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While working at the front desk at our photography store in Montréal, we are often met with someone who is just getting into film photography and looking to buy a roll of film. If the person doesn’t know exactly what they want to buy, we’ll ask if they’re looking for black and white or color film. They are almost always able to answer this question. From there, the budding new film photographer isn’t exactly sure which color film or black and white film to buy, not really knowing the differences between them other than the cost. From there we will usually ask what they typically photograph/what they are looking to get out of the film, and then we take it from there.
So, to make things easier for all of the new film photographers out there, I thought I would write an article that breaks down the major differences between the different film stocks, such as color, grain, exposure latitude, speed, and of course price!
So let’s get right to it!
Black and White Films
Ilford HP5+ is a fantastic black and white film. It is a “fast” film with an ISO of 400, which if you are coming from a digital camera, may seem almost ridiculously slow, but in the film world, this is actually a pretty fast film. In addition to its speed, it responds well to pushing, meaning you can expose your film for ISO 800, or even 1600 and it will respond well, though I’m not one to really recommends pushing two stops as the contrast can get pretty difficult to control. What is also really nice about HP5+ is that it has a large exposure latitude, meaning if your exposure is off by a stop or so, your pictures will still be 100% workable. This is a huge advantage since you won’t be able to check the back of your camera to see your exposure, or look at a histogram in real time. Regarding price, HP5+ would be considered “standard”, so you are not overpaying for the film, but it is not as cheap as some of the other budget options out there. All in all, Ilford HP5+ is a fantastic black and white film for amateur or professional work.Ilford Delta 3200 is an extremely fast black and white film. In fact, it doesn’t get much faster than this! So, what are the pros and cons to this film? The pro is that if you need to shoot in the dark, this is your film. The con is that if you need nice “clean” images, you may want to use a slower film and explore lighting options. Basically, Delta 3200 is grainy, very grainy! But, that can be extremely desirable in certain situations, such as photographing live music, street photography, and even for wedding photography. Grain can actually be quite beautiful and pleasing if used in the right situations. If you need a faster shutter speed that a fast film affords but don’t want all the grain, I would recommend pulling this film and shooting it at ISO 1600. In fact, if you are looking to shoot a film at 1600, I would recommend pulling this film 1 stop over pushing HP5+ 2 stops. Because of Delta 3200’s uniquely high speed, it tends to be on the pricier end of 35mm films.
Ilford XP2 Super 400, like the name suggests, is another 400 speed film. What is most interesting about XP2, is that it was made to be processed in typical color film C-41 chemistry. Why is this an advantage? Typically, it is much easier to find a lab that processes color film, like our own lab, and processing color film is also usually cheaper. So, while this film is more money up front than HP5+ for example, after you factor in the development costs, it’s actually cheaper. That said, since the film’s chemistry is different than HP5+, your final image will have a different quality to it, so you will have to experiment to see what type of film better lends itself to the kind of work you do.
Ilford Delta 100 is a slower film with an ISO of 100. While its slow speed has its disadvantages, that is exactly what allows this film to shine. Delta 100 is an extremely sharp film, with a very fine and uniform grain structure - the complete opposite of Ilford Delta 3200. This is a fantastic film to use for fine art work, wedding portraiture where the light can be controlled, any work that you plan on significantly enlarging the prints, or even general outdoor use in sunny environments, like the beach for example. When you want maximum image quality with a digital camera, it is recommended to photograph using its base ISO. Think of this film as photographing with a base ISO.
Kodak Tri-X 400 is arguably the most famous black and white film. Many of the most well known photographs were taken on this film and I hope that many more will continue to be taken on this film. It is a classic. What makes it a classic? It is very forgiving and has a wide exposure latitude, it can be pushed, pulled, thrown around..you get the idea. It is a fast film with moderate grain, like HP5+. In fact, HP5+ is to Ilford what Tri-X is to Kodak. This is a fantastic film to use for home development and it responds well to scanning/digitizing. If you are shooting street photography or any kind of social documentary work, it would be a crime to not use film.
Kodak T-MAX 400
TMAX 400 is a 400 speed film, similar to Tri-X, but it has a finer, more uniformed, grain structure. This can be advantageous when you need to both maximize speed and sharpness. TMAX 400 is a great option for sports photography where you need a fast film, may need to blow the image up, but also want to keep the grain under control. Think of this film as a professional, high resolution film that emphasizes a more uniform sharpness across the image. Due to the technology that this film employs, it tends to be a more expensive black and white film and the chemicals for home development tend to be a bit more expensive as well.
Ilford Pan F Plus is a slow film, in fact, it’s a very slow film with an ISO of 50. So, take everything I said about Ilford Delta 100, but add a little bit more. This is a VERY sharp film and is perfect for a studio environment with controlled lighting. This would be a fantastic black and white film to use for headshots, models, or any sort of fine art work where the image must be blown up in size without a reduction in image sharpness. This is not the film to use if you just want to throw something in your camera for a day of shooting. Using this film will typically require some sort of method or planning, unless you are photographing in bright sunny conditions, or are able to put your camera on a tripod for longer exposure times.
Color FilmsThis is by far Kodak's most popular lineup of films, with portra 400 being the most popular of the three. As you can probably tell by now, a 400 speed film seems to be within the “goldilocks” zone for a lot of people. It’s not so slow that you need to worry about artificial lighting, and not so fast that the grain starts to take over the image. That said, Portra 160 and 800 are fantastic films, and if you know what you are going to be shooting, can often be the better choice film. For example, if you are shooting an outdoor wedding on a bright sunny day, portra 160 is a fantastic choice, or if it is a cloudy day during that wedding, portra 800 is a great option rather than having to push portra 400. If you don’t know what the weather is going to be as it is shifting around, then portra 400 will put you right in the middle and offer the the ability to push the film to 800 if you need to at certain points. Ok, so what are the qualities of these films? They are perfect for portraits, weddings, or any other kind of color photography where you want beautifully rendered skin tones. The portra line up offers consistently beautiful colors and tones, and is truly a “professional” lineup of films. Many wedding photographers over expose these films which give that muted, lower contrast, dreamy look that we are now used to seeing. As these are professional color films, they are on the higher end of the scale with regards to their price.
Kodak UltraMax 400 is a great every day color film. Good color, saturation, speed, exposure latitude - you can’t go wrong with it. This film will have you covered for portraits, landscapes, family and friends, you name it! If you want something that can handle everything without breaking the bank, this is the film to use. At our store, this is the most purchased film and the hardest to keep in stock since it fits so many different shooting styles and scenarios.
Kodak Ektar 100
Kodak Ektar 100 is a really cool film that not enough people shoot. Its 100 speed means that you will need either need sufficient light, or a tripod, which shouldn’t be a problem because this film excels at landscapes. This is not the film to use for portraits or family and friend photography as the color saturation of the film does not lend itself well to skin tones. That said, there is no better film for landscape photography, especially in the fall, as Ektar 100 really pulls the reds and oranges out of the leaves. This is a low grain film as well, meaning you can enlarge those landscape pictures beautifully without having any issues with grain or sharpness. Because this is a specialty film, it tends to be more expensive, but it is well worth the extra cost if you are a landscape photographer.
That covers most of the films out there on the market, if you have a question about any of these films, or any others that were not mentioned, feel free to call or write in to our photography store located in Montreal, Quebec where one of our staff photographers would be happy to answer any questions that you might have. As well, don’t forget that aside from selling film we also offer film development for both color and black and white films. And if you want to go even further down the film photography rabbit hole, we also offer film developing supplies such as developing tanks, light proof loading bags, and all of the necessary chemicals for black and white film developing.
We hope to hear from you soon!