Traditional Black & White Film Overview

By Tillman Crane Back to

tillman crane, photo technique Calanis Standing Stones. Film: traditional film emulsion

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” -Mark Twain

With ease of use, sophisticated computer control for focus and exposure and the speed that an image can be electronically available, why would anyone choose to make photographs with film? An outstanding black and white silver print from one of the masters of photography looks different from almost any digital print. A big reason for this is because the materials are different. To photograph with film involves a different discipline, skill set and way of working. Film requires you to slow down and pay more attention to light because film is less forgiving than digital capture. You have to learn to work more economically with your exposure because at most there are 36 exposures on a roll and for each roll or sheet of film there is the required time processing in the darkroom. Furthermore, you will have to master darkroom skills (learning papers, developers and toners) to make final prints. Film cameras come in a variety of formats not available in the digital camera. Finally, you aren’t working on a computer (which for me is an advantage).

Is it better to do it this way? No, just a different way of working, and one that will be a good match for some, but not others. Whether you are new to film-based photography or returning after a hiatus, you might be curious about the black and white films available today and what you need to know to use them.

tillman crane, photo technique, photo mag
Gauges, Chestnut Hill Pumping Stations, MWRA, Boston, MA, 1992. Film: Kodak T-Max 400

Film speed
Film comes with an ISO rating and each type of film will have a different rating. The higher the ISO number the more sensitive to light the film is. The first thing a photographer switching from digital to traditional film will notice is that a roll of film is exposed at the same ISO throughout the roll. Unlike a digital camera, you can’t change the ISO between shots because the entire roll of film is processed at once. You have more flexibility with ISO in sheet film, as single sheets can be exposed and developed differently. You’ll find because of the limited number of frames on a roll of film or working sheet-by-sheet that you are more frugal with your exposures, making film more demanding. Also, if you shoot 10 rolls of film (360 images) then 10 rolls of film have to be processed (and possibly proofed) before editing and printing can begin.

Film Formats
There are a variety of film formats and film stocks. Start with the format you want to work with: 35mm, medium or large format. Each format has different groups of film available and not all films are available in all formats. Film availability is dependent on the manufacturer and the projected sales of a particular film.

The most common film formats are 35mm, 120, 127, 4×5, 5×7, 8×10. There are a variety of sheet film sizes available, including Ultra Large Format such as 14×17 and 16×20. (Sheet film is measured in inches).

Types of Film
Panchromatic films are the most common black and white films. They are designed to reproduce a realistic rendition of what the human eye sees. These films have three different types of emulsions: classic, traditional and flat grained. Note that some films are made by various manufacturers as “private label” or house brands. Generally the manufacturers of these films are not revealed, but the film goes through testing to make sure it is of high quality.

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Swimming Hole, Redwood Road, 1800 North, Salt Lake City, UT, 2006. Film: traditional film emulsion

1. Traditional emulsions have a silver-rich, single layer of light sensitive emulsion. The general ISO range is 25 to 100. Traditional films are based on the coating technology and emulsion formulas of the 1940’s. These emulsions are very forgiving and flexible and can be processed in almost any traditional black and white developer. These films are available from Fotokemika Efke (Efke KB 25, Efke KB50 and Efke KB 100) and Adox (CHS 25 ART, CHS 50 ART, CHS 100 ART).

2. Multi-layer Classics are based on a multilayer technology developed in the 1950’s and are continually being improved. Light sensitive silver and bromides are combined in the emulsion. The film is coated with two layers of light sensitive material, generally a high-speed emulsion coated over slow speed emulsion. The “fast” 400 ISO films were created with this double emulsion formula. Kodak Tri-X, known now as 400TX, is the best known of this type of film. Ilford HP5 Plus (Hyper- sensitive Panchromatic) and FP4 Plus (Fine Grain Pan- chromatic) are exceptional films in this classic film category. Arista EDU films available exclusively from Freestyle are also in this category. Foma also produces three films in this category: Fomapan 100 CLASSIC, Fomapan 200 CREATIVE and Fomapan 400 ACTION. And finally, Fuji Neopan 400.

