film choice

Choosing films is a very personal matter, so it would not make much sense for us to say "Use this film!" Rather, we have tried in this module to tell you what to look for in a film, and to stress the differences between objective criteria and what you happen to prefer. We get to try a lot of films, either in the course of reviewing them or simply as manufacturers' samples, so we are somewhat better placed than many people to make judgements and recommendations.

Ruined hotel, Ghajn Tuffieja, Malta

Frances, in particular, uses different films for different formats. In 35mm she much prefers Ilford XP2 Super for its fine grain and tonality but in 120, as here (Alpa 12 S/WA, 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo Grandagon, 6x9cm back), she is perfectly happy with Ilford HP5 Plus. This hotel was built in the 1960s or 1970s then abandoned a few years later because it is on the edge of an unstable cliff. It has since been boarded up.

promiscuous film choice

Our very first piece of advice flies in the face of the standard wisdom on the subject, so we might as well get it over with. Most people will advise you to choose a single film with a good reputation, and then learn to use it: in other words, expose numerous rolls of it so you can learn exactly how it behaves in a wide range of circumstances.

We say the exact opposite. At first, try as many films as you possibly can, until you find one that has a particular magic for you. This magic is easier to recognize than to describe, but we can pretty much guarantee that you will recognize it when you see it. Your pictures will have a glow, a charm, that they don't have with other films. Once you see that magic -- and we generally find that we see it in the first roll, or not at all -- stick with that film. Buy 10, 20, 50 rolls of it. But don't buy a lot of one kind of film until you are reasonably confident that you are going to like it.

 

Dogoromilovskaya Market, Moscow

The old Ferrania/3M ISO 1000 film is now sadly out of production. Yes, the colour was desaturated and yes, it had grain like golf-balls; but it also had a wonderful look with the right subjects. Roger used a Leica M2 with 35/1.4 Summilux for this shot in the early 1990s.

film testing

A lot of people spend a lot of time, and often a lot of money, 'testing' films. There are several ways of going about this.

Perhaps the most important kind of test, and certainly the easiest, is trying a film to see if you like it. This involves nothing more than shooting the kinds of subjects you normally shoot, and looking at the results.

The second kind of test is comparing one film with another. If you already have a 'standard' film, you may find it useful to compare it with one or more of its rivals. For example, if you habitually shoot Ilford HP5 Plus, you might want to try any or all of Kodak Tri-X, Fuji Neopan 400, Agfapan 400, Maco Cube 400, Rollei 400 and any other 400-speed conventional films you can find. But unless you shoot a lot of a particular film, so you have a real basis for comparison, you are really only doing the first kind of test.

 

Interior, Xaghra Mill, Gozo

When Fuji Acros came out, of course we tried it. We initially found it tricky to develop (times and dilutions were very critical) and we also found that it worked best at EI 64 instead of the nominal ISO 100. Once we had sorted out how best to use it, we found it an excellent film -- but we never liked it as much as (for example) Paterson Acupan 200 so we never switched. For others, it has become the only black and white film they use. Unless you already have a favourite film at a particular speed, you can't really make meaningful comparisons. Roger used a Voigtländer Bessa-R2 with 12/5.6 Ultra-Wide-Heliar for this shot.

The third kind of test is much more rigorous and involves quite a lot of rather tedious work: checking resolution, plotting characteristic curves, trying different developers and development regimes, and (if you have the means) determining true ISO speeds in those developers -- though this requires access to standardized light sources and sensitometers that are not available to most of us.

Whenever anyone tells you they are 'testing' a film, or you consider doing it yourself, it is a good idea to think hard about which kind of testing is involved, and how much it actually means.

personal preference and alchemy

Personal preference explains why, for example, Kodak makes such a large range of slide films, each with its own look and 'feel'. There is not a lot you can say about it, except to advise people to try as many films as possible.

Alchemy -- the way that films seem to work for one person, and not another -- is another matter entirely. It is particularly common in black and white. You may enormously admire someone else's work on a particular film, but find that you are completely unable to make it work for you. Weirder still, you may find that you love it in one format, but greatly prefer something else in another format. We use a lot of Ilford FP4 cut film, for example, and admire Ed Buziak's 35mm FP4; but we prefer Ilford Delta 100 in 120 and Paterson Acupan 200 in 35mm for our own work.

Dean

Roger shot this on Ilford FP4 Plus, one of our favourite films for 8x10 inch portraiture; the camera was a De Vere 8x10 monorail with a 21 inch (533mm) f/7.7 Ross lens that was probably made before the Great War. And yet, we never use FP4 in 35mm...

 

There are two ways to handle 'alchemical' reactions. One is to stick doggedly at it, changing film speed and developer and development regime until you get results you like. The other is to try something else. We heartily recommend the latter, for two reasons.

The first is that we often have to persevere with a film in order to get half-decent results for a film test -- but we know that no matter how long we persist, we can get better results, faster, with a film and developer we find more congenial and easier to use.

The second is that the purpose of photography is to take pictures, not to purify the soul through suffering. The trouble is, the people who advocate the former course -- struggling with a refractory film -- often make it sound like some sort of moral failing to give up and try something else. Ignore them. Unless, of course, you want to purify your soul through suffering.

changing films

There are two reasons to use films other than your existing favourites. One is because you want to, in search of a different effect. The other is when you have no choice. Sometimes the latter can lead to the former.

Once, for example, we were in Zurich as guests of Alpa, testing their then-new cameras. We hadn't realized that we would be shooting, so we hadn't brought any film. They gave us several rolls of Ilford HP5 Plus to test the cameras with. The results were so excellent that HP5 immediately became one of our preferred films.

This is one reason why it is worth trying other films occasionally, even if you already have a firm favourite: you may find something better.

 

Jantar Mantar

Roger shot this on Kodachrome Kodachrome 64 in the days when E6 films were coarser grained, less sharp and shorter lived. Today we are perfectly happy to use E6 instead. Leica M-series, 35/1.4 Summilux.

 

A much less happy circumstance is when your favourite film is discontinued. This happened to Roger with Fuji RF/RFP ISO 50. To this day, he finds that he selects a disproportionate number of RF/RFP transparencies to illustrate his articles.

