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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Photography Techniques  >  Film Talk

Film Talk

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 2941
1 Basics  (118)
       1.1 Latitude  (404)
2 Two Film Types  (668)
3 Film Speed  (304)
4 Film Storage  (406)
5 What I Use  (233)
6 Push and Pull Processing  (759)
7 Digital Capture (49)

This page has 12 images dated Apr 24, 2009
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notice.gif I wrote this article way back when I used to shoot nothing but film. I updated it once for the introduction of digital photography, but haven't really touched it since then. Accordingly, the reader should know that I no longer shoot with film, nor have I since 2002. While many people still feel film is appropriate for them (and I was just such a laggard as well into the digital era), today's digital sensors are such that film's role in most people's photo hobbies (and careers) is minimal. Those who really do need it, know it absolutely, and have nothing new to learn here (or anywhere). However, if you are learning, or have any questions whatsoever on whether to shoot digital or film, I strongly suggest you look into digital photography. You can read most any of the other articles on my site about this subject. To read what I use, see Photography Equipment. Now that you've been so advised, you can read the original text of this article, as it was written:

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The Marin Headlands
(California, USA)
california, fog, headlands, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, west coast, western usa, photograph
Once people figure out that film has more to do with the results of their photos than, say, the camera body or their local photo lab, they immediately swing in the opposite extreme from the $.50/roll bargain bin at the grocery store to buying the most expensive pro film on the market. Then they eventually learn it's not that simple, the question then becomes which film is better. After they learn a little more, they then ask, "should I buy brand X or brand Y of this film type?" And finally, the last question in the process is, "should I be shooting digital?"

What all of these questions have in common is the misperception about film (or digital capture) and its purpose. There is no universal truth that slide film is better than negative (print) film, or that Kodak is better than Fuji, or that black and white is better than color film. (Hence, you can also reverse all those comparisons.) Film has an aesthetic quality, each one its own, which you can either like or dislike, just as you can prefer black and white over color photographs, or grainy over smooth images. Some like punched up colors, while others like a smoother, "flatter" feel to their photographs. Some films will achieve your objective more satisfactorily, while the same film may give you undesirable results in other contexts. Remember, whatever you may gain with one film type, you're compromising something else. To get really great colors, you're going to get a lot of contrast. To get the smooth, ultra-detailed look, you're going to lose contrast and color saturation. To get high detail in the broadest range of light, you're going to lose in image density; and of course, the other way around.

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Venice Sunset
(Venice, Italy)
canals, europe, grand canal, horizontal, italy, venecia, venezia, venice, photograph
There are pros and cons to different film types, which is why people go through the various learning processes noted above. Most of all, film takes time to get used to, to learn its nuances, how it reacts to light, colors and dynamics in different uses. To become an expert in one type of film takes a long time, and people will often mistake that expertise for declaring that the film they use is "the best." It's not the best; it's just the one they've learned how to shoot to get the best image they want from it. Rule of science: If there were a "best", then it would be scientifically measured and proven, and the discussion would have ended. The reality is that photography is an art in the end, since it's your eye and sense of perspective that gives value and quality to your image. No one film will universally satisfy everyone.

So, while you read this page, the first thing you need to do is dispense with the entire notion that you are going to find the perfect film. That said, there are definite attributes to film that do affect people's perceptions positively and negatively, which is really what the education process is all about. Most people don't know what those are, and often misattribute their "bad" pictures to factors other than film, just as they fail to realize what kinds of film are actually giving them more of their desired results. The classic example of this is the belief that "faster" film—like ISO 200 and 400—is better for low-light photography. Surprised? That's why you're reading this article. By learning the facts about film and how it works and why, you can then make better, more informed choices about what kind of film you want.

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Nun Too Soon
(Po Valley, Italy)
bicycles, europe, horizontal, italy, nuns, people, po river valley, valley, photograph
This section discusses film specifically. It is not going to be a complete discussion of what film is physically, and I will endeavor to leave out technical details that even I don't understand fully. However, there are certain technical concepts you will need to understand in order to have any of this information work to your advantage. Bear with these and you'll see how it all comes together in the end.

As discussed in all the introductory sections of each of these chapters, there are three main technical elements to having a picture come out well: the proper exposure, the media capturing the light (film type or digital sensor), and the way the image is presented back to the eye (print, computer monitor, or direct visual examination on a lightboard). You may have exposed a picture well, but if you don't use good film, or print it poorly, then you may still end up with a bad picture. Because of this, I highly suggest you also read my page on Why do some prints just look awful?.

