Barnaby Nutt | Aug 2, 2018 | 3
Film review: ILFORD HP5 PLUS in 35mm, 120 and sheet formats
It is my opinion that some photographers mistakenly regard ILFORD HP5 PLUS and its predecessors to be a somewhat cheaper, lower quality response to Kodak’s Tri-X. I hope to demonstrate in this review that this assumption simply isn’t the case.
There’s much more to HP5 PLUS than meets the eye – something that regular shooters of this film will be more than aware of (you folks can leave now, nothing new here).
For those of you who haven’t shot this film before, this review will give you my take on the stock, with plenty of examples shot at box speed, push-processed varying amounts; and developed in a reversal process to produce slides.
Here’s what I cover:
Table of contents
When you’re ready, scroll on…
ILFORD HP5 PLUS Technical data
HP5 PLUS hit shelves in late 1989 when it replaced HP5. Unlike Kodak Tri-X, which varies in film speed between formats, all HP5 PLUS formats have a native ISO of 400 – or if you prefer, ASA 400, DIN 27 or GOST 350. According to ILFORD:
ILFORD HP5 PLUS is a high speed, fine grain, medium contrast black & white film making it an excellent choice for journalism, documentary, travel, sports, action and indoor available light photography.
Nominally rated at ISO 400, HP5 PLUS produces negatives of outstanding sharpness and fine grain under all lighting conditions. It has been formulated to respond well to push-processing and can be rated up to El 3200/36°.
Its wide exposure latitude makes it a great choice for beginners, those returning to film as well as the more experienced professional users.
HP5 PLUS can be processed in a wide range of different developers using spiral tanks, deep tanks, and automatic processors.
It’s interesting that ILFORD state that the film continues to provide “good results” when metered at up to EI 3200. My results suggest they could stretch this at least a couple of stops faster – more on that further down. Regarding HP5 PLUS’ different formats:
HP5 PLUS 35mm film is provided on a 0.125mm/5-mil acetate base in 24 or 36 exposure DX-coded cassettes. Bulk reels in 17 and 30.5 meter (55 and 100ft) lengths can also be purchased.
Medium format (120)
Medium format roll film is provided on a 0.110mm/4-mil clear acetate base with an anti-halation backing (which clears during development). It is currently available in 120 format lengths and has edge markings running from 1 to 19.
Sheet film (4×5, 8×10 and larger)
HP5 PLUS in sheet format is provided on a 0.180mm/7-mil polyester base with an anti-halation backing (which clears during development). It is available in 4×5 and 8×10 standard large format sizes all year round, and in alternate dimensions during ILFORD’s annual month-long ULF window.
I mentioned at the top of this article that HP5 PLUS (well, ILFORD HP), is seen by some as a response to Kodak’s Tri-X 400, so let’s clean that up first.
Timeline wise, the original ILFORD Hypersensitive Panchromatic film was released in plate form in 1931, some nine years before Tri-X’s sheet film debut in 1940 – it was rebranded to “HP” in 1935. If we’re comparing the time between 135/120 format film, ILFORD HP was released in 1935 compared to Tri-X in 1954 – nearly two decades later.
Let’s dig a little deeper into how we went from Hypersensitive Panchromatic film and ended up with HP5 PLUS…
In 1931, a mere ~45 years after Alfred Hugh Harman started selling his first gelatine dry plates from the basement of his home at Cranbrook Road in Ilford, the company decided to supplement it’s successful SELO orthochromatic films with two high-tech newcomers: Hypersensitive Panchromatic (HP) and Fine Grain Panchromatic (FP) roll films. They were a show stopping 160 ASA and 28 ASA respectively.
HP and FP were refined and updated over the decades that followed, becoming HP2 and FP2, then HP3 and FP3. The product line was expanded to include cine film, aerial film and yes, more of those plates.
An interesting aside, HP3 was initially released as a 125 ASA film but the recipe was updated to 200 ASA film in the early 1950’s without a change of name. The film’s speed was revised to 400 ASA in the 1960’s – not a technical update, literally a change in packaging and technical guidance.
This was an industry-wide change in recognition of the availability of better metering methods and a direct result of an uptick in the use of colour negative films, which required more precise meter reading for exposure.
To cut a long story short, ILFORD and other film manufacturers no longer needed to hedge their bets with an exposure safety margin and the bottom line was simple, BOOM! Immediate film speed increases across the board.
