OUR BLOG

23 May 2018

4×5 Black and white film comparison

Introduction

I have been using Ilford FP4 for the majority of my portrait work, in both medium and large format. This is a film stock that I know and love, but I wanted to make a more informed decision and perhaps add more films to my arsenal, understanding their different strengths.

So I set myself the task to photograph the same setup and model, my ever patient wife Raquel, using the following film stocks:

  1. Ilford Delta 100
  2. Ilford FP4+ 125
  3. Kodak T-Max 100
  4. Kodak T-Max 400
  5. Kodak Tri-X 320

These are all in 4×5 sheets. Some film stocks I had experience with in medium format, namely FP4, T-Max, but others such as Tri-X 320 I hadn’t tried yet and came highly recommended.

Now, because us photographers love our films, just want to make the point before the rage of the Internet falls upon me, that I’m not looking for a best vs worst kind of comparison, as each film is suited to a different range of situations. I am simply trying to understand how can each film be applied specifically to my area of interest: portrait photography.

Comparing apples to apples

Producing the images is an analogue, manual process, so just a little disclaimer that this won’t be a completely scientific comparison due to the various sources of variability (exposure, development times, scanning). I have tried however to keep the conditions as close as possible to the best of my abilities and equipment:

  • The images were shot in sequence using the same camera (Wista 45SP using a Rodenstock 210mm f5.6 lens) and lighting (flashes, and no ambient contribution).
  • Lighting was metered at f-8 at ISO 100 (incident) on the face area, falling to f-5.6 around the hands.
  • All films have been shot close to their box speed (ISO 100 at f-8 or ISO 400 at f-16). Some odd sensitivities such as Ilford FP4 125 was approximated by closing down the f-stop 1/3 between f-8 and f-11, and Kodak TXP 320, which was shot at ISO 200 (f 11).
  • All the negatives were developed using Ilford DDX in a 1+4 dilution. No particular reason for this, other than it being a developer I’m familiar with.
  • All films had slightly different developing times. Because I’m using a Mod54 in a Paterson tank, this would have required 1 litre of chemical for each sheet of film. Instead of that I batched the development in two batches, “rounding” the development times. This is not entirely correct, but I think I should fall within 1/3 of a stop of over/under exposure for the films I batched together and all negatives seem to have comparable densities.
  • Scanning software is notorious for their “cleverness” in general, and to the best of my ability I’ve tried to keep the scanning as straightforward as I could, and I’ve noted down any profile and exposure compensation involved.

Negative density

The development times for each film at 20°C would have been as follows:

Stock Time (DT) Time (DS)
Delta 100 12 min 10 min 30 sec
T-Max 100 7 min 7 min
FP4 124 10 min 10 min
TXP 320 shot at 200 6 min 30 sec N/A
TXP 320 shot at 400 8 min N/A
T-Max 400 8 min 8 min

* DT refers to Digital Truth
* DS refers to Darkroom solutions app

Not a single time matches so each sheet of film would have required developing individually. Because I’m using a Paterson tank with a Mod54, this would require me preparing 5 litres of chemicals. With some rounding of times  and reusing a batch of DDX, I trimmed this down to 2 litres as follows:

  • 1st batch, fresh developer, for 10 minutes  Delta 100 (>N -⅓), FP4.
  • 2nd batch, reusing developer (add 10% time), for 8m 30s with T-Max 400.
  • 3rd bath, fresh developer, for 7 minutes  containing TXP (N+⅓) and T-Max 100.

So my “rounding error” is ⅓ of a stop at most, had I nailed the proposed times. This sounds reasonable given that the scanner will compensate for this.

Let’s have a look at the resulting negatives.

The pictures below are all taken at the same time, by placing the negatives over a large softbox (I don’t own a light-table), trying to get an even exposure. For the most part, the density seems to be comparable to the naked eye, though T-Max 100 seems to be a tad thinner, and T-Max 400 looks just slightly over developed in comparison.

 

Scans

Once we’re happy with the negatives, it’s time to bring them into the computer. I carried out the scanning using SilverFast 8.8 and an Epson Perfection V850 at 3200ppp, which is around the optical resolution of this scanner.

SilverFast may offer different profiles for the same given film stock (e.g. FP4, or FP4 6×6), these are indicated in the file name.

Some films had a much wider dynamic range than others, for instance T-Max 100, which made them look darker overall, but this is just because of the higher white points in the shoulder area of the dress. To make the images comparable, some images have exposure compensation (e.g. +2 Exp, meaning +2 stops), indicated in the image caption.

Note above how the histogram looks much wider in the T-Max 100 case. I suspect the thinner negative is allowing the scanner to do a better job, or it might be the film itself.

