This wonderful article was lovingly created by Hugo, a 2021 Rozelle Darkroom Intern
If you have ever dabbled or danced with a black and white film, chances are you’ve seen some sort of Double X in one form or another.
Double X is a Kodak motion picture film stock originally made in 1959 for use in motion picture cameras but, it is only just recently that I have learned that many photographers have been using this stock for still photography. Upon hearing that, I immediately became curious as to its abilities and results.
Abilities and results which I will say now, are limited…
But limitations can lift the burdens of freedom from the creative process and push you to compromise and make final decisions.
I’ve been using Double-X almost exclusively for the past few months and it has fast become my favourite film to use. Oddly, it’s not Kodak who sells this stock! Most famously, I think people would recognise CineStill’s XX black and white film as the go-to choice.
So, why are the likes of CineStill and others selling this stock and not Kodak?
Since Double X is a motion picture stock, it’s only available from Kodak in 400ft and 1000ft rolls. Unsurprisingly, these are unlikely to fit in your standard camera. But along the way someone, somewhere had the bright idea to buy these bulk rolls and hand spool it into 35mm film canisters. Ready to shoot. Unsurprisingly, buying in bulk is a very cost-effective way to produce rolls of film. This is why most companies selling Double X can do so at a competitive price compared to other black and white stocks.
In Australia, Double X is spooled and sold by Melbourne Film Supply (MFS) and Ikigai Film Lab, both averaging at about $15. Both are the exact same stock as CineStill, minus the markup to cover import from the U.S. This film is cheap. And if you can facilitate the spooling of your own canisters, you can really stretch your budget.
Now, let’s talk about the look.
A key point to understanding this film is recognising that it was meant for motion. Double X has a steep gamma line, which means that this film behaves like a slide film as it’s meant for images that you would project, like a slide stock. So, Kodak’s intent was to create a stock with a grain that dances on a movie screen, creating depth and character. And with that in mind, portrait photography might be something worth exploring with Double X.
The main thing that stands out about Double X is its strong, apparent grain, especially for a medium-speed film rated at ISO 250/200T. Traditionally, you would want a fairly fine grain at 250.
That said, Double X is truly aesthetic. It’s gritty, it skews darks and will almost certainly blow your highlights with ease. It almost behaves like a slide film. It shows grain but not in an overbearing manner. The tonal range of Double X is more dependent on lighting than any other film I’ve used. The lighting doesn’t have to be professional, but even and bright are a requirement. If you’re outdoors on a cloudy day and the light will vary from moment to moment, you’re not going to have a good time.
But on a completely overcast day where the lighting is more even or you’re indoors and it’s well lit, then you’ve got a winning hand. And you can always result to pushing 2/3 stops which can yield beautiful results. Double X transitions dark to light areas softly as compared to other black and white film stocks. The contrasting edges are somewhat mushy and lack apparent sharpness.
Double X is far from the sharpest film. In ideal conditions which can be hard to achieve, sharpness of 100 lines per millimetre is the limit and can get as low as 32 lines per millimetres in imperfect conditions. But these “limitations”, the gentle dark-light transition, the softness of the edge is what makes them ideal for a portrait.
But the main reason I picked up a roll of Double X was for street photography. Which might just be a paradox to everything I’ve just said.
The street is one of the most unpredictable environments you can put yourself in. However, the look I was left with was something to behold. It reminded me of the black and white street photography of decades past. And when ISO was pushed to 800 or even 1600, the feeling was a surreal, crunchy, high-contrast aesthetic.
Like I said, limitations can be creative. Usually, the tonal range of a street scene is quite wide so decisions must be made and quite often you will have to sacrifice your highlights or your shadows. This is even more exaggerated by the qualities of Double X.
It is for these reasons that I Love this film. It forces you to consider your choices even further than just shooting on film in general.