Analog Options: Which Film Stock for Which Type of Photography?

Analog Options: Which Film Stock for Which Type of Photography?

Let's chant it from the rooftops: Film is not dead, whether as a medium in art or as the thing that makes instant photos at parties possible and will let you take pictures in places where digital cameras and phones aren't allowed in.There are genres of photography in which film is distantly a second choice now. Sports and journalism are the most obvious examples here. Product photography too, and corporate headshots won't be overwhelmingly captured on the silver halides and color dyes of film stock again anytime soon. I won't list all the other types of photography that benefit from Capture One live view or instant feedback on the back of a display screen. The list is obviously extensive.

There are those genres in which film photography still has a place, though. To be sure, as a niche within a niche, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep pursuing it if it suits your style, and it doesn't mean you shouldn't try it if you've never tried it before. There are quite a few questions that surround shooting film if you're a digital native, and I won't attempt to answer all of them here, but a few should be tackled.

Which camera should you choose? Now there's a discussion that could last years. This may be something I'll address in a later post, but for now: if you're using a digital camera now, use a film camera that takes the same lenses. Nikon, Canon, Minolta/Sony, Pentax, and Leica are the most used brands that still use a mount originally developed for film cameras.

With a camera in hand, you will need film. The good news is there are a lot of varieties of film still available for you to choose from. The bad news is well, there are a lot of varieties available to choose from. So, what are the film stocks currently produced, and how do they fit each type of photography? Here's a very personal list of films fitted to genres. Bear in mind that you'll be hard pressed to find agreement on what some of these genres mean or where one ends and another begins, so don't take this for gospel. Note that I will talk about fresh, currently available film and not discontinued stocks that may have gone by the same name.

Wedding Photography

You can't control the light through all stages of a wedding, so you need a film stock that can take a bit of a beating. You will need something with wide latitude and dynamic range. You can't chimp and check if you got a staged shot, and you obviously can't recreate a moment. Your film needs to be reliable and tolerant. You need something that will over and underexpose without too much complaint.

Here's were medium ISO negative color film comes in. Stocks like Fujifilm Pro 400H and Kodak Portra 400 will overexpose without much complaint and can absorb some underexposure. If you only want to work with one film, pick one of these. Overexpose them a stop or two for a more ethereal look if you want. Use them at box speed (the ISO they are advertised for) if you need higher ISOs.

Both have somewhat muted colors, and both will work fine in daylight and with flash. Because most films these days are daylight balanced, you may need to use a filter in artificial lighting or rely on either the film lab or your scanning and editing skills to fix color casts.

If you want a few black and white pictures, you can of course easily apply any filters you would use for digital images on scans of these color films. If you want to go all black and white, your choices are overwhelming. A good starting point is Kodak's T-Max line of films, available in ISO 100 and 400, and Ilford's XP2 (which can be processed in color chemistry at any film lab), or Rollei's RPX 100 and RPX 400. The latter are similar to discontinued Agfa films, APX 100 and 400, which were my go-to black and white films when still available.

For low light, add some Kodak Tri-X pushed two stops, or use the very grainy but very fast Ilford Delta 3200.

Agfa APX 100.

Portrait and Fashion Photography

There is still enough of a market for film manufacturers to actually produce film geared towards this type of photography. In portrait photography, you may split your time between a studio where you can light your models as you wish and the big, wide world, where you may or may not be able to do that.

Kodak and Fujifilm both offer ISO 160 films that have fine grain and give pleasing results with all skin colors. Fujifilm's Pro 160C and Kodak's Portra 160 both have even more subdued colors than their ISO 400 sisters mentioned above. If you have enough light, these films are great and very fine-grained. If you don't, their ISO 400 variants, as well as Kodak Portra 800, will enable you to achieve results that don't look out of place next to pictures taken on the lower ISO film.

Also consider Ektar 100. Kodak Ektar 100 is one of the newest film emulsions out there. It has very fine grain, punchy colors, and less latitude than other professional films. That, and the fact that it tends to make white skin look unnaturally pink if you don't correct for it may put you off Ektar, but with the right kind of subject matter, the results are worth it.

Kodak Portra 160.

Landscape Photography

Landscapes typically call for slow films and tripods. For color, the classic choice since the discontinuation of Kodachrome is Fujifilm's brilliantly vivid Velvia 50. Try Velvia 100 and Provia 100F or the very similar AgfaPhoto CTprecisa 100 as well for less saturated, more natural-looking colors, as well as Kodak Ektar 100. In black and white, similarly pick something slow, such as Kodak's T-Max 100, Rollei's RPX 25, and Ilford's Pan F Plus.

Agfa Precisa 100.

Travel Photography

Travel photographers have it hard. They need to carry their equipment with them in all kinds of weather and environments, and they often have to go through checkpoints and airport X-ray machines or insist on hand-checks of film stock. Personally, here I would go for Fujifilm's quite natural-looking Provia 100H or Agfa Precisa 100. If slide film is impractical for you, go for Kodak Ektar 100, which in some respects looks quite similar to older slide film stocks.

