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The Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography: What you need to know

B&W film comes in a variety of formats (35mm, 120, large format) and speeds (ISO 6 – 3200).

Black and white (B&W) film is the the oldest and simplest type of photographic emulsion. Beginner-level film photography classes have traditionally used B&W film because it’s very easy to work with. It can be developed at room temperature using fairly benign chemicals, and prints can be made in a room illuminated by a safelight. Today, B&W film photography remains popular both for its aesthetic appeal and its ease-of-use.

An oversimplified explanation of how B&W film works

B&W film is coated with an emulsion consisting of light-sensitive silver halide crystals suspended in gelatin. Exposing these crystals to light causes a chemical change, and the pattern of exposed crystals forms an invisible ‘latent image’ on the film. When the film is developed, crystals that have been exposed to light are converted to metallic silver, while unexposed silver halide is removed from the film. This forms a visible negative image with dark spots of silver representing the lighter parts of the image. The negatives can be scanned or printed on black-and-white photographic paper, which works much like film and must also be developed.

Types of B&W film

A sample of Fujifilm Acros 100 II medium format film, which offers excellent tonal range, fine grain and good sharpness.
Photo: Dan Bracaglia

B&W films are divided into two main groups: tabular-grain and traditional-grain. Tabular-grain films, also known as T-grain films (Kodak T-Max, Ilford Delta), were developed in the 1980s to improve detail. They use a flattened crystal structure that provides higher resolution and less visible grain than traditional-grain films. Today, with digital photography offering even better resolution, many photographers prefer the larger, more visible and more random grain structure of traditional-grain films like Kodak Tri-X, Ilford FP4+ and HP5+, Kentmere and Fomapan.

Higher ISO film is more sensitive to light and therefore requires a shorter exposure

Most B&W films you can buy today are panchromatic, meaning that they respond to all colors of light and render them in shades of gray that approximate the density of the colors that they’re representing. Less common orthochromatic film is sensitive only to blue, green and yellow light, while infrared film is sensitive to infrared light that cannot be seen by the human eye. Most paper used for making black and white prints is sensitive only to blue and green light, so it can be used under red orange safelights.

Choices, choices, choices

A sample of Lomography’s Fantome Kino ISO 8 35mm film, which offers a high contrast look with crushed shadows and bright highlights.
Photo Jeanette Moses

There are several varieties of B&W film available. The biggest difference is speed, which is expressed as an ISO number (you may also sometimes see ASA – an older standard – referenced in user manuals). Higher ISO film is more sensitive to light and therefore requires a lower exposure (shorter exposure times or smaller apertures). Generally, higher speed B&W films will have more visible grain than lower speed films.

Most consumer B&W film is in the 100 to 400 range, but it’s easy to find film as low as 25 ISO and as high as 3200 ISO. (The ISO numbers on our digital cameras are based on the film model, with similar lighting requirements. Generally, 100 ASA film is fine for a sunny day, 400 is good for overcast skies, and 1600 or 3200 is useful for indoor and low-light photography without the aid of a flash.)

For many photographers, one of the joys of B&W film photography is the ability to try out different film types and find which types best suit certain scenes

Aside from speed, different films have unique characteristics. Some film emulsions have more prominent grain, while others have a grain structure that is nearly invisible. Some reproduce subtle shades of gray, while others are more contrasty, rendering your scene in stark blacks and whites. As you get more familiar with B&W film, you can make subtle adjustments in shooting and developing to maximize (or minimize) these characteristics. For many photographers, one of the joys of B&W film photography is the ability to try out different film types and find which types best suit certain scenes.

How much does B&W film cost?

A single roll of Ilford HP5 Plus 400 costs ~$6 (120 format). The grainer, more specialized Ilford Delta 3200 runs ~$8 (120 format) a roll. The 35mm versions of each run ~$7 and ~$12 a roll, respectively.

For 35mm, cheaper B&W film like Ilford Kentmere, Fomapan, and Freestyle’s Arista EDU can be found for US $4-5 per roll (either 24 or 36 exposures), while other mainstream brands like Kodak Tri-X or Ilford Delta sells for $6-$7 per roll. Specialty films (oddball emulsions produced in smaller quantities) might sell for $10-$15 per roll. Medium-format (120) film, which yields 8-16 exposures depending on the type of camera, sells for $5-$10 per roll.

One way to save money (at the cost of time and hassle) is to buy 35mm film in 100-foot rolls, which you then load yourself onto reusable cassettes using either a bulk roller or a dark bag. 100-foot rolls sell for $50 to $100 depending on the film type, and yield about 18 rolls of 36 exposures each. (One advantage to bulk rolling is you can decide for yourself how many exposures are on each roll.)

Developing B&W film

One of the major advantages of working with B&W film is that it’s fairly easy and safe to develop at home. The initial investment to DIY is around $120.

B&W film development uses a different chemical process than color film, and lab processing of B&W film tends to cost more than color film developing, simply because the there’s less call for it. While color print film development is a fairly standardized process, B&W developing is not – it differs based on the type of film, so the process requires more time and attention.

One of the appeals of B&W is that it is easy and relatively safe to develop at home. The process requires about $75 worth of hardware and another $40-$60 for chemical

One of the appeals of developing your own B&W film is that it is easy and relatively safe to do at home. The process requires about $75 worth of hardware and another $40-$60 for chemicals, which should be sufficient to get you through at least a couple dozen rolls.

Developing film at home: everything you need to know to get started

Once your film is developed, you can either print it or scan it. Most labs will print and scan your film when it’s processed, or you can buy your own film scanner. It’s possible (and not too difficult) to set up a printing darkroom at home if you have the space – you’ll need a dedicated light-tight room with safelights and enough space for the enlarger (the machine used to project the negative onto your paper), trays for developing, a water supply for washing prints, and space to hang and dry them.

Fujifilm recently launched an updated version II of its previously discontinued Acros 100 B&W film, due to popular demand.

B&W film that uses color processing

If you’re unable to process your own B&W film and cannot find a lab that will do it for you, there are a select few B&W films that are meant to be developed with the C-41 color process. Ilford XP2 is the easiest to find; Fujifilm Neopan 400CN also uses C-41 but is not available world-wide. Remember that these films must be developed using color print film chemicals; they cannot be processed with traditional B&W chemicals.

Enhancing the B&W photography experience with colored filters

While it’s not necessary to use filters when shooting B&W film, they can help to enhance and sharpen your photos. B&W film is sensitive to ultraviolet light, so a UV filter (also called a haze filter) can help make images a little more contrasty. A yellow filter will darken skies slightly and make clouds stand out better. A red filter enhances this effect further and can help flowers (especially red ones) better stand out from surrounding foliage. An orange filter will do the same, and will also hide freckles and make skin look smoother. A green filter can make grass and trees stand out in landscape photography, but will also lighten the sky.


Our ‘Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography’ is an educational series of articles focused on demystifying the ins and outs of analog photography. Geared toward those discovering (or re-discovering) film, the series will cover everything from gear, to technique and more.

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