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Film: A Beginner's Guide

An old friend just asked me for a film recommendation. She got a DSLR recently, made a few nice photographs, converted a few to black and white, got to wondering what real black and white film is like, dug out an old family Minolta SLR - and here we are. I thought that a lot of people who have started out with digital photography and never experienced film might be in a similar position. The terminology surrounding various types of films, formats and processes can be a little confusing and daunting - it was for me when I started, even though it was before digital photography exploded on the scene. So here's a quick rundown for the rank newcomer to film. Any advanced photographer will, of course, find this full of generalizations and simplifications, and the beginner should note that the techniques surrounding film photography are a vast subject. It ranges from the extremely precise to the seemingly mystical but is always fascinating. I hope you will find this little write-up an adequate and reassuring first step into the magical world of film photography.

Film formats: Film comes in various shapes and sizes. Most people are used to SLR type cameras that use 35mm film but other types of film are quite common as well. Here's a rundown of the most common formats.

35mm: The most common film type often referred to as 135 film in catalogs etc. It usually comes in metal canisters and has sprocket holes on both sides and 35mm cameras make an image on it that is 36mmx24mm in size. This size is also the standard for "full frame" against which "crop factors" of DSLRs are measured. Though this is overwhelmingly the most common size, there is of course no law that says that you have to stick to it. While one is pretty much stuck in terms of the 24mm height, some cameras made images with varying widths on 35mm film. So, there were old "half frame" cameras which produced 24x18mm frames taking up half the size of a 35mm frame. More recently Hasselblad produced the expensive but awesome XPan wide format panoramic camera which produced images 24mmx65mm in size. But for most beginner's purposes 35mm means making 36mmx24mm images with one of the traditional 35mm SLR or rangefinder or point-and-shoot or perhaps even single use cameras.

35mm film most commonly comes in metal canisters in 36, 24 or 12 frame sizes (i.e. how many 36mmx24mm shots you can get on the roll). You can also buy it in "bulk rolls" which have 100 feet or sometimes 50 feet of film. This is then loaded onto small plastic or metal canisters by the user. Of course, film is photosensitive - any light will spoil it - so people do it in absolute darkness or with contraptions called bulk film loaders which allow you to do it in normal light. Bulk film is cheaper but best avoided until you are reasonably comfortable with film.

Medium Format: This film is often referred to as 120 and is 6cm wide and comes wound on a spool and with a paper backing. It is used in many medium format cameras which a lot of serious photographers use (I don't like the term "professional" - it is ambivalent and doesn't really mean anything). Again, the height of the image is physically limited to about 56cm by the film but various cameras make images of various widths on this film. The most common formats you will encounter are 645 (6x4.5 cm approx), 6x6, 6x7, 6x9, 6x12 and even 6x17. How many images you get out of a roll will of course depend on the format. You'll get 18 645 shots on a roll, 12 6x6 shots but only 4 6x17 shots!

There is a variation on 120 film called 220 which, though still available, is becoming increasingly uncommon. It is basically the same film without the paper backing and twice the length of 120 - so you get twice the number of frames per roll. Many cameras can use either type.

Sheet film: The above types of film are called roll films, because they come in rolls - no surprise there! There are cameras called view cameras or large format cameras that use film in individual sheets. One image per sheet of film. The most common sheet size is 4x5 inches, but many many other sizes exist and people sometimes even cut up their sheet film on their own to use in historical formats which are no longer available. 5x7 and 8x10 inch film sheets are quite common but there are people shooting 11x14 or even 20x24 inch sheets of film in huge cameras.

You are probably wondering why all the fuss with larger sized film. The answer is surface area. An 8x10 inch sheet of film is almost 60 times the size of a 35mm film frame! That means it holds much more image detail, gives better tonality and a whole bunch of other stuff that we don't need to discuss now. Suffice it to say that every film format and type of camera has its specific strengths, weaknesses and uses.

Finally, many many other film formats have been produced throughout the history of photography. Some are still produced in small quantities. To get a quick idea take a look at this chart. Photography has a long and rich tradition and these formats have been part of it.

Okay, now that we've had a rundown of formats, let's look at the types of film that we can choose from.

Black and White Film: Traditional black and white film comes in all of the formats discussed above and in many kind of flavors. It can also be very easily developed at home and provides the user with a great degree of control. Advanced photographers will, for example, control the exact degree of contrast in the film by controlling th development process - its time, temperature and the amount of agitation for the chemicals. Once developed, BW film produces negatives which can be printed with an enlarger in a darkroom resulting in prints that you will see referred to as "silver gelatin" or traditional prints. You can also, of course, scan and print it digitally or do a whole bunch of other printing processes from the nineteenth century that we don't really need to worry about right now. One can spend a lifetime just learning new things about traditional black and white photography but for our purposes this much should suffice to begin with. Beside traditional black and white film, the only other thing a beginner might need to be aware of is something called chromogenic film which is discussed below.

