Ilfords New Delta 400 Professional Black And White Film

Here is Delta 400 exposed and developed normally. This shot of Ingrid is tricky because of the contrasty shadows on the stairs behind her. Delta handled it like a champ.
Photos © 2000, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

Sometimes my day to day life as a photographer is so wrapped up in new technology that I forget all about the basics of photography. In an era when digital cameras and electronic imaging are threatening to blow conventional silver-based film out of the water, it's refreshing to know that good old-fashioned tools of the trade, like black and white emulsions, are continually being revamped and improved.

Case in point, Ilford's new Delta 400 Professional.

For roughly 10 years I have used Ilford Delta as my exclusive black and white film stock. While I was brought up on a steady diet of Tri-X and Microdol, the silky smooth tonal range and ultra-fine grain of Ilford's Delta line-up won me over sometime in the 1980s. I've used Delta 100 for medium format product shots and 35mm Delta 400 for my location work with great results. Now I've never thought that Delta was a perfect film stock, since that silky smoothness comes at a price.

Unlike old-fashioned Tri-X, the 400 speed Delta always was a little too well behaved for me. Where Tri-X would blow out and produce spectacular washed out highlights, Delta held. Where Tri-X fell into inky blackness, Delta retained detail. It was a commendable performance but I always felt that a little bit of the "magic" was missing. For commercial work it was the perfect film--fast, forgiving, and neutral. In many respects 35mm Delta 400 produced images as good as much slower films from the good old days. (Plus-X in Rodinal, anyone?)

Here's the same shot blown up to 16x20 proportions--still quite fine-grained and sharp.

When new skipper George Schaub asked me if I'd like to give the reformulated Delta 400 a twirl, I first had to make an embarrassing admission. My much ballyhooed (in these very pages) new state of the art darkroom, built in 1997, was now largely in tatters. As digital imaging became more and more a part of my business the darkroom saw less and less use. Finally last year we pushed the enlargers into the corner and installed a makeup table for hired talent to use. The darkroom sink has been used as file storage and we've turned off the water supply. Yikes!

Regardless of my situation, I still shoot a ton of black and white film. Nowadays I've been firing away on Ilford chromogenic film, souping it at the local C-41 line and scanning in my studio for client use.

To get this film developed I'd have to go outside. The latest Shutterbug at hand, I looked to the "lab" section and stumbled across Brad Rogers of JBR Photo. Rogers is a pro in Brandon, Mississippi, who also runs a black and white lab. Since Rogers sees a lot of black and white film stock he'd be a good second opinion.

Now for the shoot. I had been told by Ilford that the push-processing capabilities of the new Delta 400 were nothing short of spectacular. I've never been that big a fan of push processing anything, frankly, though the old 400 Delta was OK. I agreed to shoot some film at the base 400 ISO and fire off some Delta rated at a blistering ISO 1600.

While obviously grainier and contrastier than the normal film, Delta 400 pushed 2 stops to 1600 is still very well behaved.

Since I was booked that week to shoot with two models from Boston's Click modeling agency for a major national jewelry ad campaign, I figured this might be a good test bed. I loaded one Nikon F4S body with 400 and the other Nikon body with 1600. Both bodies sported Tamron 28-105mm f/2.8 lenses. I shot the 400 film with flash in the studio and on location. The 1600 was ambient light all the way. Even in the relatively modest light of the modeling lamps I could still get a decent f/5.6 at 1/125, an excellent hand holding setup. The images for the ad were shot with a Canon D30 digital camera, so I'd have some interesting comparisons to make when the shoot was over.

After a grueling day with Ingrid and Gray, the client and I were beat. Off the film went to JBR, and in a few days I had some proofs from Rogers. Since the digital D30 requires spot-on exposures, looking at the Ilford contact sheets was a refreshing change. Like the old Delta 400 the new Delta is a tremendously forgiving film. Images shot within a stop and a half or so of normal exposure all printed fine. This film takes overexposure like a champ. In fact I can't imagine that you couldn't hit this film really hard--like two or three stops over to create a really bleached out high key image and still retain some shadow details. It's that good.

Developing Results
Rogers developed our test film per Ilford specs, in Ilford ID-11. Grain is quite fine and sharpness is just superb. We took sections from several nice images of our model Ingrid and blew them up to 16x20. Even walking right up the surface of the print the grain is still very well contained. Ingrid's strawberry blonde hair is crisp and clean, and the client's stainless steel and diamond jewelry pops off her black tank top with absolutely no bleeding or smearing. Looking at many prints pulled from the old Delta 400 I can't say that there is a night and day difference. The new stock is a little finer grained and sports slightly extended tonal range, especially in the shadows. If you were inadvertently slipped some old film in the middle of a shoot it wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb, but you'd notice it.

Here's a central section blown up--grain is pronounced but not overwhelming. I love the sensuous highlights and smooth transition into shadow.

At a two-stop push it's hard to believe that you're looking at film exposed at ISO 1600. Unlike the old formulation, this new film stock appears to retain quite a bit more highlight detail when pushed. Shadow detail still suffers as it does with any film, but overall the tonal range is really quite good. A 16x20 pulled from the pushed film does reveal the markedly increased grain structure. Black images set against a bright white surface reveal a slight fuzzy halo, an artifact of the push processing. But, and this is a big but, I would put the grain and overall tonality roughly in the class of classic Tri-X. In fact Rogers remarked that, "The shadows are a lot smoother than Tri-X. This film and developer combination are just right. Ilford has done their homework!"

Remember those photo shoots you did in 1984 when you wished your Tri-X had two more stops of exposure to give you? Well, today it's a reality.

Of course this is a great film stock, a testament to Ilford's constant pushing of the emulsion envelope. While the progress has come slowly, it's come surely, with every iteration of this particular stock getting a bit better. While I still think that the base 400 speed Delta is lacking a bit of magic, I do find some magic in the film at 1600. The client and I chose several of the 1600 speed shots to use in the catalog for the jewelry, preferring the creamy highlights, inky black shadows, and smudgy details to the near perfect 400 results. Go figure.

Today, with digital running over nearly everything in its path, it's not only refreshing to see a new black and white film stock, it's essential. Film like this gives you a look and a feel that you just can't get with pixels and Photoshop. While all of these images were eventually scanned for reproduction, we never could get the D30 images to reproduce the film noir look of the 1600 speed Delta. In many respects the reformulated Delta 400 isn't surprising at all. It's a logical improvement of the fine existing film stock. I loved the increased exposure latitude, the slightly finer grain, and especially the improved pushability. It's time to set up the enlargers again!

For more information, contact Ilford Imaging USA Inc., (201) 599-4331; fax: (201) 599-4301;