I have been shooting 4×5 for about five years. I use it for much of my personal work, and love the tonality and rendering it gives my images. It is also a slow and meditative process and in its own way a more relaxed way of shooting. Digital is the mainstay of my professional photography, but when I’m shooting for myself I reach for a film camera.
I had been shooting colour in my large format camera for my last few projects but decided to switch to black and white for my next set of portraits. I’d decided to go for a more classic look in my work, and wanted to start developing my own film again so I had more control over the whole process.
I had been dabbling with various black and white films since I bought my camera, but had never shot black and white seriously in this format. I had also jumped from one film to another never really settling on one film stock, and always sending it to the lab for processing.
…It was time to get serious!
Choosing a film for me
Choosing a film was more difficult. I have always been a Kodak Tri-X guy, and use it in 35mm and 120, but the 400 version of the film is not available in 4×5. Tri-X 320 is available but that is a totally different emulsion, more suited to the studio than as a general purpose film. It seemed I had to settle on a new film.
I wanted a traditional grain film so I could have flexibility in processing and discounted the more obscure offerings from smaller manufacturers. There are some good films around, but I have found the accompanying processing information can be either sparse or just flat-out unreliable. I ended up with a very short list of choices – either ILFORD FP4 PLUS or HP5 PLUS.
FP4 PLUS was first
I chose to begin with it because of the two films, it had the potential to offer the best technical quality. I started by exposing it at box speed but found that I couldn’t get the detail I wanted in the shadows. With that in mind I decided to rate it at EI 64 and do a very slight pull process (-10% development time), to pull back the highlights for scanning.
This produced lovely results but meant I ran into other problems. Large format is a lot more light hungry than other formats. ‘Safe’ working apertures are around f/22 – which equates to about f/5.6 in 35mm Depth of Field terms.
In the studio, this meant I was forced to used my 500-watt monolights at full power for headshots if I wanted any leeway in focusing. Outdoors, it meant I could find myself shooting at a ¼ or ⅛ second in gloomier conditions – too slow to reliably freeze a portrait subject even if I asked them to keep still. For interiors like a church, that meant exposures running to a minute or longer if the church was dimly lit.
The photography on the left was my first attempt at shooting portraits with FP4 PLUS at box speed (125 ISO). Although the shot is nice enough, there is very little detail in the hair and the shadows are quite blocked out. To get a better negative I needed to increase exposure
The second photograph (right) is FP4 PLUS rated at EI 64. The shadows are far more under control and drop away to black in a controlled way. This is a very flexible negative that can be printed in a number of styles. The downside is that it is very demanding in terms of the flash power I needed to make the picture.
You can view both images in full screen by clicking or tapping on them.
All in all, I felt that while I loved FP4 PLUS there were too many situations where I found myself getting close to the limits of what was technically possible, especially with the equipment I had to hand.
On to HP5 PLUS
HP5 PLUS has a lot to recommend it as a general purpose film. It’s fast, and you can push or pull it as the situation arises. It is very tolerant of wayward exposure and processing, widely available and reasonably priced.
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I rated the film at EI 250 and developed it in Kodak HC-110 mixed 1+49; assuming that if I rated it at box speed I would run into the same problems I had with FP4 PLUS. Although this is only a two-stop advantage over FP4 PLUS, it’s amazing how much easier that makes working with the film in practice. I felt I could choose what shutter and aperture combinations I could, use rather than being forced into compromises because of the light, and highlights seemed less likely to blow out.
The photograph on the left was shot with HP5 PLUS at EI 250. Outside, on a reasonably bright but overcast day I shot it at 1/30 at f/16. The negative has a very nice tonality and the camera settings are good enough to give me a little bit of leeway with focus.
