Of all the films I’ve ever tried, shooting some Shanghai GP3 100 120 whilst living in the city of the same name felt like an important one for me to do. Film and location together. I just know I would have regretted it if I didn’t.
My problem was not being sure how worth it picking up a 120 camera just to shoot this medium format version would be. Although I’m sure I would have eventually if I really had to.
And then, out of the blue, I didn’t have to. Because something magical happened. We’ll cover exactly what that was later. For now, just know that I suddenly had the opportunity to shoot a couple of rolls of Shanghai GP3 100 120 in Shanghai, and I did so with varying results.
This is a review of that film, with all the information you’ll ever need about it along with my own personal experience with it. If it makes you want to get some to shoot too, you easily can from eBay, from B&H Photo, or from Amazon.
What is Shanghai GP3 100 120 film?
The story of Shanghai GP3 100 goes all the way back to 1958 when the Shanghai Shenbei Photosensitive Material Factory was established in the city. What follows is the best summation I can craft from piecing together information from various sources.
Producing industrial and medical x-ray films as well as the monochrome photographic GP3 we’re interested in here, the factory – which has since changed its name to the Shanggong Shanghai Photosensitive Material Factory – is run by the large Shanggong Shenbei Group Co., Ltd.
Or just SGSB, if you prefer.
As with all major enterprise in China at the time it was founded, the goings-on at this factory were a state-owned operation. Whether they still are, I don’t know. Knowing a little about how China works though, I wouldn’t be surprised if they still are in some capacity.
An ISO 100, panchromatic black and white negative film, Shanghai GP3 was produced primarily for the domestic market and remained relatively unknown outside of China for decades after its 1958 inception.
Like plenty of other things though, I can only imagine it was the advent of the internet that helped more people become aware of Shanghai GP3 120 film. And specifically, entrepreneurial individuals in Hong Kong who began to sell it on eBay.
I say Hong Kong specifically because the platform, which remains perhaps the most reliable place to find sellers with GP3 in stock, had pulled out of the Chinese mainland market in the mid-2000s.
For the Western buyers browsing eBay, the most attractive thing about the Shanghai GP3 listings was almost certainly their prices. Even with shipping factored in, GP3 was markedly more budget-friendly than the Kodak, Ilford, and Fuji films they were likely used to shooting.
That cheapness sometimes came at a cost though, with numerous reports of, shall we say, inconsistent quality control issues. When GP3 worked well, it worked really well. But when it didn’t, it was pretty much unusable. And you never knew which of these you were going to get.
These issues deserve a section of their own, which is why we’ll cover them in further detail in one later.
Before we go on though, check out the reverse of the Shanghai GP3 120 box. It still bears the original Shanghai Shenbei Photosensitive Material Factory name.
I thought it was cool also how the logo features the city’s Waibaidu Bridge, which I stood on whilst taking this photo, and Broadway Mansions, which features in the background of it.
Whilst researching for this piece, I came across a lot of complaints on various forums and other GP3 reviews regarding the quality issues mentioned above. The important thing to note though is that most of them predate the next milestone in the story of this film.
By 2015, just when a new batch of GP3 seemed to be much improved, production of it halted. With no news coming out of China as to why, the subsequent drying up of stocks lead to people questioning whether it was gone for good.
Thankfully, it wasn’t. On the contrary, in fact, as things were going to get better than ever for GP3 shooters. SGSB were merely moving the operation to a new factory which, after needing some time to re-tool and get up to speed, began making new batches of GP3 in 2016.
With SGSB apparently investing more in their film manufacturing infrastructure for the medical and government side of their business, it’s easy to assume these improved processes have trickled down and helped bring up the quality and performance of GP3 too.
The story doesn’t end there, though.
Just like Fujifilm makes much more than just photography gear – get your skincare and semiconductors here – the SGSB conglomerate has its fingers in far more pies than just the analogue one.
I’m sure their preferred pies today are far bigger and more lucrative than catering to a small number of hobbyists (us film photographers) buying a relatively cheap product (film). They seem pretty hot on sewing machines right now, for example.
And that is perhaps why they were prepared to offload the Shanghai GP3 business to someone else – namely, a local Shanghai film and photographic equipment supplier called Jiancheng Sheying. Or Jiancheng Photography. Or 剑诚摄影, if you prefer.
I’ll cover everything about the 35mm version when I get around to the full review of it, but for now it’s interesting to note that Mr Zhang from Jiancheng talks about the 120 film in the video on that page.
Specifically, he touches on the quality issues the film suffered in the past and shows the improved backing paper used today. He also mentions how new batches of the film will have Shanghai GP3 100 rebate markings on it. Looking at my negatives now, the rolls I shot didn’t have any at all.
So that’s where we are today. Jianchang have taken over the Shanghai film brand and IP from SGSB – although I have to imagine the latter is still actually producing it in their factory.
This change is already reflected on the Shanghai GP3 35mm packaging, as you can see below. Remember how the 120 box had the old factory name?
To be fair, I don’t really care what name is used in the future. Just so long as that logo remains the same.
Shanghai GP3 100 120 image qualities
As mentioned earlier, shooting some Shanghai GP3 while I was living in Shanghai was something I needed to do before I left.
