Black and white film is one of the oldest and incredibly easy to use photography tools, a big reason why entry-level photography courses only teach students to take black and white photos. Black and white film has been used to capture some of the world’s most iconic photographs and it remains extremely popular to this day. Monochrome photography forces a photographer to focus on how light, shadows, and shapes interact in a frame to create an image. Knowing how to shoot in black and white will greatly help your photographic eye and ultimately can help your digital photographic work as well. Plus, you don’t need much to get started. A basic 35mm film camera won’t cost much in the aftermarket, and the film is generally less expensive than color film cameras.
Types of black and white film
Black and white films are classified into tabular grain or traditional grain. Traditional grain films can be considered the original film format and include films like Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 +. Tabular grain films first appeared on the market in the 1980s and create images that provide more detail with a finer grain.
Black and white movies also vary in speed, which is very similar to setting the ISO on your digital camera. Low speed films with a 100 rating are generally not as light sensitive and have a finer grain and perform best when shot in sunny weather, mid-range films in the 400 speed range are good for cloudy days or indoors, while high speed 3200 films are best for nighttime black and white photography or situations where you want to use their grainy appearance for creative purposes. As you shoot, you’ll probably find out which roll is your favorite.
Things to consider when buying black and white film
Finding the right film for you has a lot to do with your personal aesthetic as a photographer. You should also take into account the subject you plan to photograph and the photographic equipment you have available. The majority of mainstream movies are between 100 and 400 and are a great option if you’re shooting with a fully manual camera and plan to do most of your work outdoors. If you are more of a night owl and plan to shoot at night, 1600 or 3200 high speed film might be a better option for you. If you’re using a film camera with a flash and shooting in a poorly lit area, 400 speed film will likely do the trick to help you balance your subject and background.
In addition to graininess and film speed, many films have unique characteristics in the way they interpret color. Some films will be high contrast, while other films will represent the world in much more subtle shades of gray. The way you shoot and develop your film will also have a big influence on the final product.
Many film photographers like to shoot their films at a different ISO than that marked on the box in a process called push or pull. If you have a 400 speed film roll, you can push it by setting your camera to a higher ISO speed. You will intentionally underexpose your film and then make up for the difference in development. Push film works best in uniform lighting conditions. Shooting a movie is when you shoot it at a lower ISO sensitivity than it is rated for and will generally reduce the contrast of your movie. If you are pushing or pulling a roll of film, be sure to let your lab know so they can adjust the development times on your rolls.
Best Fine Grain Black and White Film: Fuji Neopan Acros 100 II
Relaunched last year, Fuji Neopan Acros 100 II is one of the newer black and white films on the market. Fujifilm
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Fuji Neopan Acros 100 II offers an incredibly fine grain that renders details beautifully. It has a good amount of contrast and very sharp, making it a nice all-rounder for a variety of subjects. Although this is a 100 speed film, it can easily be pushed up to 400 for even more contrasting images. It may be the best black and white film for landscapes if you like that poppy look.
Best Beginner’s Film: Ilford HP5 +
Favorite school photo
A versatile 400-speed film. Ilford
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A film wrap long favored by first year photography students, Ilford HP5 + is extremely easy to work with and gives beginners plenty of leeway with their exposures. It’s a more grainy film, and it’s a great film for learning the basics of how light and shadow interact to create an image. It’s very close to the digital monochrome look of most cameras and photo editing software, and it’s a lot cheaper than other movies. The low contrast appearance makes it one of the best black and white films for portraits.
Best High Speed Movie: lford DELTA 3200
A high speed film to immortalize your nighttime adventures. Ilford
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If you love to photograph the nightlife, this film is for you. This 3200 speed film can be pushed really high without losing detail and has a nice grainy aesthetic. It is ideal for filming in low light scenarios like concerts or bars, even without using a flash. It can be a bit pricey, but if you go on a lot of nighttime adventures with your camera, you’ll thank yourself for paying the extra.
Best High Contrast Black and White Film: JCH Street Pan ISO 400
The dream of the street photographer
Fine grain and increased sensitivity of the red spectrum. JCH
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This high contrast black and white film was designed for street photographers. This panochromatic film is excellent for cutting through the haze and fog common in large cities to create incredibly sharp images, with very little grain, and very moody. This film has a very fine emulsion, which makes it one of the best black and white films for scanning.
Best Grainy Film: Kodak Tri-X 400TX
A classic film with a distinct grain. Kodak
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While some black-and-white films try to minimize graininess, others simply embrace it. Kodak Tri-X 400 is one of the world’s most recognizable film stocks and a favorite of photojournalists and documentary photographers. It has a grainy appearance of any grain and if you grow it yourself at home it is easy. If you’re ready to embrace the grain of film, this film is for you. Many famous shooters started with basic photographic equipment and a few rolls of Tri-X.
Q: What is the best black and white film to shoot outdoors?
Choosing the right black and white film for shooting outdoors has everything to do with the quality of outdoor light. If it is a sunny day go for 100 speed film, if the weather is overcast use 400 speed film, if you are filming late at night choose something with 1600 or 3200 film speed. The Kodak T-Max 100 is a low speed tabular film, which will give you the smallest possible grain and the sharpest images.
Q: What is the best developer for black and white film?
There are a variety of chemicals that you can use for developing black and white film if you intend to develop at home. Ilford and Kodak both make developers that are used as a three-step process, while Cinestill makes a developer called D96 that uses only one step. If you have your film developed by a lab, just be sure to tell them you want black and white processing on the rollers. Kodak D76 is a good starter developer, and Adox Rodinal will last extremely long after being mixed.
Q: What kind of black and white film should I use with a flash?
Any black and white film can be used with a flash, just be sure to measure before taking the photo so you don’t explode highlights in your image using artificial light. Flashes tend to add contrast to a scene, so you can lean into this look with something like Tri-X 400 or tone it down with something more subdued like Ilford HP5 +.
Final thoughts on black and white film
Even if you’re generally a digital photographer, shooting black and white film can be a fun way to spark your creativity. There is something really appealing about taking photos and not knowing exactly what they look like and taking black and white photos will change the way you look at the world around you. Once you start filming we assume you won’t want to stop.