Back to Film Photography (and completing a circle)

When I was a child, I was playing with a Russian Zenit-E film camera from my father, with a Helios 58mm F2 lens mounted on it. Moreover, I feel like I have inherited something from the photography skills of my grandmother. She was a studio photographer, the last one of her kind in our city, before the photography became popular with its 35mm film compact cameras and later, with the digital era. She used to work with large format cameras and back then, the photography involved the art of using correction pencils on negatives. This entire familial environment triggered my interest in photography and I have started with a compact camera. Subsequently, as a passionate amateur photographer, I have felt I needed something more; this was my transition to a DSLR, then to a Fujifilm mirrorless system (where I am right now for 7 years).

My personal experience with these different camera models and the philosophy behind their manufacturing process shaped the way I did photography since then:

  • With a Fujifilm X system, there is no need to go Full-Frame, because you already have all the quality and the performance you need, in both their sensors and their wonderful Fujinon lenses.
  • Fujifilm revealed the fact that there is beauty, performance and flexibility in shooting JPEGs while forgetting about post-processing RAWs. With a carefully customized color profile, I have discovered I have more time enjoying shooting. From my limited experience with different camera brands and models, I find that Fujifilm delivers the best quality in a JPEG file, thanks to their color science behind the sensor and their film simulations.

I like to travel and using a Fujifilm mirrorless system and a rangefinder film camera is the key to a more pleasant experience when travelling light. Sometimes it is important to minimize the “photographer’s print” you leave on a group of people, or community. Many times “silence” is the defining word when you really need to be inconspicuous. This is why my photo bag is getting smaller, with only a “survival kit” inside, compared to what I used to carry with me a few years ago. Smaller is often better and there is much truth in the “less is more” principle”.

Moving towards film photography was simply a dream come true, something more than a “photo project” limited in time. I feel like this is a commitment for life, while still enjoying the beautiful outcomes from Fujifilm digital photography.

I was so excited to start this new endeavor, that in the last 5 months I have shot and developed 25 rolls of 35mm film, which means 5 films per month. Based on this calculation my present home stock of 60 different rolls of film should last exactly for one whole year, but I am sure I cannot keep this rhythm.

Below, you will find a list of film types I have used until now:

CineStill 50D

Kodak Pro Image 100

Kodak Ektar 100

Fujicolor Industrial 100

Kodak Portra 160

Kodak Gold 200

Fujicolor C200

Kodak Ultramax 400

Kodak Portra 400

Fujicolor PRO 400H

Fujicolor Superia X-TRA 400

Three ISO 800 film stocks remain to be loaded in my camera, one from CineStill, one From Kodak and one from Fujifilm.

The table below is just a personal view over different film types, according to my taste and needs in photography. It is probably a subject to change, as we grow up in photography and our style might change over the years.

My best 8 high quality film types

Brand

Model

ISO

(box speed)

Pulling film (+) overexposing Stops New ISO for pulling film (+)
Fujicolor Industrial 100 100 +1 50
Fujicolor PRO 400H 400 +4 200/100/50/25
Fujicolor Superia Premium 400 400 +1 200
Kodak Ektar 100 100 +2 50/25
Kodak Portra 160 160 +2 100/50
Kodak Portra 400 400 +2 200/100
CineStill 50D Daylight 50 +1 25
CineStill 800T Tungsten* 800 +3 400/200/100

My best 3 consumer film types

Brand Model ISO

(box speed)

Pulling film (+) overexposing Stops New ISO for pulling film (+)
Fujicolor Superia X-Tra 400 400 +2 200/100
Kodak Image Pro 100 100 +2 50/25
Kodak Gold 200 (or Ultramax 400) 200

(400)

+2 100/50

(200/100)

My best 2 high ISO alternatives

Fujicolor Superia Venus 800*

Kodak Portra 800*

 *Not recommended for airport X-Ray scanner (ISO 400 max).

