Nearly grainless, high speed, inky blacks, good highlight retention, and tones for days. These are qualities that B&W photographers have sought since the beginning of roll films. It is also cheaper to process at a lab, and does not require time consuming dusting when scanning. So why don't we see very much of this wonder film? It's a mystery to us. XP2 is a fantastic option for B&W photographers who rely on a lab for their scans. So lets talk about what it is, what it isn't, and if it has a place in your camera.
What is XP2 Super?
XP2 is a chromogenic B&W film made by Ilford. Chromogenic? Doesn't that mean color? Well yes, sort of, but no. It uses the technology of color negative films, meaning you normally process it along with other color films, instead of traditional B&W chemistry. More on that later. It is nominally a 400 speed film, but it can be shoot normally from ISO 50-800 without modification in development (according to the data sheet). But Ilford already makes two 400 speed films, one 200 speed film, and another 3200 speed film, why another 400 speed film?
Why XP2 Super?
It comes back to this whole chromogenic thing. XP2 Super is process C41. C41 films have a standardized processing system. Meaning all C41 films (when being processed without pushing or pulling) have the same development time and temperature. This benefits labs to an extreme degree, and photographers too. When I have 5 clients submitting Fuji, Kodak, or other C41 film, each of a different speed or type, all of them can be processed in the same development run. If those same clients submit rolls of Tri-X, Acros, HP5, or Delta 3200, each of those films require separate development runs, it can take all day if we have a lot of B&W (Some labs run all your B&W according to generic times, which yields inferior results, we never do that). The secondary benefit is that the C41 process removes the silver present in the film, and leaving only dyes (usually color dyes but in this case B&W). This means that XP2 Super does not require dusting in Photoshop or Lightroom, because scanners can automatically remove 95% of the surface level aberrations present through digital ICE. This is a huge benefit both to you the photographer and we, the lab. Dusting is laborious and boring as hell. Don't do it if you can avoid it! XP2 does not require dusting from scans! All of this simply means that you pay less for scans that require less work for everyone, and they still look freaking beautiful.
What's more, this film is incredibly sharp. It has the grain of a 100 speed film, even though you can expose it at 800 if you want. Second, for whatever reason the dye based technology really extends the tone curve beyond what you normally find in traditional film. This B&W film has beautiful midtones, and I may even say exquisite highlights, and inky blacks. These are the kind of tones that zone system photographers dream about, and they're right here in a very forgiving C41 B&W film.
Lastly, should you want to, negatives you get from XP2 are still fully darkroom printable, without the need for a special paper or developer. In fact the film's base is not the signature C41 orange, it's neutral so it won't effect contrast in an enlarger.
How to shoot XP2:
ISO 200: Smooth Tones/Contrast
ISO 400: Good Snap like pushed Tri-X
ISO 800: Very Contrasty (Personally I would push at this speed)
(ISO 100 & 50 is really too flat, but usable with adjustments in PS or LR. This speeds will also yield the finest grain. Beyond 800 we recommend pushing, or Delta 3200)
According to Ilford's own data sheet, XP2 can be exposed from ISO 50-800 without modification in development. In fact, this is a critical way to understand how to get the results you want. Because C41 films handle over exposure so well generally, you can really modify contrast through exposure. Shooting this film at 200 gives you those remarkably smooth tones and highlights, with an excess of shadow detail. They're the kind of negatives you have to work pretty dang hard for with traditional silver gelatin films (in my opinion). As you go up in ISO, you tighten up that contrast to a significant degree. ISO 400 has good snap, and 800 is even more contrasty. Personally I would recommend pushing when shooting this film at 800, or 1600. When shooting this film at ISO 100 and lower, expect to have to do a bit of work to normalize the low contrast results, but they will still be quite usable.
Ilford does not recommend pushing, but I have done it and it can yield good results, though not passed 1600, whereas a film like HP5 is great up to 3200. We also do not recommend using expired XP2.
It should be noted that all of the images in this article were shot with simple metering techniques, such as in camera metering in the Hy6 Mod 2, or a handheld incident meter in the Hasselblad or Rolleiflex 2.8E. XP2 is simply a forgiving film, and you don't need the zone system to get beautiful gradation across the available range of tones.
Why not XP2?
I've pitched this film as some kind of miracle B&W stock, however there are some reasons why you may want to shoot traditional silver gelatin emulsions. For one, C41 technology will never be as archival as normal B&W film. The dyes don't last as long, and will probably fade over time. I might expect these negatives to last 30-50 years before degradation, but that's a guess. Color film is subject to shifts, so I presume the non-color dyes will have fewer issues. Properly processed silver gelatin film will last hundreds of years. If you are doing an important documentary where historical preservation is paramount, reach for Delta 100 and selenium tone it.
You may prefer a film that has more distinctive grain, XP2 certainly minimizes granularity. In fact it's distinctive tone and sharpness are quite recognizable if you know what to look for in an image.
XP2 is also simply not a film you want to develop at home. In fact many of the benefits I've listed here are subject to the workflow you have when using a lab like Northeast Photographic. When I am developing film for the purpose of printing in my darkroom, I use traditional stock. I can be fairly creative with B&W development techniques in ways that C41 simply does not allow. Take away the automatic dusting through digital ICE, and the advantages of XP2 are less clear. I really recommend this film for people using the lab workflow.
XP2 Super Summary!
If you are someone who shoots black and white film with the intention of getting scans, you should try XP2. If you are a pro who needs beautiful black and white images quickly and cheaply, you should try XP2. If you want to get some scans done before you get your film back in the mail, and you still want to make darkroom prints someday, there are few reasons not to use XP2. When it comes down to it, this is just a very often overlooked tool that film photographers have at their disposal. It certainly doesn't have the cultural cache of classic stocks like Tri-X, but it still delivers the goods, and then some.
If you have any questions about this stock, let us know in the comments!
XP2 Super is available in 35mm and 120 formats, and even in Ilford disposable cameras.