Beginner’s Guide to Ilford Delta 400

Beginner’s Guide to Ilford Delta 400

2560 789 Roberto Felipe

It’s time for another five-minute film review. These articles are made to help new film photographers pick a film and have success shooting it. Today we’re looking at Ilford Delta 400, one of the most versatile black-and-white films on the market today.

Ilford’s film lineup can be broken into two major segments – the “Plus” range for consumer quality films and the “Delta” range for more “professional” films. (They also offer a third segment of specialty film that we won’t touch on today, though longer articles on these have been published – SFX and Ortho).

The Plus range, or “consumer” film consists of Ilford Pan F Plus, FP4 Plus, and HP5 Plus. These are cubic grain films that are not necessarily as sharp or uniform as the Delta or “professional” lineup. Ilford Plus films are designed for the average consumer, but you’ll find that the nomenclature of consumer versus pro is really more about shelf-life and price.

Delta 400 is a “pro” film, along with the lower sensitivity Delta 100 and the higher sensitivity Delta 3200, and these Delta films are characterized by their tabular grain. Without getting too technical, T-grain is essentially the latest technology in traditional film. The grain is more uniform and finer than consumer films, therefore we can expect sharper images with less visible grain when compared to films of the same sensitivity (or ISO) in the consumer range.

The naming scheme for the Delta range is simple, and indicates the film’s ISO number, which is commonly referred to as its “speed” or sensitivity to light. That makes Delta 400 the middle option of the three Delta films, so it’s a great choice for most photography situations, given the flexibility of a 400-speed film. It sits below the price point of my favorite high speed film, Delta 3200, and yet is better suited for more scenarios than the slower or less sensitive Delta 100. Factor in Delta 400’s medium contrast and sharp detail, and it’s hard to beat this film.

My Experience with Delta 400

When I first started shooting film, I was not interested in films that were considered sharp and fine-grained. I was shooting film for a reason! Give me all the grain! But as that honeymoon phase passed, I began to realize that fine grain didn’t necessarily mean no grain, and even though Delta boasted its fine T-grain, the charm of film was still present.

I found that delta 400 proved to be the perfect option not just for “professional” photos, but similarity for everyday captures. Film characteristics aside, what drew me to this conclusion was that Delta 400’s fine-grained sharpness allowed for extensive cropping. With Delta films, it’s possible to crop in upon a 35mm image and still retain a respectable amount of detail.

Here is an original Ilford Delta 400 shot and (below) a heavily cropped presentation of the same.

Best practices when first starting out are about the same as with any black-and-white film. Set your camera’s ISO or meter to 400, expose for the shadows, and have fun.

The wide exposure latitude of Delta 400 should help mitigate any disastrous failings of the camera’s auto-exposure modes, light meter, or your chosen settings. There’s nothing special or tricky about Delta 400, so if developing the film at home, just operate as normal. Use Massive Dev Chart to calculate your development times.

If sending the film out for processing, rest assured that any lab which develops black-and-white film today will know exactly what to do with this stuff. No worries.

Image Samples

The Other Guys

I can’t talk about Delta 400 without acknowledging its Kodak counterpart, TMAX 400. Although we will cover that film more closely in its own respective article, I can here offer a quick comparison of the two.

I don’t like TMAX 400 at all. I find the contrast to be a touch bolder than Delta 400’s, which is a positive thing for me, however it’s TMAX 400’s poor highlights that turn me away. Delta 400 has more flattering and forgiving highlights in most scenes, most notably in high contrast lighting scenarios where TMAX 400 tends to give the impression of “clipped” highlights in those same situations.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of great black-and-white films on the market today, and each have their place. The strength of Delta 400 is in its versatility and its consistent quality. It’s a great all-purpose high-quality black-and-white film for people who want medium contrast and an exceptional level of sharpness without sacrificing exposure latitude for a variety of shooting situations.

Whether you’ve grown tired of the more traditional grain of films like Ilford HP5 and Kodak Tri-X, are sick of being hamstrung by finicky low speed films or the ultra-grain of high speed film, or just want to explore the finer side of the black-and-white spectrum, Delta 400 is the perfect entry point to do so. But beware; you might find it hard to go back.

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