 So, let us talk about the 35mm film stocks I have used so far, with two image examples for each type of film:

CineStill 50D: For almost 16 euro the roll of film, it is, by far, the most expensive film stock I have ever bought. I like it because it is manufactured based on Kodak Vision 3 50D cinema film emulsion and for the ISO 50 capabilities – great in sunlight conditions (“Daylight” is in its name). The colors are rich, while keeping a vintage look, with reddish halos around the sun flares areas. However, it becomes grainy when used in less light (maybe a bit more than I like) and it scratches so easily; my films are full of scratches and micro-scratches (which SilverFast AI Studio 8 software can deal with). Compared with Ektar or Portra 160, I do not feel like I get the same sharpness and micro contrast from CineStill 50D. I surely like better the colors that Portra and PRO 400H offer and you get a more solid built film stocks from Kodak and Fujifilm. For its price, you can get 3 rolls of Kodak Pro Image 100, or one roll of Kodak Ektar 100 + one roll of Kodak Pro Image 100 and you might be feeling doing a better deal. After 4 rolls of CineStill 50D (it’s nice to experiment with different film stocks), I don’t think I’ll be buying too soon, more CineStill 50D.

Kodak Pro Image 100: For about 5,5 euro the roll of film (but coming in a package of 5 rolls), this is a great choice for portrait, street and travel photography at ISO 100. Nice grain and beautiful, warm colors (according to the Kodak personality). With an image quality (sharpness, grain, colors) between its siblings Gold 200 and Portra 400, this seems like a much underestimated film stock, but with the potential of becoming one of the favorites. I am counting on getting and using this robustly built film type in the future.

Kodak Ektar 100: I pay around 10 euro for one roll of Ektar, but as they say, it has the finest grain. I try not to underexpose this film stock; I find the ideal settings to be when shot at box speed, or overexposed 1 stop, metering for the shadows. The colors are saturated and the contrast is on the high level. It is truly a professional color negative film, ideal for traveling in sunny days and for landscape photography. Using Kodak T-Grain emulsion technology, this film is simply great for scanning. The colors are amazing with plenty of sharpness and vividness in your images. The skin tones tend to go to the red zone, especially in low light situations, or when underexposed, so it might not be ideal for portrait situations. Nevertheless, in terms of vivid colors, sharpness and almost grain-free images, this is a reference in the choice of a professional photographer.

Fujicolor Industrial 100: Not quite a professional film stock (from a general point of view) and for a bit more than 9 euro per roll of film, it is not cheap either. However, this comes directly from Japan, it is very hard to find and the price is justified. It is similar with Superia X-Tra film for ISO 100, while having a finer grain and better rendering of green and red tones. It delivers beautiful images with powerful green tones, having a cooler flavor than the Kodak emulsions. I think this film type embodies the typical look of Fujifilm character and it is one of my top 5 favorite film emulsions, while looking at it from the perspective of professional usability.

 

 

Kodak Portra 160: In a pack of 5, the roll costs almost 10 euro, the same price as for Kodak Ektar 100. The internet is full of positive appraisals for this truly professional-grade film stock. I shoot this film at ISO 160, the box speed, or ISO 100 and sometimes, why not, at ISO 50. I do not have anything negative to notice; instead, everything is sublime: outstanding scanning capabilities, perfect skin tones, which makes it the ideal choice for portrait photography and a great choice for everything else. The Kodak colors, the sharpness, the ultra fine grain and the elasticity in exposing this film, make this one of my top choices. If you use this film, you cannot go wrong, no matter what are your needs in photography, knowing it needs enough light. Sublime!

Kodak Gold 200: Another slightly underestimated film stock, costing me almost 6 euro per roll, this is simply a perfect choice when you do not want (or cannot afford) to go into the “professional” area. Being a low-speed film and rated at ISO 200, it delivers beautiful color saturation, with the typical Kodak warmth flavor and enough sharpness. It is so easily for Kodak Gold 200 to become a top choice in the consumer-grade film stocks! It is a fine choice for both portraits and travel photography. If this is your only choice, it is a fine choice. Shooting it at box speed, or a bit overexposed will give you beautiful memories.

