Ilford HP5 Plus 400 35mm Film Review

ilford hp5 plus box

Ilford is one of the very biggest names in the world of analogue photography, with some of its films being among the best-known and most-loved out there.

The Ilford Pan 400 I’ve shot plenty of and reviewed before doesn’t really fall into that category, but much of the Delta and Plus ranges are hall of fame; arguably none more so than Ilford HP5 Plus.

With its long history, classic name, iconic (albeit recently updated) box and cartridge design, beginner-friendly attributes and good image quality, it’s not hard to see why it’s so very, very popular.

Read on to learn more, to see the results I got from shooting some, and what you can expect from it too. And if this review does make you want to pick some up, you can easily do so from B&H Photo, from Amazon, or from Analogue Wonderland.

What is Ilford HP5 Plus 400?

It would be very easy to lift a sentence straight from the horse’s mouth, reword as if we were an e-commerce retailer, and use that to answer that subheading. Something like the following:

Ilford HP5 Plus is a high speed black & white film with fine grain and medium contrast. It’s a great option for sports, action, travel, journalism, documentary, and indoor available light photography.

See. I told you it’d be easy. It’s definitely not enough to tell the whole story, though. A story that begins way back in 1935 when Ilford released the original HP roll film, which was rated at ISO 160.

In 1939, this was replaced by HP2, an ISO 200 offering. This only lasted for two years until being superseded by the imaginatively titled HP3 in 1941, which was rated at different speeds depending on when in its life cycle you bought it.

It was released as an ISO 125 film and remained that way until around 1953 when it was modified to become an ISO 200 stock instead. In 1960, improved metering technology meant HP3 could be reclassified as ISO 400, although the film itself was completely unchanged.

This sequentially numbered HP range has remained at ISO 400 ever since, through the 1970s and 1980s in the form of HP4 and HP5, and on to today with the introduction of HP5 Plus in 1989.

For completeness, there was an Ilford HPS film produced from 1954 to 1998 too, although that was of a different lineage, being a precursor to the high-speed Delta 3200 that Ilford now make.

That history is all very interesting, but it doesn’t tell you exactly what Ilford HP5 Plus is today and what you can expect from it. Don’t worry, though. We’ll go through all that in the next few sections.

ilford hp5 plus film box

Ilford HP5 Plus image qualities

We’ve already mentioned that HP5 Plus 400 is purported to give you fine grain and medium contrast. These are not my words but those of Ilford themselves.

That said, they also advise their Delta films display less grain, thanks to their tabular-grain emulsion vs. the traditional grain of the Plus range, so you can’t logically expect your results to be super clean with the HP5.

Up to now, this doesn’t sound like the kind of film I’d particularly want to shoot much of. Medium contrast, grain not overbearing but not the cleanest, ISO 400 like so many others… It all sounds a bit middle-of-the-road.

From my experience though, that’s the wrong way to look at it. The steady Eddie stats that make up Ilford HP5 Plus are analogous to the last part of its name. A positive, not a negative. All things considered, I really liked the results it gave me.

If you’re looking for lots of technical details and comparisons in your film reviews, I’m not the guy for you. All I can do really is compare my experience with stocks alongside other comparable ones I’ve shot, so that’s what I’ll do here.

I far prefer the grain on HP5 Plus to the overbearing style I got with Ilford Pan 400. I found it to be noticeably sharper than Kentmere 400, although that’s not surprising given Kentmere is the budget brand from Harman, the company behind Ilford.

HP5 Plus did live up to its billing as far as contrast goes too. I definitely got more dramatic results out of the JCH Street Pan 400 and the Rollei Retro 400 too. Not that this is categorically a bad thing or a good thing. Some people might not want too much contrast.

Having said that, any film or digital camera will give more contrast in certain light than in others, and I certainly found this with HP5 Plus.

A lot of shots did come out on the flatter side as advertised, but when I found myself in environments with good light and shadow too, the HP5 Plus did give me that contrast. It’s said to have very good dynamic range, which means you can trust it whenever you find yourself in a similar spot.

Take a look at the three example shots below. The first two are nicely clean and sharp while the last has that contrast when the light is right.

Street photography with HP5 Plus 400

There’s no reason I can think of to tell you why you shouldn’t shoot some street photography with Ilford HP5 Plus. I do have a few why you should, though.

First is something we’ve not mentioned yet: its price. Ilford’s Plus range is cheaper than its Delta stocks, which is already a good thing here. It means that, as a standard rather than a premium monochrome ISO 400 film, HP5 is not prohibitively expensive.

