Cinestill BW XX Review

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Eastman XX 5222 movie film repackaged for stills cameras.

One of the clever things about the original Leica concept was the repurposing of 35mm movie film for use in stills cameras (in actual fact, Oskar Barnack wasn’t the first to try this out; there were several pre-First World War cameras which used 35mm film but the Leica was the first to be commercially successful). Leica (and later Zeiss Contax) sold beautifully-made brass film cassettes that could be loaded with lengths of cut movie film by the user, and it wasn’t until 1934 that Kodak launched their ‘135’ film in a pre-loaded cassette that could be handled safely in daylight without fogging the film, and would fit in both the Leica and Contax cameras, as well as Kodak’s own newly launched ‘Retina’ model.

Trooper of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment with his horse (Cinestill BWXX)

Kodak’s pre-loaded film cassettes took off and were widely copied by other film manufacturers, and reloadable film cassettes – and home loading of film generally – declined into being minority interests. But, nearly 90 years later, we’ve come full circle and shooting movie film stock in stills cameras is back in vogue. Who’d a thunk it, ha?

Members of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment at Hyde Park Barracks (Cinestill BWXX film).

In 2012, an LA-based start up called CineStill began marketing Kodak Vision 3 movie films for the stills market in preloaded cassettes. Initially they offered two colour emulsions, but they’ve since followed this up with ‘BW-XX’, a repackaged version of Eastman XX 5222, the standard black and white film stock of the movie industry and a film which is renowned for its ability to produce superb results from a huge range of lighting conditions. This has always been a film that film reloaders have sought out for their stills cameras, at least partly because it was often possible to find cheap ‘short ends’ – the leftovers from long rolls – being sold off by movie film retailers who would otherwise be stuck with a lot of odd lengths of film that nobody wanted for movie making.

Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment personnel prepare for a Queen’s Birthday Parade rehearsal (Cinestill BWXX film)

So I ordered a roll of Cinestill BWXX from Amazon, loaded it up and took it to Hyde Park Barracks in London, where I was doing some work in preparation for the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Parade, aka the Trooping of the Colour.

The results are fine. It was shot in a Leica MP with a 35mm APO Summicron and an X0 yellow-green filter; I developed the film in Rodinal 1:25, which is what I usually use for Tri-X and it looks similar: a bit grainy but not offensively so. No problem.

The Veterinary Officer of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (Kodak Tri-X)

But the thing is that I probably shoot 70% of my black and white photography on Kodak Tri-X, and the rest on Ilford HP5 Plus and FP4 Plus. The Tri-X currently costs around £10-12 per roll of 36 exposures depending on how many one buys; the Ilford films are around £6.50-7 each. Ten quid for Tri-X is getting too rich for my tastes and if the price rises continue I’ll be switching back to Ilford (which is where I started in black and white) but Cinestill BWXX is currently an eye-watering £20 per roll! I understand that this pricing is partly due to supply shortages caused by the COVID pandemic and Vladimir Putin’s insane attempt to colonise Ukraine. Is it really worth £20? Honestly? No.

Horse and groom, Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (Kodak Tri-X)

The thing is, properly exposed and properly developed, Tri-X and HP5 will deliver results which are indistinguishable from BWXX at well under half the cost in the case of HP5. In fact, there are several UK based retailers on Ebay who sell ‘hand rolled’ Eastman XX for well below this price point. I suppose there is some minor risk that these products will be substandard in some way but I’ve bought from a few of them and had no problems.

An Officer of the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery at Windsor, prior to the Queen’s Birthday Parade (Kodak Tri-X)

You can buy Cinestill BWXX from Amazon but I think you’d be better off with Tri-X or HP5 Plus.

What do you think?

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