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Film review: comparing Fuji ACROS 100, ILFORD Delta 100 Professional and Kodak T-MAX 100 – by Daniel MarinelliFilm review: comparing Fuji ACROS 100, ILFORD Delta 100 Professional and Kodak T-MAX 100 – by Daniel Marinelli

Film review: comparing Fuji ACROS 100, ILFORD Delta 100 Professional and Kodak T-MAX 100 – by Daniel Marinelli

This whole project started when I realized I had been blindly allegiant to certain black and white films for a number of years without any particular rhyme or reason. Although with color film, I had a pretty good idea of which films suited my needs for various projects through years of experience. But with black and white film, I studied photography in college and tested every 400 ISO film exhaustively. To get the look I wanted I came away committed to shooting ILFORD HP5 PLUS, exposed at EI 250, developed at 400 or pushed to 1600, using Kodak D-76 (and the chart on the wall). But for whatever reason, I had only really ever shot one 100 speed black and white film. Someone had told me it was the best and it worked well the first time, so I used it and I never looked back…

Two years ago, I got really into half frame cameras and my beloved HP5 PLUS seemed a bit too grainy for my needs. I didn’t have any modern emulsion black and white ISO 100 film lying around, so I immediately loaded my “favorite” ISO 100 black and white film and voila! I got excellent results right off the bat.

It continued this way until now. Someone at my lab asked me if I had ever shot with ____ ??? To which I replied that I had not and then I also realized that I hadn’t shot with ____ either. Consumed with intense fear that I wasn’t shooting the “best” ISO 100 black and white film, I immediately went home, jumped on Amazon and bought a roll each of Fuji ACROS 100, ILFORD Delta 100 Professional and Kodak T-MAX 100 with the intent of doing an in-depth comparison.

I chose these 3 films as they were all similarly modern emulsions, characterized by finer grain and a tighter exposure latitude than more traditional emulsions like ILFORD’s FP4 PLUS.

What you see here is the result of my tests with these three films. Here’s what I cover:

Let’s get started with my methodology.

 

 

Methodology

I set out to design my test as scientifically as possible. I always get pissed off when I see film comparisons with different cameras, lenses, scenes, lighting conditions and the author concludes with some bullshit like “obviously the contrast, tonal range and sharpness of film X is superior based on this comparison”. Here’s how my methodology broke down:

 

Gear

I was intent on using the same lens and shooting the same scene at (almost) exactly the same time to truly compare the films. Most photographers don’t have 3 identical cameras and lenses lying around and I didn’t either. But I did have 3 Pentax bodies and a slew of Pentax lenses to test with. I figured I could load the 3 films in the 3 bodies and swap the lens between cameras to take the shots I needed.

Since a camera is just a film and lens holder anyway, I figured that should work*. So I decided upon a Pentax K1000, K2 DMD & SuperProgram, plus 50mm/1.7 and a 40mm/2.8 lenses; and set off to design a test. I wanted to look specifically at things like grain, contrast, edge details and overall impressions of the film.

* And it basically did but I did fail to account for any differences in shutter speeds between the bodies which could definitely affect the results. I also did realize that my Super Program has some issues with its shutter as some of the test photos were obviously underexposed. This test of films also quickly became a test of cameras as things like weight, viewfinder brightness & coverage and workflow became immediately apparent after shooting a few frames on one camera, then switch to another. More to come on that note…

 

Inspiration

At around the same time I realized someone else may have already done this. A quick web search showed that someone had, but for ISO 400 film. The author had done an excellent job and gave me some great insight into how I could design my test. I looked at my favourite ISO 400 film (ILFORD HP5 PLUS) in their test and I didn’t like it all. Why? The test probably was shot and developed at box speed. My years of trials back in college had shown me that HP5 PLUS worked best (for me) overexposed a bit or pushed to 1600.

