What films should I use? It’s a simple but crucial question faced by all analog photographers, and their answers will have a profound influence on the character of the images they create. Unlike memory cards, essentially a “neutral” recording medium, films have distinctive personalities—unique ways of rendering the subject and capturing its tonal ranges. In general, the inherent “graininess” of a film increases with its ISO, so ISO 400 films are grainier than ISO 100 films, and ISO 1600 or 3200 films typically show noticeable grain in large-diameter enlargements, and won’t be able to capture quite as much fine detail as slower films.
Color negative and color transparency films have distinctive ways of rendering specific colors, and may have a warm (reddish), cool (bluish), or neutral color balance, as well as different color contrast characteristics. While the number of available film choices has declined over the past two decades, analog shooters still have an astonishing number of choices, from major manufacturers like Kodak, Ilford, and Fujifilm, to smaller suppliers like Foma, Rollei, Agfa, Lomography, Kentmere, and Arista.
Obviously, we can’t include comprehensive info and hands-on impressions for the scores of films currently available, but we will cover 10 of our all-time favorite films in the black-and white, color negative, and color transparency categories and provide some suggestions on how they suit various shooting styles. Assessing a film’s “rendition” or “look” is always somewhat subjective, so if you’ve found a film that works for you in any specific application, stick with it. If you’re still looking, here’s some useful info on making your best choices. Note that all the films on our list are available in 35, 120, and/or 220mm roll-film sizes.
ISO 400 Black-and-White Films
Suitable for an extensive array of applications and shooting styles, the three top ISO 400 black-and-white films mentioned below are versatile enough to be called “universal.” They’re excellent for everything from portraiture to street photography to landscapes. Their relatively high speed makes them great for shooting in low light without flash, and lets you shoot at faster shutter speeds—especially important when shooting handheld. All of them have extended exposure latitudes and can be push-processed and rated at ISO 800, 1600, and beyond, albeit with increased grain at ISO 1600 and above. Normally, when shooting 35mm, their grain does not become objectionable in full-frame enlargements until you approach the 16 x 20-inch size, and even then, it really depends on the subject. In the 120 roll-film formats (6 x 4.5 to 6 x 9 cm) grain is not really a problem unless you specialize in shooting photomurals. Detail rendition is excellent but not quite equal to that of slower black-and-white films.
Kodak Professional Tri-X 400 (400TX) This iconic ISO 400 black-and-white film has been in production since 1954 and was the film of choice for photojournalists throughout the film era. The current version by Kodak upholds the tradition, delivering relatively fine grain, very good tonal gradation, and high acutance (detail rendition). The classic gritty Tri-X look is still there too, if not quite so brutally as in the Tri-X of the 1960s. While today’s Tri-X is still tolerant of exposure errors and processing deviations, when you nail both these factors it delivers unsurpassed shadow detail, along with that distinctive “film look” so many art photographers admire. I develop mine in Kodak D-76, 1:1.
Ilford HP5 Plus Professional The basic characteristics of this film—relatively fine grain, very good tonal gradation, and high acutance (detail rendition)—are very like those of Kodak Tri-X, and many photographers (including me) shoot both almost interchangeably. Its tolerance for underexposure and processing deviations may be slightly greater than Tri-X, and its crisp high-contrast rendition makes it a good choice for portraiture, and excellent for street and travel photography. I develop mine in Kodak D-76, 1:1.
Kodak Professional T-Max 400 Film Kodak claims that this T-grain emulsion film is the world’s finest-grained ISO 400 black-and-white film, and Kodak is probably right. It’s also extremely sharp, rendering distinct edges and very fine detail, and its long-scale tonal gradation enables it to differentiate the subtlest tones. More Tri-X and HP 5 shooters should try this outstanding film because its performance parameters are simply unsurpassed, and it’s excellent for landscapes and architecture. But don’t expect it to have the assertive character of two classics above. You can develop T-Max 400 in D-76, but to get the most out of it, it should be processed in T-Max or T-Max RS developer, an extra-cost option if you send your film out for processing.
Another film worth considering is Ilford XP2 Super, a fine-grain chromogenic (C-41 process) ISO 400 black-and-white film, captures a wide brightness range, has a wide exposure latitude, can yield prints of excellent quality, and can be easily processed by almost any local 24-hour lab.
ISO 3200 Black-and-White Films
For shooting sharp available-light pictures in extremely low light, these two ultra-fast films are top choices among photojournalists and street shooters. They’re grainier than films in the ISO 400 class, but they can spell the difference between getting a decent picture and not getting anything useable. Also, while their grain is noticeable, even in 11 x 14 or larger enlargements, it’s not atrocious, and detail rendition is darn good. If you want to use grain for artistic effects, try one of the pair.
