Film for the Digital Photographer – Cameras, By Dan K
Dan K returns with part 2 of this 3 part series on film for digital photographers. In this article Dan outlines film choices available for people just getting into film (and some for old hands too).
In my previous articles, Shooting Film AND Digital and Film for the Digital Photographer – Cameras, I introduced the idea of digital photographers’ migrating back to film and suggested several genres of photography equipment to get started with and work up to. In this article, I will discuss the selection and characteristics of the various films currently available.
“Can You Still Buy Film?”
For sure! Film is far from dead. If I had a roll of film for every time I heard this, I’d have more film than I could ever shoot. In fact, being an overly paranoid hoarder, I have more film than I can possibly shoot before it expires. There’s no need to hoard though; film remains varied and plentiful and looks set to be so for a long time yet.
Yodobashi film store display
Yes, we often hear of film emulsions being discontinued, but I strongly believe that we will always be able to buy and develop film, if we are willing to go to a little effort. The consumer market has already evaporated and pros have moved on, but what remains is a small but vibrant enthusiast market. Daily I hear of newcomers, digital apostates converting to film. This series of articles is dedicated to them. In this piece, I’ll revisit some of the film formats and emulsions currently available.
Film comes in various formats. The ones you might expect to find in a good high street store are called “135” (35mm perforated film in cans) and “120” (roll-film).
You can get 36 to 40 full frame sized exposures out of a 36-exposure can, and it is sometimes sold in 24(27) frame cans. I also buy film in 100′ cans from a supplier and use a bulk loader to refill my cartridges, saving money in the process.
Bulk Loader and 100 Foot Rolls
A roll of 120 film will give 10 exposures of 6cm x 6cm frames. 220 is the same size as 120, but with twice as many exposures. Film sold in 120 or 220 rolls is known as “medium format”.
Large format film comes in boxes of sheets. The most common size is 8″x10″. 135 and medium format film is easy to get processed. To develop large format film, you’ll need to find a specialist lab or do it yourself.
A frame of 135 or roll-film can be any length, depending on your camera and its frame mask. Typical lengths of medium format film frames are 6×4.5cm, 6×6, 6×7, 6×9 and occasionally 6×12.
Lomography Belair 6×12
Most 135 cartridge frames are 36x24mm, but half-frame is 18×24 and longer frames are possible. For example, the Hasselblad X-Pan can shoot 65x24mm frames and being larger than a Full Frame, you could class that as medium format.
Hasselblad X-Pan, Including Sprockets
As you can see, changing the frame length changes the aspect ratio. Not all odd aspect ratio cameras use a longer or shorter full width strip of film. Crop frame panorama cameras cut off the top and bottom of the image, leaving the total length the same as Full Frame (36mm, with a standard 2mm gap between frames).
Crop Frame Panorama with Kodak ColorPlus 200
The longer the frame, the less pictures you get per roll. Half frame gives a little under twice the number of exposures. At the same time, the bigger the sensor (frame), the bigger you can enlarge an image and the better the lens can resolve an image onto it.
Half Frame Tri-X vs Full Frame B/W Slide
Depth of Field is also affected, as it the apparent grain size. Shooting larger negatives gives less grain in the print or scan and smaller negatives make grain seem larger. Film frame size affects image quality, even more so than with digital photography. I recommend you start with Full Frame 35mm and work up or down to the other formats as your requirements change.
In my last article on film cameras, I described how other formats can be obtained or re-spooled from common film stocks, but as they represent more of a challenge, I suggest you cut your teeth on 135 cartridges and 120 rolls.
Types of Film
Print film is the most common type. You expose and develop a negative. The negative is processed and either scanned and printed, or optically enlarged into the final image. The negative itself contains the detail of the image, but reds, greens and blues, dark and light is reversed. Print film is robust, both in terms of storage and exposure. Consider it the first stage of forming your image. The true artistry is done in the darkroom. The darkroom may be a true darkroom, filled with papers, chemicals and equipment, but a good job can be done through a digital post-process similar to the way you’d deal with a digital image. Unfortunately, while the development is standardised and straightforward, printing is not. The lab technician must make subjective and artistic adjustments to determine the final look of the image and that has led to a great many people being disappointed with the output. It is best to do all your own work, or find a specialist lab that listens to your instructions and does a consistent job.
Slide film, or reversal film, has its advantages and disadvantages as compared to print film. With a slide, you expose your film as you would a negative, but the negative image is reversed by a chemical process in the lab to produce a positive. Reds, greens and blues, highlights and shadows come out as shot. You can scan and even print from slides, but like negative prints, this may require a degree of skill. Slides also produce better images. Colours and shades are more vibrant and consistent. Many serious photographers swear by slide film and wouldn’t shoot negatives.
Why then, are negatives so much more popular than slides? The first reason is cost. It is more expensive to buy and much more expensive to process. Secondly, it is less robust than negative film. It is badly affected by improper storage, both before and after exposure. Exposure has to be spot on, because what you expose is exactly what you get.
