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.
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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