Types of Film

Once many of the people I talk to have got over the question of "you still shoot film?" - I get a lot of questions around the types of film that you can use and what could be used in any situation. This is a very complex subject and one worthy of me writing down my thoughts on the subject. I have a lot of experience shooting all kinds of (at least mainstream) film on a range of formats from 35mm to XPan, 645 and 6x6 formats. There is no single solution to what makes a "good" film, but you can match film to situations quite well. So, what does this mean?

Firstly, you need to think what kind of photo you want to end up with. This is more than B&W versus colour - its a question of the kind of "finish" you want to end up with. Some photos require some specific techniques. There are 3 main types of film…. 1) Colour negative film, 2) colour positive film and 3) black and white negative film. Of course, like every rule, there are exceptions - like the black and white positive films that are still being made today. Like the old saying goes, horses for courses.

Black and white is an amazing way to look at anything - especially scenes with good texture. I am still learning, but have a look at my earlier post on "Thinking in Black and White" about what I think on the subject. There is a lot written in the press, blogs and so on about using digital processing to "emulate" film. I really don't understand this, why not shoot film in the first place? The only thing that looks like Fuji ACROS 100 (my most beloved film) is - well - Fuji ACROS 100. The grain, the micro contrast and the overall tonality are simply unable to be reproduced in any other way. Here is an example.


Fuji ACROS 100 on a Hasselblad 500CM - Lei Yue Mun village in Hong Kong

The only real challenge here is how to scan these films to get best effect. That will be a subject of another post. 

There are 2 real mainstream film types available here in Japan. One is the Fuji Film B&W films - of which really only the ACROS 100 is still available. This is a magical film and highly recommended. Obviously this is ISO100 film, so you might need more speed to actually make your chosen style work. The truly amazing Fuji NEOPAN 400 is no longer made in 120/220 format, but can be found in 135 format and is highly recommended. I would choose this first. Should you need 120/220 format, then it almost has to be Kodak and either TMAX or Tri-X. To be honest I am still trying to work out where these are different and where to use. To date I tend to use TMAX as it is the one most often stocked here in Japan. You can also push this film up to ISO1600 with really good results, so it really is an all purpose solution to shooting B&W. Obviously, be aware that grain can be a real issue - unless you want it - when you shoot in 135 format.

So what about the really hard challenge of choosing a colour film. OK, this is a harder one. The first question is obviously positive or negative? It of course depends on what you want to achieve. There are some general rules of thumb here - 1) positive (slide) film gives you more saturated colours and much more contrast in the overall colour and 2) negative film can give you a certain "gentle" look to a scene and really can give you amazing capability on overall tones. Here are some examples…..


Fuji Provia 100F positive film on Mamiya 645. Very high colour and contrast. Nara, Japan.


Kodak Ektar 100 negative film. Mamiya 645. Note the very relaxed colour palette. The grain on this film is amazing.


Fuji PRO160S colour negative film. Mamiya 645. Hartfield House, Wiltshire UK. Lovely colour and balance.

Most positive film comes in ISO100 speeds - which is not that helpful at the end of the day. The fastest positive film available is Fuji Provia 400X. This is an amazing film, but is is more "muted" in its colour palette than the ISO100 film we might be used to. The slowest of all positive film is the Fuji Velvia 50 film. It is amazing for landscapes in summer, with really saturated colour and strong contrasts. The grain is simply not there and can be blown up to extraordinary sizes. I ahve some great results in large formats. Don't EVER try street photography with this film. Examples below.

Sicily XPAN 0008

Fuji Velvia 50 on Hasselblad XPan. Fabulous colour. Agrigento in Sicily, Italy.

So, if you want colour and you want speed, what do you do? There are a number of ISO400 colour films available, and I thnk that Kodak Portra 400 is the best of those. Fuji also makes a very nice film in it's "new" PRO400 range of films. If you need to go faster than that, there is the Fuji Natura 1600 film, only available in 135 format, that can give good results, but needs care in subject and exposure. Example below.


Fuji Natura 1600 on Leica M7 with Leica Noctilux 50mm lens. Great for night time, but take care with contrast.

So, the shrinking range of film is maybe making the selection of the fiulm easier - and that the quality of each film is getting better. but if you really wnat to play an ISO game, choose digital. Digital is much better in low light than film. Film really is now  daylight format and one where the "interpretation" of the scheme is as important as the technical aspects like focus. Choose your results carefully and don't be disappointed when film doesn't deliver. It has more limitations than digital. I carry both and revel in the results of both. You should do the same.

© David Runacres 2014