Film isn’t dead. It’s definitely suffering, though. The last 15 years have seen film sales fall off a cliff, producers like Kodak and Fujifilm have been thrown into a sink-or-swim situation, and other once-great film manufacturers like Agfa have faded into obscurity. But even as Kodak cut its iconic Kodachrome and Fuji concentrated its efforts into a few select films, there’s been a niche resurgence of film use. Adopters and re-adopters alike have cited renewed joy for photography, minimized post-processing, pleasantly surprising results and cheap cost of entry (compared to similar-quality digital cameras) as reasons they’ve picked up celluloid again.
While the number of great film stocks has fallen quickly over the last 15 years, there are still some greats; these are eight of the best.
Kodak Portra: Portra is everywhere. Kodak’s most popular roll film is available in 160, 400 and 800 ISO but the 400 is the most versatile of the bunch, easily coping with being under- and over-exposed without getting too grainy. Portra of all speeds renders skin tones beautifully, scans better than most films and has an incredibly pleasant grain structure. Available in everything from 35mm rolls to medium format to sheet film, the 400 is our go-to when we need a color film on any shoot.
Kokak Ektar 100: Ektar is another gem from Rochester. It boasts more saturation and contrast than Portra and an amazingly fine grain structure. As a result, pictures tend to not look all that “film-y”, which can be a good or bad thing depending on what you want. It’s only available in 100 ISO, so you’ll need quite a bit of light, but the sharpness you’ll end up with is amazing.
Fujicolor Pro 400: Fuji negative films have always had a distinctive look that’s attracted loyalists. Compared to Kodak, Fuji usually has a slightly greener, slightly colder tone (compare the example links for Fujicolor and Portra to see what we’re talking about) that usually injects a bit more emotion into a given picture. Fujicolor Pro is a great film to keep in your bag if you’re looking for more contrast and moodier colors compared to Portra. Just be prepared to pay nearly twice as much for the privilege.
Color Reversal (Slide Film)
Fujichrome Provia 100F: Ever since Kodachrome was retired at the end of 2010, Fuji has been the only game in town when it comes to true slide film (though Ektar does a pretty good job mimicking it). Luckily, they’re doing a damn good job. Slide film is characterized by strong, saturated colors, sharp contrast, fine grain, a more fickle exposure range (slide film can usually only be recoverable when under- or over-exposed by one stop compared to negative film’s three or four) and, of course, a color-positive film. Provia is Fuji’s more neutral option with natural colors and less contrast than their vibrant Velvia. You’ll need a lot of light and a good exposure, but the results are some of the best you’ll find for general-purpose shooting.
Fujichrome Velvia 50: When people talk about slide film these days they’re almost always talking about Velvia. The strong contrast, strong color film has taken over Kodachrome’s place as the low-ISO choice for those wanting amazing results right out of the camera. It’s great for landscapes and still life but isn’t the best at reproducing skin tones because Fuji’s typical greenish-purplish cast is even more pronounced in Velvia.
Black and White
Kodak Tri-X 400: Think of any iconic black and white photo you’ve seen; odds are it was shot on Tri-X. Kodak’s hallmark black-and-white film has been around forever and its easy development, good-looking grain structure, perfectly balanced contrast and killer shadow detail mean it won’t likely leave the throne soon. If you’re going to start developing your own film or just want a great medium-speed black-and-white film, Tri-X is the easy choice.
Ilford Delta 3200: Boasting three extra stops of light sensitivity over 400 speed film (that’s going from 1/15 shutter speed to 1/120 at a given aperture), Delta 3200 is the only choice when you need a super-sensitive low-light film. The grain is definitely pronounced, but if it’s exposed right the grain is minimized into a really pleasing pattern that’ll leave no doubt what film you shot on.
Ilford PanF 50: Just the opposite of Delta 3200, PanF 50 is the perfect black-and-white film when you have light to spare and want sharp images with minimal grain and excellent dynamic range — showing detail in the darkest and lightest portions of an image. Simply put, if you want the highest-resolution black-and-white film, this is the one you want.