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ILFORD HP5+ Film Review

The ILFORD HP5+ is one of the best known and longest lived films. The first HP (short for “supersensitive panchromatic”) was introduced in 1931. Today it is available in rolls and sheets from 35mm to 20×24 inches, as it remains one of the best selling black and white films ever made.

A brief history of HP5+

Ultrasensitive Panchromatic film (HP) was introduced in 1931. It was modernized and renamed HP2 in 1939, HP3 in 1941, HP4 in 1965, and HP5 in 1976.

1976. Ilford showed their new 400 ISO HP5 film at Photokina. Initially there was a worldwide shortage of this wonderful film. The first batches of HP5 were exclusively in 35mm format and sold only in Germany, because Germany was the most lucrative market.

The HP5+ was introduced in 1989. There is a reason Ilford uses plus or “+” in the names of their emulsions. HP5+ is in the same Plus group as FP4+ and Pan F+. The films in the Ilford Plus line are all the latest generations of “established” emulsions with ISO 400, 125 and 50.

Another well-known Ilford line is Delta, which uses more recent 1990 technology with finer grain (but also a narrower dynamic range) and a smaller exposure error tolerance.

Curiously, many of the improvements to the HP5+ over its predecessor appear to have been addressed to photojournalists (Photo Pro , Issue 4, 1989). One of them was the ability to fluff it to ISO 3200. And also the finer grain and slightly more detail in the shadows than its main competitor, the Kodak Tri-X.

Thirty-three years or 91 years since its introduction, the HP5+ is still popular with film photographers. Although the press no longer uses this film, it is much loved by those involved in the modern analog renaissance.

Grain structure, resolution, sharpness

When shooting at nominal sensitivity, the graininess of the Ilford HP5+ looks about the same size, perhaps a little more grainy than the Kodak Tri-X 400.

The Tri-X and HP5+ are often compared because of their similar age (over 80 years on the market), sensitivity (ISO 400) and application (for photojournalists).

Ilford doesn’t cite any grain size or image resolution measurements for the HP5+, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s identical to the Tri-X RMS 17.

In practice, the grain size of the HP5+ is not visible on mobile devices at 35mm scans (unless you zoom in). But if you want to avoid this on larger displays and prints, you’re better off shooting the HP5+ in medium or large format.

Like the Tri-X, the HP5+ has graininess, but it’s not critical It doesn’t ruin the image or the fine details.

The grain of the film can be smooth or sharp. Smooth grit is unnoticeable, but will take away some detail. Sharp grain can help bring out some of the fine details in your images. The sharpness of the grain can vary depending on the developer, although the film itself plays a significant role in its appearance.

The HP5+ gravitates toward sharp grain. In all formats and with most developers, you expect detail, even with soft lenses.

Dynamic Range and Contrast

On paper, the HP5+ shows 3.5 in about 12 steps of usable dynamic range.

In practice, the HP5+ can convey detail in difficult lighting conditions better than most (if not all) films. Because of its impressive dynamic range and great latitude, the film handles light better than some top-of-the-line 2022 digital sensors. Naturally, this makes the HP5+ suitable for beginners and for measuring light without an exposure meter using the Sunshine Rule 16.

The HP5+ behaves like a medium-contrast film at perfect exposure. However, it will give you more contrast if you underexpose it, and a little less if you overexpose it. All black and white negatives do this, though the HP5+ does it better than most: its shadows retain more detail than many comparable films (including Tri-X), and its highlights are less likely to be knocked out when overexposed.

Ilford HP5+ Exposure Guide

If you want the best image quality, expose the Ilford HP5+ at ISO 400 and develop it in normal mode. You will not be disappointed.
HP5+ reciprocity failure chart.

Or you can measure the HP5+ at ISO 200 and develop it normally to reduce the contrast in scenes with dark/sharp shadows. Fortunately, this film retains a large range of tones in the highlights; this means that you can relatively easily “save” your highlights in Photoshop if your images seem too bright.

You can shoot on Ilford HP5+ film as if it were ISO 800 and develop it normally. The pictures will have great contrast, which you will all edit in post-processing.

However, if you use push or pull processing on the HP5+, it will likely become more sensitive to over- and underexposure and require more accurate metering.

PUSH and PULL Ilford HP5+

Under normal process, the HP5+ emulsion is surprisingly versatile. Its ISO sensitivity of 400 is ideal for a wide range of lighting conditions with most cameras, from bright sunlight to indoor lighting without a tripod. But film can also be exposed at ISO 200-800 without significant loss of detail. The HP5+ has a huge dynamic range; its contrast can be changed by digitally adjusting the exposure.

The film’s ability to withstand over- and underexposure, as well as its dynamic range, decreases slightly when you fluff or bullet the HP5+. Nevertheless, the HP5+ is known to retain its contrast profile better than most other emulsions. Ilford claims “good image quality” with an ekposition correction of up to +3 steps. But the Internet is full of examples of more extreme exposure and development processes with excellent results.

Sample photos on the Ilford HP5+