Paranoid about passing through six airports and their dreaded x-ray machines with a bag of unprocessed film, I read some advice – toss in a roll of high-speed film to better justify getting a hand inspection. So far as the advice claimed, if you have high-speed film that’s more likely to be negatively affected by x-rays, the airport personnel should be more apt to perform a hand inspection of your gear. Worth a shot.
So after packing a Ziploc bag with rolls of Ektar, Portra and Agfa Vista 200, I went to a local film store and grabbed a roll of Ilford Delta 3200 (the highest speed film being manufactured today) and tossed it in. I wasn’t really interested in shooting Delta 3200. It was insurance.
A lot of people buy Ilford’s HP5 and make good images with it, but I’ve always been largely a Tri-X shooter. Something about its grain structure, pedigree, and versatility in the hands of a sloppy shooter like myself always made me choose it over HP5. So I guess I’m a Kodak guy. But when it comes to speed, Kodak doesn’t have anything that comes close to Delta 3200.
Interesting facts about the film before we get too deep; Harman Technology debuted Delta 3200 in the late nineties as a competitor to Kodak’s T-MAX 3200 (which is no longer being produced) and as a replacement for the British company’s HPS high-speed stock. Contrary to what’s on the canister, Delta 3200 is actually rated at 1000, even though it’s designed to be shot at 3200. The film’s extreme latitude will produce good exposures ranging from 400 to 6400. It comes in both 35mm and 120mm sizes, both of which were used for this review.
Despite the wide latitude, I shoot Delta at its box speed. Harman’s literature says it’s capable of exposures rated upwards of 25000, which seems… mildly insane.
But to get back on track, and as I stated earlier, understand that this first-time purchase of Delta was a calculated one, and for purely logistical purposes. Rightly or not, I was terrified of airport x-ray machines ruining two weeks of hard photographic work on what I considered the more interesting rolls in my bag. But if I was going to carry it around for an entire trip, I may as well use it. So on the last night of my visit to Berlin, I loaded my Pentax 645 with this super-speedy film that was, to me, quite a new beast.
I quickly discovered a film that’s pretty remarkable. Even in the dead of night, images taken in the subways, at the Brandenburg Gate, and on dimly lit city streets were not only possible, but they were possible without a tripod and with slow glass. Pretty amazing, though at this stage, I still hadn’t seen the resultant images. If they were any good, I thought, I may just be a Delta fan. Coming from a mindset of shooting sub-400 ISO films, shooting with 3200 brought seemingly limitless possibilities in even the darkest situations. And that’s Delta 3200’s obvious purpose – available light photography and high speed situations.
But before you get all jazzed up, how do you feel about grain? See, Delta’s down for whatever. Want to shoot it at 400? 6400? No problem. This film is the equivalent of that friend who doesn’t care what the squad does because it’s literally happy doing anything. And much of this flexibility, all the pushing and pulling, leads to grain. Lots of grain. And if you love grain, well, you’ll love Delta 3200. Grain is not just visible, but it’s seen in great abundance in highlights, shadows – pretty much everywhere.
This characteristic grain shines a light on one key advantage of film over digital. There’s a harshness and an ugliness to digital grain, and high ISO digital images often result in jarring visual noise. It’s unpleasant. Hell, that’s why Photoshop gives users an easily-accessible slider to reduce it. But it’s different with film, and especially different with Delta 3200.
Delta’s grain is part and parcel with its personality. It defines the images taken on it, and when I went back to buy my second roll, my purpose wasn’t avoiding an x-ray machine, but to recapture that aesthetic. I don’t know if Delta makes “beautiful” images, but it does make interesting and intense images.
Where HP5 is a mosaic of grays, Delta infuses more hard blacks that make low-light and night shots more stark and compelling. Images shot on Delta at night remind me of classic Hollywood movies like Sweet Smell of Success where “city at night” deserved top billing. Film speed, latitude, and the black-and-white emulsion all combine to give Delta powers of handheld, low-light image capture that other films just can’t match.
Which leads me to the film’s biggest fault – I tended to overestimate its ability.
The roll of medium format Delta I shot in Berlin generated some of my favorite photographs of the trip, images that now define my memory of that city. So when I bought a roll of Delta in 35mm, I expected the same. After the initial success, I started to see 3200 as some sort of invincible emulsion, capable of incredible night vision. I took greater risks without necessary experience or forethought. So when my scans came back, I was happy to see a few images that I really liked, and appalled by the amount of truly bad images I had taken.
Okay, so now that I say that, I realize the fault actually lies with the photographer and not the film. The lesson? Delta is a low-light magician, but even magicians sometimes draw the wrong card.
All this speaks to the real strength of Delta 3200, and that is its special niche in the film shooting world. Harman should be commended for making Delta in an era that’s marked by fewer and fewer film options. This film isn’t really necessary, but it’s important that it exists because many film shooters firing roll after roll of HP5 will inevitably reach a plateau and ask “what’s next?” And Delta 3200 is what’s next. It’s Harman’s answer to the question – “You really want to get nuts?”
In making Delta 3200, it’s almost as if Harman was so scared of bringing a knife to a gunfight that they showed up in a tank instead. And much like a tank, Delta can be brutish and aggressive and stunningly effective. It can go places soldiers on horseback shouldn’t go, and it’s sometimes a bit too coarse. It’s not an everyday shooter like an HP5 or Tri-X, but it’s still great film and worth shooting, if only to remind us that our film cameras don’t always need to retreat to the tripod when the sun goes down.