Big Bubbles (no troubles)

What sucks, who sucks and you suck

Pick a Flick

There are two questions about choice of film that, when asked on any photography forum, are guaranteed to provoke mild tuts of irritation and some teeth-grinding among old hands (barring DPReview, whose readers will only laugh):

  1. “What’s the best film?” [criteria unspecified]
  2. “I use Brand X and am really pleased with its colour rendition, saturation and grain. Is there something else I should be using instead?” [beginner’s insecurity]
Indeed, some forum participants are now toothless, so often have they seen these questions (although they can still have a nasty bark, so don’t follow up with “which are better, zooms or primes?”).

This isn’t an answer to either, but since most beginners seem confused about which film to use and overwhelmed by the range of products, I thought I’d list the ones I generally stick with.

Disclaimer: I’ve tried only a fraction of the available products, I’ve exhaustively tested none of them and I’m not especially picky about the results. If there’s an image there and it isn’t a fuzzy blob of pastel shades, I’ll accept it. However, you’d have to be extremely quibblesome (and many forum posters are) to totally slate any of these for “typical” use:

Fuji Superia X-TRA (400 ASA)
I used this all the time when I started because it was easy to obtain and get processed. Best results come from a Fuji lab (indeed sometimes the colour saturation is overcooked), less exciting prints from a Kodak one. I still use it if I need to take some straightforward pictures with minimal hassle, but otherwise I avoid it because it’s less interesting than the alternatives and the grain aliasing on scans is annoying.
Fuji Superia 100 ASA
Avoids the grain problems of the X-TRA when scanned, while being similar in most other regards. If you must have prints and speed is not an issue, this is perfectly fine.
Fuji Velvia RVP50 (50 ASA)
As used by seemingly every current landscape photographer (hence no real surprise to find it out of stock at my local camera chain, which has the retail sense of a Walls franchise at the North Pole). Extraordinary, virtually unreal colour rendition provides an artificial but often flattering boost to the dullest shots. Also nice to scan. However, once loaded, accept that you’ll need to use a tripod for every shot unless conditions are really sunny. Velvia is becoming almost too commonplace and you’ll have to work hard to distinguish yourself from the pack when using it.
(I tried Velvia 100F too, but thought the colour rendition wasn’t quite as appealing as the 50. Given that for most sensible applications you’ll need a tripod, why bother with the extra stop?)
Fuji Sensia II (100 ASA)
Least hassle of all slide films. Cheaper than Provia but reportedly just as good for most amateurs, often fast enough to hand hold, realistic results and, if you buy the process-paid variety, least hassle to get processed; Fuji’s UK lab is quick and always gives excellent results (their mounts include exposure numbering too). Great to scan; you can always boost the saturation digitally if you want.
Ilford XP2 (400 ASA)
A fantastic B&W film that avoids the main problem with traditional B&W; if you don’t develop it yourself, most labs do a lousy job for too much money. XP2 is chromogenic (C41) so you can take it into any high street lab and get usable negatives and adequate test prints (maybe a slight colour cast) within a day. Scans well (Vuescan has a profile for it). Grain is minimal and it can officially be rated anywhere from 100 to 800 ASA with no processing changes (so you don’t have to explain pushing or pulling to trainee high street shop staff, only for them to quietly ignore your “irrelevant technojargon” and press on regardless). This also means that you can be a mile off with your exposure and still get an acceptable image. Rate at 200 for better contrast, more shadow detail and even less grain. If you want to try monochrome (and why not??), this is the film to use: bliss in a manual SLR with a 50mm lens. The only drawback is that it won’t possess the long term archival qualities of traditional panchromatic B&W emulsion.
Fuji Neopan 400CN is very similar (it was co-developed with Ilford) and almost indistinguishable to my eyes, although it costs slightly more. The grain might be slightly smoother, but then I might also be kidding myself.
Kodak T400CN (400 ASA)
Another chromogenic Bamp;W, slightly cheaper than XP2. Negs have a brown cast (XP2 is grey) but Vuescan also contains a profile for it (look under T-MAX). Reportedly even easier for minilabs to handle, and certainly gives good results. Some uncertainty about whether it has the same wide latitude as XP2, but still no slouch.
Ilford Delta 400 ASA
Just a great, fine-grained yet fast, “new technology” B&W film; no complaints, although I usually prefer grain to be more apparent in mono work.

In my cameras at the moment, for the first time, are Konica Centuria 1600 ASA (tried it for some museum shots; the speed wasn’t actually a significant advantage, but it was cheap) and Ilford Delta 100 (being used for some still life work). I’ve also got a roll of Ilford HP5+ at the lab, because it was the first “proper” B&W film I tried, even before I had an SLR, and the grain always looked great. Following this, I plan to try FP4+ and Astia, and longer term maybe some Agfa or Kodak B&W products.
Update, 2004-01-20: The Konica 1600 is acceptable given the speed/quality compromise of fast film. If you need 1600ASA, it’ll do. It’s better if a grainy look would suit your subject, but then again the grain isn’t strong enough to form an attractive feature; I think I could have found a better occasion to load it. Underexposure, as you might expect, produces horrible results. If you can, use a tripod and load something slower.
Update, 2004-02-12: Delta 100 is extremely sensitive to correct exposure with very little latitude (and I don’t think my FE2’s meter is sufficiently precise) - a finding shared by other internet users. However, I also think the developing (by Ilford’s lab to boot) was suboptimal; how else did I end up with blown highlights and blocked shadows in the same print? There’s very little soft gradation in tones anywhere, only sharp boundaries. I’m hoping that FP4+ will behave better.

If you’re starting out, I suggest your main selection criteria should be the ease with which you can obtain, shoot and process a particular film. Superia X-TRA and XP2/T400CN score highly in all these respects. Slower films mean using a tripod; not a bad thing, but maybe not much fun initially. Panchromatic B&W films are almost impossible to get processed well unless you pay a lot of money or do it yourself; the best I can recommend is the Ilford pre-paid mailer service. Slides need either a really accurate meter (modern AF SLRs usually do a good job) or a meter that you understand really well. Anything that involves your film being sent out to an anonymous remote lab is to be avoided; never let high street labs do this, as losses or disasters are a strong possibility in my experience. Find a reliable minilab shop, probably independent (if only because the staff are often friendlier), and stick with it.

Some people like to try out as many different films as possible to cover all bases, even going to the trouble of carrying out careful “scientific” tests involving newspapers, brick walls and other scintillating material. If that’s what you enjoy, fine, but note that I never saw such a test that didn’t immediately provoke a storm of responses detailing the incorrect assumptions made, numerous errors in the methodology, claims that the results were due to entirely different factors or are distorted by post-processing and a hundred other reasons for its utter irrelevance. The message being: it’s all purely subjective anyway so you might as well go with whatever appeals and stop worrying about it.