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large format ilford hp5
A scene like this has a lot of contras and is difficult to capture well. HP5 has captured everything from details in the shadows to controlled bright highlights.

If you shoot film you would have heard of Ilford HP5. It is the film that students start with and professionals rely on. It offers medium speed and fine grain with great exposure latitude and and moderate contrast. This makes it one of the great all rounder films, capable of doing a good job in almost any situation. In my photographic career I have always tried to have a couple of film stocks which I know inside out and can absolutely rely on. HP5 has become the black and white film that is almost always in my camera bag.

But why should you choose Ilford HP5?


If you have been shooting film for a while, you will be very aware that as analogue photography has made a comeback. Supplies of some emulsions have become unreliable as demand has grown, with some colour films selling out almost as soon as they are in stock.

Supply of Ilford products has always been rock solid, and I have never had any trouble getting as much as I need at short notice. I live in a small market town and Ilford HP5 is one of the few films that is stocked in 35mm and 120 by both my local camera shop and even Boots the chemist! If you want a film to become a fixture in your workflow, you need to know you can get plenty of stock when you need it.

Ilford is by far the most reliable film company in this respect. I also find it useful to have a film that is available in every format I shoot. Kodak Tri-X, nearest equivalent to HP5, uses a completely different emulsion for large format, and Tmax400 is excellent but more than twice the price. Ilford Delta 400 is another film I love, but not available in 4×5. So for me, Ilford HP5 is the only film which ticks all the boxes.

Quality Control and Affordability

These two qualities always go hand in hand for me. While there are cheaper films than Ilford HP5, very few of them have the same rock solid reputation for quality control. If you are shooting for someone other that yourself, or photographing a one off event, this matters. At the moment Kodak and Fujifilm film are significantly more expensive than Ilford, for products that are roughly equivalent.

Wide Exposure Latitude

Nobody sets out to get their exposure wrong. But if you make a mistake, or you are simply presented with a scene that is very hard to meter for, it’s good to have a film with wide exposure latitude that can tolerate a bit of under or over exposure. I would say you can under expose by one stop or over expose by two stops and still get useable results. Although that would depend upon the scene. Highlights in particular are difficult to blow out.

Large Knowledge Base Online

Ilford HP5 is one of, if not the, most popular black white films currently on sale. This means that there is a huge knowledge base of information about this film online. From everything from pushing the film to using an obscure developer, someone has done it before and you can find out about it easily.

Flexible in Printing or Editing

HP5 is best described as a medium contrast film which exhibits plenty of shadow detail. Although this means it doesn’t have a strong look baked in like Tri-X, it does mean that you have the flexibility to change the look of the film. You can do this either by using a coloured filter during exposure or by printing or editing later on. This is what makes the film so good in a variety of lighting conditions. Lower contrast at the shooting stage lets you make more creative decisions later.

Controlled Grain

I think that if you are shooting film today you actually do want a bit of grain. I like the fact that in medium and large format HP5 has just enough grain to give you a classic film look without it being intrusive. There are finer grained films, but I find they can look clinical and almost digital.

Ilford HP5 in 4x5
Another image with a lot of contrast that is admirably controlled by Ilford HP5.

The ideal film speed for a flexible all rounder film

It might seem anachronistic to call HP5 a ‘fast’ film when digital climbs to higher ISO’s every year. However, for general purpose shooting a 400 film is ideal if you might use a 36 exposure roll of film in several different scenarios. It’s fast enough to shoot indoors during the day but not so fast that you might to be forced to over expose when the sun comes out. Ideal for a carry around camera that you use everyday.

Great for Push Processing

Ilford HP5 not only has great exposure latitude, it also pushes very well. So you can rate it at 800 or 1600 with only a minor increase in grain.

Wrap up

These are just a few of the reasons why HP5 is so popular with film photographers. It has a great variety of virtues both in terms of shooting experience and the practicalities of cost and availability. There really isn’t another black and white film that matches it as an all round choice.

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