Today he shoots Kodak EBX ISO 100. The pictures are probably just as good, but in a different way. This is another reason why it is worth trying other films from time to time: to keep your options open in case you are forced to switch. If we had to forsake Ilford HP5, for example, we should have no great difficulty in switching to either Kodak Tri-X or Maco Cube 400; the choice in ISO 400 black and white films is better than it has ever been.

the basics

Certain considerations are common to all films: things like speed, latitude, grain and sharpness. It therefore makes sense to begin with the common characteristics and then go on to the different types of film: black and white, colour slide, colour negative, and a grab-bag of leftovers such as infra-red, ortho, monochrome reversal and ultra-fine-grain.

speed

Traditionally, films were divided into slow (below ISO 100), medium (ISO 100 and 125), fast (ISO 400) and ultra-fast (above ISO 400). We believe that today it makes more sense to treat ISO 400 as medium or normal speed, which means that anything below 400 is a slow film and anything above 400 is fast.

More speed normally means two things: bigger grain and more expense. If you want fine grain, or if you want to save money, slower films are generally a better bet. On the other hand, popular films cost less than unpopular ones, so a popular film such as Ilford HP5 Plus may cost less than a 'cult' film that is considerably slower. Also, even in a digital era, films do get steadily finer grained at any given speed, or faster for a given grain size.

In black and white you can to a considerable extent get fine grain at a higher speed (ISO 400) by switching to a chromogenic film such as Ilford XP2 Super. There is more about chromogenics later.

 

 

Garden steps

 

It is a truism that the quickest, cheapest short cut to better image quality is to move up to a larger format. This was taken with an elderly KowaSIX 6x6cm SLR using the standard 85/2.8 lens, and the image quality can fairly go head-to-head with a new Leica costing maybe 15 times as much.

The reason, of course, is simple. A borderless 8x10 inch (20x25cm) print from 35mm is almost an 8.5x enlargement while the same size blow-up from 6x6cm is more like 4.5x.

The film was Maco Cube 400c developed in Maco's own Supergrain developer and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

latitude

There is no such thing as a single correct exposure for any film or subject. There may be a perfect exposure, which is the one that gives you exactly the results you want, but more often there is a range of acceptable exposures. The size of that range depends on the subject, the film and of course the photographer: one person may be perfectly happy with all three of a set of transparencies bracketed at 1-stop intervals (there is a free module on bracketing) while another would accept only one of them, and even then complain that it should be a fraction lighter or darker.

Some films have a wider latitude than others. Most negative films (colour or black and white) have only a small margin for under-exposure, typically around 1/2 stop, but a very large margin for over-exposure: at least two stops, often more. If you want maximum latitude with a negative film a simple solution is to re-rate the film at slower than its ISO speed: anything up to 1 full stop. This will however result in reduced sharpness: a film that resolves 90 line pairs per millimetre (lp/mm) at its ISO speed may drop to 75 lp/mm or below if over-exposed by a stop. With conventional black and white films, extra exposure will mean bigger grain; with chromogenic black and white films, or colour negatives, increased exposure gives finer grain.

Slide films have very little latitude, though as already hinted, this depends very much upon the subject. What is surprising is that modern slide films seem to have more latitude than old ones. To a considerable extent this is due to the use of d.i.r. couplers, which are released during development and inhibit further development: they also allow purer colours and higher saturation without increasing contrast.

 

 

Rusty car

A great deal depends on what film speed (exposure index, E.I.) you choose. Paterson Acupan 200 will give acceptable images at EI 200 in almost any non-fine-grain developer, but you will have zero latitude for under-exposure. Switch to something like Ilford DD-X or Paterson FX-50 and you will have at least 1/2 stop latitude for under exposure. Alternatively, re-rate the film at EI 160 or even 125 with a non-speed-increasing developer if you want reasonable latitude. Frances used a Voigtländer Bessa-T and 50/1.5 Nokton with weak yellow (2x) B+W filter for this shot.

grain

Grain has already been mentioned as a function of speed and exposure. It is also affected by developer choice and development time, as noted later in this module. An important point, though, is how much you personally care about grain. Some people hate to see the slightest evidence of grain; others welcome it as a part of a photographic image. It doesn't matter which approach you adopt, as long as you think about it in advance and do not get grain when you don't want it.

Because grain is dependent on exposure for conventional black and white films, it is always biggest in the highlights and it is often most obvious in the light mid-tones, such as sky areas. It is still further increased by over-exposure. With colour films and chromogenic black and white films, grain is actually smaller in the highlights and mid tones and it is further decreased by over-exposure: this is because more dye is formed in heavily exposed areas, leading to a smoother 'grain' pattern.

sharpness

Fine grain and sharpness are far from the same thing. Indeed, to some extent they are mutually exclusive: fine-grain developers normally give less sharpness than many middle-of-the-road developers, while high-sharpness 'acutance' developers give coarser grain than most middle-of-the-road developers.

This is because sharpness is a measure of how crisp the transition is from black to white at an edge -- for example, black twigs against a white sky. A film may resolve very fine detail, and be very fine grained, but still exhibit low sharpness: although the detail is resolved and the grain is fine, the transition between light and dark may be so gradual that it looks less sharp than a film with coarser grain and less resolution, but higher contrast.

price

The question of price is by no means to be ignored. At its most brutal, it was summed up by the employee of a film company: "Their film [a rival] is very good, and in fact I prefer it to ours; but it is not so much better that I am willing to pay for it, when I can get ours for nothing." Of course there are limits to this philosophy -- there is no sense in using rotten film, at any price -- but equally, where the difference is small, price may be a deciding factor.

It is also true that price is not always a guide to quality. Paterson's Acupan 200 is a superb film, but it is one of the cheapest on the market, and by the same token there are some very highly priced 'cult' films that sell principally because of their high price. There are some people who are unable to distinguish between price and quality, and who therefore spend lots of money in the (often mistaken) belief that the more something costs, the better it is.