This made me think; if I was going to test these films fairly, I would need to bracket the shots by shooting at box speed, underexposing and overexposing to see if that would play a difference in the results. I also realized I would be greatly limited in developer choice, as I would be only testing these films as they were developed by my preferred local lab. You or your lab may use different chemistry, machines, agitation, timing etc. and get way different results. I always remember hearing people saying things like that film looks great in Perceptol, but looks like shit in ILFOTEC, blah, blah. So please keep that in mind as you read below.

 

Location

I went out to the lovely Anza Borrego desert on a sunny October day, brought my gear and a notebook and got to work. I loaded the Pentax K2 DMD with ILFORD Delta 100 Professional, the Super Program with Kodak T-MAX 100 and the K1000 with Fuji ACROS 100.

I used only the meter of the K2 DMD to meter the scene then wrote out the exposure settings. Then I set everything manually to try to minimize any differences between cameras. For example, if I metered a scene at f/11 and 1/125, I would shoot it, then adjust a half a stop over/under by using the ever useful half-click aperture settings on my Pentax lenses while keeping the shutter speed fixed at 1/125. I was trying to mainly use 1/125 or 1/250 shutter speeds because they tend to be the most accurate.

I tried to select scenes that would offer an opportunity the showcase what each film is about but at the same time, these shots are not my best work. I was hauling around a big bag of gear through the desert trying to get the test done before the heat took over. The whole process took about 90 minutes.

 

 

Results

The five scenes shot on each film have been laid out in their own galleries below. You may click on any of the thumbnails to open the selected image in full screen.

For each scene, the order of film stocks shown is:

  • Fuji ACROSS 100
  • ILFORD Delta 100 Professional
  • Kodak T-MAX 100

Each image appears in the following order:

  • Underexposed ½ a stop – labelled (-)
  • Per meter reading – labelled (0)
  • Overexposed ½ a stop- labelled (+)

There are a few failures along the way, which I’ll discuss a little further down.

 

 

Scene 01: The Boulder – f/8 at 1/250 with 50mm/1.7

This was the first or second shot I took that morning. It was about 8:30 am and the sun was just creeping over the ridgeline to the east. The boulder was just magnificently lit as the sun continued to rise. I have always been fascinated with texture in photography and with black and white photography in particular.

I thought this scene would really allow me to judge the grain and detail of each film, as well as provide a chance for a myriad of tones.

Fuji ACROS 100

ILFORD Delta 100 Professional

Kodak T-MAX a00

Though I didn’t know it at the time, my SuperProgram body was having some sort of shutter error and the first two T-MAX 100 frames were drastically underexposed. Still, looking at the results, I have to say there is very little difference between the films in this shot. It is also mildly apparent that the underexposed shots are bit grayer and lack the contrast of the rest.

No clear winner here.

 

 

Scene 02: Road Bend – f/11 at 1/125 with 40mm/2.8

Fuji ACROS 100

ILFORD Delta 100 Professional

Kodak T-MAX 100

I took this shot just a few minutes later as I headed up the road past the brightly lit boulder. I have always had a thing for dirt roads in the desert (or anywhere else for that matter), so I tried to set up a shot.

I switched to the 40mm lens for little bit more breadth. I was really hoping that shadow across the road would be a good yardstick for contrast, while the remainder of the scene could showcase the tonal range of the film.

Here you really begin to notice that ACROS is a bit darker in the mid-light areas than the other films. The sky and the road in particular, appear noticeably grayer in comparison. Even when overexposed by ½ a stop the difference is significant. T-MAX is a bit lighter and Delta even lighter still.

The shadows are all about the same with a decent amount of detail preserved in the shadow on the lower right-hand portion of the frame. Getting close up, ACROS and T-MAX are exceptionally sharp, while the Delta is just a little fuzzier.

Overall, T-MAX (+) the Delta (0) look the best to my eyes. What do you think?

