Andrew Gastwirth, Sugarloaf Mountain, XP-2 at E.I. 200 (Fuji GF670)
I've been shooting chromogenic film (black-and-white film designed to be developed in standard color negative chemistry) off and on since it appeared on the market. The first ones were Agfa Vario-XL and Ilford XP1, which were announced more or less simultaneously in 1980 and were in stores by '81. I shot with the Agfa film first, and liked it, but it was discontinued quickly. After having settled on the Agfa film initially, I had a hard time warming to XP1, but by the time XP2 arrived I'd gotten over it. Around the turn of the millennium, after the Ilford film was well established, Kodak finally got on board with its T400CN film. A variant, BW400TCN, is still available. There are a few others, such as Konica VX 400, that I'm not familiar with.
Ilford's version is the best established in the market. The current iteration of its C-41 process B&W film is called XP2 Super. It's a fine way to shoot B&W in film cameras if you don't want to do your own processing.
XP2 Super photo by Matt Ramalho (swing overlooking Honolulu)
(Canon AE-1, FD 50mm ƒ/1.8)
There were two main advantages to a chromogenic film as opposed to conventional B&W film. The first was convenience—because it could be processed in C-41 color negative chemistry*, and C-41 was available at virtually any processor, including "1-Hour" processors, it could be developed anywhere. Its most interesting property was that, because the image is formed with dye-clouds, the films are more grainy in the least exposed areas ("shadows") and least grainy in the most exposed areas ("highlights")—the opposite of conventional B&W films, which are grainiest where they are exposed the most. This makes it particularly well suited for subjects with large areas of bright highlight area, such as skies and sunlit clouds and beaches. It's a great "days of summer" film. XP2 Super's inherent exposure flexibility also makes it a great film for older and antique cameras, which might have apertures, shutter speeds, or meters that have drifted out of spec over time.
Its disadvantage? Probably that it doesn't look very generic—XP2 prints often have a recognizable "look."
It's often bandied about in a most unfortunately cavalier fashion that chromogenic films can be exposed at many different exposure indices (exposure index [E.I.] is the correct term for "personal film speeds," set on film cameras with the ISO dial.) This is true, but, if you're interested in negatives of the best quality, there's a sizeable caveat, and I'll get to that in a moment.
Tommy Oshima, Néo-noir (XP2 Super, Olympus OM-2, Zuiko 50mm ƒ/1.4)
First, there's another caveat, about development, that you need to know.
Even today, when film processing facilities and services are much less widespread than they used to be, shooting XP2 Super is a great alternative for film shooters who don't want to process their own B&W film by hand. However, XP2 Super that doesn't receive an adequate wash will deteriorate relatively quickly. So you should still have the film developed at a reputable lab that does dip-and-dunk C-41, and avoid places like drugstores or one-hour photo services...assuming you can still find one. The processor I recommend is Duggal Visual Solutions, but they're not the only ones who can do a good job.
You can make your own prints, but the base color cast of the film (which is variable! Mostly reddish/orange, but I've seen everything from pinkish to purply) makes it problematic to enlarge onto variable-contrast papers using a limited-spectrum light source like a cold light head. Stick with dichroic-style enlargers that use a projector bulb or condenser enlargers for this film. If you have prints made for you, the quality will vary widely—from machine prints made on color paper, which will almost inevitably have a color cast and have a low life expectancy (LE), to carefully made custom prints costing up to hundreds of dollars.
One option I recommend is having fine prints made by Digital Silver Imaging—ironic, because they scan the negatives digitally and print them with a Durst Theta printer! —A digital intermediary step in what was orginally a pure optical-chemical process. DSI prints are made on traditional fiber-base photographic paper and have superb longevity and no color cast. (DSI also makes fiber-base archival prints from digital originals.)
Nowadays, many labs will scan the negatives and return the scans to you for editing and subsequent inkjet printing, of course, and that's a good option too (although I've never done that myself). Or you could scan your negatives yourself, if you're capable of that. (UPDATE: Although I don't do that myself, if you do, see the first "Featured Comment" below from Gary.)
