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Until the digital wave overtakes it, film is the medium used by most serious photographers, especially for uses other than the computer screen.  Compared to most digital cameras (at least in the year 2000), film has higher resolution.  

Consider this:  As of August, 2000, most consumer-level digital cameras were being advertised with 8MB of storage space.  Some went as high as 64MB.  On the other hand, a scan 35mm slide can produce a file around 30MB - that's one picture!  Of course, it is an uncompressed picture, and the digital cameras all use compression - but compression can affect image quality.

Of course, by next year digital cameras will exceed film capabilities - or so it seems.  Actually, for publishing on the web, digital cameras are already quite capable and even more convenient than film.

All that being said, film will be with us, at least for a while.  This section is dedicated to helping you choose and use film.  It is based on the assumption that you are using a 35mm camera (Click here for a discussion of camera formats), although many of the comments would apply to other film formats as well.

Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations

Decision 1- Print or Slide?

Film comes in two versions, negative and positive.  Negative or Print films produce an image that is the exact opposite (in terms of color) as positive (slide) films.  The purpose of a negative film is to allow you to make a positive print, or photograph.  Because the paper used to print the negatives also makes a negative image, if you print with a negative film on a negative paper, you get a positive print.  Got it?

Positive films (hereafter called slide film) form a positive (normal) image on the film itself.  This is useful if the image is going to be projected.  It is also nice if you are viewing the image directly, but since the film is so small this isn't really a consideration.  Experienced photographers using a loupe (magnifying glass) are experienced at judging both slides and negatives on the light table.

Which is better?  Several factors must be considered before making a choice.

  1. Output:  If you want to project your images, you should take slides.  While you could make slides from negatives, it would cost money and you would lose quality.  If you want to make prints, you are better off with negative film from the start, although you can make prints from slides.  If you will be scanning to the web, either film is an acceptable choice, since most scanning software (and Photoshop) allow you to invert positive to negative and vice-versa.
  2. Cost:  A recent mail-order advertisement for 36 exposure, ISO 200 Kodak films with mail-in processing showed a cost of $12.28 for print film (with prints) and $9.78 for mounted slides.  This would make it seem cheaper to shoot slides as opposed to prints. Locally, however, print film is almost always much cheaper than slide film.  Also, you can often buy print film on sale, and local drugstores and the like may be able to give you a better deal on processing.  It pays to check locally first before determining which film will be most economical.  When checking, be sure you know both the cost of film and processing.
  3. Convenience:  Most people shoot print film, so it is much more available.  You can find it, for a good price, at most any store, and most drugstores and supermarkets can process it in one hour on-site (but the quality may be poor).  Slide film is harder to find,  and is usually very expensive when bought locally.  Only camera stores will be able to process it, and in many places they will need overnight to do it.
  4. Quality:  Quality of print films has improved to the point where they rival slide films.  At higher speeds (400 and up) print film may have an advantage over slide film.
  5. Archival stability:  Prints will fade, often quite rapidly.  Slides will also fade (particularly if they are projected often).  However, for long-term (over 10 years) storage, slides are superior, even to negatives.  In addition, it seems to me that slide film itself is more resistant to scratches than negative film, but this may be due to the fact that the slides have a mount which facilitates handling.
  6. Exposure latitude:  If your exposure is slightly off, print film is more forgiving, if for no other reason than some correction can be made when making the print.  You only have one shot with slides.

Which to buy?  If you need to project, you need to use slides.  For other purposes, investigate local costs of film and processing before making a decision.  If you plan ahead, you can often save money buy purchasing larger quantities of film on-line or by mail order (be sure to buy enough film to offset the per-roll cost of shipping and handling).

Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations


Decision 2 - Film Speed and Grain

In a perfect world, film would have no grain at all.  In our world, grain is a fact of life.  The light-sensitive chemicals that form the image take up a certain amount of space.  The bigger the individual chunks of light-sensitive chemicals are, the grainier the film.  Unfortunately, there is a positive relationship between grain and film speed.  The faster the film, the grainier it is.  

Grain is bad because it reduces resolution.  Resolution is the ability to distinguish between two close points, but if you have large grain those close points may wind up on the same chunk of chemical - and thus the ability to distinguish between them will be lost.  Fast film is better because it allows you to freeze fast motion with high shutter speeds, or increase sharpness and depth of field by using a smaller aperture.  Unfortunately, you can't have your cake and eat it too.

Deciding on a film speed is largely deciding where to compromise.  Most nature photographers working today tend towards slower films to get the best possible resolution.  The standard seems to be films in the 50-100 ISO range.  The professionals make up for the slow film speed with technique - extensive use of tripods to reduce camera shake, using mirror lock-up features, timing photographs to catch the moment when the action is at its slowest, photographing when the light is best, using flash.  Until you learn these techniques, you might want to drift up to faster films in the 200 ISO range.  Stay away from 400 ISO or higher films unless you really need them.  You will be disappointed in the results because of the grain.  Also, higher speed films (at least 400 and above) often cost more.  BY the way, if you need a film over 400 ISO, you might want to consider a print film.

Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations


Black and White or Color?

