Introduction to films

Ruined Tower

It's been two years since I last wrote a comprehensive roundup of different types of film. I've shot a lot more film and I have a lot more to say this time around, so this article is going to be correspondingly longer. Several parts, in fact.

These are my notes and opinions on the films that are on the market. I should note that I'm talking about how they fit in MY working process with MY style of photography, and your mileage may vary. Also note that I scan my film, which means that certain film properties don't get adequately tested.

Truth be told, I can only do so much. What I consider golden you might consider sickly yellow. You may have totally different preferences. So I don't suggest that you take my review points as absolute truths but more as guidelines.

First, before we can really talk about film, I need to explain some base concepts so that I don't have to explain things over and over again and so that I can talk about how contrasty a film is without needing to explain that again and again.

The effect of film size

I came to the conclusion that if you want to test a film, you should probably shoot at 35mm, because shooting at 6x7 makes grain disappear. Some films I've been playing with I can't talk about much because all I've done is shoot them in my 6x7 format RB67. Pretty much, I can shoot the grainiest films you can find on my RB67 and it'll look stunningly grainless.

If you want higher resolution so you can print bigger pictures without grain, you need to change formats. Maybe you want a medium format or large format camera instead. You will notice an instant improvement in quality, whereas you really have to look to find a difference between a good 35mm lens and a great 35mm lens most of the time.

See a demonstration of this

Grain vs. Resolution vs. Sharpness

Film grain and resolution are two different things. You can have a very fine grained image of astonishingly low resolution, either because of the film's native properties or because your optics suck. I especially notice this with Kodak's BW400 (their black and white film that can be developed in C-41 chemicals) vs. Acros. Acros is higher resolution, but BW400 appears to have finer grain.

In the same way, enhancing the perceived sharpness of a film will cost you resolution.

Keep your eye on the bottleneck

Be sure you understand all of the things that effect resolution. If the camera's not held steady, no matter of film or developer or lens quality is going to help. No matter how good of film you load in a Holga, it's still going to look like a Holga.

Some of these are optical laws. So, no matter how good of a "diffraction limited" lens you use, eventually diffraction itself becomes a limit, either on the enlarger side or the lens side. Or the simple mechanical precision of your film holder on your camera or your negative holder.

The problem is when you make the wrong decision. Let's say that you convince somebody to develop you a ISO 25 designer-grain film to shoot in your Leica with a diffraction limited lens. You might discover that the guy next to you with the latest and greatest ISO 100 film is getting better pictures simply because you are shooting at a shutter speed of 1/15th and he's shooting at 1/60th and his camera isn't bouncing all over the place like yours is.

Or you might spend a bunch of money getting the latest and greatest Leica lenses when you could spend a lot less on an old Hasselblad and get better results.

A brief introduction to film sizes

There are three basic sizes out there.

The smallest is 35mm and the nearly-gone APS, 110, and 126 formats (plus a few formats that you would have to slice up the film for yourself). These, because they've been popular within the past few decades, people are familiar with. 35mm is nice because you can make long telephoto lenses that let you focus on the snot coming out of a bird's beak from a hundred paces that you can carry and can get a wide variety of films.

Next up is medium format. My dad calls it "two and a quarter". The gear is generally a bit bigger. There's a few different formats, measured in centimeters. The popular ones are 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, and 6x9. Old brownie cameras used this because it was the only way to make a decent sized print with the lenses and films they had at the time. New pro cameras use this because it's still fairly convenient but can be enlarged huge.

Finally, there's large format, which is measured in inches. It starts at 4x5 and goes up to 20x24 and sometimes even bigger. 4x5 is pretty much the standard format, with bigger film considered exotic. This is a whole different world from 35mm and medium format. You can make huge enlargements, but it's a very slow format to work with.

I like medium format a lot because it looks so much better than 35mm without being too inconvenient. I think that the remaining film shooters of the world would all benefit from at least giving medium format a try.

Pro vs. Consumer film

I've been convinced that there is a difference between pro and consumer films, even when theoretically the films ought to be identical.

What isn't popularly written about (mostly because I only found out after Ron Mowrey started posting to various forums) is that you can take two films with the same basic recipe and add addenda to them and make subtly different films. So even if a pro film and a consumer film are the same basic recipe, they are not going to behave the same way. These are things like preservatives and trimmer dyes and such.

All color films shift colors as they age. But consumers and professionals shoot differently. Pros buy a bulk box of film, keep it in the fridge the whole time, and then break it out, warm it up, and shoot ten rolls in a row. Consumers will shoot a single roll over a span of months or years and won't keep it in the fridge. Some people claim that pro films are "aged" but that's not actually true. Both pro and consumer films are delivered fresh from the factory. However, the pro batch has been adjusted with the addenda to make sure that they are going to be right at the intended color balance "peak" right away and the consumer batch is going to be off-balance in one direction, age until it's at the "peak" and then eventually go off-balance in the other direction.