 

Barge museum, Faversham

The first time we tried Paterson Acupan 200 we could see that it is an absolutely first-class film, though the nominal 200 speed is slightly misleading: it delivers a true ISO 200 only in speed-increasing developers such as the Paterson FX50 used here. In FX39 its speed is identical to Ilford FP4 Plus, about ISO 160. In fact, we prefer the tonality to FP4, which shows how much film choice is a matter of personal preference. Roger used a Voigtländer Bessa R with 50/1.5 Nokton and 2x yellow filter from B+W.

outdated film -- and refrigeration

One way to save money is to buy outdated film, but this is a gamble. Expiry dates are inevitably a matter of guesswork, and assume 'average' storage conditions. A well-stored film may show little or no deterioration for months or even years after its expiry date, but film that has been badly stored, for example in a hot shop window or in a furnace room, may deteriorate badly in a few months or even weeks and be all but useless well before the expiry date arrives.

We store the bulk of our film in the refrigerator as soon as we buy it, and we do not therefore worry if it goes out of date by a few months before we use it. Freezing will preserve film even longer, for years outside the expiry date.

Badly outdated films are rarely a wise buy, except for experimental purposes such as testing old cameras. In black and white, you are likely to see a small increase in fog levels and a small loss in speed after anything more than a few months, while in colour you may get colour shifts which are different in the highlights and the shadows: so-called 'crossed curves'. Typically, this will be a magenta-green problem which cannot be filtered out: you will have the choice of neutral light areas with colour casts in the dark areas, or neutral dark areas with colour casts in the light areas -- or a little of both. You may be able to sort this out in Adobe Photoshop or a similar image manipulation program, but you will never sort it out in the conventional darkroom.

The only times we will even consider outdated film is if we know it has been refrigerated, preferably throughout its entire life and definitely since it went out of date. Refrigeration greatly slows the deterioration of film, so that even a couple of years out of date may be entirely satisfactory. The only place we regularly buy the stuff is via Freestyle in Los Angeles, from whom we had a good deal of excellent outdated material in the 1980s and 1990s: they have vast walk-in cold-rooms to store their film.

 

 

Washing fresh-caught fish, Mahabalipuram, South India

Roger shot this just after sunrise, when the first fishing boats of the day were already home. He used outdated Fuji RFP, mentioned elsewhere as his favourite colour film of all time, bought from Freestyle as mentioned above. We initially bought a few rolls to test, then maybe 100 rolls (which we immediately froze) for further use. Slow films resist decay better, and freeze better, than fast ones. The camera was a Nikon F with a 200/3 Vivitar Series 1.

processing and printing

For the ultimate in quality, you need to process your own black and white film, and do your own printing. The former is because black and white film processing can be refined endlessly to give the very best results, while a commercial lab is likely to give little or no choice of either developer or development regime. At the printing stage, there is simply no substitute for 'hands on' control.

For colour film processing, a good commercial lab is more than sufficient: the only reason we process our own C41 and E6 is that we live in a small village a very long way from the nearest C41 lab and even further from the nearest E6 lab.

For colour printing, we would heartily recommend doing it yourself, for the same reasons as black and white printing. Our main colour printing path is via scanned transparencies and an ink-jet printer; you may prefer to use negatives, either with wet printing or digital.

Commercial colour negative processing and printing is very much a hit or miss affair, because the printer doesn't know what the original scene looked like. Printing from slides is a better bet, but high quality reversal prints are very expensive indeed. If you want to stick with negatives, a good mini-lab should however be able to deliver excellent results from the vast majority of more-or-less average subjects: if they can't, change labs. Even so, the variations in printing quality (exposure and colour balance) are likely to be so great as to swamp differences between the various films.

 

Man-at-Arms

We print most of our colour nowadays from scanned slides. Although there is less latitude than shooting and scanning negatives, we believe that we get better quality this way. Roger used a Nikon F for this picture, with a Sigma 70-210/2.8 Apo zoom, shooting on Kodak Ektachrome EBX ISO 100.

black and white films

Black and white films engender the fiercest loyalties and denigrations. One photographer may assert with absolute confidence that Ilford HP5 Plus is the only rational choice, while only an idiot would use Kodak Tri-X, while another would assert the exact opposite. Both, furthermore, might adduce stunning prints as proof of their assertions.

To a very large extent, this comes back to the alchemy mentioned above. Why does HP5 work for one, and Tri-X for the other? Who knows? And to a very large extent, who cares? What you want is the film that works for you -- and this is where we would reiterate our advice about promiscuous film testing, as given near the beginning of the module.

tonality

Tonality is the most complex attribute of a black and white film. It is much easier to recognize than to define. All kinds of ways have been sought to describe it. For example, one photographer described Ilford HP5 Plus as 'like Casablanca -- the movie, not the place' while a senior Ilford executive said, "XP2's tonality is smooth, but HP5's is gnarly."

Ilford research found that 'sparkle' -- which is a part of tonality -- corresponds well to a high MTF (essentially sharpness) at low frequencies (around 30 lp/mm). It is only partially a question of the film, too: other considerations include developer, development regime and in particular paper choice. Some film-paper combinations are a marriage made in Heaven; others are a disaster.

There is also a considerable degree of personal preference involved: a picture that one photographer calls 'rich' may simply be 'muddy' to another.

 

 

Civil War Re-Enactor

 

Some people -- including us -- love the tonality of XP2, as used here. Others hate it. But almost everyone agrees that Ilford HP5 Plus delivers superb tonality. It's easier to recognize than to describe, and easier to recognize than to agree upon. Frances used a Voigtlander Bessa-T with 50/1.5 Nokton and a pale yellow (2x) filter from B+W.

speed

The slowest general-application conventional black and white film in common use is Ilford Pan F Plus (ISO 50) and the fastest is Ilford Delta 3200. The true ISO of Delta 3200 is at most about 1250 in a speed-increasing developer (for comparison, Kodak TMZ P3200 is about 1000 and Fuji Neopan 1600 about 650) but it actually gives better results when 'pushed' (developed to a higher contrast than the ISO standard) than it does at ISO standard contrast. There is plenty of choice in between these extremes of speed, though very slow films (ISO 50 and 64) are increasingly rare and the old standard ISO 125 has increasingly given way to ISO 100.

You will generally get finer grain from a slow film in a speed-increasing developer than from a fast film in a fine-grain developer, and the working speed may not be that different. For example, Ilford FP4 in Ilford Microphen or a similar speed-increasing developer can come as close to ISO 200 as makes no difference, while Ilford HP5 Plus in a fine-grain developer is unlikely to exceed ISO 250 or at most 320 and may drop to 200. Likewise HP5 comes close to ISO 800 in Microphen and requires only the tiniest push to reach EI 1000. At this speed it will generally give more pleasing results than Ilford Delta 3200, though by EI 1600 the faster film has it all.

