It's All There in Black and White
Published 8 February 2019
After shooting three test rolls of Kodak Gold with my Asahi Pentax K1000 it was time to experiment with a few different types of 35mm film. Might as well get started on the seemingly endless options out there. Thought I’d narrow it down a touch and go with a black and white film.
Cue the hugely scientific process of Googling “black and white 35mm film” and clicking on a review of Ilford HP5+. The heritage of this film stretches back to 1931, when Ilford released Hypersensitive Panchromatic plates (glass plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion of silver salts). The current iteration was released in 1989 and according to Ilford is a great all-round film. Perfect for beginners. Sold. I bought ten rolls, because I’m thrifty like that, and crossed my fingers that I would actually like it.
Having edited plenty of digital photos in black and white, I love how stripping away the colour can take away unnecessary distractions and let the viewer focus on what really matters. But I have found that there’s a huge difference between removing all saturation from a colour photo (looks terrible – undo) and actually using black and white film (can’t undo). You have to think differently and focus more on contrast, any detail lurking in the shadows and the intensity of the colours.
I conservatively shot my first rolls at the box speed (ISO 400) and tried to capture a range of images across different apertures and shutter speeds. The sample photos range from shutter speeds of 1/30s handheld (with breath held) and 1/1000s. Apertures range from wide open at f/1.4 to a sunny f/16. The film gives extremely sharp images (when the person behind the camera focusses properly) with a very classic photojournalistic look. The grain is quite pronounced but adds a lot of character. And If I wasn’t a fan of grain then I wouldn’t have picked up an analogue camera in the first place.
In my experience HP5+ is very forgiving, with a wide exposure latitude that gives the user more margin for error. It was great to load a 36-exposure roll of film and not worry about what I would be shooting on it. The same roll was used for a Wafia gig at Howler with tricky artificial lighting as well as photographing cityscapes in bright sunshine. There were plenty of times where it would have been great to just switch out for colour film but that was just part of the process of leaning to look at things through a black and white filter. Clear blue skies or golden hour aren’t wasted, you just have to use them a little differently.
Two types of 35mm film down and I don’t know how many to go. Next up is a roll of Cinestill 50D and a trip to the sunny Barossa Valley in South Australia (if it’s not sunny then I’m screwed).