ISO 400 Black And White Films
The Best Keeps On Getting Better

This article was very nearly called "9600," which is what you get if you multiply 24 by 400. Twenty-four films, that is, times ISO 400. There are at least this many, though half a dozen or so aren't available in the US. Even 18 films is however a pretty impressive number for a market that the advocates of digital keep trying to tell us is nearly dead!

ISO 400 films are so popular because they are so versatile: fast enough for all but really poor light, but not so fast that you have always to work at minimum aperture (or overexpose) on a sunny day. They also deliver superb quality: arguably, today's best ISO 400 films are comparable with the ISO 125 films of 30 and 40 years ago. Whereas ISO 125 used to be "normal" and ISO 400 "fast," today ISO 400 is "normal" and ISO 125 and 100 are relegated to "slow." The mantle of "fast" is taken over by films such as Kodak's TMZ and Ilford's Delta 3200.

Which Is Best...For You?
Inevitably, with such a huge choice, some films are better than others. The difficulty lies in defining what you mean by "better." Fine grain? Sharpness? Latitude? Pushability? Tonality? Low cost? The choice is yours. I'll be honest: I haven't tried them all, though I suspect that after taking out the ones that I know or believe to be duplicates, I have tried all but one or two. Broadly, they fall into three groups: "old technology," "new technology," and chromogenic.

Old Tech
Inherently, "old technology" films are coarser-grained and less sharp than "new technology," but the latter have less exposure latitude and are much fussier about developer types and development regimes. A great deal of research has, however, gone into blurring these distinctions in order to lose the disadvantages while retaining the advantages.

Thus, the latest versions of "old technology'" Ilford HP5 Plus and Kodak Tri-X are very much better films than they were even a few years ago. Both are absolutely superb, and they keep overtaking each other. Twenty years ago, I'd have chosen Tri-X over HP5 any day. Then HP5 leapfrogged over Tri-X. Now, with the latest version of Tri-X, they are neck and neck: I still prefer HP5 but my wife Frances Schultz prefers Tri-X. If it weren't for the way that the marketing men insist on keeping old, familiar names, we should really be using at least HP6 and Four-X (QuadreX?).

Many (though far from all) photographers reckon that "old technology" films give better tonality, and if you like to play with strange developers (or just aren't very good at film developing) they are far more forgiving. On roll film or large format, bigger grain and reduced sharpness don't matter a bit. And "old technology" films are cheaper! With this cocktail of advantages, it's no surprise that this is a strong market sector.

In fact, new "old technology" films are still being introduced. The most recent of which I am aware is Maco's Cube 400c. The "Cube" in the name gives the title away: this is an "old technology" film, but it is amazingly good, a fit rival to HP5 and Tri-X. It's so incomparably better than the same manufacturer's UP 400 that it's hard to see why the latter remains in production.

There are also a few unreconstructed old technology films about, the most notable being Fortepan 400. Of course, it isn't a 1950s film, but it's a lot closer in mood (and grain and tonality) to the films of yesteryear than to the films of today. Is this a fault? It depends. I love it. It has a romantic, vintage look. We've already taken some superb shots of New York with it, and we plan to try Paris next.

All of this tends to frustrate film manufacturers. When Ilford brought out Delta films and Kodak brought out T-Grain, they no doubt hoped that sooner or later, these "superior" films would edge out the "old technology" versions. Of course, neither will admit this today: they remain "fully committed" to both technologies, and they'd probably go broke if they didn't. But why didn't people switch?

Waterfall, Julian Alps, on HP5 Plus. HP5 and Tri-X set the standards by which ISO 400 films are judged. (Nikon F, 200mm f/3 Vivitar Series 1 with Soviet-era light orange filter.)
© 2003, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

New Tech Films
The main reason was that the earliest "new technology" films were simply too much trouble, for precisely the reasons that made them so sharp and fine-grained. The silver halide crystals in "old technology" ISO 400 films vary widely in size. Mixed in with the big, sensitive crystals there are lots of smaller, less sensitive crystals. Overexpose a bit, and you still get a good image on the slower crystals.