Drummer, New York City

Frances shot this on Kodak TMZ P3200 before Ilford Delta 3200 came out, rating it at EI 12,500, processed in Ilford Microphen. The tonality is harsh and there is no shadow detail, but does it really matter? It still has plenty of impact, interest and energy. It was shot with a 15/2.8 Sigma fish-eye.

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As soon as you need a significant increase in speed, it usually makes sense to switch to a faster film. Even in a middle-of-the-road developer it will deliver more speed than a slower film in a speed-increasing developer, and of course it will deliver even more than its 'box' speed if it is itself developed in a speed-increasing developer.

'old technology' and 'new technology

 

This is principally a matter of crystal size and shape. 'Old technology' films tend to have a wide range of crystal sizes, while the crystals in 'new technology' films are much more carefully controlled: closer to a uniform size, and often a different shape, whether the broad, flat 'tabular' grains of Kodak T-grain technology or epitaxial like the grains of Ilford's Delta series. It is however worth adding that the differences between the two grow ever smaller as the film manufacturers try to 'fake out' the disadvantages of each while adding the advantages of the other.

 

New York City

 

Forte's films -- this is Fortepan 400 from memory, though it may be 200 -- are as 'old technology' as you can get, but they deliver a wonderfully vintage tonality. To us, New York has always seemed to belong more to the 1930s (think Dorothy Parker and Bob Benchley) than to the present day, and in black and white we love to shoot classic films like this one. Frances used a Nikkormat and a 90/2.5 Vivitar Series 1 Macro, and printed the image on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

developer repertoire

Some films give excellent results in just about any developer, while others work only with a small selection of developers: in the jargon, they have a small 'developer repertoire'. It is worth remembering that even films with a wide developer repertoire may react badly with some developers, so that your favourite developer with one film may well turn out to be a disaster with another. Agfa's widely-loved Rodinal, for example, gives big grain and low speed with the equally widely-loved Ilford HP5 Plus, so this is not widely regarded as a wise combination. Having said that, there are people who swear by just that combination.

The best starting point for choosing a developer for any given film is almost invariably the film and developer manufacturers' recommendations. Developer manufacturers are generally more reliable, as they want their developers to be used with the most suitable films. Some film manufacturers are rather less honest, recommending their own matching developers exclusively, regardless of the fact that other developers may work as well or possibly even better. The recommendations of 'gurus' are generally the least reliable, as they take too little account of the alchemy noted above. Some gurus, too, take the stance of 'my way or the highway', implying that if you don't like their preferred combination you are incompetent and probably lacking moral fibre as well.

grain

'New technology' films such as Kodak's TMX, TMY and TMZ, or Ilford's Delta series, are usually significantly finer grained than 'old technology' films such as Kodak's Plus-X Pan and Tri-X or Ilford's Pan F, FP4 and HP5 series. This is because they do not have the range of crystal sizes of 'old technology' films, so the biggest crystals are smaller -- or at least, the biggest chunks of developed silver are smaller, because some technologies use big crystals with multiple development centres which do not join up, thereby creating the same effect as multiple smaller crystals.

But precisely because the crystals are much closer in size, they all tend to react to the same level of exposure in the same way, unlike the 'old technology' films where different crystal sizes needed different levels of exposure to get them started. By the same token, they all tend to develop at much the same speed, unlike the 'old technology' films where the crystals developed at different rates.

As a result, a 'new technology' film may actually be coarser grained than an 'old technology' film if it is either over-exposed or over-developed. This is especially true of Kodak's T-grain technology, which is finer grained than Ilford's epitaxial-crystal technology when correctly exposed but reacts worse to over-exposure or over-development or (worse still) both. As an Ilford spokesman put it, "Ours is not necessarily a better technology, but it's a better behaved technology."

latitude and pushing

To a considerable extent, these two are related. 'Long toe' films (those with a long toe to the characteristic curve) will generally have more latitude for under-exposure and will push better than those with short toes. 'Long toe' films include most of the classic ISO 400 films on the market. For more explanation of toe shape and the characteristic curve, go to the free module on Density, The H&D Curve and Gamma.

Most 'old technology' films have more latitude and push more gracefully than 'new technology', but a lot depends on the technology: again, Ilford's 'new technology' films tend to be better behaved (more forgiving, more pushable), speed for speed, than Kodak's.

 

 

Cath Milne, singer/songwriter, artist

Today's fast films push much more gracefully than the (pre-Plus) Ilford HP5 that Roger used for this shot in the late 70s, but there is a certain immediacy and urgency that comes from 'soot and whitewash' pushes, so technical quality isn't everything. Nikon F, 58/1.4 Nikkor.

The maximum true ISO speed increase that is normally attainable is between 2/3 stop and one stop, so an ISO 50 film can be developed in an appropriate speed-increasing developer to a true ISO of as much as 100. Likewise an ISO 400 film can deliver ISO 650 or better. Any further push (via increased development time) will result in increased contrast. Unacceptably high contrast normally arrives much sooner with slow films than with fast ones.

spectral sensitivity

The original plain silver halide or 'ordinary' emulsions were sensitive only to blue, violet and ultra-violet light. Sensitizing dyes extended this sensitivity first into the green ('orthochromatic' or 'right-coloured' film, Vogel 1873) and then into the red ('panchromatic' or 'all-coloured' films, Koenig and Homolka 1904). Surprisingly this additional colour sensitivity is not achieved at the expense of blue sensitivity: it is pure bonus, and one way of getting extra film speed is to add still more red sensitivity. When done in the visible red this is sometimes known as 'hyper-panchromatic' and when it goes into the near infra-red it is known as 'extended red'. Then of course there are true infra-red films, sensitized out into regions that the eye cannot see at all, beyond about 700-720nm. Almost all modern films are panchromatic or 'pan', but it is still possible to buy orthochromatic or 'ortho', blue-sensitive or 'ordinary' and infra-red.

 

 

Church, Santos Domingos, Portugal

Films such as Ilford SFX (used here), Maco 750, Maco Cube and Konica 750 are sensitized into the near infra-red and work well with deep red filters such as a 25A to give black skies and lightened, but not white, foliage. Used with visually opaque true IR filters they give true IR effects but effective speeds are very low indeed. Frances used a Nikkormat and 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor for this shot.

