Ilford XP2 Super 400 Film Review

A Black and White Film for C-41 Minilabs

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Ilford XP2 Super 400 is a monochrome film like no other. So if you fancy shooting black and white film but got no means to develop one at home, this may be your only and the best way forward.

What’s so special about Ilford XP2?

Ilford XP2 is a “C-41 film.”

Most small labs only develop C-41 (colour) film since that’s what their machines are usually made for. But if you try to dunk your regular black and white emulsion like Tri-X into those chemicals, you’ll end up with a blank roll. This is because one of the steps of colour development involves washing off silver particles, which is the essential component of a developed black and white film — without which there is no monochrome image.

Ilford XP2 with Vitessa A.

Ilford XP2, however, is made differently. This film is developed specifically for minilabs that can only process C-41. Like colour emulsions, XP2 uses dyes that remain to render images when the silver particles are washed off.

C-41 is a standardized film process. Unlike the black and white processes, there is no variation in time, temperature, and other aspects that may vary greatly between different emulsions. All C-41 film can be dropped into the same tank, which is a time saver for the labs and even for the photographers who develop film at home.

Being a standard, you can also rely on C-41 to give consistent results every time. This is not the case with black and white film. Different developers and processing techniques can yield visibly dissimilar results — the grain structure, sharpness, exposure, and contrast can all change depending on how you process your monochromes. Ilford XP2, on the other hand, will have little variation regardless of who develops it for you.

Those who use Digital ICE for removing dust and scratches from film using an infrared channel on their dedicated film scanner like PrimeFilm XAs would also like to work with XP2. Like other colour negatives, this film has no silver particles when developed, which means that the IR channel will separate most things that aren’t part of the image. This can not be done with black and white film. Although I still find that cleaning up film by hand using Photoshop creates much better results.

Are there any black and white films out there like Ilford XP2? Well, yes. Designated as “chromogenic,” Fujifilm’s Neopan 400CN and Kodak’s BW400CN and T400CN used to be a part of the family. Unfortunately, they have been discontinued. The links above will take you to eBay, where you may find a few expired rolls.

You could also try turning your regular colour film into black and white digitally or during print. However, that isn’t always advantageous.

Processing Ilford XP2 in D-76/black and white chemistry.

While dunking black and white film into C-41 chems will render it blank, the reverse isn’t necessarily true. For the most part, you could process colour film using traditionally monochrome techniques. This, of course, also applies to Ilford XP2.

On Ilford Photo’s blog, Chris Moss describes a variety of methods and techniques to do just that and the results he managed to achieve. Not only was he able to create fantastic renderings shooting XP2 at its box speed, with perhaps the best results with Kodak HC-110 with 1+49 dilution at 10 min/20℃, but he also managed to get it to behave really nicely at EI 50, all the way up to (pushed) EI 3200!

Grain structure, resolution, sharpness.

At ISO400, Ilford XP2 is a very sharp and high-resolving emulsion.

Its grain size appears slightly chunkier than Kodak’s Tri-X and a bit more “severe.” But at the same time, it looks sharper while resolving about the same amount of detail.

Ilford’s datasheet for XP2 does not specify RMS resolution numbers, most likely because it is highly variable between the possible ISO ratings that it can be shot at: EI 50–800. For finest grain, the company recommends rating the film at EI 200 (or as low as 50), which will undoubtedly produce a different result than the box speed.

Figure 1: Ilford XP2 with Minolta TC-1.

Contrast and tonality.

XP2 is very forgiving when it comes to overexposure (but not as much when it comes to severe underexposure). As a result, XP2 is a low-risk stock for measuring light using the Sunny 16 rule — as long as you give plenty of light.

Ilford XP2 film characteristic curve, found on ilfordphoto.com

Its ability to preserve highlights while crushing the blacks makes XP2 a remarkably high-contrast film while managing to retain a lot of information in virtually all light conditions. The film characteristic curve demonstrates as much.

Looking at the graph above, the line slopes gently towards a maximum density of D2 with a best useful range somewhere between 1.15lx and 4lx. The resulting 2.85 delta lux-seconds converts to about 9.5 stops of dynamic range. Note that this is a somewhat safe estimate, leaving about an extra stop of latitude on either side.

All of this places XP2 in its flexibility near CineStill 800T but with a much punchier shadow falloff.

Scanning.

The relatively low D-max of 2 gives XP2 a unique position of being an easy-to-scan emulsion on cheaper machines that aren’t good at discerning extra-dark regions. However, I would try to ensure that whatever you use to digitize your Ilford film can capture 16-bit depth per channel (48-bit for RGB).

Histogram of a scanned Ilford XP2 negative scanned at 16-bit per channel. The original image (Figure 1) has a wide range of tones which the emulsion compresses to about half of PrimeFilm XAs’ available D-max range (4).

Because of the base fog and XP2’s low max density, the information is compressed rather tightly, which means that you’ll need to equalize your histogram fairly aggressively.

If you’ve been scanning at 8-bit per channel, you may end up with visible gradient banding. I’ve noticed this artifact when scanning images with expansive sky elements with my iPhone. But of course, if you use your mobile device to scan film, gradient banding will be the last of your worries. So just make sure that you extract maximum colour depth whenever you digitize your XP2.

My favourite aspect of scanning Ilford XP2 is how flat this film dries. An absolute pleasure to handle.

Overall, unless you don’t like the look of the film — and you really need to try it in all of its EI ratings and development methods to know — there’s absolutely no reason not to shoot it. Its only probable downside is the slightly diminished archival qualities of C-41 film.

Ilford XP2 with Minolta TC-1.
Ilford XP2 with Minolta TC-1.

How much does Ilford XP2 Super cost, and where to buy it.

Since 2018, Ilford XP2’s price has barely risen. If anything, it’s been going up slower than inflation, making it one of the best long-term photographic commitments you can make. This is in addition to being accepted at cheaper, faster photolabs worldwide.

As of this writing, a roll of 35mm 36exp Ilford XP2 Super should cost you about $10. A few days earlier, Ilford disclosed another price hike for their film and chemicals that may affect XP2’s cost. However, it’s hard to tell by how much or if at all will this affect the prices at your local shop. This is because film distributors do not always go in step with manufacturers when it comes to pricing.

The best way to stay on top of your emulsive expenditures 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 XP2 Super 400 film purchase using this link  so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!