Ilford Delta 400 Film Profile – a Vintage Look with Modern Quality

Ilford Delta 400 Film Profile – a Vintage Look with Modern Quality

2200 1238 Dustin Vaughn-Luma

Mention the name “Ilford” to any film photographer and chances are high they’ll be able to name at least one film in the brand’s lineup. While many shooters know and love HP5 Plus, a film made popular by its generous latitude and similarity to Kodak’s near-icon-status Tri-X, there’s another 400 speed black-and-white Ilford offering that often gets overlooked – Delta 400.

Brought to market in its current formulation in 1990, Delta 400 is a medium-speed, ISO 400, black-and-white, T-grain film; all things similar to Kodak’s T-Max 400. It’s sharp, has wonderful contrast, outstanding shadow detail, and could possibly be the perfect film for any occasion. A staple of nearly every wedding, portrait, and fine art film photographer, it provides consistent results and a distinctive look.

But with a spec sheet so similar to that of Kodak’s T-Max 400, it may be hard to see why Delta’s any different from certain other black-and-white films on the market. But its depth and versatility is worth a look.

T-Grain vs. Conventional Grain

Before I begin discussing merits and drawbacks, I think it’s important to clarify how a film like Delta 400 differs from a conventional grain film.

Delta 400 is what’s known as a T-grain film (Tabular grain), which is slightly different from a conventional-grain film in the way that the film’s silver content is distributed. T-grain films (Delta, Acros, T-Max) have flat crystals whereas conventional-grain films (HP5, Tri-X, Rollei RPX) have round crystals (imagine floor tiles versus a bed of river rock). The flatness of the crystal allows better light absorption per quantity of silver suspended in the emulsion. Theoretically, a T-grain film should provide sharper images and finer grain when compared to a conventional-grain film of the same sensitivity.

But conventional wisdom says that while T-grain film exhibits greater sharpness, it does so at a cost. Internet wisdom, especially, states that fine detail in the highlight areas of T-grain images will more easily blow out compared to conventional-grain films. But honestly, this is something most of us will never notice unless comparing two darkroom prints under a loupe. Practically speaking, I’ve never cursed and said, “I wish this photo was made with conventional-grain film.”

In Use

Years before I’d ever shot Delta 400, I’d read that it was a niche film requiring precise exposure. But my experience is exactly the opposite; Delta is a surprisingly versatile film. I’ve shot it from ISO 320 to 1600 without any issues, and have made some of my favorite images with it. It was the first film I used when I returned to shooting film over three years ago, and it’s the only film I use that has it’s own reserved and labeled space in my film fridge. While I may go months without having certain stocks on hand, Delta 400 is one of the special films that I’ve always got on hand.

It has remarkable inky tones and great contrast, and maintains a consistent sharpness no matter what the lens. But don’t let all this modern emulsion and sharpness talk fool you. It’s a classic emulsion at heart and produces some of the most timeless images I’ve ever seen. Similar to FP4 in that regard, shots from Delta 400 are uncannily reminiscent of those made in the 1950s and ’60s.

The age-old adage of metering for the shadows holds true with this film; and I’ve found that in practice, even when pushing, it’s difficult to blow the highlights. I’ve shot this film in broad daylight from 320 to 800 without a problem. Grain can creep in more noticeably when pushing, but if developed properly it can be kept at a minimum; much more so than a conventional grain film like HP5.

Developing

It wasn’t until I began developing and scanning my own film that I discovered Delta 400’s true beauty. Chemistry is important, and I’ll speak about that shortly, but my past experience with various labs did not deliver the results I was looking for. I’ve found that some labs will ignorantly slap an S-curve on the scan and call it a day. Most of the images that I was getting back from send-away labs were overly contrasted and not at all like I had imagined they’d look when shooting. When developed properly, Delta 400 should show slightly more contrast at box speed than HP5, but not so much that it crushes the shadow detail.

I wouldn’t go as far to say that it’s as versatile as HP5 (I’ve been able to get usable images at 6400 ISO), but I’ve successfully pushed this film to 1600 and been very pleased with the results. If I had to pick a speed, I’d say 800 is perfect for my taste. Contrast and grain are well balanced without being overwhelming.

Shots in the gallery above were made with various cameras; Yashica GT, Pentax 645n and 75mm F/2.8 FA lens. Shots in the gallery below were made with a Nikon FM3a, Nikkor 50mm F/1.4, and pushed to 800.

I mentioned that chemistry is important, and while that’s priority one for me, I think that agitation technique is just as critical. I’ve seen plenty of developing how-to videos demonstrate overly aggressive agitation, and while that may work for some, I find that it ultimately results in disappointment for me.

I’d like to share my process should others want to try it out (check massive dev chart for times).

Safety is Sexy : Wear gloves! Film chemistry is toxic, and your hands absorb more chemicals than any other part of your body. You don’t want to grow a third eye down the road, do you?