 

 

Scene 03: Highway – f/11 at 1/125 with 40mm/2.8

Fuji ACROS 100

ILFORD Delta 100 Professional

Kodak T-MAX 100

I went back down the road to the highway with the desert valley spread beneath me. I always like to include roads in my landscape shots to give a sense of scale and to serve as a reminder of the mark man leaves upon the land. Again I chose to use the 40mm lens for the broader field of view.

Like the bend in the road before, ACROS immediately jumps out as being “darker” than the rest of them. Look at the grass and road in the foreground, the difference is stark. The T-MAX and Delta both have a bit contrast as well. Like the rest of the shots, grain and detail are excellent across the board. For no particular reason the T-MAX shots just look better to me than everything else. They have just more of a 3-D pop feel that is tough to pin down.

Note: These are the only shot that received any editing. I can’t stand horizontal lines being anything less than horizontal, so I corrected each frame accordingly.

 

 

Scene 04: The Sign – f/3.5 at 1/500 with 50mm/1.7

Fuji ACROS 100

ILFORD Delta 100 Professional

Kodak T-MAX 100

This one I shot at a wider aperture to see if the de-focused areas of the frame would differ in any significant amount. Again the SuperProgram suffered some sort of mechanical failure and every T-MAX shot was dramatically underexposed. Again the ACROS is darker, but this time I believe it works in the film’s favor.

Assuming the sign is the primary subject of the picture, ACROS really makes it jump out of the frame by rendering it almost black. Delta continues to be significantly lighter and the sign doesn’t really separate from the background and the images look on the muddy side.

 

 

Scene 05: Yucca – f/8 at 1/125 with 50mm/1.7

Fuji ACROS 100

ILFORD Delta 100 Professional

Kodak T-MAX 100

Okay last shot of the test. The yucca in sunshine is a symbol of Californian desert and also provides an excellent subject to judge contrast, edge detail, and gradation. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse at the point but again the ACROS is darkest and it’s now clear that Delta 100 is the lightest, while T-MAX holds down the middle range. It’s also clear to me when zoomed in that the ACROS is the sharpest of the bunch and Ilford is the softest, but the difference is minimal. Overall I continue to prefer T-MAX the best for the contrast.

 

 

Conclusions

All of these films look pretty similar at the end of the day. To the extent that they are different, these differences are easily correctable in Lightroom or similar programs (analog or digital).

All of these films look better (IMHO) overexposed a bit compared to underexposed. So I would recommend rating these films at 64 or 80 depending on your specific tastes.

The grain structure is pretty similar on all these films and is quite nice in all instances

ACROS seems a bit darker than the rest but is not muddy. It also appears to have the finest grain, the sharpest edges. Despite this, the image from the ACROS (except “The Sign”) are generally my least favorite. If I were to shoot this film I would probably rate this film at 64 or 50 ( somewhere between +½ to +1) and/or meter off something a bit darker to skew things a bit towards the lighter end. This makes even more sense in light of the fact many people say that you almost cannot overexpose ACROS.

Delta seems a bit lighter than everything else and at the same time a bit softer and muddier. While those may seem like negatives, the overall results from the film as shot are quite nice and I liked Delta best for both “Road’s Bend” and “The Boulder”. If I were going to use this film, I would probably add a polarizer for a bit more pop and shoot at box speed. Delta also seemed to have a bit more latitude than ACROS or T-MAX, making it more useful for difficult lighting situations.

T-MAX seems to fall in between the two somewhere, a bit lighter than ACROS with exceptional contrast and pop. The grain is slightly more noticeable than ACROS and the detail almost the same. But it is definitely sharper than the Delta. Highway and Yucca really sealed the deal for T-MAX in my opinion. I think T-MAX also did better than ACROS and Delta when shot at box speed, but did not handle underexposure well. I would shoot this film at +½ all day long and be confident I could get the look I want.

You may have been wondering what my “favorite” film was prior to this test. Perhaps it was one of the three here? It was Neopan 100 until it was discontinued (in 2011???) Then I switched to ACROS and I had used it exclusively since it came out. I always rated it 80, always used a yellow filter and I’ve gotten excellent results with it the entire time.

