Black and White Film - Traditional or C-41?


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 those in C-41. So what’s the difference?

Credits: deadollie

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 at 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 the 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 color film processing. On a C-41 color film we have multiple layers, each one sensitive to a different color of light, producing the appropriate dye when developed.

There are a few Black and White C-41 films available (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 colorful counterparts, these films also have multiple layers, however, all the layers are sensitive to all colors of light and when developed produce a Black dye.

The process for these films is the same as for color 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 stabilizing it and giving it a final rinse. So, it’s a long 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 color 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 color films have, whilst others don’t. Films with the Orange base can be printed with the correct shades of black onto color 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 color 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!

Are you a fan of film experiments? You’ll be happy to find out that we have a wide variety of films at the Online Shop or Gallery Stores for you to try. Have at it and sample some of the most fun and exciting films for your analogue adventures. Satisfy your cravings for monochrome with every roll.

written by deadollie on 2011-06-11 #gear #tutorials #film #black-and-white #ilford #c-41 #tipster #kodak #processing #silver-gelatin


  1. loquat22
    loquat22 ·

    Chromogenic black and white is hard to beat for the convenience (I just drop my rolls off at the local drugstore), but my photos have been known to come out greenish. Too bad I bought a 50 roll pack of Ilford XP2 and have to use it all up! :)

  2. hello-alexander
    hello-alexander ·

    You make B&W film development at home sound too easy! Whenever I have gone to try, I find myself giving up at first hurdle as I don't know what to begin to buy. There are so many confusing bottles to sieve through! PS loquat22, fifty rolls, wow!

  3. vici
    vici ·

    I really enjoyed reading this, thank you. You described the film and processes very simply and clearly. You may have also inspired me to try home-processing. What do you do with the spent chemistry?

  4. deadollie
    deadollie ·

    @Vici: It depends on what it is, if you look at the manufacturers data sheet for each individual product (Should be avaliable on their website) then that'll have all the information you'll need.

  5. fischkombinat
    fischkombinat ·

    This is an example of orange tones on a Kodak bw400cn, but i really like this one:…

  6. laurasulilly
    laurasulilly ·

    I also process and print at home (just got myself a tiny darkroom two months ago) and I love it sooo much, but I'm still such a newbie and need to learn so much!
    These are some results:…

  7. laurasulilly
    laurasulilly ·

    Oh, so I go for the traditional of course! :)

  8. megalithicmatt
    megalithicmatt ·

    There are also black and white slide films but these are pretty rare now. They're traditional films but have radically different development processes. Agfa Scala (and the Dia-Direct predecessor) was the best known one. Most Ilford films can be processed in reversal baths but I think the only current dedicated b/w slide film left on the market is Fomapan R100.

  9. deadollie
    deadollie ·


    I've been reading about reversal processing for Ilford films. The process seems very long and complex, including re-exposure of the film with a specific amount of the right tempreture light. Still, it's something I'd like to try one day.

  10. katherine-lynn
    katherine-lynn ·

    If your C-41 black & white prints are coming back from the lab greenish (or any other color cast), they are not taking the time to balance their paper. Find a professional lab! :)

  11. deadollie
    deadollie ·

    @katherine-lynn: Part of this issue is caused by the film base (In particular, if it's Orange or not), and the fact that with a lot of colour papers, the Black isn't a true Black - It's a very, very dark Green. But you're right, if you go to a professional lab then you're bound to get better results than if you take them to your local drugstore or supermarket. Although that's part of the reason people use the C-41 films - They can't process them at home and don't have a lab nearby that can handle Silver Gelatin.

  12. whatapathy
    whatapathy ·

    excellent and very informative tipster :)

  13. nick_a_tron
    nick_a_tron ·

    I've just bought a Tentanal C-41 press kit for developing C41 film and it's super super simple. You don't even need to worry too much about the temperature. Just fill up the sink with hot water and weight for the temperature to get close with the thermometer and you're rolling. I'll be posting my results soon as I can scan them.

  14. danbarry
    danbarry ·

    I am currently setting up a darkroom at home and i was just considering some of the points raised here. There's two great UK based darkroom / film supply places online that have started to sell chemicals in pouches so they have longer life spans. AG Photographic and Firsat Call Photographic, but there are tonnes more, so look around. As a novice when i bought my BW stock I chose BW C-41 as there seemed to be more places where you could get them developed but now have compared to dedicated BW film and the results are soooo sexy!

    Also gett hold of a copy of The Darkroom Hand Book, amazon sells the 1988 edition for a matter of pennies. The principals of setting up a DRoom at home havent changed too much and has great advice.

    Good luck all. Keep clickin!

  15. jm60
    jm60 ·

    I have shot Chromogenic Black and White, and developed with C41 Chemicals, I have shot silver gelatin black and White, and developed with several different developers over the years. I have also shot C41 AND E6 films, and developed with their respective developers, as well. I have also shot C41, and E6 and developed with Black and White Developers- photographic bleach is not used- it is a straight, developer step- stopbath step-fixing step- rinse. All with excellent results.

    However- If you are wanting color prints as your results, then it is clear- Use the requisite develoepr. IF however you want to experiment, TMax developer will work fine with all Black and White films. When you get to developing color films with black and white developer, you do want the devloper to be warm- somewhere near body temperature. This allows for a development time for C41 films to be in the 12 to 15 minute range. (E6 is about the same amount of time.).

    Now, I no longer have the space for a darkroom like I used to, so I have to scan my films. Not a real big issue, but sometimes the "magenta mask" that is used to compensate for the orange fim substrate leads to skewed color, or changes in contrast when scanned as a monochromatic image. Usually lowering contrast when scanning as black and white. However- C41 color film (particularly Kodak Gold 200) when developed in Tmax developer- It will give you acceptable monochromatic prints, but if scanned as a color negative, you still have "some" color- though heavily muted, and for some imagery, it can be a major enhancement.

    Since I am on a septic system and not connected to city sewer, I have opted to use "Cafenol" as a developer of choice. That and Vinol- both of which have articles written about them already. I tend to mix mine strong for fast development and minimal staining, however you can dilute the concentration to extend development time to get more staining. However with some films, such as the 40 year old film I have shot with, the staining can be a problem with amount of fogging from cosmic rays with the faster films.

    Yes, people can get into precise timing and formulas for the "optimal" results, but in this computer age, you can make the compensations for less than optimal negatives or positives digitally easily enough to allow one to "play fast and loose" with the matters of time and temp. It is after all supposed to be an enjoyable endeavor.

    And because of the cost of the regular E6 chemicals and cost of the C41 chemicals and faced with 20+ rolls of exposed film I had been sitting on for years; most of unkown content due to numerous found rolls getting mixed in, and a move to a new place, my original inclination was to take them to a local processor, but none are out in the area where I was, so I opted to just develop them all in Tmax developer that I had on hand which was about 15 years old and still sealed. It all worked except for two rolls that cooked in car's rear windows for who know's how long- those came out a solid black.

    The bulk of my uploaded galleries currently are cross processed. And some I show as original scan (as a "slide") as a positive, then as a scan as a negative, and then as a scan of it as a black and white image. There are times too when I adjust the contrast or the brightness, which is what you would do with color filters in a darkroom, and go through the steps of those images too. I was developing color print film in my old darkroom, and I try to keep manipulations other than "spotting" limited to what I would do as a parallel in a darkroom with photo printing paper. So as wild as some colors appear- those would be easily achieved with filtration in an enlarger, and ar thus realistic expectations of results.

    The goal is to enjoy the work, is it not?

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