I first tried Foma Bohemia’s films in around 2008 when I moved to the Czech Republic. Since then I’ve purchased them in both 135 and 120 formats and although I switched to other brands of film for a while, I did try a bulk roll of Fomapan 100 Classic just to see if I could load cartridges myself.
A few years ago I decided to try and settle on one black and white film, which was ultimately Fomapan 400 Action. It was an easy decision to make because by that time it has become my favourite 400 speed film.
Before I continue with this review I need to note that these days I use my Olympus XA almost exclusively, so I will be talking about 35mm format, mainly. That said, in my experience, this film behaves the same regardless of the format – the same contrast, the same shadow detail, etc., except for the grain, which is more apparent in the smaller formats, of course.
The only difference between 135 and 120 formats worth mentioning is the base curl. While 120 film curls a bit lengthwise after drying, 135 stays perfectly flat. I’ve never had ILFORD or Kodak films dry as flat.
Since I already mentioned grain, let’s cover this aspect first. Fomapan’s grain is quite fine for an ISO 400 traditional-grained emulsion. It has a regular and pleasing structure and is at least on par with similar films from Tier 2 brands if not marginally better. Many say that these days it looks more Kodak Tri-X than Tri-X itself.
As with all other black and white films, grain size and structure can be altered with the choice of developer – Rodinal will accentuate grain, while Perceptol will give you the smoothest tonalities possible.
I think I mostly like this film because of it’s distinct look, some people use the word character, defined by the classic grain structure and lovely tonality it provides. It prints really nice, the grain doesn’t distract even at 30×40 size enlarged from a 135 format frame.
If I want to get even smaller grain and/or to lower the contrast of a scene, I expose it at EI 125-160 and shorten development time by 1/3. This way the grain becomes almost inconspicuous at 30×40, certainly comparable to best in class traditional (not T-grain) ISO 100 films.
Shooting mostly with Olympus XA I found that EI800 works best for me, I can get faster shutter speeds at low light while keeping sunny scenes manageable. This means that I almost always push Fomapan 400 by one stop. If I need to shoot hand-held at night I will rate this film to EI 1600 and get good results with prolonged development in diluted Xtol.
Of course with this film’s latitude, correct metering is critical. I don’t own a light meter, but I found out that a digital point-and-shoot set to B&W with maximum contrast can be used to “pre-visualize” the scene. After that, I transfer the exposure parameters to my Canon 50 and get the picture I want.
Anti-halation layers in Foma films are not in the same league as the ones of Kodak/ILFORD, and make the final picture a bit softer and flooded with light. I don’t consider this to be an issue at all, I love the glow that occurs in the adjacent bright/dark areas and it can be very useful in portraiture.
Another lesser-known feature of Fomapan 400 is its near-infrared sensitivity. My recipe for IR shots with this film is to dial in EI 6 and let the camera measure exposure through an IR 720nm filter.
This way I get quite predictable results with my Canon 50.
As with all IR films one needs to bracket (mainly on the + side), because the intensity of IR radiation varies a lot during the day and also depends on a number of factors including weather conditions, time of the year, etc.
Foma Bohemia also makes a line of tremendous black and white papers and darkroom chemicals both very reasonably priced. I use their Fomatone and Fomabrom papers and many of their chemistry products including film and paper developers, wash aid, stop bath, fixer and even sepia toner.
In conclusion, Fomapan 400 Action (also sold as Arista EDU Ultra 400) is an excellent mid range film at a good price, but you might want to do some quick testing to find developing times and EIs that suit you best. It’s well worth a try.
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