The main issue with that though was that I didn’t have a 120 camera at my disposal, and I didn’t want to buy one just for this endeavour. Of course, I would have kept it afterwards, but I don’t know how much I would have used it.
I’m not hipster enough to walk around with a TLR, and I didn’t have the money to casually grab something like a Hasselblad, a Bronica, or a Fuji GSW690 III either. I still don’t, for that matter.
Realistically, my best option would have been to buy a Holga 120N or a Diana F and embrace whichever I got as a fun camera rather than a technical marvel that a more serious 120 camera would have been.
And then I didn’t have to buy anything at all. Because, as part of its worldwide trip, the Littlest Holga appeared on my doorstep.
That means you’re going to have to excuse some major vignetting and light leaks, and understand that the following shots demonstrating the image quality and qualities of Shanghai GP3 120 were taken with a very basic plastic lens.
Of course they’re not going to be up to the technical standards that the aforementioned Hasselblad should give you, but I think the film’s quality does peek through from behind the flaws and limitations of the Holga.
It’s a quality that I was pretty impressed with, too. Perhaps this is more because I’m used to shooting 35mm film though. With 120 film being a larger format, you end up with a much larger negative.
This means more detail in your images and, in theory, less grain. You can also find more of a 3D pop, with sharp subjects standing out a lot more from the backgrounds than in 35mm images.
I certainly found that with my shots from Shanghai’s Bund area, without even meaning to achieve it. Indeed, shooting with the Holga means I couldn’t have meant it, seeing as its only options for aperture are f8 and f11.
So I was very pleasantly surprised with the detail and separation the lady shielding her face from the sun, the lady at the bottom of the stairs, and the man sitting in front of the war memorial all had.
To date, this is the only monochrome 120 film I’ve shot, so I can’t compare it to the supposed finer offerings like Ilford’s Delta 100 or Kodak’s T-Max 100. Maybe they are noticeably better than GP3, or maybe they aren’t.
Whichever way that goes, it is still an ISO 100, medium format film we’re talking about here. If you don’t get a roll from a bad batch and you expose it well, it’s going to be hard to get bad results.
Shanghai GP3 120 is supposed to bring low grain, high contrast, and decent sharpness. When I managed to shoot it without messing up my exposure, I got all of these as advertised.
In all, I’m very happy with the image quality and qualities that GP3 gave me – again, considering the camera I shot it with.
Street photography with Shanghai GP3 100 120
When I read about people’s favourite films for street photography, it always seems to be ISO 400 ones that get recommended. For monochrome stocks especially.
The reasons for this are perfectly understandable. More speed to capture moving subjects in a split second and more versatility to handle potentially changing light conditions.
That said, every ISO 100 film review I’ve written so far – from Fuji Industrial to Oriental Seagull to Kodak Ektar – has contained the same advice. Shooting street photography with an ISO 100 film is nothing to fear.
So long as you have enough light, you’ll be okay. You’ll be shooting the film in the conditions it was designed to be shot in, just as you would an ISO 400 film on a cloudy day.
You just need to be sure you’re exposing properly, and having a camera that can help you do so makes this a lot easier. I’ve never had any exposures issues when shooting ISO 100 film with the Yashica Electro, for example.
Unfortunately, I did with the Holga and this Shanghai GP3 film. Some of the shots came out so under-exposed from one of the rolls that they were unusable. You’ll see some of them later in this review, or you can read more about the whole episode on this post here.
With the Holga having a fixed shutter speed of 1/100 of a second and aperture options of f8 and f11 only, I really had to be sure of the light when shooting this GP3 – because the camera wasn’t going to dig me out with any exposure compensation features.
Unfortunately, I was a little too ambitious with a few shots and they didn’t work. With some ISO 400 film or higher though, they would have. Which brings us back to why people like to shoot street photography with at least an ISO 400 film.
But then again, most people aren’t shooting with such restricted settings as what the Holga gives you. I did okay with it, and if you have anything like a more normal camera, shooting ISO 100 film in the streets will be easier than I made it for myself here.
Previous(?) Shanghai GP3 120 quality control issues
As we’ve touched on already, Shanghai GP3 doesn’t have the best reputation among film photographers when it comes to quality control. Right back to when it came in firecracker red paper, people have found plenty to complain about.
Some said the backing paper was too thick, which led to some rolls being too large, which in turn led to losing the last frame you shot.
Others – or perhaps still the same people – said the bit of tape you get to seal the roll after shooting it wasn’t strong enough, which meant it could potentially come open and unravel before you got around to developing it.
If you were lucky enough to get a piece of tape, that was. As you didn’t always do so.
The numbers on the black backing paper were another source of consternation, with people reporting them as very difficult to see through the red window on the back of their camera, leaving them unsure how much to wind the film on between frames.
None of the above were the biggest issues with Shanghai GP3 film though. Because while the numbers may have been difficult to see when you needed to, as you can see in the next three images, they often made themselves unmissable when you didn’t.
When I got these back from the lab, I presumed it was a problem with the Holga that had caused the numbers and dots to leak from the backing paper onto the film itself.
