Learning Black and White Film

Being part of the digital world, film hasn’t been a focus of mine but there is a look to it, as many others have said,  that I really like.  However, I’m finding that it isn’t very easy to create.  Subject and composition is part of it, as with digital, but then there is the choice of film, filters, the developing process and scanning.  I’ve read a lot and experimented. Trial and error seems to be the only answer but I recently received some good advice from a fellow blogger, John Pickles, who creates a look with his film that I really like.  Take a look for yourself.  Here is a link to his site.

Case in point are these 4 photos; all shot with the same camera and lens, developed exactly the same way, using Rodinal, and scanned using the same settings.  I did crop a little to get the horizons but basically that was it. The first two are 100Tmax, the second two HP5.  If you like grain then HP5, at least the way I did it, gives it to you.  I prefer the Tmax look which to me seems creamy or smoother.

These photos are for illustration purposes only, not as works of art.  It guess when I find  the “formula” I like I can just stick with it, but what’s the fun in that.  I would like to hear from the film users about what your experiences have been.

Second Hole Oak

Blacklake Pond

Morro Bay Boardwalk

Abandoned in Morro Bay

15 thoughts on “Learning Black and White Film

    • Thanks Mike Comments coming from someone with your talents makes me smile. I’m going to keep at film. B&W, developed at home, is fun and keeps the costs down. Now fantasizing about medium format.

  1. Hi John.

    Thanks for the mention and the link. Film definitely gives a different look to digital and different from one film stock to the next as your pictures clearly demonstrate. I like them! Try experimenting with your scanner settings. How you scan your negs is at least as important as how you develop them. Re-sizing and unsharp mask are also pretty important. (I resize to 800 pixels along the longest edge and use these settings for unsharp mask in photoshop – ‘Amount 300%’ ‘Radius 0.3’, ‘Threshold 3’) I also almost always shoot black and white film at half box speed but develop for the recommended time for normal full box speed (especially with Rodinal). This usually gives good shadow detail without burning out the highlights.

    I embarked on the same ‘film’ journey with the same trial and error testing. It’s frustrating some times but worth it (I think) and medium format will blow you away!

    Good luck


    • Each time we communicate I learn something new. Half the box ASA for example. Is that what IE means? Box says 400 but IE is 200? So far I like the Rodinal but more money than D-76. I’m in the free trail period with Photoshop having relied solely in LR up till now. Another learning curve coming up.

      • Sorry John I should have explained more clearly. E.I is Exposure Index and yes half box speed for Tri-X or HP5 would be 200asa or iso. It effectively means you are overexposing the film by one stop. At first I was wary of this, after all it’s not what the film manufacturer recommends but there are two things here – one is that black and white negative film (and colour negative ‘though not slide film) has very good built in exposure latitude (excellent dynamic range) meaning it’s pretty hard to burn out the highlights. I reckon you could overexpose Tri-X or HP5 by 5 stops and still get a print (or scan). This would be pretty extreme but overexposing by one stop allows more shadow detail onto the negative whilst still retaining highlight detail. The second thing is that Rodinal doesn’t seem to achieve full film speed like ,say, DDX or stock D76 (maybe it doesn’t work as vigorously) so allowing more light to the film compensates for this. I’m not very scientific and these are only my findings so experimenting for yourself is important (and fun)
        I’ve just finished a free trial period with Photoshop and am considering whether to buy that or Lightroom. Basically I just need something to resize and sharpen.

      • John,

        Thanks for continuing to teach. It helps to have someone that’s been there and done that and I appreciate it.

        It was so sunny this weekend I tried a role of Kodak Ektar 100 but I’m anxious to use your latest tip about shooting at half the box speed. Is the E.I. for all films published some where or is it trail and error. Also, do you meter the same way.

        I’ve used LR for a year and it does everything I’ve wanted to do. PS does much more but it seems so overwhelming. I suppose with the new monthly subscription method you’re not out the large software cost and can stop using it without having much money invested.


      • Hi John. Exposure Index is just the speed at which you rate your film. For example, take a roll of Tri-x, load it in your camera and set the meter to 400iso. This is E.I 400 (and box speed). Take another roll and set the meter to 1600iso and this is E.I 1600. This would under expose the film by 2 stops because obviously the meter/camera thinks it’s shooting a faster, more light sensitive film. If you didn’t compensate for this during development you would end up with very ‘thin’ negatives without much detail resulting in dark scans or prints. In this case if you extended development time you would get useable negatives but they would look very different to Tri-x shot at E.I 400 and developed for the ‘normal time’. (they would be more ‘contrasty’ – less shadow detail and very bright highlights).
        You can rate your film at whatever speed (E.I) you like (within reason) and vary development for different situations/subjects/effect.
        I dislike scientific testing but you might want to try this test to see if it helps. Load a roll of film, lets say TMax100. Set the camera meter to 100iso and shoot the first 8 frames. Choose average subjects that you would normally shoot. When you get to frame 9 change the meter to 1/3 stop under 100iso. This will be 80iso (E.I 80) but your camera may only have 2 dots between 50 and 100 so it would be 1 dot under 100. Shoot the next 8 frames then change the meter to 2/3 under 100 (E.I 64) shoot he next 8 frames. For the last 8 frames set the meter to 50. Now develop for the recommended time for box speed (Tmax100 in Rodinal 1+25@68f = 6mins). Scan, crop and ‘auto levels’ your negatives. Examine each set of 8 and look for the level of shadow detail you’re happy with. The first 8 will have less than the last 8 because they received less light when you exposed them. Let’s say (hypothetically) the 3rd set of 8 has, on average, the best level of shadow detail (E.I 64). Now look at the highlights. Are they too dull (but with detail)? Are they just right (bright with the right amount of detail)? or are they too bright (washed out with no detail)? If it’s the first one (too dull) you just need to extend the development time (more development = brighter highlights) if it’s the second one – Hurrah, that’s the right combination of exposure and development for this film with your equipment and technique. If it number 3 (too bright) you need to reduce development time (to stop the highlights burning out)
        Varying the development time won’t affect the shadow detail very much but will have a greater effect on the highlights.
        The down side to shooting roll film is that it’s always going to be a compromise because each subject will have a different brightness range and should therefore be developed accordingly (and individually). This is why Ansel Adams shot (and developed) one frame at a time with a large format camera.
        Anyway, I hope this isn’t too confusing. If you need me to clarify anything please feel free to email me (details on my ‘About/Contact’ page)

        Good luck


      • John, a good idea. No not confusing at all. I like to shoot around the ocean,rocks, piers, etc so that will be a good place for this test. I have found that the sand and water are tough so this should help me zero in on what works best.

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