In a world dominated by digital cameras, film is making somewhat of an epic comeback. Even with ever increasing film stock prices, rarity of good quality cameras and dwindling processing labs, film bites back at the photographic community. When I started my first job fresh out of University in 2010, I was working in a photo lab, processing 50-100 films a day. By 2013, that number was down to 2 films a week. I’m happy to say due to the analog revival that film is back up to healthy 10-20 films a day again. Photographers are realising the soul and beauty of film shots, the unpredictable results and the ever pleasing colour palette. I want to walk through with you two kinds of film today, with the benefits and problems inherit with each. I’m deliberately avoiding black and white film for now, thats a whole separate case study. Consider me your film guru, with well over 3 million images printed from film within my tenure at a film lab.
A brief history for those who have never dabbled in film.
For colour prints you were split into two film camps; negative and positive. The positive film is just that – after developing you can look at your negatives held up to a window and see positive images, like tiny little versions of your pictures in perfect colour and glory. Negatives are the more common, cheaper alternative which survived the test of time. Developed negatives come back to you orangey-brown and the pictures are hard to decipher, as the dark parts of the picture are more transparent than the light sections. Either way they both scan through the same processing machines or scanners. I took a roll of each of the finest portrait films around into the studio to test with the UKs Olympus house model James, for some 1970s styled fashion with a simple one light softbox setup against a grey paper backdrop. The camera I used was a simple Nikon FM with a 50mm 1.8 lens. I used the same camera settings throughout – 1/125 shutter speed and f8. The images were metered for ISO 100 as this is the recommended rating for the films. For direct comparisons all the pictures have not been edited in any way, just scanned using a high street lab machine with no adjustments.
First up, the infamous Kodak Portra 160 (colour negative).
What we’re going to try and show today is the differences that the two kinds of film give to an image lit with the same setup. Colour negative as a rule is very flexible, and will take overexposing by a massive 6 to 7 stops before it starts to look strange. It can take underexposing to a certain degree too, but more like 1 or 2 stops. Portra is the golden god for portraits (hence the name Portra), and comes in three ISO ratings of 160, 400 and 800. I shot this film at ISO 100 as negative film generally fares better when overexposing, so any chance I can to shoot lighter than intended I do. The shadows are nice and open, the highlights are not blown and everything is within a great dynamic range. You could take these scans and manipulate them further in your editing program to get even more out of them, such as a higher contrast or an alternate exposure. Note how the grey background has a slight brown tinge to it, this is the film imparting its colour casts to your shoot. Each film manufacturer and film stock provides its own unique colour casts and shifts, it is a long learning curve to know which film to use for what and why. If you’re looking for portrait specific films, out of the big two film producers (Kodak and Fujifilm), Kodak makes Portra whilst Fujifilm make the Pro H range. We will be doing head to head comparisons on those two portrait stocks in the near future.
The downsides to negative film.
We’re up to speed on the advantages on negative film, but what are their downsides? For one, as the lowest common ISO is 100, so you will always have an element of grain in your images. If shooting slide (the common name for positive film), you can go down to 50 and even 25 ISO to get crisp, grain free shots. You cannot use negatives on a projector, as the colours would be inverted and reversed. The film can also be too forgiving – if you’re looking for super contrasty images with plenty of deep blacks, you’d be better off with either black and white or slide film. On that note:
Fujifilm Provia 100 (colour positive).
Straight away we can see a huge difference in contrast and overall colours. The darks are now a super deep black, the transitions from highlight to midtones are smoother and the colour cast is more balanced towards natural skin tones. You cannot see the background being illuminated by the flash, which you could see in the negatives. Remember the only difference is the film has changed to slide, and we are still shooting at the native ISO of 100 (also known as the box speed). The great thing about slide film is that the images are so smooth and fine textured, like you’ve spent a month in Photoshop refining your skintones and editing out the blemishes and inaccuracies. The colours produced by slide are very saturated and bright in comparison to negative, so if you’re shooting bright high fashion or want to channel your inner Guy Bourdin, slide is perfect for you. If you don’t mind your image to be a little low-key, or are specifically shooting dark and moody images, slide has your back, and the white balance of slide is more neutral than in comparison to any negative film out there.
The good and the bad sides of slide film.
There are quite a few downsides to shooting on slide film, and the first is the availability. For every twenty colour negative films available there is only one slide film found. Most shops will only stock the landscape brother of this film (called Fujifilm Velvia), and when they do the price is nearly double that of even the best negative film stock. Developing it has to be done in a separate machine to negatives with expensive chemicals, and due to the scarcity of slide developing, most labs will either not develop it or charge much more as a result. The biggest flaw of slide is the inflexibility. Where you can overexpose negative to a massive degree, you have little to no flexibility with slide. You’re stuck with the metering you get when taking the shot, there is no ability to rescue the highlights or shadows in post production or scanning. A highlight will get more transparent on slide, eventually turning into just a clear windowpane on the slide film, with no information to use. Most professional slide film users will say that they bracket (shooting the correct exposure plus one additional frame over and under exposed) on the same film to make sure that they have all exposures covered incase of erroneous metering problems.
The dramatic difference in brightness, explained.
If you’ve been reading closely, you may think that this I gave somewhat of an unfair comparison – I metered the above positive film at ISO 100 with an ISO 100 film, yet I shot the ISO 160 negative film at ISO 100 with the same settings, giving the negative a 2/3rds overexposure bias in camera! I somehow knew you’d say that, so I accounted for that – I shot the positive shot beneath (left) at f5.6. This is providing the film with more light than the Portra film ever received (right). There is still a huge difference in the tonal range, the depth and the gradients from high to low, despite the image on the left being over exposed more than the one on the right.
There’s many things to choose when shooting film, and I could go on and on but its best to save it for a future blog post. I am a huge film fanatic, having completely my degree on film photography and studio lighting theory. I hope film stays alive for the future generations to enjoy, and I will impart as much knowledge as I can to help you with your film journey, where ever you may be along it.