Color Negative Film: This is the most common type of color film that produces negatives with an orangish base and can be develped at any neighborhood drugstore or grocery store. This film is sometimes called C-41 film which refers to the process used to develop it.

Chromogenic film is a type of C-41 film - only instead of color, it produces black and white negatives. It's basically a color film without the three red, green and blue layers which combine to give us color images - instead it has just one. Why? That's because the C-41 process is so common and not everyone is able to develop their true black and white film at home or has access to a good lab that can properly develop black and white film. It provides a convenient way for people to shoot black and white images and get it developed at their local drugstore. Many store clerks seem to be unfamiliar with the term "chromogenic" so ask for either Ilford XP-2 or Kodak BW400CN. As far as I know, those are the only chromogenic films currently available. For all other kinds of film a store clerk should know what you are talking about. If not, try to find another store.

Color Slide Film: Less common nowadays is color slide film, also called chrome film, positive film or E-6 film (again a reference to the process used to develop it). This produces a finished positive that you can view directly on a light table. The frames are usually cut up and mounted in slide mounts for 35mm slides. These can be projected using a slide projector or, of course, scanned.

Kodachrome warrants a mention here because of its cultural significance and its place in the history of photography. It is a type of slide film and produces positive images just like other slide films. But unfortunately, it uses a different process than E-6 that is becoming increasingly rare. In fact, there is only one lab left in the US which still develops it, but many local labs including, apparently, those at Walmart will accept Kodachrome film and send it off to that lab.

You might be wondering if it is possible to produce slides from black and white films. A few processes exist but they are best left to the advanced photographer. For our purposes, black and white films will produce black and white negatives.

Prints and Scans: What kind of film you choose depends quite a bit on how you plan to output your images. Traditional black and white film, as I mentioned, can be printed in the darkroom or scanned and then printed. Chromogenic films don't print as well in the darkroom (though it can be done) and so that might be a factor in deciding what film you choose. Color films - both negatives and slides - used to be printed in the darkroom (these are sometimes called "wet" prints because one uses liquid chamicals to make them) - but nowadays wet prints from color film are so rare that the beginner probably won't have ready access to it. There's nothing wrong with printing from scans, though, and digital prints are getting better all the time. But be aware that the quality of printing, and its longevity will differ widely between the average drugstore print and something that a serious photographer will produce or a museum or an art gallery will display. But printing isn't our main concern today.

Other film characteristics: The most important thing is probably ISO. You are probably familiar with the concept from digital cameras and it is exactly the same for film. It indicates the sensitivity to light of a particular film emulsion (or digital sensor). As a rule, the higher the ISO, the grainier the film. Grain is the equivalent of noise in digital sensors but keep in mind two things. Film grain shows up at much lower ISO values than output from good modern DSLRs. So you'll be able to see grain at ISO 400 and quite a lot of grain at 1600 or so while the DSLR will produce relatively less noise at those levels. But the good news is that grain and noise are not really the same thing. The best way I have heard it put is that grain is the actual constituent - as in minute grains of silver - that makes up the image on film, while noise is an unwanted by-product of digital imaging. So grain doesn't look as downright ugly as noise can. In fact, it often adds a lot of character to images. You will see a lot of grain especially in images made with small format (35mm) cameras because naturally, smaller negatives need to be enlarged or magnified more to get to a particular sized print than larger negatives (or slides).

So, now let's try to answer the big question: what film should you buy. The format is of course dictated by your camera - if you have a 35mm SLR, you need 35mm film and so forth. You need to decide if you want to shoot black and white or color. For black and white another decision comes into play - can you develop your own film or do you want to print it in a darkroom? If not, then maybe you can avoid traditional black and white film and go for chromogenic film which is much more convenient as it can be developed at the drugstore and scanned.

For color, I would advice negative film if you are starting out. Slide films have something called a narrow dynamic range which means they are especially sensitive to exposure errors. But then, seeing a slide on a light table is a wonderful experience, and the sensitivity of slide films is much like a DSLR sensor's. So if you think you can handle it, go for it. You will probably need to take it to a proper photo lab rather than a drugstore, though.

Buy the slowest film that will do for your purpose. I.e. the lowest ISO. If you are planning to shoot in broad daylight or with a tripod, ISO 100 should be fine. ISO 400 is great for general purpose handheld photography and higher ISO films like 1600 or 3200 are good for very low light or what is called "available darkness."

What brands? It doesn't matter that much. You will see advanced photographers endlessly debating which films and even which film and developer combinations (for B&W) they like and when you get to that stage, you will too, but honestly it doesn't matter to begin with. All the major films currently available are more than capable. Go with the above guidelines in mind and buy whatever fits those requirements and is available and/or cheap. Kodak, Fuji and Ilford are perhaps the most well known film brands but there are many others capable of producing good results. So, first decide what kind of, size, type and speed you'd like and then bother with brand.

Finally, welcome to traditional photography. Stay, explore, enjoy!

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