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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Colorful Black and White

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

There was a time a decade or so ago when everyone's eyebrows would raise in surprise if you declared that you were using a black and white film developed in color chemistry.

You'd have to explain that the film was supposed to be developed in the same soup as color print film and that, no, this was not some edgy new cross-processing technique you came up with to complement your new nose ring.

Today, however, if you were to start a conversation with a fellow photographer about this kind of film, the likely response simply would be: "Oh, really? Which one?"

Because in the Old Testament of these chromogenic films, XP-1 begat XP-2, which begat T400CN, which begat XP-2 Super, which begat Portra – and its amateur cousin Select.

But, as we will see, not all chromogenics are created equal.

The acceptance of chromogenic film (i.e., BxW film developed in conventional C-41 chemistry, of the type found at your local one-hour lab) has been phenomenal over the past ten years simply because this film is so damn good at what it does. It gives you amazing exposure forgiveness, incredibly tight grain, not to mention superb shadow and highlight detail.

I was amazed at the results I got with XP-1, the first chromogenic black and white film, made by the British firm Ilford, when I was shooting on location for my first photography book, Faces of the Eastern Shore, in the early '90s. The tight grain and wide tonal range were wonderful, but what really got to me was the film's latitude. Simply put, I could shoot this nominal 400 ISO film at speeds ranging from 200 to nearly 800 – all on the same roll of film – and get printable negatives on every frame. No pushing or pulling the film at a custom lab. No wasting any shots that were not made at the speed I finally chose to shoot at.

There were downsides, to be sure, and they remain to an extent in all chromogenic films, but especially in the current incarnation of Ilford's landmark XP-1, XP-2 Super.

First, such amazing exposure latitude necessarily means a fairly long tonal range. This, in turn, can mean somewhat flatter looking prints than those made on grittier, more contrasty films like Kodak Tri-X. But, for me, all this means is kicking up the contrast by a grade or so when I print my own stuff. Who cares if the final print, on, say, Ilford Fiber-based Multigrade, was made with a 3 1/2 filter instead of a 2 1/2? The blacks are velvety, the whites are creamy – that's all that matters.

But then there was the fact that the 4x6 machine prints I got from XP-1 and its successor, XP-2, even at a custom lab, tended to be all over the lot as to the prints' actual color. Some would look aubergine; some slightly green, others a sickly brown. Only a handful would look really black and white. These prints, remember, were made on a standard color print processor, on color paper. The differences reflected the varying densities of my individual images, my lab manager would say.

His advice? Use another film.

For years, especially in my wedding work, I thought I was stuck with using the Ilford film and making a pest of myself at the lab, demanding re-do's. (After all, I wasn't equipped to make hundreds of real BxW 4x6's by hand in my own darkroom. And even if I were, you couldn't pay me enough to do it.)

Kodak's phenomenal T400CN changed all that – and it now appears as if Big Yellow has made a great film even better, especially for long-suffering photo lab technicians.

The three images that accompany – of a sunlit garden with snatches of bright sun and deep shadow – were made on the three top chromogenic films today: Kodak T400CN, Ilford XP-2 Super and, finally, Kodak's highly-touted new Portra BxW film, which is supposed to give wedding and event shooters something to put in their camera bags along with Kodak's justly praised Portra family of color negative films. [Technical note: Emulsion-wise, Portra and T400CN are virtual clones. But Portra – like its amateur version, Kodak Select – sits on a true color film base. This is important with machine printing. Read on.]

I tested each of these films identically, using the same lens, the same metering. Each film was rated at its nominal ISO of 400. Other tests, not shown here, were made under strobe lighting.

I had the film developed at PhotoPro in Kensington, Md., a custom lab/pro shop with state-of-the-art equipment. At my request, processing manager Joe Penot ran all three films without any significant corrective filtration or adjustment, just to see what the baseline imagery would be – and to see what the average film technician, especially someone not as skilled as Joe, would have to contend with on the first go-round.

Portra all but ran away with the honors, with a virtually perfect succession of beautiful black and white prints emerging from the processing machine with no special handling or filtration. The prints looked great on both standard glossy paper and the matte-finish version of the paper Kodak has developed for its Portra films.

By sad contrast, the unmanipulated Ilford prints were all a brackish brown, betraying the same annoying characteristic that bugged me a decade ago. There was no way I could give such prints to a client – they'd all have to be re-done, with me possibly having to foot the bill for custom prints, with custom filtration.

The prints on T400CN, which remains, for now anyway, my favorite BxW chromogenic film, came in second, with prints that had a slight magenta cast, that easily could be removed. What surprised both Joe and me, though, was that the T400CN, showed noticeably more shadow and highlight detail than did the Portra or Ilford film, even though Portra and T400CN are supposed to be virtual clones. If the film's chemistry is, in fact, identical, the cause for the difference may be in the film base.

With three excellent chromogenic films on the market – T400CN, Portra and Select – Kodak is likely to do some weaning. I am told that the "marketplace" may determine the future of T400CN – an indication that Kodak may be positioning itself to target Portra, in both 35mm and 120, for its chromogenic pro users; Select for its predominantly 35mm amateur market.

If that is the case, Kodak will make more on each film sale since Portra lists for at least two bucks a roll more than T400CN.

And before I happily pay that kind of money, I want Big Yellow to tweak Portra to give better shadow and highlight detail.

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
Ilford's XP-2 Super, though showing good shadow detail and highlight rendition, was worst in terms of producing an acceptable black and white print on a commercial color printer using no special filtration or manipulation.

©Frank Van Riper
Still my favorite chromogenic black and white film, Kodak T400CN, produced an acceptable, though slightly magenta, machine print – easily correctable with filtration. The shadow and highlight detail was easily the best of the three films tested

©Frank Van Riper
Kodak's new Portra film, virtually identical chemically to T400CN, produced a near-perfect black and white print on Kodak Portra Paper. While the shadow and highlight detail was not as good as with T400CN, the performance was still impressive.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

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Taming Your Flash

Stieglitz and New York – A Town to Match his Ego

Traveling Light(er)

Phabulous Photographers: The Gift of Time and Teaching

Digital Downsides

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