3. Modern emulsions are based on a new silver halide technology of the 1980’s—1990’s. Kodak introduced Kodacolor 1000, the first T-Grain technology film in 1982. In 1986 they introduced the first T-Grain black and white films, T-Max 100 and 400. Ilford soon followed with its own high technology grain structure (Core Shell Crystal Technology) film in the Delta series of films, Delta 100. 400 and 3200 Professional. Fujifilm followed in the 1990’s with its line of Neopan and Acros film.

film, tillman crane, photo technique magazine
These traditional films are readily available in a variety of sizes. Photo courtesy of Freestyle Photographic Supplies

These films are also multi-layered emulsions with flatter silver halides and thinner physical depth. These thinner and flatter silver halide crystals have greater light gathering surfaces than traditional irregularly shaped silver halide crystals. These are professional films with very little latitude for exposure or development errors. This new silver halide technology allowed Kodak, Ilford and Fuji to introduce black and white negative emulsions with previously unheard of film speeds: Kodak T-Max 3200, Ilford Delta 3200 Professional. Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros uses new proprietary Super Fine Grain Technology, using fine grain alignment.

tillman crane, photo technique, photo mag
Staircase, Portland City Hall, Portland, ME, 1992. Film: Kodak T-Max 400

Specialty Films
1. Infrared Film is sensitive to visible and invisible wavelenghts of light near the red end of the spectrum. Special filters are required to take full advantage of its unique qualities. Warm skin tone will appear white and blue skies will go black. Generally it must be loaded in very subdued light or better yet, in total darkness. Efke makes several infrared films in various sizes. Rollei offers an infrared film, as does Maco. Ilford makes Ilford SFX (extended red sensitivity) film. SFX is not a true infrared film but when used with a deep red filter can produce infrared-like images.

2. Orthochromatic film is sensitive to only blue and green light. Blue objects appear lighter and red ones darker. It can be used to create photographs that look as if they were made before the introduction of panchromatic films (early 20th Century). Wet plate photography uses an orthochromatic emulsion. Ilford makes Ortho Plus, which is available in sheet film sizes. ADOX makes ADOX Ortho 25 (available in both 35mm film and sheet film) and ADOX Ortho CT and ADOX Display film, both available only in sheet film. Efke makes Efke PL25 ORT in various formats.

3. High-resolution films are usually a single layer emulsion, one grain of silver thick. They produce extremely fine grain and high-resolution images. They are very slow emulsions, ISO 10 to 25. ADOX makes CMS 20 High resolution film in 35mm and sheet film sizes. The 35mm version is a specialty film that has been spooled for use in 35mm cameras. These emulsions were intended for other uses but with proper processing can be used in traditional photography.

4. Chromogenic films are specially designed black and while films that are processed in C-41 color chemistry. They yield a black and white negative. They were created to allow photographers to drop their film off at a local photo lab to get back black and white negatives. Ilford makes XP2 Super 400 in 35mm and 120 film sizes. Kodak offers Kodak BW400CN in 35mm size. These films cannot be processed in traditional black and white chemicals.

tillman crane, photo technique, photo mag
Leng Memorial Chapel, Fife, Scotland, 2003. Film: traditional film emulsion

The advantages of working with traditional black and white materials are many. The digital photography world offers many advantages too and we are fortunate to live in a time of so many choices. Using film and large format cameras like I do can be a lifelong learning experience. You’ll develop a greater understanding of f-stops and shutter speeds, of metering and light quality, more discipline in composition and more insistence on getting the exposure right because it’s more difficult (or impossible) to fix later. You will learn to process your film consistently. You will master darkroom techniques so that you can consistently create images that are distinct and unique for you. It’s a much slower way of working but for those attracted to such a pace there is no better way to work.

You can start with a film camera as simple as the Holga or as complex as a view camera. When you add different films stocks to the wide variety of developers available for processing black and white film and then add the option of many different photographic papers to print on, the options for creating different and outstanding images are limitless; and all the films mentioned here are readily available for purchase at local camera stores and on the web. I hope that a few of you reading this article will take a chance on this expressive traditional form of photography.

Resources: Films: Adox – adox.de, Arista ED – freestylephoto.biz, Efke – free stylephoto.biz, FOMA – freestylephoto.biz, Fujifilm – fujifilmusa. com, Ilford – ilfordphoto.com, Kodak – kodak.com, Maco – free stylephoto.biz, Rollei – rolleifilm.com


About the Author

Tillman Crane
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Tillman Crane is a large format photographer specializing in platinum prints. He describes his work as using 19th Century materials with a 21st Century aesthetic. Tillman teaches a wide variety of workshops, including a soft focus workshop for large format enthusiasts as well as a workshop for other soft focus techniques. He has published four photographs books and sells these and his platinum prints through his gallery in Camden Maine. tillmancrane.com