How to Choose a Film for Your Camera

The film you choose for your camera matters far, far more than your choice of camera and lens. There are three kinds of films you are likely to encounter: colour negatives, E-6 slide films, and traditional black and white films. All of these have their place, and none of them is perfect for every photographic situation; and all of them are capable of getting great results if you use them appropriately. There are trade-offs involved in using every kind of film; armed with the right knowledge, you'll be able choose one that's good for your needs.


  1. 1
    Understand the difference between the three main types of film. Many people are only familiar with the first of these, but the other two have their place in photography (perhaps more so).

    • Color negatives have their colors inverted, and are orange-tinted.
      Color negative film, also called print film, is what most people are familiar with; the stuff you can still buy almost anywhere (and what non-specialists will generally assume you want if you ask for "film"). The image you see on a developed negative is orange-tinted, and the colors are inverted. The process used to develop these is called C-41, and so these are sometimes called "C-41 films".
    • Slide films, typically mounted in plastic or cardboard mounts, give a positive image that looks just like your photograph.
      Slide film, more properly called reversal film, gives a positive image; in other words, when you look through it, it looks like a photograph. Nearly all slide films today use the E-6 process, which is a completely different process to that used for negative films.[1]
    • This was shot on Ilford XP2, one of the few black-and-white films that don't use the traditional black-and-white process.
      Traditional black-and-white films are usually negative films, but (you guessed it) they're black-and-white. These, again, use a very different process (albeit a much simpler one) to all the other types of film.

      There's a special subset of black-and-white films: those that can be developed in the same C-41 process used for color negatives. Ilford XP2 and Kodak BW400CN are two of them. These have all the properties of color negatives, except for the color part, so most of what is written below about the latter applies to these films as well.
  2. 2
    Your options may be limited if you're shooting some weird format like 110 cartridges.
    Consider the options for your film format.
    This article mostly assumes that you're shooting 35mm film. If you're using some weird or dead consumer format like 24mm, then you're probably stuck with color negative film. 35mm and larger formats usually have plenty of options available, so don't worry about this.
  3. 3
    Look at your processing options.

    • C-41 minilabs like these can be found almost anywhere.
      Color negative films can be developed almost anywhere for very little expense; if you're not living in some Nowheresville with a population of you and your dog, you probably have a place nearby capable of developing them. If you're weird, don't mind messing up a lot of films and enjoy dealing with a lot of unpleasant and dangerous chemicals, you can develop it yourself, but this isn't altogether recommended.
    • E-6 slide films and traditional black-and-white films will normally need to be sent off to a professional lab for developing. Most large cities will have a lab of this kind; smaller labs will often be willing to handle this for you. On the other hand, you can develop traditional black and white films yourself without a great deal of expense, and with much less unpleasantness than you'd encounter with color negative film.
  4. 4
    Decide how much exposure latitude you want. Either metering error or bad technique will cause your photos to be either under- or over-exposed; exposure latitude is the degree to which a film can tolerate this and still return acceptable results. Slide film has almost no tolerance to either; if you're going to shoot slide film, it's a very good idea to shoot a test roll or two first. (Unless you want an unusual effect for artistic purposes, don't bother with slide film in a camera without manual settings or electronics; its one-size-fits-all settings will often give poor results.) Color negatives can tolerate huge amounts of over-exposure and usually a stop of underexposure; it's not a bad idea at all to shoot them at a stop over their rated speed all the time. Traditional black-and-white film also has a huge exposure latitude; any error in exposure can be corrected during developing or printing.
  5. 5
    Decide on a film speed. The film speed is usually given according to its ASA (also known as ISO) speed index; this will be a number like 50, 100, 200, etc.[2] The higher the number, the more sensitive the film is to light. More and less sensitive films are called "faster" and "slower", respectively. As usual, there's no one right film, but a trade-off:

    • Faster films allow you to take photographs in almost no light, but are much grainier. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.
      Faster films will allow you to capture a subject in worse light. The trade-off is that you end up getting more grain in your pictures (think digital camera noise, but far less ugly). Some people might say that it's not worth bothering with the extremely fast (ASA 1600 upwards) films these days; if you need extremely fast shutter speeds for sports (for example), just shoot a good digital SLR, which will give great results at these fast speeds. On the other hand, photography is an art, not a science. Lots of film grain can look awesome on black-and-white photographs.[3]
    • Slow films, like the ASA 50 Velvia used for this shot, are good for landscapes, but forget hand-holding in darker conditions.
      Slower films typically have less grain, but require longer shutter speeds. This isn't a problem for landscapes in daytime through to sunset, but it does become a problem indoors, or shooting things that move quickly.

