Ilford Delta 3200 Film Profile – The Fastest Black and White Film Available Today

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.

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    Marcus didius falco (@falcos2012)
    July 14, 2017 at 7:48 am

    A timely review:) Just in time for EMULSIVE’s celebration/competition in September 2017 relating to Delta film. Have 2 rolls of 3200 in the fridge waiting to be used:) Can’t wait!
    Regards,

  • Reply
    Shreyas N
    July 14, 2017 at 8:39 am

    I have put my sole Delta 3200 into my Nikon FE just last week. This review has just made me to go out and finish those few last exposures. Thank you for the review.
    Please review the Pan F plus, that way you would have covered the two most extremes 🙂

    • Reply
      Jeb Inge
      July 14, 2017 at 8:58 am

      I actually have a roll of that in my freezer. I’ll have to get around to shooting it!

  • Reply
    Wilson Laidlaw
    July 14, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Good luck about getting film hand searched. I had some Neopan 1600 film in a lead foil bag (of dubious value) along with my other films. I asked the staff at Heathrow T5 to hand search it, handing them the bag, explaining it contained high speed film, susceptible to fogging by x-rays. They said no problem looked in the bag and took out a couple of the films to check. The lady handed the bag to another person, who then emptied all the films out into a tray and put them through the small machine for x-raying individual objects, like shoes. When I objected saying it was totally pointless asking them to hand search film, if they were subsequently going to x-ray it. “That’s what the rules say” was the job’sworth answer I got back. I think they were wrong and that is not what the rules say but you cannot argue with these people if you want to board your flight. The contrast on the one Neopan 1600 film I have used, was less than I expected and I wonder if that was due to the x-rays. I suspect I would have been better leaving the films in the lead bag in my hand luggage and having it hand searched after it had passed through the regular x-ray.

    The other alternative if the cassette is not metal, is to leave them in your pocket and go through the metal detector instead of x-ray. This would not work for me as I have a lot of metal in one leg and get a pat down on the far side of metal detection.

  • Reply
    bodegabayf2
    July 14, 2017 at 10:43 am

    Good review and you’ve inspired me to try some. I’ve not been fond of Ilford film, but your night shots have have me wanting to give Delta 3200 a shot.

  • Reply
    yashicachris
    July 14, 2017 at 11:20 am

    Excellent review. I may have to give it a try. I’ve been wanting to take pictures of some bats on a moonless night. Good stuff.

  • Reply
    yashicachris
    July 14, 2017 at 11:24 am

    I might add: Ilford’s Delta 3200 Professional is a high-speed black and white negative film for producing prints using a traditional black and white process. The film exhibits a nominal sensitivity of ISO 3200/36°, making it ideal for use in difficult lighting conditions, indoor scenes, and for fast-moving subjects. Standard development in black and white chemistry yields an unobtrusive grain texture with rich tonality and the film also responds exceptionally well to under/over exposure and push/pull development. “Unobtrusive grain texture”. Could grain be more of an issue with the 120 film vice 135?

  • Reply
    Andrew Higgins
    July 14, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    Very interesting to see this article, to be reminded of a ‘forgotten’ film, and to look forward to buy a roll or two to put through my FM2.
    Film grain is a photographer’s paint brush strokes, pick your film like you’d pick a brush size…

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    July 14, 2017 at 11:32 pm

    At smaller resolutions (i.e., on my phone), the night shots look fantastic — the grain is not evident. But I can see how the more you blow these images up, the more grain is apparent. That grain is almost otherworldly when I blow the images up to fill my computer’s monitor.

  • Reply
    peggy
    July 16, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Night photography is something I’ve not done in more than a dozen years. Thanks to your thorough review and stunning images, I’m looking forward to giving it a go again with this film.

  • Reply
    Jack Hancock (@LessDauphins)
    July 17, 2017 at 8:03 am

    This review has really inspired me. I will add this to my ‘films to try’ list and do some nocturnal urban stuff. Your shots look really good.

  • Reply
    Mayank Gautam
    August 13, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    Loved the review. I was really shocked when my supplier told me that he has a ISO 3200 film, I was like ,”whaaat?” is that possible? I would like to know what actual problems you faced with the 35mm version, you pushed it too much or what? it’s very vague in the article. Awaiting your reply.

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