We’re back with another film profile to help you decide which film is right for you.
In the past we’ve profiled two Kodak films that are still being produced today; the smooth-as-silk Kodak Ektar 100, and the invitingly warm Portra 400. These two films are great at what they do, and their operational latitude and universally available development process make either one a great choice for the newcomer or professional alike.
But what if you want to shoot a black-and-white film that’s similarly accessible? Though the options are few compared to the vast number of color films available, there does exist a handful of capable and user-friendly B&W films.
Today, we’ll take a look at one such offering from Kodak. Their BW400CN is a black-and-white film that can be developed using the same process as standard color negative film. That means it can be developed at any photo lab. And while BW400CN has been officially discontinued, there’s still enough of it around to sate the appetites of those who want it.
But, is it any good? Is BW400CN still relevant today, or was it discontinued for a reason?
A Brief History of BW400CN
Prior to the release of black-and-white films that used C41 process, developing black-and-white images was often out of reach for many casual shooters. Requiring special skills, special tools, and special chemicals, many camera users just didn’t want to deal with the hassle. So it was a pretty big deal when companies began producing black-and-white film that used the same development process as standard color-negative film. This meant that anyone could shoot black-and-white photos, bring them to the same lab that developed their “normal” film, and have prints returned in less than an hour!
Even the most inexperienced lab operator (think corner pharmacy workers or grocery-store clerks) could develop artistic, black-and-white prints with ease. They’d just feed the machine and watch the magic happen. Among this group of accessible B&W films was Kodak’s BW400CN. This film provided excellent tonality, high resolution, and unmatched ease-of-use. Most importantly, it allowed anyone to shoot in black-and-white. This egalitarian sentiment and the film’s natural capabilities quickly earned it a spot in many shooters’ hearts.
So what makes BW400CN a film worth shooting, and what kind of shooter does it best suit? Let’s get into it.
The film shows excellent sharpness, a pleasant surprise given its relatively high sensitivity. With ISO 400 films, things can sometimes get pretty grainy pretty quickly. Not so, with this film. Users who value sharpness will really enjoy the itty-bitty grain of BW400CN. Images are rendered super-sharp. Shooting current stock yields consistently crisp shots, and even long-expired film makes impressively sharp images (though contrast seems to suffer). This sharpness allows quality enlargements and high-res scans. Good stuff for street photographers, landscape photos, and architectural shooting.
Next in the line of superlatives is the film’s balanced tonality. Shadow details are well-preserved when properly exposed, and highlight detail remains strong even in high contrast situations. The purposefully-engineered neutrality of BW400CN helps to create predictable tones in prints on many types of photographic paper. This will be a boon for shooters looking to shoot dynamic scenes (think sun-drenched urban shots).
Further bolstering BW400CN in our good graces is the film’s sheer usability. Kodak engineered this offering, like many color-negative films, to be extremely forgiving. Shoot one or two stops under-exposed and images are still salvageable, and over-exposing results in even fewer missed frames. This makes BW400CN one of the most accessible black-and-white films out there. It’s not going to beat the hell out of you, or demand that you use a dedicated light meter before every shot. This makes it a great film for newer shooters, those who just want to have some fun, and people using automated machines (like the Nikon L35AF or similar point-and-shoots).
Finally, chromogenic black-and-white film (such as BW400CN) intrinsically has a leg up on true black-and-white film when it comes to scan-ability, due to the latter’s use of metallic silver. The silver particles in true black-and-white film render ineffectual the implementation of scanners’ Digital ICE to subtract the position of dust particles and scratches on the scanned image.
By virtue of BW400CN being a chromogenic (C41) film and not a true black-and-white film, it allows for very good scan-ability, which is a big deal in today’s photographic ecosystem in which sharing shots on social media is so important to professionals and hobbyists alike.
These superlatives in mind, it would seem BW400CN is a true gem, right? Well, it’s not perfect. From the moment it was released there were photographers who hated BW400CN. They complained then, and still do today, that it suffers from an offensive color cast, isn’t truly a B&W film, and lacks personality. While we can’t say much regarding the more subjective of these opinions, we can talk about the color cast issue. It’s true that prints made from BW400CN negatives do have a slight color cast to them. It seems no one can agree on whether it’s a purple, green, or orange cast, but to our eyes it looks a bit green.
This cast can be distracting, but the offending hue only presents itself when we’re making prints from a BW400CN negative, or working with scans before post-processing. For those who can’t abide the color-cast, digital post-processing is a must. Luckily, it’s a simple process. When working with digital scans, we can turn the color-cast images made with BW400CN into images indistinguishable from true B&W shots with a single press of a button. And while this is another step in the workflow, it’s still far more time-effective than home-developing or shipping true B&W film to a pro lab.
But the necessity of post-processing analog scans gives rise to another debate. Since digital post-processing can be done with any film, not just black-and-white film, we find ourselves questioning the relevance of any chromogenic B&W offering. If one is looking to make black-and-white images imbued with the organic qualities so often associated with film, one only needs to shoot any type of film (color-neg, slide film, whatever) and change the shot to black-and-white in Photoshop, Lightroom, VSCO, etc. While many will be within their right to argue against this method as a poor substitute for “true” black-and-white photography, does that really matter? It certainly will for some shooters, but for many others it won’t. For many people today, making a black-and-white image from a color negative is perfectly acceptable, as long as it looks good.
All this speaks specifically to whether or not BW400CN remains relevant in the digital age. And when we try to decide, we’re left pondering. It’s hard to ignore the glaring fact that the sole reason for this film’s existence has been rendered moot by the passing of time. In the same breath, it’s still a completely capable film that does something pretty unique in the world of photography. It’s simple, has outstanding exposure latitude, and can be processed into prints by any photo lab, grocery store, or pharmacy.
Which brings us to the type of photographer for whom BW400CN will still be a relevant, and indeed exceptional, film. These are likely to be new shooters who aren’t going to home-develop true B&W film. They may be photo enthusiasts who want to experiment with B&W without the somewhat harsher learning curve of true B&W. And of course, BW400CN is still a fantastic film for anyone who wants to shoot some snaps and get some quick, no-nonsense physical prints.
If you’re still undecided, take a look at some of the images people are making with BW400CN. As with all things visual, this film may just strike you in a way that renders all of the quibbles and observations above completely irrelevant. For all its detractors, there are just as many photophiles who love BW400CN.