Pre-rinse : I never pre-rinse with Delta 400. Personal preference here. Some do it, and some don’t. I find the developer etches more consistently when a pre-rinse is omitted from the process.

Developer solution : HC-110 (B – 1:31 — 68 F / 20 C)

I find HC-110 to be the best multi-purpose black-and-white developer there is, and dilution B works for me. If you’re picky about grain, you might want to try stand development, but I haven’t bothered with that. If anything, use it for its sharpness. Mix it with de-ionized water, not tap water. My home town of San Jose, California has some of the hardest water in the U.S., and I’ve found my film shows significantly more grain when I use tap water.

Let’s talk about agitation for a minute. How one chooses to agitate is completely subjective. If you develop in a spiral tank like I do, I find that I get desirable contrast and grain characteristics if I invert the tank gently two times per inversion cycle. Others will flip the thing over four or five times like a wild animal, and that’s fine, but I tend to get a more consistent grain structure when I use some finesse. Delta’s grain can get out of hand quickly, so two gentle inversions and a swirl before tapping the bubbles off is how I like to roll. I’d also recommend not spinning the reels like a top during the first minute of agitation. I’ve seen people spin that thing up fast enough to make electricity. A slow but consistent twist is all you need.

Stop Bath : Room temperature de-ionized water. Gently agitate for 1 minute.

Fixer : Ilford Rapid Fixer mixed with de-ionized water (1:4 — 68 F / 20 C)

Depending on the strength of the mixture (i.e. how many times I’ve used it), I fix for two to five minutes.

Rinse : Now that the film has been fixed, tap water is fine to use (I do my best to keep it the same temp as everything else). I usually fill up and drain the tank three times, then let it sit under the faucet for another four to five minutes.

Final Rinse : Fill the tank up with room temperature de-ionized water and put in a couple drops of Kodak Photo-Flo 200. Agitate for fifteen to twenty seconds, then let sit for another thirty seconds. There’s really no hard and fast rule on this; so long as you coat the film with the mixture, it should be fine.

Dry : Don’t use a flippin’ squeegee! Squeegees, especially sponge squeegees, just gather particles of dirt that end up scratching the film over time. I use a clean microfiber towel (note: if you launder your microfiber, be aware that it breaks down over time, and should not be used with fabric softener – that stuff will just leave streaks on your film), drenched with the Photo Flo mixture from the tank, and rung out tight. I then make two very light passes on the strip, clip it, and hang to dry for two to three hours before scanning.

Scanning : Of all the films I’ve scanned, Delta 400 is my absolute favorite. It dries incredibly flat, which makes loading strips into negative carriers a breeze. I scan through a Plustek 8200i using Silverfast’s Delta 400 NegaFix profile, and I adjust the tone slightly as needed to compensate for my own errors in shooting.

Final Recommendations

Delta 400 is not inexpensive by any means. B&H is currently asking $7.49 for a 36 exposure roll in 35mm and $5.99 for a roll of 120mm, which may put it out of reach for some shooters. I realize this flies in the face of T-grain-being-cheaper-to-manufacture theory, so I imagine that Ilford’s Core Shell process is anything but economical by their standards. One alternative is to buy it in bulk and load it yourself. A 100 foot roll will set you back $69.95, and assuming you have a daylight loader and cassettes, that brings the cost down to roughly $3.90 per roll of 36 exposures, which is downright cheap.

At its core, Delta 400 is a tried and true professional-grade film stock. Its price may be a tough pill to swallow, but that doesn’t mean that budget-wise shooters should automatically dismiss it and shoot T-Max instead. To my eye, T-max can appear sterile and contemporary unless pushed a bit to excite the grain. Delta 400, on the other hand, has a magnificent grain structure when shot at box speed.

If you’re the type of photographer that prefers a vintage look but who also demands exacting sharpness and sweeping tonality, then Delta 400 is worth the extra coin.

Buy Ilford Delta 400 on eBay

Buy Ilford Delta 400 from B&H Photo

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Dustin Vaughn-Luma

An experience designer, freelance photographer, and competitive cyclist living in San Jose, California with his wife, three sons, and neurotic bernese mountain dog. The majority of his personal work is shot on 35mm and 120 film, and is developed and scanned at home.

All stories by:Dustin Vaughn-Luma
27 comments
  • Love this film!! With Bergger Pancro 400, one of my favorites, specially great when shooting landscapes or portraits when you want a lot of details in the shadows.

    • Thanks for the comment, Stephane. I agree with you completely. That Pancro is a fast favorite of mine as well. All the best!

  • What a useful comprehensive review. Seems like the trick to getting the most out of this film, per this review, is to process it yourself?

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jim. I’ve found that I get the most out of it when I do it myself, but it took me a while to get there. I find I have much better tonal and grain control when I develop at home. Most high-end labs, however, (like Richard and Indie for example) will allow you to work one on one with a scanning technician to dial in your desired results. If you don’t have to the time to do it at home, this might be a nice option. Take care, pal!

