Ilford Delta 400. The ultimate street medium.

Living in Scotland, you have to accept that sunlight is a rarely experienced phenomenon. Most days the skies are just grey. If you are a film photographer, this type of light forces you to shoot faster film stock and I have always found that 400 speed is best suited for my street work. My hands are not steady enough for shooting under 1/125th of a second, so unless we have freak weather (sun), 100 and 200 films are not fast enough to shoot with a decent depth of field.

The Straight and Narrow

Ilford Delta 400 shot at 320 ISO on Leica MP

Having shot street on film forever, I have tried nearly every 400 speed film available and until about 6 months ago, I was fairly settled on Tri-X and HP5. These films are excellent for street work as they give you the perfect balance between exposure latitude and contrast, but the flip side is they are both quite grainy when shooting 35mm. So about 6 months back I decided to go back to Delta 400 to combat the grain.

Ilford Delta 400 is a tabular grain (T grain) film which, being a more modern method of laying emulsion, is intended to give you more resolution and a sharper shot. However, your exposure has to be much more accurate compared to the likes of Tri-X. For example, say you are shooting a scene that meters at 1/250th of a second at f/5.6, with Tri-X, you will still get an acceptable shot if you hit it two stops over or under the meter reading. This is why Tri-X and HP5 work so well with the Sunny 16 Rule. If you try this with Delta 400, it will either be under exposed or overexposed. You need to be much more accurate with metering. You might get acceptable images at one stop over or under, but it is much more risky than with Pancro film.


Ilford Delta 400 shot at 320 ISO on Rolleiflex 3.5

My first few attempts with it were disappointing. Yes I got less grain, but I also got way less contrast, blocked up shadows and a much flatter looking negative. So I did a bit of thinking and came up with a couple of ways to sort out these problems…

1: Exposing for the shadows.

This can be quite tricky when you’re shooting street. It basically means you have to meter at the darkest parts of your scene and then dial in your settings, all while you are trying to capture a scene that will be gone in 2 seconds. So I cheated. I decided to set the film speed on the camera at 320 instead of 400 which would allow a little more light to hit the film and give me better shadows. The down side of this is it will burn out the skies a little, but I can handle that as I like my skies to be mostly white in my street work. This method also gave me a flat looking negative but I was going to try and combat that in development.

2: Developing faster and with a more concentrated solution

I had previously developed my Delta 400 in Ilford DDX at 1+9 at 24ºC for 9 minutes 15 seconds with very gentle agitation every minute. This recipe is fairly common and is excellent for landscapes and portraits, but it doesn’t deliver increased contrast. So I decided to up the concentrate and develop faster and agitate heavily. After some trial and error, I ended up settling with the method detailed below:

  • Film : Ilford Delta 400
  • Shot at : 320
  • Developer : Ilford DDX
  • Concentrate : 1+4
  • Temperature : 20ºC
  • Time: 8 minutes
  • Agitation : 15 seconds on start then 2 fast turns every 45 seconds.
Into Light

Ilford Delta 400 shot at 320 ISO on Leica MP

So finally, by using the above method, I have achieved sharp, low grain, high contrast street images. I think the salient points here are; shoot the film at 320 to unblock your blacks a little more and agitate more frequently and a little harder to increase contrast. Excessive agitation doesn’t seem to increase the grain on Delta 400 like you would expect with other films.


Ilford Delta 400 shot at 320 ISO on Leica MP

As a footnote, Delta 400 is also excellent for pushing. At 800, you really don’t notice too much more grain and of course the contrast is extended.