Review: CatLABS X FILM 80 black and white film (120)

One film I don’t hear that much about — which is a shame — is an interesting one from CatLABS, called X FILM 80. This traditional slow-speed film is supposedly modeled after Kodak’s iconic Panatomic-X black and white film, which has been discontinued for decades now. Many forum posts seem to effectively dismiss this film as an imposter — Shanghai GP3 in a different box — but it’s among my favorites at the moment.

CatLABS isn’t necessarily known for film. They are primarily known as a specialist in large format, as well as the distributor of Jobo processing systems. But they’ve dabbled in film as well, obviously contracting with other companies to manufacture the products.

Their X FILM 80 is marketed as a fine grained, high silver content, traditional low speed film stock, that “follows in the footsteps of Kodak’s famous Panatomic-X” with a “unique and classic look.” At ISO 80, it’s a daylight film, supposedly offers wide exposure latitude, and flexibility in processing.

I just said “ISO 80” there; in truth, CatLABS never says the film is ISO 80; rather, the box says “IE 80” (or on their site, “IE of 80 ISO”). Technically, IE and ISO are actually different things. Perhaps that’s one reason people believe it’s merely Shanghai GP3 (which is ISO 100) in a different box? Who knows; I’m no doubt splitting hairs here.

In any case, at this writing, X FILM 80 is offered in 120 and sheet formats, which means 135 shooters are left out of this one. I shoot both, but the 120 snobbery of it is sort of appealing on some level.

What I like

There’s a lot to like about CatLABS X FILM 80. Among them:

  • Lowish cost
    Priced at an interesting $5.55 per roll, it’s pretty reasonable price-wise. You can buy it directly from CatLABS at that price, or bigger retailers online such as B&H or Freestyle. CatLABS does offer quantity discounts, so if you end-up wanting a brick, you can save some money.
  • Beautiful contrast and tonality
    True to the marketing, the contrast and tone of X FILM 80 is pretty impressive. While some shots are more impressive than others (lighting, exposure, etc. always play a role), on balance, I really like the appearance of my shots on this film.
  • Processes nicely at home
    At this writing, I use Kodak HC-110 developer exclusively, and Dilution B at the CatLABS-recommended 8:45 works nicely. When I have the time and patience, I go for Dilution H at 17:30 to make my chemicals go farther, and give me more margin for timing errors. Both deliver really solid results, and frankly, I can’t really perceive any difference in contrast, grain, or detail. I also like that there are no anti-halation dyes in X FILM 80, and the film develops with a nearly crystal-clear substrate — no gray, pink or purple tinge.
  • Barely any curl
    Another boon if you process at home: X FILM 80 barely curls. Unlike most films, it comes-off the roll fairly straight, so it’s easier to load into a Paterson tank when home developing. When it comes out of the tank, there’s only a very moderate longitudinal curl, and no lateral curl. If you use a weighted clip at the bottom, it’ll dry even flatter. That means it scans easily and stores nicely as well.

What I don’t like

CatLABS X FILM 80 is not perfect, and there are a few things I don’t much care for, including:

  • Manufacturing variances
    The three rolls of X FILM 80 I’ve shot in my Hasselblad at the time of this writing have behaved differently in terms of the registration of frames against the film. In one roll, I lost pretty much the entire last frame, other than about 10mm of it. On another, it was the other way around; I had most of the last frame except for around 10mm of it. On the third roll, I got all 12 shots in full. Hasselblad backs are start line loaders, meaning you load the film, and wind it forward until the start arrows on the backing paper align with a mark on the magazine’s film insert. I’m always quite fastidious about loading, and given the number of rolls I’ve shot in the magazine in question, I’m pretty sure I’m loading the film the correct way, and I’m quite confident that my magazine doesn’t have problem. That leads me to believe that the only likely cause is that the film is not attached to the backing paper consistently. If you can’t trust you’re going to get all 12 shots (or however many your camera will do on a roll), that’s pretty frustrating.
  • It stinks
    No, not figuratively — literally. As in, the film has a very strong odor. I have no idea if it’s the odor of the inks on the backing paper, the paper itself, the substrate of the film, the emulsion, or what… But, it stinks, badly, and to the point where I find it fairly off-putting. Once processed and dry, the odor is gone from the resulting negatives. But wow… Stinky!
  • No rebate markings
    I’m sure it’s a cost saving measure, but there are absolutely no markings on the film rebate. No film codes, no branding, no exposure numbers — nothing. I don’t truly care, except that I use the rebate markings to know which side is up and which edge is the top edge when I go to scan, so that my frames are scanned and numbered in the same order as my shooting log. It’s pretty easy to identity the emulsion side of a negative, so I’m not scanning upside down. But it’s really tough to know which edge is the top edge in the absence of the rebate markings when you’re dealing with a cut, three-shot strip of film.
  • How CatLABS ships the product
    This has nothing to do with the film itself, but having ordered this film twice directly from CatLABS, I’m not a fan of their packing method. While promoted as an environmental choice, they reuse boxes and packaging. That’s fine with me, but I would appreciate it if they wouldn’t put the 10 rolls I ordered into a 2 x 5 brick, wrapping only the wider edges in reused corrugated, and then apply shipping tape over the exposed ends, essentially forcing me to destroy the film boxes just to get the brick apart. I store my film in its boxes, I carry it in the boxes, and I prefer it in the boxes — not the blank, unmarked film/poly overwrap. Given that the price is the same, I might just order it from B&H next time. Not that their packing is really any better most of the time; honestly, my B&H orders usually arrive poorly packed, and occasionally even broken or damaged. (The subject of another blog post one day.)
  • Not exactly strong in customer service
    Again, not the film, but if you have to deal with CatLABS, expect to wait. A simple product question by e-mail required a week’s wait before I got the terse, one sentence response. Thankfully, orders ship quite promptly, so at least there’s that.

The proof

Larger versions of these images can be found on my Flickr photostream. There are images developed in both HC-110 Dilution B, and Dilution H, as noted in the captions. I believe all of these particular images were shot with my Hasselblad 503CW.

Deere, processed HC-110 Dilution H. Copyright © 2019 Wesley King.
Go!, processed HC-110 Dilution H. Copyright © 2019 Wesley King.
Wedding Flowers, processed HC-110 Dilution H. Copyright © 2019 Wesley King.
Coney, processed HC-110 Dilution B. Copyright © 2019 Wesley King.
Past Their Prime, processed HC-110 Dilution H. Copyright © 2019 Wesley King.
The Lights Are Up, processed HC-110 Dilution B. Copyright © 2019 Wesley King.

The verdict

While I’ve been frustrated by the lost shots in my Hasselblad as mentioned earlier, I continue to really like the results I’m getting with CatLABS X FILM 80. I couldn’t care less if it’s something else repackaged, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the shots I’m getting are absolutely delicious.

The only issue might be how long this film lasts on the market, and whether CatLABS will have more made when their stocks run out. (At this writing, for example, CatLABS’ X FILM 320 is out of stock, and has been for some time.) So far, I’ve bought about 15 rolls of this film, and I’m quite likely to get quite a bit more — just in case. That being said, these days, you can’t really trust that any film will remain on the market, so enjoy what you have, while you have it.

Processing notes and development times

  • HC-110 Dilution B, 8:45 minutes at 20°C (CatLABS’ own recommendation).
  • HC-110 Dilution H, 17:30 minutes at 20°C.
  • Stop, fix, rinse, hypo, wash and surfactant as normal / desired.