The XP2 Experiment

I've made a start to my New Year promise to simplify photographic life a bit. Getting older inevitably means there are challenges to be overcome and, for me, these are concentrated on reducing the amount of weight I schlepp around and coping with a persistent floater in my right eye that usually comes to rest exactly wherever I'm trying to focus.

Still without a darkroom (I'm working on it, honest), I also thought it made sense to start using Ilford's XP2 and have it trade processed. You can read a little about that here. To that end, I've shot a couple of test rolls to see how the film copes with the dull weather I like to photograph in.

XP2 is unusual in that the grain gets finer with increased exposure. On a bright, sunny day, it's a good idea to rate the film at, say, 250 ISO instead of the nominal 400 ISO both to take advantage of finer grain and to help cope with the contrasty lighting since the negatives become a little lower in contrast as they get denser. I went with an EI of 250 for my dull weather outing and a different camera approach - two autofocus Nikon F90x bodies with a 35mm f2 AF-D Nikkor on one and its 85mm f1.8 stable-mate on the other. The AF cameras/lenses neatly circumvent the floater issue.

The matrix metering of the F90x is superb as well and, coupled with the latitude of XP2, means that it's far easier to concentrate on the image rather than the technical issues that normally have to be attended to. Not everyone's cup of tea, I know, but something that's increasingly appealing to me.

That was the set-up anyway as I spent an afternoon in an old forest and at some swampy land, enjoying the freedom that comes from a fastish film, no tripod and an almost point-and-shoot flexibility. The exposed films were sent off to AG Photographic's lab and I had a set of prints made from one film and scans from both on a CD. The negatives came back absolutely spotless, I couldn't see a mark on them.

The "index prints" (a 6x4 print of each set of scans with small, slightly cropped thumbnails) that come with the scans aren't as good as a contact sheet but they're still useful to see what's on the CDs. The scans were good, too, much sharper than I can achieve at home on my geriatric Epson 3200 scanner. The 6x4 prints I had AG make from the one film were a bit "meh", to be honest, but the "test roll" status of the pics contributed largely to that.

So, onto the pics themselves. Sharp, hardly any grain but slightly flat tonality characterised the rolls. It was easy to give them a contrast boost in Lightroom. Just eyeballing the negs, I think they'd need grade 3.5 to 4 in the darkroom. The few negs I exposed at 800 ISO were better from a tonality point of view with little obvious loss of shadow detail and a bit more of a sparkle about them.

I'm just back from a few days in Plockton on Scotland's west coast and shot another few rolls of XP2 there, exposing everything at 400 ISO. I won't get the results back from AG until the end of the week but my instinct tells me that an EI of 400 will be the best compromise for the type of shooting I do.

The trip up the Highlands also confirmed to me that I'm on the right road with the Nikon AF set-up. I had the F90x pairing again but this time with a 28-105 Nikkor on one and a 70-210 Nikkor on the other. I used the two zooms equally and never felt at any time that I was missing a particular focal length.

The speed of operation of the F90x cameras shouldn't be under-rated either. Lighting in the Highlands can change in the blink of an eye and being able to pick up whichever body is needed, raise it to my eye and start shooting straightaway can prove invaluable. There was one occasion, though, when I spotted a nice scene whilst driving along a deserted single track road, stopped the car at once, grabbed the camera, leapt out to take the pic - and the light had gone. It couldn't have taken me more that ten seconds start to finish but that still wasn't quick enough.

Quality-wise, I really don’t think I’ll see any difference in 6”x9” prints between the F90x/AF zooms/XP2 set-up and my normal OM2/primes/Delta 400 approach. As much as I love the OM system, there’s no doubt the Nikon AF route is, for me, a far more efficacious way of working.


  1. Hello, Bruce. I’m sorry to hear of your eyes problem. Good photographs, as always. I like the composition, simple and effective. I never used XP2, I’m used too good to develop and print in my darkoom and then not many places around here, if any, are left to send out a film for C-41 development, Though a long time ago I remember shooting a roll of Kodak BW CN-400, the postcard size prints from the lab were sepia colored, probably due to a lack of calibration in the minilab ...I remember most of the frames were low contrast and required printing on hard grade, I think it was due to the orange mask similar to color negatives.

    Cheers, Marty.

    1. Hi Marty, Kodak CN-400 was designed to run through minilab alongside colour neg films. I used this and XP2 for a few weddings I photographed in the early 2000s before the minilab chap packed it in and loved the mono prints on the Kodak paper they made specifically for B&W negs (no fake 'sepia' colours).

      Ilford XP2 base is far more like trad B&W and prints very nicely in the darkroom. As Bruce has said, it is tolerates overexposure very well and has particularly fine grain, though some feel it lacks the crispness of traditional B&W emulsions.

      I've not used it for a long time and Bruce's post is a reminder for me to give it another try this year. Although I love my compact, lightweight OM prime lenses, this post has also got me thinking that I should dig out the excellent 35-105mm Zuiko zoom that has sat unused in my drawer for even longer than the others.

  2. Hi Bruce - it seems to suit your way of working, so crack on old son. I especially like the very last one - that sort of natural chaos always makes for an appealing photo for me.
    Most of all though it is good to see you back on the road as it were - keep on writing and photographing - always enjoyable.