The HP line welcomed a newcomer in 1965: HP4. Initially available in 120 and 127 formats, HP4 was joined by 400 ASA 35mm rolls a year later. Both HP3 and HP4 were available concurrently until late December 1969 when a staged discontinuation of HP3 began.
HP5 was launched by ILFORD in 1976 at Photokina and in late 1989, it was given the “PLUS” moniker.
Considering the timings between HP4, HP5 and HP5 PLUS my reckoning is that we’re about 5-10 years late in getting HP6.
So ILFORD…? Move things along, please.
Exposure range and latitude
Like many traditional grain films (Kodak Tri-X 400 being a notable example), ILFORD HP5 PLUS deals with scenes with a wide exposure range with ease. The film’s range and latitude is broad and provides ample space for exposure to be shifted into the shadow or the light, although it deals better with maintaining highlights than it does with capturing shadow detail when shot at box speed.
Click/tap the thumbnails below to zoom in.
As with any film, the film’s range is squashed somewhat by push processing but even at extreme pushes of 5-6 stops (EI 12800-25600), the film works surprisingly well for a traditional grain emulsion; and provides excellent separation of highlights and mid-tones.
If we talk about this in terms of the Zone System for a moment, you’ll be able to capture grey tones across 6-8 concurrent zones with ease depending on where you place those shadows.
Speaking of push processing, there are a few examples above and later in this article, which show HP5 PLUS pushed to EI 800, 1000 but I have previously written about shooting and processing HP5 PLUS much further.
See part one of my High EI Shootout for examples and thoughts on HP5 PLUS shot at and developed for EI 12800. If you would like to see examples shot and developed for EI 25600, please visit part two of my High EI Shootout. A part three at EI 51200 is coming.
The film typically responds with a medium contrast result when shot and developed at its box speed of ISO 400. Much of the film’s range is bunched up in those lovely mid-tones, although highlights and deep blacks are represented very well. As mentioned above, there can be some fall-off in shadow detail in especially dark scenes but this can be controlled in development and more importantly, used to artistic effect.
Fans of high contrast black and white films needn’t be disappointed. It is perfectly possible to get a high contrast result (although not overpoweringly so if that is not your aim).
Note: I metered for the petals of the lily at EI 1000 and developed the film for a little over a 1.5 stop push.
Here’s another example with further isolation:
I mentioned above that HP5 PLUS typically retains less shadow detail in darker scenes than modern T-grain films but that isn’t a surprise considering the differences in emulsion technology. Taking advantage of this characteristic allows the photographer to isolate lighter subjects in bright relief (as the images above show), and is something to think about when you’re shooting this film in a dark environment.
My advice is to over expose it a stop if you can, or simply expose for the brightest part of the highlights on the subject, or aspect of the subject you’d like to isolate.
Continuing from the examples above, another option for better exposures in low light would be to over expose and push process one half to one full stop over the speed you shot at (over exposure plus over development) but that’s my preference and yours may differ.
The natural result of this will be increased grain but you can minimise the effect to a degree by using a high acutance developer such as Rodinal (diluted no more than 1+25), or ILFORD’s own DD-X, a developer I love but don’t use nearly enough.
Both developers, especially the Rodinal in a semi-stand will increase edge sharpness, giving the feeling of greater contrast without necessarily building up too much contrast across the entire frame. DD-X is fantastic for push processing and provides what I’d describe as a wonderful “tonally smooth” result.
Here are two examples developed in Rodinal semi stand (EI 800, top) and ILFORD DD-X (EI 1000 bottom):
There’s no denying that HP5 PLUS’ grain can be intense. Whilst the grain structure is similar to Kodak’s Tri-X 400, it still has what I would characterise as a “modern utility” – a potentially stark tonality waiting to be brought into the frame…
…but what does that mean?
Shoot the film at box speed, expose for the average meter reading of your entire scene and you will welcome a broad brush of grey tones to your photography. Details will be subtle, you’ll have some shadow detail and brilliant highlights.
It’ll eat up most of what you put in front of it and rarely give you any fuss. Remember to over expose a half or full stop in darker environments and the film will keep giving – there’s no need to use anything else, really.
Push the film, even a little, and things start getting interesting. Push the film a lot and you’ll bunch up that dynamic range into narrower band. You’ll enjoy excellent isolation of the higher-end of your mid-tones and brilliant whites.