"New technology" films are another matter. They rely on "monosize" crystals: that is, on crystals which are much closer to uniform in size. For fairly obvious reasons, this gives more sensitivity at a given grain size, or finer grain at a given ISO speed.

Their very uniformity, though, means that there is less exposure latitude, because there aren't the smaller crystals to "mop up" the overexposure, and there is less development latitude, because monosize crystals all tend to develop at more or less the same time. "New technology" films may also rely on multiple development sites on the same crystal: if you overdevelop, all the development sites run together and you get bigger grain than with "old technology."

Those photographers who took the time to refine their techniques with early "new technology" films were rewarded with significantly improved sharpness and detectably finer grain. Those who went back to "old technology" because they preferred the tonality might be surprised if they revisited "new technology" today. My wife Frances and I recently shot some current Delta 400 and were very impressed. It's even "pushable," unlike early "new technology" films, though I prefer the tonality at the rated ISO 400.

River, bridge, and trees on Tri-X. Ignore the doomsayers who reckon Kodak "ruined" Tri-X with the last revision. This is the best yet. (Voigtländer Bessa-T, 28mm f/1.9 Ultron.)
© 2003, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

Tonality is always the joker in the pack, not least because it seems to involve as much alchemy as science: a film from which one photographer extracts superb tonality may be a disaster area for another. You can't even describe it, except obliquely or by analogy. I loved one description of HP5 as "like Casablanca--the movie, not the place" but my favorite came from a senior man at Ilford: "XP2 is smooth, and HP5 is gnarly."

Chromogenic, Too
XP2 is of course Ilford's chromogenic film, our third category. These are fundamentally different from both "old technology" and "new technology" in that they are processed using the same standardized chemistry as color negative films: Kodak's C-41 and compatibles.
The dye image is much finer-grained than the true silver grain in either "old technology" or "new technology" films of the same speed (all current chromogenics are ISO 400), but slightly less sharp than "new technology." Unlike conventional films, grain actually gets finer as you increase exposure--though sharpness decreases, as with all films.

This reverse-grain-size trick explains a lot about their tonality. With a conventional film, grain in the mid tones is coarser than in the shadows, and it is coarsest of all in the highlights. With a chromogenic, grain in the mid tones is less coarse than in the shadows--this really shows in a blue sky, for example--and least coarse in the highlights.

Monsaraz, Portugal, on Delta 400. The current version fully attains its nominal speed, unlike the original which may have been the slowest "ISO 400" film ever made. That wasn't dishonesty: it was a genuine mistake, based on tests with "green" (unaged) film. (Voigtländer Bessa-T, 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar, light yellow filter.)
© 2003, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

Grain size doesn't explain it all, though. There's also curve shape, the "curve" in question being the graph of density against exposure. The latter is in log units, hence another name for the curve, D/log E. This is where it gets really interesting. Compared with Ilford's XP2 Super, Kodak's chromogenics can have runaway highlights. But they are also finer grained, and if they are used with fill flash, you can avoid the highlight problem. This is why Kodak's chromogenics have made significant inroads into the "reportage wedding" market which was formerly dominated by XP2--though those who shoot only by available light, without fill flash, often prefer the Ilford product.

As a general rule, Kodak films (conventional and chromogenic) tend to be finer grained than Ilford, but Ilford films tend to be sharper: far from being the same thing, as so many photographers believe, fine grain and sharpness are to a considerable extent mutually exclusive, so more of one means less of the other. And there's always a question of which tonality you prefer. Yer pays yer money, and yer takes yer choice.

Chromogenic Latitude
One thing that all chromogenics have in common is enormous latitude. On the same roll, with the same development, you can get (barely) acceptable images at EI 1600, very good images at EI 800, superb images at EI 400 and 200, and very good images once again at EI 100 and even EI 50, though printing times get steadily longer. In fact, I know some photographers who always rate Kodak's T400CN at 100, reckoning that reduced speed and sharpness, and longer printing times, are a fair price to pay for incredibly fine grain and a tonality they prefer.

