Developing Black & White Film: Choosing Film
by Bryan Bedell, Galewood Camera Club
There aren’t as many brands and types of film as there once were, but there are still more than you’ll ever get around to trying! The variety is staggering, and everyone has their preferences. These are simply mine, based on my somewhat limited experience.
Obviously, you’ll choose the format to fit your camera. Remember that we’re talking about developing our own 35mm or 120 film so we’ll focus on those two formats:
- 35mm film (aka “135”) is still easy to find and is the most popular choice for most film photographers, as it’s been used for decades. It’s easy to load and unload, usually sold in 24- or 36-shot rolls, and it’s available in a wide range of types and speeds. Most modern flatbed scanners or film scanners are designed to scan 35mm film.
- 120 film (“medium-format”, or “60mm”) is probably the second most popular film today. Unlike 35mm, it lacks sprockets and is taped to a roll with a paper backing, so loading is a bit more difficult. In most medium-format cameras, it yields 12 large square negatives, making crisper, larger enlargements possible. Few consumer scanners can scan it, but there are a couple relatively inexpensive models available. The range of 120 films available is much smaller than that of 35mm, but there’s still a lot to choose from.
- A similar film, 220, is the same size as 120 but has a shorter backing and a longer roll allowing 24 photos per roll. 220 is only made by a few manufacturers and much harder to find, largely because most 220 cameras can also use 120.
- Other sizes of roll film (127 for instance) are available but very rare, with few choices. 620 is no longer produced, which is a shame because so many vintage (and now super-cheap) cameras used it, but 120 film can sometimes be modified or re-spooled to fit. That and other discontinued films occasionally turn up on eBay, and processing information is still available.
- Black and White sheet film is also available for larger-format cameras, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of what we’re doing here. The process is generally the same but the equipment’s a bit different.
WHERE TO BUY
It’s not displayed as prominently as it once was, but most drugstores still carry a few types of 35mm film. Important: note that the most common “black and white” film drugstores sell is “chromogenic” like Kodak BW400CN, which is NOT black and white, it’s color film designed to make black and white prints on the color processing equipment drugstores use. It can’t be processed with B/W chemicals. But occasionally, you can find Tri-X or Tmax at a drugstore, just check the date before buying. I don’t recommend buying drugstore film, though. It’s often sitting on the shelf for years or even decades, and it’s generally priced the same or higher than much better, fresher film available elsewhere.
Your local camera store is obviously a good source, and it’s important to support it, because it might not be around long. Chicago’s two biggest and most reliable shops (Calumet and Helix) closed down in the past year. For Galewood Camera Club folks, Holiday Camera in Oak Park stocks some film, and Central Camera in the Loop is a long-standing oasis for Chicago-area photo nerds. A&A Studios on Ogden near Lake is a photobooth restoration company who have recently opened a small shop selling vintage cameras, supplies, and film. They’re super nice, but you must call in advance to make an appointment.
Online sellers offer better deals, though shipping can add up (and again, supporting your local shop is important!). BHphotovideo.com and adorama.com are probably the two most respected online camera dealers. My favorite, though, is Freestylephoto.biz because they specialize in film photography and cater to students and hobbyists. Most film is cheaper there than you’ll see anywhere else, AND they have their own house brands that are even cheaper! (Note that there are also lots and lots of very shady online camera retailers, not really an issue with film maybe but be careful to only patronize trusted shops.) As noted above, discontinued and expired films are often available on eBay.
ISO (once ASA) and DIN are ways of rating the sensitivity (or “Speed”) of film. ISO is standard in America, DIN is used in Germany. We’ll focus on ISO here.
As a general rule, slower film (lower-numbered ISO) needs more time/light to expose, while faster film (higher-numbered ISO) is more sensitive and can be used in lower light. So 100’s good for things that don’t move, and bright sunlight, 200/400 for overcast, 400/800 for brightly lit indoors or capturing motion. 1600 and 3200 ISO film is made for low light. In general, lower ISO film is sharper and less grainy, higher ISOs get grainier (low-light films like 1600 and 3200 are very noticeably grainy, but sometimes the only choice for the job). Also remember that the specified ISO is just a recommendation, most films can be ‘pushed’ or ‘pulled’ by shooting at a higher or lower ISO and adjusting development as needed, with varying results (some films “push” better than others, some get intolerably grainy or washed-out). Since (unlike a digital camera) you can’t really ‘switch’ ISO midway through a roll, consider your subject, light, and location when choosing ISO and exposure count, and try to pace your shooting to finish your roll before switching from indoors to outdoors or vice-versa.
BLACK & WHITE FILMS
There are still several brands and many variations of black and white film available. My favorite is “Arista.edu,” which is Freestyle’s super-cheap re-packaged Fomapan (Fomapan, from the Czech Republic, is the same, and pretty cheap in the first place). It comes in 35mm and 120 roll film, in 100, 200, and 400 ISO. I’ve been using that a lot and it’s good enough for me. The main complaint I’ve heard is that it’s a thin base (notably on the 120) making it harder to scan and more prone to damage, but that hasn’t been too much of an issue for me. I’m sure a skilled professional shooting important and precise work would insist on better film, but for a student or beginner learning the ropes and just having fun, the Arista.edu film is hard to beat for value.
Another Arista value is their USA-made “Premium 100″ which is Kodak Plus-X and “premium 400,” which is Kodak Tri-X (both 35mm only) When I say “is,” I mean it’s not a knockoff, the evidence indicates it’s exactly the same film from the same factory, but Freestyle gets it branded as Arista and apparently sells enough of it to keep the price down. In a similar bargain vein, “Kentmere” 35mm film is made by Harman, the same people that make Ilford (though allegedly not exactly the same as regular Ilford) I’ve never tried that.
If you feel your time is too valuable for cheap film (a fair argument, but I’m a cheapskate!) there are the ‘name brands,’ Ilford, Fuji, Kodak, etc. There are a lot of resources online to compare these films. The common Kodak films are Tri-X and T-Max. I prefer Tri-X because it’s forgiving and can be ‘pushed’ a lot, whereas the more common T-Max is theoretically less grainy, but not as forgiving. Ilford HP5 and Delta 100/400 are hard to beat if you don’t mind spending a bit more, and Ilford’s Delta 3200 is one of the fastest (best for low-light) films around, although it’s (as one would expect) somewhat grainy.
AGFA, Adox, Lomography, Rollei and the big brands make some pretty neat ‘specialized’ films (Infrared, reversal, and high-contrast, for instance). I like trying those once in a while, but I’ve found it’s best to stick with one brand until you’re really comfortable with your results.
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