Types of photographic films

October 7, 2014
How to Choose a Film for Your

Orthochromatic Black and White Film

Orthochromatic film (or oath film) is an earlier type of film which differs from panchromatic film in that it is more sensitive to the blue and green colors, less sensitive to orange, and is somewhat insensitive to the red end of the spectrum (beyond around 590 nm).

This was troublesome in many situations as any green color in a scene would look pale, blue would look white, and red would appear really black in the final image. This type of film is mostly available as sheet film and is useful when copying black and white prints or monochrome drawings. It can also be handled in the darkroom safely under a red safelight.

Ortho films that were equally sensitive to the green and yellow wavelengths of the spectrum were known as Isoorthochromatic films.

Isochromatic Black and White Film

Isochromatic black and white film falls somewhere in between Ortho films and Pan films. It is highly sensitive to violet and blue, has average sensitivity to yellow, slightly lower sensitivity to green, and even less sensitivity to deep red colors.

An orange (or yellow) filter might be needed to correct the film's response to the orange / red end of the spectrum. Isochromatic black and white film can be handled in the darkroom safely under a red safelight.

Chromogenic Black and White Film

Chromogenic black and white film is a type of negative film that contains dyes along with the emulsion which allow it to form purple or brown color casts in the final image once developed.

The processing of such films is called "chromogenic, " during which all silver molecules are bleached and the dye is formed in those corresponding areas instead.

Chromogenic black and white film is more tolerant of exposure inaccuracies, especially over-exposure. A disadvantage associated with this type of film though is the softer grain and the slightly poorer image sharpness and contrast than is otherwise possible.

Line and Lith Black and White Film

Line film is a high contrast film that gives a black and white image with very few, or no greys in between pure white and pure black. Lith film is an extreme form of line film, meaning it is even higher in contrast.

Because of the very high contrast material used in line and lith films, exposure accuracy is of great concern which is why it is often a good idea to take important shots on regular film first and then apply the desired settings on line or lith film later. These types of films are also a great way for copying prints and monochrome drawings.

Line and lith films are usually slow in speed and produce fine grain images. Often times, ortho sensitivity is also added for easier handling in the darkroom.

Black and White Slide Film

Slide film is reversal in that the positive image (as opposed to the negative) is formed on the film. This allows you to see your images as slides using a projector. Slide film is mostly found in color form though a few black and white slide films also exist. With black and white slide film the final result is a monochrome transparency image.

Due to the lack of availability of these films, workarounds have been developed using special chemistry kits sold by some manufacturers on the market for reversing regular negative film or de-saturating color slide film.

All in all, an important thing to keep in mind when using any kind of slide film is getting your exposure right, as there is little room for manipulation and adjustment in development.

Instant Black and White Film

There is a limited range of available instant black and white film both in terms of brands and speeds that can be found. It is usually used as a way to preview lighting and composition decisions to be made later on regular black and white film for the final exposure. Instant film is usually higher in cost than regular film, and the life expectancy of the prints isn't as long.

Color Negative Film

Color negative film, particularly the 35mm format, is widely manufactured in all types and speeds. It has great exposure latitude, meaning it is more forgiving of exposure mistakes and can handle high contrast scenes pretty well.

Color negative film is usually balanced by manufacturers for daylight and flash light (5500k - 5600K). When shooting indoors under tungsten light (which is around 3400K) you need to use a blue conversion filter over the lens to avoid prints with yellow / orange color casts. It is also possible to correct color tints during development, but using a filter is simpler and more efficient.


A color negative film image made by Yang Du

Some color negative films are balanced for tungsten lighting though those are not as widely available. If you shoot with one of those in daylight or with a flash, however, be sure to use an orange filter to correct any blue tinting or color casts in the final image. All in all, color negative film is generally considered one of the most forgiving film types in terms of incorrect or mixed color temperatures (up to a certain extent of course).

As with black and white negative film, 400 ASA color negative films offer a good compromise between speed, grain, and resolution, and might be best-suited for general purpose shooting in a variety of lighting conditions.

Color negative film is manufactured in a variety of characteristics for different results to suit all tastes and moods from vivid colors, to subtle, to bold or natural colors. Slow films tend to be more vivid, whereas faster films usually give softer colors.

From color negative film, you can easily and cheaply get enlarged colored prints for hanging on your walls. Most labs can also give you black and white image prints from your color negatives, so you get the best of both worlds.

Color negative film is also forgiving in terms of exposure mistakes and gives you some latitude for correction during development (generally up to one stop for under-exposure and two stops for over-exposure).


A color negative film image made by Hermés

Color Slide Film and Transparencies

Color slide film or transparency film (color positive film) is reversal in that the positive image (as opposed to the negative) is formed on the film itself. The end result of shooting slide film is actually the same thing you load in your camera, just cut into squares and mounted, unlike the prints made from other films.

You can get prints from your slides or transparencies but the cost is higher than printing your color negative films. The term "slide" is usually used for 35mm format reversal film, while "transparency" is often used with larger reversal film formats such as sheet film.

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