Why You Should Push Black and White Film

Most of the magic of digital photography is often created after the shooting stops. It’s when all of those subtle tweaks in Lightroom and Photoshop happen, bringing out small details, and finding that oh-so-perfect tonality for your image. Aka, that “banger edit”.

Film photography, though, it’s a bit different. You can still produce that final banger of an image, but the way you achieve that final result can be very different.

With this in mind, there’s one important thing to remember when shooting film;

Achieving the best image is directly related to manipulating different variables before, during, and after the image creation.

One of those variables is altering the contrast of an image. There are several ways you can increase contrast with a black and white film. The easiest and most obvious is with your editing program after scanning the negatives in of course, but what if you wanted to permanently affect the negative itself to have increased contrast?

Tmax 400 pushed two stops without adjusting tonality

You have a few options to increase the contrast in your negatives, like shooting through colored filters, using different development times, temperatures, or types of chemicals. The way that I prefer most though, is pushing the film two stops. Not only does pushing the film to create a wider separation between the shadows and the highlights, giving the image more “punch” and increasing the overall contrast, but it also affects the grain to give the image a more gritty look.

Another plus of baking the contrast directly into the negative is that it prints easier in the darkroom. The projected image from the enlarger is already at a higher contrast, so there is less need for applying contrast filters during printing.

Higher contrast negatives print easier in the darkroom

However, additional contrast and grittiness might not always be the most aesthetically pleasing choice. For example, I usually won’t push 400 speed film if I’m shooting portraits of a subject that it may benefit from a ‘flatter’ or ‘softer’ look. I’ve found that people tend to prefer images of themselves that don’t accentuate hard shadows on their features and have a cleaner, less grainy look.

Here’s a set of images that I’ve shot on Tmax 400 pushed to 1600. These were direct scans straight from the develop tank with the only edits being some dust removal and slight sharpening.

If you haven’t yet pushed black and white film, I would definitely recommend trying it. You may find that you like the look that a higher contrast negative gives.

But if do you already push your film, I’d be curious to hear what your favorite is. My current go-to is Kodak Tmax, but I also love the looks of Tri-x and Ilford’s HP5.

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Tmax 400 (35mm, 2 Rolls)
Tmax 400 (35mm, 5 Rolls)
Tmax 400 (120, 1 Roll)
Tmax 400 (120, 5 Rolls)

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