Assuming you like the tonality of chromogenics--many do, a few don't--some people raise two other objections. First, you can't mess around with funny developers. This may not be a disadvantage. I have often seen better results from XP2 run through a minilab than from cult films processed in cult developers in accordance with the more eccentric fringe beliefs of the Zone System. Second, there's permanence. No, it's not as good as conventional films, but this doesn't matter. A properly washed chromogenic image will outlast standard 35mm triacetate film base (though not, it is true, polyesters).

River steps, watering can, chapel, Moncontour, on Maco's Cube 400c. This is the best totally new ISO 400 film to be introduced in years, in the same class as HP5 and Tri-X. (Polaroid 600SE, 75mm f/5.6 lens, light orange filter, 6x7cm Mamiya Press back.)
© 2003, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

Inevitably, I have concentrated in this article on the two biggest players, Ilford and Kodak. But other manufacturers' films also have their merits, though I have only had space to note a couple of my favorites. Then there are low-cost films which can have a further, surprising advantage: some are very similar (read: identical) to better-known emulsions. Try some of Arista's or Tura's films, for example.

What is agitation? The frequency and vigor with which you agitate the tank when you are developing a film.

How much does it matter? More than you might think. It can affect sharpness, speed, grain, and (according to some) tonality
as well.

How does it do all that? The purpose of agitation is to remove developer by-products and replace them with fresh developer. If you don't agitate at all, development action can be greatly slowed and you may get "streamers": areas where concentrations of developer by-products run down the film and inhibit development locally.

So I should agitate all the time? Not necessarily. Some developers rely on local exhaustion to create additional sharpness--"acutance" effects--and if you agitate constantly, you'll lose these. On the other hand, extra agitation normally brings a little extra speed, and (inevitably, when you get more speed) bigger grain.

How do these acutance effects work? They are part of a set of phenomena called adjacency effects. If you have a dark area against a light area, the developer is used up faster where there is more silver to develop. Acutance developers give a little more density on one side of the line, and a little less on the other, for increased apparent sharpness. This relies on the developer not being replaced too often as a result of agitation.

What about constant-agitation processors like the Jobo CPE-2? They are not ideal for acutance developers, but you can always cut development time to bring speed and grain back to normal levels. Most people reckon to give 10-15 percent less development with constant agitation than they would with intermittent agitation.

So how often should I agitate? There are two popular schools of thought here: 10 seconds (four to six inversions) every minute, or 5 seconds (two to four inversions) every 30 seconds. It probably doesn't matter very much, though with short development times (under 5 minutes) it's most likely better to go for every 30 seconds.

Are these the limits? No. At one extreme there's constant agitation, which works fine if you aren't looking for adjacency effects, and at the other, you could probably agitate as little as a couple of seconds a minute--one inversion--without running into trouble. You'd get maximum sharpness, minimum grain, and minimum speed.

What about ultra long development times? Years ago, there were various development regimes that demanded an hour or more of development--even overnight--with minimal agitation, every few hours or so. These are of historical interest only: they are unsuitable for the vast majority of modern materials.

Why can't they be used nowadays? Fog. Modern materials will exhibit dichroic fog if subjected to such development regimes. This is fog that is one color by reflected light, another by transmitted light, hence "dichroic."

What were you saying about tonality? This one is disputable. A few people reckon you get better tonality with more agitation; rather more believe that it's better to give less; and most reckon that differences are trivial. Who is right? Maybe, all of them. This is just one of the many ways in which photography is closer to alchemy than to rocket science.

Like everything else in photography, then, agitation is a compromise? Absolutely. As long as you are aware of the possible variations in quality that can arise from variations in agitation, and make a reasonable effort to be consistent, your results should be consistent, too. But make no mistake: giving the tank an occasional shake when you remember to do so is unlikely to give the best possible results.

