Do Not Desaturate - Featuring Five Black and White Film
Just for fun, I also decided to conduct a very quick black and white film comparison. I had half an hour left, five different rolls of black and white film, and a Nikon F6 + Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G set to spot metering (which is simply a treat to use for a Leica rangefinder photographer - especially when set to autofocus). But since I only had one camera between five rolls of film, I couldn’t conduct a controlled apples to apples comparison. There were going to be variance in capture, since I couldn’t exactly capture each photo set in succession.
I mean, I had to finish an entire roll of film before I could move-on to the next roll of film. In doing so, so many different variables would have been affected. My shooting position would have changed. So would the pose of my partner-in-crime. Plus, I didn’t have a tripod. As a result, there would’ve been no possible way for me to conduct this comparison in a controlled fashion. I had to rely on my partner-in-crime’s memory for what I shot on the previous roll of film in order to replicate each set to be as identical as possible.
Anyway, the films I selected for this fun comparison are the following:
1. Agfa APX 400
2. Ilford Delta 400
3. JCH Street Pan 400
4. Fujifilm Neopan 400 (Expired 2014)
5. Kodak Tri-X 400
Before you ask me, I shot at box speed. I always shoot at box speed, since I no longer develop my own film and my lab cannot push or pull in development - which is just as well. Most film photographers shoot at box speed anyway. And, this blog entry isn’t a demonstration on what each specific film emulsion can do when pushed to the nth degree. Besides, a proper comparison should always be undertaken from the basis of its intended use… which in the case of film is at its box speed.
In addition, I didn’t include the Leica M Monochrom and the Leica M Typ 246 in this comparison. I mean, I could have. I did bring them with me to my controlled shooting environment. But, I didn’t see the point. You see, I didn’t want this comparison to be another “why film is better than digital photography discussion”. I just want this blog entry to be a simple celebration of black and white photography. To that end, I only wanted to show you the variation in rendering and distinctiveness offered by different black and white film.
Frankly, there is nothing more simple and enjoyable than black and white film in photography. It is a medium of capture that eliminates the variable of color. Because of that, it is immensely forgiving in unforgiving light conditions. The absence of color allows the photographer to exaggerate highlights and shadows, when the surrounding light is poor. In contrast, color film is dependent on defined midtones. But in doing so, the right light conditions is necessary in order to accurately reproduce midtone colors in documentation.
For that reason, I don’t understand why more photographers don’t embrace black and white film? Admittedly, I understand that digital imaging offers the option of desaturating color images to black and white. But, it’s not the same. You see, when you shoot in color and desaturate in-camera or in post, you’re still really shooting in color. In mainstream digital photography, desaturating color into black and white is usually a fallback option when the captured colors in-frame just doesn’t look right, owing to poor lighting or metering.
When given the option to desaturate color, one generally does not shoot from the perspective of black and white photography, given the potential reward of taking a photo with accurate color reproduction. Because of that, photographers usually approach the undertaking of photo documentation from the perspective of color photography. As such, the decisive moment always includes the variable of color into consideration - whether it’s kept or not. Because of that, many potential black and white photo opportunities are lost.
When you know you’re shooting in black and white, you begin to perceive the world in terms of highlights and shadows. Midtones - albeit still important - are no longer as crucial a focus in composition beyond its tonal representation along the grayscale. As a result, you begin to evaluate the world about in terms of shapes and lines created from the interplay of light and darkness falling on surfaces and empty space. In doing so, you no longer lose black and white photo opportunities, given a shift away from prioritizing color in composition.
To properly shoot in black and white, one must decidedly shoot in black and white. There can be no recourse to shoot in color. Because of that, the decision to actively shoot in black and white film is particularly crucial in the pursuit of black and white photography - especially for the majority of photographers not blessed with the financial means to afford a Leica rangefinder with a monochromatic digital sensor. For that reason, black and white film still holds great material relevance in the practice of contemporary photography.
