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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

WHEN NEWER IS BETTER

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

In the course of running a test camera through the hoops recently, I shot two rolls of black-and-white film under nearly identical conditions.

Yet despite the similarity of shooting conditions, there were dramatic differences between the two films - even though each had the same nominal ISO and even though each was processed identically by the same custom lab.

The films in question were Kodak's T-Max P3200 (TMZ), which has been around for years, and Ilford's Delta 3200, a comparative newcomer to the ranks of high-speed BxW emulsions. To my eyes and contact sheets, there was simply no comparison: the Delta 3200 ate TMZ's lunch in terms of snap, shadow detail and D-Max (richness of blacks).

Oh, the TMZ gave me pictures, all right, but the crispness of the Delta 3200 images was almost unfair by comparison. Kind of like setting beef Wellington next to a Wendy's hamburger. (Sorry, Dave.)

In both cases, I was shooting by available light, to test my camera's meter, but also to compare the two films. Each time, I rated the film at 1600 and had my lab, Chrome Inc., of Georgetown, pull the film one stop. I did this deliberately and, frankly, out of habit. Whenever I work at the edge of the technological envelope - in this case with two of the highest-speed emulsions on the market - I tend to take manufacturer's claims with a grain of salt. So I had the lab pull the film to compensate for the fact that I was allowing more light onto the film than theoretically was necessary. (Here I have to admit: If I really took speed claims with a grain of salt, I would have shot the film at 1600 and had it processed normally - but that's another story and another column.)

What struck me after I'd studied the contact sheets for a while was that these results were precisely the opposite of what I had gotten the last time I had refereed a Kodak/Ilford matchup - between the manufacturers' two heavyweight chromogenic B&W films, Kodak T400CN and Ilford's venerable XP-2. In that case, the Kodak film was clearly superior to XP-2 on virtually every level - including, and possibly most important, in its ability to produce beautiful and uniform machine prints. (This appears to be true even when T400CN is compared with Ilford's improved XP-2 Super.)

In each of these separate tests - TMZ vs. Delta, T400CN vs. XP-2 - the results were unambiguous: One film clearly was the superior emulsion, at least to my taste. So much so that I now use T400CN as my all-around black-and-white film. I use it for events and weddings in which I am shooting with bracket-mounted flash. I use it for editorial, commercial and portrait layouts, in which I am shooting under everything from available light to multiple strobe setups. And the Delta 3200? For me it's a great wedding film, for capturing fast-moving events, either by available light or flash. That extra snap I referred to earlier renders wedding gowns and tuxedoes beautifully, with just the right amount of grain to give the image immediacy and punch.

(And the Delta film has an added advantage: The stuff tightens up its grain remarkably when shot at ISO 800. Recently, on a job for New Scientist Magazine of London, I had to photograph a scientist under less-than-ideal conditions at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. The museum didn't even want me there, much less setting up lights, and the scientist only had a brief window free one afternoon. "Don't move," I said, "I'll be right down." I wound up shooting his portrait in medium format with bracket-mounted flash, using the Delta film rated at 800. The results were astonishingly good.)

What all this says to me is not that one film is bad and the other good. What it says to me is that competition in the photographic marketplace clearly improves things in the long run for photographers. Consider: In each case I cite, it was the newer film that ran away with the better test results.

Granted, there are some films that have been around for donkey's years and for good reason. Kodak's workhorse Tri-X, or its legendary Kodachrome 64, for example. Or Ilford's HP-5. Each of these emulsions has carved a niche for itself among photographers who have grown comfortable with precisely what these films can do.

In the case of Delta 3200, the film seems almost magical: offering comparatively tight grain at "low" ISOs like 800, yet serving up punchy, contrasty grain at higher speeds. In fact, when I remember back to the days when I used to heat up my developer to create golfball grain in Tri-X rated at 1600 or better, I think about how all I have to do now is rate this film at its nominal ISO to get similar, if not more impressive, results. Sometimes, newer is better.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

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