Black and White Film Buying Guide

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Black and White Film Buying Guide

Digital cameras are fairly uniform in the way they process photographs, as they respond to light in the same way. There is actually very little difference between photographs taken in various ISOs, except a small amount of light noise difference which is barely noticable. The desired look is usually created after the photograph has been taken in post-production, where colour filters, effects, desaturation and so on are placed on the photo. This means that not a huge amount of thought needs to go into every shot, as the photograph can be altered in a multitude of ways afterwards.
However, with a film camera, this is entirely the opposite. The film that is chosen to be loaded into the camera, how it is shot and how it is developed, will have a huge impact on how the final image will look, as there can be no post production effects added. A certain amount of experience and skill is required on the part of the photographer to learn how to take successful photographs using this medium.
Follow the guide below to learn how and why to buy black and white film, and the attributes to look out for when making such a purchase.

Choosing to Use Black and White Film

There are several reasons why a photographer might consider buying and using black and white film, and those reasons will vary according to the person. However, there is something inherent about black and white photography that simply looks romantic, cool, and vintage. The right film can be relatively inexpensive, and can give some fantastic photographs if used correctly.
When using black and white film, it is all about contrast, which is a theme photographers love. Picking the right subject matter is even more important than with colour photography. But using black and white does not necessarily mean having to dispense with colour altogether. Colour filters in yellow, green, or red can still be applied to great effect, giving a natural looking photo.

Choosing ISO level

A big difference between shooting digital and shooting film is that with film, the ISO cannot be changed, so once it has been chosen it will remain the same for the whole roll of film. As with digital, higher ISO film will have higher contrast, less detail and produce photos more 'grainy' in appearance to photographs taken in lower ISO.
If shooting in normal lighting levels, a good film in the 100-200 ISO range will be fine. If shooting in a dimly lit area, for example at a music concert, a film at around 1600 ISO or higher will be required in order to take suitable shots.
There are a lot of different black and white films available on the market, usually ranging from ISO 25 to ISO 3200. Although generally these type of films follow the same higher contracts, less detail and more grain rule in the same way digital photos do, this is not always the case, as age of the film and brand will have an influence in the tonal characteristics and grain level. It is suggested that sufficient research into the intended purchase of black and white film is made before the user buys anything.

Developing Black and White Film

The development process and time it takes varies greatly, unlike that of colour film processing or modern digital printing. Black and white film can be sent to a lab, which can be expensive due to the fact that each photograph needs to be developed by hand. The quality of the photographs will be vastly superior to the same ones produced by a cheaper high street store, and many stores do not possess the capacity to produce black and white negative photos. For those possessing the necessary technical knowledge, producing black and white photographs at home can be a simple and cost-effective to get the desired photos.
It is always worth bearing in mind never to put black and white film negatives through the same process as that of colour film, unless the black and white film is suitable, and most are not. Doing so will only result in blank negatives due to a bleaching step used in the process of colour print production, ruining the black and white film permanently.

Cold-stored Film

Wherever possible, fresh film should be bought. This can be fairly costly, particularly if buying in bulk. For users wishing to purchase a lot of film or those who do not have budgets able to stretch to buying a large amount of fresh film, buying film that has been frozen can be a cost effective way to get the desired amount.
Many photographers have frozen, also described as 'Cold stored', film that they sell, and even if the expiry date has passed on the film, provided it was frozen in good time, it should still be useable. Using film that has been frozen will have no damage on the quality of the film itself, as long as the film has been given sufficient time to thaw (usually a day or so) before it is loaded into a camera. Even a fridge can be a suitable way to store film, although a freezer is better as the colder it is, the better the conditions for the film. Heat is very bad for film, as it causes the emulsion to break down, leading to faded colours, a more grainy final appearance and possibly other damage.

Recommended Black and White Film

The ideal brand and type of black and white film will vary according to the individual's needs, but there are some brands and types that come more recommended than others. An ideal film for those wishing to develop at home is Kodak Tri-X, a classic 400-speed black and white film. Ilford HP5 is another 400-speed film often recommended by those in the business.
Ilford XP2 is often used by those who do not develop their own film, as it is one of the few types of film that is suitable for developing in a lab using C41. These are colour negative chemicals, used in colour film processing. This means it can be taken to an ordinary printing lab such as one in the high street, as it will not be damaged by the colour process.
This is not an exhaustive list and other makes and types are available.


Using black and white film can have a very different effect on photographs than the more commonly used colour film. Black and white film can be relatively inexpensive to purchase and can even be printed at home if the right skills and tools are had. Before making a purchase, it is highly recommended that to do sufficient research in order to be sure of making the correct purchase, as there are differences in the look of black and white photographs according to the type or brand, and this should be carefully considered. By choosing the right film and printing using correct methods, a photographer can have black and white photographs to be proud of.

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