Some portraitists of the 1930s preferred ortho films because they gave a 'high' colour with good skin tone differentiation and dark lips; with a modern pan film, especially one with extended red sensitivity where lips may look rather pale and washed-out, a weak blue filter will have much the same effect.

A yellow 'sky' filter normally has a filter factor (see the free glossary) of 1.5x to 4x with panchromatic film. With an ortho film the same filter will have a disproportionately large effect: the filter factor may well be doubled, so you need 3x to 8x the exposure. With an extended-red film, on the other hand, the effect will be disproportionately small, so you need only half a stop to a stop (50 to 100 per cent) extra.

For similar reasons, ortho film is normally a stop or so slower to tungsten lighting than to daylight (daylight has more blue in it, to which the film is more sensitive) while an extended-red film may be a fraction faster to tungsten light than to daylight.

Because of their flat plate-like crystal structure, Kodak's T-grain films have a disproportionately low response to blue light and to compensate they have a higher than usual sensitivity to orange light, achieved via dye sensitization.

black and white labs

If you have your black and white films processed at a lab, they are likely to adopt one of two approaches to development. One, found only in the more expensive labs, is to use 'one-shot' developers in small tanks. The other is deep-tank development in a 'seasoned' developer. This is a developer which is re-used repeatedly: its activity is restored by periodically draining off some of the old developer and adding replenisher concentrate. 'Seasoned' developers are very reliable and predictable but because of bromide build-up they tend to give rather less than the full film speed. It is always worth finding out which your lab uses.

With either kind of lab, it is a good idea to ask them what sort of film they particularly recommend, and what film speed they recommend. If they are evasive about either question, explain why you are asking: you want the best results they can deliver, and you are prepared to fit in with their working practices. If they are still unhelpful, find another lab -- or process your films yourself.

chromogenic films

Most black and white films consist of silver halides that are reduced to metallic silver to create the image. Chromogenic films, as their name suggests, use the same technology (and indeed the same Kodak C41-compatible chemistry) as colour films: dyes are formed at the same time as, and in proportion to, the silver image. The silver image is then bleached out leaving only a dye image. The first chromogenic mono films came from Agfa and Ilford, though Agfa's offering soon petered out, and by popular acclaim, Ilford's XP series offer the best tonality and sharpness in chromogenics, though Kodak's films are finer grained.

 

Tibetan Freedom Fighter

In Dharamsala in the late 1990s we were asked to take pictures of a number of prominent Tibetans for a sort of National Gallery in Exile. We had no suitable medium-format cameras with us so we used a Leica with a 90/2 Summicron and Ilford XP2 Super.

 

 

Chromogenics have several major advantages. The first is convenience: any mini-lab can run them. The second is latitude: Ilford XP2 gives good results at EI 50 to EI 800 and can be used at EI 1600 in desperation, all with the same standard processing time. The third is very fine grain for their speed: all are nominally ISO 400, though it is worth remembering that this is an analogy as there is no ISO standard for chromogenic black and white films. From extensive testing we are convinced that XP2 is 1/3 stop faster that its Kodak rivals. The fourth advantage is that unlike conventional black and white films, increased exposure means finer grain, not coarser, though sharpness still suffers as with conventional films.

On the minus side, not everyone likes the tonality of chromogenics, and if they are processed by a lab that uses a final stabilizing bath rather than a water wash, they are unlikely to be as permanent as conventional films. Properly washed, however, they should have the same life as any other film on an acetate base: in normal storage conditions the base itself will decay, depending on the heat and humidity, in something between 80 and 200 years. Roll-films and sheet films are normally coated on polyester bases and should last much longer under similar storage conditions.

printing chromogenics in mini labs

Because chromogenics can be run through a standard mini-lab, there is always a temptation to have proof prints made at the same time. Some chromogenic films are much easier than others to print on colour paper: Kodak films generally come out much more neutral than Ilford, which can veer all over the place: blue, brown and sickly yellow are all quite commonplace. To counter this, most photographers agree that Ilford films print better (and faster) on conventional black and white paper. A few mini-labs may be willing to print on special chromogenic black and white paper. Although this is made by Kodak, it seems to work better with Ilford XP2 than with Kodak's own films.

colour slide films

If you compare today's colour slide films with those of 20 or 30 years ago, the improvements are incredible. Grain is much smaller at any given speed, which is one reason for the decline in films under ISO 100. Colours are purer and more saturated. The dyes are longer lived in the vast majority of film, which means far less fading: Kodachrome, where the dyes were added during processing, was always the exception, but modern films compatible with the Kodak E6 process have dyes that are as long lived as Kodachromes. Latitude is better, and the films push far more gracefully.

colour rendition

It is always worth reminding yourself that the colours in a colour picture are not the original colours: they are a re-creation of those colours, using dyes. This may seem like an unnecessarily fine distinction but it goes a long way towards explaining why colour films have different 'signatures': they use different dyes in different proportions. Exactly which you prefer is a matter of personal taste and upbringing: many photographers who learned their trade in the 1950s and even 1960s regard today's most saturated films, such as Fuji Velvia and Kodak E100VS, as too saturated. Others love them, and find less saturated films to be insipid and dull.

Red Saree on the banks of the Ganges

As remarked elsewhere, Fuji RFP ISO 50 was Roger's favourite film of all time. It had the perfect combination of sharpness, warmth and saturation for the pictures he likes to take. Even Kodak EBX ISO 100, excellent though it is, cannot take the place of RFP and its amateur sibling, RF, in his affections. Here he used a 90/2 Summicron on an M-series Leica.

Ultra-saturated films may however prove too saturated when it comes to portraiture, especially if the subject has a florid complexion: a memorable description was "You don't want faces that look like a slice of liver." In such circumstances, a lower-saturation film such as Fuji Astia may be more useful.

contrast

Years ago, higher-than-average colour saturation was inevitably accompanied by higher-than-average contrast. Orwocolor from East Germany was particularly famous for both. Today, the link between colour and saturation had been greatly loosened, but high-saturation films still tend to be contrastier than low-saturation. You can either use high contrast creatively, or switch to a lower contrast film in contrasty lighting. We prefer the former approach.

