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Facts about film (09/13/2006)
By Tom Hirsch


     
All you digital camera people can come along on this one if you want to. Just don't feel too smug. Okay, feel smug if you want to.

At the time of this writing, there are nearly fifty print films on the market. If we add slide and black-and-white films, the total comes to more than 120. Because most of us use color print film, that is the type that will be discussed here, but the information is basically the same for the others also.

With all the films on the market, even considering just the color print films, how is it possible to decide which one to use? For a professional or advanced amateur photographer, there is no simple answer. These people take into consideration such factors as grain, resolving power, color balance and other things that are important in specialized fields of photography. For those of us who are interested primarily in family and travel photos, there is a logical solution to the film dilemma. More on that later.

First, let's get a couple of definitions out of the way: The ISO number on the film box tells you the relative speed of the film. The speed indicates a film's sensitivity to light as compared with other films. For example, an ISO 200 film is twice as "fast," or sensitive to light, as an ISO 100 film. An ISO 400 film is twice as fast as an ISO 200 film.

Graininess is inherent in the chemical particles that make up the film's emulsion. Grains vary in size, depending on film speed. As a generalization, the slower the film the smaller its grain structure, so the sharper the image if it is enlarged to a great degree.

It might be assumed that the slower films would be preferred over faster films for this reason, but advances in film technology have reduced the size of the grain structure in fast films to the degree that the differences are barely perceptible. For example, if you were to compare a very high-quality ISO 400 film with a very high-quality ISO 100 film, the differences would probably be negligible until you enlarged them both beyond the 8 X 10 print size. Even then you might not notice any difference at a normal viewing range.

Unless you would like mural-sized photos on your living room wall, any of the name-brand ISO 400 films on the market have some advantages over the slower films. Number one, a fast film will allow you to hand-hold the camera while shooting under relatively low light conditions without getting fuzzy pictures due to camera shake - of course, you have to use good camera handling techniques. Secondly, in fast action situations you'll have a better chance of "freezing" the motion of the subject. Another advantage is that you'll have further reach with the flash unit when flash is required. For example, the light from the flash will reach twice as far with ISO 400 film as it will with ISO 100 film.

There are many excellent ISO 400 films on the market. Because of variations in quality, and because of brand names, some films are more expensive than others. Also, some dealers charge more than others for the same film. Shop around, but look at the expiration date on the film box. Be leery if the date is less than six months away. Sometimes by looking on a film rack, you can find rolls that are dated up to two years away.

If you want to know the best films in a given speed range, check for film ratings in PhotoGraphic and Popular Photography magazines. You'll probably find recent issues in the library.

A word of caution when loading your camera outdoors. Film cartridges are light-tight under normal lighting conditions, but if the cartridge is exposed to bright sunlight, the film can become fogged. When loading the camera in direct sunlight, turn your back so your body shields the film cartridge from the direct rays of the sun. 

 

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