We all remember our firsts – first school, first best friend, first house. First drink, first car, first job. If you’re a regular visitor to Casual Photophile, you’ll probably remember your first camera. What was it? Something hefty, unbreakable, something from East Germany? My first SLR was that student staple, the Praktica MTL 5B (which Jeb reviewed on the site last year). With a 50mm lens screwed onto the front, it opened up a new world to me – one spent taking photos in empty tube carriages, on my way back from art college in South London at the age of eighteen.
Hanging above our fireplace at home was a black-and-white print of seaweed on a beach, wet printed by my father. I’d always loved that image, and it nudged me along my path to taking the photography course at college in the first place. But at this early stage of my photographic journey, I still considered that making an image like this was a bit beyond my skillset. I had little-to-no darkroom experience, nor access to one, nor development chemicals for processing black-and-white film.
And so, the first few rolls of film that I ever I ruined in my first camera were Kodak ColorPlus, which dutifully recorded pigeons, street signs, and photos of my feet, over which I superimposed song lyrics using a very old version of Photoshop.
Living in suburban Croydon, I didn’t have many photo options other than Boots (a chemist) or Snappy Snaps (a framing shop that begrudged the fact that they sometimes had to process film). Once I’d grasped the basics of photography (60% of shots in focus and correctly exposed, 20% well-framed), I began to explore online to see what other types of film existed. I found a newly-launched website, Flickr, and began browsing the “film photography” tags in earnest.
And then Flickr told me of the existence of Ilford XP2 Super – a black-and-white chromogenic film that can be developed in the standard C-41 chemistry that my local labs used to process everyday color films. I was overjoyed. The discovery of Ilford XP2 Super meant that I could create deep, meaningful (cough) images, and get them back from the local lab in an hour. Sold!
[Sample photos in this article were contributed by Casual Photophile writer Jeb Inge]
Ilford XP2 ended up being the tailwind behind my fluttering interest in photography, owing not least to its unique look – smooth, small-grained images, with a softness that I really enjoyed. With Ilford XP2 Super, I took my first steps toward recreating the images I loved so much; an art film, a fashion shoot, my father’s beloved print of a lump of seaweed – the light playing off the water, the bubbly textures, the grains of sand on the beach.
Just as I moved on from my first tiny car to something that could handle going above 50 mph without shaking itself apart, my photography soon moved on to bigger and better things. Namely, a Canon digital SLR and trusty kit lens. The film camera went away. Why would I bother sending my photos off, or developing them at home when I could reel off as many shots as the compact flash card in my Rebel would allow?
There’s a tendency to sniff at consumer-level DSLRs, but my learning curve during this period was steep – being able to review and improve the images I wanted to make was immediately invaluable. I experimented with long exposure, light trails, sunsets, macro images of flowers, and the family cat. I liberally applied filters, using Hipstamatic to recreate the inky blacks I’d loved so much when shooting Ilford XP2 Super. The move to digital photography had been an important part of honing my skills, but I was often unsatisfied with the end results, however technically correct they were – they didn’t feel as unique as the photos I’d made on film, and I soon lost interest in photography.
As photographers, we often get the upgrade fever, next camera, next lens, but sometimes it pays to remember why we started shooting in the first place. A few years after my cameras had been stored away, I stumbled across the Praktica MTL 5B while clearing out a cupboard. Looking through the viewfinder, I was stunned at how big and bright it was. Compared to the Canon Rebel of my memory I had acres of space to frame my image, and a simple swing needle by which to meter. No lights, no settings, just a stop-down lever on the front.
That day on my way to work, I stopped into Boots and picked up a roll of Ilford XP2 Super and shot it all week, grinning each time the Praktica’s graceless mirror slap echoed in my ears. Without the ability to check how sharp each image was just after I’d taken it, I found myself more focused on looking at the subjects of my images rather than constantly checking the screen. I was less worried about shooting in public generally – after all, the Praktica cost a tenth of the Rebel, and to be honest, if someone tried anything it would have made a handy club.
I gave myself neck ache carrying that camera around for a good few months, rediscovering what had made me pick up a camera in the first place – and much of this is owed to the low cost, low commitment nature of Ilford XP2. I didn’t need to invest in developer, fixer, film reels, a changing bag, any of that nonsense. I could drop my rolls off in the morning and pick them up on my way home, and not sacrifice the joys of making black-and-white images. I wasn’t being paid to take pictures, I was doing it for fun – so why not make it as easy as possible?
Ilford XP2 Super is the film I always recommend to friends who want to try out “serious” film photography (which many people feel must be black-and-white). It’s still not expensive, it’s very forgiving (I’ve seen great results at ISO 100 and 600) and best of all, you don’t need to develop it at home. Black-and-white, buttery smooth images for less than £6 a roll. I’m sure there are photographers who are snobbish about XP2 – after all, it’s not a true black-and-white film. But how many of us have time to hand develop black-and-white film? Or space in our tiny Millennial apartments for a darkroom? Or free time to dedicate to the printing process?
XP2 is truly The People’s Black And White Film – cheap, accessible and plentiful, it’s available in 35mm and 120 formats, and it’s even offered preloaded into Ilford single-use cameras. Without it, I may have given up photography altogether, exasperated by the fact that my digital gear was almost instantly out of date and bored by editing on a computer screen for hours on end. But Ilford XP2 brought me back to a simpler time; thirty-six frames, screw mount lenses, and vague TTL metering. Maybe I’m biased, but I feel there’s no better film stock for new or returning photographers wanting to dip their toe in the waters of black-and-white film photography without committing too much time, effort or money. Long may it continue!
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