In a vast sea of similarly-specced black-and-white mid-speed films, finding a stock that speaks the right language can be frustrating. This is especially true for those of us who develop our own film. The seemingly never-ending variables of chemicals, agitation methods, water purity, temperatures, dilution methods, and God forbid, scanning software, pushes us to constant experimentation. But as confounding as that can be, it’s also rewarding. These unending factors and uncertain results are the major forces that continue to drive me in my exploration of film photography.
Debuting in 2011, RPX 400 is very much a new player in the market. But even so, I wouldn’t describe it as modern. Like most panchromatic films, RPX 400 makes images with a classic look. But it also brings a few surprises.
Okay, I know we’ve been down this road before, but settle in. You’re about to learn everything you need to know.
What is RPX 400
RPX 400 is a triacetate base, panchromatic, high-speed black-and-white negative film available in 35mm canisters, 35mm 100′ bulk rolls, 120 medium format rolls and 4 x 5 sheets. It’s distributed by Maco (Hans O. Mahn GmbH & Co. KG, Maco Photo Products), a Germany-based supplier of photographic films, and sold under the brand name Rollei (licensed from Rollei GmbH & Co. KG). The company says that Rollei RPX 400 is a new and fresh emulsion based off of the highly adored Agfa APX emulsion, though some commentators claim that it’s old deep-freeze stock (which is probably an internet rumor – I’m far more willing to accept a company’s claims over random forum posts).
Originally introduced as a low cost film, it now costs at least a dollar more per thirty-six exposure roll compared with its more popular counterparts HP5 and Tri-X. If you’re a medium format shooter, be prepared to pay just shy of $9 US dollar per roll – yikes! This certainly will discourage budget-conscious shooters, but those willing to throw extra coin at film may find exactly what they’re looking for.
Unlike some of the other 400 speed black-and-white films I’ve used, RPX 400 seems to be a bit more sensitive to temperature. Despite my best efforts, it’s not uncommon to be off by a couple degrees here and there when developing HP5 and Tri-X, and with these films I never notice an impact on the final image. More experimentation is needed to determine variance with RPX 400, but even when temperatures vary by just two degrees I’ve observed a significant difference in grain structure and tonality across two rolls shot at box speed.
Temperature sensitivity noted, my development process is exactly the same as listed in my earlier Delta 400 review. Here’s the copy/paste.
Safety is Sexy : You don’t want to grow a third ear, right? Wear gloves! Film chemistry is toxic and hands absorb more chemicals than any other part of the body.
Pre-rinse : Do or don’t, it’s personal preference. I find that developer etches more consistently without a pre-rinse.
I think HC-110 is the best multi-purpose black-and-white developer, and dilution B works for me. If you’re picky about grain, try stand development, but I haven’t bothered with that. If anything, use it for its sharpness. Mix it with de-ionized water, not tap water. My home town of San Jose, California has some of the hardest water in the U.S., and I’ve found my film shows significantly more grain when I use tap water.
I develop in a spiral tank and I get desirable contrast and grain characteristics if I invert the tank gently two times per inversion cycle. I’ve seen tutorials in which the shooter’s flipping the tank over four or five times like a wild animal, and that’s fine if you’ve got some rage you’re working out, but I tend to get a more consistent grain structure when I use finesse. I’d also recommend not spinning the reels like a top during the first minute of agitation. A slow but consistent twist is all you need.
Stop Bath : Room temperature de-ionized water. Gently agitate for 1 minute.
Fixer : Ilford Rapid Fixer mixed with de-ionized water (1:4 — 68 F / 20 C)
Depending on the strength of the mixture (i.e. how many times I’ve used it), I fix for two to five minutes.
Rinse : Now that the film has been fixed, tap water is fine to use (I do my best to keep it the same temp as everything else). I usually fill up and drain the tank three times, then let it sit under the faucet for another four to five minutes.
Final Rinse : Fill the tank up with room temperature de-ionized water and put in a couple drops of Kodak Photo-Flo 200. Agitate for fifteen to twenty seconds, then let sit for another thirty seconds. There’s really no hard and fast rule on this; so long as you coat the film with the mixture, it should be fine.
Dry : Don’t use a squeegee! Squeegees just gather particles of dirt that end up scratching the film. I use a clean microfiber towel drenched with the Photo Flo mixture from the tank, and rung out tight. I then make two very light passes on the strip, clip it, and hang to dry for two to three hours before scanning.
Scanning : I scan with a Plustek 8200i and adjust tone slightly as needed to compensate for my own errors in shooting.
Note that massive dev chart doesn’t list dev times for HC-110 (Dilution B) at 1600 and 3200. I developed a roll of RPX 400 at 1600 for 11 minutes with solid results, so you may want to use that as a baseline if shooting at that speed. Otherwise, the chart does have times for dilution A for both 1600 and 3200.
Whenever I pull RPX from the spool I immediately shed a single tear, for the film is quite possibly the flattest I’ve ever seen straight from the tank. Even HP5, which dries flat, has a slight curl when pulled off the reel. For that alone, I’m ready to applaud.
Exposure latitude is quite good, even besting perennial performers HP5 and Tri-X. With those more popular films I’ve had nothing but success when over-exposing between 100 and 320. RPX 400 matched those by producing excellent results anywhere from 200 to 400. But there is a downside; RPX develops a bit flat, even when using a high-contrast developer like HC-110. While midtones are wonderful, things are generally pretty grey, and this lack of contrast is probably RPX’s biggest weakness (for those who want that punch).
Despite my attempt to give this film a fair shot with a sharp developer (HC-110), my results remained a bit soft across all exposure indices. Of course, sharpness doesn’t mean much at all, but if you’re after that bite you’ll want to look elsewhere.
Should you feel the need for speed, RPX 400 becomes a completely different beast. The film’s characteristics immediately begin to appeal to me at 800 and 1600. Contrast comes in like a wrecking ball and the grain is downright lovely. In fact, this film may have one of the most pleasing grain structures of any 400 speed film I’ve tried. I’ve heard that it can be pushed to 3200 with usable results, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to experiment.
Most panchromatic black-and-white film shooters typically fall into one of two camps – they’re diehard fans of either HP5 or Tri-X. The few leftovers who don’t join sides with the tall towers of Kodak and Ilford are usually hardcore Kentmere or Foma fanatics. Beyond these allegiances, it seems like many of us are happy to experiment with new films (think JCH 400, Ferrania P30, Kosmofoto) and inevitably return to our beloved classics due to their consistency and price. Fair enough. I certainly can’t blame anyone for that.
Rollei’s RPX 400 is seldom in the conversation with any of these films. And I think I know why. Like its closest competition, it produces a wonderfully classic look even when using modern optics. But with its inconsistency in developing and higher price point, I’m not sure that it’s a film I’d regularly stock in the fridge. It does have a great look when pushed, and it’s a pretty sharp film with notably fine grain, and next to Delta it’s the flattest film I’ve worked with. But I’m not sure that’s enough. It’s not a bad film, quite the opposite, but it’s also not notably superior to its competition.
Shooters who are looking for something just a bit unusual and who don’t mind paying a little extra, and shooters who want to push their film and experiment at higher speeds may find that Rollei’s RPX 400 is worth a look. If that’s not you, stick with the usual suspects. They’re more versatile, more predictable, and more affordable.