Ilford XP2 – A Smart Go-To B&W Film

Are you interested in shooting black and white and want to know what film to start with? Do you you use a lab to process your work, or do C41 at home?

I highly recommend giving Ilford XP2 a spin.

35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated at 1600, scanned without ICE

Ilford XP2 400 Super is a unique stock because it’s a chromogenic (color) film that uses the common C41 type process, yet it yields monochromatic (black and white) negatives.

It’s a really great general purpose film and is available in 35mm (both 24 and 36 exposures) and 120 as well as bulk rolls. You can also enjoy XP2 in Ilford brand disposable cameras. All these are available at B&H Photo.

35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400
35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400
35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400

XP2 has a box speed of 400 ISO, which is a good speed for shooting day to evening, indoors and outdoors, with the appropriate shutter and aperture. It can also be pushed, pulled, over and under rated. More on that in a minute.

You might see old school black and white photographers who poo poo C41 b&w film but its ease of use and special properties can’t be ignored.

The first of which is that you can drop it off for processing pretty much anywhere that film can be processed and it can be processed right alongside color films. This kind of keeps a cap on processing cost and builds in flexibility of lab choice or home chemistry. If you shot color and conventional b&w film, you might have to use two different labs, and if processing at home, two different sets of chemistry. XP2 is content to get thrown in with your Portra, Ektar, Fujicolor, etc.

35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400
35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400
35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400, contrast adjusted

There are also some advantages when scanning a chromogenic b&w film.

Digital ICE is a technology that Kodak came up with in the 1960’s to remove the appearance of dust and scratches from film as it was digitized. It works by comparing the multiple color layers of the film to determine if an element is on all the layers or only one. If only one, the element is identified by the software as dust, debris or a scratch which is only affecting the top-most layer of emulsion and the element is removed from the final scan.

Because traditional b&w film consists of only one layer of emulsion, Digital ICE does not have the multiple layers to compare and thus it cannot edit out dust. But because Ilford XP2 does consist of multiple layers, ICE will work just as it does with color film.

35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400
35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400
35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated at 1600 & processed normal

Another advantage, or perhaps just a neat characteristic of scanning XP2 is that, when scanned in full color mode, the resulting image has a cool sepia tone, thanks to the orangish color of the negative base. If you like this look, awesome. If you don’t, simple change your edit mode to b&w to remove the tone.

35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated at 1600, processed normal & scanned in CMYK color

If you like really sharp/crisp negatives, you’ll also find that Ilford XP2 is probably sharper and more crisp than a competing conventional b&w film at the same ISO. This is, in part, because images are formed by dye clouds, like color film, and not only the silver grains of true b&w. I have heard arguments about conventional b&w film being capable of producing sharper, higher resolving images than color film due to the lack of emulsion layers but it seems, at least in the case of XP2, the dye clouds win out, or at least they always seemed to with my work and APPARENT sharpness.

35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400
35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated & processed at 400
35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated at 6400, developed normal

Finally, XP2 has the massive dynamic range of modern color films. You can push, pull, over or under rate this film like crazy and still get excellent results. So while, on the surface, it may seem like a limitation that XP2 is only available as a 400 speed film if you play with it bit, you’ll soon see that this isn’t really much of a concern. Personally, I do not pull film much but Ilford states that XP2 can go down to about EL 50 in their datasheet. They also cap it at EL 800 but I really enjoy XP2 at 1600. Beyond 1600, the negatives can get pretty thin and shadows get blocky if not shooting in very contrasty light. Still, something to play with if you want to make XP2 the only b&w film that you carry.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to expose XP2 at higher ratings for darker situations, I wrote about it here.

35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated at 3200, developed normal
35mm Ilford XP2 400 Super rated at 3200, developed normal, black levels adjusted

As you can see, Ilford XP2 400 Super is a crisp, tonal b&w stock that produces deep blacks, controlled highlights and can be exposed well in a multitude of lighting situations. Varying it’s speed rating can tame or increase the appearance of XP2’s pleasing grain.

I haven’t shot XP2 or C41 film in some years, having fully transitioned to conventional b&w film. But what is so great about the film community is our diverse approaches to photography, both from a technical and stylistic standpoint. I used to love this film and still enjoy seeing new work on it. It’s unfortunate that Kodak discontinued their b&w chromogenic film, BW400CN. This makes XP2 that much more a unique, useful and interesting product to keep enjoying. And I hope that you will!

Thanks for reading and happy shooting!

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2 thoughts on “Ilford XP2 – A Smart Go-To B&W Film

    1. Changing ISO mid-roll is no different than over or underexposing mid-roll. Provided that the light and dynamic range of the film cooperate; highlights are not too blown out, blacks are not lost, and middle is close enough to where you want it, sure, there’s no reason one can’t change ISO mid roll with many films. Personally, I haven’t gone down that road because I imagine it would make understanding and controlling the results confusing.


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