What Sort Of Film Should I Use?

Tom Davis
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Last Modified: September 16, 2001.

From a beginner's point of view, you can shoot print film, slide film, or black and white print film. Since I know nothing about shooting black and white, if that's what you want to shoot, you should find somebody who knows something and ask them.

It may sound obvious, but once you know what you're doing, if you want prints, shoot print film, and if you want slides, shoot slide film. You can make prints from slides, but it's a pain, and you can make slides from print negatives, but that's even more of a pain. But you often hear people who have heard "that the pros all shoot slide film", so they decide that's the way to go. I think if I were a professional, I'd shoot only slide film, but the economics are completely different -- nobody cares about the extra pain of making a print from slides, and if you have thousands of photos, slides are a heck of a lot easier to deal with than prints.

I like to give slide shows, and consequently, I take slides. Every now and then I want to make a print of a particularly good slide, so then I go to the trouble of getting a print made. Sometimes I know I'm going to want prints, so then I shoot print film. If, for example, I've got a camera at a birthday party, nobody's going to want to see a slide show of that, but lots of times you give the prints to the participants, so it would be nuts to use slide film.

Film In General

The main problem with almost all sorts of film is that the human eye is far better at detecting color than the best film ever made. That's why you can see a great image in your viewfinder, but when the photo comes back, you're completely disappointed.

Film can only detect light over a limited range -- even for the best black and white film, that range is less than a factor of 1000. The human eye can probably adjust over a range that's a factor of 1,000,000. When there's too little light, the film records black, and too much, white.

That's why you often see photos of people with a dramatic background that's perfectly exposed, but all their faces are black. It's a sunny day, the faces are in the shade, and are 100 times less bright than the background.

This is probably the hardest part of photography to learn -- that the image on the film has a much lower range than what your eye sees through the viewfinder.

Learning to take photos

If you're serious about becoming a good photographer, I would recommend slide film. Here's why: To be fair, slide film has some disadvantages as well:

What, exactly, is the difference between slide film and print film?

Slide film works exactly like print film except instead of getting a negative when you develop it, you get a "positive". After development, the film is cut into individual pieces and mounted in the cardboard or plastic mounts that are designed to be projected on a screen.

It is less expensive to get slides developed, usually, since after the photo lab develops print film, it has to be dried, and then re-projected on photo paper which is then developed to make the prints. For slides, the process is just to develop the film, cut it up, mount it in cardboard, and give it to you. For prints, the film is developed, cut into strips about 4 negatives long, re-projected on paper in a darkroom, and then the paper is developed, and the whole mess is returned to you. If equal numbers of people did prints and slides, slides would be much less expensive, but since the vast majority of people use prints, the price is lower, so slides are only a little less expensive, not a lot.

For example, if you purchase slide mailers and send them off to the Kodak or Fuji labs, it costs about $3.75 to develop a roll of 36 slides. (As of about the year 2000.)

On the other hand, negatives are optimized for printing, so if you do want a print from a slide, it's more difficult and more expensive, but you can do just as well, for a price. If you're a wildlife photographer and you shoot 100 photos for every one you print, you'll save money with slides since you don't have to pay for the 99 prints that go in the garbage. But if you're shooting your kid's birthday party and you want to print even the blurred photos because you love him so much, slides would be a disaster, cost-wise.

Film Speed

OK, suppose you've decided what general kind of film to get. The next question is "what speed film shall I get?"

Every kind of film has stamped on the package an ISO (sometimes called ASA) number like 100, 200, 1000, et cetera. This number is called the "ISO number", or, more commonly, the "film speed". (Europeans sometimes use something called a DIN number, but there's an exact translation to ISO numbers from those.)

The larger the number, the faster the film, and ISO 200 film is twice as fast as ISO 100, and is 5 times slower than ISO 1000 film.

High speed film requires less light to get a proper exposure, so if you shoot with ISO 400 film, you only need 1/4 of the light that your friend who's shooting ISO 100 film will need. With this higher speed film, you can therefore use a smaller aperture to let less light into the camera and this will give you a better depth of field, or you can use a faster shutter speed, and be better at stopping the motion of your subjects (the shot at ISO 400 will be 4 times less blurred than the equivalent shot on ISO 100 film).

So why not always use high-speed film? There are a few disadvantages:

What kind of slide film should I use?

This is a highly personal choice, and I can't recommend any particular film. I know what I like, but there are plenty of people who disagree with me. What I'd recommend is that you try a few kinds, shooting the same sorts of things with all of them, and compare the colors, resolutions, et cetera, of the resulting photos.

If you're like me, you'll find that you can get away with just two or three kinds of film, and that's all you have to stock in your refrigerator.

