My film choices

February 05, 2015  •  3 Comments

FilmWideFilmWide Its been a little over three years since I started shooting film cameras again and working my way up the food chain from from medium format, to large format and now ultra large format. Sadly during that time some film types have been discontinued and my choices have become even more limited. What I would like to share in this post is my decision making process for deciding which films I would concentrate on for the future based on equipment, shooting style, workflow, preferred output sizes and judgement on which companies were likely to stay in the game. But ultimately if you love one film, I say buy lots of it and drop it in a freezer!

Medium Format Films (120)

I have a number of cameras providing 6x6, 6x7, 6x9, 6x12 and 6x17 formats. Regardless of the size of the negative, with 6x17 really approaching large format proportions, I've found that a traditional black and white film, even fine grained like Fuji Acros just doesn't have the detail I need to push my images up to 16x20". This is true even though I use a dedicated Medium Format scanner prior to digital post processing. Your mileage may vary especially if you are optically enlarging for silver gelatin prints. So much as I like to home develop my film, I've settle on using more modern dye based films for medium format. Since dyes don't have the same granular resolution limitations of traditional black and white films I find I can enlarge them much more and not suffer any consequences. Also film development is standardized to C41 (color negative) and E6 (slide transparency) so you get a more consistent result with a good lab. Film speed also becomes an issue when hand holding my smaller MF cameras or using them in poor light. So in the end the films I've settled on are the following:

Ilford XP2 Super - Data sheet - At ISO 400, this film has the speed for most hand held daylight photography. Unique among films developed with the C41 process, it is not a color negative film but rather a black & white negative film - so there is no added step to converting your images to black & white and you can freely use traditional black & white filters like #16 Yellow-Orange for contrast. Also unique among C41 films it has no orange color to interfere with scanning or optical enlarging, perhaps a faint magenta cast instead. Ilford is also the one film company right sized for the current market and is likely to be around for the long term. I only wish they made this film in sheets.

Fuji Velvia 50 - Data sheet - A slow, fine grained, highly color saturated color reversal or slide film. Wonderful for landscapes giving you amped up color. Potentially terrible for skin tones and anything that people "know" the color of! Processed using E6, it's getting harder and harder to find places to develop it. Fortunately for me, I live in San Francisco where a number of small outfits still provide the service. No hand holding the camera with this film, it's tripods and careful compositions. Dynamic range is somewhat limited and shadows can block up and get cool so you might need warming filters. Reciprocity failure is a worry for long exposures and needs to be well compensated for. On the upside, there is no messy conversion of a negative to a positive. What you see is what you get, so scanning the image is a delight. Looking at the slides on a light table is a complete rush.

Kodak Ektar 100 - Data sheet - Really the color negative counterpart to Velvia 50. Slow, fine grained but not as vivid. Again reciprocity failure is an issue for exposures more than a few seconds. With the likely discontinuation of Velvia 50 in the coming years, Ektar 100 may be our only choice for super high quality color film for landscapes.

Kodak Portra 160 / 400 / 800 - Data sheet 160 / 400 - For more accurate colors for portraiture and faster speed this series of films offers many advantages. Again since they are C41 films they are easy to get processed. Fuji offers similar products in ISO 160 and 400 but not 800. But on the whole, I think that Kodak's film business, now owned by a spin off called Kodak Alaris, is likely to continue for a good number of years, while Fuji seems quite happy to discontinue emulsions abruptly and with little communication to its customers. On the other hand, Kodak's film division will suffer as the movie industry completes it's transition to digital.

Large Format Films (4x5" and 8x10")

For sheet film, the resolution limitations of black & white film really don't matter with such enormous negatives. Enlarging a 4x5" or 8x10" image up four or five times is certainly feasible both digitally or the old fashioned analog way. Contact printing may lead you to ever larger film sizes but if you want to do post processing on a computer you are basically limited to 8x10 and an Epson V750, or sending your work out for a profession drum scan. One alternative to consider is generating digital negatives from the analog original to get a larger size for contact printing and alternative processes. Many of the same films I use for Medium Format are available in Large Format and they are also worth using in the right circumstances.