  • William Sommerwerck March 23, 2018 at 10:16 am

    “The flatness of the crystal allows better light absorption per quantity of silver suspended in the emulsion.”

    “Better” is a slippery word. When a film grain absorbs a photon, an electron is released that creates a nucleation center that triggers rapid reduction to metallic silver when developer is applied. The gain’s size doesn’t matter. Only one nucleation center is needed. Absorbing more photons is of no advantage.

    A flat grain has a larger cross-sectional area. Therefore, the chance of it being struck by a photon that creates a nucleation center is increased. It’s not that the tablet grain absorbs more photons, but rather that the probability of a nucleation center being created is enhanced.

    I have to say, that, for whatever reason, the IQ of the posted pictures is pleasing.

  • I’ll certainly give it a shot, since I mainly shoot black and white in 120 format and my everyday film is Acros 100, which is a bit slow sometimes and costs much more than this one. I was thinking to try HP5 plus, but now I’m more inclined towards D 400. Thank you for the review, much appreciated!

    • Glad you liked it, Michael. Share some of your Delta results with us when you can. We’d love to see ’em.

      • It would be a bad idea for someone of my non-existing skills to share their works… After all, I’m an amateur and it’s just a part-time hobby.

  • Merlin Marquardt March 23, 2018 at 11:54 am

    Very nice review and photos.

  • Why are you scanning? B&W films do not produce optimum results when scanned.

  • Good article!
    Is it possible to write a similar story about my favorite B&W film, Ilford XP2 Super?

  • I am in the process of re-testing the most popular B&W films with FX-39 developer. Many of them have changed (if only slightly) since I last did this in 2004. Kodak shifted production to a new plant, and the developing times for them have to be adjusted. Also, T-Max 400 is completely new emulsion. Based on my recent tests, I can say that Delta 400 is ‘intermediate’ between films such as HP5+ and Tri-X in graininess and sharpness. In general, the conventional-grain films offer more latitude and are best suited to uncontrolled-lighting situations such as one encounters in outdoor and documentary photography. The tablet-grain films are somewhat more finicky and are best used in studio or controlled-lighting situations. In other words, the differences between the conventional-grain films and tablet-grain films are not matters of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but rather of application.

  • Interesting review. You mention it’s got the same timeless look as FP4+, I fully agree to the point I have a hard time telling them apart. I just finished a bulk roll of FP4+, maybe time to try out Delta 400.

    • Ah FP4… such a beautiful film. Every time I shoot it, it’s always at 200 or above (I’ve had great results with it at 800 even). In my experience, FP4 can be troublesome in the highlights if you aren’t careful, and doesn’t seem to possess the sharpness that Delta does. I think an FP4 profile is in order soon!

  • Yann Kaneko (@YannKaneko) March 23, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    It’s like I was reading myself here but more eloquent but it is exactly my opinion on this film however I really dislike HP5 with it’s clumsy grain structure and flat contrast in comparison with 400TX or Delta400.

    • I personally agree with you on HP5. I find it to be just a bit dull. These shots from Dustin make me really consider going with Delta next time I’m buying B&W.

  • For me “in the good old days” sharpness & tonality and grain were important facts for choosing a film or brand.
    So I was testing a lot of films and leveled up to 6×7 midformat as soon as I could affort it.
    My aim was to do anything to come close to 4×5″ because I was so impressed by this results in books and exibitions.

    Today digital cameras like the Nikon D850 or Canos DS push even this level forwards so for me the reason I use film
    quite changed to a sort of “look” the chip doesnt spit out.
    “Unplugged” is maybe the word that comes in my mind thinking about it so classic or T-grain is no factor in my calculation.

    I keep on using Kodak Tri-X400……

  • Letting go of mathematic precision and robotic perfection of the digital does not necessarily = that film shooting need to be sloppy. Don’t get me wrong my favourites photographers Jacob Aue Sobol and Daidō Moriyam are imperfect and chaotic photographer but it is not for me. I love 400TX but I started shooting it slower recently and I am considering a tripod now.

  • Really nice pics and double clicking on them to reveal their full size shows the detail they have captured. Very cool to see the houses on the far side of the lake in the fog, with the sharp contrasty forms in the middle/fore ground.
    I need to start developing my own BW film, the ‘pro’ labs I use seem to develop everything the same way.

    • Thanks, Huss. That day was crazy as there were fires burning all over the area; air quality was terrible. I love the atmosphere and the way everything turned out. And yes, developing / scanning your own film is really the way to go (unless, of course, you have profiles built with your lab). Take care!

  • Another great read! I really appreciate your sharing your process.

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Dustin Vaughn-Luma

An experience designer, freelance photographer, and competitive cyclist living in San Jose, California with his wife, three sons, and neurotic bernese mountain dog. The majority of his personal work is shot on 35mm and 120 film, and is developed and scanned at home.

All stories by:Dustin Vaughn-Luma