It used to be that consumer films kept better, but pro films have gotten awful good in this respect, so all films suffer far less color balance shift than older films. I don't keep films in the freezer unless I'm not going to be using them for months or they are IR and haven't had any ill effects. The manufacturers have stopped requiring that you freezer films and just suggest that it's a good idea now.

I'm pretty sure that there are at least some other differences going on as well. Sensia 100 is supposed to be either Astia or Provia, but it doesn't look like either one. Many times they offer fairly similar versions of a film for pros because a pro would probably notice a difference and an amateur would not.

So, the consumer films may be more forgiving of bad technique. But somehow, whenever I compare the pro films to the consumer films, the pro films just look better somehow... even if it's the psychology that "Gee, this is expensive film, you shouldn't waste it on crap"

Scanning vs. Optical printing

When you print using a traditional optical printing process, you have very limited control over colors and tonality, which tends to place a huge emphasis on a lot of the finer points of film. Especially in the early days where people were using graded paper.

Variable contrast paper and split-grade dodge/burning make this less of an issue. Digital relaxes these requirements even more. See, in a darkroom, without time consuming special techniques, I can raise or lower the contrast easily, but I can't necessarily control the toe and shoulder with the sort of precision I can use in Photoshop. Still, film matters. I've still noticed that color films are different in their color representation in a way that you can't quite fix in Photoshop in a reasonable amount of time. And grain and dynamic range are still important.

Most printing is done digitally, even when you shoot film. Most modern minilab machines scan your film, perform some digital adjustments, and then print it digitally. Optical printing is now fairly rare, even at the high-end labs.

I find that black and white is the least sensitive to differences in film tonality when scanning. All of my black and white pieces have the exact same tonality, regardless of film type, after I edit them. I'm also finding that with careful use of VC paper and darkroom technique, I can print to a fairly consistent look in the darkroom, except that when I screw up and blow an image out, it's easier to work with digitally.

Negative vs. Positive films

Slide film made a lot of sense back when there was no digital imaging. An offset press is set up to work off of negative images, so a printer would take the positive image and make four-color negative halftone separations off of it, often correcting many of the color problems with the slide, which then resolve back to a positive image. The whole time, there was a clear, easy to display in an unambiguous fashion, piece of film.

This is why everybody used to shoot slides for magazines. The guys in the back room got awfully good at making plates off of a few specific emulsions and the editor liked to sort it on a light table. It didn't even matter if the slide film had vague color problems as long as they could always correct it the same way.

These days are gone. However, there's still advantages to shooting slides. Because the slides are positives, you can sort the film directly. You either like the way it looks, or you don't. If you send it out to be scanned, either it matches the slide or it doesn't. Also, because of the pros, there is a wide variety of really good slide film out there and you are much more likely to get good quality developing when you can find it.

There's some subtle points here that need to be explained more carefully in the next article in the series.

Black and white vs. Color films for black and white


In the old days, the only option for doing black and white off of color film was Panalure paper from Kodak, which wasn't pleasant to work with. Remember, color film is sensitive to almost all visible wavelengths, so if you want to print and not be locked into something that looks like you shot it through a particular filter, the paper needs to be panchromatic, too. So, no safelights allowed.

Now, you can take a digital file, play with it in Photoshop, and get it printed off on your choice of expensive Ilford FB B&W paper on an LED printer, onto most traditional B&W papers with a LCD projector enlarger, onto regular old RA-4 paper, or onto an ink jet. Heck, you can even use an ink jet to generate a transparency and contact print onto all sorts of materials with it. Oh, and you don't need to use filters anymore because you can do it in Photoshop.. often times better than a filter.

So why do we shoot black and white film again?

Well, for me, the clincher is that black and white film is easy to develop in the bathroom. Also, black and white grain looks different in a not-entirely-unpleasant sort of way. Also, often times there's a little more usable dynamic range that can be squeezed from black and white film.

Finally, there are some films with properties you don't see with color film. Like the excellent reciprocity of Fuji Acros. Or the extended sensitivity of IR film.

I also have a personal quirk that gets in the way. Unless I really screw up the colors, I will prefer an image that I've seen with mediocre colors over a black and white version. Taking a color shot and removing the colors becomes a traumatic experience for me. When I get back a roll of black and white film, that takes any upset out of the equation.

Most black and white films are direct representations of the silver film grain. The grain gets set off by enough photons and then gets developed into the image. These grains will last, assuming proper preservation, for a long time.

C-41 black and white films and all color films are dye based. Like all dyes, these will decay over time, although with ideal formulations, this ought to be hundreds of years. The earliest color films were awful, newer ones are better. This gives a different look. Dye clouds still form "grain" but it's a little more diffused.


I do long exposure photography, so I tend to prefer films with better reciprocity behavior.

For most of the normally encountered range of lighting, film behaves very nicely. If you move the shutter in one direction, you can move the aperture in the other direction and get the same exposure.

