In analog photography, the film is a part of the picture. It can completely change the resulting image by modifying its parameters. Each of them give a unique result and each photographer has their preferences. But they also have their limits. In fact, choosing a film is a clever mix between personal tastes and technical constraints. So, how to make the right choice ?
Depending on your camera
Lets start by speaking about your camera. All the devices doesn’t use the same film. Like at the cinema where there are different sizes of analog films, photography also use different formats. Each camera use a defined format of film, you have to get one that is appropriate for yours. If you have any doubts, a quick search on your favorite search engine will give you the information.
The 135 format (aka 35mm)
The 135, also called 35mm or 24×36, is the most used size of film. Initially created for the cinema, this type of film, which is 35mm wide, will be used in analog photography to create 24x36mm pictures. Even if some camera use it to create 24x65mm pictures for panoramic photography, the 24×36 will be used for many decades to creates the outlines of a standard. This format permit to democratize the photography by making it more accessible.
This format is the easier to find in store like online. Some supermarkets even sell few of them even if they don’t have the diversity they had in de 90s. If your camera use a 35mm film, don’t worry, you will find easily what you need !
The 120 format
The 120 format is present in many camera created before the 70s and in most of the modern high-end ones. Its 64mm wide allow the photographers to produce much larger negatives, thus obtaining superior quality prints. It’s used to create many different formats such as 6×4.5cm, 6×6, 6×7, 6×8, 6×9… and even up to 6x24cm. This format is a bit like the MacGyver of the photography, it’s used for a lot of different sizes.
Still produced today, the 120 format is a little harder to find. Even if most of the major analog company still produce theirs films in 135 and 120, many less common films may not be found in this format. So, be careful if you want a specific film, all of them may not be available. Nerveless, you should find many different 120 films at specialized shops or online, it’s really uncommon to find it in supermarket.
Be careful when you go to a lab to develop these films. Normally, all the labs can develop them, but, even if it’s rare, some may not be able to scan films of this size (or at least, not in good quality), or even, print them on paper.
There are many other formats. Most of them are very difficult to find or, unfortunately, no longer produced at all. The production of the 620 format, for exemple, is now cancelled. However, it’s still possible to create them by transforming a 120 film into a 620 film thanks to an old axis stilled from an old film. Indeed, only the thickness of the axis differs between the two, you just have to swap the axis to be able to use it in a 620 camera !
If your device use others unusual format, feel free to check on internet if someone has found an alternative. Even if you can’t find a film format at your retailler, it’s possible that enthusiasts have found a solution ! In this case, remember to ask to your laboratory if they can develop your film, some may refuse to produce formats that are too unusual because they donc have the adequate equipment.
Depending on the light context
The context influence a lot the film choice. Indeed, once it’s placed in the camera, it’s tricky to change the film before it’s end. If your film should be used in the dark, you will not be able to take pictures until the sunset, which is not suitable. Before loading a film in a camera, it’s necessary to think about the one you will need.
To do your choice, you have to look at the light sensitivity of your film. Called DIN in the past, it has changed to become ASA even if we commonly call it ISO. The ISO is the assembly of the two units. We find film which are at “ISO 400/27°” (400 ASA & 27° DIN). The DIN value is not used anymore, but some old camera still use it. If your camera use this unit, don’t worry, the DIN still written directly on the film, you will find it easily. Even if it’s not the case, you will just have to do the conversion with a table like this one :
What does this value mean ?
Each film has a defined light sensitivity, we cannot change it. The more sensitive a film is, the less exposure it will need to print the photography. For exemple, during the daylight, outdoor, we will use films that have low ISO, between 50 and 200. With them, and in this light context, we’ll have great photography easily. If we are in a low light context, like at evening or indoor, we will use films that have higher ISO, between 800 and 3200.
Because of this defined sensibility, it’s important to adapt your film to the situation. If you take an unsuitable film, it will be very hard to get correctly exposed pictures. You may even loose all of your photographies if it’s really badly exposed.
If you want to get a film able to take great pictures in almost every situation, get a 400 ISO film. With its medium-high ISO, it will be great in most of the case.
Depending on your level and your budget
Your level in photography and your budget can also be a criteria. Some films are more complicated than others to handle. And, you probably already know that, each of them don’t have the same price. Because of this, some are more recommended than others to start in analog photography.
Ease of use
Each film is different and react in a unique way to light. Some are very easy to handle and others need a bit of practice. If you are a beginner in analog photography, there is few of them that are known to be really easy to use. These films tolerate very well exposure mistake, they permit to maximise your chances to get great photographies !
