Cinestill BwXX Medium Format Film Review

Cinestill BwXX Medium Format Film Review

2000 1125 Aidan Bell

Film photographers are always itching for something new. For example, when Cinestill releases experimental stocks like their rubescent RedRum or Lomography reveals an almost monochromatic purple film titled Lomochrome Purple, shooters rush to buy and shoot the stuff.

Similarly when Cinestill released their black and white cinema film, BwXX (Double X), in medium format (it had previously only been available in 35mm) the film world went bonkers! Or, at the very least, I went bonkers!

Cinestill BwXX has been one of my favorite black and white films since I first shot it in my Canonet two years ago. I fell in love with the way it rendered blacks and the impressive contrast it was able to provide. Now that I was able to shoot this stock at three times the size, I was ecstatic. After the announcement, I immediately placed an order.

When the film arrived I was in Wildwood, NJ, slinging hoagies at a deli. When I ripped open the package, I immediately felt an excitement similar to what I felt when I’d shot medium format for the very first time, an experience I wrote about in an earlier article.

I only ordered one roll, funny enough. Like I said, I was slinging hoagies at a deli, I wasn’t Vanderbilt. And it took me a while to find the time to shoot that roll. When the time came I was in Brooklyn, NY. I had moved to the city two months earlier. I was trying to seek out the same feeling I received when I shot Cinestill BwXX in 35mm.

The weekend after I’d first shot BwXX in 35mm, I loaded two exposed rolls into a dev tank and then used Cinestill’s own monobath chemicals to develop them. I was mostly testing the monobath. In reality, I would never put anything too important through those chemicals. But the pictures that came through the other side are some I refer back to often when wanting to recapture a certain feeling of nostalgia.

With those two rolls I’d documented my high school graduation and the beginning of COVID. The fine grain and enhanced contrast, compared to flat stocks like Ilford HP5, seemed to offer me a look of pure documentation. It made the pictures of rather ordinary subjects look serious, as if they were from a different time. Perhaps it was the way the stock rendered blacks. Not too stark and hard to look at. 

As I powered through 35mm rolls of this new addition to my film fridge, I found that BwXX rendered low light like no other. I’ve shot other ISO 200 black and white film stocks in my day. None have impressed me as much. In low light, other black and white films result in washed out photos, flat and grey, that can only be fixed with intense editing in Negative Lab Pro. Indoors or outside at night time, I was continually impressed by BwXX.

The most scientific explanation I have for my findings is that BwXX was made to be a range ISO type of stock. Cinestill’s black and white creation can be shot anywhere from 200 ISO to 800 ISO without having to change development times. Having my scans converted in Adobe Lightroom, I found an incredibly dynamic histogram, showing even peaks stretching themselves from blacks to white and highlights to shadows. The latitude and strength of its dynamic range allowed me to pull details from shadows which other films would render totally black.

I think the biggest revelation that I experienced with this film would be when printing my work. I picked up some nice, high quality paper and loaded it into a gorgeous Canon printer I found on my school’s New York City campus. As I adjusted the image size in photoshop, I was eager, ready to hit print. There was something about tangibly holding my work that I couldn’t get out of my head. I haven’t felt that giddy since I developed film for the first time. The printer slid out the monochromatic image and I was in awe at the depth and stunning resolution.

Now that I was able to see my images up close and personal, I saw incredibly fine grain which really speaks to my anecdotal notion that this film has a “look” that screams documentation. Maybe it’s the connotation behind the word documentation, but Cinestill BwXX just feels fit to capture life.

There are so many subjects that I feel go extremely well with the grain and tone combination this stock offers. The contrast, which almost never needs to be edited, on top of the true to life shadows and gorgeous grain structure, makes for an extremely compelling image. Keeping a roll of BwXX by my side in 35mm could be a scenario where “taking” pictures is appropriate. A quick shot fired off to remember the cool looking street corner on Central and Dekalb? Totally worth the exposure!

