Firstcall 400s: In search of a "dull day" film

A good partnership? Some more testing needed.

I don't mind using a tripod with medium or large format cameras but it just doesn't seem to fit very well with the whole 35mm ethic. Contax SLRs are at their best held in the hand both for spontaneity and for greater flexibility when it comes to choosing a viewpoint and working on the composition.

Since, as regular readers will know, I like shooting on dull days - dreich, as we say up here in Scotland - that means a fastish film is required. I had thought about HP5 Plus and tried it on a misty day developed in Spur's HRX developer. The flat lighting and normal development meant that grade 4.5 was needed to get any oomph into the pictures. Although the HP5 Plus/HRX combination normally produces fine grain, the need to print at a very hard grade really shows up whatever grain is there. The film goes from being nice and smooth to very gritty - too much for my taste.

The problem is that HP5 Plus isn't known for being a contrasty film so it starts off at a disadvantage from my point of view. Extended development would be one way of getting extra contrast on dull days but that increases grain as well. I've been thinking of trying to find a film that will give me some punch when developed normally, or reasonably so. Rollei Retro 400S has a reputation for being contrasty and, as many will know, it's that film that is being sold by Firstcall Photographic as their own 400S.

With the price of film apparently on some exponential curve, it's good to know that Firstcall 400s is the cheapest 35mm film on the UK market at £2.49 a roll. If you have £25 to spend, you can buy ten rolls of Firstcall's film or five of HP5 Plus. That's quite a difference although as a general purpose film I wouldn't imagine that 400S is quite as good as Ilford's classic. So I decided to give it a go to see if it would do the job.

The three-piece Firstcall canister. The tape holding the film onto
the spool is stickier than a politician's fingers.

It's another PET film base which means that it can't be torn. At the risk of being thrown out of the film developers' guild, I confess to being a bit of an animal in the changing bag. I can't be bothered with scissors and film can openers. I stick my fingers into the felt trap, wrench it apart and then snap the ends off once I've got a decent hold. I then rip the leader off the film and tear the end from the spool. After that, I roar my war cry and pound my chest a few times. Firstcall 400S makes this brutish method somewhat easier as the 35mm canister is reusable with an end that screws off and on - useful if you buy your film in bulk. However, I had to use scissors to trim the leader and snip the end off the spool as the tape proved resistant to my man fingers.

The photographs on this post were taken during what I like to call an "ASDA photo shoot". That's when I drop Cath off at the supermarket and disappear into the countryside just north of Dundee for an hour or so. There are a few scenes up there that are worth photographing and this particular day was damp and a little misty, perfect for my needs.

contax 137ma,firstcall 400s, film, grain, sharp, d76, kodak, analogue, analog, photography, darkroom, print, silver gelatin, enlarger, enlarging, 35mm

contax 137ma,firstcall 400s, film, grain, sharp, d76, kodak, analogue, analog, photography, darkroom, print, silver gelatin, enlarger, enlarging, 35mm

A couple of print scans (Multigrade IV RC) - here and above:
Contax 137 MA, 28mmm f2.8 Distagon, Firstcall 400s
developed in D76 1+1

Since there are few deep shadows in this kind of weather, there's usually no need to downrate a film or give extra exposure so I rated it at the box speed with the intention of extending development by around 20% in D76 1+1 - 13 minutes instead of the 10m 50s recommended by Firstcall. There were no problems with the photography side of things other than ripping my trousers on a barbed wire fence after climbing a wall to take the last pic on this page...

The development process wasn't without its challenges, though. The chemicals, temperature and timing were all fine but quite a few of the negatives had some very thin shadows. Metering is straightforward in dull conditions and there's no way I would have underexposed these shots by the 1.5-2 stops I reckon were missing. So I did some reading and, sure enough, many photographers have found that the true speed of Rollei Retro 400S is near 160 ISO.

There were enough negatives with sufficient shadow detail to get some OK scans but it's pretty clear that I'm never going to get anything approaching 400 ISO from this film. But what were the results actually like? They were quite good. In the negatives where there was reasonable shadow detail the highlights looked about right and the contrast was good. The negs still needed a hard grade 4 to print with enough contrast (it was a really dull day) but the results appeared less grainy than the HP5+/HRX combo. Sharpness was high and the negatives were vice-free with no drying marks or over-enthusiastic curliness. I was pleasantly surprised by Firstcall 400S. I think it goes to show that we shouldn't be put off because a film may be cheaper. Sometimes so-called lesser emulsions are a little trickier but Firstcall 400s looks like it will definitely reward the extra effort needed to master it.

I'll be shooting some more of this film and I'll bracket the shots at 100 and 200 ISO to see what's best. If I can squeeze 200 ISO out of it then it will still be a good option for dull days. At 100 ISO I'd be as well using a genuine 100 ISO film with extended development and taking advantage of inherently finer grain.