Fujicolor C200: I found it in a pack of 10 rolls and it is my cheapest choice, paying 4 euro for a roll of C200. It is a film type with the built-in Fujifilm character (cooler colors, compared with Kodak’s), but the grain and weaker sharpness do not make it one of my first choices. Heavy grain starts to appear when underexposed. It is a good emulsion when you are on a tight budget, or you want to make your debut into film photography and learn the techniques.

Kodak Ultramax 400: For 5,5 euro the roll of Ultramax (the same price as for Kodak Pro Image 100), it is a good choice when traveling during overcast skies. It delivers the typical Kodak moments at both ISO 400 and ISO 200 and it has the same emulsion as in Kodak Gold 200. They say it has a wide latitude of exposure: up to 2 stops of underexposure (not my style, yet) and up to 3 stops of overexposure (which means you can shoot it at ISO 50!). Skin tones and colors are nicely rendered, being a fine “budget” choice when you need a lot of flexibility.

Kodak Portra 400: This is the real thing. At almost 11 euro the roll of Portra 400, it probably is the most loved film stock in the world, by both professionals and amateurs, while being the top choice for portrait photography, when you need a lot of exposure flexibility. Everything I have said above for Kodak Portra 160, applies here, knowing it is an ISO 400 film and it has its specific elegant grain (the finest at this speed). Fantastic skin tone rendering, sweet Kodak colors and great sharpness make this type of film the ideal choice for everything, including great quality capabilities at scanning. Everybody should try to use Kodak Portra 400 and play with its exposure latitude; interesting results can be enjoyed at ISO 100!

Fujicolor Superia X-TRA 400: For a bit more that 6 euro the roll of film, this medium-speed daylight-balanced ISO 400 film is a good choice for beginners, for film photography on a budget, for a bit of exposure flexibility while shooting in the shade and sunlight. It is a very well balanced film emulsion in terms of color rendering, sharpness, grain and skin color reproduction, with the typical Fujifilm touch. It works very well at the scanner, but underexposure will alter its qualities, with heavy grain and mudded colors. It think this is Fujifilm’s equivalent for Kodak Ultramax 400, in terms of consumer-grade film choice for general applications. I love Fujifilm’s products, but I would probably prefer the Kodak version to this Superia X-Tra 400.

Fujicolor PRO 400H: For 10 euro the roll of PRO 400H, this is the professional choice of film from Fujifilm, the equivalent of Kodak Portra 400 with the Nippon personality. The last, but not the least in this list, this film emulsion is definitely in my top 3; I could, in fact, very easily put PRO 400H on the first place on my list of favorite film stocks! Yes, number one, although it is almost impossible to choose between Kodak Portra 400 and Fujicolor PRO 400H. They are both the pinnacle of 35mm film photography today and they are both professional-grade products offering amazing results for printing and scanning. Fujifilm put their best and latest technologies in this film type. This film probably has the widest exposure latitude when talking about overexposure. You can go 4 stops of light until ISO 25 and the outcome is amazing. It seems like the more light you give it, the better the result. The neutral grays are faithfully reproduced, the skin tones are superb, the colors and contrast are just perfect, with plenty of sharpness and character from Fujicolor’s color science. It could be the perfect film for any type of film photography and any subject. Some say the grain in Kodak Portra 400 is more subtle, or more homogenous than the grain in Fujicolor PRO 400H, but this is a very subjective matter. At the end, if I would be forced to choose only 2 film stocks, they will be Fujicolor PRO 400H and Kodak Portra 400. You can go 1 stop of underexposure, but more than that it will give you mudded colors and more grain. I think the best results in terms of image quality, retaining the contrast, sharpness and color character is when shot at ISO 160-200.

