When you want to shoot Black and White film, you're greeted by a strange and exciting array of films catering to all sorts of needs. Fast, slow, and in a variety of contrasts. But they're split down the middle into two distinct groups - Traditional B&W films, and C-41 Black and White. So what's the difference?
So, you want to shoot some Black and White, but you’re not sure which type of film you should go for, ‘Traditional’ or C-41? Let’s have a look at the details of both, and see if we can make up our minds.
‘Traditional’ B&W film (Silver Gelatin):
The ‘Traditional’ Black and White films you see are referred to as Silver Gelatin, the reason for this is fairly simple; They’re made of tiny crystals of silver salts suspended in Gelatin. This mix of Silver and Gelatin is then painted onto the film back, which in most cases is made out of a material resembling plastic, although it can be anything.
One of the nice things about Silver Gelatin films for B&W work is that they’re doing what they were designed to do, and they do a very good job at it. The process is also incredibly simple, so simple you can do it at home – and lots of people do! After the film has been exposed, you load it onto a spool and put it into a tank, then throw in your developer. There are lots of different types of developer for B&W film out there, and they’re all easily available for a reasonable price. As a general rule, I try and match the film and developer brands, for example I shoot a lot of Ilford film, and so I use Ilfotec LC-29 developer. This isn’t essential though, as Ilford films will work perfectly well with another developer such as Kodak’s T-Max, and you’ll still get stunning results. If you can get hold of a few different developers, run a few experiments and see which ones give you the best results.
The developer reacts with the exposed silver crystals on the film, and creates the image you’ll eventually see on the negative. After development, you have to ‘Stop’ the process, this can either be done with a special stop bath, or with some water (I use the latter). Once your stop is done, you then throw in a ‘Fixer’ chemical. This simply removes any of the unexposed silver crystals, to stop them yellowing and damaging the negative. After this, you give it a rinse and hang it up to dry!
This process requires a degree of temperature control, but from my own experience I’d say it’s very flexible. Make sure it’s somewhere around the recommended temperature and you’ll be fine. What’s important is consistency! Make sure that there isn’t too much difference in temperature between each step and you’ll be doing fine!
One last point about these films is that they’re very stable. If you keep them in the dark and in the fridge before shooting them, you’ll find they last for years. After processing, you can do a huge number of things to help prolong their already long life. Scanning and printing are both also very easy, with the added luxury of a Red safelight in the darkroom if you’re working with Black and White papers!
C-41 Black and White films:
Now, when I hear ‘C-41’ I almost instantly think of Colour films, as I’m sure many others do. C-41 is, in most cases, reserved for colour film processing. On a C-41 colour film we have multiple layers, each one sensitive to a different colour of light, producing the appropriate dye when developed.
There are a few Black and White C-41 films avaliable (Kodak BW400CN and Ilford XP2 come to mind), but there just isn’t the selection that you’ll get looking at Silver Gelatin. Like their colourful counterparts, these films also have multiple layers, however all the layers are sensitive to all colours of light and when developed produce a Black dye.
The process for these films is the same as for colour negative films, and is much more complex than the process for Silver Gelatin films. First of all, there is the developer that creates the dyes. You then have to use a Bleach to remove some of the other crystals that the developer creates, after that you Fix the film to remove the unexposed crystals. You then give it a wash before stabilising it and giving it a final rinse. So, it’s a longer process, but it doesn’t sound that much more complicated, right?
Unfortunately not. C-41 processing is far more fussy about temperature, timing and agitation. Even a slight variation in temperature (More than 0.5ºc each way) will start to cause radical colour shifts and changes in contrast and grain. This means that the process is much harder to do at home.
Black and White C-41 films also aren’t as consistent as the Silver Gelatin films are. Some of them have the classic Orange base that colour films have, whilst others don’t. Films with the Orange base can be printed with the correct shades of black onto colour paper, but you’ll run into issues trying to print onto Black and White papers. Likewise, films without it will print fine onto Black and White papers, but not onto colour paper, which is what a lab will most likely try and do if they get given a film can with ‘C-41’ written on it. The problems with printing aren’t terrible, but you won’t get the reproduction of tones and shades that you want in your image, I can distinctly remember on more than one occasion standing at a Lab, waiting to collect something whilst another person complains that their Blacks “Just aren’t black”.
So, there you have it, the differences between the two types of Black and White film. One of the biggest crunch-points for a lot of people though is this: C-41 processing is available at very low prices from many supermarkets, camera shops, post offices, wherever. Whereas the Silver Gelatin processing, for those who can’t do it at home, or simply don’t want to, isn’t so widely available. You’ll most likely have to head to a dedicated film lab for it, and that probably won’t be cheap (Although doing at home is incredibly cheap, as well as fun).
But what matters most is that you get out and take some photos. No matter which one you go for, you’ll be able to get it processed somewhere, by someone. Experiment, have fun, and be creative!