When choosing film for black-and-white photography, the biggest things to consider are contrast and grain. Depending on your subject, you might be seeking stark differences between your grays, whites, and blacks, and certain film types will help you achieve that. Others will deliver more subtle effects. Certain film types will also show greater grain definition; this is affected by their sensitivity to light, as indicated by the ISO rating. The higher the number, the greater the sensitivity—and the larger the grain, generally speaking. One more factor to consider is processing flexibility. Some films can handle pull or push processing very well, which means developing at shorter or longer times to compensate for over- or underexposure. Ahead, find the five black-and-white 35mm film rolls that we like best.
1. Kodak Professional Tri-X 400TX
Kodak’s Tri-X 400 is our favorite film to load for pretty much every situation. With an ISO of 400, it is capable of capturing scenes in environments with less-than optical light. What makes it stand out from the competition, though, is its prominent grain, which lies close together and looks organic, giving images a striking, sharp character. This film also has a distinct high contrast, with deep blacks and clean whites. Almost luminous and silky when developed, Tri-X is also a forgiving film with amazing latitude, allowing you to play with exposures and get pleasing results. In the darkroom, it can also be pulled and pushed to a great degree.
2. Ilford HP5 Plus
Ilford’s HP5 is another 400 ISO film we like to keep stocked, but we personally wouldn’t reach for it for every job. Compared with Tri-X, it results in an overall more subdued look, delivering medium-contrast images, with gradations of gray that are closer in hue and blacks that are less intense. It also delivers finer grain, although details don’t appear as defined as with our top pick. This is a fantastic film for capturing beautiful atmospheric scenes and expressive portraits. It can also be successfully pulled and pushed while retaining acceptable shadows and tones.
3. Kodak Professional 100 Tmax
A newer film than its Tri-relative, Tmax was introduced in the 1980s as a film that presents finer, more uniform grain as well as less contrast. Unlike Tri-X, it’s available in ISO 100 and ISO 3200 in addition to the middle-of-the-road ISO 400, giving you more options to better suit different lighting conditions. ISO 100 is ideal for super-bright conditions and produces images that look smooth; ISO 3200 produces a highly grainy look. Tmax images also tend to look a little flatter than those shot with Tri-X, presenting a more uniform spread of mid-tones. One thing to note about this film is that it can be quite finicky in the darkroom, being sensitive to factors from agitation time to temperature. Be prepared for some experimentation before achieving the precise highlights and shadows you’re looking for.
4. Kentmere 400
If you shoot a lot, this is a great option to consider. Kentmere’s film is a continuous, 100-foot roll, providing a solution that’s more convenient and economical than buying individual rolls in bulk. You can use a bulk loader to load a desired length of film onto cassette spools; while the process can take some time, you’ll save a ton of money. Busy photographers can click away freely to ensure they get the shot while worrying less about wasting frames. Available in ISO 100 and 400, the film showcases visible but not pronounced grain and medium-high contrast.
5. Lomography Berlin Kino Film
This is a pretty pricey film, so we wouldn’t recommend it for casual, everyday use, but it’s fun to try if you’re in search of something different. Developed to nod to the very specific art-house aesthetics of 1960s New German Cinema, the ISO 400 film has a high silver content to produce images with low contrast and highly prominent grain. The resulting images carry a sense of nostalgia, and atmospheric shots like, say, wet streets after a rain will look gritty and timeless.