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July 23, 2015 3:14 PM   Subscribe

I've started shooting photos with film. What are the differences between the kinds of film?

Ilford HP5 vs. Kodak Tri-X vs. Fujifilm Neopan, etc.
Kodak Ektar vs Fujifilm Superia, etc.

All the resources I have are filled with terms I don't understand, and perhaps the applications are beyond me. Should I just grab some rolls of Kodak Max?

I'm interested in shooting reversal, not slides.
posted by the man of twists and turns to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Are you developing the black and white film yourself? If not, I'd say pick any one of them and just stick with that and learn its characteristics. Most of the differences will be in the size and shape of the film grains and how it responds to different developers.
posted by Venadium at 3:37 PM on July 23, 2015

The most obvious differences are the chemistry to develop them and their sensitivity to light. Tri-X chemistry is different from TMAX, which is different than C-41. The second is a personal preference. Shoot them all to experiment, just make sure whomever is processing your film can do it!
posted by bensherman at 3:49 PM on July 23, 2015

Each film has it's own color, grain, and latitude ("the extent to which a light-sensitive material can be overexposed or underexposed and still achieve an acceptable result").

What's fun (to me) about shooting film is that you load up a style and go shoot 36 exposures of it. As opposed to digital where you shoot 1000 frames and then spend 5 hours deciding between 40 possible styles for each photo (oy …).

So: I say get a bunch of types of film and shoot around with each and see what look you dig the most. Then shoot that film a lot to discover its particular characteristics (how it looks in low light, bright light, with a flash, without, etc. etc.).
posted by wemayfreeze at 4:06 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's always been a lot of marketing mumbo-jumbo from the film companies. Charts printed at unreadable sizes without reference to measurement standards, etc.. so it's sorta understandable. Film also came of age in a time when international purchase and transport was more complex, so there's that. (Kodak=US, Ilford=UK, Fuji=Japan)

For the most part, there are a few broad categories, and then there's enormous variation within chemistry, and to a lesser degree, physical construction.

There are a few films that are/were *extremely* remarkable, such that they even have digital filters named after them.. e.g. Velvia, or they were simply used by luminaries (ha) of the craft, and inherited rep via the gear fetishism the photo world is so inclined towards.

Have you ever used the "curves" or "levels" command in photoshop or similar image editing software? That's basically it. Because of the chemistry, each film responds differently to light. They are, in a very real sense, tuned or calibrated to have different response curves, and as wemayfreeze mentions, grain and dynamic range.

The only thing you should def do, is *not* pay too much for it as some weird inflated $$$ retro kitsch hobby. Look online for both purchasing and developing options.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 4:14 PM on July 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Shoot 1 roll of each and see what you like. Each film brand will have its own character.
posted by raw sugar at 4:22 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

So there are three types of film you can shoot: c-41 (color negative film) b+w (black and white negative film) and e-6 (color slide film). Of black and white film you have your ilford films, fuji films, and kodak films. Within those brands there are films for everything, depending on what you want to shoot and the lighting situations of what you want to shoot. Do you want to shoot concerts? Get some 3200 speed film from ilford or kodak. Do you want to shoot landscapes or portraits outside in bright light? Get some 100 speed film in any brand. My personal favorites are HP5 (a good all around black and white film at 400 iso), Kodak 100 TMAX and Ilford Pan F Plus 50. The tmax is a great film for smooth grain and good contrast. The ilford pan f plus is a fabulous film for really bright days and it has very high contrast. The best way to find YOUR favorite type of black and white film is to buy one roll of a lot of different kinds and then shoot it! This is not as costly as you might think if you learn how to develop it yourself.

Then there is color negative film. In my opinion kodak color neg film tends to have warmer colors and are much better for portraits. Landscapes shot on kodak look a little weird sometimes, but not out of the ordinary. Fuji color negative film is generally cooler toned and better for landscapes. Now of course you will find people with the opposite opinions as me, so take all of this with a grain of salt. Kodak Ektar in particular has really saturated reds, and is weirdly enough a great film for landscapes. My favorite color films are the Kodak portra films, in 400 or 160. An all around fabulous film that has some lovely colors. I am not a fan of fuji, but there are some people who really are. Again, my suggestion for you to find your personal favorites are to shoot one roll of a bunch of different types of film and decide which you like the best.

