Fomapan black and white film – my experience

I recently shot some Fomapan 200 in my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s and the results were… mixed, though mostly positive.

When I used my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s last time, I used some Ilford XP2 film with it – this is a black and white film which has the special ability to be developed using the colour (C41) process. You take pictures as normal, and get the film developed anywhere that does colour film, and the photos that come out are black and white. I understand that the form of black and white produced by Ilford XP2 is not strictly black and white – I would guess it is more like how a colour display shows a black and white image, but using RGB pixels. That said, I haven’t a clue if that’s right or not.

The results I’ve had from Ilford film have been great. And the results in general from the Hi-Matic 7s are also really satisfying. It is a nice – if somewhat bulky and heavy – camera to use. And the lens is very sharp. What’s more, the camera allows you to shoot in either aperture or shutter priority, or fully automatically, with the user only having to set the focus. Not bad for a fifty-five year old camera.

EDIT: As Shawn rightly points out in the comments below, of course the Hi-Matic 7s cannot do aperture or shutter priority – it is either automatic (with both settings on ‘A’), which is how I shot the majority of this film, or you must set both the aperture and the shutter, using the EV numbers in the light meter as a guide. I think I’ve even made this mistake before when discussing this camera! Shows what happens when I use it so infrequently. 

Having shot black and white using a film that wasn’t truly black and white, my inevitable next step was to shoot ‘proper’ black and white film. The results should be broadly the same, albeit the development process is slightly more expensive, or less commonly available on the high street.

Last summer, giddy with the afterglow of having received a nice set of shots back from the roll of Ilford I’d used, I visited Park Cameras and picked up some new film. To my delight, they had a cabinet full of various different 35mm films including Fomapan, a name I’d recently read about.

Fomapan is a Czech manufacturer of photographic supplies, and they have a reputation for being cheaper than your Ilfords, Fujis and so on. This film comes in at about half the price of the Ilford I’m used to, and about a third of the price of some other films.

I picked up a roll of tried-and-tested XP2 as well as a roll of Fomapan 200 Creative.  And then about nine months passed between me loading the Fomapan and me finishing the roll.

You can tell it was a while ago as I’m wearing shorts to load the film!

I guess one distraction was getting a new digital SLR in that time, and so my photographic attentions have been mostly spent on learning the ins and outs of my new Canon 250D. It’s also been lockdown for the majority of that time, and although I’ve had opportunities to go out with a camera in my hand, I feel somewhat guilty when my time tips over from being a walk-with-a-camera to a photowalk or more. That’s just my personal feeling when I’m behind the viewfinder though; I’ve found the sight of other photographers out and about during These Times reassuring and comforting when it is so clearly a solitary, distanced pastime.

Anyway. Five hundred words in which I say: I got my Fomapan shots back recently.

And how do they look?

Well – the black and white is very effective, and I think there is a subtle difference between the scans I get back from XP2 colour process B&W film and the true black and white of Fomapan 200. The Minolta appears to have behaved well, too, with focus just as sharp as I’ve been used to.

Shooting black and white in the Minolta just feels right to me.

It’s probably some silly placebo effect of shooting an old camera and wanting to shoot in B&W. But I’ve preferred the results I get back from B&W film than colour, and I really enjoy the exercise in shooting for tones, shadows and silhouettes that black and white kind of forces you to do. There’s also a sharpness or contrast to B&W film that I would probably find harder to achieve using colour film. I prefer the grain of black and white as it retains a sharpness that can be lost in colour, I think. (I’ve not written off colour film: my next-film-but-one is a roll of Fujicolor C200.)

As I looked through the scans from the Fomapan, though, I started to notice some repeated defects or marks on the images. The next shot suffers from the most of these – as well as being a bit too contrasty, but that’s just the shot itself.

The issues I noticed are: the dark and light ‘blobs’ along the left side of this image (though, actually, these are consistent with the perforations or sprocket holes in the film itself along the long edges of each frame), and the white line running top-to-bottom in this shot.

Ironically, the white line running left-to-right is a plane’s vapour trail and was what drew me in to taking this picture in the first place. It’s funny that there is a white mark of unknown origin which closely matches a vapour trail as rendered in B&W film.

I continued to look at the scans I’d received and, as I had not yet collected the negatives from the lab, I wasn’t sure what might be causing the defects. I could identify one or both of the above described issues on about ten frames in the film, with the ‘sprocket blobs’ coming and going, and sometimes only appearing for a few sprockets’ worth; and the white line was noticeable across a number of shots running in a consistent enough line and angle that you can sort of follow its path along multiple frames.

I asked the lab if they could take a look at the negatives and maybe re-scan if it might be scanner-related. I also wasn’t sure at this point if maybe the Minolta had sustained some damage and was letting in light leaks. I couldn’t work out the physical defect in the camera that would lead to these consistent-yet-inconsistent marks, but that was my biggest fear: a faulty Minolta.

The response I got was helpful and semi reassuring, but semi disappointing: the defects ultimately appear to be in the emulsion of the film itself. The lab tech didn’t think the camera was faulty (phew), but they noted that they’d seen issues with Fomapan films in the past, and they usually recommend Kodak, Fuji and Ilford for this reason.

So I quickly realised that Fomapan, as a cheap film, is unfortunately bound to have some defects from time to time. I have done some digging online, and although I’ve only so far found one other Fomapan film that exhibits almost exactly this defect, I have seen a number of other people querying defects they had discovered when developing their own Fomapan films.

This was initially a setback: what drives me away from film photography and towards digital is consistency and sharpness and clarity and reliability. But whenever I get bogged down in that comparison, I know I’m fooling myself: part of the appeal of film is a little unpredictability.

Sure, professional photographers need to rely on decent, expensive equipment, and pro-grade film that yields predictable results for paying clients. But I’m a hobbyist using decades-old cameras of unknown origin, willfully using film I know to be cheap. I shouldn’t be surprised by small defects or unexpected results – indeed, I should welcome them to a degree.

And so now I think I understand the problem – as well as the fact that I probably just got unlucky and I could probably shoot another ten rolls of Fomapan that come out perfectly! And I can look at the rest of the roll and enjoy the shots for what they are: unique moments of light and shadow captured in the moment on a unique medium using a finicky tool. And I love it.

Once I picked up the negatives I could see for myself the state of the film and the emulsion myself, and it’s clear that all is not well with this roll of Fomapan 200. It’s not hard to spot, on this first inverted scan of one set of frames, and then the true colour photo of the same section below, that there’s almost been a spillage or melting of the emulsion. 

It’s plain to see something isn’t right, though I’m not experienced enough to say if this has happened in the Fomapan factory, or later in storage, or even in the development process. And even if this is a fault with the product itself, I’m willing to bet it is a very uncommon one, and it hasn’t put me off trying Fomapan again in the future.

(And just in case it helps anyone else Googling this, I *think* the batch number for this Fomapan film is 012315-2, with an expiry date in 2021, though not sure what month.)

Either way, it is what is. As long as my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s is still functioning as well as I’m used to, then I’m happy to continue using it, and I’ve got some XP2 in there already, and the aforementioned roll of Fujicolor to go next – hopefully in time for when the Spring colours return.

Anyway, here’s a few more favourites from this roll of Fomapan. There were plenty of doozies to keep me happy, despite any defects. The rest of the roll is up at /photography.