But BwXX in medium format is a film for when I want to “make” rather than “take.” I take my time to “make” pictures. I’ll slow down, plan out a shoot, set up my tripod, meter for midtones, and even patiently wait until my subject is poised just the way I like. This becomes increasingly difficult in NYC street photography. But, to get the most from a film that has impressed me as much as BwXX, my new go to black and white stock, I’m okay with taking the extra time.

I have plans for this film. I’ve never really done that before. I’ve never tested out a film and loved it so much that I conceptually planned its future use. Have I thought like that before? Of course, I’m a film photographer! But that had to do with a vision, an idea, a certain lighting situation, or maybe a return to Central and Dekalb. Never have I been so passionate about a single film.

I blame the upgrade from 35mm to medium format. Perhaps the fact that I was slowly fed this look, small to medium, enhanced my love for it. It reminds me of the argument whether streaming services should release television episodes weekly, like normal cable, or continue to release seasons all at once, allowing subscribers to binge it all in one day. With Cinestill BwXX at least, I think I prefer the weekly release. “Weekly’ here meaning “two years” – that’s how long it took to get this stuff in 120.

I’ve gone off the rails. To continue with my “plans,” I feel prepared enough to take this film into the studio. With its range ISO and the latitude present in Lightroom’s histograms, I feel comfortable enough to not be intimidated by professional lights. Maybe, now that I’ve fallen in love with a colorless stock, I can finally execute my black and white bare back series, or my close up portrait series. Before, I just snapped photos. I grabbed the films I liked, those that pleased me. Now, I realize what more can be offered if I simply just allow myself to slow down and analyze what a film has to offer.

As I type this, I sit next to a photobook of mine. When I scanned my negatives and fell in love with the look, I thought this film was a perfect fit to tell a story I’ve been wanting to tell. I used Cinestill’s BwXX to make my photo book Navigating, Alone, a book that told the story of me living on my own for the first time. Perhaps I’m saying this to offer a satisfying conclusion to my observations with tangible prints. Or, perhaps, that’s a story for another time.

In brief, Cinestill BwXX impressed me, and continues to do so. It offers gorgeous blacks, impressive contrast, fine grain, and always usable results. Looking for something new? BwXX? Need a go-to black and white film for your medium format camera? BwXX. Cinestill BwXX, especially in medium format, is a film that I would recommend to anyone.

Want to try Cinestill BwXX in 120?

Get it at B&H Photo

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Aidan Bell

Aidan Bell joined the CP team in 2020. He is a photographer located in Philadelphia, PA. When not making short films or digital portraits, he writes short stories for himself or shoots unique, conceptual film photography for his Instagram account, @bellboyphotos. He studies Film in NYC and is planning to pursue a career in film production or journalism.

All stories by:Aidan Bell
  • Great.
    Great images.
    Great writing.
    Great review.
    Greatitude 😉

  • Well written article for someone so young. It held my interest all the way through with me feeling your excitement.
    I also purchased several rolls of 120 as soon as it was advertised by cinestill. I also grabbed a shirt and have worn it a ton in the past year but haven’t shot one roll or pic of bwxx 120 .
    I’m going have to pull out the Texan Leica gw690 and finish off the Portra 800 in it and spoil on some of this stuff .

  • Great article and images Aidan, I enjoyed reading it! Your excitement about this film is contagious. I purchased a Rolleiflex Old Standard yesterday, I don’t have it in my hands yet but should by the end of the week. I planned on using Portra 400 and Tri-X with it but now I want to try out some BWXX. Keep up the good work and thank you!

  • Thanks for the article, really enjoyed reading it.

    Although I have shot it on 120, my main experience is with it as a 35mm 400ft Kodak bulk roll stock (same stuff, just not in Cinestill clothing and a fraction of the cost!). I have found that at 250ISO, the histogram shows a tendency towards highlights that has to be recovered in post, so I try to avoid giving it too much light. It behaves about right for me at 400, but not tried at 800.

    You aren’t altering the dev times though? So at 800, you are developing as if exposed at 250? Do you have to recover the files much when you scan? Much more grain? Shadow detail okay? Interested to understand your experience shooting at 800 with no dev adjustment.

