There are some things in life that are just given. Ilford HP5+ is one of them. Just like morning coffee, it’s something that even if you’re not a fan you’re going to encounter at some point or another.
HP5+ is one of the, if not the most popular black and white film on the market today. Everybody uses it and everybody recommends it. If you were to search for photos tagged as having been taken on HP5 online, especially on Instagram, you’d need a lifetime to look through them all.
What is Ilford HP5+?
Ilford HP5+ is a medium speed general-purpose black and white film that is well suited to just about any scenario that you can think of. The film offers medium grain, a fair amount of sharpness and detail, with a soft contrast and tonality
The film works equally well for portraits and still life photos, as well as landscapes and just about anything else that you can think of. With an ISO rating of 400, Ilford HP5+ is also very well suited to most lighting conditions, with the added benefit that HP5 also holds up very well to push processing.
One of the greatest things about HP5 is how universal it is. It’s beloved by many, many photographers, and is available pretty much anywhere where film stocks are sold. I even spotted some in a London Drugs once. HP5 is also available in virtually any format you can think of. Not only can you have it in 35mm cassettes, both in 24 exp. and 36 exp. rolls, but also in 120 format as well as various sizes of sheet-film for large format photography.
The film is also far from the most expensive out there, and ranks among that most forgiving when it comes to screw ups while developing. HP5 is a fantastic film for beginners and for photographers looking for an ideal film stock for candid everyday photography.
Image Quality and Characteristics
Simple, unobtrusive, works in just abut any situation and always looks good. HP5 is the ultimate all-rounder in the film photography world. The images that are rendered on the film are clear, with good sharpness, medium grain, and a solid amount of detail.
The contrast curve of the film is fairly smooth throughout the highlights, mid-tones, and upper shadows, dropping to a dark black in only the darkest of areas on the frame, often giving subjects and details (especially eyes) an inky outline; a look which I quite like.
The exposure latitude of HP5 is also absolutely massive. A grand canyon of dynamic range. You can miss your exposure by more than one whole stop in either direction and still get a useable image out of the film. Of course, as is to be generally expected with negative films like HP5, overexposure is favoured, as the film can handle upwards of 3 – 5 stops of overexposure and still render a nice image in my experience.
In other words, you could expose an image meant to exposed at f11 at f2.8 (four stops too bright) and still walk away with a nice photograph. This super wide latitude is where part of the appeal that this film has for photographers interested in street photography and candid photography comes from. Coincidentally making this film a great one to choose when practicing the rule of sunny 16.
The grain that HP5 features is however one of the areas where I’m not such a huge fan. The grain is classified generally as a medium grain, and I would agree with that. The grain isn’t overwhelming, however, it is noticeable. Grain will be a feature of every photograph that you take with HP5, if you like that, this film stock of perfect for you.
I love to take a lot of pictures using my Olympus Pen F, a camera that has already come up multiple times in my writings. The Pen F is a half-frame camera, and since the negative area exposed with each image is only half of the size of a standard 35mm negative the effect of the gain on the image I expose is doubled. I’m not a big fan of using HP5 in my Pen F for that reason.
If you’re looking for a film with next to no grain, that only very subtly features this characteristic I would stay away from HP5+.
On the subject of grain, HP5 is favoured among photographers for it’s ability to withstand push processing very well. Generally I recommend that you expose film at the speed on the box, in this case 400 ISO. However, with HP5+ I can confidently say that exposing the film at 800 ISO, or even 1600 ISO film works nearly as perfectly as exposing it at 400.
By adjusting you development time the appropriate amount, you can use Ilford HP5+ in lower light situations than the base 400 ISO speed might suggest, further expanding it’s “use it for everything” capability. The trade-offs to exposing HP5 at 800 or 1600 are increased contrast, lower detail, and harsher grain. However, all of these so called side-effects are only increased minutely over the characteristics present in the film at box speed, so there is no reason not to take advantage of this ability.
Developing Ilford HP5+ is also about as easy as developing a black and white film can be. HP5 develops beautifully in just about every developing solution on the market, and most charts of development times will feature HP5. It’s also a very clean film that does’t require a lot of washing after development in my experience, and like all Ilford films that I’ve tried the film base dries perfectly flat making it very easy to scan the film.
All round Ilford HP5+ is a film that has secured itself a reputation for being a solid middle ground. Just enough sensitivity (with the option to expand in development) to be useful in most situations, grain that is visible in the image, but not overpowering, decent sharpness, a reasonable amount of detail, a smooth contrast curve and tonality all packaged in a film that is very forgiving both in terms of developments and exposure.
Thoughts and Recommendations
My recommendation is that you let HP5+ do what it’s good at. Use it in situations where you’re going to encounter many different lighting scenarios, when life is going to be happening all around you the entire time, where you’re not sure if you’re going to have time to stop and think too hard about each exposure. HP5 will have your back.
However, it’s not my favourite film for use with half-frame cameras on account of the amount of grain. I find in half-frame photos that the grain is a little overwhelming for me compared to 35mm photos with this film. I prefer to defer to Ilford Delta 400 for my Olympus Pen F photos.
Alternatives to HP5+
If you’re looking for an alternative to HP5+ you’ll find that the list is very short. In order to be a good alternative the film must both have excellent latitude and a soft contrast curve with medium grain and a medium ISO speed without having a look that is very stylized.
Two films that I’ve tried that could count as reasonably good alternatives to HP5 to try if you’d like to mix things up a little, or if you’re a little bored of seeing HP5 everywhere, are Kodak Tri-X 400 and Ilford Delta 400.
Tri-X 400 is a very nice alternative to Ilford HP5+ with a legendary status that many famous street photographers swore and still swear by. The grain is a little more pronounced and the contrast a bit harsher compared to HP5+, but it offers a fantastic look and a wide exposure latitude. Tri-X is a bit more intense and dramatic in my opinion and lends photographs a reportage style look, if there’s even such a thing. Sadly, it is a bit pricier than HP5+.
Speaking of pricey, enter Ilford Delta 400. If you’re looking for an HP5 alternative why not turn to its close, but slightly more refined, cousin? Delta 400 has most of the same characteristics as HP5, with the added bonus of finer grain and an even softer contrast curve. Delta 400 is technically the professional version of the HP5 film stock. I love Delta 400 for portraits. It’s available pretty much anywhere where Ilford HP5+ is sold in the same variety of formats, and tends to only cost a few dollars more.
In summary there’s little more for me to say other than try Ilford HP5+ for yourself. Some may see it as the boring or obvious choice, but there’s a reason for that.
Seldom will you find a more reliable, more widely applicable and more beloved film than HP5+. It’s a film that slots itself into virtually any scenario perfectly. Use it for street photography, to take picture of the kids and the dog in the backyard, use it for wedding photos, portraits, landscapes, still life… you get the point.
The film is just right. It covers everything you could need in most situations, and what it lacks in specialization it makes up for with it’s ability to let you capture that moment no matter what, no matter how hard you screw up.
It’s a perfect film for first time film photographers for this reason too. When you’re learning manual exposure and how to develop film yourself (please do, it’s so much fun) it’s important use choose a film stock that lets you mess up a little here and there and still render a nice photograph that you can proudly show to others.
I love HP5+ and I will continue to love it forever boring choice or not, you can’t beat it’s reliability.