      Don't worry about any of this too much: if you want easy snapshots, go for ASA 200, 400 or 800 film; if you're shooting in daylight or can control your lighting, shoot the slowest film that you like the look of.
    • Unless you take many, many pictures, have a fancy professional-type camera with interchangeable film-holding backs, or keep multiple cameras on hand, you may often have to choose a film good for a variety of conditions. In this case, choose a print film (for increased tolerance of bad exposure), in color (you can always lose the color in a computer later if you like), with high speed (it will be a little grainier under bright light, but it will keep you from losing pictures entirely to slow shutter speed that will smear pictures by far more than the width of a few grains.
  6. 6
    Decide what colors you like, and choose a film accordingly. This will depend on your subject. For example, super-saturated films like Velvia might be great for landscapes, but terrible for people (at least lighter-skinned ones). Subtle colors or black-and-white is often much better for this sort of thing. But again, remember, art, where using the "wrong" film in a certain situation often looks better than doing the technically "right" thing.

    If you're shooting a negative film, remember that the colors you will get will depend far on how they are printed or scanned than on the film itself, since there is no standard way to represent colors on film. Unlike with slides, there is no such thing as printing or scanning without corrections, because all inverted color negatives have to be color-corrected to remove the base tint of the film. Which isn't to say that they can't look superb; they can, and often do, especially for photos of people. Just don't be surprised if you get unsatisfactory results, or very different results from film to film.
  7. 7
    Ignore all of this article and go try some films. None of this technical trivia is the same thing as art. There's no substitute for playing with a film and seeing if you like the results you get from it.


  • One author believes that there is not much point to slide film anymore given that film is customarily digitally scanned for printing and displaying. (Any given film can later be re-scanned with better technology later for potentially improved quality on the best images, for which this is worthwhile.) Projecting a slide damages the image in a not-too-long time (some common slide film is supposed to retain good quality for a total of an hour of projection time). Slide film processing basically creates a negative image, as with negative film, and then through more chemical steps develops the reverse of the negative image--i.e., a positive image--where the negative image was not formed. This extra step must cause at least some image degradation, and, likely, the loss of exposure latitude (color and detail in brighter and darker areas). If the film is to be scanned (which involves some loss of quality) anyway, better to do that without losing quality first to the chemical reversal process, and instead reverse the scanned digital image perfectly using mathematics. If strong color saturation or contrast of a particular slide film is desirable, that can often be added in software (or, if it is desirable for most of one's pictures, more conveniently approximated with a saturated-color negative film).
  • If you have a chance to buy a lot of film that has just expired, or will soon expire, buy it and keep it in your fridge. Film keeps almost indefinitely when refrigerated. Even the strange color shifts that come from using expired film can be used to artistic effect (such that many people duplicate the effect in Photoshop on digital photographs). Fast film--ISO 400 and above--goes bad faster with age. Do not use expired film for important work unless you confirm that it was part of a batch stored similarly some of which has given good results when processed.
  • If you're only shooting color negative films, don't bother buying a scanner for it unless you either have a huge archive that needs scanning, or you need very high resolution pictures for digital printing. Most minilabs can toast good-quality scans to CD for you, at very little expense. On the other hand, getting slide film scanned can be hugely expensive, depending on where you go.
  • It might be worth looking for samples of your film on the Internet before buying. On the other hand, the Internet is full of bad photography, so don't judge a film by what you see on a Google image search. Try Flickr[4] which sorts search results by how interesting they are.

Sources and Citations

  1. We've deliberately omitted any discussion of Kodachrome, which uses the K-14 process that can only be done in one lab in the world, and is about to be killed off anyway. For more on Kodachrome, and some amazing photography, see The Kodachrome Project.
  2. ISO 5800:1987 actually specifies that film speeds should be given in both ASA speeds (like 50, 100, 200, and so on) and DIN degrees (21° 24°, and so on) . Most people omit the DIN speeds and call the ASA speed "ISO". We use "ASA" here for technical correctness, which isn't to say you should care. You can read more on the subject.
  3. See, for example, the ISO 1600 Film group on Flickr <> for inspiration.
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