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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.