Almost instantly, photographers fell in love with its halation and unique rendering. As a result, it became a hit for low light and night photography — much of what you see when you Google “CineStill 800T” is nighttime cityscapes with glowing neon lights.
When CineStill released its 50D and 400D film stocks in recent years, they also took off as more unique daylight entries into a crowded mid-speed color film market.
But they also have an amazing black and white film, CineStill BwXX.
Before we go on, I’ll address the obvious: black and white film, much like film in general, is very subjective. There isn’t a “best” or “worst” film. While BwXX fits my style, it might not fit yours. But I think it’s worth a try, all things equal.
So what is CineStill BwXX, and why did I fall in love with it?
Simply put, it’s a variable speed panchromatic film that can be shot in 35mm and 120. It’s based on Eastman Double-X 5222, which was released in 1959 and is one of the most popular and recognizable black and white films (think Raging Bull and Schindler’s List, among others).
While it’s not perfect for every occasion, here are a few tips to help you figure out when to grab a roll of CineStill BwXX — and possibly make it your next favorite film:
1. Look for Contrast
One of my biggest challenges when starting with black and white film was light.
I know, it’s the most fundamental thing in photography.
Since I had been shooting color for so long, I had trained my eye to look for color contrast instead of light contrast. I was looking for how an orange flower might pop amongst a sea of green leaves or how a pink townhouse in San Francisco might stand out from its otherwise drab cream and grey neighbors.
That’s what first stood out to me with CineStill BwXX — it helped me learn quickly. I think the best word to describe BwXX is punchy. And I think that’s what makes it so good. With the absence of color, I was now searching for light contrast, seeing shadows and highlights in places I hadn’t seen before.
My first shots on BwXX were exposed for the shadows, blowing out the highlights a bit. I think that missed out on some of what makes the film great. When exposing for the midtones a bit, the highlights bloom beautifully and the shadows almost disappear into ink.
Based on my experience, I’d even recommend shooting this in the middle of the afternoon in bright sunshine. Normally, I avoid shooting in bright sun with color, since the light is so aggressive. But the high contrast scenes really make BwXX sparkle.
A big benefit of CineStill BwXX is its ability to shoot it in a lot of different conditions, particularly low light. For what it’s worth, CineStill says it can be shot from ISO 200-800, and can be pushed to 1600.
I know a lot of shooters opt for something like Ilford HP5+ when shooting at 1600 because it’s so forgiving. CineStill BwXX doesn’t have a ton of exposure latitude, especially when compared to other film stocks. But where many films tend to be flat and a bit characterless in low light, BwXX manages to not wash out.
Even shooting in lower light at sunset, I’ve managed some of my favorite shots on the film.
With that, however, comes grain. The grain on this film doesn’t stand out or feel particularly aggressive — maybe it just fits with its general punchiness. Even at 400, it comes with grain. It’s no Kodak T-Max, but if you know what you’re getting, you can use grain to your advantage to add a more cinematic feeling to your images.
CineStill BwXX is versatile, but in different ways than you might suspect. If you’re willing to experiment, that’s when BwXX shines.
This image is a good example for my personal experimentation. This scene wasn’t all that interesting in real life, but I liked the way the light was falling across the street. As people walked by, the light was hitting them in an interesting way.
So I stopped and said why not — let’s try to create something with deep contrast. I got lucky with this shot, and was able to capture just a small bit of light grazing this person’s head, almost giving them a glow.
What I love most about this shot isn’t the shot itself. It’s the missed frames that surround it on the roll, and what it’s pushed me to do since.
A few weeks after that experiment, I was traveling through San Francisco International Airport. On my way to the terminal, I came across some light creating some interesting lines.
On the plane a few hours later, the light coming through the window was falling on the seat in front of me.
At the beach a couple weeks after, I wanted to see how BwXX would perform at dusk with a hazy ocean scene.
More than anything, CineStill BwXX was a chance for me to step out of my comfort zone more than I had in the past.