Film Photography for Digital Shooters #2: Types of Film
In the first part of this series, we explored the one-of-a-kind world of film photography with hopes of igniting a spark of interest in all of you digital aficionados out there. Now, we’re ready to delve further into the world of film by exploring the different types of film made today. Although in the end, a photographer may choose film based on his or her personal taste, each film type comes with its own inherent set of strengths and weaknesses.
The most important difference between film types is the size of the film itself. Like in digital photography, a smaller film size (akin to a smaller censor) will produce images with less detail and more depth of field than a larger film size or sensor. In this post, we’ll explain the differences between the three major film sizes (35mm, Medium Format, and Large Format) and highlight some of the benefits of shooting with each.
35mm Photography: The Gold Standard
The most common film type today is 35mm film. The name 35mm refers to the width of each frame on the roll. While 35mm is the smallest of the three main film types, don’t underestimate the quality of the image it can deliver. Sized equally to the censor size of professional full-frame DSLRS (and slightly larger than most entry-level DSLRS), 35mm film is a great entry point into shooting with film that offers a portable and user-friendly experience not unlike shooting with a DSLR.
35mm film comes in roll form, allowing you to shoot up to 36 frames per roll, depending on the roll size and the type of camera you’re using. A very useful advantage to shooting with 35mm is the option of purchasing bulk rolls of film. With the use of a bulk loader, empty film spool and light-safe bag (or dark room) you can create your own rolls of varying length to accommodate whatever project you take on. This method allows you to develop a valuable skill that saves you money in the long run.
Brands like Ilford, T-max and Fuji and Kodak offer 35mm film in black & white and color in various speeds (for more on film speed, keep reading!). If you’re looking for something easy to learn, with a relatively low cost of entry, 35mm might be the film type for you.
Medium Format Photography: An Artful Alternative
If you’re looking for a different experience, perhaps you’d enjoy shooting with medium format film. Slightly more complicated, medium format film comes in two standard sizes called 120 and 220, though both feature films that are approximately 6cm (or 60mm) in width, as opposed to the significantly smaller 35mm. The size of each film frame itself can vary greatly, depending on the type of camera you use it in. Common frame sizes include 6cm x 6cm (square), 6×7, and 6×9, and the format of the frame will determine how many frames come on each roll. 120, which is shorter, will usually feature 10-16 frames, while 220, which is longer, will feature 20-32 frames.
But don’t get too bogged down by the numbers. The important thing to remember is that these larger negatives have the ability to capture fine detail with resonating clarity, capable of being enlarged make very big prints without increased graininess or blurring. Hasselblad, Holga, Mamiya, Lomography and Fuji all produce medium format cameras at a wide range of price points and with varying features. And most medium format cameras are easy to operate if you already have experience shooting a DSLR or 35mm camera.
The biggest reason to consider it? While the quality of 35mm photography can be digitally attained through relatively inexpensive means, medium format digital cameras (meaning, digital cameras with 6cm-wide censors) retail upwards of $10,000.
Large Format Photography: The Film for the Ages
The world of large format photography is one that has existed for almost two centuries. Using single plates to capture images as opposed to rolls of film, the technique is as old as photography itself. These days, any film format 4×5 inches or greater is considered large format. That 4×5 frame has an area over 10 times that of a 35mm negative, and almost 400 times the area of the image captured by the digital sensor of an iPhone 5. As you can imagine, these films have the potential to produce images with astonishing detail and virtually no graininess when enlarged. If you’re looking for the utmost quality and you plan on making large prints of your images, large format film may be the best choice for you.
However, only one shot is captured per piece of film, and composing the image can take some time. There is definitely more of a learning curve to operating large format cameras, as compared to 35mm and medium format cameras. In most large format cameras, you have the ability to control the depth of field and focus area of the shot by adjusting the front and back components of your camera and paying attention to the preview of the image on the ground glass of the unit. This is a much slower process that leaves little room for error when shooting, although Polaroid backs can be purchased for many cameras which enable you to take and analyze test shots using instant film before committing your final photo to the plate. With so much control over the image, the key to shooting in large format is patience. The more attention you pay and time you dedicate to the shooting process, the better your results will be.
Whether large format photography is right for you, only you can say. But if you’re looking for an antidote to the digital snapshot world, we can’t think of a better pursuit than learning to shoot with a large format view camera.
The Need for Speed
No matter what film size/camera system you decide on, you’ll need to take note of the “speed” of the film you’re using. Here are the main differences:
The lower the film speed, the less light-sensitive the film. Low film speeds (ISO 100-200) tend to produce negatives with finer grain, shallower depth of field and soft overall feel, making them good candidates for portraiture, still subjects and generally well-lit environments.
The higher the film speed, the more light-sensitive the film. High ISO films (800 or more) tend to produce negatives with larger grain, deeper depth of field and a sharper overall feel, making them more suitable for action shots and situations with a varied range of lighting (or low light).
400 speed film is often used as a versatile all-purpose speed and can be seen as encompassing the best of both worlds when you shoot. If you need to shoot moving subjects in low light, you will probably want to use a high-speed film such as Ilford Delta 3200. This professional film allows you to capture high quality black-and-white images in varying low light situations without compromising the overall quality of the negative.
In general, when choosing a film speed, you’ll want to select the speed that works well for the type of images you are trying to capture and is suitable for the lighting conditions you’re shooting in.
Finding the camera / film combination that best suits you can be a challenge, especially if your background is in digital photography. But when you start to narrow down the options, it’s not as difficult as you might think. Your choice will most likely be based on whether you prioritize image quality or portability/ease of use (or want a balance between the two), as well as the types of cameras you have access to. From there, experimentation can help you determine the brand and speed of film you like best. With a little bit of patience and an adventurous spirit, the end results will prove thoroughly enjoyable, and the quality you’ll achieve through these relatively inexpensive means will make your investment worthwhile.
- Foundations of Analog Photography I – a comprehensive overview of the creative and technical aspects of 35mm photography and darkroom printing
- Black and White Darkroom: The Next Level – a look at more advanced darkroom techniques such as dodging and burning, pre-flashing, and split-filter printing
- Introduction to Medium and Large Format Photography – an introduction to using medium and large format cameras, including film processing and high-resolution scanning