As the film speed number doubles the faster film requires half the light to form an image. So ISO 100 film needs half the light of ISO 50 (ISO 100 is twice as fast as ISO 50) and ISO 400 film needs one eighth as much light as ISO 50 (ISO 400 is eight times as fast as ISO 50).
ISO 50 is a slow film to use when there is ample light to allow an acceptable exposure and/or the final print must have minimum graininess. ISO 400 is a faster film to use when there is low light available and/or graininess does not matter to you in the remaining print.
What Film to Use?
Fuji Neopan Acros 100 Very Fine Fine grain quality for a wide range of photography applications.
The image on a black and white film negative is actually the inverse of the actual image. That is to say, all the areas that show clear on the negative will be black on the print and all black areas of the negative will show white. When printing onto photo paper light is able to pass through the clear areas of the negative resulting in more light hitting the paper and leading to a dark spot. Black areas of the negative are the opposite, resulting in less light hitting the paper to leave a white spot. Of course, there are many shades of gray in between depending on the density of the negative. Here is an example of a black and white negative and it’s printed counterpart.
So what does this mean for black and white photography? As stated, the salt grain of black and white film decides the proper speed of a particular film as well as the graininess of the final print. This alone is probably the most important aspect in selecting a black and white film to use. To make it easy on the photographer the film speed is represented as an ISO number (formerly known as an ASA number). Typical film speed ratings are ISO 50, ISO 100, ISO 125 and ISO 400, however there are higher ISO films available and some in between. The higher the ISO number the faster the film becomes and therefore the grainier the film becomes.
There are two commonly available black and white film brands: Kodak and Ilford. Fuji is also an option for black and white photography though may be slightly more difficult to find compared to the other two. Unfortunately there is no definitive answer as to which film you should start with. Instead, it would be highly recommended that you work with various films to find out which one you like best. Please see the black and white film page of this website for a quick comparison of various brands and speeds.
From this point you can make a decision on the film speed you’d like to use for black and white photography. To quickly recap:
Ideal for low-light or outdoor scenes, can be pushed 2-stops.
The amount of silver salt and grain in black and white film decides whether the film is more or less sensitive to light. Fine grain film will require more light to produce an image and large grains will require less light to produce an image. The amount of grains on the film help determine the ISO film speed of the black and white film. Fine grain leads to slow film and large grain leads to fast film. To learn more, please see the ISO film speed page.
There are a number of black and white (b&w) films available for 35mm film cameras and medium format film cameras that can still be found in stores. While there are also a number of special films that require unique processing, it would be best to work with the basic black and white film types and learn how the film works before using these special films. The three major brands of black and white films are Kodak, lford, and Fuji. Unfortunately, the best advice for any beginner in black and white film photography, like color film or slide film photography, would be to try a variety of brands and subtypes within those brands to find the right film for you.
Black and white film is also available in C-41 processing film. If you plan to create or have a darkroom set up for black and white photography, you will not be able to process this film with standard black and white processing and may have difficulties printing it as it is color-based emulsions.
One key to black and white photography is understanding film. Black and white film is made up of three layers: a light-sensitive emulsion layer, a plastic strip to support the emulsion, and an anti-halation layer designed to capture light that has come through the emulsion and plastic and prevent it from bouncing back. The emulsion layer contains grains of silver salt that, once exposed by light, react with a developer and break down into pure silver. These grains of salt are the key to understanding fast or slow film. Larger salt grains require less light to create an image and is therefore a faster film as it can be exposed quicker. Smaller salt grains, conversely, require more light to create an image and is therefore a slower film. These grains translate to a final print; faster films have larger salt grains and result in a grainier print than slower film.
Fuji Neopan 400 400 Fine Wide exposure latitude, push processing capability to EI 1600
Very fine detail and lack of grain; good for fine art photography.
Ideal for low-light or outdoor scenes, can be pushed to 3200.
It should also be noted that 35mm black and white film typically comes in two lengths: 24 exposures and 36 exposures. It is not uncommon to get a few extra images from each roll of film; but once you’ve taken the “maximum” amount of exposures you should proceed with caution for any additional shots as they may or may not come out once processed.
Quick Guide to Black and White Photography Part 1 – Choosing Film
Simple black and white films are made of three layers. First, there is a light-sensitive emulsion layer. The emulsion contains grains of silver salt that are able to absorb light and react with a developing chemical to break down into pure silver, remove the silver, and reveal an image on the negative. Second is a layer of plastic to support the emulsion. Third is an anti-halation layer that is used to capture light and refrain it from bouncing back to the emulsion. This final layer eliminates blurry images or foggy film.
Once you have selected your film you are ready for the next step – preparing your camera for use, including loading the film into the camera.