Black and White Film
(Cuzco, Peru)
black and white, capital of peru, cities, cityscapes, cuzco, hangings, hotels, latin america, peru, peruvian capital, towels, towns, vertical, photograph
As mentioned in earlier chapters, the biggest mistake people make in taking pictures is expecting that what they see through the camera is exactly what they're going to get on film. There is one simple reason why this cannot happen: the amount of light you see is a broader range than the amount of light that can be captured on film. Therefore, it is imperative that you understand how to measure light so you can appropriately render it on film. The chapter, Techniques on Metering Light with your Camera, covers this subject in more detail. This chapter only addresses how the type of film you use affects the outcome of your images.

The latitude of a film indicates the range of light (from darkest to brightest) that can be accurately captured. The further out from that range on either side of darkness or lightness you get, the less detail you'll see in the final image. This is why you may see fuzziness or lots of graininess in the darker shadows of a picture, or why the really bright spots just seem to "white out" into nothingness. These are because the film cannot capture the light across the entire spectrum of brightness that includes both these levels.

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Ecuadorian Girl
ecuador, equator, girls, horizontal, latin america, people, smiles, photograph
I don't want to lose you, dear reader, but I'm going to give you a purely technical term now, but there's a reason for this, so stick with me: A "level" of light is also called a "stop", which pertains to each hole size inside the lens that lets light project onto the film in the camera. (One may recall older cameras where you'd "click" the aperture setting from one to the next. This is how the term "stop" came into use.) One aperture "stop" lets a certain amount of light in; the next stop wider, will let in twice as much light as the previous stop. Breaking down the levels of light like this make it easier to conceptualize how a scene should be photographed. Accordingly, the use of the terms "stop" and "latitude" will be more abundant here than in some other discussions.

All film captures light to some degree. The more limited the film's range, the less it can capture extremely bright and dark areas in the same scene. However, this is usually offset by having a very brilliant and accurate density in the film, which can render extremely sharp and beautiful images with smooth texture and grain. These often yield a very realistic and pleasing look. Another advantage is that colors tend to be much more saturated (for color film), or more "contrasty" (for black and white as well as color film). This tends to result in a bigger "punch" to the image. On the other hand, films that have a broad latitude can capture a more extended range of light, which may be beneficial for showing detail in both highlights and shadows, but those colors will be a little more muted, and the film itself tends to be a lot more grainy. This isn't necessarily bad—it's a matter of taste.

A Bright, Sunny Day is Easy to Measure Light Values
horizontal, kayaks, palau, storm, tropics, photograph
There are essentially two common types of film: slide film (also called "transparency" or "positive" film), and negative film (the type most consumers are more familiar with). Slide film renders a "positive" image that you see by holding it up to the light, or by setting on a lighttable that you look at through a magnifying glass (a.k.a., a loupe). Slide films tend to have more limited latitude, from about 3 to 5 stops (with some exceptions), so slide film tends to have the qualities mentioned in the previous section. Because of this limited range, there are limitations in the types of pictures they can produce well. High contrast lighting, such as a sunlit forest, generally don't come out well in slide films, since detail in the highlights and the shadows are lost.

Print films—traditionally called "negative films"—tend to be lower contrast (again, there are exceptions), so they can capture detail from a broader range of light. While this is often an advantage, they suffer the corresponding disadvantages (also discussed in the previous section). "Negative film" is called such because its emulsion reveals a reverse image of the picture. The blacks are captured as white, and the whites are captured as black. Similarly, color negative film reverses colors as well. In order to "see" the picture, you can't hold it up to the light like slide film can because it's a "negative" image. Prints have to be made by exposing light through the negative film onto photo paper that also responds to light negatively. Hence, the blacks and whites are reversed (again), and the image is rendered as its original state.

Carrying Multiple Cameras
ancient ruins, andes, architectural ruins, cameras, inca trail, incan tribes, latin america, marco, mountains, people, peru, stone ruins, vertical, photograph
Because of the way negative film is produced, it tends to have a broader "latitude"—about 7-9 stops of light—by comparison with its slide film counterpart. This broader range has the effect of producing a lower-contrast image, so details in the brighter are darker areas are preserved. The price for this benefit is loss of sharpness and overall color quality and clarity in the emulsion. Thus, most print films don't have the color density and saturation as most slide films.

Some people shoot both negative film and slide film, often carrying two cameras to take pictures with each. However, this is usually inconvenient, and the logistical management of different types of film can be burdonsome. (The storage alone can be a nightmare.) Usually, photographers find the type of film that suits their shooting style and needs, and end up using one or the other. For a discussion on the films I use, see the page on Photography Equipment.