The way in which contrast was lowered at the same time that saturation was increased is interesting. The dye precursors from which the colours are formed are designed to release development inhibitors (d.i.r. couplers) so that if one layer of the colour film is disproportionately affected -- the blue in a blue sky, for example -- it releases inhibitors that inhibit development of the other layers, resulting in purer, less 'muddy' colours and better saturation.

pushing

The 'pushability' of modern slide films explains the disappearance of such wonderful but costly films as Ferrania 1000D or Agfa 1000S, which were ISO 1000 with standard E6 processing. Today, the fastest colour slide films are usually just ISO 400 but several are specially designed to give their best results at EI 800 or more: we have successfully rated Fuji RSP at EI 2500.

In practice, many slide films do not deliver the speed increases that are generally advertised as 'push 1', 'push 2' and so forth in Kodak E6 or compatible developers (the 'push' is given in the first or black and white developer; the second or colour developer time remains constant). Some film manufacturers freely admit this: Ektachrome 200 is 320 (not 400) at 'push 1', 640 (not 800) at 'push 2' and 1000 (not 1600) at 'push 3'. And when we rate RSP at 2500 we process it as for 3200.

 

 

Festa San Giuzepp, Rabat, Malta

Because we favour fast prime lenses such as the 90/2 Leica Summicron (on an M4-P) that was used here, we have less need of fast films than most people, but films such as Kodak Ektachrome 200 can be pushed to EI 1000 and more. (Roger)

colour negative films

Progress in colour film design and manufacture continues apace, with genuinely new and improved films coming out every year. Unfortunately, as already noted, variations in printing are quite likely to swamp variations in film quality: the only way to see the difference between different films is to print them yourself, whether via the traditional 'wet' darkroom or via scanning.

On the other hand, many of the same considerations apply to colour negative films as to both black and white negative films and colour slide films (see above). Slower films are usually finer grained and often cheaper, and usually deliver better colour, though we never cease to be amazed at the excellent quality delivered by colour negative films of ISO 800 and above.

Slower films -- the de facto standard speed seems to be ISO 200, though 100 and 400 are also popular -- are available in a range of contrasts and colour saturations, and a particularly important application for low-contrast films is wedding photography where you often need to hold detail in both the bride's white dress and the groom's dark suit. A high-contrast general-application snapshot film is likely to prove a disaster in these circumstances. If you are looking for a low-contrast film for weddings, look for an ISO speed of 160 or for such code words as 'excellent skin tones'. For some reason, ISO 160 is the de facto standard for wedding and social photography: we suspect it is because it can be rated at EI 100 (2/3 stop over) to provide increased latitude with, of course, the smaller grain that comes from over-exposing colour negative films. The loss of sharpness inherent in over-exposure is usually acceptable with the medium-format cameras that are normal for good-quality wedding and social photography. Similarly over-exposing an ISO 100 film would mean an inconveniently low EI 64 while ISO 400 films cannot deliver the same quality.

If you take the digital route, two things are worth remembering. The first is that some films seem to scan much more gracefully than others, without hard-to-remove colour casts. The second is that within reason it is often easier to add saturation and contrast to a low-saturation, low-contrast film than it is to remove them from a high-saturation, high-saturation film.

printer channels

If you have your pictures printed at a lab, you need to know that automated printers have a number of channels to suit different films: each channel offers different filtration and different exposure. Often, getting better prints is only a matter of using the right channel. This is one reason why we prefer to deal with mini-labs: we can judge how much the printer operator knows or cares about photography and running a mini-lab.

 

 

National Library, Valetta, Malta

Frances finds Kodak Portra 400 the easiest of all colour films to print, whether in NC (Normal Contrast) or HC (High Contrast) guise. The grain attendant upon the ISO 400 speed does not worry her because she normally uses it only in 6x9cm, as here: this was shot with her Alpa 12 S/WA and 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo Grandagon. Alone of all our Alpa lenses the 35/5.6 seems to work best with an extra stop of exposure, i.e. re-rating ISO 400 as 200. It is of course an extreme wide-angle, equivalent to a 16mm shift lens on 35mm.

latitude

Two of the most important applications for colour negative films are happy-snaps and weddings. In both cases, maximum latitude is highly desirable and it can make sense to re-set the film speed rather slower than the ISO speed. This, we suspect, is one reason why wedding films are so often ISO 160: they can be re-set to EI 100 and still allow reasonable shutter speeds and apertures.

Of course you will lose sharpness with over-exposure, but with small happy-snap prints this should not matter too much and with the medium-format cameras normally used for weddings there should not be much of a problem either.

At the ISO setting, depending on your metering technique, you can reckon on around 2/3 stop latitude for under-exposure and 2 stops or more for over-exposure.

pushing

It is entirely possible to push colour negative films, and indeed there have been some films specifically designed to push well, though they are aimed at the photojournalistic market which is increasingly being taken over by digital. The mechanism of pushing is exactly the same as any other film, namely, extended time in the developer. The penalties are much the same as for black and white negatives: loss of shadow detail, more contrast and bigger grain.

grab bag

There are a number of films that do not fit conveniently into the categories above, it it is worth taking a quick look at them. Several were never intended for general purpose photography: infra-red, for example, has been used for military purposes as well as traffic surveillance, and this constitutes a far larger market than those relatively few amateurs and professionals who use it for its aesthetic possibilities. Now that both these functions can be done better with digital sensors, the continuing availability of IR and extended-red films must be problematic. Likewise, the various ultra-fine-grain films that appear on the market from time to time were mostly designed as microfilms, though Kodak Technical Pan (now discontinued) was designed for a range of applications as disparate as photomicrography and solar flare photography.

infra-red black and white

The hallmarks of infra-red photography are black or very dark skies and white foliage: foliage reflects a lot of infra-red. It is a look that is easy to overdo, and it tends to impress non-photographers more than photographers. Contrary to widespread belief, IR films do not record the heat of the human body: most require a temperature of several hundred degrees in order to form a heat image.

The classic infra-red film is Kodak's High-Speed Infrared (HIE) which despite repeated rumours of its imminent disappearance remains available. This is sensitized out to beyond 900nm, deep in the infra-red, and has a 'green gap' where there is effectively no sensitivity: apart from yellow, red and infra-red, it is sensitive only to the residual blue, violet and ultra-violet. As a result, even quite weak filtration -- deep yellow -- is sufficient to give dramatic IR effects. The biggest disadvantage of HIE is that it has to be loaded into the camera in complete darkness. Another drawback is that it is quite short-lived: fog levels build up rapidly in storage, even if the film is refrigerated.

