the Definitive Guide to Ilford Delta 3200

If there’s one roll of film that I can’t get enough of, it’s Ilford’s Delta 3200. This modern film was released in 1998, and is the fastest remaining film on the market. It’s a wonderful, all-around film that captures beautiful highlights and a ridiculous amount of shadow detail. But it also displays a characteristic classic large-grain feel if you’re into that. So what’s the best way to shoot Delta 3200?

Ilford Delta 3200 can be shot between ISO 400 and 25,000, making it the B&W film with the largest exposure latitude on the planet. For the best quality results, Ilford recommends using DD-X, or Microphen, but similar results can be found with Xtol. 

This film is extremely versatile. It’s one of the staples on my film shelf because of the quality results it produces in any lighting scenario. It’s very common that I’ll have a roll of this in my camera when going out with some friends at night, or along the beaches. Only to take a couple shots, and still have it ready for the next day. This, however, is never an issue for me. Because of that wide exposure latitude, it’s easy to stop down the aperture, and over-expose the film by a stop or two without seeing drastically reduced image quality. 

And because of its modern T-Grain structure, it’s exceptionally sharp and responsive to a variety of shooting conditions. In practice, T-Grains can be a little bit finicky to develop, so some care is necessary to ensure proper development with this film. Otherwise, you’ll just end up with useless muddy shadows. And nobody wants that. 

Who is Delta 3200 for? 

A portrait taken on Ilford Delta 3200. The colors are from using film gradient maps in Photoshop to give the image a not-so-subtle sepia tone.

As much as I’d like to say everyone, it’s just not the case. The unfortunate side of this film is that it’s pricey. It’s the most expensive roll in Ilford’s lineup, largely because of the amount of silver needed to make a single roll. And it’s large grain structure means that it’s not going to produce overtly sharp results — especially for fine details like those found in landscape photographs. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. It’s my favorite film stock for good reason, and that’s because of how wonderful it is for portraits, weddings, and nighttime photography. 

If you’ve ever seen a film photographer taking photos at a reception, chances are they’re using Ilford Delta 3200. The chaotic dance floor lights, and lack of underexposure latitude in color films make them virtually unusable at such events. With digital, it’s at least possible to correct some of the color casts, but film just doesn’t have the same flexibility, even when scanned with a DSLR. But Delta 3200 can render people and emotions under these conditions like no other! Even with a bit of motion blur, Delta 3200 just feels so real and raw when capturing people in low light situations. 

It’s also the perfect film if you’re creating a classic-style photoshoot. Capturing images to look like they were shot in the ‘60s requires more than just Mod Cocktail Dresses and seafoam green. You’ll need big grains to match those big dreams. 

Street photographers should also be putting down their Tri-X for Delta 3200. Shooting a forgiving film for street photography is extremely valuable, and it’ll also give that characteristic ‘50s full-grain charm. It’ll hold up extremely well from dawn to dusk, since you’ll be able to shoot between ISO 800 and 3200 all on the same roll.

In this case, pulling Delta 3200 to ISO 400 or 800 will give you more detail in the shadows than any other film available. Meaning it’ll soften the harsh, midday shadows on people’s faces, and give you the flexibility to choose your shadows and blacks in post.

Travelling through airports with Ilford Delta 3200

There is always a special fear that bringing film through an x-ray scanner can damage it. Especially in our modern world where airport scanners are now ubiquitous and more powerful than ever, it’s important to take steps to protect film. But because of its high sensitivity, Delta 3200 is especially prone to x-ray damage.

When taking any high-speed films, through an airport, make sure to have the films in a separate container and ask for them to be hand checked. New, high-powered X-Ray scanners at airports can significantly fog films. It’s always better to travel with film in your carryon, since those scanners are less powerful than those used to scan stored baggage. 

However, most airport security staff are more than willing to hand check all films — especially if they’re in an accessible container that makes the process easy for them. I’ve taken film through many airports in Canada, Europe, and the US, and they’re all willing to hand check films. 

The easiest way is if the films are stored in their sealed boxes. But since that takes up a lot of space, I usually bring 35mm in the clear plastic canisters, and 120 film outside the box in the light proof sleeves. 

If you don’t want to risk it, it may be a better option to leave Delta 3200 at home and purchase the film at your destination. Most countries do sell Ilford film, but it’s always a good idea to find local film stores before travelling. 

A poorly developed image of a happy couple
Muddy shadows resulting from developing Delta 3200 in HC-110. This photo was even overexposed 1 stop and developed regularly. So there’s no reason the shadows should have lost this much detail.

What are the best developers for Delta 3200? 