I still have to test some other film emulsions that I have on my list, with 4 color films:

CineStill 800T

Fujicolor Superia Venus 800

Fujicolor Superia Premium 400

Agfa VISTA 200

and 4 monochrome films:

Fujifilm Neopan ACROS 100

Ilford Delta 100

Kodak T-Max 100

Agfa APX 100

Mixing both color and monochrome films and using entry-level, medium-level and professional-level film stocks will give you a beautiful experience with film photography, an overview of the film emulsions that are still alive and available, while helping you discover the qualities, limitations and character of each type of film. This is how you find out what are your favorite film stocks and in the future, you probably will not need to get 20 different types of film, but maybe stick with your top 5 favorites. Or not. The best thing about film photography is this freedom of choice (while we still have it). It is about getting out of the comfort zone and discover new territories. It is a way to get back to basics, having a taste of the history of this beautiful art and craft, understanding the classic masters of photography, slowing down and detaching yourself from the vortex of contemporary technology mindset, getting the time and opportunity to actually think, feel and create.

Choosing the right camera for you can be a difficult task for some of us. After spending a lot of time time reading, asking, discussing and learning, I have found out that the Leica M mount lenses have both the compact size I need and probably the highest image quality for this type and size of camera. The cameras using M mount lenses are beautiful, solid, reliable and very similar to the rangefinder-style design we find in the X-Pro and X100 series from Fujifilm (I have enjoyed working with X-Pro1 and X-Pro2, as well as X100S and now, the latest X100V).

Starting with the lenses, the producers manufacturing them are too well known: Leica, Zeiss, Voigtlander, Minolta, Konica and there are budget-wise alternatives, as well, like 7artisans. Back to the cameras, the same brands manufactured camera models with great reputation. One can have plenty of choices, according to availability, budget, style and performance. It was time for me to make a choice.

Almost everybody sees Leica products as the pinnacle of 35mm film photography with a rangefinder camera, but the costs of owning a Leica system is prohibitive for many. I used to dream a bit about a Leica M7 with at least two and maximum four lenses. I love their design, the exquisite feel you get when touching and working with their cameras and lenses and appreciate the performance in terms of image quality.

However, defining “the best” is a tough thing to do, especially when you realize that “the best” is a rather theoretical concept, which is both illusory and quite different for each of us. This is why Leica might not be the best choice for all of us, even more so, when we take into consideration the budget impediments! My choice was to go towards the second “best”, which for me was the Zeiss Ikon ZM.

In some of the key technical aspects, the Zeiss Ikon ZM is a better choice than the Leica M7 (which was initially on my dream list). I could give you seven major and real reasons why my choice is the best choice (for me):

• A better price/value ratio; it is not a cheap camera, but it makes a Leica M look extremely unreasonable, if not a bit absurd. A Leica camera is wonderful to show it to your friends, but at the end of a full day of photography, probably you (I, for sure) would prefer the Zeiss;
• The very large and very bright viewfinder with 0.74x magnification (quire a rare thing among this type of cameras);
• A longer effective rangefinder base length, very useful for precise focusing (kudos for Zeiss engineers!);
• The logical and comfortable loading film system;
• The exposure compensation dial exists and it is on top of the camera (where it should be);
• 1/2000 sec fastest shutter speed;
• Very easy to find batteries with good autonomy.

The camera for you should be a good one, delivering the comfort and performance you expect and not necessarily being the most expensive. Knowing the limitations of film and gear technology is one essential step in this creative endeavor; you will learn to avoid the hardware constraints and maybe find a way to reach your goal, avoiding and/or controlling them.

Every camera is a photographic tool, but it is very important to love and master this tool of capturing light and memories. If you love film photography, then you should definitely love your camera. Thereupon, you are all set for your new adventure, walking on the path of magic.

For the moment, I have three analogue cameras and around eight interesting (some quite famous) prime lenses for film photography. It is a joy to slow down, get away from the worries related to megapixels, subject tracking while moving, focus points and auto-focus speed. Going back to the roots of Manual Mode and responsible photography feels so rewarding. When I come back to digital, it feels like I have the fastest camera in the world; we are truly spoiled with technology and yet we continue to be unsatisfied.

I am happy to conclude that I am back to film photography! I have moved from the beginner level (experience by curiosity), to a definite stay in the film area. Without leaving the digital photography, I would like to discover the many aspects and secrets of film photography, making this more than a “project”, but a solid path of doing photography for the future to come.

May the Light be with you all!

All photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2020 / www.sebastianboatca.com

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