How about now? Well based on these results I will be trying a lot more T-MAX 100 +½ stop in my half frame cameras. We will see how it pans out on an entirely different type of camera and whether or not it’s forgiving enough for my selenium metered, fixed focus Olympus Pen EE2. But I am confident I could get the exact results I wanted from any of these films, once I get a workflow established. Actually, before the scans came back, I realized I had accidentally ordered two rolls of Delta, so that is what’s currently loaded in my Pen EE2 with about 20 frames left before I can load up the T-MAX…

What would I do differently next time? Well, despite my best intentions I did not take the quality of notes I needed. Looking over some of the frames, it looks like I have the metered, -½ and +½ shots out of order, particularly in the Delta, but I am sticking to my notes nonetheless. I would also use 3 cameras with mechanical shutter speeds. The sometimes faulty electronics of the Super Program really killed the test, so I need to hit up eBay for another K1000 or Mx to add to the quiver. Oddly enough, this was clear and away my favorite camera to shoot with during the test but more on that another time. I would also bracket -⅔ -⅓ 0 +⅓ +⅔ next time or maybe -1 -½ 0 +½ +1??? But even then I’m hesitant because the underexposed shots were inferior for the entire test. Maybe just 0 +⅓ +⅔ +1 ??? Tough to say when I will, but I will definitely do it again to make up for these shortcomings.

The real question is… What do you think? Which film do you like best in this test? What would you differently? And finally, what to try next?

~ Daniel

 

A HALF FRAME INTERLUDE

EMULSIVE: Something Dan’s mentioned here and there is half frame cameras and photography. What you might not know about is his project, The Half Frame Club. Please check out the project website and Instagram page and have a think about submitting to the first zine (deadline of May 1st and black and white photography only, so hurry up!)

 

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About The Author

Daniel Marinelli

My name is Dan Marinelli. I am from San Diego, CA... where I work as a registered nurse and if I'm not working I'm either surfing, climbing/hiking or reading a book.…

10 Comments

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  1. As of this week, Fuji Acros 100 is listed as “Discontinued” at all the major online stores.
    Apparently it is no longer available in the US.

    Reply
  2. this comparison makes no sense at all. Three different films that should be treated differently according to the results you are after. All three films are good enough to make outstanding prints. Also there are plenty of inconsistency in your results (the sign photo on ilford shows a darker image at +1/2 ev, how comes?)

    Reply
  3. Great review. It’s sad to see Acros go this fall but I think the other are great options to have as a backup.

    Reply
  4. Nice comparison. The conventual wisdom is that you need at least a yellow filter for the sky to darken up, but your exposure look great without one. Bracketing a half a stop isn’t sufficient for a real test. from previous tests I’ve seen I’d do at least one stop. What you will find though is pretty consistent with what you’ve already noticed, that these films are better when over exposed than under, and the differences with over exposure aren’t huge.

    I’ve used all three of these. Because, as you noticed, the Fuji handles the mid tones differently I save it for very specific situations. I would have voted for the Neopan for the Yucca for instance. but agree the TMAX looks great for most every situation. With the removal of Neopan from the large and medium format market, I’m going to be switching exclusively to TMAX.

    You might also want to look at some of the Rollei films.

    And last of all, I typically expose at half the box speed, so +1 stop. Since I do my own processing I’ve get consistent results that way. Sometimes it is a bit too contrasty, but for me it works the majority of the time.

    Reply
  5. Excellent review!

    I definitely agree that if you use a hybrid (ie scanned negatives) workflow, most tabular grain films can give very similar results. I ended up standardising on Delta 100 (landscape/architecture) and Delta 400 (street and anything push-processed) partly because they were readily available but also because here they are both cheaper than either the Kodak or Fuji equivalents.

    Might be interesting to look at how the spectral responses of the films respond to different colour contrast filters… Delta 100 gives gorgeous skies with a deep red filter!

    Reply

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