The word “cinematic” can be pretty vague. It’s one of those meaningless filler words that can be applied to anything and that tells you absolutely nothing about what you’re looking at. Oh look at this street, it’s so cinematic. Look at these two people walking together, this rainy day, this guy peeing on the street – so cinematic. Why is it cinematic? Who knows. It just is.
Annoying though the word can be, it’s hardly surprising that we analog shooters use it so often. Cinema and still photography have always been naturally linked; old-school photojournalists used motion picture film stock in their still cameras extensively, and modern films like Cinestill 800T, Ferrania P30, even Kodak Portra, are basically modified versions of motion picture film stock.
The practice of re-rolling cinema film into 35mm canisters isn’t a new one, but there is one cinema film that has seen a resurgence of popularity recently, and it’s one that both film directors and photographers alike have relied on for years. It’s Eastman Kodak 5222, also known as Double X, and it might just be the most cinematic of all films available today.
Introduced in 1959 by Eastman Kodak, Double X is widely considered to be the quintessential black-and-white cinema film stock, one that can reliably deliver the moody intensity of Old Hollywood and film noir. Seeing as its resumé includes some of the all-time great films like Raging Bull and Schindler’s List, let’s all agree that it’s pretty good at what it does. In fact, Double X has proved to be so good that the film has never been reformulated and is still being produced by Eastman Kodak by the mile.
This presents a very enticing proposition for us photo geeks; with Double X we have a classic black-and-white emulsion from 1959 still being provided in huge quantities. It sounds like the perfect solution for those who prefer to stick to one film and for fans of vintage-looking film and mid-century photojournalism. Seeing as I tick all of those boxes, Double X seemed like the perfect film for me, so I set out to go find some for myself.
Unfortunately, finding Double X isn’t quite as straightforward as hopping over to your local photo shop or clicking over to B&H. Double X is, after all, cinema film, and a few things need to happen before you get it into a 35mm camera. You can very well order Double X for yourself through Eastman Kodak in 400 foot reels and re-roll it into 100 foot rolls fit for bulk loading, but that assumes that you have money to blow on 400 feet and are absolutely sure you’ll use the stuff. That’s a daunting proposition, especially for newcomers to the film, and one I wouldn’t recommend for casual shooters.
Fortunately, there’s a simpler solution. The good folks at Film Photography Project have gone through the trouble of re-rolling Double X into 35mm canisters, as have a couple of other resellers on eBay, making it easy for newcomers to get a taste of what Double X can do.
So what can it do? Looking at the specs, Double X looks like any other standard black-and-white film. It hovers around ISO 250, a versatile speed well-suited for daylight and for controlled indoor lighting. Kodak confirms this; they describe the film as an all-purpose film suitable for outdoor shooting and for use in dim light.
Out in the field, those assessments prove mostly correct. When shot at box speed, Double X proves to be a solid (if unspectacular) companion in most lighting situations. It shows a tight cubic grain structure and a smooth, flat tonality that we come to expect from a mid-speed black-and-white film. Sharpness and resolution are about average owing to its larger grain, and scenes are rendered with just a little less contrast than you might expect. Overall, it proves to be an average film when it comes to technical ability.
There is, however, one glaring problem with this film that shows itself pretty quickly, and that’s its latitude, or lack thereof. Double X does not have the same crazy latitude we’ve come to expect from modern films. It can only really handle about one and a half stops of underexposure and one and a half stops of overexposure before shadows start to look like ink stains and highlights start to wash out. It’s a more unforgiving film than most, which can throw some black-and-white shooters off their game.
Hand in hand with reduced latitude comes a reduced ability to push and pull. After some experiments with pushing Double X in HC-110 developer, I’ve found that the film really only reacts well when pushed one stop to 400 under normal agitation. That being said, avid Double X users have reported good results pushing the film a couple stops in stand development with special developers. While I don’t deny their experience and expertise with the film, one thing remains clear; Double X can’t push like Tri-X or HP5+. Users looking for extreme pushability up in the 1600-and-beyond range will be left wanting with this film.
If the film sounds a little stiff and outdated, we must remember that Double X is, after all, an old film. It has never been reformulated to keep up with the times, save for the addition of an anti-halation layer to prevent halos. That said, there’s a reason why the film has survived for so many years – the look. And what a look it is.
Double X delivers a truly vintage black-and-white look, one we’ve come to associate with the old masters of photography. The film comes straight out of the mid-century photojournalist playbook, replete with visible chunks of grain, medium contrast, and that sweet paintbrush-like motion blur characteristic of old-school film. And if you push it a little bit in development or throw it into a contrasty situation and nail the exposure, Double X instantly delivers that gritty, stark, look that every film noir buff and HCB wannabe dreams of.
This look makes Double X particularly well-suited to documentary-style photography. It imbues images with the grit prized by street photographers as well as the smooth tonality that landscape photographers crave, depending on how you treat it. For however limited Double X is technically, it can actually accomplish quite a bit in nearly any shooting scenario. In fact, the only time I’d avoid using Double X is when shooting traditional portraits, but this really comes down to taste.
It’s true, Double X isn’t a technically impressive film. It can’t hold a candle to newer t-grained emulsions or even the updated versions of traditionally grained films like Tri-X or HP5+. But then again, it doesn’t need to be technically impressive. It’s a beautiful, classic film that has delivered us some of the most revered pictures in cinema’s history. It’s served many in their search for black-and-white perfection for well over fifty years, and today it can still give us photo geeks a true taste of the cinematic.