Some like X, but only with film one, and Y with film two. Some like lots of agitation, some like a little. Some like German Shepherds, some like poodles. You get the idea. Personal preference is a huge factor when picking your developer, film stock, and your technique for developing. Scanning also plays a factor. I used an Epson V700 flatbed scanner. As such, the results aren't as sharp as a dedicated film or drum scanner, but they will do to compare the films. I use this scanner regularly for my work, and it does just fine.

To that end, understand that there is no absolute right or wrong way to do this. Use the film you're drawn to, try developing a bunch of different ways, and experiment to your heart's content. That's the best way to figure out your own preferences. Try to stick with one stock at a time and be consistent with your developing technique. Write down notes if that helps. That way, you'll learn the ins and outs of a particular film before you move to something different. That said, for this experiment, I used five different stocks, HC-110 developer, and Kodak fixer for the traditional black and white stocks and a Unicolor kit for the Ilford XP2 as it's developed in C-41 color chemistry.

The setup: Mamiya RB67 on a sturdy tripod with a large softlighter above.

The Candidates

When I picked which films to compare, I wanted to use ones that are popular and readily available. I chose to shoot medium format film for a couple of reasons. First, I don't particularly enjoy shooting 35mm. Second, because of the larger negative, it's a bit easier to study grain and sharpness without the format size getting in the way of the evaluation. I'd have loved to shoot the experiment in 4x5 if I could, but there aren't as many emulsions available in large format and I'm not made of money. I also focused on 400-speed films, as they are more useful in general situations. Without further ado, here are your candidates:

Kodak T-Max 400

T-Max is a more modern film than Tri-X and is flatter and less contrasty. It's sharp and clean, with much less grain than the more traditional Tri-X and HP5. Many complain that because of its linearity, it doesn't have character. If you're used to digital, though, its clean look may be more comfortable than some of the grainier stocks.

Kodak T-Max 400

Ilford XP2 Super

XP2 is the black sheep of the family. It's processed using C-41 color chemistry and as such, it's more easily developed at local film labs that will process any regular color film. I was really surprised with this film! It is head and shoulders sharper than its black and white cousins with much less grain. If you want a clean, crisp look that favors a digital image, this is your stock.

Ilford XP2 Super 400

Kodak Tri-X 400

Tri-X is one of, if not the most popular stock out there. It's sharp, gritty, and has been around forever. When people pop those vintage film filters on their digital photography, they're frequently emulating Tri-X for that tough, home-grown feel. That said, it's also very versatile and has latitude for pushing and pulling as well. It's the tough guy with a heart of gold.

Kodak Tri-X 400

Ilford HP5 Plus

HP5 Plus is Ilford's answer to Tri-X. Both have similar grain structure and latitude, but I find that HP5 is a bit less grainy and the shadows are not quite as deep as Tri-X. It's not as contrasty or sharp as Tri-X and one could say it tends to look flatter. This could be seen as a liability, but if you scan your film, this gives you tremendous flexibility with your shadows. HP5 is one of my favorite films.

Ilford HP5 Plus 400

Ilford Delta 400

Delta 400 is supposedly similar to T-Max in that it is a more modern emulsion with less grain, but in my tests, I didn't find it to be as grainless as T-Max. It's sharper than HP5 with some of the oomph of Tri-X. This could be the developer I picked, but I'm intrigued by the results. I may pick up a roll or two of this for experimentation in portraits.

Ilford Delta 400

Side-By-Side Comparison

I'm not going to make any judgments here as to which film is better or worse, because that's for you to decide. However, here's a side-by-side comparison of the same portion of the photo with each of the stocks. 

And here's a 100% crop of the same shot so that you can get an idea of grain and sharpness. Again, there's no better or worse. Go with what you like.

At 100%

Conclusions

The only conclusions that need to be made here are your own. You are the one taking the photo and your own aesthetic will guide you in deciding how to proceed. The most important thing is to have some fun! Remember that this is not digital. Grain (noise in digital land) can be your friend! Being the sharpest, cleanest, and with the least amount of grain doesn't make a film the automatic winner. Dive in, pick up a stock or two, and go to town. Questions or comments? Fire away below!

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9 Comments

Michael Aubrey's picture

Delta 100 likely has grain that's more comparable rather than Delta 400. Still: great comparison.

Hans, thank you for these film articles. One of these days, I'll buy used Mamiya systems, a 645 and an RZ67.