Kodak Professional T-Max P3200 Recently re-introduced by popular demand, Kodak calls T-Max P3200 a “multi-speed film” because it can be exposed at ISO settings from 1000 to 3200, and even pushed to an ISO equivalent of 6400. Since it’s a T-grain emulsion, it’s less grainy than most films in its speed class, which makes it an excellent choice for shooting fast action in low light, dimly lit scenes, subjects that require good depth of field and/or fast shutter speeds, hand-holding long lenses, and nighttime photography. It delivers the best results when it’s developed in T-Max, T-Max RS, or XTOL developers, but also works well in D-76.
Ilford Delta 3200 Professional Ilford’s classic super-speed black-and-white film yields quality images in difficult low-light shooting conditions, and is often used to capture available-light action and sports images in dimly lit venues. It’s designed to be exposed at ISO 3200, can be used at settings from ISO 400 to 6400, but works best in the ISO 160-6400 range. It yields the best results when it’s developed in Ilfotec DD-X, but also works well in D-76. Delta 3200 Professional is also widely used by art photographers who want to capture a gritty “film look” without sacrificing detail rendition.
ISO 100 and ISO 50 Black-and-White Films
Featuring ultra-fine grain and the ability to render extremely fine detail, both these superb films are excellent for making large-diameter enlargements up to 24 x 36 inches from 35mm negatives, and larger prints in the 120 roll film formats. They’re top choices for macro and scientific applications and shooting subjects such as coins, stamps, and insects, where accurate rendering of fine details is essential. They’re also great for capturing scenic vistas, cityscapes, and fine architectural details, where they can impart a “large format” look to the prints.
Kodak Professional T-Max 100 This fine-grained, sharp ISO 100 black-and-white film renders ultra-fine detail at high magnifications, provides enhanced highlight separation, and is tolerant of moderate over/underexposure errors. Also on the plus side: it can be processed in D-76 or T-Max developers with equally good results, and it’s also excellent for copying black-and-white photos, making black-and-white copies of color slides, and photomicrography.
Ilford Pan F Plus Ilford’s long-running ISO 50 classic is acclaimed for its extremely fine grain, outstanding resolution, sharpness, and edge contrast. It can capture a vast tonal range and render subtle distinctions in tone and detail when it’s precisely exposed and processed. It can also yield mural-sized enlargements from 35mm negatives and high-quality prints of virtually unlimited size when shot in 120 roll-film formats. Its long-scale tonality yields a softer look than Ilford’s faster films, but that’s part of its charm. Pan F can be developed in Kodak D-76 and a variety of Ilford developers, but you may have to experiment to achieve the perfect combination of exposure and development that delivers its full potential. The results are well worth the effort, and I suggest you start by exposing it at ISO 32.
Another film worth considering is Ilford FP4 Plus, an extremely fine-grain ISO 125 film that has a wide exposure latitude of up to six stops, as well as excellent detail and tonal rendition. It can also be underexposed by up to two stops and processed in a wide variety of developers, including Kodak D-76.
ISO 100-400 Color Films
All three films covered below are chromogenic films, in which the silver halides in the emulsion activate precursors of the chemical dyes that form the final image, and the silver is then removed. This standardized process, known as C-41, is the dominant system offered by virtually every film-processing lab in the country. In general, chromogenic films are fine grained for their speed group, and the color negatives can be used to make color or black-and-white prints of excellent quality, and are easy to scan to create high-quality digital files. The most obvious benefit of using any of the three films below is their ability to capture images in full color, but it’s also noteworthy that they’re much more tolerant of exposure errors (especially overexposure) than comparable color transparency films, and easier to scan to create image files for printout.
Kodak Professional Ektar 100 Kodak claims it’s the world’s finest-grained color negative film and, based on our experience, we have little reason to doubt them. It also offers extremely high edge sharpness, captures exceptionally fine detail, and delivers brilliant colors, thanks to “T-grain optimized emulsions and Kodak’s Advanced Development Accelerators.” It’s a good choice for nature, travel, and outdoor photography in good light, as well as fashion and product photography, and the 120 roll-film version yields even more spectacular results in medium-format sizes.
Kodak Professional Portra 160 Widely used by medium-format professional portrait, fashion, and commercial photographers, Portra 160 yields exceptionally smooth, extremely natural skin tones, very fine grain, and excellent detail. Even when it’s used in the 35mm size, it can make impressive pro-caliber enlargements. Black-and-white prints made from Portra 160 have a soft, long-tonal-range look that’s ideal for art portraits and some scenic vistas, but this film really shines in the studio, where it yields superb color reproduction under natural or artificial light, thanks to its high-tech formulation that employs “Advanced Cubic and T-grain emulsions, and proprietary DIR couplers.”
