So I’ve shot a roll of a rather elusive B&W film – the Ilford Pan 400. Quite frankly. I’ve rarely heard about its existence in my many hours of reading up on film, but one day, I came across someone putting a few rolls up for sale on Carousell (an online marketplace – think eBay).
In some sense, this probably isn’t the most foreign film I’ve seen while browsing the web; Carousell is filled with many vintage films that were manufactured by companies that no longer exist, and while I didn’t know much about Pan 400, I had definitely seen it somewhere. After pouring through decade-old forum discussions, I quickly decided to get a roll to try it out. Oh don’t get this wrong – I didn’t get a roll just because I had read many praises about the film; there was barely any information on this film. The only thing I knew was that this film is only sold in selected markets around the world, and the only way for me to decide how good this film was, was to shoot it myself. And so I sent a message to the guy on Carousell and had the film, together with others, mailed to me (I got a roll of Acros 100 and Ektar 100 too).
At this point, I want to make a disclaimer: this is by no means a professional review. While others shoot hundreds of rolls of a single film, allowing them to learn the film’s behavior in any possible lighting-subject combination, I have only shot Ilford Pan 400 once. As such, this is not so much an objective review of the film, but rather a blog post about what I’ve shot on this roll intertwined with my two-cents on the film’s characteristics.
First thing’s first, I shot this roll on my Nikon EM with a modern Carl Zeiss 35mm f2 Distagon (for the gear geeks out there). Secondly, and most importantly, I shot and pushed this film to 800. This means that I had the meter on my camera set to ASA 800 despite the film being rated for ASA 400, and subsequently got the lab to over-develop my film by one stop, thus resulting in more contrast on the negatives. Thirdly, I scanned this roll of film myself with my D300 DSLR (which explains the D300 metadata for the images below), and so the tonalities probably aren’t as accurate as they should be.
Now that the technical food for photographers reading is given, onward to the images. First up, some portraiture. Perhaps one of my favorite things about film, and a defining characteristic of each and every film is how it handles skin tones. For BW film, I absolutely adore the tonalities and gradations that to me set BW films in an entirely different league to digital BW images. As a hybrid photographer (I shoot as much film as I shoot digital), I’m definitely not like some whom swear by film or digital. Each medium shines in different ways and contexts, and while, for example, I love using digital for fine art BW work, BW film is my go-to medium for portraits. The rich blacks, the beautiful whites that roll-off to smooth highlights, and the buttery mid-tone gradations that are all so important for skin tones – portraits pop on black and white films, and the Ilford Pan 400 is no exception.
Below are some casual portraits of my friend, Sean, that I took at a restaurant in Downtown East where we were having lunch. The whole restaurant had the coolest decor: wall murals, vintage-esque decor, and Edison lamps. And while the restaurant was pretty dimly lit (even at ASA 800), there was a huge window on one side that overlooked the entire water park (which was glaringly empty), which was a great source of soft lighting for some impromptu portrait work. I say “impromptu” because this wasn’t planned at all (no shit, Sherlock). That morning, I had just sent some of my other friends off at Pasir Ris to Tekong, and had met Sean there. I had brought my camera that day with no particular goal in mind but to finish the last few shots of my roll, and low and behold, I had actually told Sean I would snap some portraits of him a few months back, but had never done so. And so with my camera in my bag, a lack of portraits on my roll of film, and an all-too-willing model, these photos below were taken while we were waiting for our food.
The first thing I noticed about the photos after developing and scanning them was that this film had some pretty rich blacks. It reminds me of the classic blacks Kodak Tri-X brings to the table (also pushed to 800). However, this was a film that was much cheaper than Tri-X and lacked the same legendary status that Tri-X enjoyed. And yet, what I didn’t particularly like were the whites of Pan 400. Unlike Tri-X, these whites rolled off to highlights rather “digitally”. The gradation isn’t something I like, and it reminded me of digital images. But as with Ilford HP5, the skin tones were amazing. For a pushed film, the first thing I noticed was how fine the grain was compared to Ilford HP5 (similarly pushed to 800). But, it isn’t as contrast-y. In fact, I would dare say that Tri-X rated at box speed (400) packs more contrast that Pan 400 rated at 800. Additionally, this film isn’t the sharpest either, despite having a rather fine grain structure. Anyway, do take all of this with a pinch of salt and let’s move on.
Next up, some other photos from a fishing “kampong” in East Coast Park.
Hidden in a relatively less popular area of Singapore’s East Coast Park lies this little gem. Pretty much a relic hiding amongst the modern skyscrapers of Singapore, this place is an enclave of sorts – it is an enclave of objects, people, and more importantly a lifestyle that are nigh impossible to find elsewhere in Singapore. Middle-aged and elderly fishermen gather around in plastic chairs and smoke against the backdrop of a setting sun, while others busily mend their fishing nets and boats. Sounds of laughter and conversation form an alluring melody that’s performed by instruments boasting a mix of Hokkien and Malay languages. The sound of the sea – its waves repetitively crashing onto the shore offers the perfect droning accompaniment to the esoteric symphony. The scene is drop-dead gorgeous and cinematic.
I would have wished for better light, but unfortunately it was a rather overcast evening and before I knew it, I had already expended too much time talking to the fishermen instead of taking photos. In any case, here are some of the photos I managed to shoot before the sun went down. I will make it clear here that these are examples of photos that I do not like too much, but am going to post them anyway. The whole point is really for me to document my own shoots in addition to letting you in on what goes on when I shoot.
Moving on, I will include some other photos that I had taken on this roll of Pan 400 just to show its characteristics under a wider variety of lighting conditions. Some of the photos were taken on a trip down to Chinatown just before Chinese New Year, while some others were just taken around my house when I was bored. And do checkout the captions of the individual photos for more information and comments. (If you’re reading this on your phone, you might have to press twice on a photo to open it up.)
With that, I have reached the end of my first roll of pan 400. Regardless of what your first impression of this film after reading this post is, I do heed you to go out and get your hands on a roll of this stuff if you can. Sure, everyone wants a film that looks good, yields consistent results, and holds up well in a plethora of lighting situations. But if you, like me, are somewhat of a retrophiliac and walks as a pariah amongst digital photographers, go out and shoot as many films you can. Some may be excellent, others not so much, but just remember: enjoy the same canvas that legendary photographers of past had captured humanity’s greatest moments on, making what we do truly an art.