With a tendency for novelty, I’m always searching for the next best film to try. Over the years I’ve lost count of how many different types and brands I’ve shot. But part of the fun of photography (at least for me) is the mystery of trying something new.
This variety has allowed me to experience a plethora of films in multiple formats, but doing this also came at the detriment of not shooting just one or two films constantly for years and learning them inside and out. However, recently… I’ve been thinking of settling down. I want to find MY film. THE ONE.
But Which Film?
I’m not actually naive enough to think that there will be a single film that I can use to cover all the bases all the time, but I do hope to eventually find a go-to film that I can stock up in bulk, and have something to grab for most situations. I’ve come up with a short list of criteria that looks something like this:
- Responds well to both pushing and pulling from 100-1600
Am I living in a pipe dream? Maybe.
Since we’re approaching a time when film costs are at an all-time high and supply is at an all-time low, the first two on the list are pretty important factors. And since I’m looking for the film to respond well to a variety of speeds, a 400 iso film would be my best option.
Having shot a lot of Kodak films over the years, I know that Tri-X checks 2 of the 3 boxes, but affordability isn’t one of them. So, the plan was to look for an inexpensive 35mm black and white film and buy about 20 rolls to test out at various speeds. Coming in at just $5 a roll, Holga 400 looked like a pretty good candidate.
It’s worth noting that Holga film is actually a just rebrand of Foma action 400. So, any time I say Holga, just know that it’s actually Foma Action 400. Rebranding trickery, right?
Development Time and Temps
So let’s jump into the tests, shall we? I’ll be developing all of the rolls in the same sequence, temperature, and chemicals. The only variation for the different speeds will be the development times. As a starting point, I’m going to use the Foma data sheet‘s recommended time of 7-8 minutes for 400 and adjust for the other speeds using the 30% per stop rule.
I’ll be developing all of the rolls with Tmax liquid developer. As a liquid concentrate, it’s pretty convenient to mix up as needed, and has great results when you’re pushing films. Since the ISO that I most often shoot at is 1600, Tmax has been my recent developer of choice and will be the starting point for these tests.
My initial times looked like this:
- I00 ISO – Develop for 3.25 minutes at 20°C
- 200 ISO – Develop for 5.5 minutes at 20°C
- 400 ISO – Develop for 8 minutes at 20°C
- 800 ISO – Develop at 10.5 minutes at 20°C
- 1600 ISO – Develop at 12.75 minutes at 20°C
Since it’s not recommended to use times that are less than 5 minutes because of the potential for underdeveloped highlights, and because Foma is known around the all-knowledgable interwebs as not a true 400-speed film, I increased the times to give the lower ISO rolls a little additional time to develop. The altered times looked like this:
- 100 ISO – Developed for 4 minutes at 20°C
- 200 ISO – Developed for 6 minutes at 20°C
Something interesting I read in the datasheet is that Foma states the film can be exposed at variable speeds and developed at the standard time and temperature with satisfactory results. The datasheet notes:
“Fomapan Action 400 has a nominal speed rating of ISO 400, but due to it’s wide exposure latitude the film gives good results when overexposed by 1EV (at 200) or underexposed 2EV (at 1600) without any change in processing time or temperature.”
We’ll see about that.
For all rolls, I used the same sequence of development and chemicals including Tmax developer, Photographer’s Formulary TF-5 fixer, and Kodak Photoflo as a wetting agent. My standard process looks like this:
- Pre-soak in water for 1 minute at 20°C
- Develop for XXX minutes at 20°C (30-second initial spin-rod agitation, with 10 seconds of agitation each minute)
- Running water stop for 2 minutes
- Fix film for 5 minutes (spin rod agitation every 30 seconds)
- Running water rinse for 8 minutes (refresh/ empty tank each minute while water is still flowing)
- Distilled water and Photoflo for 1 minute (15-second agitation, then let soak for the remainder of 45 seconds)
- Hang dry
Organizing the Comparison
I set up a tripod and shot the same scene from 100-1600 in full-stop increments. To save some film I would shoot each ISO for about 4 frames then take the camera into the closet and clip off the end of the film storing the exposed sections in marked film canisters.
