On Choosing Films

For all the doom and gloom one reads about the death of film, it just isn’t the case. Rather, the film world is in flux. Major producers are either cutting the number of film products or have closed up shop entirely, while smaller producers are emerging to supply the remaining demand. This is the way market-driven economics work.

So even though the selection available for a film photographer to choose from is not what it once was, there’s still enough that decisions have to be made. And those decisions are not always easy.

Let’s look at black-and-white first. There are three major players – Kodak, Ilford, and Fuji – and some smaller ones as well producing the common formats. Available speeds range from 25 up to 3200 (the latter being push-process; true speed closer to 1000 or so). Emulsions utilizing both traditional grain and finer tabular grain are available in multiple speeds, and chromogenic films that develop in C-41 chemistry are available in 400 speed. You call that a lack of choice?

The real problem is selecting one as your go-to film. There’s much to be said for experimentation with different emulsions, but ultimately it’s probably a good idea to settle on one or two for regular use, at least if your intention is to get the best possible images. This is particularly true if you do your own developing, as each film requires its own technique to get the most out of it. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of modern film stocks are quite tolerant, with good latitude, capable of nice tones, and with few annoying quirks.

So what do you want? Fast or slow? Multi-purpose or specialized? Traditional, T-grain, or chromogenic? And most importantly – and most difficult to nail down – what look are you after? Each film has its own character, and each photographer will have a preference (or likely more than one, depending on circumstances). The only way to figure out what you like is to try a bunch of different types and see how they turn out. This will be time-consuming, laborious, and potentially costly. Hey, you could always go digital….

After a fair bit of fooling around, I’m settling into Kodak’s Tri-X as my basic B&W film choice. It’s a traditional grain film, so it retains the characteristic look I prefer. Most of my cameras are old, and I like my photos to reflect the equipment; T-grain films generally look a little too modern for my taste. I haven’t worked out my slower speed choice fully yet, but right now it’s down to three: Ilford’s Pan F+ or FP4+, or Kentmere’s 100 (all three are Harman products). I’ve had good results with all of them, which doesn’t make it any easier.

But we’re not done yet – Fuji’s Acros is a T-grain film that also happens to have excellent reciprocity characteristics (meaning it doesn’t mind long exposures), making it perfect for pinhole photography. So when the pinhole cameras come out, they get Acros – the finer grain doesn’t bother me in this application, given the overall softness of pinhole images. I have also determined one other specialized use for T-grain B&W: half-frame cameras. The smaller frame benefits significantly from the sharpness and clarity possible with these films.

Color negative is a little easier, if for no other reason than that there are fewer readily-available choices. Only Kodak and Fuji are playing here, and they’ve both narrowed their offerings down pretty significantly: each offers consumer films in 200 and 400 (in addition, Fuji offers an 800), and professional films in 400 (Kodak has the clear edge here, offering 100, 160, and 800 as well). Still, though, there are plenty of differences. Both manufacturers have their own distinctive color palettes, and Kodak’s Ektar looks vastly different than their Portra line. The consumer films are far cheaper, but the grain is larger and the images look more old-fashioned (for want of a better characterization).

Again, the question is what look you’re after, and how much you’re willing to pay for it. In color moreso than in black-and-white, you pay a lot more for the professional quality films. Thus, for general shooting, I’ll tend to stick with the consumer films. I prefer Kodak’s colors to Fuji’s – Kodak films tend to be more saturated (especially the reds) and a little warmer. I’ve had better results with the 200 speed offerings from both than I have with the faster options, but they’re all serviceable. I particularly like the way the Kodak Gold 200 works with uncoated lenses.

The jump to professional color emulsions is huge. The grain almost disappears, the colors assume more subtle gradations, and for the Portra films in particular the tolerance goes way up (Ektar is far less able to deal with exposure errors). This is where color film really shows its stuff. In any situation that demands the best possible color images, there is no question that professional films are worth the cost.

My choice here is simpler. Kodak’s Portra line, and specifically the 160 speed, is my go-to 35mm color for serious shooting. The colors are a bit subdued at times, but usually strike a really nice balance. Oddly, though, where the palette works well for me in 35mm, it seems far more neutral – almost washed out – in 120. So for medium format I have settled on Ektar, which provides a more saturated look, especially with the uncoated lens on my Rolleiflex. Oddly, I like Ektar for half-frame as well – like the T-grain B&W films, the super fine grain of Ektar allows you to get the most out of the small negative (though Portra will work just fine here as well).

Your Humble Filmosaur, in spite of being rather opinionated and not at all unwilling to share said opinions, is not in any way suggesting that these choices are right for everyone. Quite frankly, they aren’t even always right for me. Instead, my purpose here is simply to suggest that anyone who shoots film these days has enough choices available that some real thought needs to be put into just what films to choose if they want to maintain as much control over their photos as possible. And the only way to find answers here is to do the research for yourself.

On the streets

FED-2 w/ Industar-26, Tri-X
FED-2 w/ Industar-26, Tri-X

As interested as I’ve become in street photography recently, I’m not very good at it. I like the concept, but I haven’t developed the eye for it, and I’m still reluctant to get too close to people or to be seen overtly taking their picture. Then there’s the fact that street photography sort of relies by definition on getting out on the streets where there are people; Your Humble Filmosaur doesn’t care for crowds, cities, noise, and all the other things that are sort of necessary for this sort of photography. Taking pictures of the cows up the road doesn’t really qualify.

FED-2 w/ Industar-26, Tri-X
FED-2 w/ Industar-26, Tri-X

The idea of doing street photography hadn’t really occurred to me until I got back into shooting film. While I suppose it’s entirely possible to take the sort of candid pictures that street photography is known for with the latest digital equipment, it seems somehow more appropriate to do it with film. The classic street photographs seem to have a sort of grittiness that you just can’t get with digital (well, not without a lot of post-processing effort anyway). Sure, you can blast away with digital and then pick through your thousands of images later to find a few decent ones, but it’s just not the same as trying to see the image, compose it, and take it, all before the moment is gone, yet all the while knowing that you have to be deliberate, make sure your settings are correct (more on that in a moment), and that you’re only going to get one shot (assuming an old, non-auto-wind camera).

FED-2 w/ Industar-26, Tri-X
FED-2 w/ Industar-26, Tri-X

Street photographers have a bunch of tricks to make it a little easier to get their shots. (I should note that everything I’m writing about here has been culled from reading about street photography; I did not come up with any of this stuff on my own. I’m not that clever.) Using 400 ISO film like Kodak Tri-X gives some flexibility in decent light, but shooting it at 1600 ISO and pushing two stops in development makes it much easier to maintain the shutter speeds necessary to capture motion without too much blurring in dimmer lighting conditions. Rather than setting the exposure for each shot, street photographers will often simply focus at a given distance – say 8-10 feet – and set a fixed aperture – something in where the lens will perform well and give enough depth-of-field to be useful, maybe f/8 or so – and use that as a baseline for their shots. Removing the need to focus and presetting the aperture makes getting the shot off quickly much more likely.

FED-2 w/ Industar-26, Tri-X
FED-2 w/ Industar-26, Tri-X

Knowing a few tricks doesn’t make you a street photographer, and I’m not one. I hack around with it on occasion, but I’m not very good. I need practice. A lot of practice. And even then I will probably never be more than passable. Still, it’s an interesting and very different sort of photography, and I figure the more variations I try, the better I’ll get overall. Pushing boundaries and all, you know.