You can feed ISO 100 film through airport X-rays dozens of times without a problem, while higher ISOs suffer after just a few journeys. If you're just flying to a place and back, can find labs to process along the way, or are going by car or train, this is obviously less of an issue. In that case, you can supplement or replace these films with ISO 400 film, like the above-mentioned Fuji Pro and Kodak Portra. For me, travel photography evokes colorful, exotic locales, however, and I find these best captured by slide film.

Kodak Ektar 100.

Street Photography

The classic look here is black and white and grainy. Use Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5 Plus. Push it two stops if you like, and you're halfway there. (Pushing means underexposing the film and then compensating for this in development. So pushing two stops means shooting these ISO 400 films at ISO 1600. You can do the pushing on your own or you let the lab know that that's what they should do.) But if there's enough light, you can also go with something slower, like Kodak T-Max 100, or Ilford FP4.

Kodak Tri-X 400.

Urban Photography

There's certainly no hard and fast line between urban photography and the street or travel genres. If you shoot lively scenes moving quickly, you may decide that a street photography type style, black and white and grainy, is called for. My personal preference here is for something with relatively true colors, medium speed, low grain, and not too punchy. I have used Fujifilm's ubiquitous consumer film Superia 200 extensively and can also recommend the company's 400H Pro film and Kodak's Portra 400. If processed and scanned the same, the Fujifilm emulsions give me somewhat truer colors, reminiscent of street and photojournalism images from the 1990s, while Kodak's Portra has a bit more of an old school Americana feel.

Fujifilm Superia 200.

The Choice Is Yours

Which film you end up choosing for which task is intensely personal. New films continue to be formulated and produced, so something that doesn't even exist today may become one of your favorites. With time, you will come to like some film stocks and dislike others. This depends on what and where you typically shoot, what your style of photography is, and what's available and easily fits into your workflow. I hope, however, that this can serve as a starting point and as a non-binding reference sheet for those only just beginning their film photography journey.

Torsten Kathke's picture

Torsten is a documentary photographer and historian based in Cologne, Germany. He enjoys combining analog and digital processes in both photography and filmmaking. When he is not roaming the streets with old film cameras, he can usually be found digging through dusty archives or ensconced at home reading and writing.

Log in or register to post comments

Man, I'd kill for some of these emulsions in 4x5 or 120. So many options for 35mm!

I am able to get almost all of these (at least all of the ones I am interested in using) in 120 and a fairly large selection of them (with the exception of the Fuji Pro emulsions and Portra 800) in 4x5. i also find that 4x5 and 120 offer some other nice emulsions not listed here, including my current favorite BW film, Fuji Neopan Acros 100.

I would love to find infrared for 120 or 4x5. There are a few options for color trans or neg. Real choices are around only for 135...guess the companies have to go where the demand and sales are. Today though we are lucky to have any film still around.

120 infrared film is not that hard to find, though finding someone who will process it well might be depending on where you are. Both Ilford and Efke make IR film that is pretty easy to find. I just wish kodak still made Aerochrome. The Lomography film that replaces/emulates it isn't even close in my opinion.

Yeah, 135 is still where the most variety can be found, also in specialty films. For every other format it's much harder. I am using the last few rolls of my supply of Superia 400 in medium format right now myself…

I enjoyed reading the article. I own and shoot with two Canon film cameras, A-1 (bought new in 1980), and New F-1 (bought used in 2013). With two film cameras, the quandary of whether to shoot color or B&W is now solved; one is loaded with B&W and the other with color.

Canon film SLR and DSLR lens mounts are not compatible. I don't think there is an adapter to mount EF lenses to an FD body. There are adapters to mount FD lenses to an EOS body. I haven't tried that yet.

Thanks so much! Yes, incompatibilities abound when it comes to SLRs and DSLRs. If you have an older FD body, you're indeed out of luck (just as you are with Minolta SR manual focus cameras, for example, which are incompatible with the later A-mount used on autofocus film cameras and some Sony Alphas). There are quite a number of Canon EOS film SLRs available, though, so if you have a digital EOS, you can easily swap lenses between them. As far as adapters go, I've heard some are unusable and some are ok. It may just be luck of the draw and sample variation. These days, it's probably best to use a mirrorless body for older lenses.

Interesting article. I've shot with all those films, but I've never ever considered limiting myself to a particular type for any situation (other than daylight vs. tungsten and that's rare). Each film type does have its characteristic look, but mix them up I say. I also enjoy shooting with exotic films, such as Lomochrome Purple and Turquoise, Adox Color Implosion, reverse-rolled color and the bizarre Revolog films - all of which can be used in any situation for fascinating results. I still photograph digitally as well, but film is really fun.

Yes, I agree completely - film is fun. And I won't ever argue that one should limit themselves to shooting some things only with only one type of film. This is meant more as an entry point for people who come from digital and don't know where to start. You're obviously much farther along the film journey yourself! I've never tried Revolog films, but I should.