Below are the best of the negatives, all of which were scanned and given some levels adjustment and a little burning in of skies, etc, in Lightroom where my usual warm tone was also added.

contax 137ma,firstcall 400s, film, grain, sharp, d76, kodak, analogue, analog, photography, darkroom, print, silver gelatin, enlarger, enlarging, 35mm
This is an attempt at a Gothic atmosphere, helped in this case by the empty shadows in the gate pillar and wall. Duntrune House is quite a big pile that, I think, belongs to a local property developer I used to write about when I was a newspaper reporter. Just out of sight in front of the elevation you can see here of the house is a kids' trampoline that didn't do much for the spooky look I was after!

contax 137ma,firstcall 400s, film, grain, sharp, d76, kodak, analogue, analog, photography, darkroom, print, silver gelatin, enlarger, enlarging, 35mm
It was all the verticals that attracted me to this shot. An industrial scene, it includes one of Dundee's two wind turbines that were the largest in an urban setting in the world and maybe still are. They're hideous but that's another issue. Also in the picture just above the horizon on the left is a chimney that I think is from the Michelin tyre plant.

contax 137ma,firstcall 400s, film, grain, sharp, d76, kodak, analogue, analog, photography, darkroom, print, silver gelatin, enlarger, enlarging, 35mm
Here's a gentle pastoral scene just along the road from Duntrune House. The light mist is attractive and the only thing I'd like to have seen would have been a couple of cows at the water trough beneath the tree on the right.

contax 137ma,firstcall 400s, film, grain, sharp, d76, kodak, analogue, analog, photography, darkroom, print, silver gelatin, enlarger, enlarging, 35mm
I've posted a photograph of this pond before but this shot is nicer. It's at a small hamlet called Burnside of Duntrune. The pond is a mill dam fed by the Fithie Burn.

contax 137ma,firstcall 400s, film, grain, sharp, d76, kodak, analogue, analog, photography, darkroom, print, silver gelatin, enlarger, enlarging, 35mm
I had to climb a stone wall and hang onto a barbed wire fence standing on a ledge about eight inches wide to get this shot. Not sure if it was worth it! It's a private woodland that is quite nondescript but there was a nice haze in the treetops that was appealing.


  1. Thanks for pointing out and testing what looks like an interesting alternative. I'm going to try some next time I buy 400, which I generally rate at about half box speed anyway.
    Really like the shot of the gate house.

  2. You can get Agfa ASP 400s - which I suspect is the same thing - for less in bulk at Macodirect. Nice film too. Like it at 400 in ID11

  3. I like your dull day shots, we had a dull morning for a hour this morning. It was gone by the time I got outside. I'll try some of your methods next time we have overcast. Thanks.

  4. Bruce, you had me chuckling with your 'war cry' anecdote .

    I wondered if you had ever tried the Fomapan 400 ?

    Got a pal who loves the stuff, though I've never tried it myself. The blurb on the Silverprint website says it's good for 'unfavourable light conditions' (which roughly translates to most of our weather from October to March) and they sell it for £2.94 (35mm and 120).

    Impressed with the avoidance of shopping trick, I just get sent with a list on my own. Your a lucky man.

  5. Hi Buce, I second Andreas comment. All those 400s (maybe a dozen names but all the same) are from Agfa Belgium and are original Aviphot Pan 400s aerial film, also sold by Agfa as ASP 400s traffic surveillance film. You experianced the "usual" problems with this film, still I find it very versatile and like the different characteristics of the extended red sensitivity. I definately like this special look. And you can do IR-photography with this film. I rate it at ISO 100 - 200 for regular and ISO 12 - 25 for IR photography.

    The film has a really high red sensitivity and quite low for blue light. So watch for the shadows under blue sky. A fine grain developer with good film speed may be useful. Maybe Xtol stock or 1+1?

    May I add a link to a sample pic?

  6. Bruce - I reckon you could get the luiminosity you are after by downrating the film a bit and then placing your reading of the mist a stop or two higher than the meter says.
    I've done mist by placing it on a Zone VII reading (two stops higher than mid-grey) and lettign th erest of th epicture follow along.
    Yes the shadows will be lighter, but you can print them down. I wouldn't worry too much about the grain - you're not printing posters!
    Dilute (1:3) Perceptol is good for this sort of subject matter.
    And yes, all the manly stuff - hilarious!

  7. Love the misty scenes, we don't get those very often here.

    Sounds a lot like my brute-force approach to separating 35mm film from the canister. I do trim the leader with scissors in the light, but I just rip it at the light trap when the film is all out of the can (don't trust myself to not sever a finger using scissors in darkness). I must remember to howl and beat my chest next time though for the full effect.

  8. I'm a HP5@EI200 man through and through which is fine for the "Summer", but I may have to give some of this 400S a try during these duller months.

  9. Hi Bruce,

    you should try selenium toning of the negatives, gives you 1 zone more without extending development.

    check it out here:

  10. I've used selenium toner in the past but, to be honest, I think it's really nasty stuff and I steer clear of it now.

  11. I finally was in Mexico on a dull day. I used some of your tips for dull days with some success. It is very hard on a roll of mixed lighting. But 'Muchos Gracias' for the help.

  12. I like those misty photographs, I agree that mist and dull is often what I strive for. Iceland has similarish weather as Scotland, although I believe the sky is duller there than here.
    Often, not always I do like grain with mist.