How to Choose the Right Camera Film

Choice of film is perhaps not the most obvious way to manipulate the image, but in some respects this is among the most fundamental photographic controls. You can change other controls such as shutter speed and aperture at whim, but once you've loaded the camera with film, you're committed. When the sun is about to dip below the horizon, there just isn't time to reload the camera with a more suitable film.

The principal choice to make is between the four types of film below:

  1. Black and White film - It has a special appeal to photographers who like the abstraction offered by the translation of a color scene into a broad tonal range from black to white and who want to do everything themselves. In a home darkroom you can make a whole gallery of different prints from a mono- chrome negative, conjuring many different moods from just one landscape. Black and white film is also the most economical and permanent of all photographic media, so it's ideal for photographers on tight budgets, and for those who want to pass on their pictures to their great-grandchildren.

  2. Color negative film - It is processed to produce prints and is the most familiar and convenient type. Wallet-sized prints are easy to look at, you can get them processed quickly almost anywhere, and further copies or enlargements are inexpensive. A less obvious feature of color negative film is its forgiving nature: even quite large exposure errors can be corrected at the printing stage, and normally you don't need to use filters to match film sensitivity to the prevailing light. Finally, there's a further advantage if you have a darkroom at home: you can use special printing techniques to reveal features that would normally be hidden in deep shadows or brilliant pools of light.

  3. Color slides - also called transparency, reversal, diapositive or chrome film - requires more methodical use than negative film, but the benefits more than repay the extra care needed. Slides (within the film's limitations) faithfully record the image that you see through the lens, because there is no intermediate printing stage: the film in the camera is processed in a single step to form the finished image. Slides are potentially sharper, more colorful and more richly detailed than color prints, so printers prefer a slide when making plates for reproducing a book like this one. On the debit side, you must expose slide film very precisely, and you need to take special care with filters or your pictures will look off-color. Also, slides look best when projected in a darkened room, which sometimes makes viewing inconvenient.

  4. Instant film - traditionally associated with snapshot photographs, but many landscape photographers also make use of Polaroid film both as a medium for test exposures, and to create finished images. You don't necessarily need a special camera to shoot instant film: all large-format cameras, most roll-film cameras, and a few 35mm cameras can be fitted with adapter backs, so that you can preview a shot while you're on location.

Choosing the Film Speed

Other than choosing within these four groups of film, there's also a choice of film speed.

  1. Fast films - those with a high ISO number require little light to make a good picture.

  2. Slow films have a low ISO number, and need brighter light, slower shutter speed, or wider apertures for correct exposure.

Fast films are more versatile but produce pictures that have a more pronounced texture or grain, and are not as sharp and colorful as those shot on slow film. However, you'll only really notice the difference in prints larger than about 8 x 10 in (20 x 25cm).


Ultimately, your choice of film depends on several objective factors, including how you want to view the pictures, how big you'll enlarge them, and whether you do your own processing or printing. There's a subjective factor, though, too: many photographers use one particular make of film for the simple reason that they prefer like the way it records the hues and tones of the landscape.

More about film photography

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