Despite the digital takeover, manual film photography is still a popular hobby and artform. However, the unique challenges it presents can make it overwhelming for a novice; even if they’re an experienced digital photographer. Given the plethora of options, choosing the best film for photography can be especially difficult.
Below, we’ve delved into how film photography works, and what size (mm) and speed (ISO) of film you should be using.
What is Film & How Does it Work?
Photographic film is effectively a strip of transparent plastic, coated in a gelatin emulsion. The emulsion contains microscopic crystals that are extremely sensitive to light. When the crystals are briefly exposed to light, they produce an invisible image in the emulsion, or what’s called a latent image.
The latent image becomes visible once the film is developed. That is, when the film is bathed in a series of solutions, triggering a chemical reaction in the crystals that renders the image visible and makes the crystals no longer sensitive to light. Developed film is called a negative, as the process inverts the light and dark tones of the image.
The negative is then scanned at a high resolution and inverted again to create positive images. The images can now be printed on to photographic paper or used digitally. Reversal or slide film is also sometimes used, which produces a positive image directly after processing. Negative film and reversal film are still manufactured and sold today in both color and black and white.
Developing film is a complex and time-consuming process, so we recommend taking your rolls to a professional film processor. Check out the image above for some of our favorite film developers in Brooklyn.
Instant Cameras & Instant Film
Instant cameras use another type of film that is designed to develop within minutes or seconds of an exposure. Instant film was invented by Polaroid over 70 years ago, and they are still releasing new instant cameras today.
Other instant camera brands include Fujifilm, Leica, and Lomography. Each brand also manufactures film for their cameras. For example, Fujifilm’s line of Instax Mini instant cameras use Instax Mini film.
Film Format – What Size Should I Use?
In photography, format typically refers to the size of the film you’re using (or the size of your camera sensor, if you’re shooting digital). Film cameras can only use the specific size of film they are designed for, so the format you use depends on your camera.
35mm film is the most popular and widely produced format. If you already own a film camera, this is most likely the size of film it uses. Technically, 35mm film is actually 36mm wide (and 24mm long). However, there are perforations along each end of the film that allow the camera to hold and wind the film. Therefore, the usable width of each exposure is 35mm.
Other sizes include 120 or medium format film (60.7 x 61.7mm), and large format film (90 x 120mm). The larger your film, the more detail you’ll be able to capture in your photos. For this reason, medium and large format photos generally produce higher quality images.
Multiple brands still manufacture 35mm film cameras, as well as film to go with them. These include Ilford, Yashica, Kodak, Reto, and dubblefilm. We like the remarkably affordable point & shoot Ilford Sprite 35-II camera for beginners.
Large and medium format cameras are harder to come by, not to mention more expensive. However, some brands still make them. Lomography’s Diana F+ medium format film camera is great for beginners. It’s easy to use, affordable, and still in production, so film is readily accessible. Plus, it can also be fitted with the Diana Instant Back+ which allows it to shoot on Instax Mini instant film.
Film Speed – What ISO Should I Use?
So, you have a film camera and you’re ready to start shooting. What type of film should you buy? Other than size, film is also produced at different speeds.
In this context, speed refers to the film’s sensitivity to light. Film with larger crystals in its emulsion is more sensitive to light, and considered high speed. Slow film has smaller crystals and is less sensitive to light.
The universal standard used for measuring film speed was created by the International Standards Organization (ISO). When shopping for film, you’ll notice that each roll has a number on the label, typically between 20-3200. This is known as the ISO, and indicates the film’s speed. The larger the ISO number, the higher the speed of the film.
Film rolls with an ISO between 20-200 are considered slow. The smaller crystals in the film’s emulsion make it less sensitive to light, and therefore better for use in bright conditions. Finer crystals also allow the film to capture more detail. However, as it’s less sensitive to light, slow film is not great for shooting in low light.
ISO 400 is a versatile and popular film speed. The crystals in the film are small enough to capture more detail (and less light) than high speed film, yet still large enough that the film works better in the dark than a slow speed film.
Film with an ISO between 800-3200 is considered high speed. In addition to working better in dark conditions, the large crystals in high speed film make it more adept at capturing moving subjects. However, high speed film also tends to produce more grain or noise in the resulting imagery.
The Best Film for Photography
The best film for photography is ultimately a personal choice. The size and speed of film that you use depends entirely on your camera, and where and when you’re shooting. While having a technical understanding of film is helpful, the best thing you can do is pick up a few rolls and start experimenting.