Ilford Ortho Plus 80 Film Review

A Black and White Film That Can’t “See” Reds

10 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

Ilford Ortho Plus 80 is an orthochromatic high-resolution black and white emulsion. Originally designed as a copy film, it has recently become available in 35mm and medium format for still photography.

For the most part, this film can be shot like any other monochrome stock. As long as you aren’t mounting a red filter on top of your lens, it will work fine in most conditions. However, Ortho Plus sees the light differently from most other black and white films. This special characteristic may be used to create mildly-haunting effects reminiscent of the truly vintage camera art of the early twentieth century.

Ilford’s Ortho film can also make a great choice for foliage photography. With it, leaves will appear brighter than trunks and branches, while fruits will take on a variety of contrasts that may make your scenes look better defined without any filters or post-processing.

Even your portraits will look different with Ortho Plus. Though some photographers may shun this film for its unusual skin colour renditions, I think it has great potential — especially if you want something a little different yet not overbearing.

Thanks to its orthochromatic sensitivity — as the name rightfully implies — Ortho Plus will not register red colours in any of its exposures.

Though it may be strange to think of colour sensitivity as an important factor in producing black and white images, the effect of the missing reds is apparent, and you don’t need any special skills or tools to notice it.

Figure 1. Red and green tomatoes on Ilford Ortho Plus 80 with Minolta TC-1.

What is an orthochromatic film?

Most modern monochrome films are sensitive to the entire spectrum of visible light. Though the results we see in the exposures are black and white, they can be thought of as a balanced composite of all the colours we perceive.

For example, a photograph of a rainbow taken with modern black and white film should render as a uniform strip of grey, with neither of the colours appearing any lighter or deeper grey than the other. 🌈

Ilford Ortho Plus 80’s visible light spectrum sensitivity graph.

Black and white film that has such broad visible light sensitivity is called panchromatic. Of course, this sensitivity isn’t necessarily perfect. Panchromatic films are often less responsive to blues, so a yellow filter is often recommended with your monochrome emulsion for better sky renderings.

Panchromatic film is a modified silver halide emulsion with added cyanine derivatives that sensitize it to the entire visible spectrum. However, this technology was not available to photographers until the early 1900s. Before then, we had to make do with orthochromatic film.

Orthochromatic film is a black and white emulsion that is not sensitive to red light. It is a predecessor to the pan emulsions and the successor to the basic bromide compounds that were sensitive to blue and ultraviolet radiation only.

Note: Orthochromatic is the only kind of film that’s safe to handle under a red light. Most print paper is orthochromatic, which is how you can see the results form on it under a safelight in a darkroom without causing damage to the image.

Figure 2. Digitally-simulated orthochromatic film effect (C) from colour image (A). A panchromatic film would look like the slice (B).

Though print paper benefits the photographer by being orthochromatic — since you can develop it under a red safelight — the results are quite different when it comes to the film that’s exposed to the broad light spectrum of the real world.

Whereas print paper only needs to react to the white or blue light from the enlarger lamp in the darkroom, orthochromatic film’s tendency to ignore reds that are an important part of our natural environment produces results that may seem unnatural.

In Figure 1, above, the ripe red tomatoes photographed with Ortho Plus appear black, while the still green fruits look light-grey. A more common panchromatic black and white film would render both fruits with a similar shade of grey.

Perhaps an easier way to visualize the difference in how orthochromatic film renders the world from panchromatic film is to simulate its effect digitally. Adobe Photoshop makes it an easy task with its Black & White adjustment layer.

Figure 1, above, shows considerably darker skin tones, inversed pupil shades, and darker lips in the orthochromatic monochrome simulation (C) as compared to the panchromatic simulation (B).

If you want to see more portraits taken with an actual ortho emulsion, check out Simon Ridell’s Wet Plate Collodion article.

Figure 2, below, demonstrates the same effect along with the screenshot of my settings for the orthochromatic film simulation after applying the B&W adjustment layer.

Figure 3. Digitally-simulated orthochromatic film effect (C) from colour image (A). A panchromatic film would look like the slice (B). Bottom-right: an example of settings for the Black & White adjustment layer in Photoshop to simulate the orthochromatic film effect.

