In August 2014 Kodak Alaris confirmed that BW400CN, the company's flagship chromogenic black and white film, was to be discontinued.
"Due to a steady decline in sales and customer usage," Kodak Alaris will no longer be producing the film, though they expect stocks will still be available up to February 2015. They were sympathetic with their consumer base, stating: "We empathize with the Pro photographers and consumers who use and love this film, but given the significant minimum order quantity necessary to coat more product combined with the very small customer demand, it is a decision we have to make."
So, what exactly are we loosing here in the form of BW400CN? Until recently BW400CN was the ubiquitous 35mm black and white film stock easily obtainable on the high street, no doubt promoted by minilabs for its ease of in-house processing in the C41 colour process.
From a subjective angle, this film was my first hands-on experience of black and white photography. My father bought a few rolls in 1992 to photograph cars and shoot some portraits with his Olympus 35 RC. The results were pleasing at the time and I recall looking at the prints as a ten-year-old and being enchanted at how the black and white pallet captured an essence of light, shade and shape which saturated colour films couldn't define quite so graphically.
As digital image capture really took hold, BW400CN always seemed to be around, gathering dust on the shelves of local minilabs and chemists, commanding extortionate prices. Occasionally selling for upwards of £9 a roll, excluding processing, one can't help feeling that the film priced itself out of a market which neither catered for the casual snapshooter nor professional. Despite being branded with the Professional strapline on the cassette, the film was hardly a serious choice for the dedicated amateur or pro photographer; At ISO 400, Kodak's TMAX, Tri-X or Ilford's Delta offered much better value and development flexibility. What BW400CN could offer, however, was an off-the-shelf convenience and rugged dependability.
I recently attended a wedding where I was shooting predominantly with Ilford Delta 3200 and FP4. Borrowing a trick I'd learnt whilst working for a professional wedding photographer in my teens, I loaded a second camera body with BW400CN and factored in duplicate shots on that unit. The intention was to rapidly process and print the BW400CN during a break and present a mini album to the happy couple at the reception dinner. No amount of planning would have allowed me to achieve this with traditional black and white development, yet using the C41 process I could dash out to the nearest minilab and rush it through a 20 minute printing service.
The shots were surprisingly impressive, exhibiting a sharpness and “creamy” tone, which regular users of the stock often describe as the film’s key feature. Technically BW400CN offers a reliable exposure latitude that should be expected from a chromogenic 400 speed film, allowing for shooting indoors with a fast lens. Its grain is also acceptable in the midtones and generally it prints nicely from a good minilab.
Like Kodak's colour print film, BW400CN has a film base with an orange colour correction mask, the standard for normal C41 colour films. Unlike Ilford XP2, which can be used in the darkroom to produce traditional silver gelatine prints, BW400CN's orange mask acts as a safelight making printing somewhat difficult. In this regard Ilford's black and white C41 competitor certainly has the advantage in terms of application of the negative.
Many film shooters are already lamenting the loss of another film stock from the shelf - perhaps not one readily used, yet mourned as a symbol of the decline of film in everyday photography. The truth, however, is that Kodak BW400CN is an emulsion which failed to make a great impression in its latter years. Films have been discontinued and developed since the dawn of photography and emulsions will continue to be deleted in future. It’s not the beginning of the end for film, rather the reduction of high street choice; BW400CN was prohibitively expensive, though occasionally it provided a unique convenience. For many, it also marked the beginning of a journey into black and white film photography: For that alone it leaves a lasting legacy.
Instructing film photography, developing and printing in the darkroom. © Samuel Payne 2016