One more note about print film: it's much easier and less expensive to make prints from negatives (print film) than it is slide film. Most photo labs will make enlargements for pennies compared to the cost and time of enlarging slides. However, slides can produce amazingly gorgeous prints that negative film can't approach easily. At the high end of printing, there are advantages to each kind of film. Don't sweat it.

To answer the question burning on your mind: professionals that use slide film do so because it tends to be better quality: sharper, clearer, more dense, and can be viewed and managed (archives, etc.) far more easily than negative film. Pros that use negative film tend to be more in fashion photography, commercial product assignments, portraiture, or deal with consumers more often. Obvioiusly, there are many exceptions to this rule, so it's hard to say it's a "rule" as much as a general observation. Art Photographers is an entirely different subject, but certainly a legitimate one, also have a fondness for Black and White film. I do too, but for the practical reasons noted above (due to my shooting circumstances), I tend not to use it very much. However, when I do, negative film tends to be better for this. The reasons are beyond the scope of this discussion.

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Switzerland Hikers
europe, hikers, horizontal, silhouettes, switzerland, photograph

The next issue with choosing film type is which film speed. Most film companies actively promote 200 speed film to consumers, although you can buy films that range from 100 to 800 speed at most places that sell film. The higher the number, the "faster" the film, which is means that a picture can be captured with very quick shutter speeds, allowing you to take pictures in lower light, or not worry about hand-shake blurring your photos. Sadly, the side effect of higher speed films like this is that they tend to be more washed out and grainy. Most people that aren't happy with how their prints look are usually using higher speed films. This is often the reason for "hazy" pictures, or why you see the grain on pictures when you expected to see a smooth, fine look, or why the colors are muted and ugly, not to mention totally inaccurate. While the person in the image may not be blurry because the shutter speed was fast enough to avoid hand-shake blur or the person moving himself, it's a poor trade-off for having a really bad picture that you can't enjoy anyway.

Oddly (and fortunately), lower speed films are not only better, but they're considerably less expensive. (This is because the film companies tend to market the higher speed films to get consumers to buy them at considerably higher profit margins.) Any time I convince someone to buy 100 speed film, they have always said how much better their pictures looked. Yes, you may be limited in that you can't shoot inside a building at night because there isn't enough light, but if you did it using a faster film, you probably wouldn't like the picture anyway. If you're going to use a flash, then it's all a moot point anyway.

Guns and Moses t Shirt
(Jerusalem, Israel)
emotions, guns, humor, israel, jerusalem, middle east, moses, shirts, signs, vertical, photograph
Storing film is another one of those mysteries that, once you know, you knock yourself on the head with your palm and gripe like Homer Simpson: "Doh!" So, here's the skinny on storing film: film is made up of chemicles that break down very slowly with heat. The warmer the film, the faster the process. The colder the film, the slower. All films have expiration dates, which many people don't look for. Those are estimates on when the film would "begin" to lose some of its qualities if stored at typical room temperatures. What happens with different films varies depending on the type of film. Different films have different compounds that are used to yield different color, grain, and other qualities, so their response to temperature varies.

Storing film in a hot car in the summer will probably ruin most film in a few days for most film types, or even a few hours for very fine-grained pro films. The visual effects of expired film vary. I've used some film years past its expiration date and had no color shift at all, whereas other film types lose their qualities quickly. Effects of film breakdown are more visible in higher-speed films than lower because grains are bigger and more responsive to light. So, any shifts in that responsiveness will be more apparent. The most common effect is the color skews towards the green because it's the green emulsion on the film itself that is most stable and less likely to alter from the heat. Red and blue emulsions break down faster than the green, which is more stable. So, you tend to see expired films have a greenish hue to them. (This is why they are often called, "green film.") Black and white films don't shift in color, of course. They just get "foggy."

The colder the film, the slower the process. If you freeze film, the breakdown is halted. Unfreeze it, and it starts again. Freeze it again, and it's halted again. It doesn't hurt to freeze and defrost. Refrigeration is as good as freezing, and perhaps somehwat more convenient, since you can use it "immediately" after taking it out of the fridge. If you freeze film, you have to let it defrost before you use it because it can be too brittle for the winder in the camera. There are no other bad effects of freezing film.

