Like many commodities affected by the COVID pandemic, photographic film prices have soared to unprecedented heights. I acutely remember 25 sheet boxes of ILFORD Delta 100 Professional 4×5 film selling for $45 at my local camera store in 2019, only to see that price rise almost 70% to $65 in September 2021 — before tax. While I don’t shoot 4×5 for its affordability, higher film prices conflate with expensive gasoline to limit my shooting opportunities, and at the very least decrease my spontaneity. The last impulse I want to have when depressing the shutter is hesitation over how much that click is about to cost me.
I began looking for solutions.
Starting in my freezer, an innocuous box of Arista.EDU Ultra 200 (Fomapan 200 Creative) caught my eye. With B&H closed for an extended religious holiday and my local camera store completely out of 4×5 film, I began researching what this decidedly budget film might be useful for. The results were mixed and full of what nearly amounts to superstition. Some love this stock while others hate it, but nearly everyone agrees that it’s an entirely different animal from its sibling 100 and 400-speed films of the same brand.
Intrigued by this internet mysticism, I loaded a Grafmatic with six sheets and set out to take some test shots at box speed. 200 ISO is a nice compromise between speed and versatility when working with severely limited shutter speeds common to large format, and was about perfect on my Beseler Type C-6 with the focal plane shutter going to 1/1000. With an f/4.7 lens wide open for handheld portraiture, it struck a balance between shooting wide open in daylight and being able to reach into open shade.
I processed the film according to the Massive Development chart, using XTOL 1+1 for 8:30 @ 68F/20C.
As a rapid action, unfiltered portraiture film, this stock blew me away with its performance. Despite being shot on a single coated Wollensak Raptar 135mm f/4.7 Tessar lens from the mid-1950s, the contrast was exceptional and skin tones were fantastic. Unlike some high contrast films, it seemed to have no trouble rendering midtones, nor with gradients where tones can clump up. This seemingly innocuous film, still selling for a little over $1/sheet, showed astounding promise as the solution to affordable walkabout 4×5 photography. It had even performed excellently in Kodak XTOL, which is one of the cheapest developers on the market. To find out for sure whether this was my silver bullet I had to take it further.
Good performance at box speed is laudable, but not exceptional. I was largely impressed by the initial results given my low expectations for such an affordable stock. To truly push its limits, I decided to…push it. Two stops, to be precise. This is where many emulsions begin to fall apart, but with 400-speed films commanding a premium in the current market, an affordable medium to low light walkabout film for handheld 4×5 was my holy grail. Push development was estimated using the [base time]*1.33^n rule, yielding 15:00 @ 68F/20C in XTOL 1+1.
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I loaded another Grafmatic with six shots and set out for downtown on a busy Saturday night.
While the film performed excellently given the abuse, it wasn’t without notable practical limitations. Most 4×5 lenses, this Wollensak Raptar 135mm f/4.7 included, have fairly slow maximum apertures. Combine that with a measly 800 ISO, and handheld shooting at 1/30 or faster is simply not possible in genuine low light. However, keeping shutter speeds reasonable for tripod use is another consideration – tripods attract attention, and it’s not usually positive. Keeping shoots quick and minimizing time on a street corner is usually preferable over 20-minute exposures.
Where Fomapan 200 failed as a truly handheld low light film, it more than made up for it in raw performance. Despite being one of the cheapest stocks available, it handled a two stop push with distinction, holding on to highlights and rending pleasing midtones while displaying excellent sharpness and contrast. Unlike the box speed results, this far exceeded my expectations. Even purposefully difficult scenes like the one below, stressing the push development to see how far it gets into poorly-illuminated shadows, still delivered usable tones in nearly every zone. Depending on the intended usage this is more than acceptable performance. Taking the time for full reciprocity failure compensation, rather than just one stop over the meter, would have yielded better results in this scene.
While Fomapan 200 at 800 largely accomplished its mission of being a fast T-MAX 400 or Tri-X 320 alternative, its extreme reciprocity failure past an 8” metered exposure limits its usefulness as a nighttime cityscape film. The below scene, metered at 30”, took over six minutes to expose after proper reciprocity failure compensation was applied. While this may be perfectly acceptable to some photographers, it’s worth noting for others who may be more restricted in their shooting. It’s certainly a consideration in places like New York City, where reports of hassling for innocuous tripod use aren’t unheard of. In my case it was late-night drunkards becoming very interested in the strange “old-timey” camera and wandering directly in front of the lens.
Once the necessary compensation was applied the film truly exceeded my expectations. Extreme highlights were retained, midtones landed perfectly in zone five, and deep shadows were appropriately dense with pleasing transitions. This is far from what I expected from the innocuous box of Fomapan 200 sitting in my freezer and quickly had me checking online retailers for current pricing.
At only $59.99/50 sheets (as of late September 2021), Fomapan 200 Creative is far from the bargain basement film I’d once considered it to be. It solves multiple problems, like having an affordable medium to high-speed alternative and reducing overall cost-induced shutter shyness. It performs excellently in a cheap, widely available developer, and achieves image quality good enough to print up to at least 24 inches on a side, even when pushed +2.
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