The best places to buy film from will be the internet. East coast: B and H photo video. West Coast: Freestyle photo. They cater to mostly students and professionals so the prices are not as inflated as they would be if you went to lomographic or urban outfitters or some crap like that.
I majored in photo, got my MFA in photo and then worked at a photo lab for a couple years before becoming an elementary school teacher, so feel free to memail me if you have any more questions! I love talking about film.
posted by ruhroh at 5:07 PM on July 23, 2015 [9 favorites]

I know you said you aren't interested in slide film, but it might be worth giving a chance at some point. You get very vivid colors from slide film, and it has a unique look. You don't have to keep it as slides - you can make prints from slide film, too. Back when I worked at a photo lab, I knew lots of people (including pros) who shot exclusively on slide film just to get a certain look.
posted by teponaztli at 5:26 PM on July 23, 2015

If you are shooting reversal color, my advice is to just stick with Kodak Ektar & Portra lines. Unless you are going to go all out and start analog printing your own film, you will have to go through a digital process to get prints made. These film stocks were rejiggered a few years back to be optimized for scanning. As someone who has been scanning film and printing digitally since about 2001, I notice a huge difference in the quality of Kodak's current line up over the others. To the point that I still have a freezer full of Fuji that I never shoot because I keep buying the Kodak stuff.

Of course, don't rule out it being a taste thing. I'm not one who likes grain being visible in my photos, and what the Kodak films do very well is minimize it vs other brand's equivalent film speed counter parts.

One other belief I have regarding film is that if you are just letting a lab scan and print you pictures, prepared yourself for the possibility of being somewhat disappointed if you expecting 35mm quality to blast ahead of what digital can do these days. Cheap lab prints I get back never look as good as what I can create myself. If I had no experience and thought what I got back for $5-$10 was it, I'd probably lose faith in film real quick. But this also comes with the price tag of getting all the equipment to do it yourself, and gaining the experience to make it look better. But that shouldn't be too far down the road if you catch the bug.
posted by kpraslowicz at 5:43 PM on July 23, 2015

Tri-X and Plus-X use older chemistry, and as a result they don't have the creamy grain that HP5 or Acros can have. This can be a plus if you wish to push process, but if you want to focus more on tone you'll be better with a newer emulsion.

Expose negative film for the shadows, letting the highlights fall where they may, because negative film has a soft shoulder and you'll gain more shadow detail than you lose in the highs. Some B&W film likes to be overexposed a fair bit for this— Pan F in particular does well with lots of light.

For C41 colour, I like Fuji NPS/NPH. It's neutral compared to the Kodak films. Superia is easier to come by and almost as good, though it can have a green cast.
posted by a halcyon day at 5:52 PM on July 23, 2015

Should I just grab some rolls of Kodak Max?

Not a bad idea. That and a couple rolls of Superia would be enough to see if you're a Kodak or Fuji person. Fuji to me though = slides. Nthing the Portra love, it's the best colour print film out there, and it's worth noting that premium or "pro" film isn't a scam or anything, it really is better. I wouldn't bother learning to shoot for $10 a roll though, I'd buy the absolute cheapest thing available in lots of 10 on ebay.
posted by Lorin at 6:00 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You should grab plenty of rolls – the differences in the film are just of style and quality, and there should be nothing that daunting about trying them out and seeing what you like. Better yet, search flickr for different brands of film (and ISOs) to see some shots taken on them.
posted by deathmaven at 6:02 PM on July 23, 2015

Also— you can buy pro-packs of 'pro films' like Velvia, NPH, etc usually at about $4/roll. Cheaper if you scout for expired film on ebay.

Though you can find yourself in a proper rabbit hole looking for Aerochrome or Tech Pan.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:16 PM on July 23, 2015

Cheaper if you scout for expired film on ebay.