Fuji Velvia
velviapro med, tech, velviapro med, tech, photograph
I use slide film almost all the time. the two types that I use more often than not are Velvia and Provia, both by Fuji. Velvia is rated at 50 ASA, and Provia is 100ASA. (ASA and ISO are the same thing—thus, 40ASA is the same as 40 ISO). The low "speed" of the film is because of the ultra-fine grain of the film, which results in much sharper and colorfully dense images. I set my camera to 40 ASA for Velvia, overriding the camera's autodetection of the DX-coding of 50, because Velvia captures shadow detail very well,
Fuji Provia
tech, provia med, tech, provia med, photograph
and has such a fine grain, that you can actually lean a tad more towards the highlights to assure good detail there as well. In effect, this sort of broadens the latitude (range of light) the film can capture. So, if you properly meter a scene and set your camera's exposure settings accordingly, a picture taken at 40 ASA will turn out better than one taken at 50ASA, regardless of the lighting. Note that that the difference between 40 and 50 is only a 1/3 of a stop brighter, so it's hardly going to be noticable to the undiscerning eye in most cases. Also note that setting the ASA to 40 is for normal processing. You do not alter the processing times during development.

Push Process One Stop
ancient ruins, andes, architectural ruins, inca trail, incan tribes, latin america, mountains, peru, stone ruins, vertical, winaywayna, photograph

Altering processing times—also called "push processing" or "pull processing"—are alternative ways to develop film for purposes of adjusting for light conditions where your camera and film were not capable of dealing with. For example, say you're in a room whose lighting are such that your camera indicates a shutter speed of 1/15 second. For many people, that'd be too slow to hand-hold. If you didn't have a flash (or, more smartly, didn't want to use one), and didn't have a tripod to use, you'd be forced to either forgo the picture, or risk getting a blurry shot. Another option is to "push" the film by a stop (or two).

The concept is extraordinarily simple: you shoot with "twice" the amount of light, so you "double" the developing time in the film. (Well, you don't double the develpoing time, the photo lab does.) This is called "push processing." When you shoot with half the amount of light, you "half" the developing time in the film. That's "pull processing." When you double the exposure time, you double the amount of light. So, all these shots will appear as equivalent pictures:

  • 1/15 sec, ISO 100 Film, Normal process

  • 1/30 sec, ISO 100 Film, Push process

  • 1/8 sec, ISO 100 Film, Pull process

"Push Processed" Photo
(Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)
africa, fog, horizontal, maasai, tanzania, photograph
In second case, you want to shoot at 1/30 sec, but your camera is still giving you the 1/15 second meter reading from the example. So, how do you get it to adjust to the right reading? There are two ways: first, you can set the exposure compensation by one stop ("+1"); or, you manually set the ISO rating on the camera to 200 from 100. Both yield equivalent pictures. The difference, however, is that setting the camera's exposing compesnation does not adjust the film developing time, it directly affects the exposure time in the shutter release. So, it would go from 1/15 of a second to an 1/8 of a second, which is the wrong direction—we're hoping to use a shorter shutter release time so we can hand-hold the picture.

By setting the ISO to 200 from 100, the camera thinks the film is faster, so it's not adjusting the time at all. It's just shooting at 200, and that accurate light reading for 200 is 1/30 of a second.

Sounds good, right? Well, there are caveats to consider. First, processing film involves the lab dunking the entire roll of film into the chemicles, so if you double the time that the film is in the vat, you affect every frame on the roll. You can't selectively choose which pictures are pushed.

If this is so simple, why not always push process film? First, film is made to respond to light in a way that yields an accurate representation of what it sees. (Some films are better than others at this.) When you adjust the developing time in push or pull processing, you're sort of messing with that color calibration, and no all films do well like this. Colors begin to "shift" (such as towards the greens). Also the grain of the film accentuates, making for unpleasing affects. Lastly, push processing can be expensive—it's an alteration of the normal development process, and labs usually charge extra for this because they have to do your film separately from others.

Tri-X Pushed to 1600
(San Francisco, California, USA)
black and white, california, halloween, look, san francisco, these, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
For black and white photography, I often push Tri-X, normally a 400 speed film, to 1600 (that's two stops) so I can shoot in very low light without having to (necessarily) use a flash. This gives a more natural look than if I were to burst a bright flash as the main light source (which I never like). Also, Tri-X grain looks really good when the film is pushed, although you can't see that on a computer monitor.

While I rarely do it, you can also "pull process"—that is, "slow down" the film from (for example) 100 ASA to 50 ASA. The effects are often opposite: more contrast, more color saturation, and less film grain. Many people find this an advantage in principle, but most films aren't designed to react to the development times so well, so don't expect dramatic results. I'll leave it as an exercize to the reader to determine the conditions where these features could be advantageous. Also, these are often artistic choices, not necessarily "photo secrets" that you can use anytime. There are pros can cons to alternative processing, and you can lose just as easily as you can win here.

Many of you may be wondering about digital photography. And I realize it's hard to talk about film without mentioning it. However, it's not in the scope of this section, so you should go to What Camera Should I Buy? (Part 2) for a more complete discussion.

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