Mnajdra, Malta

True IR films offer white foliage, black skies and a 'dripping with light' effect. In many cases you can get much the same effect by grievously over-exposing an 'extended red' film such as Ilford SFX, but it will rarely be quite as good as a true IR film such as the Maco 820 used here or (better still) Kodak HIE. On the plus side, extended red films are much easier to use as they can be loaded normally in subdued light, but on the minus side they must be used with visually opaque filters such as the Ilford gel with a T50 (see free Glossary) of 715 or less. Also, over-exposing means using an effective EI (after allowing for the filter factor) as low as 1. Roger used a Leica M2 with a 35/1.4 Summilux and a visually opaque Ilford gelatine IR filter.

All other commercially available IR films are sensitized rather less far into the infra-red, though we have seen Russian films designed for military use that are sensitized to 1000nm and beyond. Ignoring these, the rest can be divided into two groups.

The first group might be called 'true IR' in that they are sensitized well beyond the limits of sensitivity of the human eye, typically to 800nm or so. Like HIE they need to be loaded in complete darkness. They may have a 'green gap', in which case a deep yellow filter will suffice, or they may also be sensitized to green, in which case a red filter is needed at the very least.

The second group consists of 'extended red' panchromatic films from Ilford (SFX), Maco, Konica, Foma and possibly others. As far as we are aware, all were originally designed for use in traffic cameras, and are sensitized only a little beyond the sensitivity of the human eye. Because they are panchromatic, a very deep red or (better still) IR filter is essential if you want significant IR effects. With an IR filter that effectively cuts out all light below 710, 715 or 720nm (all are or have been available) you will get the black skies and white foliage that are normally associated with IR, but a very deep red filter with a T50 of 695nm will give very little more drama than an ordinary deep red used with a conventional film such as Ilford HP5 plus.

With an IR filter (T50 710 to 720nm) the working speeds of most extended-red films are very low, EI 10 and below. To get the 'dripping with light' effect that is so often associated with HIE you need to over-expose still more. This means that a tripod is all but essential.

As an aside, non-reflex cameras are obviously a lot easier to use with deep red or visually opaque filters. This is patently obvious but not a lot of people think of it.

infra-red colour

 

As far as we are aware, there is only one IR colour film on the market, Kodak's E6 colour slide film: the previous Kodak IR used the old E4 process, years after it had been abandoned for conventional films. It is a conventional colour slide film but instead of the usual red-green-blue sensitization, one of the layers is sensitized to infra-red. The results, with a medium yellow filter, are dramatic: bright red foliage, deep blue skies, and blue jeans that turn orange, among other things. It is great fun but very expensive, and after a while it begins to pall.

 

Place des Vosges

This shows the typical effects of IR colour: fairly natural looking stonework and skies, but bright red foliage and very high contrast. The contrast can be somewhat reduced by using a special E6 variant but in normal E6 as here it is pretty vivid. Roger used a Konica IIIS with medium yellow filter; the lens was a fixed 45/1.9 Hexanon.

ortho

Ortho films are sensitive to the residual blue-violet-ultraviolet of an ordinary emulsion, plus green and maybe a little yellow, but not orange and red. Apart from the obvious effects on colour rendering (anything orange or red goes very dark, including lips and pink cheeks) this allows the film to be developed by inspection under a suitable deep-red safelight: as a friend at Ilford helpfully pointed out, useful if you are afraid of the dark.

A great advantage of most ortho films is that they can be developed to a very high contrast, which is useful if you want to make contact prints by 'alternative' processes that require a lot of contrast. Ilford's Ortho Plus is available only as sheet film and can be developed in any normal developer to any contrast; some other ortho films (especially from Maco) are available in roll (120) and 35mm form, but may need dilute or contrast-reducing developers.

 

 

Tankard and asparagus

We use Ortho Plus quite a lot for 5x7 inch/13x18cm still lifes, where it can be hard to tell from FP4 Plus. Roger used a Gandolfi Variant and 210/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-N for this and printed it as an Argyrotype.

ultra-fine-grain

As already noted, these are at best variants on microfilms. Today, in fact, most or all are nothing more or less than repackaged microfilms. As a result they normally have a very limited developer repertoire and very low speeds. Most, too, deliver lousy tonality. Even if they don't, the oversize enlargements that some people make from 35mm seem to us to have a strange 'glassy' look, principally because of loss of resolution: blow up a 35mm frame 20x or more, and even if you can't see the grain, the resolution gives them away.

Our own view of such films is similar to W.O. Bentley's views on supercharging: "a perversion of design. If you want more power, build a bigger engine." Likewise, use a bigger camera.

mono reversal

We used to like the old Agfa Dia-Direct. Its replacement, Agfa Scala, was objectively a much better film in just about every way -- better blacks, a longer tonal range, faster -- but somehow we never liked it as much. It is expensive and there are very few processing stations, and we can't really see the point. We have seen a few good pictures taken with it, but we have never really had much success with it.

 

 

Harbour, Gozo

Something that is not immediately obvious about mono reversal films such as the Agfa Scala used here is that they can be toned in the same way as prints -- here, with a thiourea sepia toner. It's still not a very exciting picture. We can't remember which of us took it -- each blames the other. It's not the film's fault: whichever of us shot it just didn't do a very good job.

A rather cheaper alternative to Scala, but much more hassle, is reversal-processing ordinary negative films. Maco's clear-base 35mm films have the advantage that they do not have the grey anti-fog base of most of their competitors, and Tetenal's reversal kits work well with them.

Frankly, though, we do not see much use for black and white transparencies. For reproduction it is easier to use conventional negatives, whether scanned or wet-printed, and (like most people nowadays) we have no great need for monochrome slides for projection.

polaroid

It is easy to forget about Polaroid films, of which there are essentially three varieties. There are the modern 'integral' films which pop out of the camera and develop in front of your eyes; there are the old 'peel-apart' films, where you pull out the neg-pos sandwich from the camera and peel it apart after the appropriate number of seconds (which varies with the film and the temperature); and there are the pos-neg films where you get both an instant print and a recoverable negative: 'recoverable' because it needs to be cleared in sodium sulphite solution, washed and dried before it can be used. All three types have their creative and practical uses, though unfortunately, Polaroid prints do not always scan very well.

