What is the reason that drives a photographer or an analogue lover to use chromogenic black and white film in 2021?
Personally, I appreciate them for the almost total absence of grain and the way they surrender detail. I like their characteristics and you feel good using them. Don’t get me wrong, I am a great admirer of the grain produced by traditional black and white films, but, in some types of photography, I look for that “cleanness” in the details that ILFORD XP2 Super — one of the only remaining chromogenic black and white film still made today — manages to make possible.
Currently, the part of the world where these films find a large audience of fans is Japan. Further West in Italy, France, Germany, and England, these black and white films were historically snubbed and considered “impure”, the chemical process seen as inferior — the “son” of color photography. In Italy, for example, it is not considered an “artistic film”.
Research into chromogenic films began in the 1940s, during World War II, for military purposes. The idea was to create films with excellent latitude for spy planes and military espionage missions, which could be developed with almost any type of chemistry.
Forty years later, in the 80s, chromogens came back in vogue for technical purposes and found its place in publishing and journalistic photography. In this sector, the possibility of developing black and white and colour films using the same development baths greatly lightened the costs and halved the time taken to produce journalistic services for newspapers and other types of publications.
The nominal sensitivity of chromogenic films is usually 400 ISO, but in fact it varies between 400 and 600 ISO giving the film a great versatility of use.
The first company to establish itself on the market with such a film was ILFORD, with its XP1 ISO 400 film, followed by Kodak, Agfa and Konica who produced their own versions with the same characteristics.
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But what is so characteristic of chromogenic films compared to classic black and white films? In practice, the photosensitive emulsions of these films have silver halide salts similar to those of ordinary B/W films, which are sensitive to all visible light (just like classic panchromatic films). They are also characterized by the presence of dye couplers, as in negative color films.
The difference is that in each layer is found a mixture of couplers formed by yellow, magenta, and cyan. During the development in C-41 we see a classic chromogenic reaction, that is silver metal acts as a catalyst for the formation of dyes.
After development, metallic silver turns into complex salts that will be made soluble in fixing. They will then be eliminated in the final wash.
Once the treatment is completed, a neutral color image is obtained, formed by a mixture of yellow, magenta, and cyan dyes. The structure of the chromogenic B/W films provides two UV and scratch-proof protective surfaces, in between are placed three panchromatic layers of different sensitivity, in order to better exploit the light energy during exposure. Finally, there is an anti-halation layer.
I don’t know if I managed to convince you, but I think I gave you some good reasons to experiment and try to “get your hands dirty” with ILFORD XP2, one of today’s longest-lived films despite its “impure” nature. It has seen many noble films come and go that were not able to live for quite as long.
I started using it 5 or 6 years ago and I love the very bright blacks and whites and its three-dimensionality. It is a film that has given me a lot of satisfaction even in print.
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It was reading the columns of the late Roger Hicks that started me using the Chromogenic films. Roger used Ilford XP1 then XP2 extensively. The convenience of taking XP2 into a High Street lab/processor intrigued me and I liked the resultant grain structure. I’ve tried Kodak’s BW400CN too as Boots stocked it here in the U.K until it was discontinued. I never used the Japanese version. I now use Ilford XP2 Super for 80% of my documentation photojournalism and am fortunate that my local processing outlet stocks it. I like to keep a good stock in the pantry. I recall reading that you view a colour image but read a mono one. I have my negatives scanned to disc and I view them on an old laptop. Thus my pair of Leica M3 bodies (1955 & 1960) are now digital cameras just like my pair of Nikon D1X (not as much fun as the shabby old M3 stuff!).
Another advantage would be to be able to use digital ice when scanning!
I have used Ilford XP2 extensively. I love it! No grain in the skies, beautiful skin rendition and it loves chrome/shiny surfaces.
I quite love those films, having shot a few rolls of Kodak BW400CN. And maybe 1 roll of ilford XP2 but I’m not sure about that. The intriguing thing at the time was that the mainstream labs did run it on their machines without any surcharge and you could also have a CD (not with standard B&W).
But often they did not color correct the prints and you had a nasty color cast.
Thanks for the article!