The photograph on the right was shot a few minutes after the previous one on FP4 PLUS rated at EI 64. The two-stop loss of speed means I was shooting at 1/15 @ f11. That makes the process of making this portrait just a bit more difficult, slowing the flow and demanding more of the sitter. On the downside, the film on the whole appeared slightly “muddier” in this frame – its tones don’t seem quite as rich – and although grain in this format is negligible, the film doesn’t seem quite as sharp as FP4 PLUS. So I had the speed that I wanted – but at a small cost.
On the plus side, the tonality of the picture has that extra something, especially in the skin tones.
I often use a church near me to test lenses and films. This interior is a good test of film, exposure and developing, with quite a wide tonal range and a lot of subtle detail. The photograph was a 30-second exposure with HP5 so would have been over 2 minutes with FP4 PLUS. A useful bonus when a building is open to the public!
I thought I could get more out of HP5 PLUS, so I decided to try a different developer. I had been using HC-110 as my go-to developer for a few years. Mainly for its keeping properties and economy – one bottle makes about 50 litres of my working solution. As an alternative, I decided to try KODAK Xtol.
From what I could gather, it seemed to be highly regarded by a lot of people and offered the bonus of about ⅔ of a stop in speed. So I should be able to get full box speed, finer grain, and with some luck, better tonality.
I shot this negative in winter about half an hour before sunset. It was very gloomy so the negative was exposed at 1/60 at f/5.6 rated at EI 400. Generally, I am very pleased. I seem to have gained the extra ⅔ stop of film speed without increasing grain and with plenty of shadow detail. So I got everything I hoped I would with no real downside.
It has been something of a long road getting my black and white film choice and processing nailed down. There have been numerous missteps along the way; everything from faulty developer and bad internet advice to just good old fashioned mistakes.
Now though, in HP5 PLUS with Xtol I feel I have a film and developer combination I can totally rely on; one that will produce great results in most situations. I have had to make a trade-off, as I prefer the tonality of FP4 PLUS overall, although it was a close run thing. However, there is nothing more frustrating though than not being able to shoot what you want because you are running out of light, and mistakes in large format are costly. I have a box of ‘near miss’ 4×5 negatives that cost me four figures in wasted film and developing while I was learning. So being able to nail every frame is something to constantly strive for, and having a flexible film stock helps a great deal.
HP5 PLUS might not be the finest grained film or sport the latest technology, but it is an easy film to learn. Once you have a handle on it it is totally predictable and reliable, and it comes from a company that will support film long term. You can be confident that once you have added it to your workflow, it isn’t going to be discontinued without warning. That is something we should all be increasingly grateful for when other popular film stocks disappear.
I still have a slight hankering for something with the slightly richer look of ILFORD FP4 PLUS though, so I have ordered a box of Kodak T-MAX 400 to test. Will this give me all the advantages of a 100 iso film with the bonus of nearly two stops extra speed?
That’s what I am going to find out next, although I doubt I would relinquish HP5 PLUS as a trusted all-rounder.
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Just as an additional data point for comparison — I shoot 120 HP5 at ISO 200, stand develop (3 inversions, total) in Rodinal 1:100 for 90 minutes @ 68°F/20°C… yes, HP5 has grain, but it’s “honest” grain, the 1+ over gives a sufficiently dense negative for why I use it (making kallitypes, with a Fujica GW690 I). I find the contrast ideal for the printing process.
This comes from having shot Tri-X in a myriad of ISO ratings, TMAX, FP4, and Pan-X… I’ve lost track of them.
What a great illustrated article! Thanks. The portraits are top notch.
The Hp5 has liberting speed, especally when flash is used. So I hope you like it, because the speed may be the best thing to ever happen for you.
I had much different exeriments with these films. I was using DDX. Found in favor for HP5 for reasons of tone and contrast. After setting my sights on HP5 and sticking to it for a time, I later discovered processing technique troubles with DDX, which also led me to Xtol. Well the DDX is not a happy devoloper at 65F 18C. It took me some time to discover this (also rapid fix hates these lower temps). So a chance use of Xtol was just the thing to get me expirimenting with the temperatures. I wound-up sticking with Xtol, because I got an old really huge coffee maker, so that the entire batch could be made and then stored within, with a fashioned floating lid. This lasts at least 90 days, which is as far as I care to risk time-wise. Also a friend gave me some Perceptol, and I liked it. This is not at all needed for 4×5, but provides sharp photos with nice tone. So when shooting HP5 at 200, I use the Perceptol and that stuff is pretty special and easy to use. Well come all this time, and I may well have stayed with the FP4 had I known that DDX is as fussy as it is about the temp. But am quite happy with the HP5.
