What film should I use?

An assortment of 35mm films

After buying, inheriting, or otherwise acquiring a film camera, the first question you’re probably asking yourself is “what film should I use?” Unfortunately, just like the earlier question of “what camera should I shoot?”, there’s not a clear, immediate answer.

Okay, so that’s not entirely true. My personal opinion is that you can’t go wrong experimenting with different film stocks to see what you like and dislike. But if you’ve never shot film before, or the last time you did was with a disposable camera where the decision was made for you,that’s not a good answer.

The Big Question™

The biggest question to ask when picking a film is black and white or color?

Economics need not be considered at this point, you can find low-cost color films and black and white films at around the same price. Really what matters is which you’d rather play with first.

If you’re developing at home (something I highly suggest doing, at least a couple times, though maybe not to start), you should probably start with black and white film. It can be developed at room temperature, and is generally more forgiving when it comes to developing times. But I’ll save developing at home for another day.

Shooting in Black and White

Black and white is classic. The earliest photos were monochromatic, most iconic photos from history are black and white. Photography as art is very grounded in black and white.

When shooting black and white you don’t have to worry about if colors coordinate or clash, all that matters is contrast and the available light (Christopher Nolan’s first film, Following, was shot in black and white for exactly this reason). Black and white images really highlight these contrasts. Texture becomes more important, and shows up really well in final images.

But, you also have to think in grayscale. You may be looking at something fantastic, which really pops in color, but is a flat mess in black and white. Color contrasts don’t transfer to black and white film, unless they’re also tonal contrast.

And as a final negative on black and white, you can always turn a color image grayscale, doing the reverse is much harder and more time consuming.

Shooting in Color

For the most part, with color films, what you see is what you get.

It’s not a perfect match, but that’s also the point. Different color films render colors differently, which is part of why playing around with different film stocks is fun. It’s also a built in instagram filter. Color films, especially consumer grade color films, are an instant path to “““that film aesthetic”””.

Some people tend to avoid color film because they find it too close to digital. Their argument is they don’t personally gain anything from color film photography compared to digital, and it seems like a waste to them. I don’t subscribe to that argument, but it’s a perfectly valid choice.

The next question: film speed

All films have an ISO rating. The name comes from the standard being set by ISO, the International Organization for Standardizations, because they published the standards on how those ratings are set (they also create standards for literally everything). This tells you how sensitive to light a film is, the higher the number the more sensitive the film. Photographers refer to this as a film speed, higher ISO rating, higher light sensitivity, “faster” film.

The reason it’s referred to as a “speed” is because the more sensitive a film is to light, the faster you’ll need to set your shutter speed compared to a less sensitive film (assuming a constant aperture). This is the same reason lenses with large apertures are referred to as “fast lenses”.

For some background, film rating, shutter speed, and aperture all work together to form the exposure triangle. To keep the exposure of the film the same (that is, keep the amount of light hitting the film the same), if you adjust one of those three things, one of the other two must change in the opposite direction. When shooting film, your ISO rating is set for an entire roll, which means in practice only aperture width and shutter speed are changing.

Like shutter speed and aperture width, ISO steps are exponential. ISO 50 is half as sensitive to light as ISO 100, and ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100.

The most common speeds you’ll find are

  • ISO 100, suitable for shooting outdoors in the bright daylight. Using it inside, even in a well lit room, usually means shooting with your largest aperture with very slow shutter speeds.
  • ISO 400, suitable for shooting outdoors in more subdued lighting. Can be used inside in well-lit rooms.

I think ISO 400 films are a pretty good starting place, especially if you shoot negative film (which you almost certainly will – slide film is pretty substantially more expensive). ISO 400 negative films usually have a fairly high exposure latitude, which means you can over- or underexpose your images a little without issue.

You should be careful about underexposing images, but most negatives can be pretty substantially overexposed without problems. I wouldn’t try massively overexposing on an important image, but it’s definitely worth trying on some less important images, especially so you can get a feel for what your film is capable of.

Okay, so what film should I use?

I think you can’t go wrong starting with Ilford HP5+. HP5 is a 400 speed black and white film, it has a nice amount of contrast, the grain isn’t overly gritty, but it isn’t invisible either. Being a 400 speed film it’s broadly suitable for most lighting conditions.

a double exposure taken on Ilford HP5+

HP5 is frequently compared to Kodak Tri-X 400, and being another 400 speed, medium grain film they are pretty similar. I personally prefer HP5 because I find Tri-X to be too contrasty. Depending on how you scan your film you can get essentially the same results from HP5 and Tri-X in a digital photo editor, so it doesn’t matter that much which one you choose. I just find HP5 gives me a better starting point.

flowers along the sidewalk, Kodak Tri-X

If you’re going to mainly shoot outdoors, I would go with Ilford FP4+. It has many of the same qualities as HP5 and Tri-X, but it’s rated at ISO 125, which gives you more freedom to play around aperture and shutter speed than a 400 film does in bright light.

Rowers, Ilford FP4+

Ilford produces a “lower quality” line of films under the Kentmere brand. These films are a little grainier than HP5 and FP4, but you can still get some fantastic results for a little less money. Kentmere 400 can easily take the place of HP5 or Tri-X, and Kentmere 100 the place of FP4. You could also use Fomapan or Arista EDU films. I haven’t used them (but I’d like to), but my understanding is they have a similar quality to their equivalent Kentmere films. Fomapan also has a 200 speed film, if you have the need for something between 100 and 400.

If black and white isn’t your game, I highly suggest the Fuji Superia line of films. They’re fairly inexpensive, but they feel like a higher quality film. The Superia films have great color rendition and a nice amount of saturation. Kodak makes equivalent films in their Kodak Gold like. I haven’t used it them, because every comparison to the Superias I’ve seen always has me picking the images from Superia. The Kodak Gold images tend to be on the warm side, with an emphasis on yellows, browns, and oranges, and they feel a bit more muted.

After putting down Kodak films I actually have two that I really like. The first is Kodak Pro Image 100, which is a 100 speed film originally made for warmer climates that’s only recently was released in the US. The images I’ve gotten from it are just fantastic. It has a blue/green emphasis that really works for me.

Kodak Pro Image 100

The other one is the much loved by basically the entire internet Kodak Portra 400. Portra is Kodak’s professional line of films, and is priced like it. But when you get an image with Portra right, it’s pretty magical. And even when you don’t it’s still pretty great.

Beyond these suggestions, there are a number of other films from a host of different manufacturers, most of which I haven’t tried and can’t suggest. But, I also don’t think you can ever go wrong with a film. The worst case scenario is you tested it and found out you don’t like it, which means next time you know what not to get. But even then knowing how it didn’t work for you means you’re on your way to establishing a personal style.

I know which film I want, where do I get it?

This may actually be the hardest question to answer. It depends.

I buy most of my film through Freestyle Photographic Supplies, mostly because when I’ve compared with other sellers they usually have lower prices.

But you should also shop around. You may be able to find a better deal on eBay (and very, very rarely Amazon). Some films may be cheaper through B&H and Adorama (last I checked I think Adorama had the best prices for Portra 400). And maybe you can find a deal at a local shop (if you have one).

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