Ilford XP2 Super

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: All I did was take pictures…

The Long Version: I suppose the question has to be: "Why bother?" In this age of digital photography, why bother with film at all? In a time when computer processing allows infinite adjustability as colour turns into monochrome, why bother with black and white film? And if I'm going to the trouble of using an anachronistic medium, why bother stopping half-way there? Why not just go all the way to the classic silver films like Tri-X?

Ilford XP2 Super – hereafter simply "XP2" – is a modern monochrome film that's built with the same dye-based technology as colour negative film. This means that it can be processed in the chromogenic C-41 chemistry that's used by every mini-lab in the world. The only other black and white film that can do that is Kodak's 400CN; internet wisdom has it that the Kodak film is better for prints straight from the minilab, while the Ilford film is better for everything else. I've never used the Kodak, and I've never done lab prints, so I can't really comment on that.

Traditional B&W film needs to be processed in different chemistry from colour negatives. While that's relatively easy to do at home with a minimum of equipment and space, commercial processing is rarely available and really misses the point. There's a whole sub-set of photographers who relish the craftsmanship and care that can customize the development of each roll for the very best results. As with any bastion of photographic tradition, hand-processed silver B&W photography has a huge range of slightly different options, each with their own advantages, disadvantages, and mythos to learn.

Me, I'm a digital photographer, even though I mostly use film. I scan the developed negatives and post-process them in Lightroom, just like any camera raw file. I have great respect for traditions and appreciate the craft, but have no desire to partake in it myself.

XP2 is the perfect companion for digital photography. Developed XP2 has no silver grains to cause aliasing problems when it's scanned, and it's tremendously tolerant of overexposure. Traditional B&W film has grain in the highlights, which is exaggerated by overexposure; chromogenic film has its grain in the shadows, so excessive exposure actually reduces the grain, along with a bit of sharpness. This gives it a different look from silver films, more akin to digital images, but with the exceptionally long tones that remain a solid advantage for those of us who don't need instant gratification.

I use XP2 in both 135 (35mm) and 120 formats, and there's no remarkable difference between the two except for the usual improvements in detail and tone that the larger negatives offer. I typically use it at iso320 in my small-format cameras, although I've recently been exposing it at 250 with good results. My medium-format machines don't have built-in meters, and I'll occasionally run them as much as a stop hotter. With its forgiving exposure latitude combined with the complete absence of white balance issues, using XP2 is by far the easiest thing I can do with a camera.

The only downside to working with a lot of monochrome film is that it' so monotonous in postprocessing; there's nothing bleaker than spending days facing a Lightroom catalog that's screen after screen of relentlessly grey thumbnails. After a half-dozen rolls I find myself longing for the smoothness of Portra or the punch of Ektar, so there's no way that I can commit to just using XP2 no matter how much I like it. But photos in black and white look great in singles and fantastic in a series, which makes it all worthwhile.

So why do I bother with XP2? I like it, it's easy, and it looks good. That's more than enough for me.

last updated 5 aug 2011


  1. I miss using XP2.
    Just like you said, it is super easy and rather hassle free from developing it on your own. I do favor XP2 over the Kodak version since it is purple base, staying closer to actual true B/W compared to Kodak 400CN (brown base, closer to colour film).
    Although, I am more than willing to still shoot colour until Winter comes again. That and developing Delta 400 (which is the B/W I would shoot now), is time consuming as it is tiring.
    The lead shot is as nice as always.

  2. That photo of the loading dock with the barrels - wow. I think I somehow miss B&W film, and always loved (and developed) Ilford film myself.

  3. This is an interesting counterpoint to my lament regarding film processing.

    What do you use to scan your negatives?

  4. Danny, I completely agree than B&W is perfect for winter; here in Toronto at least there's so little colour that it's a natural fit. But I also prefer B&W for my photos in New York, and keep one of my two backs for the GX680 loaded with XP2 for general use. Well, as general use as any camera weighing ten pounds can be.

    I should also mention that you had an XP2 review long before I did. You also trump me with direct experience with both XP2 and 400CN.

    Wolfgang, that photo is from my Fuji GX680, which has a negative that's 56x76mm. I do think that small format B&W film looks better than digital, but medium format results are better still. So the film can't quite take all of the credit for that photo – I think the format is a big part of it as well. The photographer, well, not so much.

    Bill, I think you mean this one – I think it makes a difference that our experience is the opposite. I found digital photography first, learned photography through it, and have moved to film as a simplification.

    Scanning for the small format is with a Nikon Coolscan V, which is their last (final) consumer-level dedicated transparency scanner. The medium format is scanned on a cheap Canon 9000F (i'm brand agnostic) flatbed with an adapter from betterscanning dot com. I use Vuescan, the world's most frequently updated scanner software, which lets me import the data into Lightroom in a raw format.


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