Ilford FP4+ - Data Sheet - For 4x5" and larger it really doesn't matter that this film is a traditional film with medium grain size as there is plenty of detail. The advantage of FP4+ is that it is very forgiving to over exposure unlike more fine grained options like Delta 100 or Acros 100. Receprocity failure starts to set in at 1/2 second, which can be a serious constraint with Large Format. You can develop this film in just about anything. Ilford offers its own chemicals. I personally am partial to XTOL, that brings out the best in just about any black & white film, has low toxicity, and keeps well in sealed bottles once mixed. Or Pyrocat-HD if you want to take on an alternative process or two.

Acros 100 - Data Sheet - Still available in 4x5 in the US, and in 8x10 but only from Japan, this is a modern fine grained film with more unforgiving exposure latitude but excellent reciprocity characteristics. Fuji says no need to make any adjustments for reciprocity until 120 seconds which is a lot better than 1/2 second! I'm not sure how long Fuji will keep offering this film. It's definitely something to salt away in the deep freeze if you like photographing gloomy redwood forests.

Kodak Ektar 100 - Data sheet - As above. Great for landscapes.

Fuji Velvia 100 - Data sheet - I would say Velvia 50 for 8x10 but at the moment its getting very hard to buy and only from Japan. Clearly Fuji is pushing Velvia 100 as the alternative. Not quite as saturated but still an excellent performer for landscapes.

Kodak Portra 160 / 400 - Data sheet 160 / 400 - As above, but ISO 800 is not available in sheet film sizes. Great for portraits and skin tones.

Ultra Large Format Films (14x17")

When you get up to Ultra Large Format, in other words anything above 8x10" the options really start to narrow. No color film and precious few black & white options exist and those that do are very pricey ($16-20/sheet). Then there are orthochromatic X-ray fiims for medical uses that are remarkable cheap but prone to scratching and very high contrast.

Ilford FP4+ - Data Sheet - Quite expensive at $20 a sheet in this size. Available from relatively few outlets during the Ilford special order window which in 2014 was between May 6 and June 27. With negatives this size the grain is basically invisible, especially when contact printing - and I haven't seen too many 14x17 enlargers out there. The digital route is always a possibility if you can find someone who can scan your negative. I've got a Screen Cezanne flatbed to get up and running that can scan negatives this size.

Adox CHS 100 II - Data Sheet - If you look at the data sheet you can see a slight dip in sensitivity between blue and green which some people like since it separates and differentiates between lips/face, clouds/sky, and water/land. The film is on a PET base and I have seen very slight effect of light leakage onto the bottom edge of the film. It's not enough to be a real issue and hasn't bled into the image area itself. This is the cheapest 'real' film available in ULF. In 14x17 you can get 10 sheets for €100 from Fotoimpex in Germany. They tend to have cheaper prices even with shipping than the US alternative which is Freestyle where it would probably be a special order.

Kodak Ektascan B/RA - A medium speed, single coated, tabular grain, orthochromatic medical x-ray film for photography of cathode-ray (CRT) tubes. It is single sided coated on a blue, 7-mil blue-tinted polyester with anti-halation protection. The film base is really thick and sturdy! Read my review on how I use it and where to buy it. Costs are in the $1.5/sheet range (for a 500 sheet pack) which makes it possible to really burn film in a ULF camera and since the film gives high contrast results many people prefer it for alternative processes. But the truth is that with the cost of film holders, time and difficulties to set up the camera and compose the image, and the time to process the film its unlikely anyone would get through very much.

Wet plate - make your own photosensitive surface and no longer worry about film availability!




Angus Parker Photography
Thanks Bill & Mark for the input. Haven't gone down that route yet but it sure is attractive.
Fr. Mark Lichtenstein(non-registered)
Ah, I see someone beat me to saying, it that you can coat plates or plastic sheets with home-made emulsions for dry plate/film work and even make Ortho film with sensitizers and even there are ideas about how to create anti-halation backings. He put the link in already! I'm looking forward to trying this someday.
Bill Vaccaro(non-registered)
You can also try homemade silver bromide gelatin emulsions for making glass negatives. There's lots of info on the Internet, especially
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