Film is comprised of a plastic base, an anti-halation layer that reduces halos, emulsion layers and a protective gelatin coating. All the light sensitive chemical activity happens in the emulsion.
Whereas there used to be much more variety of films available, only the most popular and easy to process have survived the digital onslaught. That doesn’t mean that the modern photographer’s palette is severely curtailed. I still actively use a score of different film types depending on the light and look that I want. I’ll present some of the films available below. They show the rich palette of colours and tones still available to the film shooter.
Most are current production films. Others may be discontinued, recently expired, or domestic-market only, but are available in specialist stockists, or on eBay.
Black and White
• Kodak Tri-X 400 – the classic photojournalist film. Sharp
• Fujifilm Neopan 1600 Super Presto – ultimate street shooting film. Daido Moriyama look
• Eastman Double-X 200 – beautiful tone curve, good dynamic range
• Kodak P3200 – globulous grain like coarse ground pepper
• Bluefire Police 80 – ultra fine-grained tech pan film
• Lucky SHD100 – lacks anti-halation for glowing highlights
• Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros – unbeatable all-round quality at 100ASA
• Kodak T-Max 400 – a bulletproof, scanner-friendly film
• Kodak T-Max 100 – great 100ASA film for scanning
• Kodak BW400CN – good all-round film for when only C-41 lab chemistry is available
• I used to use the many excellent Ilford films not pictured, including HP5, Delta 400, Delta 100, FP4, HP5 and will revert to them if necessary. I do often use Ilford Delta 3200, which is like P3200 (but still widely available), an 800ASA film for pushing up to 6400ASA.
• Chinese films like ERA and Shanghai – Chinese black and white films have always been excellent quality and while being the cheapest on the market. Sadly, all the brands I know of have recently gone, but there is plenty of old stock about.
• Agfa APX and other Agfa films – Agfa films, especially those with a high silver content have a wonderful classic era look.
• Fujifilm Neopan SS and other black and white films – all top notch, just harder to get and pricey outside of Japan, so I mostly stick to Kodak products.
• Rollei Retro 100 Tonal – good tone, good dynamic range, medium grain
Retro 100 Tonal
Colour Negative Film
• Fujicolor Superia Reala 100 – perfect skin tones and landscape colours
• Kodak Ektar 100 – super fine grain and exceptional colours, especially blues and greens and reds and well … it’s just perfect
• Provia 400H – low contrast film for harsh light
• New Portra 400 – for shooting portraits, you can’t beat Portra
• Portra 800 – my favourite 800 film. Fast, with vast latitude. Lovely skin tones
• Portra 400VC – punch up your colours without making skin tones look bizarre
• Fujicolor Natura 1600 – formerly Japan-only, but now the best all-round low light colour film, especially beautiful when overexposed a couple of stops
• Fujicolor Superia Premium 400 – same idea as Portra
• Kodak Profoto XL 100 – a premium, fine grain 100-round 100ASA colour print film, less punchy than Ektar
• Konica 100 – this is so long expired I reach for it when I want an aged photo look
Rollei Digibase CN 200 Pro
• Kodak Ultramax 400 – this unpretentious film is almost the cheapest film you can buy here, but the results never cease to impress me. Universal appeal and ubiquitous availability
• Kodak Super Gold 400 – lovely if you can get it. Colours and fine grain, good in lower light too
• Kodak 400 Ultracolor – was a great film, but this batch is tired. 400VC was better anyway
• Fujicolor Superia 800 – ‘cheap’ fast film but fresh and fast
• Fujicolor Superia 1600 – likewise, ‘cheap’ fast film but fresh and fast
• Fujicolor Superia Venus 800 – Fuji’s equivalent of Portra 800
Colour Slide Film
• Fujichrome Velvia 50 – super saturated super contrast
• Fujichrome Provia 400X – if I have to go to 400 in slides this is the film
• Fujichrome Sensia 100 – cheap and less finicky. I miss the 200ASA
• Fujichrome Provia 100F – a very versatile film for all colours from vivid to pastels
• Fujichrome Fortia 50 – aka consumer Velvia
• Kodak E100G – for true-to life colours. VS was good, but not like VELVIA
• Kodak Elite Chrome Extracolor 100 – great saturated colours
• Agfa Precista CT – cross processes with strong colour shifts
• Fujichrome T64 – long expired but cross processes with strong reds and greens
• Lomography XPRO Chrome – comparatively more subtle cross-processing
• Velvia 100F – not quite the punch of Velvia 50
• Fujichrome 160T – again for XPRO
• Fomapan R – it’s a clear base black and white suitable for reversal if you can get a lab to process it
• Rollei Infrared 400S – a portrait film that has the blessed ability to reduce acne and scarring redness in skin tones
• Ilford SFX 200 – best used with an IR filter
• Efke IR820 – consider it an extreme version of SFX
• Lomography Redscale – I know redscale is just colour print film that’s spooled reversed, but the Lomo product gets better results than when I’ve done it myself.
