FILM Ferrania is a unique company with a unique product. The Italian cinema film maker reached their peak of influence in the mid-twentieth century, and their first new product since a 2014 resurrection is a 35mm stills film with roots in a hand-written formula dating to 1958. Ferrania P30 Alpha is a fine grain, ISO 80, black-and-white panchromatic film. It’s enigmatic and dramatic, and it’s my favorite of all black-and-white film.
It’s also a challenging film. My first roll was sent to a lab for development and scanning, and the results were an unmitigated failure. Images showed outrageous contrast, with blown highlights and deep, black shadows. They were unusable images. With the second roll, I developed and scanned the film myself, and the results were simply stunning. Incredibly fine grain and amazing tonality coupled with a delightful punchiness meant that I was instantly in love. I shot my third and final roll, sent it to a different lab, and my results were again too stark for my taste. I’d stumbled onto a truth about P30 – that, depending on your desired results, development can be tricky.
I wanted to shoot more P30 and get to the heart of this film that had at different times disappointed and amazed. I ordered five additional rolls. Of these, I sent two away for processing, one to my local lab that’s been devving since the 1960s and one to a fantastic lab on the other side of the country. They both did incredible work and produced scans that are punchy and dramatic. But it’s true that compared with my home-developed shots, the final images are really strong on contrast. This creates a beautiful and impactful style, but it’s a style that won’t appeal to all shooters.
For the three final rolls, I developed at home using achingly gentle agitation. My results were exactly what I expected and exactly what I was looking for. Dramatic images with strong contrast, virtually non-existent grain, and incredible shadow detail, and scanning these negatives has resulted in images that allow for easy post-processing.
A bit confused about how to approach a new film that seemed so fickle, I contacted Ferrania’s US Director, David Bias for tips. We talked about FILM Ferrania’s path over the last few years, their ambition for the future, and their first film. The conversation was illuminating for a number of reasons, among them his advice for getting the most out of P30 Alpha.
When asked about the variable nature of shots from P30, Dave affirmed my suspicions. “More than any other black-and-white film on the market, the developer that you use really affects the final image. There is a golden median that we consider to be ideal, and if you’re looking for this ideal look there are a number of best practices that should be followed.”
The ideal look that Dave mentions is characterized not by the extreme contrast we’re seeing in many reviewers’ sample shots, but by a more tonal gradation. And though the film certainly is a contrasty one, we shouldn’t be seeing blown highlights and black shadows. Ferrania P30 Alpha, when developed and scanned the way its makers intend, presents strong contrast, for sure, but it does so without blocking up. There should be deep and dramatic shadows, but these shadows should still retain a high degree of detail.
But it seems this isn’t always the result when we send P30 out for processing. That’s not a knock on labs (our photo processing pals are doing amazing work), it’s just a matter of chemicals and methodology.
Most photo labs are using rapid developers that have been designed to work with the most popular films. Those best-selling black-and-white emulsions from Kodak, Agfa, Ilford, and Fuji are engineered to behave well, to create images that allow wide latitude for adjustment in scanning. Ferrania, on the other hand, has produced a different type of film. With high silver content and roots in cinema stock, P30 responds best when processed as a cinema film would be processed; in a low-contrast developer like D-96 and with continuous gentle agitation.
But don’t infer from all of this that P30 Alpha is some kind of delicate flower or that the results we’re seeing are ghastly. The shots people are making with P30 are great no matter the developing method, and labs are doing a great job of making excellent images from an emulsion that has little recent precedence.
Dave is quick to point out that there are no rules in film photography. “If the goal is to achieve what we consider the ideal image from P30, P30 can be hard. Having a first product that’s hard to use is not ideal, but we’ve been fortunate in that labs are working with us to define the development process and produce quality images, and many of the people who’ve bought the film thus far are willing to process it themselves and share their results. And the results people are getting are great. We love the images.”
“I think the best thing for users to do is decide if they want really high contrast images or if they want something closer to that ideal tone. If you want contrast, send it to a lab. If you want tone, develop at home. That way you can control the development process and the scanning and post-processing.”
In talking with both professional and enthusiast amateur photographers, it’s clear that the general opinion on P30 is that it’s a wonderful film that’s capable of making gorgeous images. Those ultra-dramatic lab-processed shots we see on Instagram feel like they’ve been ripped from the reels of a classic film noir. We almost expect in every frame to see a menacing black pistol pointing like a finger from the fist of a grizzled detective. And with home-developed shots we’re seeing incredible tonality with an almost glistening luminance that’s hard to find in any other black-and-white film on the market today.
The talk around town that the folk at FILM Ferrania were lukewarm over the somewhat unpredictable results that photographers were encountering with P30 development had me momentarily worried. Would they change the film? Would they try to bring it into closer step with the more common black-and-white films? I asked Dave.
“We found the original hand-written formula from 1958. In 1964, when the LRF [Laboratori Ricerche Fotografiche] opened, the formula was updated very slightly for still film. We looked through microfilm records and the chemical difference between today’s P30 and the film of the 1960s is statistically insignificant. P30 is the same today as it was then, and we’re not going to change it.”
For me, that’s great news. Though my first roll of P30 was a bit of a botched job on account of some over-zealous developing, my second roll of P30 was a revelation, and the home-processed and scanned images since then have been punchy but not overcooked, with a gorgeous tonality I’ve never found in another film. The incredibly fine grain is exactly what I want in a black-and-white film, and P30 images seem to glow with an inner luminance I’ve never encountered. From that second roll on, P30 has become the black-and-white film I shoot when I’m shooting for myself, and I’m glad the product won’t be changing anytime soon.
The next step for Ferrania is to scale, to bring production to the level of demand. When P30 is available for sale, it sells. That’s great news for the company, and great news for the film community. If their first product is any indication of things to come, we’re eagerly anticipating a future in which FILM Ferrania increases production, brings more products to market, and enjoys all the success they deserve.