Fujicolor Superia X-Tra 400 Combining the operational advantages of a high-speed color negative film with performance parameters approaching those of a medium speed film, Superia X-Tra 400 is a superb choice for those who want to shoot in color but maintain the option of making very high-quality black-and-white prints that are virtually indistinguishable from those shot on 400-speed silver-halide black-and-white. It captures a wide spectral latitude, delivers impressively fine grain for its speed class, renders textural details exceptionally well, and provides a very natural-looking color balance along with excellent shadow and highlight detail.
ISO 100 Color Transparency Films
There’s nothing quite like a projected slide or color transparency when it comes to representing the full dynamic range of a scene in brilliant color. And these days, it’s easier than ever to translate the essence of that viewing experience into high-quality reflection prints. In response to the renewed interest in color reversal (transparency) films, Kodak is reintroducing a technically upgraded version of its legendary Ektachrome, which will be released in 35mm rolls shortly. Fujifilm continues to develop its highly acclaimed Fujichrome Velvia and Provia. Here are our two top picks among those currently available.
Fujichrome Professional Velvia 100 (RVP 100) This acclaimed color-reversal film delivers exceptionally high color saturation with vivid color reproduction along with ultra-fine grain and crisp rendition of fine detail. State-of-the-art cyan, magenta, and yellow couplers help give the film a unique look and enhance color permanence. It’s high overall contrast and rich, dramatic color reproduction make it a favorite among scenic and nature photographers, but it’s a great broad-spectrum film, especially for shooting outdoors. It’s processed in standard E-6 or CR-56 processes and can be pushed one stop or pulled half a stop, with minimal variations in color balance.
Fujichrome Provia 100F Professional (RDPIII) Claimed to have the finest grain of any ISO 100 color reversal film (RMS Granularity Value: 8) along with extremely high sharpness and detail rendition, it provides “vivid but faithful” color reproduction that’s not quite as eye-popping as Velvia’s. It captures brilliant primary colors and delicate pastels with commendable accuracy, and has excellent tonal gradation and highlight-to-shadow linearity, imparting a natural look to the images. It can be pushed up to two stops and pulled by half a stop in standard E-6 or CR-56 chemistry, with minimal variations in color balance and gradation. A great all-rounder, it’s popular with a wide variety of pros.
When it comes to instant gratification, these films are the only ones that can compete with digital cameras, and many people love ’em, especially when it comes to handing out finished prints to their relatives and friends. The prints aren’t large, but they are very stable, and they’re not exactly “instant,” but they’re some of the most popular films among casual shooters in the digital age.
Polaroid Originals Color 600 Instant Film (8 Exposures) This pack of Color 600 Instant Film, from Polaroid Originals, contains eight sheets of film and fits the widely available Polaroid 600-series cameras. Producing “natural, yet vibrant colors” suitable for almost any subject, this ISO 640 film offers a classic instant film look with its glossy 3.1 x 3.1" image area and traditional white borders. Each shot develops in 10-15 minutes after exposure, and the film should be stored in a place as cool as a refrigerator (but not frozen) before use. Each film pack has a built-in battery to power 600-series cameras, but it can also be used with i-Type cameras that feature in-camera batteries.
Fujifilm instax SQUARE Instant Film Available in 10- and 20-sheet packs, this vibrant instant color film is compatible with Fujifilm’s popular instax SQUARE cameras. It provides vivid color reproduction with natural skin tones, and its refined grain structure can capture images of impressive sharpness and clarity. Each 3.4 x 2.8" sheet of film produces a square 2.4 x 2.4" glossy image area that is surrounded by a simple, classic white border. It’s a great choice for family and vacation pictures.
Black-and-White Film Developers
Some of the film developers we mentioned above include T-Max, T-Max RS, XTOL, D-76, and Ilfotec DD-X. You might also want to experiment with other developers like Ilfosol-3, Adox Adotech CMS IV, Adox FX-39, Rollei Low Speed, and the list goes on.
Have you used any of the films and developers we have mentioned here? Did we forget your favorite stock? Let us know in the Comments section, below!
Thanks for this article. I have used most of these films mentioned, and want to try the "new" kodak 3200 b & w. I really like the portra 160 medium format, and have used it for everything from landscape, macro, and people. It always gives great results. As always, the contributors to Explora have great advice and information to give, and I appreciate the time and effort put in.