Ilford HP5+ Film Review
A Standard of Versatility and Image Quality for Black and White Film11 min read by
Ilford HP5 Plus by Harman Technology is one of the best-known and longest-living film products. The first HP (short for “Hypersensitive Panchromatic”) was introduced in 1931 for dry plate cameras. Today, it’s available in a large variety of roll and sheet sizes from 35mm to 20x24” as it remains one of the best-selling black and white films ever made.
In this review, I’ll share my tips and impressions after four years with HP5+. But first, let me introduce you to this film’s rich history and its impressive specs:
A brief history of Ilford and HP5+.
Ilford, a Harman Technology brand was founded in Alfred Hugh Harman’s basement in 1879 — just 52 years after the first photograph was produced. It was then named Britannia Works; however, Alfred lost the rights to label his products with that name in a lawsuit. And so in February 1886, he rebranded his photosensitive materials in Ilford, after his hometown.
Ilford was also known through its Selo brand that was selling its films between the 1920s and the 1940s.
Hypersensitive Panchromatic (HP) film was introduced in 1931 for dry plates and then again in 1935 in roll form. It was updated in 1939 and renamed HP2, 1941 — HP3, 1965 — HP4, 1976 — HP5.
1976. Ilford launch their new 400 ISO HP5 film at Photokina. Initially there was a world shortage of this admirable product. The first batches of HP5 were exclusively in the 35mm format and were only sold in Germany, a country selected because it was (at that time) the most profitable marketplace.
HP5+ was introduced in 1989.
There’s a branding reason Ilford uses Plus or “+” in their emulsions’ names. HP5+ is grouped with FP4+ (est. 1935) and Pan F+ (est. 1948) in the Plus range of films. Films in Ilford’s Plus range are all the latest generations of “established” emulsions in ISOs 400, 125, and 50.
Ilford’s other famous range is Delta which uses newer (est. 1990) technology with finer grain at the cost of a narrower dynamic range and a smaller margin of error for development times.
Curiously, many of the improvements HP5+ gained over its plus-less predecessor were apparently tailored for press photographers (Photo Pro issue 4, 1989). Pushability up to ISO 3200 was one of them. So was the slightly finer grain and a bit more shadow detail than its fierce competitor for the press market, Kodak Tri-X.
33 years later, or 91 years since its introduction, HP5+ still enjoys popularity amongst film photographers. Though the press no longer uses this film, it’s thoroughly enjoyed by those who participate in the modern analogue renaissance.
Ilford HP5 is our best selling black and white film, and probably one of the best selling black and white films in the world.
Grain structure, resolution, sharpness.
When shot at box speed, Ilford HP5+’s grain looks to be about the same size, perhaps slightly grittier than that of Kodak Tri-X 400.
Tri-X and HP5+ are often compared because of their similar age (80+ years on the market), box speed (ISO 400), and application (made for press photographers).
Tri-X’s data sheet lists its RMS granularity index of 17 when developed in Kodak HC-110, which is slightly chunkier than Provia 400F’s RMS 13 (a discontinued ISO 400 colour slide film) and a lot chunkier than Fujifilm’s Neopan Acros’ RMS of 7 (the only black and white film in production by Fuji).
Ilford does not list any grain size or image resolution measurements for HP5+ though I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s identical to Tri-X’s RMS 17.
In practice, HP5+’s grain isn’t visible on mobile devices from 35mm scans (unless you zoom). But if you want to avoid it on larger displays and print, it’s best to shoot HP5+ in medium or large format.
As with Tri-X, HP5+’s grain is present, yet not overwhelming. It neither muddies the image nor takes away from fine detail.
✪ Note: All HP5+ scans in this article were shot on 35mm film and developed in Ilfotec DD-X which, according to Ilford, develops the finest grain and “best overall image quality.”
Film grain can appear smooth or sharp. Smooth grain will fade from view while taking some detail away also. Sharp grain may help reveal some fine elements in your images. Grain sharpness can change depending on the developer though the film itself plays a significant role in its appearance.
HP5+ tends to create images with very sharp grain — especially when developed in Ilfosol 3. And so in all formats and with most developers, you can expect lots of detail, even with softer lenses.
Dynamic range and contrast.
On paper, HP5+ shows 3.5 lux-seconds of useful exposure. This converts to about 12 stops of usable dynamic range.
In practice, HP5+ can capture details from difficult lighting conditions better than most, if not all films. Thanks to its impressive dynamic range and generous latitude, this emulsion can deal with light better than some top-of-the-line digital sensors in 2022. Naturally, this makes HP5+ suitable for beginners and for metering light without a light meter using the Sunny 16 rule.
HP5+ behaves as a medium contrast film when exposed perfectly. However, it’ll give you more contrast if you under-expose it and slightly less if you over-expose. All black and white negative film does this, though HP5+ does it better than most: its shadows reserve more detail than many comparable films (including Tri-X) and its highlights are least likely to get washed out by over-exposure.