    • Thanks for the words, Phil! I’ve always wanted to try bulk roll shooting, you may have inspired me to finally stop being scared. Seems like loading myself would, ultimately, make the process more rewarding. And, yep, not altering the dev times! The fact that I developed my rolls with Cinestill’s monobath definitely changed what could have been different development times. Their own advice recommendeds only changing the dev time with use or temperature. Now, I use Sprint Standard. Unfortunately, I have not shot Cinestill BwXX AND developed with that; but, I would definitely err on the side of changing time based on the ISO shot at. Although, I can’t see it effecting it much based on the successful results of the monobath. The histogram was delightfully balanced, extremely gritty yet satisfying grain structure, and, my favorite, the impressive details in the shadows.

  • I have similar question about shooting at different ISOs and keeping the dev times the same. Is there a method for determining the true ISO of a film? I’ve read on another review that it was actually a 640 film, and someone else complained of the lack of latitude resulting in too much contrast?, the reviews are all over the place. I used it only once on a cloudy day at 400, developed it according to the Massive Dev Chart with Ilfosol 3, 1:9 and happy with the results. Thanks for the review. FW

    • I think I must have read the same review about a ‘base ISO’ of the film.

      I would definitely recommend shooting it at 400 and developing it at a 1 stop push. I use Kodak HC-110 at 6’30” for 400 ISO and 5’00” for 200 ISO. Both seem fine, although my negatives shot at 200 ISO definitely seem a little overexposed at times. I get more consistent results at 400 ISO and pushed one stop in dev. Will definitely try 800 ISO too after reading this, but will try pushing two stops in dev I think.

  • Nice review, and more importantly nice photos! How did you develop it? Apologies if it’s already mentioned somewhere in the article, I may have missed it…

  • I really am hesitant to blow everyone’s bubble with this film, but it seems to have very very limited latitude. There is extreme darkness in the shadows and the highlights are totally blown-out. Also the figures don’t have a crispness or sharpness, maybe that’s caused by the camera’s lens? Although, it might be an inconvenience in using a tripod, burning through a roll having the camera steady on a tripod and using the sweet spot of your lens (f/ 5.6, 8) may give you a better understanding of the good and bad characteristics of the film. But one thing is sure, when looking at the business court picture, to the left the tree has a nice shadow tone, the mid-shadows everywhere are good, but the high intensity of highlights on the tops the the trees are blown-out beyond recognition. It would be HELL to try to print those down to reveal any tone in the leaves. I don’t think it’s possible. On a bright day maybe developing the film with something like Rodinal or another developer using “stand-development; to try to hold down those highlights.I would suggest if you do attempt this developing technique, invert the tank after pouring in the developer, slowly for thirty seconds, tap the tank on the surface to displace any bubbles on the film. After the film is slowly developing for thirty minutes, rotate the tank very slowly twice or three times to prevent bromide drag; which could cause light streaks running down the film. Then leave the tank alone for thirty minutes more to complete development. Of cause rinse the film with water the same temp as the developer temp (20 deg), you don’t need stop bath because the developer is a 1+100 working solution. Fix, and wash to get rid of the fixer out of the film. Maybe after washing the film, put a drop of PHOTO-FLO in tank with water, agitate and let stand for two minutes than pour out and pull the film off the spool and let the film dry. This last step breaks down the water tension, to avoid water spots on the dried film. Good luck!

  • It definitely has a very narrow latitude – it isn’t HP5. It is a movie film, designed to be shot with controlled lighting, not wide latitude outdoors situations. As long as you are aware of the limitations, it can be used to advantage. I tend to spot meter to get accurate exposure on my subject, then decide to leave the shadows or highlights to blow out, and it can help to isolate the subject. It’s not bad, just different. If you want wide latitude, retaining detail when shooting outdoors/contrasty scenes, I agree, this is not the film for you.

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Aidan Bell

Aidan Bell joined the CP team in 2020. He is a photographer located in Philadelphia, PA. When not making short films or digital portraits, he writes short stories for himself or shoots unique, conceptual film photography for his Instagram account, @bellboyphotos. He studies Film in NYC and is planning to pursue a career in film production or journalism.

All stories by:Aidan Bell