Getting to know black and white films

If you’ve just started with film photography, you’ve probably stand in front of the fridge at the camera shop, deciding which film to buy. If there’s a lot to choose from, it can be tricky to decide, especially if you don’t yet know all the films. I’ve certainly had this problem and many times bought something silly, before getting to know my own personal favourites. 

I gathered a list of my recommended black and white films for beginners. I would never recommend buying the cheapest ones in the expense of quality. That can be a huge turn-off, so I’d actually recommend pretty much the same films for beginners as I would for any film shooter, no matter how experienced. Advanced film shooters will know better (most likely) but as a beginner, it’s impossible to know which films are good and spending the hard earned money on junk is always disappointing. 

This isn’t going to be a very surprising list, but may be helpful the next time you stand bewildered in the front of the film fridge while shopping. 

I’m mainly recommending general purpose, professional ISO 400 speed films, because I believe they are the most multifunctional allrounders out there. Especially the better ones, with a lot of latitude, which means you can basically shoot them (push or pull) lower or higher than rated. In a way, you can turn the 400 speed into other speeds very easily. You can shoot a good B/W film with anything between 100—3200 ISO, which is a huge benefit. Films with much lower or higher native ISO are, at least in my mind, a bit more niche films for a bit more specific purposes, being potentially somewhat un-friendly for beginners. I’d definitely start with ISO 400 films. 

So in a nutshell, I’d advice any B/W beginner to stick with tried and true classics. You can always find developing times for them as well. The same can’t be said about all the new boutique films or extreme films — that’s something to bear in mind too! One other factor I tried to take into count is the reliability. I was tempted to recommend Fomapan as well, but in my experience, even though it is a cheap film, it is somewhat unreliable and inconsistent in it’s results which can yield some undesired head scratching.

The overall availability is a thing to consider too. Even though there are a huge amount of film stocks available with some rare, exquisite delicacies in the mix too, I’m not sure they are the best option for a beginner. I’d at least start with something that is readily available and that’s been around for a long time, even though they might seem like boring choices compared to all the sexy JCH Street Pans and Bergger Pancros out there.  

1. Ilford HP5

Initially I was going to give the first recommendation to Kodak Tri-x 400, but nowadays the price difference between HP5 and Tri-x is starting to be pretty significant. They are very similar, classic films, both emerging from roughly the same era. I could never tell the difference between them on a blind test. I’ve been shooting a lot of Tri-x but I’m now starting to lean towards HP5 just for the cost’s sake. That’s why I’d recommend it for a beginner over Kodak Tri-x. They are superior in quality with practically nothing bad to mention. They are extremely versatile with great exposure latitude. There’s a reason why they are all time favourites among photographers. Most importantly, they render beautiful images with a classic film look. Safe bet! 

2. Kodak T-max 400

T-max is a modern (introduced in 1986) black and white emulsion and arguably the sharpest 400 B/W film out there. It’s not quite the cheapest option, but not the most expensive either. It also has a great latitude, making it really versatile. You can get many different looks out of it, depending on how you shoot and develop it. It can be smooth as heck with very little grain, but if you push it couple of stops and develop it in Rodinal, you’ll get a more classical and grainy look with a ton of contrast. 

There’s a slower version of ISO 100 also available of T-max, which is a beautiful and almost grainless film. Oh, and a 3200 version just came back to market as well in case you want to venture out into the extremely fast films too. I’d start out with the basic 400 version though. 

3. Agfa APX 400

I haven’t shot APX 400 that much, but from my limited experience it has proven to be quite an excellent budget film. It’s much cheaper than almost any Kodak or Ilford film but the image quality, right of the bat, is negligible. It probably won’t perform just as well in demanding conditions, but for general shooting it’s a good choice. Easy to find in most stores that sell film. 

Agfa APX comes in a slower speed of ISO 100 as well, but to be honest, that has been my only few true disappointments out of all the films I’ve personally tried. I found it surprisingly messy, grainy and not even terribly sharp for such a slow film. I’d stick with the APX 400, which is rather superior compared to the ISO 100 version with much more pleasing image quality and rendering. 

4. Ilford XP2 Super

XP2 isn’t a true black and white film and it’s developed in C-41 process, just like any regular colour negative film. You’ll get real black and white images of course, but the developing process is just different. I think this would make an excellent beginner B/W film for this reason alone. If you have a one hour lab or something similar in you town, and you just want to try a roll or two, before investing in your own developing equipment, something like this could quite potentially be an excellent and easy gateway to black and white shooting. It is a bit of an oddball, but not a bad film at all! I actually enjoy the image quality a lot! 

I’m not sure how suitable XP2 is for pushing and pulling so you may be somewhat limited on what you can actually do with it. Safe bet is to shoot it box speed at ISO 400. 

5. Ilford… well, anything from Ilford to be honest

Ilford makes many other films than mentioned in this post. There’s for example Delta 400 and Delta 100 (one of my favourite slow black and white films) and the majestic Ilford Pan 400, which is an excellent, excellent film — and Pan F 50 (not a good general purpose film as it is very slow, but beautiful results when you know what you’re doing and have sufficient light). They’re all pretty safe bets in terms of quality and availability. They really are tried and true — developing times are easy to find and they’ve been around long enough, that you’ll find help and/or support in case you need further information on a problem situation. 

Just how different are black and white films compared to each other?

One last thing to remember is that pretty much all the available films are good. I’ve actually been involved in a film testing project and field testing about 40 different films in a row. There are of course some better and some worse. The crappiest films I’ve tried have been, no offence to the manufacturer, but it’s Fomapan. Even so, you can get extremely good results with any Foma film when you know the characteristics. They have quirks, which means there’s a learning curve. What I can say from personal experience, is that the actual differences between films are typically very minute. Even though I prefer this and that brand, I could probably shoot happily almost any of the films that are currently available. I think black and white films are like wine or coffee. If I’d go to the liquor store to buy some red wine, I’d find of course some taste differences, but all in all, they’re all more or less fine products. The differences are not that dramatic, but they have their own characteristic and nuances. Much like coffee — there are dark and medium roast and what have you, but they all taste pretty damn good, in their own way, on a nice sunday morning.