Cattails and lily pads, Bossay sur Claise, on XP2 Super. This is as different from the old XP2 as XP2 was from XP1, but the marketing guys were worried about confusing us poor dumb consumers with XP3. Duh. (Voigtländer Bessa-T, 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar.)
© 2003, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

Q&A--Film Developers
Why are there so many different kinds of film developers? Why are there so many kinds of automobiles? Commercial competition, plus the fact that they are optimized for different purposes: you don't use a Land Rover the same way as a Ferrari.

So what are the main kinds? There are four: general-purpose ("plain vanilla"), fine grain, speed increasing, and acutance.

Why would anyone use a "plain vanilla" general-purpose developer? Many people reckon they give the best combination of desirable factors: reasonably fine grain, full ISO film speed, and good sharpness. The classic "plain vanilla" developer is Kodak's
D-76. Kodak's Xtol is "plain vanilla," too, but arguably even better than D-76.

What do you sacrifice if you choose a fine-grained developer? Always speed, and often sharpness as well. A
fine-grained developer typically wipes half a stop to a stop off the film speed, and it can be more: you can't get something for nothing. An ISO 400 film can therefore fall to ISO 200 or less. I'll come back to sharpness.

Ah--so you sacrifice fine grain and sharpness with a speed increasing developer? That's it. As I said, you never get something for nothing. The amount of extra speed will depend on the film and the developer. The greatest increase in true film speed is about 1 stop, and 2/3 stop is more usual. Thus, an ISO 400 film may go to ISO 650 or at most 800.

Snow in the high Pyrenees, on Kodak B+W 400 chromogenic. The differentiation in the highlights is outstanding, partly thanks to the dark yellow filter from B+W (Schneider). (Voigtländer Bessa-T, 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar.)
© 2003, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

Before we get back to sharpness, what are acutance developers? Actually, they bring us back to sharpness. An acutance developer is designed to enhance the contrast between a light area and a neighboring dark area, which gives higher sharpness. Things like bicycle spokes or park railings will be significantly better delineated. But grain is slightly coarser than with a "plain vanilla" developer, and there may be a speed loss--though often, there isn't.

What are the advantages of reusable developers? Cheapness and convenience. Old-fashioned labs used to make up a big batch of developer and run film after film through it for months, always for the same time, adding "replenisher" to replace exhausted developing agents and keep the alkalinity right. These "seasoned" developers were very predictable but they also lost about a stop of film speed after the first few days or weeks because of bromide build-up.

Amateurs rarely used replenishers: instead, they prolonged the development time for each batch of films after the first, to compensate for loss of developer activity.

So one-shot developers are better? Broadly, yes. They are more predictable, and usually give better film speed. But of course you have to be sure that the concentrate hasn't oxidized. If it is a brown sludge, it probably has--but some concentrates lose significant activity while remaining almost water-clear. Contrariwise, a few seasoned developers (see above) remain active when they are so soupy that in the happy phrase of yesteryear, you have to push the film in with your foot.

New York, New York, on Fortepan 400. Next stop Paris! There's something about the tonality of this film that is pure vintage magic. Camera and lens forgotten, but probably Nikkormat FT2, 35mm f/2.8 PC-Nikkor. Of course, any shot from high up in New York now has a certain poignancy.
© 2003, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

How long do developers keep? A vexed question. Powdered developers should last indefinitely in their original sealed packages, but have a life of a few months or even a few weeks once they are mixed up. This is why some powdered developers are mixed up to give "stock solutions" which are then further watered down for use: the stock solution (concentrate) keeps better.

Liquid concentrates should last for several years in their sealed bottles, but once they are open, they start oxidizing. Some last only a very few weeks; others last for many months, even in half-full bottles. The longest-lived I have ever encountered is Ilford's Ilfotec DD-X, which is one of the reasons I like it so much.

All developers last longer in full bottles than half-full, so decant if you plan on keeping them for long. Alternatively, a squirt of Tetenal's Protectan into half-full bottles will prolong developer life.