For older films, this usually held between 1/1000 and 1/10 of a second. Modern films push both directions, often times being OK at 1/4000th on one end and sometimes several minutes on the other end.

Slower films often times have better reciprocity. There's a crossover point where the slower film with better reciprocity ends up giving you shorter exposures than a faster film.

As the reciprocity effect kicks in, contrast increases. This makes sense if you think about it. The highlights may require 1.5 times as much light than reciprocity might indicate but the shadows may require 3 times as much light than reciprocity might indicate.

Cubic grain / T-Grain / Sigma Grain / etc

In the eighties, Kodak did some pretty in-depth research about how emulsion grains were formed. In a mostly uncontrolled process, grains tend to form cubes. With extra control over the process, eventually they figured out how to form it into shapes.

The advantage is that the top of the grain is where the light hits, so having grains that are "tall" turns out to be useless.

There's patents on this and it is a fairly fiddly thing that requires a substantial investment in process control hardware design, but eventually Agfa, Ilford, Kodak, Fuji, Foma, and Konica all had their own versions of this technique. We'll call it "designer grain" for simplicity's sake because each company has their own name and not all of them are doing it exactly the same way.

One thing that I didn't realize is that when folks cooked up these impressive new grains, they also made other advancements at about the same time -- the big one being ways to improve reciprocity. For an example, Fomapan 200 has absolutely awful reciprocity, but it is a "designer grain" film.

There's a lot of noise about this, especially when it comes to black and white film. The earliest formulations had fairly major quirks to them that newer formulations don't have.... but everybody remembers the flaws of the earliest formulations.

Color sensitivity

All films distort reality, it's just a matter of how much they distort things in your average scene and how much you notice.

With careful construction of the sensitizing dyes, films can boost up saturation or they can have a more realistic view. Most people prefer to look at the saturated colors... Kodak did tests.

Modern films cut off some wavelengths because they tend to make people's skintones look better. For scenery this is not a problem usually, but for astrophotography, it's awful.

Black and white film is especially interesting, given that we don't really see in black and white. The earliest films were sensitive only to blue or maybe a little green. If you look really hard, you can still find "Orthochromatic" black and white films that are sensitive to blue and green. Most normal films are "panchromatic" which means that they are more-or-less sensitive to all colors.

What's going to be left?!?!

Sunrise over the planes

The film industry slowed down like a sports car hitting a brick wall. They were the primary way people captured pictures for decades... then in a matter of years, most of the market evaporated and isn't coming back.

What's mostly happening is that many of the more exotic films and processes have been sacrificed to try and make the film industry survive at all.

The problem is that a lot of films are being made on old equipment with old chemicals and they'd need to be heavily reformulated to be made at all, and there's no guarantee that they'd even look the same when they were done with the process. Emulsion development is more art than science, so even things like changing the size and shape of the pot they mix up the emulsion in is going to screw everything up. Some of the chemicals are fairly toxic and go bad fairly quickly. Some of the films also have such tiny demand that they can't even sell out a batch made on the smallest production machines.

There's a lot of emotionally charged decisions being made, too. Kodachrome is not covered by any patents. There's nothing preventing Fuji from making their own Kodachrome film -- in fact, they did in the past. Kodak's making Kodachrome for as long as they can manage, but this can't go on forever. If Kodak could talk people into moving over from their favorite Kodachrome to an equivalent film, they'd be fine, but too many folks are taking the lack of support of Kodachrome as a sign that Kodak doesn't love them, so they'll shoot Fuji or get a digital instead.

Also, some of these films have been side-effects of other industries. For example, most IR films are built for other markets, generally surveillance or aerial photography. When those industries go digital, suddenly the fairly small photography market that was using them is far too small to justify the film's continued manufacturing.

The other weird thing is that the black and white market is suddenly much healthier than the color market, since the big hit to that market happened in the eighties in the aftermath of USA Today, Budd Dwyer, and the first practical news-grade digital cameras resulted in all news shooting being done in color and probably digitally instead of just the stuff that couldn't wait for developing and scanning before transmission or the stuff that was going to end up on one of the color pages.



A sampler plate of films

I'm going to write more about individual films in the future articles, but I find that a lot of folks are used to shooting whatever consumer C-41 print film they can get in the grocery store, so I feel I should suggest some films that you should try at least one or two rolls of:


This is a multi-part series of articles that explains my views on films. There have been many other guides, but a lot of them are years old now and written by folks who have gone digital.

I tend to view this as a suggestion of what you should try and a warning about what you shouldn't try unless you really know what you are trying to accomplish and expect that you will probably disagree with me on at least some points. I'm trying to list off similar and contrary films so that you can shoot a few rolls of film in a situation and decide for yourself.

Be warned that there's a lot of subtle properties of films that don't appear in artificial test charts or become obvious upon shooting the first roll.

Up next!

Next article is going to talk some more about the difference between slide film and print film.

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