In analog photography, the film is a part of the picture. It can completely change the resulting image by modifying its parameters. Each of them give a unique result and each photographer has their preferences. But they also have their limits. In fact, choosing a film is a clever mix between personal tastes and technical constraints. So, how to make the right choice ?
Depending on your camera
Lets start by speaking about your camera. All the devices doesn’t use the same film. Like at the cinema where there are different sizes of analog films, photography also use different formats. Each camera use a defined format of film, you have to get one that is appropriate for yours. If you have any doubts, a quick search on your favorite search engine will give you the information.
The 35mm format
The 135, also called 35mm or 24×36, is the most used size of film. Initially created for the cinema, this type of film, which is 35mm wide, will be used in analog photography to create 24x36mm pictures. Even if some camera use it to create 24x65mm pictures for panoramic photography, the 24×36 will be used for many decades to creates the outlines of a standard. This format permit to democratize the photography by making it more accessible.
This format is the easier to find in store like online. Some supermarkets even sell few of them even if they don’t have the diversity they had in de 90s. If your camera use a 35mm film, don’t worry, you will find easily what you need !
The 120 format
The 120 format is present in many camera created before the 70s and in most of the modern high-end ones. Its 64mm wide allow the photographers to produce much larger negatives, thus obtaining superior quality prints. It’s used to create many different formats such as 6×4.5cm, 6×6, 6×7, 6×8, 6×9… and even up to 6x24cm. This format is a bit like the MacGyver of the photography, it’s used for a lot of different sizes.
Still produced today, the 120 format is a little harder to find. Even if most of the major analog company still produce theirs films in 135 and 120, many less common films may not be found in this format. So, be careful if you want a specific film, all of them may not be available. Nerveless, you should find many different 120 films at specialized shops or online, it’s really uncommon to find it in supermarket.
There are many other formats. Most of them are very difficult to find or, unfortunately, no longer produced at all. The 110 format is probably the only exception, it look like some brands are selling some rolls in this format, but it still very hard to find a lab that’s able to develop them.
If your camera uses others formats, you may have a lot of trouble obtaining film. As well as finding a laboratory that can develop them. But there are still two exceptions :
The 220 : a hidden 120
220 films are no longer available on the market, but if you find some old 220 rolls, be aware that these are actually 120 format film. They are simply twice longer. You can use them exactly like 120 films.
Transform 120 to 620
The 620 format is also no longer produced. But, it is still possible to make yourself some rolls by transforming a 120 film into a 620 film. The only difference between these two formats is the axis of the film. By getting 620 axles, you can make your own. Don’t forget to ask your laboratory to return your axes when they develop it, otherwise you will have to get new ones each time. Many tutorials exist on YouTube to show you how to do it 😉
ISO / DIN / ASA sensibility
The context influence a lot the film choice. Indeed, once it’s placed in the camera, it’s tricky to change the film before it’s end. If your film should be used in the dark, you will not be able to take pictures until the sunset, which is not suitable. Before loading a film in a camera, it’s necessary to think about the one you will need.
To do your choice, you have to look at the light sensitivity of your film. Called DIN in the past, it has changed to become ASA even if we commonly call it ISO. The ISO is the assembly of the two units. We find film which are at “ISO 400/27°” (400 ASA & 27° DIN). The DIN value is not used anymore, but some old camera still use it. If your camera use this unit, don’t worry, the DIN still written directly on the film, you will find it easily. Even if it’s not the case, you will just have to do the conversion with a table like this one
What film ISO should I get ?
Each film has a defined light sensitivity, we cannot change it. The more sensitive a film is, the less exposure it will need to print the photography. For exemple, during the daylight, outdoor, we will use films that have low ISO, between 50 and 200. With them, and in this light context, we’ll have great photography easily. If we are in a low light context, like at evening or indoor, we will use films that have higher ISO, between 800 and 3200.
Because of this defined sensibility, it’s important to adapt your film to the situation. If you take an unsuitable film, it will be very hard to get correctly exposed pictures. You may even loose all of your photographies if it’s really badly exposed. If you want to get a film able to take great pictures in almost every situation, get a 400 ISO film. With its medium-high ISO, it will be great in most of the case.
Depending on your level, budget, and tastes
Your level in photography and your budget can also be a criteria. Some films are more complicated than others to handle. And, you probably already know that, each of them don’t have the same price. Because of this, some are more recommended than others to start in analog photography.
Ease of use
Each film is different and react in a unique way to light. Some are very easy to handle and others need a bit of practice. If you are a beginner in analog photography, there is few of them that are known to be really easy to use. These films tolerate very well exposure mistake, they permit to maximise your chances to get great photographies !
The Ilford HP5+ 400 film is one of them. For peoples who likes black and white photography, it’s a perfect beginner film. If you prefer color photography, the Fujifilm Superia X-TRA 400 is also a very great film. And if you want to begin with a cheaper one, the Fujicolor C200 can also do the job.
The price can also influe on the choice of a film. The price can be from 4€ to more than 15€, when two film are almost identical, the question is generally quickly answered. In addition, if you are a beginner, some of the photographies of your firsts films may be missed, so do not buy too expensive films, practice with more affordable films first ! Great to know, the cheapest films are not less qualitative. Their price depends mainly of the cost of the products used and the quantity produced. A 4€ film will not necessarily make less beautiful pictures than others !
Few models and brands are known to offer really inexpensive film. In color you can check the Fujicolor C200 and the Kodak ColorPlus 200. These have precisely been democratized thanks to their low cost. Finally, if you prefer black and white, Fomapan and Agfa are two brands known for offering films frequently below 5€.
Finally, your desires are the last point that can make you chose one film rather than another. Each one are different, and have a unique rendering. Color or black and white, fine or marked grain, light or strong contrast, all these elements vary from one film to another. It’s up to you to choose a film whose rendering you like!
To help you decide which one you like the most, here is a series of articles where I test different films:
In any case, don’t hesitate to be curious, and to try new films frequently, it’s the best way to find the rare pearl that will match your desires!