Nowadays, most imaging is done in color.  Remember that the technology to produce color film and process it was not practical on a large scale until World War II.  For a long time, most photography was done in black-and white.  In general, black-and-white films are cheaper, they have smaller grain at a given ISO, and they can be processed with simple chemicals, even in a home darkroom.  But, of course, the final result is black-and-white, and we live in a color world.

Black and white photography still has its place, however.  If your ultimate product will be printed in a black and white publication, it may be cheaper and easier to work with black and white throughout.  Or, if you will be doing some of the printing yourself, it is much easier to work in black and white.  Some black and white films and papers are unmatched for resolution and/or contrast.

Paradoxically, in today's color world, it is getting harder to find places to get black and white film processed.  Recently, some film manufacturers have begun producing black and white film that can be run through machines designed for color film.

Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations


Professional Film

You will see "Professional" film advertised in magazines and online.  What is it?  Basically, professional films differ from "amateur" films or "consumer" films in several ways.  First, they are made in larger batches.  Because film can differ slightly from batch to batch, professionals like to stock up with large numbers of rolls of the same batch of film.  This way, there is less difference from roll to roll.  Secondly, professional film is stored under better conditions than the average consumer film.  It is usually held in refrigeration from the factory to the store.  Refrigerating the film helps extend its life beyond the "expiration date" stamped on the film. Third, some professional films do have differences in light sensitivity or color rendition as opposed to the comparable amateur films. Finally, professional film is packaged in bulk and thus has less packaging than the consumer equivalent - a good environmental feature.

Are they worth it?  Personally, I don't see the differences between batches of film (I'm hard pressed sometimes to tell the difference between different films period).  I do like to buy a lot of film at once, however, and I do store my film in the refrigerator.  In the end, if I can get a deal on the professional film I'll buy it, otherwise I go with the consumer-grade film.


Specialty Film

There are other types of film out there.  Of course there is Polaroid film, which gives you instant prints (but not in a 35 mm format).  There is also Polaroid slide film which you can process yourself (our department is equipped to do so) if you are in a hurry. Infrared film is sensitive to infrared light.  Most infrared film is black and white, but there is false-color infrared film available.  Infrared does not focus at the same point as visual light, so auto focusing is out, and manual focusing is a guess.  Some cameras, such as Canon EOS cameras, use an infrared LED to count film sprocket holes; these may fog infrared film.  UV film is also available but very hard to find. Tungsten film is specially balanced for use with incandescent lights (which give a yellowish cast to normal films).  This film is good for work on the copystand or in photomicroscopy.

Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations


Positive/Negative Film

Photoworks and several other companies sell a film which is advertised to give you both slides and negatives from the same film.  Yes, this really works, and the quality isn't all that bad.  There are several things you need to be aware of, however:

It takes special machines to process the film; in all likelihood you will have to send the film away.
The quality is not as good as that of conventional film.
Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations



Once film has been exposed, it must be processed.  This makes the image appear and makes the film insensitive to light, so that it can be viewed.  For color films, there are three main processes that are used.  C41 processing is for color print film; E6 is for most slide film, and Kodachrome processing is for some slide films.

Most one-hour photo stores have machines which can do both the C41 processing of film and the subsequent printing of prints from the film.  While the chemistry, temperatures and timing required are precise, automated machines with embedded computers can easily handle this.  Most stores can do an adequate job of processing the film, however there are large differences in their ability to make good quality prints from the film.  If your one-hour photo center does not do a good job with the prints, you might want to pay a little more to have the film processed at a camera store.  If you will be scanning your images into a computer using a film scanner, you may want to save money by having them do "negatives only".

E6 processing is a little harder to find.  Most camera stores will offer it, and if they have a machine on-site, may be able to offer 1-hour E6 processing.  

Kodachrome processing is very demanding and only a few labs offer it.  You will almost certainly have to send your Kodachrome film in to one of these labs for processing.

You can do black and white, E6 and C41 processing at home.  Minimum requirements are a darkroom (unexposed film must be handled in TOTAL darkness) or changing bag, film developing tanks, thermometers, timers  and the chemistry.  If you shoot a lot of film and if you like working in the darkroom you can save a little money by developing film yourself.

Finding a reliable processor isn't always easy.  When you get an order back, check carefully.  Are the prints well-done, with details in the highlights and the shadows, and good color tone?  Is there a color cast to the prints? Are the negatives or slides clean and unscratched?  Are slides mounted straight?  Is the service timely and economical?

Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations


Pushing Film

To increase the ISO of a film, you can push film.  This simply means developing it for a longer time.  The results can be quite good; for instance you might be able to push a 50 ISO film to ISO 100 and still have less grain than an ISO 100 film developed normally.  Here's how to do it:

  1. Load the film in the camera, and set the ISO where you want it to be (you may have to override the setting on some cameras which can read the ISO and set themselves. 
  2. The safest bet is to double the ISO on the film - it makes it easier to explain to the clerk at the photo store.
  3. Expose all the images according to the camera's meter, just as you normally would.
  4. As soon as you remove the film from the canister, MARK IT "PUSH".  Failure to do so will result in disaster if you forget to push the film or push the wrong roll.
  5. At the film store, explain what you did.  Even experienced clerks can misunderstand what you are doing, so be sure.  You can say "I exposed this ISO 50 film at ISO 100; I need it pushed 1 stop".  That should make it clear.  After a while, you will know what to say to each particular clerk.
  6. Push processing is not as available as regular processing.  Don't expect to get it done at the supermarket or drugstore, and do expect it to cost more.
Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations


Caring for Film

After its expiration date, film will begin to show a shift in light sensitivity and color rendition.  To keep your film fresh, store it under the proper conditions:

  1. If possible, store film in a refrigerator. Do not freeze.
  2. On trips, keep the film in a cooler or insulated bag.  Don't leave film in a hot car if possible.
  3. Keep film out of the sun.
  4. Keep film in its canister - this seals out dust and moisture.  I prefer to discard the cardboard packaging before going into the field, however.
  5. Remember: Unused film can be replaced for what you paid for it.  Exposed film is priceless. When changing film:
    Stay out of bright sun; at least turn your back to the sun.
    Get the exposed film in the canister before loading the new roll.
    Rewind film all the way into the canister so that you don't accidentally reload it.
    Carry your exposed film in a separate pocket or container that closes well.
  6. In the United States, airport x-ray machines are safe for film up to 400 ISO (some countries do use more powerfull x-rays).  To avoid problems:
    Carry your film in a clear plastic bag(s) with the film in clear canisters. This facilitates hand-checking at the security gate.
    Carry all your film on-hand; don't have any in checked luggage.

Speaking of airports, those lead "film safes" sound like a good idea.  But consider this.  You are operating an airport luggage x-ray, and a bag comes though with an opaque square in the center. Do you:

  1. Crank up the power to look through it (and thus ruin the film). or
  2. Send the bag and its owner for a complete screening ("Vic - where are the rubber gloves?")

Myself, I put the film in a plastic bag (in see-through canisters) and   hand it to the agent.  I let my cameras (and any film in them) take their chances with the x-ray.  It's worked for me so far.

Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations


Film Recommendations

Here are some recommendations for film.  The prices are for comparison only; they were current as of July, 2000. All costs are based on a 36 exposure roll.  I have added comments on films I have some experience with.


Film Man. ISO Print/Slide Process Professional? Cost Cost + Process. Comments
Sensia Fuji 100 Slide E6 No $2.99 $6.48 A great standard film to use, low cost.
Sensia Fuji 200 Slide E6 No $3.79 $7.28
Sensia Fuji 400 Slide E6 No $4.75 $8.24
Velvia RTP 50 Fuji 50 Slide E6 Yes $4.99 $8.48 Used by many nature photographers.  Slow, but very nice.
Provia 100 Fuji 100 Slide E6 Yes $5.29 $8.78 Good film, slightly faster than the Velvia.
Provia 400 Fuji 400 Slide E6 Yes $6.09 $9.58
Provia 1600 Fuji 1600 Slide E6 Yes $6.69 NA
Kodachrome KR-64 Kodak 64 Slide Kodachrome No $4.09 $8.38 THE standard for years.  Very long-lived, needs special processing.
Ektachrome EB-100 Kodak 100 Slide E6 No $4.29 $8.58
Ektachrome ED-200 Kodak 200 Slide E6 No $5.49 $9.78 Good when you need a faster film.  Starts to show its grain, particularly when scanning.
Ektachrome EL-400 Kodak 400 Slide E6 No $5.39 $9.68 I use this a lot for underwater photography, but it is very grainy.
Ektachrome EPN-100 Kodak 100 Slide E6 Yes $7.49 $11.78
Ektachrome E-100S Kodak 100 Slide E6 Yes $5.99 $10.28 The "S" stands for saturated; the colors may be too intense.  Has trouble with yellow flowers.
Ektachrome E-100VS Kodak 100 Slide E6 Yes $5.99 $10.28 Very Saturated
Ektachrome E-100SW Kodak 100 Slide E6 Yes $5.99 $10.28 Saturated - Warm
Ektachrome E-200 Kodak 200 Slide E6 Yes $6.19 $10.48
Ektachrome E-400 Kodak 400 Slide E6 Yes $8.49 $12.78
Royal Gold Print RA-100 Kodak 100 Print C41 No $4.15 $12.54
Royal Gold Print RB-200 Kodak 200 Print C41 No $4.69 $13.08 Good general purpose print film.
Royal Gold

 Print RC-400

Kodak 400 Print C41 No $4.79 $13.18
Tri-X 400 B/W Kodak 400 B/W Print D-76 No $3.09 $11.48
TMZ-3200 Kodak 3200 B/W Print D-76 No $3.39 NA The need for speed.

 Tungsten  EPY-160

Kodak 160 Slide E6 No $8.19 $12.48 For copystand and photomicroscopy.
Infrared B/W Kodak ------ B/W Print D-76 No $8.99
Ektachrome Infrared EIR 36 Kodak ------ Slide E6 No $18.95
Print or Slide? Film Speed and Grain Black and White or Color? Specialty Films
Professional Film Positive/Negative Film Processing Pushing Film
Film Care Film Recommendations