The Ilford HP5+ 400 film is one of them. For peoples who likes black and white photography, it’s a perfect beginner film. If you prefer color photography, the Fujifilm Superia X-TRA 400 is also a very great film. And if you want to begin with a cheaper one, the Fujicolor C200 can also do the job.
The price can also influe on the choice of a film. The price can be from 4€ to more than 15€, when two film are almost identical, the question is generally quickly answered. In addition, if you are a beginner, some of the photographies of your firsts films may be missed, so do not buy too expensive films, practice with more affordable films first ! Great to know, the cheapest films are not less qualitative. Their price depends mainly of the cost of the products used and the quantity produced. A 4€ film will not necessarily make less beautiful pictures than others !
Few models and brands are known to offer really inexpensive film. In color you can check the Fujicolor C200 and the Kodak ColorPlus 200. These have precisely been democratized thanks to their low cost. Finally, if you prefer black and white, Fomapan and Agfa are two brands known for offering films frequently below 5€.
Depending on your tastes
In an artistic activity, it is important to have fun and pleasure. Your tastes also are an important parameter in the choice of a film. Each photographer has his own preferences. Some prefer a very soft result, while others wants a lot of contrast and grain. There is as much photographer as different tastes, but how to make the right choice ?
Black and white or color ?
The first choice you have to make is to decide between black and white and color film. Of course it’s a choice directly linked to your tastes, but it is also a technical question. For people who want to develop their own film, you have to know that developing black and white film is much easier than doing color films. But remember that you can do both B&W and color if you have a professional laboratory not too far away !
Contrast & saturation
Contrast and saturation are also parameters of the film. In color one implies the other, if a photo is contrasted, you will also have saturation. In black and white, color does not exist, saturation does not exist either. Only the contrast can create more depth in your photos.
If you want low contrast pictures, in black and white, look at the Rollei Retro 100. Although it’s capable of creating very deep blacks, it still tends to be in the grays, creating its “retro” look. The Agfa APX 100 (or 400), have a little more contrast but still very soft too. On the color side the issue is a bit more complex. The Kodak Portra 400 can be considered to have lower contrast than most of the film, but it still high. It’s very hard to give a low contrast one, most of the color film have medium or high contrast.
If you are looking for stronger contrast, we can think of the Rollei RPX 400 (in black and white) which is, unlike the Retro 100, extremely deep. It pass very quickly from white to an intense black (beginners beware, it can be complicated to work with). For the color, we will first think of the Kodak Ultramax 400 but especially of the Kodak Ektar 100 which bring a lot of contrast and saturation.
The grain is a constant debate, some peoples love it, others hate. Sometimes we prefer a very fine grain and other times we want a well marked grain… Once again, the grain style is completely part of the predefined parameters of the film. First of all, be aware that on high sensitivity films you will have grain. The more sensitive the film is, the larger the crystals present on its surface are. So it will inevitably contain grain. If you want to avoid it, you have to prefer low-sensitivity analog film.
For a fine and soft grain
Those who like a fine and discreet grain can have a look at Kodak Ektar 100 which is described by Kodak as the finest and smoothest grain film available. But you can also have fun with the Kodak Portra 400 or the Fuji X-Tra 400. All 3 have a rendering very close to digital cameras because of their almost imperceptible grain. In black and white, we will think of the Kodak TMax 100 and the Agfa APX 100 (both also exist in 400) which are also very soft.
For a very present grain
To have very marked grain, you should rather look at the high sensitivity film. If you prefer color it’s a bit tricky. Most really grainy films are no longer produced because they had a result… A little bit strange. We can mention the Color Implosion Surreal CN, unfortunately no longer available since 2017, which had a real grainy style. But today, unless you settle for medium grain, it finally became pretty hard to fine one.
Black and white film are better candidate for grain. Even if it’s a bit complicated to find really very grainy films, we still have films like the Ilford Delta 3200 which have a relatively marked grain. Otherwise, the Ilford HP5 + 400, despite its medium ISO, can create grain in low light. Like with the color, we also have to do with film which have medium grain. But a method exist to get grain with any black and white film. For those interested, look at how to push film, it may help you !
Try & discover
In fact, as an artist my main tip to get the perfect film roll is to call to your curiosity. After trying few different films, you will start to know what kind of film you want. I can only tell you to try new films regularly. It’s by discovering new rolls that you will find the analog film that you like the most. Beyond that, trying different films will allow you to know which roll you need to each situation. For example, you may like to use a certain film for portrait photography, but like another one for landscapes. It’s up to you to see what suits the most for your style.
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