When I was starting out with black and white film photography earlier this summer, I, naturally enough, got on the internet to do some research as to the best film to use. Surprisingly to me, even at this late stage of digital hegemony, a wide variety of films remain available.

I soon found that every film has its champions and detractors, and ultimately your choice came down to personal preference. Fine grain or coarse grain? High speed or low speed? High contrast or shadow detail? As I read on, I came across the advice to buy one type of film and run through a number of rolls to get a feel for developing it, important advice as I am developing my own. That’s the sensible scientific way, but as I am a sensible scientist in my day job, I went the other way and instead bought almost every type of film and chose to develop only a roll or two of each. Much more fun.

Instructive too. I rapidly became aware of the differences in look between different makes of film, and now have a good sense of what I will get. Films I have used fall into these categories:

Low contrast, moderate grain:- Kentmere 100 and 400, Fomapan 100 and 400, Agfa/Rollei RPX 400

Moderate contrast, moderate to fine grain:- Ilford HP5+, Ilford FP4+, Kodak TMax 100 and 400, Kodak Tri-X 400

High contrast, fine grain:- Agfa/Rollei Retro 80S, Agfa/Rollei 400S IR

High contrast, extra fine grain:- Ilford Pan 50, Agfa/Rollei Blackbird

(There are more films out there I have not yet tried, the Ilford Deltas, the Lomographys and Fuji Acros for example – fun for the future.)

Interestingly, I found that I liked the looks of all of these films. There was nothing I disliked. I pondered this for a while, and realised that each was bringing out a component of the image that could be considered valuable. For certain applications, high detail for example, a grainier film was less than optimal but the image gained a certain diffuse attractiveness that compensated. In any case, if you want high detail, go for the almost clinical perfection of digital. No, in each and every case, the quality of the film itself added a element of atmosphere that influenced the image one way or the other, but ultimately it was the quality of the composition and the technical skill required to get a good exposure that counted more.

But now I know, having experimented, what type of film to use to get a certain mood. Coming from digital where post-processing is the mood-adding step, this requires a reordering of photographic priorities. This pre-processing, as it were, could be considered as limiting. On the other hand, it frequently produces results that are unexpectedly artistically satisfying.

That said, I have settled on these films for majority of my uses: Kentmere 100, Ilford FP4+, Ilford HP5+, Agfa/Rollei 400S IR and Ilford Pan 50.

(Some film examples here.)