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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Film Buying Guide

Tunnel Vision
© 2011 Simon Hucko

Last week I talked about buying a film camera. This week I'm going to talk a bit about the different types of film that are available and how to choose what to shoot. If you're just looking for my recommendations, skip down to the bottom.

Digital camera sensors are designed to respond to light in a flat, uniform way. No matter what ISO you choose, most RAW images look pretty much the same, give or take some noise - linear light response, low contrast, flat colors. This gives you a pretty uniform starting point for post processing, and lets you create the look you want after the fact (punch up the color, convert to black and white, add contrast, desaturate a bit, etc.). You don't really have to think about the final look of a shot when you take it (although you should at least have some idea of where it's going to set the best lighting and exposure), and you can create multiple versions of an image after the fact with different looks.

With film, on the other hand, what film you choose to load into your camera (and how you choose to shoot and develop it) has a big impact on how the final image will look, so you have to give it some thought ahead of time. The biggest difference from shooting digital is that you can't change your ISO on the fly, so you have to choose an ISO and stick to it for the whole roll. Much like with digital shooting, higher ISO films will have a more pronounced grain than "slower" films, and tend to be higher contrast and show less detail. If you plan on shooting handheld in a range of conditions (sunny to indoor), 400 speed is probably a safe bet. If you don't have to worry about low light there are a lot of nice films from 100-200 ISO. If you're shooting a concert at a dimly lit bar, you might have to push your film to 1600 or higher to get usable shots.

Once you have an idea of what conditions you'll be shooting in, your next big decision is color or black and white. There are two types of color film, color negative (also called color print film, C-41 process) and slide film (also called color positive, reversal, transparency, and E6 process). As the names suggest, color negative films give you a negative image that is suitable for traditional optical printing, whereas slide films give you a positive image that can be projected or viewed on a lightbox.

C-41 is the most common type of film, and film and processing is readily available at drug stores and places like Target, Costco, WalMart, etc. Color negative is probably the easiest way to shoot film, since you can drop off a roll for developing and often times get the lab to scan it for you (generally low quality unless you use a professional lab, but good enough for Flickr). If you have a scanner, most labs will do development only if you ask (although you may get some strange looks and questions this way). This is generally much more cost effective and lets you control how your images are scanned (better color and quality), but means more work on your end before you can share your photos. Color negative film also tends to be the most forgiving with exposure, and you can typically miss by a stop or two in either direction and still get a good image. In that sense, color negative film is similar to shooting RAW in digital - you have more dynamic range and wiggle room with your final images. Unlike digital, underexposure of color negative film tends to block up the shadows and gives a purplish color cast to the image, so it's generally better to err on the side of overexposure unless you're looking for that effect.

E6 (slide film) is more specialized and is just about impossible to find in a store. Most slide films range from 50-100 ISO, so they're not practical for indoor or low light shooting without a flash. The dynamic range of slide film is also much smaller than color negative, and because it's a positive process you have to be careful not to blow your highlights (much like with digital), or you lose the information. In this respect, slide films are kind of like the JPEG of the film world. E6 films tend to be very sharp with vivid colors, and are best viewed in person through projection or on a lightbox with a loupe.

You can also process slide film in C-41 chemistry (commonly known as "cross-processing" or "x-pro"), which gives you a negative image on the film. This tends to give higher saturation and color casts, especially when treated as color negative film during scanning or printing. Color negative film comes on an orange backing whereas slide film has a clear base, so scanning on the "color negative" setting adjusts for the orange and will give your cross-processed image a green cast. This is what you'll typically see when looking at cross-processed images, and is what your hipster camera app tries to simulate. You can also scan them as a color positive and invert using Photoshop, which gives a more normal looking image with only slight changes in color and saturation.

Finally, black and white film. There are a lot of different black and white films available, ranging from ISO 25 to ISO 3200. Different black and white films have different grain and tonal range characteristics, generally following the "higher ISO films have larger grain, less fine detail and more contrast" rule. Unlike shooting color, where every film is run through the same chemicals for the same time and temperature, black and white film developing times vary based on what film it is and what developer you're using. This means that if you send your black and white film into a lab, they're going to have to manually process it, which gets very expensive very quickly. Processing black and white at home is easy and pretty inexpensive, so if you're planning on shooting film I highly recommend developing your own black and white a few times just for the experience. (And who knows, you might even like it! I'll write more about home developing in the future.) Whatever you do, *do not* let someone run your black and white film through a C-41 machine, you'll end up getting back blank negatives due to a bleaching step in the process. Skip the drugstore on this one, or you'll be sorry.

Where to buy? Freestyle Photo is my new favorite place for all things film. Sometimes Adorama or B&H have better prices (and shipping from them is much faster since I live on the east coast), but Freestyle definitely has the best selection. I advocate buying fresh film from a retail distributor whenever possible, since it lets retailers and manufacturers know that people are still interested in shooting film. If you really can't afford it or plan on shooting a *huge* amount of film, then buying on eBay is a good way to go. Plenty of professional photographers have freezers full of film that they're looking to get rid of. Look for "cold stored" in the listing - even if the film is expired, if it has been stored in a fridge or freezer it should be ok to use.

I keep saying "freezer" - film is happiest being stored frozen, just make sure you take it out and let it thaw a day or so before loading. Putting it in the fridge is better than nothing, so if you have an old dorm fridge lying around you can divide it between film and beer. I generally zip mine into a plastic bag just to keep it separate from the food, but that's not really necessary. If you have to store it at room temp, find the coolest place possible (preferably in a drawer or cupboard out of the sun). Heat will break down the emulsion on a film, and lead to faded colors, more grain and possibly other signs of damage. C-41 film is especially susceptible to bad storage, so take extra care if you buy expired color film online.

So there ya go, a pretty basic overview of film. There's a lot more to talk about (especially with black and white), so I'll write up more in the future. To close, though, I'm going to give a few recommendations of what film to shoot. I haven't shot with all of these, so some of them are based on what I've seen on Flickr, but they're on my list for the future. (Click on the links to pull up a Flickr search for images tagged with the film name.)

E6: Don't bother, just shoot digital. For serious. (If you can argue with me about why you should shoot E6, you're probably beyond my skill level with this stuff anyway.) If you want to try cross processing, find the cheapest stuff on eBay (probably expired) and use that. No sense paying for good film that you're just going to intentionally mess up.

C-41: I like Kodak Gold (100, 200, 400, it's all good), and that's probably the only "consumer" film that I'd recommend. The new Kodak Portra 400 is supposed to be a fantastic emulsion, and has a huge exposure latitude. Once I burn through the Gold in my freezer, that's probably what I'll switch to for color.

Black and White: It's hard to go wrong with Kodak Tri-X, a classic 400 speed film and a great one to start with when developing your own (very forgiving). Lately I've become enamored with the look of Fuji Neopan 100 Acros, and have a few rolls waiting their turn in the freezer.

I don't have a whole lot of experience with different film stocks, so if you have one that you like please share in the comments. As always, questions or comments are appreciated :)


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1 comment:

  1. Ooo, I *love* that top photo you took. It looks very cira 1920's or 30's. Beautiful.

    Also, really interesting post - great advice!