Working solutions, especially "one-shot" (see above) may have a life of only a few hours. The manufacturers' guidelines are all you can go by.

Are powder developers better, or liquid? Better for what? Powders are cheaper, for two reasons. First, you aren't paying to have water shipped around. Second, the manufacturers often have to use significantly more expensive chemicals in liquid concentrates, either for solubility or to avoid hydrolysis (breakdown of the chemicals in solution). But liquids are more convenient, and you don't have any risk of breathing toxic dust when you mix them. Depending on the formulation, both can give equally excellent results, which is why so many manufacturers offer close equivalents in both forms: Ilford offers both Microphen (powder) and Ilfotec DD-X (liquid) as speed-increasing developers.

On the subject of speed-increasing developers, I've got friends who rate Ilford's HP5 Plus at ISO 1600. How do they do it? They kid themselves. These are not ISO speeds: they are Exposure Indices or EIs. HP5 Plus is one of the most "pushable" ISO 400 films on the market, and Paterson's FX-50 gives the biggest speed increases I've ever seen, but ISO 800 is about the limit. After that, it's "pushing," with ever more contrast and ever less shadow detail. The point at which this ceases to be acceptable depends on the subject, and on what you define as "acceptable." For me, EI 1600 is often acceptable with HP5--but that ain't an ISO speed.

Other friends tell me that films aren't really as fast as their ISO speeds. Are they using fine-grained developers and losing speed? Possibly--or maybe, like the ones who rate HP5 Plus at 1600 and think it's an ISO speed, they just don't understand ISO very well. Another possibility is that they are using the wrong metering technique. Or maybe they just prefer negatives that have been exposed more. There's nothing wrong with any of that: the speed you should use is the one that you like best. But under ISO conditions, using the manufacturer's stated developer, most films reach their ISO speed.

One last question: remind me of the difference between ISO and EI. ISO film speeds are based on specified conditions of density and contrast: the "speed point" is determined by the amount of light required to give a density of 0.10 above film base plus fog, at a contrast index or gamma of approximately 0.62 (the ISO standard is more complicated than this, but it works out to near enough 0.62). As soon as you depart from those conditions, it's not an ISO speed any more.

From 35mm, an 11x14" print (with border) is around 10x, so grain and film sharpness are critical. From 6.5x9cm (as here, using Forte cut film), the same size print is about 4.5x, so they are a lot less important. From 4x5", an 11x14" print is well under 3x, and all you need to worry about is tonality, because you won't see differences in grain and sharpness at all.
© 2003, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

Agfa Corporation (Agfapan APX 400)
(800) 517-2432
fax: (201) 440-6703

Cachet/Fappco (Maco: UP 400; Cube 400c)

Eastman Kodak Company
(T-Max 400; Black & White 400, chromogenic; T400 CN, chromogenic; Portra 400 BW, chromogenic; Tri-X)
(800) 242-2424
fax: (585) 724-4000

Freestyle Photographic Supplies (Arista: Professional 400; D-Max 400)
(800) 292-6137
fax: (800) 616-3686

Agitation? What agitation? This is from a 4x5" Polaroid 55 P/N negative, which of course undergoes no agitation at all: concentrated developer gel is spread directly onto the film. Camera was a Toho FC45A with 120mm f/6.8 Schneider Angulon (not Super Angulon).
© 2003, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

Fuji Photo Film USA, Inc. (Neopan 400)
(800) 755-3854
fax: (914) 789-8769

Ilford Imaging USA Inc. (Delta 400; XP2 Super; HP5 Plus)
(201) 265-6000
fax: (201) 265-3443

Konica Minolta Photo Imaging U.S.A., Inc. (VX-400, chromogenic)
(800) 285-6422
fax: (201) 574-4010

OmegaSatter (Forte: Fortepan 400)
(410) 374-3250
fax: (410) 374-3184

Tura USA (Professional 400; Chromogenic)
(425) 402-8599
fax: (425) 486-9306