Remember this huge selection is only a fraction of what is still out there in 135 (35mm) format. I have stocks of a variety of films in 120, 127, APS and other formats. Yes, I still shoot APS and yes, I can get it developed.
The primary consideration in the selection of film is whether I can reliably expose my image. If I am eyeballing the light level with an un-metered camera like my Leica M4, or worse, a fixed exposure toy camera, I personally do not have the skill to get slide exposure just right. Some photographers do, but if you’re transitioning from an automated digital camera, the chances are you won’t… yet.
The second consideration is the level of lighting. This is a bit like setting a fixed ISO setting in a digital camera. I select a film speed that suits the level of lighting. I pick a film that is in the ballpark of the typical aperture and shutter speed that I plan to use. I might choose a fast film for low light, a 400ASA (a.k.a. ISO) for general daylight city photography, or a slow film for bright daylight or flash photography.
The third consideration is the look. This is like choosing the creative style in a digital camera, but it is more critical with film. I ask myself several questions. Do I want a grainy or smooth image? Do I want high or low contrast? Do I want vibrant colours or muted tones? Strong colour casts and deep blue skies, or neutral? Will I be photographing people, vegetation or objects? Is monochromatic tone and texture more important to what I’m trying to say, or is colour needed? Would it look better with orthochromatic black and white film or infrared film? Will I filter and post process, or get it right in camera? Does the film push well? What does it look like cross-processed? More often than I’d like to admit, it comes down to “What do I have left in my camera bag?” It pays to go out with a selection of film and if shooting in the late part of the day migrate from fine-grained colour film to fast or push-able black and white film as the light starts to fail.
Velvia 100 Cross-Processed
The fourth consideration is to choose daylight or tungsten film. This is akin to the white balance setting in a digital camera. It’s not such a big deal with print film, but it makes a big difference in slide film. The bad news is I don’t know of any remaining slide films that are tungsten balanced, so you’ll just have to beware of the limitation. Likewise, when in early twilight, or under fluorescent lighting, you’re best off using print film. The good news is that daylight balanced films handle flash well, as the colour temperature is similar. If you’re picky, you can gel your flash.
The final consideration is cost and processing. The cheapest and easiest to buy and have processed in a lab is colour negative film. Hunt about. I buy 135 format colour negative film at prices ranging from US$3 to $10, but mostly it’s at the lower end of the range. I can get it processed and scanned for $2 and $2 respectively. Slide film is at the upper end of the purchase price range and costs double to process. Black and white is costs around $4 to buy and $4 to process, but I develop mine at home for almost nothing in cost of chemicals.
Bags of Processed 135 Film Cans
Care and Storage
It is generally recommended to store your negative film in a cool dry place, away from direct sunlight, sources of radiation (for example, if you’re a radiologist or air traveller) and humidity. Slide film needs to be stored cold. If you store your film in a fridge, remember that the inside of a fridge can get very damp, so make sure your film is sealed.
My Refrigerator at Home
Japan Camera Hunter also sells egg-carton style boxes to protect your film. This can save time if you go through a lot of film and can also allow you to bring a variety of film. This is for on-the go storage.
JCH Film Case
Remember to let your film warm up to room temperature before loading and using it.
I realise all this information is a lot to take in. There’s no harm in just trying lots of different films till you have found the ones that suit your style.
I recommend you start out with these:
Colour Print: Kodak Ultramax 400. Robust, ubiquitous, cheap and much better than the price would suggest. It’s just so good that Kodak makes it in huge quantities.
Colour Slide: Velvia 50. It will blow your socks off. Shoot it on bright but overcast days when print film would look drab.
Black and White Print: Kodak Tri-X 400. If Kodak discontinued that one, the uproar would be deafening. It’s so popular that it is often used as the baseline/ test emulsion for developing experimentation, so information abounds. It’s also fairly robust and you can push it 2, maybe 3 stops.
Black and White Slide (yes it exists!): Scala 200X. If you can find a lab that can process it, you will have a quasi-religious epiphany. If not it makes good print film with rich blacks and whites and a glorious tone curve.
Please share all your comments, observations and questions in the comments below. I would love to hear your opinions on this topic, especially if they differ from mine! I am still learning and I will until the day they bury me with my Zeiss Ikon ZM and a roll of Tri-X. Hmm, they’d better include a spare set of batteries, as I don’t know how long my current set will last!
In my next article, I will discuss the peculiarities of film technique and processing as compared to digital photography.
In case you missed part one you can catch it here.
If you haven’t already done so, please read my article Using Film and Digital and check back here for more instalments on this theme.
You can follow Dan on his social networks. He always has something interesting to say about photography and cameras.
Photos and text © Dan K. All rights reserved.
Yodobashi photo © Japan Camera Hunter. All rights reserved.