The conventional wisdom, oft repeated, is that chromogenic films can be pushed well, with wild claims made for usable results with up to several stops of underexposure. Not so, says me. Underexposure in B&W almost always looks awful**—it's just how awful it will look that's in question. No, the main advantage of chromogenic film is how well it pulls—well, overexposes—that is, you can give it considerable overexposure and it still won't block up. That, combined with the film's grainlessness in the highlights, is the real secret of the material's unique beauty.
Medium format XP2 Super photo by Ben Massey (the photographer's mother and a terrier). (Kiev 60, Arsat 80mm, Vivitar flash through an umbrella). Large areas of smooth, grainless high values with good gradation are the film's forte.
So here's how to shoot XP2 Super, according to me. It's simple. This yields the highest percentage of results of the best quality—I don't care a whit for "make do" solutions that yield only acceptable results. Using camera metering:
• For regular shooting in most normal lighting, use EI (ISO) 200.
• For shooting in extremely bright and/or contrasty lighting, like harsh full sun and shadows, use EI (ISO) 100. This insures adequate shadow detail, and the highlights won't block up.
• For shooting in low and low-contrast lighting—and this includes indoor shooting and "available darkness"—use EI (ISO) 400—or even a little higher, although I personally don't recommend ever going all the way to (gasp) 800.
That's it. Beyond those adjustments made to accomodate the prevailing light, you can let the camera's meter set the exposure and you'll get a high percentage of good results (a bit higher, of course, if your metering skills are good). And you can switch settings on the same roll all you want—the processing is not adjusted and is always the same.
The biggest problem with XP2 Super is how to get prints. It's not hard (still) to find a good lab that runs a competent C-41 line, and not hard to get the negatives scanned for web use, but it can be difficult to work out a way to achieve prints you like. If you make your own prints, or find a lab that will make prints for you to your own standards and satisfaction, you might find that you really like the look of XP2 Super. And it's a great way to bring old cameras back to life.
(Illustrations by kind courtesy of the photographers)
*Calling chemicals "chemistry" is improper grammatically but is a well established term of art in photography, and is, paradoxically perhaps, proper.
**Unless you're going for "British Style" printing, nicely laid out by master printer Eddie Ephraums in this article. You can get the gist of it quickly just from the illustrations.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
A book of interest today:
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Gary: "If you scan your own negs, chromogenic films offer another substantial advantage over conventional B&W emulsions—you can utilize Digital ICE dust and spot removal software. Saves an awful lot of post processing!"
Pat Trent: "Hurray! Something more for us film lovers! However, rather than shoot chromogenic black and white, I prefer to shoot color C-41 and then just convert to black and white (unless, of course, I'm shooting silver black and white films from the start). But I agree that XP2 Super is a great film. I usually rate it at EI 250."
Peter Robinson: "I've been using chromogenic films just as long though I've only ever used Ilford's. Big difference is, although I have on occasions had it processed commercially, I nearly always process it myself in black and white chemicals. For the last few years, this has been Paterson Aculux (15 mins at 20 degrees C). Of course, you lose the benefit (if you consider it to be that) of the dye-clouds but that's not an issue for me. On the other hand, you do get the benefit of the film's characteristic curve which has a very long shoulder and which allows the change in ISO rating. As for the ISO I use, I concluded years ago exactly the same as you have Mike and I use the same ISO settings you recommend for the same conditions. I recently shot a project entirely on XP2. Results here or on my Flickr site."
Wolfgang Lonien: "What a great photo from Tommy Oshima; thanks for sharing!"
Zach: "I've just today received an ancient 6x6 folder. This seems like a good way to begin!"
Mike replies: A folder is one kind of camera I've never taken a picture with. The closest I've ever come is an Agfa Super Isolette, which was a wonderful camera.
Andrew Lamb: "There was an article in the much-missed Camera and Darkroom magazine which compared all the major 400 ASA B&W films on the market. The writer made prints of the same subject from these films and than did an informal straw poll as to which film yielded the nicest print. XP2 Super came out on top."
Gordon Lewis replies: Andrew, I wrote the article you're referring to and generally agree with your recollection of my conclusions. I've even got the original negs and prints. I just want to emphasize that "nicest print" is subjective and will vary according to taste and subject matter. Aside from that, I completely agree with Mike's observations. Follow his advice and you can't go wrong.