One downside of T-Grain films is that they require fairly specific developers. These emulsions are rather sensitive, and will ruin negatives if they’re developed in the wrong soup. 

That’s why Ilford recommends using DD-X to produce the best overall image quality and sharpness when developing Delta 3200. If you’re okay with using powdered developers, Microphen is a cheaper alternative that can get astoundingly similar results to DD-X. However, Microphen cannot push this film as far as DD-X. 

Xtol is another beautiful fine-grained developer when used with Delta 3200. It produces wonderfully sharp negatives without too much grain or contrast. But if you’re into big grains, nothing will get you the same results as Rodinal when shooting this film at box speed. When pushing this film, Rodinal can make the grains become so coarse they ruin fine detail across the film. 

However, I would not recommend using this film with ultra-fine grain developers like diafine or perceptol, as they can eat away much of the grains and significantly reduce film speed. If you want fine grain, choose a slower speed film like Delta 100 — trying to get those kind of results with a high-speed film will only ruin details. 

I’ve also run into horrible, muddy shadows when developing Delta 3200 with HC-110. In fact, the first time I shot this film and developed it in HC-110, the results were so bad I almost swore it off for good. Luckily I had another roll on the shelf and decided to give it a second chance after doing some research. Since trying it with DD-X, I’ve always been sure to keep that developer stocked and ready on the shelf. It’s just too good to ignore the results that can be had with the right film and developer combination. 

An Important Note for developing Delta 3200: Ilford’s technical data sheet recommends using a longer than normal fixing time for archivability. It’s always better to add a minute or two to the fixing step just to be safe with a film like this. It contains much more silver than 400-speed films, which makes it take longer to completely develop and fix. 

As well, here’s a guide to the best sharpness-enhancing developers on the market for both T-grain and regular grain films.

NEOWISE Coment caught on film
It doesn’t get lower light than this. This is an image of the NEOWISE Comet shot on Ilford Delta 3200.

What’s the best way to push Ilford Delta 3200 to ISO 6400, or 12,800?

ISO 25,000 is only three stops away from Delta 3200’s box speed, meaning it’s completely possible to get there, and in theory, even further. Pushing any film 3 stops will have consequences — the basic ones being reduced sharpness, larger grain, shadow detail loss, and extreme contrast. 

Delta 3200 is a T-Grain film, meaning it will have reduced tonality compared with conventional grain films. So while pushing isn’t out of the question, there are worse effects for these types of films than traditional-grained emulsions like HP5+

When pushing more than one or two stops, I’d usually recommend using a stand development. But again, T-Grain films are more sensitive to changes in developing time than traditional grains. So it’s better to use a standard development procedure, where you’re completing four gentle inversions every minute. This means that pushing Delta 3200 in Rodinal or even developing normally in HC-110 are not good options. 

The best developer for pushing Delta 3200 is DD-X. Microphen is a cheaper alternative with astoundingly similar results, but it cannot push Delta 3200 as far as DD-X. Both developers will exhibit similar contrast properties throughout the development cycle. 

The last time for pushing this film is to always over-develop by one stop. If you’re shooting at ISO 12,800, use the development times for 25,000. This will give the film some extra time to bring out all of the latent details in the shadows. Because of the large grain structure and the amount of silver in this negative, it’s always good to give the developer a better chance to reach them all. 

How far can I pull Delta 3200? 

Despite being called a ISO 3200 film, Delta 3200 is actually rated to ISO 1,000. That means it’s not uncommon to pull this film to get the full range of shadow details than it can capture. Shooting at ISO 800 or even 400 will result in beautiful negatives with enhanced shadow detail like no other film on the market. 

Like all B&W films, they can only be pulled by a maximum of 2 stops, otherwise they result in flat, overly dense images that your scanner or DSLR will have trouble with. Printing with dense negatives may be a dream, giving you tons of time to dodge and burn to your heart’s content. But scanning will create noisey, and difficult images to work with as scanners have to increase their ISO to capture the image. 

When you’re ready to pull this film, again the best overall developer is DD-X. This versatile solution will produce beautiful, clean results every time. If Delta 3200 is something you often keep on hand, then having a bottle of DD-X will ensure you can get the best results every time. Of all the developer combinations I’ve tried, this is by far my favorite for the clean, beautiful results. Rodinal will also work great for pulling when you’re looking for a large grain structure.

What’s your favorite way to shoot Ilford Delta 3200? Let me know in the comments below, or send me a DM on Instagram! Use the hashtag #LearnFilm for a chance for your photos to be featured on the official Learn Film Photography Instagram account.

By Daren

Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer.

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