Thank you for the article. I have been struggling with the same issues. Not enough light in my studio. I tried Delta 100 (great sharpness and very fine grain) and was often at F8 or F11. HP5 is at F16 or F22. I missed some shots due to the subject moving or missing focus by a small amount. Your work is great. I tried HP5 with Xtol, but it seemed very flat. Could you give your times for development. Maybe I am not developing long enough? Thanks Allan
1. You said development in XTOL got you back to box speed with HP5. Did you try XTOL on the FP4?
2. The difference in grain between HP5 and FP4 is pretty obvious in 35mm, where an 8×10 print is an 8x enlargement; but for 4×5, an 11×14 or 16×20 print is only about a 3 or 4x enlargement. Do you think the difference in grain would even be visible at those sizes? I’m wondering if the finer grained film even gains anything measurable in large format.
This article is a most informative and clearly written review. The photos clearly illustrate the subject of the text. The pop-up captions that become visible on mouse-over are a nice touch and reduced the amount of clicking back and forth. Thank you.
Would you share the details (time/temp./agitation) of the development? Were these processed in a tray, tank or tube? Did you see any difference in overall image quality between negatives developed in the two developers?
I love the photos!
Thanks for replying. Although I agree with you comments to an extent, I still felt that negatives rated at 125 were a bit thin, so although I could make a good image I could only make it look a certain way. Overexposing the film gave me a lot more flexible negative, and gave me a margin for error. I have other negatives I shot later on lit the same way and they are much easier to handle because of the exposure change. By that point I was using HP5 because shooting several monolights at full power is quite disconcerting for your sitter, they go off with a hell of a pop!
This is a very thorough and well articulated piece with lovely sample images, culminating in the especially stunning image of the lone boat.
I am not so sure your juxtaposition of the first two images makes a valid comparison of the two film stocks, however. The main issue I see is the nature of the subjects and lighting. The subject of the first image has dark hair and light clothing (or perhaps just a wrap of cloth) against a dark background. Looking at the image, I am fairly certain she was illuminated with a single softbox or umbrella from just above and left of the camera. That produced lovely skin tone and shadow transitions, and more detail in the hair to camera left than right, but falloff to shadow that as you note is dark or “blocked.” I see this less a result of the characteristics of the film than an outcome of lighting choice, as dark hair will simply not show up in such an image unless it is lighted. Although it is dark, and one might assume it takes a lot of power to light it, dark hair actually presents a sheen fairly easily and need not be subject to a strong blast of light to show up. To illuminate both the face and more of the hair with one light source, the modifier used here could have been placed a bit higher to catch more hair and a reflector or white card placed on the opposite side to prevent fall off into complete shadow.
Personally, unless this were for a shampoo commercial I find nothing wrong with the lighting here, as it draws the viewer’s attention to her eyes, the shape of her nose, and the exposed clavicle.
At any rate, chapeau for the beautiful images and I’m eager to see how you make out with Tmax, which I think you’ll find it way more contrasty.
Writing all this is making me want to break out my 4×5 and start flashing away.
I’m a big fan of TMAX 400, but it can be fussy to develop. Check out what john Sexton had to say about processing http://www.largeformatphotography.info/articles/sexton-tmax.html. I’ve been getting consistent results by using F76+ developer (also goes by Arista Premium Liquid and Photographers Formulary FA1027) with a pre-rinse, at between 72-75 degrees F, and using the times on the massive development chart. I shoot TMAX 400 at an EI of 200.