Even on a single roll of film, you can shift your exposure to adjust contrast as and when you see fit, using under exposure, over exposure and push processing to push to pull back the film’s exposure range on a frame-by-frame basis.
Here are a few examples from a single roll. Perhaps not the best but an indication of the possibilities at least. Click/tap on the thumbnails to expand.
The film is happy to be developed in a range of developers including:
My favourite combinations/pushes are in the table below. N denotes normal processing, with the numbers that follow denoting the number of stops to push in development.
|Exposure (EI)||Pull/Push||Developer||Dilution||Temp (°C / °F)||Agitation||Time|
|400||N||Ilfotec DD-X||1+4||21C / 70F||1st min + 10 secs each min||08:45|
|800||N+1||Ilfotec DD-X||1+4||21C / 70F||1st min + 10 secs each min||09:45|
|1000||N+1 2/3||Ilfotec DD-X||1+4||21C / 70F||1st min + 10 secs each min||11:45|
|400||N||Ilfotec LC29||1+19||21C / 70F||1st min + 10 secs each min||05:45|
|800||N+1||Ilfotec LC29||1+19||21C / 70F||1st min + 10 secs each min||08:30|
|1600||N+2||Ilfotec LC29||1+19||21C / 70F||1st min + 10 secs each min||12:30|
|400||N||Kodak HC-110||1+31 (B)||21C / 70F||1st min + 10 secs each min||04:30|
|800||N+1||Kodak HC-110||1+31 (B)||21C / 70F||1st min + 10 secs each min||06:45|
The film can also be reversal developed to produce slides by following a typical two-bath plus second exposure system and it’s my understanding that ILFORD are in the process of updating their documentation at the time of writing.
Speaking of HP5 PLUS developed as slides:
This is a 4×5 sheet of HP5 PLUS developed in a two bath process as described in this article. I exposed the film at EI 800 on the suggestion of my lab and I’m happy I did. I have an EI 400 and EI 1600 test in the works, so watch this space.
From a scanning perspective, the film has been a joy to use. 135, 120 and 4×5 are as flat as a pancake. A slight lack of shadow detail in some scenes aside, it’s a joy to work with in a hybrid workflow and the negatives hold an incredible amount of detail if exposed and developed correctly.
Price and availability
Let’s not beat about the bush here, it’s cheaper than Kodak Tri-X 400 in most territories I’m aware of. The film is available in 35mm single boxed rolls, 50-roll packs (they look like candy!), and 35mm 100ft reels for bulk-loading enthusiasts. Oh, and there are single-use 35mm cameras available, too.
The film is also available in 120 medium format, although not in 220 or pro-pack offerings. Finally, the film is readily available in large format sheets, and once a year, ILFORD provide an opportunity for ultra large format sheets to be purchased during their ULF ordering window.
ILFORD HP5 PLUS has a lot in common with it’s stablemate, Kodak Tri-X 400. They come from a similar vintage and they were largely used for the same type of photography in the “heyday” of film. They both have a very specific feel to them, what some might call a “signature look”.
When searching for a film that will pick out fine detail and present fine tonality in portraits, landscapes and macro photography, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get the latter but an ever so slightly fuzzier edge to the former may leave you wanting more. Of course, shooting in formats larger than 135 will reduce this but if you want ultimate sharpness you’ll have to look for a modern grained film – that’s not what HP5 PLUS is about.
We shoot HP5 PLUS because of the one thing it delivers bags of: atmosphere and flexibility to be pulled pushed and generally battered about to fit the needs of the photographer.
I opened this article with a statement that could loosely be described as “the HP5 PLUS” problem. In my opinion, the film is too often labeled as a response to, and subsequently considered inferior to Kodak Tri-X by many photographers. Perhaps this is a geographic bias, with those from North America favouring one and those from Europe the other? It certainly appears that the rest of the world simply get on with the business of making photographs 😉
Tri-X in many ways is much grittier and grainer that HP5 PLUS and of course, it has a distinct look but that’s not to say that HP5 PLUS isn’t able to create those same “obsidian blacks”. It’s perfectly possible, just not a default feature, if you will. In this respect I personally find it easier to use because I can achieve so much diversity of tonality on a single roll of film, allowing me to shoot to my mood.
Still, I must admit that it’s often a difficult choice between the two.
I’m not sure what’s to be done about this “problem”, or even if it’s a product of my own imagination. At the very least, trying to dispel a few myths is a good place to start.
Thanks for reading.
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