In Honest Praise of Ilford XP2

By Tony Gale

Much like the first of these "In Honest Praise" posts, Ilford XP2 is a polarising force within photography; those that use it love it, and everyone else looks down on it as simply not being Tri-X or HP5+ or whatever other "proper" black and white film they prefer. I'm definitely in the first camp - but with certain caveats that come from a lot of experience.
See, one of the huge myths that I've heard about XP2 is that it can be rated from 100 to 1600 ISO without push processing. Frankly, this is bunk. Yes, you can pull an image off the film at 800ISO or higher. Yes, it's just about viewable. But this isn't to say that you should. It's far too much work for too little gain. Like most negative films, XP2 tends to benefit from slight overexposure, which is to say meter for the shadows at all times and open up slightly more than you normally would for flash exposure. Providing you follow these guidelines, you can shoot at the 400ISO box speed and get great exposures, and the huge amount of over-exposure latitude available in the film will keep detail in those highlights with very little effort in the post-processing. But, of course, beware of auto-exposure; the one roll I ever put through the Olympus Trip 35, a camera whose metering seems to be keyed into the highlights (like most auto-exposure cameras, as far as I can tell), came out hideously muddy. In this scenario, you probably would be better off pretending it's a 320ISO film just to get proper exposures.

So why would you use this film instead of the aforementioned classical film stocks, then? If it doesn't have this fabled SUPERLATITUDE and push-less processing ability, what is its point? Simply ease of use. In the modern era, where commercial black and white film processing isn't as easy to come across and costs a small fortune when you can find it, XP2 can be processed anywhere due to its standard C41 processing. And even more exciting than that is how easily it is digitised; any low-end flatbed film scanner can produce stunning results from a roll of XP2 with very little effort. An added bonus here is that Digital ICE technology - that piece of magic that allows film scanners to ignore pieces of dust and hair and remove them from the image - still works perfectly with XP2, whereas traditional silver-based black and white films (as opposed to XP2's dye-based nature) confuses it and leaves bizarre artefacts in the photo. So for most casual black-and-white shooters (read: people who are not yet developing or printing themselves) XP2 combines good quality with the most efficient workflow.

I should probably say at this point that XP2 is not the only game in town. There are two other chromogenic (read: C41-based black and white) films; Kodak's BW400CN and Fuji's Neopan 400CN. Now, I've never come across the Neopan, much less used it, but I have some experience of Kodak's offering; it's not bad. It seems to be lacking some punch compared to XP2, but is pleasing nonetheless. All of the previous point I've made would almost certainly relate to this other two films, so feel free to try those out and let me know how you got on. However, Kodak discontinued the 120 version, which is a bit of a blow; still, 120 C41 developing is almost as hard to find in some places as traditional 120 black and white developing, so it's perhaps less relevant these days.

That said, this next section is where we break away from Neopan and BW400CN, and also away from the commercial processing side of things. See, when I was at University, I found XP2 to be a godsend; I had neither the money or the space/stability to set up a darkroom or even develop my own black and white film, and the cheapness and ease of use made XP2 ideal for my needs. As such, I used a lot of the stuff. A HELL of a lot of the stuff. I really cut my teeth on XP2 and learned a lot about exposure, filtration and the like from it. Sticking to one film stock almost exclusively goes a long way in that regard. But when I graduated, I still had a lot left; I had 100ft rolls of the stuff lying around. And being as 120 developing was impossible to find in the Midlands, I'd started developing my own film, rendering the original reasons for using XP2 somewhat moot. And so I experimented.

And what do you know? XP2 actually develops very, very well as a high-contrast 400ISO black and white film when stand developed in Rodinal 1:100. The Digital ICE benefits go out of the window, but you're left with a very low-grain high-contrast image that nonetheless scans beautifully. Last winter this was my go-to method for getting something useable out of the murk that comes with December in a drizzly Britain. Forget about using filters with this method, however; even the over-the-top red filter is largely ignored due to the easily blown-out highlights of this trick - which should also be a warning to choose your shots carefully with this combination. It certainly isn't a general-use arrangement, but it's an interesting feather in a pretty well-rounded hat.

XP2 In Rodinal

Finally, as the cherry on top (because I like mixing my metaphors) - XP2 wet prints a lot better than you may imagine. And a lot better than I was led to believe (I once had a Press Photography student berate me for shooting the stuff because of how awkward it was to print). I tend to find a +5 filter on Multigrade paper works a treat, and my exposures tend to be about a minute long for an 8x10 at f/8. However, take this with a pinch of salt; I have what is possibly the worst enlarger ever, and tend to be working at about 14ºC on most nights. This is not a good combination by any means; I often struggle to get suitable contrast with even the most well-exposed shot on well-regarded traditional films. I would imagine that even the most basic of darkrooms would do a better (and quicker) job than the arrangement in my attic, but I manage.

XP2 Wet Print

So there we have it - XP2, one of the most versatile black and white films out there, providing a brilliant stepping stone between the traditional and modern methods of shooting film. There's really no reason why every beginner out there with an interest in black and white photography shouldn't be using it, and certainly enough to justify its existence to most long-time shooters.
It's just a shame it doesn't get the credit it deserves.