Which Type of Film Produces the Best Pictures?

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Which Type of Film Produces the Best Pictures?

It's a simple question and a perfectly reasonable one. Those who are interested in film photography know that film choice is an essential part of producing good pictures. The answer, unfortunately, isn't quite as simple as the question, and the large choice of film types, formats, and speeds available can leave many newcomers to film photography confused as to which type they should buy.

Film Formats

Photographic film comes in various sizes or formats. This is largely irrelevant for those who are looking for film for a newly-acquired camera. Their camera is designed to take only one format, so that's the only format they need to consider. Those who are buying a camera, however, can consider the various film formats and make a choice of camera based on the type of pictures that they want to take. In general, the larger the physical dimensions of the film, the higher the final image quality will be. The flip-side, of course, is that the larger the film, the larger the camera will be. For certain types of photography, camera size is very important and more important than the film's image quality. A large-format camera in a studio produces the best image quality possible and is ideal for fashion and portrait photography. Such a camera, however, would be far less practical for many types of photography, such as wildlife photography, travel photography, sports photography and the most common type of film photography of all, snapshots of friends, family, and events. Put simply, the best film doesn't necessarily mean the best image quality but the film that suits the best camera for a particular type of photography. For general-purpose photography, choose 35mm film for its impressive quality and the flexibility and convenience that 35mm cameras provide. Where even better quality is required, consider medium format films such as the 120 or 220 format.

Common Film Types

Over the long history of film photography, many different film types have been produced, all designed to cater to the highly-varied demands of photographers. Many are very specialised, while others are general-purpose film types. The following are some of the more important film types available.

Colour Print Film

Colour print film is the most commonly purchased film, and the 35mm format is by far the most popular format as the huge range of 35mm cameras available confirms. Both the film and the cameras designed for it enable good-quality pictures to be taken in a wide variety of situations, and that is the primary reason for their successful domination of the photography film and camera markets worldwide. Use this film for general-purpose photography where prints are the required final image. Although the typical postcard-sized print is the most common printed size, reasonably large prints can be produced from 35mm film without significant loss of quality.

Black and White Print Film

Black and white film has long since been relegated to a more specialist role since colour film caught the imagination of the general public in the mid-20th century. Black and white photography, however, is commonly used by professional photographers and photography enthusiasts for its graphic impact and artistic potential. Use black and white film to emphasise different visual qualities such as form, texture, and tonal contrast.

Slide Film

Colour slide, or transparency film, has both advantages and disadvantages when compared with colour print film. The disadvantage is the inconvenience of having to view slides via a projector, slide viewer, or slide scanner. The main advantage is image quality. Typical good-quality slide film has superior resolution and contrast range. 35mm slide film is good enough for many commercial applications, such as magazines. Choose 35mm slide film if the intention is to submit photos on a freelance basis for commercial use. Most photo editors will accept 35mm slides but won't except photos shot on 35mm print film. This is also true of film photo libraries and agencies.

Infrared Film

Infrared film is far more specialised than even standard black and white film. Infrared light, which is invisible to humans (as well as to normal film), is emitted by all heat sources. This includes the heat emitted by people, animals, and even vegetation. In complete darkness, infrared film will record the outlines of any heat source. The proverbial 'black cat in a coal cellar' would have nowhere to hide from a camera loaded with infrared film. Infrared film has many professional and industrial applications due to its ability to record invisible infrared light and render it in a range of visible tones or false colours in print. Be careful when focusing with infrared film as the infrared focal point is different to the visible light focal point. As it can't be focused visually, many manual focus cameras have a red focus mark that enables the lens' focal point setting to be compensated for infrared film.

Colour print film

The most common film type for general-purpose photography

Slide film

Higher-quality film that produces slides rather than prints as the final image form

Black and white film

Used by professionals and hobbyists wishing to exploit the strong graphic potential that black and white images have

Infrared film

This is a highly-specialised film type that is sensitive to infrared radiation emitted by heat sources. It's used for very specific applications, such as photography in darkness or through intense haze. It can also produce striking artistic effects.

Film Speed

The speed of a film refers to how sensitive it is to light entering the camera lens. All modern film conforms to the ISO system, and common values of film speed vary from a low-sensitivity value of 50 to a highly-sensitive 800 rating. Don't make the common mistake of assuming that high sensitivity means high quality. In fact, the opposite is true. High-sensitivity film with an ISO rating of 800 or higher can capture images in low-light settings, but the image quality is quite poor and noticeably grainy. For pictures of much higher quality, use film rated at 100 ISO in bright conditions. Using natural light, film rated at ISO 50 can produce very vibrant images, but make sure there's enough light available. The film's sensitivity to light is so low that only the brightest and sunniest of days can reveal its true quality. Film rated at ISO 200 is better suited to cloudy and dull days.


Regardless of film type, the final quality of the pictures produced will also depend on many other factors such as lighting, focus, exposure, and printing. Compared to those variables, however, the quality of modern films is generally very consistent from any particular manufacturer. Having found a film brand and type that is suitable, it makes sense to stick with it. It can be depended on to deliver exactly the same good quality, roll after roll.

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