A paean to Ilford Pan F+ or: There’s something about slow film
Sub 100 ISO films…
There’s mystique about them; smooth, finely grained, challenging. Something for the true pros and “serious types”. They seem to take on a legendary status among photographers.
I’ve had the chance to shoot with some of these legends: Agfapan 25, Kodachrome 25, Panatomic X, Efke 25 and the great Ektar 25 color negative film.
There is one film that belongs in this group that has at least one big advantage over all the rest, Ilford Pan F+. Unlike the others, this film is still in production and readily available.
Anything but a fleeting romance
I’ve had a long love affair with Pan F that began out of curiosity and then practicality in my days in grad school. I took a few rolls with me on a trip to Mexico figuring that it might be bright enough near the equator to shoot such a low ISO film. It was indeed bright enough, and as I started to work with those negatives I began to notice some things.*
As planning for my thesis project got underway I realized that it would be important for me to feel free to shoot as much as I needed, so I could run up and down the (mainly dead end) ideas I had and give myself a good pile of images to work with.
Money was tight and as I had just recently realized that other places on the planet (like southern Ohio) were also bright enough for an EI 32 film, I knew that I needn’t limit myself to the usual diet of Tri-X and HP-5.
I checked the inventory at the school store first and sure enough they had some out of date Pan-F in the freezer. This was pre “+” days for the Ilford films. List price was $17.50 a roll. [when was this golden age? 1988] They’d sell it to me for half that. $8.75 a roll…a 100 foot bulk roll. Like a good boy I ran my tests and finding the film good I went back to see how much more they had.
The school had a heavy concentration of journalism majors and photo-jays have little use for slow film, so they had 600 more feet out of date and waiting for me. I cut even more of a deal and away I went.
I shot almost 500 feet on my thesis piece and I moved the last can from freezer to freezer for many years later, finally thawing it out and shooting it on a project just a few years ago.
It had lost a little speed, I found it best at EI 25 rather than my usual 32 but otherwise it looked great.
Getting to grips with Pan F+
Pan-F+ has fine grain and can be enlarged well, all things you would expect from a slow film, but I also found it very flexible. It can be build contrast quickly – it has a reputation for high contrast – but it can also have a very long scale depending on (as always) exposure and development.
This is not a film that you can just shoot and casually go by whatever is on the data sheet for processing and expect workable results. This is a film that you should test. Take care with exposure, be precise with development and your hard work and diligence will pay off.
One bit of advice; get it developed as soon as possible after it’s been exposed. I didn’t learn this till much later in my career but the latent image keeping quality of this film does seem to be less robust than that of most others and it seems to lose density noticeably after about 3 months. What’s interesting is that the loss seems even across the board, so you get a thinner negative but not necessarily one with no shadow detail, as you would with underexposure.
That’s my experience and could be worth testing further.
I continue to shoot Pan F+, both in 35mm and 120 formats. It remains my gold standard for a slow film. I used 35mm Pan F+ exclusively on my Canonicus’ Bow project. On this 2014 piece I wished to keep my gear minimal and light and to convey the sense of mystery I felt in exploring a river way that was close but hidden from much busier spaces.
To do this I employed careful framing and shallow focus. A 35mm SLR with Pan-F was the perfect choice.
This year I’m working on a new project along a tidal river, exploring the approaches and embankments at low tide, often at water level. Here I’m shooting with my Graflex SLR cameras. 120 Pan F+ in the roll film backs allows me to shoot at large apertures in sunlight even though the top shutter speeds on these cameras is 1/1000 of a second.
I’m very happy that in a world that seems addicted to speed, some slow things remain and that Pan F+ continues to stand as other legends have fallen into history, run off the road by faster brethren.
Stepping away from a steady diet of 400 ISO films can bring a fresh dimension to your photography. If push processed HP5+ is like a sketch in charcoal, then Pan F+ is perhaps a painting in oil.
Or perhaps it’s just an elegant way to make a photograph, and we all deserve a little elegance from time to time.
I primarily use just two developers with Pan-F. Rodinal and Pyrocat-HD.
I used Rodinal exclusively with Pan-F for many years, this is a classic combination.
Rodinal 1:100 standard agitation for small tanks
N-1: EI 25 7′-15″ @ 70ºF
N : EI 32 10′ @ 70ºF
N+1: EI 50 15′ @ 70ºF
N+2: Develop as N+1 then tone in Selenium toner diluted 1:8 with Permawash for 5′
Pyrocat HD 1:1:50
N: EI 32 7′ @ 70ºF
I’ve found that Pyrocat shows slightly better shadow separation and better separation in extreme high values, while grain is very similar.
* Among the things a slow film can show you is what your lenses look like. This may sound ridiculous or obvious but what I mean is that lenses show their character most when they are not in focus and when they are shot closer to wide open. If you are a 35mm shooter primarily – as many of us are at the start – and if you shoot the usual 400 speed films, most of what you know of your lens is it’s sharpness.
Outdoors the lens is well stopped down and things look more or less the same all around the picture. (I know there are many exceptions, bear with me). When you are new to all of this lens quality beyond sharpness is not usually high on the list of things to consider. BUT, shoot a slow film and the aperture needs to be opened up, you start to notice things in your pictures, backgrounds, separation of space, dimension. You start to see qualities in your own pictures that remind you of vintage images. If sharpness is what you are after every lens has a sweet spot in that regard, often just 1 or two stops down from wide open.
It’s hard to get there with a 400 ISO film. Having a slow film to go with adds another tool in the old toolbox. The next thing you know you are exploring what things look like when the lens is shot totally wide open (which is what the SLR viewfinder is showing you after all) and then, God help you, you find yourself chasing after interesting and rare fast lenses, a fever for which there is no cure. Beware!”