I was recently asked a question by someone new to film photography, a question I never expected, and have never been asked before: What film would I recommend — black and white, as well as color — for someone new to film photography? Well, for sure, it made me think.
First, this question was in the context of medium format, for which the choices are far more limited than they are for 135 film. But while I’ve not tried every medium format film on the market today, it feels like I’ve tried enough of the limited range of choices to know what works and delivers good results, so I took a swing at it.
Second, my suggestions for new shooters vs. others would be different. I think people just starting out, getting a feel for things, learning how to meter subjects, etc. need to focus on economy. There are great films that just are not economical enough to consider for a new shooter. (I’ll probably mention some of them anyway.)
Black and White
Let’s start with black and white, with economy in-mind.
I’ve come to have a strong preference for Fomapan, especially Fomapan 400 Action. Part of that is since starting to develop film at home, I’m wanting to shoot a lot more, and wanted something more economical. But the quality I’m getting out of it is appealing as well; I just like the look. No retailer in my local area carries it; I have to order it online, which is frustrating. But at a price point that’s well below the competition, even if the results weren’t as good, I’d still use it. Given that they are? Well, even better.
For something more readily available, I love Kodak Tri-X 400, and always keep some around. Along with the now-discontinued Plus-X, Tri-X was a go-to film for me back in the day (i.e., high school), and it’s been a favorite of photographers for generations. I particularly like the contrast of Tri-X, and I also like the fact that its development times are short. If it weren’t for Fomapan’s economic advantages, Tri-X would no doubt be the film I shot the most.
Of course, Ilford makes incredibly good films. I especially like Ilford PanF 50, although I confess I’ve not shot that much of it to-date. HP5 Plus 400 and FP4 Plus 125 are great choices as well.
There are other niche films I really like, including Bergger Pancro 400 and CatLABS X FILM 80. Both have to be mail ordered (at least in my area), and both may well trigger the issue I’m about to raise…
That issue? With black and white, you have to make sure your lab knows how to process what you shoot. That itself is a reason to stick with Kodak and Ilford. If you use a mail order lab like The Darkroom or Dwayne’s (see my Resources page for details), you’re pretty well assured that they can process pretty much anything. Local labs? Well, maybe, maybe not. My own experience with a local lab suggests that anything off the beaten path may result in negatives that aren’t ideal, which has happened to me with Foma Retropan 320 (as an example). It’s always good to ask first — just to be certain.
I don’t shoot tons of color negative film, and the options still on the market these days are quite limited. The upside of shooting color is that C-41, the standard chemical process for color negative films, is one-size-fits-all — your local lab doesn’t have to figure anything out, or customize times or other factors, as is the case with black and white processing.
In terms of film, I tend to shoot a lot of Kodak Ektar 100. It’s fairly economical, the color rendition is good, and it’s readily and widely available. I buy Ektar by the box, and always have some around; it’s really my default choice for general color shooting. Nothing about it will blow anyone away, but it’s a quality, reliable film that provides solid, predictable results.
It may be worth mentioning that if you’re shooting 135 instead of medium format, Kodak‘s ColorPlus and ProImage are even more economical choices. Alas, they aren’t available in medium format.
Probably my favorite color negative film is Kodak Portra, available in 160, 400 and 800 ISO speeds. The problem is, it’s not really economical for most new shooters to bother with — especially the fast speeds. I mention it here because if a new shooter wants a fast color negative film, then Portra 800 is a great (if expensive) choice. The film is outstanding, with a unique and pleasing color palette that, as its name implies, is terrific for portrait work. But, it’s good for about anything in my view.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a film I’ve written about before, Lomography Color Negative 100, 400 and 800. I reviewed Lomo 800 specifically, but the three speeds behave similarly and provide similar results. And while I like them in a whole lot of ways, I have a bit of an attitude about them because of the persistent rebate (edge) fogging I experience with the whole family. I really need to get through the 20 rolls or so of Lomo color film in my fridge, and perhaps I’ll form a different opinion in the process, but I’m not expecting to. In any case, I started using Lomography color films because they were somewhat less expensive than Kodak, and also because of the vintage overall look to the films. But the price advantage depends on where you buy it, and really isn’t that great an advantage regardless. The colors? Well, that’s the thing that’s likely to make me keep some around anyway.
If I’m focused on new shooter economy, I shouldn’t even go here, but I also have a thing for CineStill 50D. This converted Kodak cinema film renders colors in a unique and very pleasing way. The main issue? Cost. I simply can’t afford to shoot much of it. It’s in the general range of US$15 a roll, but with film prices overall on the upswing, maybe it’s not such a massive premium after all. If you’re a new film photographer with deep pockets, however, I say go for it!
The frustrating thing is that there just aren’t that many color negative films to choose from, at least in 120. At one time, both Ilford and Foma made color films. While I appreciate that we live in a different era, some part of me still wishes that someone who has the institutional knowledge, the access to the materials, the equipment, and the distribution already in-place would go out on a limb and try bringing a fully new, high quality, professional-grade color negative film to market. Alas, I doubt we’ll ever see that happen. One can dream, however. (And yes, I know about Lomography Metropolis, but I would personally consider that to be a creative effects film — not something designed to compete with Ektar, Portra, CineStill, etc.)
I shouldn’t bother mentioning color reversal film in a piece intended for new shooters. The film is more expensive. The processing is more expensive. And shooting it is far, far less forgiving. (Color reversal film has a very limited amount of latitude, meaning that you have to get the exposure pretty well dead-on — something new photographers will frequently struggle with.) In fact, if you’re new to film, and you’re reading this, pretend I didn’t mention color reversal film; just put it on your bucket list for shooting.
Because of the costs involved, I don’t shoot tons of reversal film. But I do love it, and I have since my very earliest days of shooting film. In my teenage years, I even processed E-6 in my bathtub at home. These days, color reversal is as interesting and fun as it ever was, but as I said, you pay a premium.
In any case, with Kodak having announced that Ektachrome E100 will be out by the end of 2019 (and likely that date is long past by the time you’re reading this post), color reversal film — also known as positive film, transparency film, or slide film — is on a lot of peoples’ minds.
That’s a good thing, because Ektachrome is a fantastic film. As I write this, I’ve only shot it in 135, and on 120 via long-expired rolls of the previous generation of the film. But the results are incredible.
Another favorite is Fuji’s Velvia 50. This renowned, slow-speed reversal stock is admired by many photographers. It too is pretty expensive, but Velvia 50 offers very highly saturated colors and a look that’s quite unique. It’s best used to shoot colorful scenes, and when you do, the results will amaze you. One of my favorite film photographs from the era of my renewed interest in film was shot on Velvia 50. Fuji also makes a Velvia 100, although it has a different color rendition.
I’m still frustrated that The Darkroom in San Clemente, Colorado screwed-up the scanning of the roll (that’s the black bar on the right); I will eventually get around to rescanning it.
I’m sure my thinking on film will shift and evolve with time, but as much as I wish we had more choices available to us, the fact that film lives on in this era of digital everything is arguably more important than worrying about the number of choices available. And given that both Ilford and Kodak have introduced new films to the market recently, and even Fuji is reversing some of its discontinuance decisions, makes me optimistic that film will live on. It might be a niche, like cassette tapes and vinyl records, but I can live with that.