Had I thought about it a little more though, I might have realised that the Lomography Color Negative film I’d also shot had no such issues.
I should also point out that these artefacts on my images only really happened on shots that I’d underexposed. Whenever I got the exposure right, they were never present. That’s not to excuse them being there at all, but it is worth noting, I think.
Plenty of other people have reported the same thing happening with their own shots taken on Shanghai GP3 too, although it must be stressed that things appear to have improved in recent years.
As mentioned earlier, even before production was moved to the new factory, they seemed to have gotten on top of a lot of these issues. That work has continued on, and the new batches of GP3 are more consistent with their quality control.
The idea that a lot of the older rolls people were buying from eBay sellers may have been stored improperly cannot be discounted either, which could also have had an effect on the results people were getting from it.
If you were to read all the complaints ever written online about Shanghai GP3 120, you’d be forgiven for never buying any. But a lot of those complaints were made years ago and in relation to older stock.
We’re moving further away from that version of GP3 with every passing month, and buying some fresh rolls should see you avoid the issues of the past. So while they were definitely real and I experienced some of them myself, don’t let them put you off.
The issues were with quality control rather than with the film emulsion itself, and they appear to be doing things much better now.
Shanghai GP3 100 120 specs and development
Shanghai GP3 100, or 上海 GP3 100 if you prefer, is an ISO 100 panchromatic black and white negative film, available in the 120 format we’re reviewing here as well as 35mm and a number of sheet film sizes too. All the way up to 20 x 24″, no less.
The product description on sites like B&H Photo state that it is ‘characterised by a controlled grain structure, making it well-suited for both enlarging and scanning‘. They also say ‘its traditional silver-rich emulsion offers rich tonality with deep black and bright white values‘.
At the time of writing, I haven’t developed any GP3 myself so what follows is a round-up of information found elsewhere.
Although we should keep in mind that people were discussing the older stock, one interesting source was this old thread on Flickr, which discussed the virtues of pre-washing your Shanghai GP3 to avoid issues with the image quality.
And don’t be alarmed by the deep shade of blue your water turns afterwards, as many people have reported this too.
There were also a few reports about Shanghai GP3 curling a lot after processing and drying, making it harder to scan than films that stay flatter.
Again though, this was concerning the older stock. Whether the newer stuff has similar problems, I don’t know.
There is of course all the information you’ll need to develop your own Shanghai GP3 120 on Digital Truth’s terrific Massive Dev Chart.
Anecdotally though, I read quite a few people saying they’d had good results developing GP3 in Rodinal specifically.
Where to buy Shanghai GP3 100 120
When I lived in Shanghai, it was easy to just walk into the place I got my film developed or even Jianchang’s own shop in the huge Xingguang Photographic Equipment market and just get some GP3 off the shelf.
I don’t know where I’d be able to do that now I’m in the UK, and I would say the chances of you being able to do so wherever it is you live – unless it is in Asia somewhere – would be pretty low too.
As we’ve already mentioned, eBay is a good place to buy Shanghai GP3 in bulk from the multitude of Hong Kong sellers and have it shipped over. If you don’t want to do that, B&H Photo do stock it, and there is some available on Amazon too.
You can check current prices and availability through the links below.
Final thoughts on Shanghai GP3 100 120
I said this earlier, but I’ll mention again how one of the issues with the older batches of Shanghai GP3 120 was the lack of a functioning piece of tape to stick on your roll once you’d shot it.
I just want to point out that, as you can see in the image above, I got one with mine.
Perhaps that’s a good analogy to use for wrapping up this review. You can see, in plain sight, that one of the long-mentioned issues with GP3 has been solved. And from what I can gather, so have a lot of the others.
Researching this film online will bring up lots of complaints on blogs and forums alike, but check the dates on them before you decide you’re never going to risk trying any. They may well be as expired and out-of-date as the batches of film they were talking about.
Of course, you might still not want to use Shanghai GP3 for anything super important. Not when you may have more confidence in a Kodak or Ilford film instead. But the image quality you get when it works means it’s still a good one for personal projects and playing around with.
A personal project was exactly what I wanted to do with it – just as I did with the 35mm version too.
While they both only ended being blog posts and nothing like the Film-Aged Shanghai book that Lu Yuanmin produced after shooting loads of 35mm Lucky film (another Chinese stock) around the city, just getting through a roll or three of Shanghai film in Shanghai was something that I really wanted to get done.
You might not have such a compelling reason to shoot some GP3 over any other 120 film out there, and I’m certainly not saying you need to.
What I am saying is that, if you want to try a stock you maybe haven’t shot before, one with a different story to your regular Kodaks and Ilfords, and one that produces very clean and contrasty results, don’t rule out Shanghai GP3.
Who knows. If you shoot it well, which I’m sure you will, you just might find you like it. 🙂
If you found that Shanghai GP3 120 film review useful, why not take a look at these posts to learn about even more great films:
- How I got on shooting 35mm GP3 in Shanghai
- A review of another cheap monochrome film made for the Asian market
- Check every single film review on My Favourite Lens
And if you think others will enjoy or benefit from this film review too, help them find it by giving it a share. 😀