Medium Format Film Shootout, Part I

This and the follow-up posts are the results and observations of comparing four slow/medium speed 120 B&W films: Rollei RPX-25, Ilford Pan F+ 50, Rollei Retro 80S, and Fuji Acros 100. The number at the end of each name is the ISO speed of the film (so called box speed). These are some of the slowest general purpose B&W films available today (Acros has been discontinued in early 2018 but still can be purchased at a few online places). I used 4 different film backs on my Hasselblad 203FE with a sturdy FLM tripod so I can take four images on four different backs, one right after another. I used the box speed of the film for exposure and changed the shutter speed to account for the ISO difference. The Hasselblad 203FE shutter has in-between shutter speed steps so the exposures are correct for the films. 

All films were developed with Xtol 1+2, except for RPX-25, which used Xtol 1+1 as that’s the only development time listed for that film. “Contact sheet” scans were made using an Epson V700 flatbed scanner. High resolution scans were done on an Imacon Flextight 848 virtual drum scanner at 3200 DPI (highest resolution available for MF film from the scanner). I processed the images with minimal post processing: basic Lightroom auto-exposure, clarity and sharpness applied to all images equally.

Comparing screen images, let alone comparing web pics, are not the same as comparing prints. So I made prints on an Epson 7900, printed on Epson 17×22″ Enhanced Matte paper using Epson’s Advanced B&W mode.

Why scan film and not print in the darkroom? I don’t have a darkroom and I shoot a lot of colors (C41) in addition to B&W, and I have skills in Lightroom/Photoshop that will take years of dedicated darkroom practices to match. 

Why shoot film then? Film shooters should shoot film for their own reasons. It’s not better than digital, it’s not worse. It’s different. I shoot film because I enjoy the process. Also, you can get top-of-the-line equipment for  (relatively speaking) a song. Shooting films on the Hasselblad, or XPan, or 4×5 give me joy. 

It’s the wrong developer! Use <fill in the blank> Xtol is a modern low-toxicity developer that has development times for just about any B&W film stock. Most films can be shot at “box speed” and can be pushed or pulled using Xtol. Most importantly, you can use published times for Xtol on a Jobo rotary processor without compensating for the constant agitation. I have used other developers (I love Harvey 777), but Xtol is my go to developer.

Would the results and my observations change if I have used a different developer? Perhaps, but life is too short for exhaustive testing or to find the magic potion.

Fine, why Jobo? I use a Jobo because I like the consistency and that I can develop 4×5, 120, 35mm and even 8×10 using the same set up, for all film types C41, B&W, and E-6. I shoot 200-300 sheets of 4×5 color film a year for my portrait projects, in addition to other stuff so consistency is of utmost important. 

In other words, I have tuned my workflow, from capturing the image, to the final output (prints and web) to the way I like to work. It does not work for everyone, but I enjoy the process and results.

With that out of the way, so what do the results say?

Many interesting things. First: film grain, which are disliked by some and loved by others, is not a factor with slow medium format films. Images printed at 17×17″, except for one film type, do not exhibit any grains and it’s hard to see even on that film unless you look for it. I will reveal later which film is the outlier.

Second, different films do look subtly and not so subtly different. With minimal processing, I can make them look similar enough such that at a glance, the screen images look close enough. However, on prints, especially if you place the prints side by side, there are visible differences with some prints definitely superior to the others (depending on your criterias).

I am certain that given enough post processing, I can make most prints look much the same. However, the differences are strong enough that if you have a preference, you may want to start with the film qualities you prefer most.

Show the Results Already

Not so fast 😉 For reasons that will be clear shortly, I will be comparing at least 4 images from each roll. Each image say something about the subject or the lens in used, so I expect different films have different strength and weaknesses. This takes time and English is definitely not my strength, so please check back on the blog to see the later installments.

Normally I do not show the contact sheets. However, as a preview, these are the four contact sheets with captions indicating the films used. These are quick scans that do not show the full strength of the images as there are a lot of black areas between the frames. Nevertheless, they should give you some ideas on what to expect.

I am shorter than my wife so there are some keystone effects with the portraits. That would be one of the minor things I will fix at post processing on the full res scans.

Rollei RPX-25
Ilford Pan F+ 50
Rollei Retro 80S
Fuji Acros 100

The image numbers go from bottom left up, 2nd from the left column up etc. Some quick comments: I forgot to take a photo with RPX-25 on frame three, and I duplicated frame four and five to sync up the remaining images with the other rolls. The middle image on far left (frame number two) was my attempt to see how the films act when there are strong lights coming from the back. The short answer is, none of them did well 🙂

The initial set of photos before the portraits were taken on the 80/2.8 lens. The first two portraits were taken on the legendary Hasselblad 110/2 lens. The last three portraits were taken on a 100 year old Taylor Hobson Cooke lens adapted to the Hasselblad. It would be interesting to see how the Cooke compares to the 110/2 lens.

Finally, love to my wife for indulging me on our anniversary to pose for the photos. She held each pose for minutes while I changed the backs. There is no greater love <3 


Oh one more image, here’s the first image that I will be comparing. Which film is this? Take a guess and check out the later posts.

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#ishootfilm #filmisnotdead #hasselblad #hasselblad203fe #mediumformatphotography