FOR YEARS I have been enamored of chromogenic black-and-white film because of its remarkable exposure latitude and incredibly fine grain. In fact, when I recently had a custom lab make four 3-by-3-foot mural prints for a museum show, the prints' clarity and sharpness astounded me. As regular readers know, I started this love affair with chromogenics (i.e.: black-and-white film developed in C-41 color print chemistry) when I started using Ilford's XP-2, then was wooed away by Kodak's superior chromogenic emulsion, T400CN.
But it's never a good idea to stick with just one film -- after all, not all situations call for the same interpretation. And every so often I longed to create some of the gritty black-and-white images of my youth, when the only black-and-white films I knew of were Tri-X and Plus-X, with an occasional Verichrome Pan thrown in for good measure.
Recently, for example, I have been going back to a tried and true formula: punishing Tri-X by pushing it two stops and shooting this normally 400 speed film at 1600. Since Tri-X is a more contrasty film than either XP-2 or T400CN anyway, you are bound to get a look much different from the silky smoothness of the chromogenics when you push this workhorse film.
Over the past several years, we have seen a number of ostensibly super-high-speed films appear, that nonetheless seem embarrassed by their ability to render grainy images in next to no light. For example, when Kodak unveiled its top speed T-Max film, TMZ 3200, the literature kept going on about how the film would produce remarkably sharp and tight-grained pictures when shot at 800. And in the past few months, Ilford has promoted its own 3200 black-and-white film, Delta 3200, by showing gorgeous pictures of canyons in the Southwest. The images were great, all right, but they were made at nothing near the film's nominal stratospheric ISO.
To which I say: What's the point?
If I want grain-free prints, I'll either shoot with XP-2 or T400CN, or with any number of other first-rate, slower speed, black-and-white emulsions, all in the ISO 100-400 range. If the only purpose of these 3200-speed films is to give me yet another way to do landscapes, what's the point?
But if I want to free myself from having to always travel with a flash or if I really want to emphasize -- not minimize -- grain for artistic effect, then these are the tools to use, especially the Delta film.
Ilford has produced a superb high-speed film here, one that beats out both pushed Tri-X and TMZ. I have used the film in both 35mm and in medium format and have been dazzled by its punch. This is a film that loves contrast and grain, yet doesn't block up highlights or hide shadow detail.
Consider this example: It was at a wedding and, since the client shared our love of black-and-white, we had some fun. This shot of a sax player alternating between two horns was made not only with Delta 3200 (rated at 3200, by the way), but also with a fisheye lens to add to the image's weirdness. This one happens to be a flash shot, but the film produced excellent contrast by available light as well. And I love the pronounced grain.
A few weeks later, at another wedding -- this time the bride was a fellow photographer -- I used the Delta film in my medium format Mamiya 6 and used this camera only under available light, which wasn't a heck of a lot. Again I was delighted with the results I got: punchy, contrasty prints, with rich blacks and whiter whites, even when bride and groom were lit by candlelight. (I should note that I was less impressed with the available light results I got from my 35mm pushed Tri-X.)
What all this tells me is that the Delta 3200 has the potential for being an all-around film and not just a late-night parlor trick of an emulsion. Shooting with it at lower speeds seems to tighten up the grain remarkably, and using it at its advertised top speed delivers on all counts, if what you seek is grit and grain. Granted, one advantage of the wide-latitude chromogenic films is that they can be shot anywhere from ISO 100 to 800 on the same roll with no change in developing time.
But, judging from the results I got, the Delta 3200 is worth the effort of keeping tabs on which rolls were shot at which ISO.
Questions or comments? Write me c/o Weekend, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Next week in this space: Stamps and Coins columnist Bill McAllister.
CAPTION: This print of a sax player alternating between two horns at a wedding reception was shot with flash and a fisheye lens on Ilford's Delta 3200 film.