Why shoot film part 3: ILFORD XP2 Super report – by Simon King
Although I’ve been experimenting with a few different films, using ILFORD Delta 3200 Professional at LFW, some Fuji Neopan for Street, and some CineStill for low light nights, I am yet to find a film stock I am consistently more comfortable using than ILFORD’s XP2 Super.
Once I’ve found a style in photography that works for me, like rangefinder composition and focusing, I tend to stick to that workflow. XP2 seems to be the film that works for my needs so far, so I thought it would be useful to write a more comprehensive review of what I’ve found positive and negative about using it.
I’m not usually a technical reviewer (otherwise I’d never stop!) so I’ll be discussing my process for shooting, developing, and printing my images from a standard roll of XP2. I use this film in either my Leica CL, or my Hasselblad XPan – mostly the XPan!
I’ve been using XP2 for personal and street photography, although I’ve also used it on a couple of assignments including MCM Comic Con and London Fashion Week. I hope to continue using XP2 during my work and travels.
I’ll always set the ISO on my meter to 800 as soon as I load a roll of XP2. I treat it as 800 film for a few reasons, including the low-highest aperture of f/4 on my XPan. I’ve never had any trouble with loss of quality at 800, and the exposures are always as I imagine them, so there’s no need for excessive correction in the darkroom.
The most important thing for my black and white photography is the mid tones. I always try to expose for the most detail in areas without excessive highlight or shadow – although I shoot wide open almost always, and have never had an issue with the way the highlights render.
I find that the film is sharp, with fantastic detail in corners and straight lines. My lenses are all Zeiss, Leica, or Hasselblad, and XP2 is the perfect film for these lenses to draw light onto. The grain is fine, even at 800, and doesn’t impose itself on the “look” the way that other, larger grain, films tend to.
I often notice that photographers who learned photography using digital cameras will apply a digital mindset when dealing with film ISO speeds and, vice versa, photographers who were raised on film will use that as a frame of reference for digital. What I look for in a digital sensor is not necessarily what I look for in a frame of film, and when it comes to pushing and pulling film it does take a bit of concentration for me to decide what I want specifically when dealing with film or digital as distinct entities.
I’ve had some unclear results at 1600, but this could be because of poor exposure overall. I have seen other photographers produce useable results at this ISO, so I’m still willing to experiment, but so far I haven’t been happy with any of my extreme low light images.
I’ve also found the high contrast tricky with double exposure images; I have no results on show here or anywhere else that I would ever be comfortable publishing. I’m open to the idea that this is because of errors on my part, and when I have spent some time working on double exposures specifically I will be better informed to write on the subject.
Developing XP2 is amazingly convenient. I don’t have the capacity to develop my own film, so waiting a week for HP5 and other black and white “native” film chemistries got old very quickly. With XP2 I’m able to get my negatives back within a few hours, as the C41 process is available from basically any lab. This means that any reportage work that might have a deadline, especially fashion, can be off and with the client almost as quickly as my digital edits.
I scan my negatives on my Epson V39, which does the job pretty well at producing a decent copy, with enough latitude to correct and print to large sizes. I want to upgrade to a more recent, more “film specific” model for better sharpness and rendering. XP2 isn’t as curved as other films, so I have no issue having to rig together a means to keep it flat against the glass – I think Fujifilm Superia 400 has been the most curved film I’ve ever tried to scan, and I had to use a piece of flat plastic to use as heavy backing to keep the film from folding in on itself.
I like the exactness of XP2 over HP5 PLUS, which I found to be quite “foggy.” I especially like XP2 to render directional light for portraits, and I’m happy overall that I switched from HP5 to XP2 so soon in my workflow. I like to find what works for me and then continue to make it work for me until I can use it in all areas. I experienced this when working on my compositional style, and hope that my experience with film is no different.
To begin with I shot seven rolls of HP5 PLUS as my first attempt to take film photography seriously. I am not at all knowledgeable enough about the sheer range of film available, and it is a topic many artists are passionate about so I do not want to make any definitive claims. Seven rolls are roughly 175 frames, which is not nearly enough to produce any kind of attached or passionate decision. However, after receiving my first five rolls of XP2 back (three of which were shot at MCM Comic Con) I felt a lot more comfortable. I “connected” more with the aesthetic of these images, and knew that this was what I had expected from the beginning from film photography.
While XP2 worked for me in these first rolls I have come to find that I am less sure of using XP2 in my XPan for specifically cinematic work. It may be that I am not sure about cinematic black and white in the first place, and will be shooting Cinestill in the near future to test what I am able to produce in unique colour. As it is I have very few panoramic keepers from XP2 as opposed to my colour panoramas from other cameras.
Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on ILFORD XP2 Super. If you’d like to read more you can head over to the ILFORD blog, where they published some more of my thoughts on this film. You can also follow my work over on Instagram to see more of my projects.
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