Unless you’re trying out a certain film type for a specific reason, the less you can spend on rolls for your street photography where the results are going to be more hit and miss than studio work, obviously the better.

Another new thing to point out is this film’s exposure latitude, as well as its aforementioned dynamic range. Traditional grain films do tend to excel with wide exposure ranges, and HP5 Plus is no different.

This not only means you can shoot scenes with both bright and dark areas, but also that the film can help you out if you do under or overexpose. As an ISO 400 film, you get plenty of leeway in both directions.

And let’s not forget that ISO 400 rating gives you plenty of speed to shoot in the potentially ever-changing lighting conditions out in the street too.

However, while I can’t think of any reason to recommend you don’t use this film for street photography, there is still that one aspect that means you might not want to anyway. And that is that contrast again.

Some people just prefer that more dramatic Daido Moriyama look. You can get contrast with HP5 Plus in the right light. You could push it – up to ISO 3200 according to Ilford – for more contrast too. But if you’re going to do that for the contrast alone, why not just buy a film with more contrast in the first place?

I think the bottom line on whether HP5 Plus is good for your street photography comes down to your personal taste on the contrast. Everything else I can see about it is great and I’m happy with the results it gave me.

HP5 Plus specs and development

Ilford HP5 Plus is an ISO 400 rated, traditionally grained, black and white negative film that’s available in standard 24 and 36 exposure 35mm rolls. The cartridges have the DX code 017534.

If you want to get more hands-on, you can also buy it in 100′ bulk rolls. And of course it’s available in 120 format too, although we’re really just talking about the 35mm here.

I can’t speak from experience when it comes to developing HP5 Plus, but I can point you in the right direction for the information needed to do so yourself. The processing chart is right here, the massive dev chart entry is right here, and the general data sheet is right here.

The subheading on that last one is ‘black and white professional film for high print quality and flexibility in use’.

As Ilford state that HP5 Plus gives best results at ISO 400 but that good image quality can be achieved all the way up to 3200 and that it’s compatible with all major processing systems, I don’t think that flexibility claim can be argued too much.

You don’t have to store this film in your fridge so long as it’s kept below 20°C (or 68°F) and shot soon after buying. If you do keep it with your eggs and milk though, it’s good to let it get back to room temperature before shooting.

Where to buy Ilford HP5 Plus 400

As one of the most popular monochrome stocks on the market, Ilford HP5 Plus should really be on the shelf of any self-respecting brick and mortar store who sells film.

That said, it’s perhaps not going to be randomly found in your nearest grocery or tourist shop next to the basic colour negative stuff like Kodak Gold 200 that’s waiting for a passer-by who really needs a roll of something – anything – there and then.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Kodak Gold, of course. But if you don’t have a dedicated film stockist near you or in your town, you might have to head online to find your HP5 Plus.

You can check the prices and availability through the links below.

ilford hp5 plus box

Final thoughts on Ilford HP5 Plus 400

After beginning my Ilford acquaintanceship with the relatively obscure Pan 400, HP5 Plus was my first foray into the brand’s better-known films.

Judging by the results it gave me and for the price at which it did, I have to say I like it quite a bit. There’s no question I’d shoot it again.

When Ilford describe the differences between their Delta and Plus lines, they mention how films in the latter are good for beginners or those still learning – which is all of us, to be fair. They can handle under or overexposure and can be pushed and pulled all over too.

I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole myself, but people do report good results from doing so elsewhere.

If you just look at the ISO 400 box speed, traditional yet fine grain and not overbearing contrast, it would be easy to dismiss HP5 Plus on paper as being an average film with no unique selling proposition.

For me, that’s missing the point. I’m not saying it isn’t average. It is, but in a good way rather than bad. Nothing is outstandingly wrong and the attributes just seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts to give clean, sharp, and just really nice to look at results.

Compared to some other films – even some other ISO 400 monochrome films like JCH Street Pan – that have their USPs and are marketed more for specific purposes, HP5 Plus is definitely more of a general use workhorse.

Make no mistake, though. There’s a reason it’s been around for so long and is today one of the most commonly shot black and white films in the world. It may be a workhorse, but it’s still a thoroughbred.

I’m not sure where these equine metaphors came from but if you want to try some HP5 Plus for yourself, you can easily find it at B&H Photo, over on Amazon, or from Analogue Wonderland. It’s an inexpensive film, so you won’t have to pony up too much. 🙂

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