All exposures have been lastly fine-tweaked after scanning in Adobe Lightroom to make them look comparable. This was done carefully by changing only the overall brightness of the image and not the contrast, clarity, or any other parameter.

Kodak T-Max 100 vs Ilford Delta 100

Ilford Delta 100 vs Ilford FP4

Ilford FP4 vs Kodak TXP 320

Ilford FP4 vs Kodak T-Max 100

Kodak TXP 320 vs Kodak T-Max 400

Crop comparison

Let’s now have a look at some 50% resolution close-ups to better appreciate the tone gradation.

Overview

Kodak T-Max 100 vs Ilford Delta 100

Ilford Delta 100 vs Ilford FP4

Ilford FP4 vs Kodak TXP 320

Ilford FP4 vs Kodak T-Max 100

Kodak TXP 320 vs Kodak T-Max 400

Kodak T-Max 100 vs Kodak T-Max 400

Grain structure

Even though grain is largely a non issue in 4×5, especially so with ISO 100 films, here’s some 100% crops to see the differences. In principle, the new films such as T-Max and Delta 100 should have a finer, more regular, tabular-grain whereas FP4 has more old school film appearance.

I suspect this may be more noticeable when doing darkroom prints, and perhaps blowing up a smaller 35mm negative. At this size I personally think we’re looking at a smudged version of the grain, as captured by the scanner. There’s differences in the grain distribution which are noticeable, particularly in FP4, which is significantly grainier than Delta and T-Max. T-Max 100 in particular blew me away by the absolute lack of noticeable grain. Also notice the comparison between Kodak TXP 320 and T-Max 400: even though the latter is a faster film, it came out much sharper and resolves the detail of the hair much better.

Kodak T-Max 100 vs Ilford Delta 100

Ilford Delta 100 vs Ilford FP4

Ilford FP4 vs Kodak TXP 320

Kodak TXP 320 vs Kodak T-Max 400

Closing thoughts

Some really nice variation in these tests, which really make me want to experiment further and dig deeper! I wouldn’t want to lay down general statements about each film because
this being such a manual process, and even though I’ve tried to be as careful as possible, I might have introduced as much variability from the development process itself than there is across films. Different results might be achieved with other developers or more exact timings, but these are representative of my particular setup and workflow.

One thing I’d like to do next is compare how each film stock prints in the darkroom: flatter, more midtone heavy films give the scanner an easier time, but I seem to get better prints with more contrasty negatives, so that should be interesting.

I am really impressed by the overall quality of T-Max, the sharpness is superb, and I really like the tones even though it did take a bit more fiddling with the scanner to compress the dynamic range and lift the shadows.

FP4 and TXP-320 have some nice character of their own, and I love their contrast, which in a way comes to reaffirm my precious choice of FP4. I’ll definitely give TXP a go as well, even if it doesn’t seem to resolve as much detail as the other films, and particularly T-Max 100.

And lastly Delta 100 has a noticeably flatter tone response and fine detail. I wasn’t particularly blown away in this specific test, but let’s remember my scene only has around 3 stops of dynamic range, so a less contrasty negative could actually work better on location with natural light, which can have significantly more variance in exposure.

 

joesfer

4 comments

  1. Jose this is very informative and an excellent piece, I cannot comment on the the TMAX/TXP 320 as I am yet to try being a newcomer to this format.

    But I have to agree on the rest of your results, especially the Delta 100 which I found a little disappointing (but will persevere with some experimentation).

    Ilford FP4 is also a favourite of mine, it really works across 35mm/MF and LF, personally I have found Ilford 1D11 to work very well with FP4 – all very subjective of course !!

    Thanks for this excellent comparison test.

    I have sent you a personal.

    Regards

    Brian

    Reply
    1. Thanks Brian! as much as I absolutely love the tones of Ilford FP4, I have to say I’m surprised by the comparatively grainy appearance, considering it’s “just” an ISo 125 film. Not that I mind that particularly, but compared to the tabular grain films the difference is really noticeable!.

      Reply
  2. Hey Jose,
    Very interesting comparison. Choosing from looking at the negs on the lightbox* I would choose FP4 and TXP every time (FP4 is my favourite in medium format at least). Curious to see that the scanner thinks a little differently!

    Curious to see how these print up.
    Cheers

    Reply
    1. Hey Ashley,
      Yes I tend to agree, FP4 has been a favourite of mine since medium format, and to my eye keeps looking just as good in large format. TXP looks comparable to my eye, and it’s regarded as a great choice for skin tones which is why I picked it up — in this test TXP just seems to lag behind in terms of fine detail, compared to the others, but only in 100% crops if you look at the individual hairs. Both are really lovely films!

      Reply

Leave a Reply to Ashley Hoff Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.