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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!