✪ Note: I use this method to scan all film for my reviews. It creates consistent results that make understanding and comparing the emulsion’s colour/contrast attributes possible.
HP5+ demonstrates its dynamic range well in the photo I took from the inside of my car (above):
It certainly has limits — for example, the lower part of the car interior shows a lot of contrast and some significant loss of detail in the deepest shadows. But the light-grey roof material looks perfect — you can even read the airbag warnings on the visor.
Everything on the street outside the vehicle is also legible. The sky looks unnaturally bright (I don’t think it was particularly hazy that day) though I’m sure this can be corrected with a yellow filter.
Better yet, it’s easy to restore your highlights with HP5+ scans — a property that Tri-X lacks (more on that later).
✪ Note: HP5+ isn’t better than Tri-X on all accounts. For example, Tri-X’s slightly steeper contrast profile can look better in photos needing drama. Tri-X is also easier to scan thanks to the clear base.
Ilford HP5+ exposure guide.
If you want the best quality image, rate your Ilford HP5+ at ISO 400 and develop normally. You won’t be disappointed.
Or you can rate HP5+ at ISO 200 and develop normally to dial back the contrast in scenes with dark/stark shadows. Thankfully, this film retains a lot of tonal range in the highlights; meaning that you can “rescue” your highlights in Photoshop with relative ease, should your images appear too bright.
You can shoot Ilford HP5+ as if it’s an ISO 800 film and develop normally. Your results will have more contrast which you may still adjust digitally or in print.
However, if you push- or pull-process your HP5+, it’ll likely become more sensitive to over- and under-exposures and require finer metering for best results.
For reciprocity failure (changes to your shutter timings during extra-long exposures) refer to the chart above or its source.
Developing Ilford HP5+.
HP5+’s appeal extends to the development process. For starters, it’s “less sensitive to over processing,” writes Ilford, which makes them “ideal for people learning about film photography.”
Ilford’s technical information sheet includes some guidance for the company’s own developer line. But if you want times/ratios for developers from other brands, Massive Dev Chart is the place to go.
All of the photos in this article have been developed in Ilfotec DD-X by The Lab. I think they did a wonderful job.
There are lots of samples of this film developed using various methods in all kinds of developers online. There’s a lot of room for experimentation: I’m thinking coffee, beer, and garden foliage.
Pushing and pulling Ilford HP5+.
When developed normally, HP5+ is a remarkably versatile emulsion. Its box speed ISO 400 is already ideal for a wide range of light conditions with most cameras — from full sun to indoor lighting without a tripod. But the film can also be shot at ISO 200-800 without significant loss of detail. HP5+ has a huge dynamic range; its contrast can be changed by adjusting exposure and readjusted digitally.
The film’s ability to tolerate over- and under-exposures, as well as its dynamic range, diminishes slightly when you push- or pull-process HP5+. Still, HP5+ famously holds its contrast profile better than most other emulsions. Ilford claims “good image quality” with up to +3 stops pushed (shot at EI 3200 and push-processed) though there’s no shortage of examples online of people pulling and pushing this film far beyond factory recommendations.
Scanning and post-processing.
Black and white film is typically easier to scan than colour negatives. HP5+ makes the task extra user-friendly by drying flat. Most of the film’s dynamic range is below D-max of 2, which gives the non-dedicated and lower-end film scanners a better chance of accessing shadow details.
Better yet, a good scan of HP5+ will respond well to contrast curve adjustments, which isn’t a given for all black and white films. Both Tri-X and Acros, for example, showed noticeable loss of detail and grain exaggeration whenever I played with Photoshop Curves.
In the image below, you’ll see that the initial scan (top-left) lacks definition — which appeared even more evident when I printed it. A slight Curves and Smart Sharpen adjustments fixed that. The grain became more evident, of course, but the grittiness worked well with the subject and my printer.
How much does Ilford HP5+ cost, and where to buy it.
HP5+ is available in more formats than most other emulsions. Though I haven’t seen it for sale in 110, medium format and large format sheets are sold at most stores that specialize in this stuff. You can even order ultra-large format sizes during Ilford’s annual ULF sheet film ordering window. This year, you have until August 19th to place your request.
As of July 18, 2022, a single roll of 35mm/36exp. Ilford HP5+ costs just under $8. Its price has been going up gradually over the years since 2018 (when I started tracking major film prices). Still, it’s one of the cheapest and most reliable films you can buy today.
If you like this film, you can save a bit of money by buying it as a bulk roll. You’ll need a bulk film loader tool to do this and HP5+ in 50’ or 100’ variety.
If you’re interested in film prices and would like to stay on top of them, the best way is to subscribe to the free semi-annual reports on film costs. I do all the hard work surveying a curated variety of film stores across the world on this and many other film stocks.
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Ilford HP5+ film purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!