Like a painter mastering realism before advancing to abstraction, photographers benefit greatly from learning to shoot film before moving to digital.
Stark black-and-white images can swiftly and brutally reveal a weak composition. And shooting with film teaches photographers to be thoughtful about what subjects are worth one of their precious 36 frames. Beginning with black-and-white film helps creates a visually articulate and well-rounded shooter. Which is why many universities have stuck to the practice, despite our entrenchment in a relentlessly digital age.
There are some things to look out for when buying film: versatility, availability, repeatability, and value. Here are five films perfect for the budding student photographer.
Kodak Tri-X 400
It wouldn’t be a listicle of films without including the classic Kodak Tri-X 400, so we may as well get this one out of the way first.
A pragmatic film, 35mm Kodak Tri-X 400 was first released in 1954. It was the first high-speed black-and-white film of its kind and rapidly gained popularity with photojournalists and street photographers. With four-hundred-speed film, creatives could now take handheld shots in low-light scenarios—a serious advantage over previous films. Seventy years later, Tri-X 400 remains one of the most popular film stocks of all time. Beloved for its versatility, strong contrast, and forgiving nature, Tri-X 400 is the perfect companion for any new photographer looking to dip a toe into black-and-white film photography.
Ilford HP5 Plus
The counter-punch to Kodak’s Tri-X has to be Ilford HP5 Plus, another 400-speed film with incredible versatility, a wide exposure latitude, and an easy-to-use, medium-contrast profile. Compared to Tri-X, HP5 maybe doesn’t have as much “bite,” for a cleaner, less gritty profile. Depending on the work you do, people tend to fall into one camp or the other, despite the many similarities and popularity of both films over the years. Either way, this is another readily available film that you’re certain to run into as a student. Also, perfect for students, is the Multigrade IV RC DeLuxe Paper and HP5 Plus Value Pack, which bundles two rolls of HP5 along with 25 sheets of 8 x 10" darkroom paper; perfect for a weekend of shooting and printing.
Ilford FP4 Plus
With Kodak’s Plus-X ceasing to exist, this leaves Ilford’s FP4 Plus is the sole remaining 125-speed traditional film from either of these two revered manufacturers. FP4 is essentially the slower sidekick to HP5; it’s perfect for bright, outdoor situations or if you’re shooting from a tripod. I like to use it for shooting still life or studio work, or really for any situation in which I can control the light or don’t mind making a long exposure. If you don’t have the luxury of control over your exposure, stick to HP5 for its speed and versatility.
Kodak T-Max 400
When I was learning the basics of photography, many years ago in high school, my teacher told me “whatever you do, don’t use T-Max.” As a kid, this, of course, pushed me in the opposite direction and I remember secretly starting to shoot T-Max and developing it outside of his darkroom. I’ve since worked with other films, but have somewhat recently settled down again with Kodak T-Max 400 as my black-and-white film of choice. Compared to Tri-X, T-Max has tighter grain and a subtler overall appearance, which I prefer specifically for scanning. But even if printing in the darkroom, give this film a try for a smoother look than Tri-X or HP5.
Arista EDU Ultra 400
As a film with EDU in the title, it’s hard to overlook Arista EDU Ultra 400, or really any of the Arista EDU range: 100, 200, or 400. These films have been designed with students in mind; they are a great value for a traditional, all-purpose film with tremendous flexibility. They are perfect films with which to learn, and provide a classic look that’s well suited for traditional enlarging or scanning.
One final recommendation is to take up bulk-loading your 35mm film. If you’re a student with the stereotypical “student budget,” then bulk-loading your films is one of the best cost-saving measures you can take. Instead of buying pre-rolled 36- or 24-exposure rolls of film, consider 100-foot rolls of film. Besides picking up one or two of these of your favorite films, you’ll just need a bulk film loader and a handful of reloadable cassettes to get going. I’ll let you do the math depending on which film you pick, but expect to get somewhere between 16 to 20 36-exposure rolls out of that 100' roll, which results in a huge savings if you’re shooting across an entire semester.
Do you have any film recommendations for students? What are your favorite general purpose films or best films to learn with? Let us know, down below.