Some films are designed to have the highest possible color accuracy -- in other words, the colors on the transparency match the colors of the object being photographed as well as possible. The Kodak Kodachrome films are quite good at this, with Kodachrome 25 (meaning ISO 25 -- an incredibly slow film) being one of the best.

Mandrill Other films tend to generate colors that are more saturated than the colors of the objects that were photographed. A saturated color is more like a primary color -- sort of the opposite of pastels. Red is saturated; pink (a mixture of red and white) is not. Some people (including myself) prefer the added saturation created by these films. They are also known as "warmer" films. The Fujichrome Velvia is a great example of a film that produces highly saturated colors -- "greener than green".

The mandrill on the right probably doesn't require highly saturated film -- he's pretty saturated as he is.

If you're beginning, try a variety and see what you like. If your tastes are like mine, you might try Fujichrome Velvia or Kodak E100SW. (There is an E100S, that you also might like, but the "SW" version is a bit warmer.) The Velvia is ISO 50 and the E100SW is ISO 100. When I need a higher speed film, I use the Fuji Provia 400 (ISO 400). I don't like it as well as the other two, but when I need the extra film speed, it's not that bad.

Storing Film

Film gradually decays with time, since chemical reactions take place in the emulsion (the emulsion is made of highly reactive chemicals, after all). Over a year or so you probably won't notice much difference, but film does gradually go downhill. Like almost any chemical reaction, you can slow it down by cooling it, so if you keep your film in a refrigerator, it'll last longer. If you keep it in the freezer, it'll keep even longer.

The disadvantage of having your film in the refrigerator or freezer is that you can't use it right away. If you try, say by taking it right out of the freezer and into the camera, water droplets will condense on the ice-cold film, and then you'll have real trouble.

So I always allow about 20 minutes for film to warm to room temperature when it comes out of the refrigerator, or at least an hour if it comes out of the freezer before using it. I usually keep 8 or 10 rolls in the refrigerator and the rest in the freezer. When I run low in the refrigerator, I move some over from the freezer. You'll have to negotiate with your wife for a crisper drawer for your film.

As I said above, film will keep for a long time, even at room temperature, but beware of letting it get too hot. Don't let it sit in a black bag on the dashboard of a car in the sun, or you can cook it pretty fast. Keep it in insulated containers (wrap it up in the middle of your suitcase, for example).

If you just take reasonable care, you won't have any trouble with film even if you've got to spend a month with it in the tropics. But don't buy that roll of film in window of the little shop in Ecuador that may have been in there for 5 years!

Professional Versus Amateur Film

Most film is available in both professional and amateur versions. The examples I named above (Velvia, E100SW, and Provia) happen to be professional films. The difference is that the pro films will cost a bit more, and they will yield uniform results. You generally have to go to a photo shop that caters to professionals to get professional film, and they will have it in a cooler.

Other than the fact that extra care was taken to make sure of a uniform product, I don't think there's much difference between professional and amateur film. If you take your pro film out of the refrigerator and leave it at room temperature for a few months, it's basically amateur film, and will work as well as the amateur film that's been at room temperature for 3 months.

But if you use Velvia today out of the refrigerator, and again in three years, out of the refrigerator, taking a shot of the same thing, the colors, et cetera, will be amazingly close -- that's what you pay for in professional film.

Film And Airport X-ray Machines

X-rays are just high-energy light rays, and light exposes film, so film will generally get exposed (or "fogged") in X-ray machines. The more time the film spends in the X-ray machine, and the more powerful the machine, the more fogging will occur. Since X-rays are more energetic than visible light, the metal film cans will not keep all of them out.

In the United States, the machines that examine checked luggage use more energetic X-rays than those that are used to check carry-on luggage, so if you have to put your film through one of them, put it through the carry-on machine. In other countries, who knows?

You can almost always avoid having your film X-rayed if you'll hand it to the attendant at the machine. The easier you make it for them to check, the more likely it'll be that they will hand-check it. There may be a law requiring them to hand check it, but they will always win an argument if they insist on X-raying the film and your plane is about to leave.

What I do to make life as simple for them as possible is that I first "skin" the film by taking it out of the cardboard boxes. Then, if it's like Kodak film that comes in opaque cannisters, I transfer it to the transparent cannisters (like what the Fuji film comes in). Finally, I put all the transparent cannisters containing film into a transparent zip-lock bag, and give that to the attendant.

Obviously, you should also avoid putting your camera through the machine if it's got film loaded in it.

But even if your film goes through the X-ray, it probably won't be damaged much. I just figure that if I can easily avoid the machines, I'll do it.

I'm not convinced that those special lead-lined bags for film will do much good. They will appear as opaque blocks on the X-ray, so the attendant may simply turn up the power to see what's inside.

Prints From Slides

Needs work: Cibachrome, Ilfochrome, R-prints, internegatives, digital solutions.

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