For the year 2012, I decided to photograph the entire year using B&W film exclusively. It was a year to experiment with the B&W contrast filters, yellow, orange, red, and green, and also to grow. It took about three months before I started visualizing in B&W. I ran 60 rolls of B&W film through my Canon A-1. During that year, I shot Kodak (BW400CN, TMAX 100, TMAX 400, TMAX 3200, and Tri-X) and Ilford (XP2, Delta 100, Delta 400, Delta 3200, and HP5). I had to send the silver-based B&W films out of state for developing.

With the C-41 films, I shot Kodak BW400CN and Ilford XP2. I had the C-41 films processed at Walgreens and I noticed differences in the scans. The BW400CN scan had a sepia tone and the XP2 film had a cyan cast; I had to desaturate using Lightroom to make it look like traditional silver-based B&W film.

With the demise of Kodak BW400CN, Tri-X will probably be my general purpose film for its classic look.

I still have a few rolls of Kodak TMAX 3200 film in my freezer, gamma rays be damned! I prefer TMAX 3200 over Delta 3200 because Kodak has sharper contrast while Ilford is muted. I photographed a night time baseball game, sandwiching Ilford Delta 3200 between Kodak TMAX 3200, and it is obvious when I switched brands.

Now that I have two 35mm film cameras (A-1 and New F-1), one is loaded with B&W and the other with color; that way, I avoid the quandary of what film do I shoot? B&W or color?

Excellent article and it's nice to see the results side by side. I've used all the films you feature except for XP2. I develop all my black and white films and am used to conventional black and white chemistry (Rodinal, Ifotec HC, Microphen, Perceptol, Ilfosol 3). That said, I also develop my own color film with the Unicolor kits so there is no reason why I should not try Ilford XP2 and it's likely I will some day.

As you point out very clearly, film use involves a lot of personal choices and preferences. I like to mix it up, with an affection for the Rollei Retro films and Fuji Neopan Acros 100 as well as Ilford and Kodak brands. However my most commonly used films are Kentmere 100 and Ilford HP5 Plus. Kentmere 100 deserves a mention because it is very inexpensive compared to other types and yet produces nicely balanced images with pleasant moderately fine grain that compare well with more pricey products. Sadly it's only available in 35mm format and I wish it wasn't so restricted.

Scott Hays's picture

Thanks for putting up the side by side comparisons. I was almost pre-determined to come into your article with a mind set of "oh please, not another.........". Your article was well written and planned out, but the images you chose were well thought out, simple and the side by side are some of the best I have seen in years. Great job, great article especially for someone just starting in film.

What develper did you use? Delta 400 should be much cleaner. I'd recommend DDX for best results

Hans Rosemond's picture

Cool, thanks! Ivenever used DDX, but it's on my list to try.

So glad you did this, thanks! Been wondering about XP2 after the demise of Kodak BW400CN, and this looks good enough for me to give it a shot! Meanwhile, I mourn the old emulsion of Agfa APX100… old school look, sharp, great in Rodinal.

Shaun La's picture

When it comes to B&W film, I do not think that there are any popular ones. For someone who has been working on film for over 20 straight years, (I do not own a digital camera), the prestige in B&W film & the chemistry that comes along with it, separates itself from the competitor's brand---purposely. From Kodak's T-MAX to ILFord to Rollei, Fuji, every analogue film producer has their own style.

Kodak T-MAX's accepts the contrast of the black, very well.
ILford has a balanced center, which helps the whites not to overcome the tonal range.
Fuji's Neopan absorbs the tonal range & if you have too much light, that tonal range can sink.
Rollei is strong in texture, but they have infrared & that can be fun to learn about as well.

Kentmere is another B&W film that has a supreme grain to it, (it is connected to ILford) & you cannot make it look like ILford, but if you push or pull this film (which is in the process & developing phase), you can see some remarkable tones. Even if you do not push or pull Kentmere & use your light meter for precision, you can work with this film.

B&W film is a part of the core of Photography. It goes back to the first photographs ever made. So, it does not need a popular analogue film producer, because it is about the photographer finding a way to use it. I work on color film as well, but B&W film can really have your mind seeing the shifts of mood in a photograph; whereas color enlivens & can speak about the Moment.

One of my frames, Kodak film, 135, small-format.

Russ Butner's picture

Too bad that Neopan 400 is no longer available. It was the best of the 400 speed films. However, I do get excellent results from XP-2 and Delta 400.