 

Forcalquier, South of France

We love Polaroid Sepia, but it is always just on the verge of being discontinued; there aren't quite enough people who are quite enough in love with it. It is available only in 4x5 inch single sheets. We shot this more or less jointly using our Toho FC45A (it was before the FC45X came out) and a 120/6.8 Schneider Angulon (not Super Angulon) which is a wonderfully compact lens.

 

emulsion transfers and emulsion lifts

Although several peel-apart films exhibit exquisite tonality, the most popular creative uses for several of them are emulsion transfers and emulsion lifts. With the former, the film is peeled apart before it is fully developed and the negative is squeegeed in contact with some other support. With the latter, the print is soaked in warm water until the emulsion soaks off and can be floated onto another substrate. In both cases, water-colour paper is popular as a support.

Pos-neg (P/N) films are available in both quarter-plate pack form and 4x5 inch single sheets. As well as enabling you to be sure that you have an image, even on location, they have a unique look of their own. Many photographers (including ourselves) habitually print them with the edge artifacts, the squidgy bits where the adhesive was and where the developer ran out.

Although P/N films are fun, they have their drawbacks. They are expensive. The sulphite bath will rapidly make your fingers cracked and raw unless it can be washed off immediately. The positives need to be coated to make them permanent, just like early Polaroid prints from the 1950s. And it is unusual to get both a good negative and a good print at the same exposure and development time: normally, it is best to over-expose the image somewhat, resulting in a washed-out print.

Integral films are jewel-like and some of them (especially SX-70) can be manipulated during development. You squish the development layer with a stylus that is sharp enough to move the chemicals around but not sharp enough to break the top layer. You can do it with a fingernail or the blunt end of a lobster pick or spoon.

the bottom line: a film palette ?

Unless you shoot only black and white, or only colour slide, or only colour negative, you already have a 'film palette' of films to suit different applications. The question is whether you should also use a variety of films of each type.

The most extreme advocate of multiple films whom we know is Tim Page, who will load a particular film just to shoot a few frames, then wind it off and reload with something else for a different look. Stu Williamson is somewhat the same way. If your mind works this way, and you are well enough organized, great: ours don't, and we aren't.

At the other extreme there are those who only ever shoot one kind of film in all formats: Ilford FP4 is a popular choice. This certainly keeps things simple but we find it limiting.

We therefore adopt an approach that is somewhere in between, as given below. These were our favourites in late 2004, and are subject to change in the future as they have changed in the past. We are not exactly making recommendations, because we fully accept that what works for us, may not work for you. Even so, we felt that we would be selling our readers short if we did not explain what we use, and why. See also the free module on Our Materials.

 

Cross and Elephant Grass

Grain soon loses its impact as you move further away but tonality is something you can see from the other side of the room -- and Ilford HP5 Plus, for our money, always delivers the tonality. Roger shot this with a Voigtländer Bessa-R2 and 50/1.5 Nokton plus weak (2x) B+W yellow filter.

A wonderful aside is that one editor, on seeing this, said, "Of course, we couldn't possibly use that after September 11th!" As Private Eye says, "Warballs."

Black and white 35mm:

Paterson Acupan 200; Ilford HP5 Plus (Roger) and XP2 Super (Frances) as middle-speed films; Ilford Delta 3200 as a fast film.

The Acupan has gorgeous tonality, especially in Paterson FX-39, though it is neither the sharpest nor finest-grained film in its class. Also, the ISO 200 speed is only valid in speed-increasing developers such as Ilford Microphen: we rate it at 125 to 160 in most developers, because proper comparison testing revealed that its speed is almost identical to that of Ilford FP4 Plus (nominal ISO 125). We also admire Ilford FP4 in PMK (Pyro-Metol-Kodalk) but we don't like toxic developers. If we couldn't get Acupan, our second choice would probably be Kodak Plus-X 125.

For more speed, Roger loves HP5 despite quite large grain: we normally develop it in Ilford DD-X (true ISO 500-650) or sometimes Ilford Perceptol (true ISO maybe 250). His second choice is either Maco Cube 400c or Kodak Tri-X. Frances prefers Ilford XP2 Super, which is around ISO 500 when processed conventionally in C41 or compatible chemistry; her second choice is Kodak Tri-X.

Delta 3200 is a superb film, distinctly tonally superior to Kodak TMZ P3200, but equally, when you are talking about ultra-fast films at very high speeds, composition often counts for a great deal more than tonality. We would have no great difficulty in going back to TMZ, which we used extensively before Delta 3200 came out.

Black and white 120:

Ilford Delta 100 as a slow film, Ilford HP5 Plus as a middle-speed film; Ilford Delta 3200 as a fast film. As noted in the body of the text, we find Delta 100 more successful as a roll film than in 35mm, but we have seen a great deal of superb work on 35mm Delta 100.

Black and white large format:

Ilford FP4 Plus as a slow film, Ilford HP5 Plus as a middle-speed film. Why do we find that FP4 works better in large format than in 35mm or 120? Dunno, but we do.

Colour slide:

Kodak EBX in 35mm and E100VS in 120. Both are high-saturation films, but that is what we like. Other people may prefer less saturation. When we need less saturation, Fuji Astia is our usual first choice.

Colour neg:

We don't shoot much colour neg, and when we do, it is usually only for happy-snaps, so quite honestly we don't care all that much what we shoot. For top-quality scans from 35mm colour negatives we have had the best success with Fuji. For serious colour printing, as noted above, Frances loves Kodak Portra 400.

 

Tree roots, near Montreuil

Although colour negative has far more latitude than colour slide, we generally prefer to shoot on slide for scanning because there tends to be a lot less post-production adjustment of colours and densities. This is actually scanned from a wet print made from a 6x7cm Kodak Portra negative that Frances shot with a Linhof Super Technika IV and 105/3.5 Schneider Xenar.

Whether you go for the palette approach or the single film approach is up to you. The main reason for reciting the options at such length is to show that there is no 'right' way to do it -- only the way that suits you best.

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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks