I’ve often described how I think that people looking for a different “look” from film would be better suited exposing and developing in a different way before they’d see any benefit from switching emulsions. Unless someone is searching for a specific “effect” in terms of grain structure, or halation, then most films will produce fairly similar results when treated in the same way. I think that when writing about films I am limited by my own workflow and method of exposing a scene, which means that my opinions on the “look” of a film is based more on whether or not I like the emotional results of a roll rather than the technical.
I thought it would be interesting to look for a way of discussing some films that have very specific use cases, but are likely to result in quite a few different “looks” depending on how they’re exposed and developed. High-speed films can be fantastic for low light use but I’ve seen many different results from different photographers; exhibiting high/low grain, high/low contrast, and varying exposure latitude.
This flexibility is especially apparent with the films we’ll be discussing today. ILFORD Delta 3200 Professional and Kodak T-MAX P3200 are natively ISO 1000 and ISO 800 respectively, and designed to be shot in a variety of ways — these films can be whatever the photographer chooses to make of them. The Delta and T-MAX ranges fill kind of the same niche on paper; they are both modern emulsions with low speed-to-grain ratios, implying clean, sharp results relative to their high ISO rating.
I decided to work on this piece of writing with another photographer, Andrew Blowers, who shoots with a similar setup to me, but has different techniques for exposing, developing, and a different visual style as well.
As we move to discuss each of these high speed films below, you’ll see samples and thoughts from each of us. Hopefully, this will help provide a broader perspective and examples of how each film might be used. You’re the judge.
About our photographic styles
I prefer to shoot my low light photography with a rangefinder, which is the easiest system for me to focus with under any lighting condition. I meter for the shadows, and when possible I add a stop or so to even out the exposure in the extreme darker areas — I’m fine with losing highlight detail almost always, but in low-light it becomes less of an issue.
I’ve pushed Delta 3200 to EI 8000 in the past, and prefer stand development for pushed film, as it delivers in cleaner results. I don’t really feel the need for anything more than EI 3200, as this give me at the very least a 1/30th second shutter speed under streetlights, which is my usual low-light situation. My favourite development chemistry is ILFORD’s ILFOTEC DDX, which gives a nice clean rendering, and is great for push/overdevelopment.
Andy shoots with a Leica M4-P/M3 and meters by eye for almost everything. There are a few situations where this can effectively be done once and then relied on for a while — for example, when under consistent lighting across the Underground network, or using Sunny 16 on a bright day. EI 3200 is a great speed to just set and forget, as film’s latitude ensures usable results across a variety of conditions. Andy’s go-to film is HP5 PLUS, which he uses at box speed (EI 400), or pushed quite a few stops.
In a choice between the two high-speed films discussed here, Andy would still opt for his HP5 PLUS pushed processed – it’s convinient, cheaper, and a look he prefers. The decision to use a high speed over pushed HP5 PLUS will depend on the conditions he expects to face, or the aesthetic he wants to embrace. Andy develops all of his film in ILFOTEC HC, and is not a fan of stand development, so uses more conventional dilutions which he feels results in a more punchy negative, rather than the flatter result of the stand.
Let’s take a look at each film in turn.
ILFORD Delta 3200 Professional
The Delta series was ILFORD’s response to Kodak T-MAX, beginning with a 400 speed release. The 3200 edition was released in 1998 — 10 years after Kodak’s P3200 — and replaced their HPS line. It has remained in production since then, and as far as I know the formula has gone unchanged.
I started shooting with Delta 3200 in November of 2018, as a fresh approach to what I felt was a lacking winter and low light film experience. I was off the back of quite a few rolls of colour film which had been grey and unsatisfying, and I wanted to see how a more controlled grey/black/white could focus the atmosphere into something more aesthetic.
Since then I have become more adept with black and white images, and have used Delta 3200 for quite a few different low-light situations, which include general night street shooting, extreme low-light photojournalism, a fashion BTS project, and personal documentary.
The grain and sharpness are excellent, and contrast is quite even and grey, even in mixed lighting. I think the majority of my Delta 3200 images remind me more of HP5 PLUS rather than my preferred Delta 400, although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s the nature of the grain, and the lower contrast which cause the association.
Although there’s heavy grain in almost all conditions I’ve never found it to be intrusive — just a grittier look, which can be used or misused however the photographer prefers. It’s oddly smooth, definitely not blocky, and definitely not unpleasant to my eye. The film handles overexposure very nicely, and I’ve used it in daylight metering around four stops over and still had plenty of highlight detail to work with in a scan.
I don’t mind losing detail in the highlights for a print – what matters to me is that the subject is clear, anything else is a bonus.
Exposing as I do, I still don’t think I’ve ever hit a “limit” for what Delta 3200 can offer me. I’m careful about detail in the shadows which means even in the lowest light I haven’t had a problem with my exposures. The closest I’ve come to images I’m not happy with are ones where I underestimated the availability of the light, usually when street lights and fluorescent colours are involved. Here you can really see a much higher contrast between what’s slightly exposed and what’s in pitch darkness.
For night shooting in general I prefer to shoot for the highlights, unlike Simon who prefers metering for shadow or midtones. In darker environments it’s really those highlights that catch my eye in the first place — not the shadows — so I don’t mind losing the detail there. Delta 3200 definitely does lose that shadow detail, but what it retains in the highlights is pretty much what I need from it, so I don’t have any issues exposing this way.
I push HP5 PLUS up to EI 3200 regularly, and meter the same way, so I thought it may be better to just show the results rather than trying to describe the minutiae:
And here are some frames where I metered HP5 PLUS and Delta 3200 for the shadows – situations where the light was more even, and the content a little more to do with details rather than light:
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Kodak T-MAX P3200
Kodak’s T-MAX P3200 film was recently reintroduced after being discontinued in 2012 due to supposed limited demand. It uses a Tabular Grain, same as the other films of the T-MAX line, and also similar to the grain structure of C-41 films. I can’t find any information on whether this is the same formula as the original T-MAX P3200, but based on comparisons with results I’ve found online they seem very similar.
I decided to give the T-MAX a try shortly after it was reintroduced, not because I was dissatisfied with my Delta 3200 workflow but because for such a special use I wanted to make an effort to try this newly available option. It makes sense for me to shift around my comfort zone in case something clicks and improves my work in some otherwise unknowable way.
I transposed everything I’d learned from my time with Delta 3200 onto my first rolls of T-MAX P3200 which meant many fewer errors overall. The T-MAX feels slightly more refined, possibly because it’s a newer emulsion. The most immediately noticeable difference for me is that the grain feels finer — and also pointier, less smooth than the Delta. This gives images made with it the feeling of being a touch sharper than the Delta, but this could just as easily be an illusion caused by those sharper grains.
I think the T-MAX retains its contrast well but when slightly underexposed as above, loses that contrast, becoming quite muddy, much faster than the Delta would in the same situation.
I shot a roll of this film in bright daylight while in India. This was due to a mixup originally and instead of shooting at night as planned, I shot the film across the day. this meant overexposing it by quite a few stops, but the film handled it pretty fantastically.
The mistake I made in loading is actually worth mentioning, as it really irritated me at the time and affected my perception of the film despite not having anything to do with the shooting experience. Visually, rolls of Kodak T-MAX 100, 400, and 3200 are actually pretty identical, with only the number being different. The majority of the roll design is given to a blank yellow “notes” area, which means that when I — very tired — went to load 3200 speed without realising I had a roll of T-MAX 100 in my bag, I ended up switching them and shooting a few shots on the 100 rated at 3200 before realising my mistake.
This was a stupid error, which is almost entirely on me, but when I thought about it for a bit I realised why this was the first time I’d ever done something like this: ILFORD films are colour coded! FP4 PLUS/Delta 100 are blue, HP5 PLUS/Delta 400 are Green, and Delta 3200 is purple. I don’t need to think beyond the colour when loading and setting the meter.
I think aside from that petty mistake my experience with T-MAX P3200 has been entirely positive. I have many images I’m proud of, just as many as the Delta, which means that for me a choice between them is arbitrary – and will usually be down to whichever option I can find cheaper.
I’ve mostly shot T-MAX P3200 by daylight, but found the results oddly inconsistent. From one of my rolls, only one shot was usable – and that required quite a bit of contrast editing to save. I think I may have overestimated the capacity for overexposure, and am not really willing to try this approach again. With T-MAX P3200 being the most modern BW film I’ve tried, I was a bit impatient in terms of wanting to experiment — I prefer to find equipment, films, a workflow, that work for me with minimal fuss and adjustments, and which allow me to be a little more cavalier in the field.
T-MAX P3200 did not offer me that immediately, but with a bit more use in darker environments, and by being a little more conservative with my light estimations I was able to produce some nicer images — although still nowhere close to my usual aesthetic.
Having read Simon’s account of the mistake made with canister identification I have to fully agree that it is a bit of an annoyance to have near-identical markings on very different products. T-MAX as a “brand” offers a little more room for these kinds of errors, whereas the Delta brand is more idiot-proof — clarity at all stages.
Here’s my obligatory HP5 PLUS/T-MAX P3200 comparison. HP5 PLUS will always win for me!
Some final thoughts
We hope our example images provide enough of a comparison between some of the ways these two films can react when put through their paces in many different conditions. We did our best to match up ideas around shared qualities – under/overexposed by similar amounts, or in similar lighting situations.
Instead of offering direct comparisons as some pixel-peeping type websites offer we thought it was better to let the reader look at them individually, with their own merits, and to make up their own minds based on that.
We offered the broad strokes of our opinions on these films: both can be used, abused, and misused by any photographer at any stage of their experimentation. Anything more specific than that would be meaningless!
Final round: Which is which? (bonus points for whose is whose)
We thought it would be fun to put two images side by side, one by each of us, from a different film each, and let you guess which image was made by which film, and by which artist! Let us know in the comments! 🙂
(UPDATED one month later… T-Max 3200 by Andrew is on the left, Delta 3200 on the right by Simon!)
Thanks for taking the time to read our thoughts on these two wonderful high-speed films. You can see more work from Andy here, and from Simon here. Andy and Simon are both members of the New Exit Photography Group, a British Documentary collective.
~ Simon and Andy
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