How Ilford Delta 400 Became My Favorite Film for Street Photography

This is a syndicated blog post from La Noir Image. 

I wish that when I first started exploring street photography with film that someone had told me all about Ilford Delta 400 before trying to shepherd me into the church of Kodak Tri-X. But back then, years and years of guides online said that it was the absolute only way to go. As time progressed, different voices have arisen and they don’t all say the same thing. My voice, like many others, is the one that fell head over heels for the lineup of Ilford Delta films. To a photographer who grew up knowing digital, but tried to stay away from everything film because it was “hipster”, I regret that my mind was never open to a whole world of photography both I and many others are still only now just exploring–but that those before us probably haven’t explored even fully.

Kodak Tri-X 400 is inherently one of the best and most versatile black and white films ever made. Want to shoot street photography with it? You’re bound to get great photos. How about portraits? Yup, those work too. But growing up in the digital photography world and not really knowing or understanding darkroom processes taught me to look for other things. The way that I would process my digital photos to look in black and white weren’t what I’d get from Kodak Tri-X 400 or even my older favorite, Kodak 400 BW CN. There needed to be a grainy film that was sharp, crispy, and almost cinematic in its look. I came from the school of Magnum, and even though I’m still enamored with the film photos that many of those photographers produced, I’m not beholden to them. Every photographer taught us to find our own path and do our own thing. And part of that comes with experimentation. But today, photographers have lots of venues of experimentation. There is traditional digital, mobile phones, film, tintypes, etc.

For years I would only use Kodak Tri-X with mixed results. Did I like them? Yes. When I look back on those photos today, I’m still in love with them. But I didn’t do enough experimentation. Then one day, a roll of Ilford HP5 made its way to me and I was told to use it for street photography. To this day, I’m still not completely totally sure I understand why that was as it was from a photographer whose knowledge I still respect. Delta only truly came into my lap years after I had tried Ilford HP5. As you may have read in previous posts, I’ve never been the biggest fan of that film. But when Delta 400 came back to me after being shot in my Hexar AF, I was seriously hooked. The film and it’s inherent look reminded me of some gritty work done by Moriyama, and yet the images that were right in front of me had my own personal, unique take on the world around me.

Ilford Delta 400

For the first time, I had felt betrayed. Years and years of an industry and marketing teaching me that Kodak Tri-X 400 was the absolute best and that there is no reason for you to go out there and try anything else. Fujifilm Acros 400? Nah, they’d tell me that it’s worthless and to go Kodak Tri-X 400 or bust. But why? Was it because it’s just the general choice and overall it provides the most pleasing look of any film across the board? Was it because Ilford was relatively quiet back then and still are? It angered me. The anger turn into an unstoppable lust for more and more of this film. I’d find a way to get my hands on all the Ilford Delta 400 that I possibly could and run it through my Hexar AF like no tomorrow. I’d get loads of photos that I’d be smitten with and I’d spend hours and hours absolutely in love with the prints that I’d make at a larger size. But, as my job would have it, I got pulled away from shooting film due to more work coming in.

Every now and again, I’d look back at those images that I shot on Delta 400. How could I have thought otherwise? How could something have been made to look so perfect? Why were there so many lies about the look and feel of the film? Is it just ignorance? Was it that people just haven’t looked at it all and understood what’s possible? Why couldn’t people have told me otherwise? More importantly, why weren’t there more resources online about any of this? Had Kodak paid everyone else off?

These questions raced through my mind. I didn’t understand any of it. To be honest, I still don’t understand any of it. I ran the Phoblographer for years believing that everything out there is great but that we all just need to choose what’s best for us. For me, Ilford Delta 400 was just that.

What’s so great about Ilford Delta 400? It’s a sharp film with quite a bit of contrast. There’s grain but not a whole lot of it. The blacks and nice and inky–which I haven’t really totally seen with much of Kodak Tri-X that I’ve shot. But mostly, I think that it’s because of the way that I learned to see and think about the world in black and white. In order to get the best black and white images for you, you need to have some sort of creative vision. You need to not just think about the world as monochrome, but you need to see a scene in black and white. You more importantly need to see the scene in a specific black and white. Then you need to find the film that lets you get that scene that you’ve got in your mind’s eye. But even beyond that, you need to know how to get that scene. You need to work with the scene. You need to have fun with it. You need to understand it. That’s something many photographers struggle with — connecting the technical side of their brain with the artistic side of their brain. Perhaps this is why so many photographers sit there and just shoot in auto hoping that the camera will do it all for them. But that doesn’t always happen and that makes film even more unappealing for even more photographers.

But once you understand it, you get the scene that you want and dream about. For me, those scenes were made on Ilford Delta 400.