Most street photographers have, at one time or another, tried to give their digital shots the look and feel of the classic black and white film emulsions – usually Kodak Tri-X.
But there’s only one way to get the genuine look of Tri-X or Plus-X, Ilford FP4 or HP5 and that’s to load a roll into a film camera and shoot with it.
Lots of people are still shooting with film and good luck to them. They’re enjoying it and, hopefully, getting the results they want.
I spent 15 years shooting with black and white film, loading cassettes from 100 foot bulk rolls, developing in basements, bathrooms and proper darkrooms. I could still probably load a tank reel in the dark. I can certainly remember the smell of fixer.
Then I worked in a commercial lab…
A couple of years of eight hour shifts in total darkness splicing together hundreds of rolls of 110 film onto big reels and bulk mixing C-41 chemicals knocked most of the glamour out of the film developing process.
I don’t want to go back there, just like I don’t want to go back to using Letraset for graphic design.
I like shooting in digital and I like processing on a computer. It’s convenient, you can do it almost anywhere and your clothes don’t stink of fixer.
But I don’t want the look of a squeaky clean digital file either…
I just want to put a little soul back into my shots – and there’s software to do that – lots of software. But none of it can give the exact look of Tri-X or any other film with just the click of a mouse.
There are too many variables before you even get to the black and white conversion software. There are differences in lens colour characteristics, sensors and format sizes, processing engines and raw converters. And every plugin’s Tri-X will be different too.
You can get hung up on convoluted procedures with channel mixers and downloaded tiff files of grain patterns – but life is short and I’d rather be out shooting.
So what is the best way to approach black and white film emulation?
My advice is to step back and look at film emulation programs for what they are – one more powerful creative tool that you can use to develop your own style and your own look.
At the moment I mostly use DXO Filmpack 3. It has 21 B+W films, 8 filters with a variable strength slider, 21 grain characteristics, also variable in intensity, and controls for contrast and film size.
I’m not a mathematician but that’s a bucket load of possible combinations.
So after the first couple of hours trying to make my shots look like Tri-X and realising it wasn’t going to happen, I started to play with the combinations.
Now about 75% of my work ends up with the Agfa APX 25 setting with Ilford FP4 or Tri-X grain. There may, or may not, have ever been a film with these characteristics – but it works for me.
I’ve also found other combinations that work for specific projects or sets of shots.
One is the Kodak HIE [filtered] setting with a blue filter and a heavy vignette added. It gives me my Alphaville/Eraserhead look. Again, it works for me.
So my advice is: don’t use the software to box yourself into a corner.
Explore, break the rules and be creative.
Find combinations of film characteristics, grain and filters that work to enhance your shots, your subject matter and your shooting habits.
Most importantly, experiment and try to create a unique look and style that makes your work stand out from all the others.