Having recently worked intensively with the whole range of Ilford 35mm films, I thought that I would write a few articles on the special qualities or quirks of some of them.
In this post I’d like to discuss a film which I think is under appreciated; Ilford XP2. This film is a little out of the ordinary, both in the look which it gives and the way it is processed. It is a Chromogenic film, this means that the silver grains are converted to dyes during processing, giving it a unique quality. There is a smoothness to the tones in the mid tones, going up through to the highlights. It looks virtually grainless in these areas, especially on medium format negatives.
With conventional films, when you have a grainy neg from overexposure and over development, the grain of the film is not what you see on the print. Light passes between the grains to expose the paper, so what you are seeing is the gaps between the grains.
With XP2, overexposure is an advantage. The image is formed in the same way as with normally developed negatives, but during processing the film grain is replaced by overlapping, semi dense ‘platelets’ of dye. Because they overlap in the heavily exposed areas, there is no actual gap between the grains, and hence, no impression of grain on the print.
In areas of shadow, less of the platelets are created, allowing more light through the larger gaps. This gives a grainy look.
So the shadow areas look grainy and the lighter tones look smooth and grain free. This is an exaggerated reversal of the grain problem found with normal films. Burning a sky in from a 35mm negative on a conventional 400 ISO film can result in heavier grain which some find unpleasant. A burned in sky from an XP2 negative is smooth and creamy. This quality is also apparent in other images where light tones are important, such as a wedding dress, or a portrait. Snow scenes also have a lovely smoothness.
It needs to be processed through C41 Colour chemicals, this means it can be processed by any lab. I have used XP2 since it’s very first release (as XP1) in the early eighties. I’ve always loved it for certain types of image when it gave me great negs and great prints, but that wasn’t always so. It took me a while to understand how to use it properly as it needs to be used with its own special properties and quirks in mind.
With conventional films, quality suffers with overexposure if development is not reduced and this shows as harsh grain. the opposite is true of this film. White hair, white dresses, skies etc, all have a beautiful, smooth tonality, which will come as a pleasant surprise if you are used to seeing the bleached out highlights of a digital image. Portraits on XP2 also have a different look, the lighter tones of the image: the skin etc, display a very smooth tonality. The shadow areas, such as dark clothing will show the grain (with 35mm film), but this is not too much of a problem, in most prints you would have to look closely to see it. From a medium format negative it really wouldn’t be a problem.
So if over exposure produces better results, then XP2 is best over exposed. For instance; rated at 200 ISO. The important thing is to not alter the processing, let the lab treat the film as normal. Your negs will be a bit denser than usual, but this is an advantage. If you wish to check this for yourself, just shoot two frames of the same subject, one rated 400 and the next frame overexposed by one stop (i.e. rated 200). Make a print from each frame and compare, you will see an improvement in the one rated at 200.
I believe XP2 to be an exceptional film when used for many applications and always have some in my film bag for the times when I want that look.
Oh, and I almost forgot, -it is amazingly sharp.
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- Thomas Binsfeld
Thank You for this, Andrew!
Normally I stick to the films I am used to and I never tried XP-2 because of the C41 process.
I am very concerned about the durability of my negatives and I have my doubts about that in case of XP-2. Or are my doubts for no reason?
2. Paul Hillier
Posted 23/06/2014 at 6:47 am
I used XP1 when it first came out and then XP2 . They were great films and being able to process it in C41 was great for when I were traveling. We had a lot of our XP1 turn green over the years and appear to lose some of its density. I haven’t had access to this film for quite a few years now so I am not sure of its current state.
Another one of my favorite films was Kodak’s Panatomic X. This film was so sharp and great film.
Posted 11/07/2014 at 3:37 pm
XP2 Super is a film that I never cared cared for personally, but I am glad that you like it, as it does have it’s fans. However, I am not one of them.
4. Mark Magin
Posted 16/07/2014 at 2:58 am
Recently found your site and am enjoying reading it. There is so much stuff out on the web to sift through a jewel such as this is easily missed. Hope you continue!
5. John Panya
Posted 02/08/2014 at 10:17 am
Thanks for your nice post.
I’ve used nearly every kinds of Ilford film that still be available in the market but XP-2. It’s the film I’ve never tried because of C41 process. And I thought there was no special thing I could get from it.
But I may be wrong.
The quality it create impress me.
6. Thomas Binsfeld
Posted 07/08/2014 at 8:46 am
After returning from a 2 week holiday with a lot b/w films to develop in ID-11, I realized an other advantage of this film:
Just give it to your local photo shop and let it develop under perfect standard conditions and save time!
So I will try some for the next time.
7. Mark Voce
Posted 26/08/2014 at 12:01 pm
Thank you for the interesting post Andy, I’ve never used XP2 and knew sod all about it. Sounds like it could have it’s uses though
8. JR Smith
Posted 29/08/2014 at 7:53 pm
Just stumbled across your site and found it very interesting! Nice job!
9. cr mayer
Posted 16/09/2014 at 3:44 am
I just discovered your blog. Very interesting stuff! Thanks for sharing your work.
Posted 19/09/2014 at 5:03 pm
Also never thought to try this. May pick some up and stuck it in my Contax G1 and see how it fares. Sounds like it’s best for hi(gher) key subjects/treatments?
Posted 07/10/2014 at 6:32 am
Hi Andrew, when will you write a review about the other Ilford B&W films?
Very soon I hope.
Thanks for your excellent articles.