Of course, no digital simulation can match the smooth, natural effect that Ilford Ortho Plus 80 creates.

Ilford Ortho Plus 80 adds a bit of a tan to your subjects. Taken with Vitessa A.

Ilford Ortho Plus 80’ tonality.

Developed in Ilford DD-X, Ortho Plus looks to have an overall fairly natural contrast, except for the places where reds appear, of course. Its orthochromatic tonality also makes the greens, particularly the leaves in the foliage, stand out a little more than usual.

I really enjoy photographing plant life with this film. Ortho 80 puts just the right bits of the picture in the forefront while diminishing the prominence of typically less important items like the branches.

​✪ 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.

Ilford Ortho Plus 80 with Vitessa A.
Ilford Ortho Plus 80 with Vitessa A. The “NO PARKING” part of the sign has a bright-red background.

Even the scenes that would typically appear busy on most films somehow make more visual sense with Ortho Plus:

Ilford Ortho Plus 80 with Vitessa A.

Perhaps the above picture’s clarity has something to do with Vitessa A’s fantastic background separation qualities. But I would not discount this film’s ability to add pop to foliage scenes. After all, Ortho Plus is capable of making certain settings look almost as if they were photographed on infrared film:

Ilford Ortho Plus 80 with Vitessa A.

I also really enjoy how Ortho Plus renders evening skies. They are inky, full of contrast, and incredibly moody without the need for any filter or post-processing.

Ilford Ortho Plus 80 with Vitessa A.

Ilford Ortho Plus 80’s sharpness and grain.

This film is one of the sharpest stocks I’ve shot thus far, so if you’re looking to capture a great amount of detail — even in 35mm — this is the one to try.

But despite its smooth appearance in brightly-lit scenes, Ortho Plus may show its chunky side when there isn’t enough light for its blue-green sensitive emulsion.

The combination of its sharpness and the tendency to show larger grain in certain conditions may make it a better choice for an older lens. In my opinion, it looks a little severe thorugh sharper glass, like that of the Minolta TC-1:

Ilford Ortho Plus 80 with Minolta TC-1.

Ilford Ortho Plus 80’s dynamic range.

As long as you understand this film’s particular way of rendering colour, Ilford Ortho Plus will grant you a very forgiving and versatile dynamic range of about 7-10 stops with some latitude to spare in the highlights.

Ilford Ortho Plus 80’s characteristic curves graph.

It won’t be too difficult to fix overexposed negatives if you have a decent scanner. Though, of course, it won’t give you much of what it may have lost in the shadows, especially if those shadows had some red in them.

Should you wish to change this film’s appearance, especially with an aim to pull back the highlights, it will turn noticeably grainer, as is the case with Kodak Tri-X. Although, the structure of Ortho Plus’ exaggerated grain feels more pleasant to my eye.

You may also choose to develop your film to have a much higher contrast on the negatives using PHENISOL or any other choice suggested by Ilford in their tech sheet.

Note: All the technical graphs above are sourced from Ilford.

Setting the exposure may be a matter of taste. For this image, I wanted to add some definition to the sky, the road, and the buildings, which appeared bright enough to be hard to tell apart. I was able to alter the image considerably with a very aggressive contrast curve without losing any significant chunk of information. Though this may not be my best work, this image illustrates what can be done with this film. I suspect it would have similar flexibility in the darkroom.

Exposing Ilford Ortho Plus 80.

My personal preference with this film in broad daylight — full sun or overcast — is to slightly underexpose. I’d rate it at EI 100 to get the results that I want. An exception would be a portrait session, which might make more sense with a slight overexposure at EI 50 — for more natural skin tones. Or an evening sun, when I’d rate it at EI 80 or 50.

Under tungsten light, Ilford suggests rating Ortho 80 at EI 40 since the warm orange glow of the artificial lighting would naturally give off less blue/green energy it needs.

How much does Ilford Ortho Plus 80 cost, and where to buy it.

Despite its unique qualities and fine grain, Ilford Ortho Plus 80 remains a relatively affordable film to shoot. Since its introduction, its price has remained virtually constant across retailers — despite the inflation. As of this writing, it retails for just over $11 per roll in 35mm.

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 Ortho Plus 80 film purchase using this link  so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!