Hi! My name is Daniel and I live in Helsinki, Finland. I “rediscovered” film around 1.5 years ago (at the time of writing) and since then, I haven’t shot much in the way of digital – including about a year of having no digital cameras at all.
To me, film is superior in every aspect – its tones, grain, and the way it renders in general. I hear that digital sensors are overcoming film in every way these days but have personally found this to be untrue.
Of all the problems I had with digital photography there was one that always got me; photograph in the dark looked like crap. Even with good full frame bodies, they still looked awful to me.
Noise reduction…man, this phrase still makes me cringe. Here’s what I cover in this article.
Table of contents
Jumping back into film…and processing
I went out and picked up a bargain Canon EOS-1 and a few rolls of ILFORD HP5 PLUS in order to give film another try. I shot plenty of film in the 90s with my Pentax point-and-shoot, but I never had a chance to shoot film of this quality, so I was pretty excited.
The first few rolls completely blew my mind – which I think is a matter for a separate article. I was impressed but the real question was could I expose it at higher EIs and still get good results?
For that, I figured I needed to start developing film myself as well, so I picked up what I needed for home processing and went out on the darkest Finnish winter night and shot a couple of rolls of ILFORD HP5 PLUS rated at EI 1600.
Thus, my first ever home cooked film was push processed!
The negatives looked great (the very first rolls of film I processed at home – magic!), but it was when I looked at the scans that I said to myself: “some of these are the best shots I have ever made”. To top it all off, the scans were from a cheap Epson V550 scanner – not analogue prints. Even then, they looked better than any high ISO photographs I was ever able to make with my digital cameras (including FUJI X bodies).
The grain and sharpness on these rolls – as I look back at them now – were not too good, but still better than expected.
I picked up ILFORD DD-X for the job and I’m happy I did; it’s an amazing developer for both box speed processing and pushing. I started using it regularly and, because Finnish winters are very dark, I pretty much shot everything at higher ratings than box speed.
As a result, I started to build some experience.
Developing technique: considerations
There are few things to consider while pushing. Contrast increases due to lost detail in shadows, so it’s better to agitate very slowly and carefully. I typically do inversions/rotations initially for 30 seconds and then 1 every half a minute.
I’ve personally found out that it’s crucially important how long you agitate in the beginning – a 1 minute initial agitation should only be used for pull processing, or for rolls where there are weak contrast scenes. At least, that’s the case with ILFORD developers.
Another useful technique is to agitate twice less in the last third of your development time – say, if I develop for 10 minutes, during the last three minutes I would agitate only once a minute. It is a commonly known technique to reduce the grain, and it works extremely well – even for box speed processing.
As for exposures, I found it’s better to use semi-automatic camera modes when shooting, or in the case of fully manual cameras, watching that your exposure is more or less spot on.
Rating film higher ASA/ISO is the same as underexposing it by corresponding amount of stops, so no need to underexpose even more. However, due to insane exposure latitude of most black and white films, it is not that important, anyway.
A more complete approach to testing
Obviously after my successful push to EI 1600, I wanted to do some EI 800 tests. It’s worth stating that with DD-X, there’s not that much difference in sharpness/resolution between EI 800 and 1600, so I after trying EI 800 out, I felt I needed to go further and try to push EI 3200 and EI 6400.
I only was gutsy enough to try such a high push after I got my Mamiya M645 Super (another favourite camera of mine). At EI 3200, night shots came out looking amazing. Grain was calmer than I thought and sharpness was outstanding. The film still tried to maintain some details in shadows, but at this rating it started to lose detail quite dramatically.
I found that it’s best to expose at these crazy high ratings at night: the shots look surreal and beautiful. To my mind, HP5 PLUS is the best film stock for night photography in general. At box speed or pulled, you can make exposures with VERY beautiful tonality, and when rated at very high EIs it provides chalk-and-charcoal night scenery.
Approaching the limit?
EI 6400 seems to be the limit for DD-X in my case and for my scanner: I got some pretty good shots, but the lack of consistency and a long time development makes it not very practical. It’s doable though and again, better in the dark with well-lit subjects…and in medium format.
Later on I pushed some daytime-exposed rolls of 35mm HP5 PLUS at EI 3200 (again with DD-X) and the results were once again great: grainy, but with a nice retro look to them, plus lost shadows/blacks, which can be great for street photography.
If you embrace that grain, you might consider shooting on the street at 1600/3200 all the time: both a great look and wide depth of field are yours, in almost any conditions.
If you want some details in shadows though, I believe that EI 800 is optimal for push processing. The “true speed” of HP5+ is usually tested around 250 I think (in my case 320) but as I’ve mentioned, when it’s pushed, the film will try to maintain shadow details as much as possible – depending of course on lighting and other factors.
At 3200, shots of dark water look awesome, different textures, trees and stuff like that come out looking surreal, because of that contrast and tonality.
As DD-X seemed to reveal its limit for 35mm at EI 3200, I tried another ILFORD developer, designed specifically for pushing – Microphen. Now, that is one outstanding developer. It adds about half a stop to the film speed, which in practice results in much better shadow detail when push processed. The grain looks much smaller and at EI 1600, it’s almost the same as EI 800, which is not much different from box speed.
Rated at EI 6400, there’s much more detail using Microphen than with DD-X – so it is absolutely fine to push to this limit even using a 35mm film. Depending on a scene, shots might not even look like they are shot on such high sensitivity.
Microphen is also good for box speed development, but pushing few stops is where it shines – not only with ILFORD but, as I came to find out, with any black and white film.
One fantastic thing about film photography is that there are so many combinations of film, exposure, ratings and chemicals that it literally keeps film photography exciting for a long time (maybe forever).
ILFORD don’t recommend to re-use 1+4 DD-X solutions for pushing film, but I did it on so many occasions and I always had good results, you just need to add up some time in development, that’s all.
Even with my fourth time using the same chemicals, unreplenished solutions pushed film for me – with some loss in quality, and a hard to anticipate outcome. But again – it’s fun, it’s exciting – so why not?
To my mind, there is no film as versatile as HP5+. I shoot it from EI 200 all the way to EI 3200 regularly. I’ve been pushing literally every black and white stock I’ve gotten my hands on so far – always with good or acceptable results – but there’s nothing like HP5+.
Kodak Tri-X 400 gives this crazy contrast, which is a specifically cool effect, but the mid-contrast nature of HP5+ seems to keep the look of your shots at a certain “quality” at all ratings.
I’ve found that another very good film for pushing is ILFORD Pan 400 – the film base is really invisible in the blacks at EI 1600, which makes it even less grainy than HP5+, so I push this film from time to time. Tht said, it has weaker tonality than HP5+.
Pushing film is not only educational, it makes film practically usable in any condition. The sheer volume of “looks” one can get is almost unlimited. I’ve read all kinds of stuff on the internet: you shouldn’t push this or that stock; night photography on film is hard and it doesn’t look good; that it’s better to not push film more than two stops…
Personally, I’ve found that all to be just a matter of experience and how daring you are. Any amateur hobbyist (like myself) can do practically anything with black and white film. Just go ahead and try it – the thrill of it is even more important than the results, but in fact I’m sure the results can raise eyebrows of even skilled photographers who never processed their own film.
HP5+ and ILFORD developers are products I would recommend for a novice – you can’t go wrong with this stuff!
Here are a couple more images before I sign off!
~ Daniel Tim
EM: If you’re interested in seeing ILFORD HP5 PLUS – as well as the three other best selling high speed black and white films – pushed even further, you can check out our High EI Shootout covering both EI 12800 and EI 25600.
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