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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:
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.
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" filmlike ISO 200 and 400is 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.
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?.
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.
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 badit's a matter of taste.
Two Film Types
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 filmstraditionally 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.
Because of the way negative film is produced, it tends to have a broader
"latitude"about 7-9 stops of lightby 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
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.
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.
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.
What I Use
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 thingthus, 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,
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 and Pull Processing
Altering processing timesalso 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
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 directionwe'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 expensiveit'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.
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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