As I've been getting more and more into film photography I've wanted to learn about the differences between certain film stocks. I'm personally especially interested in the cheaper films as frugality is important to me. It's not about always shooting the best but getting the most value after all. I've tried to do some research into this and just can't find a lot of information though about these cheap economy films and so I decided to start doing comparisons myself. In this case I shot a series of test photos using Kentmere 400 and Ultrafine Extreme 400 on a pair of Canon AF35ML II cameras - my favorite point and shoots. I tried to compose both photos the same on each camera though there will be some variation in framing and exposure as I'm shooting these hand held on automatic cameras. They were scanned using neutral settings and the only editing I've done is some spot healing to remove dust and output sharpening.
Why these films?
The question is going to come up so I might as well tackle it now. For me - a photographer living in the United States with easy access to online vendors - these two films represent the lowest cost options in 400 speed black and white photography. This won't necessarily hold true for you as pricing/availability vary depending on where you live. In this case though I wanted to evaluate the cheapest options available to me. I did consider options like Fomapan or Kodak Tri-X but they couldn't compete with the rock bottom prices these other films enjoy.
What this comparison isn't
It should also go without saying that this isn't going to be a highly technical deep dive into the film stocks. I'm not going to be looking at MTF charts, testing reciprocity, or analyzing response curves. The truth of the matter is that I don't have the time or the interest to get that technical. There are too many variables that have to be controlled in order to make such a comparison possible. Instead we'll just be looking at images coming from scanned negatives and drawing our conclusions from there.
About the films
Before I get into the photos themselves I should go over the contenders. The first film is Kentmere 400 - a budget film option from Harman Technology who are best known for the Ilford line of films and paper. Despite being from Harman it is not the same film as the better known Ilford HP5 and Delta options. I got my rolls for $3.99 each from Pro Photo Connection which is damn cheap and is pretty common online. Despite being an economy film it is DX coded. It was a breeze to scan and dust wasn't too hard to manage. I did get some inconsistent frames though where something weird happened and a seemingly straightforward exposure went wildly off. For now I'm blaming the camera but it's something I'm going to watch out for in the future.
Ultrafine Extreme 400 is an interesting beast. It's sold by Photo Warehouse down in Oxnard California at the low price of $3.59 a roll. It's a little harder to get as it's only sold by Photo Warehouse but they do use some retailers like eBay and Amazon to make it a bit more accessible. It's not clear who the actual manufacturer of the film is but rumor has it that Harman Technology is involved somehow. Again though it is definitely not just a rebadged version of an existing film but its own unique stock. Surprisingly it too is DX coded (older releases apparently were not). The film scanned beautifully with very little trouble with dust. I didn't see any unexpected variations in exposure - honestly it looked great!
Head to head
Let's run down and compare shots head to head. Again I tried to match the composition where possible but it's not going to be perfect. The Kentmere 400 photo will always be first and the Ultrafine Extreme 400 will always be on the second.
The first photo is indoors using my laptop to kick things off. More of a test photo than anything else it is a good example of pretty extreme contrast ranges. The screen is very bright where the rest of the room is fairly dim and lit by daylight LEDs. To my eye the Ultrafine photo looks a bit better with slightly better contrast and a truer white on the screen.
This was outdoors near sunset with some pretty harsh light on the building and deep shadow areas. It's difficult to pick the two images apart and I don't personally have one that I like over the other. The Kentmere 400 seems to have retained the shadows slightly better but you really have to look to see it.
Detail of the same building set against a blue sky. I didn't use any color filters so you're seeing the film's natural reaction to blue light. Again the images are nearly identical though the deep shadows in the Kentmere 400 are a little brighter.
Indoors again and this time under mixed lighting. Unlike the previous image where I struggled to pick a favorite I vastly prefer the Ultrafine Extreme here. The truer white and deeper contrast are pleasing. The Kentmere seems to take the yellow from the mixed lighting and go gray.
Back to outdoors for this shot and this time filled with greens and a bright red banner. Again I find I prefer the Ultrafine shot here. The green tones are richer and the overall greater contrast is pleasing. The Kentmere isn't bad and both image could easily be edited to look like the other but at least from camera (or scan in this case) the Ultrafine is more attractive to me.
Going abstract this time with a detail shot of Avaya Stadium. The slightly more open shadows of the Kentmere are the only distinction between two otherwise almost identical photographs.
Another detail from Avaya Stadium, this time looking at one of the gates with some pretty extreme contrast range across the image. Unlike previous photos where the open shadows of Kentmere didn't have much of an impact I think the difference is pretty dramatic here. The Kentmere looks much better - you can actually read the word Audi! The Ultrafine Extreme loses too much shadow detail in this scene.
Hooray for mediocre self-portraiture. It wouldn't be a good film test without looking at skin tones. While neither shot is going to win any awards the Kentmere looks more pleasing to me. The more even tonal range allows it to retain nice gradations. The Ultrafine looks much more harsh and less flattering.
The last image is a test of the film acutance or apparent sharpness. To my eye both films are relatively sharp but like most 400 speed films hit a hard threshold when it comes to their grain. The grain is very visible in the mid towns on both films. Still I don't think anyone will be complaining that these films are "soft".
For me I think in the end Ultrafine Extreme 400 will be my go to 400 speed black and white film. I like the contrast range, the tonality looks good to me, and aside from extreme situations I generally liked the images a bit more. It doesn't hurt that Ultrafine is a little cheaper as well though we're talking pennies here. Finally I had no issues with inconsistent behavior which I did see some of with Kentmere.