Saturday, September 6, 2014

Black & White without a Darkroom

I took a roll of Ilford XP2 Super 400 out for a walk around Philadelphia and was both surprised and pleased with the results.

Bright and contrasty.

XP2 Super is an interesting film. It's a 400 speed black and white chromogenic emulsion that is processed C-41. The film has an extremely wide latitude, with a claimed standard sensitivity of ISO 200 to 800 without adjustments to processing time. Because it is dye based, XP2's "grain" does not look like black and white film. Silver is used to make the image when the film is exposed, but that silver is replaced in the C-41 process with dye. The result gives the visual impression of very low, smooth grain. For those (like me) who scan their negatives, the dye process has the benefit of allowing Digital ICE to be applied during scanning, eliminating some dust.

When scanned as color, the uncorrected film base has a slight tint.

Unlike the magenta film base of (discontinued) Kodak BW400CN, XP2 Super negatives have a neutral color, meaning you should be able to print them in a darkroom on multigrade paper without issue. (I'll be trying this soon.)

I picked a very bright afternoon to test the film out. There was strong sun as well as a mix of clouds, resulting in very high contrast scenes. I sought out texture and high contrast to see what range of detail the film can provide. These images were all shot with a Leica M6 and a 35mm lens.

XP2 handled the bright clouds and deep shadows well.

After shooting, I took the film to a convenient Walgreens, which has C-41 processing on premises. For $5.99, Walgreens processed the film in 30 minutes. Because the machine cuts in rows of four negatives, and my PrintFiles are for rows of six, I asked for the negatives not to be cut. Physically, the negatives are very flat, with almost no curl, which makes scanning less a struggle. There is a shiny coating on both sides of the negatives.

Even extra-dark shadows still retained detail when the film was exposed to manage the very bright highlights.

Compared to Tri-X or Arista, the XP2 handled the bright sky and highlights better. There is more cloud detail and definition than I see on Tri-X. Shadows are difficult for any film, but where I mixed bright sky and deep shadows, the XP2 still did very well, showing detail in even fairly dark shadows while still not losing the highlights.

Great tonal feel. Intense black without being too cold.

One of the advantages of shooting film over digital is to decrease the post processing time while getting a predictable and repeatable level of image quality. XP2 delivers in a big way. There is more detail to be pulled out of these negatives, but for this review I did the least possible: scanning the negatives as color, converting to black and white in Lightroom, and adding some Clarity. On a couple I adjusted the Whites and Blacks, but spent no more than 30 seconds post processing any one image.

Full-afternoon shadow still has plenty of contrast.
With more faith in underexposing, I would have increased the shutter speed on this one. Next time!

Ilford's XP2 is a great option for shooting black and white if you either can't or don't want to process the film yourself. It's a high quality film with a wide dynamic range. I'm looking forward to seeing what else it can do, especially underexposed indoors, but it passed the high contrast test of a sunny summer day. I wholeheartedly recommend that you give it a try.