The lead image of this blog post is perhaps the only image that I’ve loved and that I shot with Ilford HP5 Plus 400. For years, I remember it being marketed to me as a beautiful film for street photography when I was falling into love again with Rangefinder cameras. So when loaded up into my old Voigtlander Bessa R with a 50mm f1.5 lens, it yielded me some pretty nice images indeed and for a little while, ignorance was bliss. I tried Kodak Tri-X 400, then Ilford Delta 400, then Lomography’s Earl Grey 100 when pushed to ISO 400, then Japan Camera Hunter Street Pan 400, and then finally Kodak TMax 400. The reason though why this one image is my favorite that I’ve shot with Ilford HP5 Plus 400 doesn’t really have to do with the film, but instead with the moment simply being a beautiful, candid one during a party in Bushwick. Now of course, I understand that the image is still the image is still the image. There is no denying that. But beyond just capturing or creating a moment on film, there is something to be said about personal aesthetics which then create a feeling and a mood based on a photographer’s personality and a viewer’s interpretation.
Why someone told me that it’s a great film for street photography is honestly a bit beyond my comprehension. But I don’t think that it is. I’d like to think of Ilford HP5 to be the black and quite equivalent of Kodak Portra 400–yet another film that I tend to have a love/hate relationship with. Ilford HP5 has a great look and beautiful skin tones to it. But some photographers, like Portra, tend to just use it for everything. Personally, I’m of the belief that Superia is a superior (pun intended) color film for Street Photography while Portra 400 works better for portraits. At the same time, I’m more partial to Delta 400 or Kodak Tri-X 400 for street photography. Ilford HP5 Plus 400 is right up there with Kodak TMax 400 to me when it comes to portraiture.
This not only has to do with the subject matter involved but how you tend to approach your subject matter and photographing them. With portraits, there is a very careful setup when it comes to lighting, posing, choosing locations, etc. Like Kodak TMax 400, it believe it to be more of a creator’s film. But Delta 400 and Tri-X are more aligned to being a film that could be for the person that prefers to capture moments rather than trying to create them. For the most part, I feel like this about many films. You wouldn’t try to shoot a wedding with Velvia 50 and you wouldn’t typically shoot a brightly lit festival during the day with a film like Delta 3200.
In the darkroom, different things can be done with the film to make it look one way or another. Want more grain? Try Rodinal. Otherwise Ilford makes some very good developers.
As we all know, film looks better in larger formats. 35mm is alright, but it won’t compare to 120 and that won’t compare to large format. But unfortunately, what seems to sell the most is 35mm format simply because of its ease of use and the prevalence of how many cameras there are on the market. Our parents shot 35mm film. I didn’t know about or even shoot with 120 film until I was entering my mid-20s. So with this understanding, why then do I not like Ilford HP5 Plus film?
Well, let’s take a look.
The image above is from Japan Camera Hunter Street Pan 400 and shot on 35mm film. How it differs from HP5 is that this film is slightly infrared and somehow or another has some very deep, inky blacks. It’s beautiful. It’s sharp. It’s contrasty. And it gives me a look that I feel reflects my creative vision of a scene better.
Now here’s Kodak TMax. TMax I wouldn’t say is the highest contrast film all the time. But it can be in the right lighting situations. TMax is ultimately sharper than HP5.
Here’s another TMax 400 image. See how sharp that is? It’s nuts.
Kodak Tri-X 400 has been often compared to Ilford HP5 Plus. But I seriously think that they’re much different films. Where Tri-X I think is designed to have a grittier, grainier look, Ilford HP5 Plus is cleaner and more refined with less contrast. For street work, I seriously prefer Tri-X.
Lastly, let’s compare this film to Delta 400. Ilford Delta 400 I believe to be perhaps the most perfect film for street photography and casual captures. It is gritty, grainy, and contrasty while not going overboard with any of that.
The opinions, I may remind you, are my own. Do I think that some photographers can create beautiful work with Ilford HP5? Sure. But I’m unfortunately not one of them.