That said, which black and white film should one shoot? For the longest time, I have been favoring Kodak Tri-X 400. I mean, I have been shooting Tri-X as my default black and white film for as long as I remember. Although back in high school, I was shooting the earlier iteration of Ilford HP5, which strangely I never liked at the time. In addition to that, I remember shooting Agfa Scala 200X, Fujifilm Neopan 400, and Fujifilm Neopan 1600 from time to time. Still, I never wavered from Tri-X until digital imaging got the better of me.
But in conducting this comparison, I have made a couple of realization. First and foremost, my loyalty to Tri-X is deeply misplaced. In figuring out my change in heart, I recall in conversation that Kodak re-engineered Tri-X around the time when digital imaging was proliferating. Digging a little deeper, I read online that the current iteration of Tri-X has less silver - which doesn’t sound encouraging. Admittedly, I’m no engineer, but it’s safe to assume that the grain structure of the current version isn’t the same as the one I used to love.
Second, I have also concluded from this comparison that I like Fujifilm Neopan 400 the most - which is a really shame - given that it is no longer in production. Still, what I like most about Neopan 400 is the weighting it has between shadows, highlights, and midtones. In my opinion, it appears to be balanced slightly towards more contrast without completely de-emphasizing midtones in reproduction. As a result there’s an overall impression of improved perceived sharpness, since shadows and highlights do not overwhelm midtones.
Third, I was surprised to discover that I actually liked Ilford Delta 400. For whatever reason, I always lumped it together with Ilford HP5, which I never really liked. In my opinion, it is the yin to the yang of Neopan 400 - in that it is slightly more weighted for midtones and balanced towards less contrast without de-emphasizing shadows and highlights. As a result, the overall impression of black and white gradation is much more complete across the tonal range, which makes the image production less dramatic and more lifelike.
Fourth, the comparison reinforced my bias against Agfa APX 400 - which I believe is overly sanitized (albeit the most contemporary) in image reproduction. In my opinion, the rendering of APX 400 is rather restrained. That is to say, the grain structure is flat, the weighting between highlights, shadows, and midtones is even, and the perception of sharpness is muted. As a result, APX 400 is rather digital-like in impression. That said, being flat does make APX 400 easier to manipulate in post - which makes it exceptionally contemporary.
As for JCH Street Pan 400, it is the most distinct out of the five films included in this comparison. It is by far the most weighted towards shadows and black clipping. In fact, it seems to swallow darker midtones and darker gray regions into the shadows and black clippings. Because of that Street Pan 400 is especially more somber in impression and therefore more dramatic in image reproduction. That said, much of this bias that Street Pan 400 has towards darker tonal weighting can be tamed with relatively ease in post processing.
In the final analysis, can anyone truly say that one film is better than another? To be frank, ranking these five film stock was never my intention. After all, this blog entry is a celebration of black and white photography. All I’m trying to accomplish is demonstrate how worthwhile black and white film photography still is in the era of digital image capture. Not only does the use of black and white film compels us to approach the execution of black and white photography in the proper way, it also offers more variety in image reproduction.
For my sake, this comparison has been very enlightening. If nothing else, it has convinced me to look beyond Kodak Tri-X 400 as my default film. I mean, it’s not to say that I no longer like Tri-X 400. However, it has shown me that there is more to black and white film than Tri-X 400 (or any one film). Frankly, I am truly surprised by how much I like Ilford Delta 400 and how much I enjoy shooting Fujifilm Neopan 400 once again - despite the fact that it has already been discontinued.
Regardless, variety is the spice of life that makes black and white film photography worth the trouble. So, do yourself a favor. The next time you shoot black and white, do it properly with a roll of black and white film. Do not desaturate color from digital capture. Perhaps, you’ll realize there is nothing more simple and enjoyable than shooting black and white film in the pursuit of photography.
All images have been digitized on a Pakon F135, cropped automatically from full negative during the scanning process. Only the last image set has been optimized in Adobe Lightroom. All images shot at box speed.
PS - On the Nikon F6, I was able to get 37 frames on the roll of Ilford Delta 400 and Fujifilm Neopan 400. What that means is that you can get 39 frames, if you shoot with a manual film advance camera like a typical Leica rangefinder.