For a followup question: how much can I push it on the expired film? Less than a year out I understand it ok, but what about more than that?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:20 PM on July 23, 2015

'Expired' film really just means the hue and tonal response differs from what the manufacturer intends. It will shoot fine, and develop fine; it will probably have a colour cast/shift and may have more grain. There's no real upper limit within C41 - though if you buy K14 or some other process that isn't made anymore, you may not be able to get it developed.

Especially for C41 reversal you will get more interesting results with expired film, and if buying expired means you shoot twice as many frames, go for it.

Don't go on a white whale hunt looking for pre-'73 Kodak until you're really sure that's what you want, though.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:43 PM on July 23, 2015

I'm interested in shooting reversal, not slides.
Especially for C41 reversal ...
Reversal film is slide film. E6, not C41, is the process for it. Unless you want to waste perfectly good film by cross processing it.
If you are shooting reversal color, my advice is to just stick with Kodak Ektar & Portra lines.
Ektar and Portra are both color negative films. Kodak no longer makes any reversal films. If you want color reversal film (aka "slide film" aka "chromes" aka "diapositives"), you're left with Agfa CT Precisia, Fuji Provia, Fuji Velvia, Rollei CHROME CR. Ferrania just had a kickstarter, I'm getting a bundle of rolls from them, I'll let you know how it works as color reversal film if you're interested once I get it.

If you want B&W reversal film, you're left with Agfa Copex Slide Direct or Fomapan R. You can also reverse process a bunch of regular B&W, I've somewhat successfully processed Adox CMS 20 in a reversal process with a bit help from an Adox rep on apug.org. See this page on Ilford's site about reversal processing.

Back to the original question, for beginners, I think the following are good starting points:

B&W negative: Ilford HP5 (400 box speed, does 100 to 1600 easily, 3200 can be done)
Color negative: Portra 160 (they used to have vivid and neutral variations, I think that's gone, but C41 isn't my thing so I can't say definitely)
Color positive (aka reversal, aka slide, aka chrome): Provia 100F ... get Velvia 50 when you want crazy sunset landscape colors ... get a roll of Provia 400X before it's gone for good and be amazed at how little grain there is and how much detail you can fit into a frame of 400 speed color film
posted by Brian Puccio at 8:37 PM on July 23, 2015

a halcyon day recommended exposing for the shadows. The important other side of this is to process for the highlights. If you expose for highlights and process straight up you lose shadow detail. That's why you expose for shadow. If enough light hits the emulsion to differentiate grades of shadow it will show up in processing however your highlights may now become blocked up or in other words not have any detail in the brighter portions - too much silver reacts to the light making the darker parts of the negative denser. A balance is struck in the time and temperature of the processing. You need to shoot a range of exposures of a subject image with the same lighting and process at one chosen parameter and then as needed repeat at different parameters. It might behoove you to expose twelve exposure rolls of a subject and start with one processing parameter and after viewing use a different parameter for the next roll of twelve images until you reach the full tonal range you desire in the negative. This of course requires custom processing at home or with a lab. You can of course determine the optimum exposure range of a consumer lab run via modifying how intensely you expose for shadows. Use the same camera and lens for the tests and keep extensive notes. Have fun.
posted by Jim_Jam at 9:13 PM on July 23, 2015

I'm interested in shooting reversal, not slides.

LOL. Those are the same thing.

T-Max has the least grain of the 400 ISO b/w films which used to be a good thing. If you actually want grain use Tri-X or HP5 and optionally push it a stop or two if you want even more grain & contrast.

For super low grain (but slowish) I always liked Ilford FP4. I was living in the UK at the time so Ilford was easily available. For elsewhere in the world Kodak b/w products are probably easier to get, and are also fine.

Color negative films tend to use the C-41 process, which is a pain to do at home compared to typical b/w negative development which is quite simple. Most people would rather send color negatives to a lab.

What are the terms people are using to describe b/w negative film that you don't understand?
I think I'd just talk about the speed and the grain for the most part.
posted by w0mbat at 1:46 PM on July 24, 2015

To update, I ended up getting a great deal on a big pile of low-grade consumer C41 process film, and I've been shooting ever since. I figured by removing one variable, I could focus on learning others. I've gotten some good shots, about one per roll.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:38 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

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