What I was looking for in this comparison was to see how Holga 400 would react at different speeds metered for the same scene. I was curious about how how the shadows would change, and also how the amount of contrast and grain differed, etc.
In addition to the tripod 100-1600 test, I also shot several other rolls in their entirety with different subjects and in different scenarios:
- Shot and developed at ISO 100
- Shot at ISO 320 and Developed at 400
- Shot at ISO 1600 and developed at 800
- Shot at developed at ISO 1600
- Shot at and developed at ISO 800
- Shot at ISO 200 and developed at ISO 400
Some Thoughts After Shooting Holga for a Month Straight
The TL;DR version is- Holga 400 is a gritty film with a lot of character.
What do I mean by that very scientific analysis? Well, there is a very present and visible grain in Fomapan images at any ISO. As you could imagine, the amount of grain and contrast is more pronounced as you underexpose and push the film.
The grain structure isn’t tight and neat like Tmax or Delta, but it has more of a traditional-looking grain like Tri-x. However, when compared to Tri-x, to me it appears softer and a bit messier for lack of a better description.
There is a halation in the highlight areas and increased red sensitivity that gives this film a unique look. While the highlights can have a bit of a glow to them, they also seems to blow out a little sooner than films like Tri-x or HP5.
Here are some random thoughts on the different times I tried:
- The development times I used for 100 and 200 worked really well. I didn’t mind the amount of grain in these images.
- The 320 and 400 rolls at the standard development times looked evenly developed with nice contrast and a fair amount of shadow detail.
- The 800 roll that I developed at 1600 was a little grainy but had a nice ‘pop’ to it.
- The 800 and 1600 negatives were very contrasty, maybe even a bit too much contrast ( at least for me).
What About Over/Under Exposing at Normal Development?
But what about that statement on the datasheet suggesting you can rate Foma at 200, 400, 800, or 1600 and process normally?
I’d say is pretty accurate. You will have more shadow detail shooting at lower speeds which makes sense because you’re giving the film more light, but I feel like every ISO is passable if developed at the suggested time for 400. There is still plenty of shadow detail in the images shot at 1600.
Here is an example of exposing Foma at 200-1600 from left to right. Don’t mind the black bar in all of the frames- out of habit, I mixed up only enough chemicals needed to process one roll instead of the two that I developed simultaneously. Less volume in the tank means the second roll wasn’t totally submerged. Whoops.
So, is Holga 400 my new BFF?
I came away from this experiment feeling a little mixed about Holga/Foma 400. Is it THE film? I don’t think so. Well, maybe. I don’t know yet. Probably not, but before making any final decisions I need to first try some more tests with other developers. I’ve just ordered some D76 to mix up and develop a few test images to compare and see how they might differ.
What I can say though, is that I really love the tonality and look of Holga at 320 developed for 400, and 800 developed for 1600, which oddly enough is my preferred way to shoot and develop Tri-x. I was also happy with the rolls that I shot at 100.
It does seem like the echoes of the interwebs are right about one thing- Foma 400 likes slight overexposure.
So far though, I’m leaning towards that Foma isn’t clean-looking enough to work in most situations as a general-purpose film. But that’s not to say that I don’t like the look of Fomapan- I definitely do. It has a classic feel and almost ethereal mood to it that I like a lot and would look great in situations where a ‘soft grittiness’ can add to a scene- just not every scene.
I’m describing Holga as having a “soft” grittiness because it isn’t the sharpest, especially when compared to T-grain films like Tmax or Delta. All of these rolls were shot through a Nikon 50mm prime lens, so it’s definitely not the glass creating any softness. With that said though, different developers will affect a negative’s sharpness, so I can’t fault it here (yet) before trying some other chemicals.
While a concrete ‘yay or nay’ feeling would have been great, I think it’s more important to be patient and continue to see if I can make this inexpensive film worth my time. At the very least I have some good starting points as I experiment with it in the future.
If you have any suggestions for developers and alternate times that you’ve tried with Foma please let me know in the comments.
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