Beginner’s Guide to Black and White Film and Film Processing at Home (Premium)

If you are just getting started in B&W film photography, before you decide which brand of B&W film to go with, you should first consider what your subject will be. This will determine which speed of film to use in order to have the best results. For street photography and documentary in 35mm, start with ISO 400 film as this handles a wide variety of situations, offers more sensitivity in low light than ISO 100, and allows the freedom to choose a variety of apertures to control depth of field without needing a tripod. If you are shooting architecture, landscapes, or portraiture, ISO 100 will give much finer grain and sharpness.

The lower the ISO number, the slower the film, so for this type of photography, plan to have a tripod. For low light situations indoors or at night, you’re going to need a faster film such as Ilford Delta 3200. Compared with today’s digital cameras that offer upwards of ISO 6400, film is more limited in options for low light, so if you move from daylight outdoors to a dimly lit room indoors, plan to switch to a faster film such as ISO 3200. ISO 400 film can be pushed in the development process to 1600 or 3200, but will suffer a bit in tonal range, so starting with a more sensitive film, to begin with, will produce better results when low light is all you’ve got. Rather than fret over which brand is better, determine the ISO sensitivity needed for your shooting situations, then try out different types and see what grabs you.

CHOOSING A BLACK AND WHITE FILM

For a straightforward and quick comparison of the most common B&W films, I asked film pro and independent photojournalist Peter deSilva who has done years of experimenting with both 35mm and 120mm films, and he kindly shared his knowledge. You will probably fall in love with certain films and not others, but this will come from your experimenting. Consider this as a starting point:

Kodak

They have Tri-X and T-Max. Everything else in the Kodak B&W line has been discontinued.

Tri-X 400 ISO – Has a signature grain structure with a forgiving wide exposure latitude. An easy film to push with a bit of grain build up. Very versatile film. Hard to describe the grain, but it has a distinct look.

T-Max – Their modern B&W film. Very sharp film. Tri-X is sharp but it gets lost in the grain structure compared to T-Max. It comes in three different speeds:

100 ISO – Super fine grain and a beautiful continuous tonal range. I love this stuff for studio lit work [such as portraits and still life]. It holds detail and does not block up in the highlights.

400 ISO – Also quite fine in grain, much finer than Tri-X. The 400 has a fair amount of latitude and it pushes well, one stop does not build up in the grain.

3200 ISO – Pretty grainy from the get-go, actually rated at 1600 ISO but as you increase in film speed the grain size builds up pretty quick.

Ilford

Delta – The Delta series is similar to Kodak’s T-Max.

100 ISO – Fairly contrasty but extremely sharp film like the T-Max 100.

400 ISO – Sharp like the T-Max film with a wide latitude and medium contrast. That’s why I like it. It scans great in my digital copy stand.

3200 ISO –  Quite sharp and when pushed, the grain and contrast build up is less that the T-Max 3200. Delta 3200 held up pretty good when I recently pushed it three stops. The cool thing is that Ilford has the 3200 in 120 format as well.

HP5 400 – Comparable to Tri-X 400. Grain is not as signature-looking, but still has the latitude and similar contrast.

So there you have a simplified comparison to get you started when shopping around. Once you have the film processed and the negatives in sleeves to view up close for printing, these differences in grain, contrast, and tonality will become more apparent.

Developing Your Own Film At Home

Even if you only intend to scan your negatives and not actually print them in a darkroom, developing your own film at home is a smart way to cut down on costs rather than outsourcing for the development, and is really not too hard. You don’t need the space of an actual printing area, just some basic equipment, chemicals, and running water. You will most likely start with 35mm before considering medium format, but the development process is the same.

Chemicals

Film Developer – The standard workhorse developer for B&W film is Kodak’s D-76. It is suitable for most film types, it’s inexpensive and easy to learn on. It comes in a powder form you mix with water and is a classic match with Kodak’s Tri-X 400 used by photojournalists for decades.  There are also many liquid developers you can experiment with and once you begin to get into push processing film – to increase the sensitivity of film by adjusting the time and temperature during development you may find better results with T-Max Developer.

Fixer – a chemical that stabilizes your film after development

Stop Bath – to immediately stop the development process before Fixer

Hypo Clearing Agent – to help speed up the removal of the fixer from the film before the final rinse

Wetting Agent – (optional) to help minimize water spots or streaks in the film as it dries.

Film Tank – get the ones that fit 2 reels at a time so you can process two rolls at the same time.

Film Reels – they come in stainless steel or plastic. I’ve always preferred the steel ones, but many find the plastic ones easier. Something about the metal reels feeling more solid makes me want to say they are better, but just pick one and learn it well.

Accessories – various size bottles for storing your working and stock solutions of all the chemicals, film clips for hanging your film as it dries, and a very accurate thermometer to you for keeping the chemistry at the exact temperature for proper development.

If you start with good organizational habits, you will be able to keep all your chemistry dated and uncontaminated. Always clean everything very well with plenty of water, and be very careful anytime you are handling film to prevent scratches and fingerprints. While the freshly developed film is still drying, make sure to hang it in an area with little traffic ti prevent dust in the air from landing on it and sticking to the film.

Loading the film must be done in total darkness. You have to learn to roll the film on the reels with the sprockets correctly aligned, or you end up having the film touch itself and mess up half your roll.  So take the time to practice this step repeatedly on an old unneeded roll of film in darkness, until you can see by feeling. Once the rolls are loaded, the hardest part is over. You can also purchase a darkroom bag that blocks out all light for this step.

Again from Peter DeSilva “Once you get the film in the development tank it’s all about temperature and agitation. Black & White film is so forgiving though, you can go over a minute and you won’t notice much of a change. Now there are fine art people out there who will argue until the pigs start to fly, but all my experiences are from quick and dirty journalism processing.”

Once your film is dry, cut it into strips to be placed in an archival negative sleeve, and store the sleeves in a proper folder to prevent dust or dirt from sticking to them. After all the hard work you put into shooting a roll and developing it, you can finally enjoy the magical moment of seeing your negatives for the first time, to choose for printing or scanning. It is this feeling of seeing your film for the first time, that no digital camera-to-computer will ever equal.