Beginners Guide to Film – Types and Their Characteristics

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Beginners Guide to Film - Types and Their Characteristics

Beginners Guide to Film – Types and Their Characteristics

Checking out cameras stores in Champagne court has become a regular activity for me and my photo buddies in Hong Kong but before film passion injected into my blood. The spark started from 10 years ago, I was deeply attracted by these nicely designed film boxes and canister (I am still collecting and trying every available film in the market). I always wonder what kind of magic these little boxes can do to each photograph and curious of the letters on it means such as Tri-x 400, RAP, Portra NC 160…etc.


What do I think about film

Before I start talking about why I shoot film. I shoot digital as well but most of the time I stick with film, it is very hard to say which one is “better” or which one is “preferable”. It really depends on what you want as in colour tone, grain and sharpness versus the type of camera you like to use and how it seamlessly blends into your daily life and of course very important to see where is the closest lab to you and what is the development costs of each roll. 

I would describe film as a medium in the fine art world, you pick the most comfortable and appealing form of tool for you to create your own memories and of course each medium has its own limitations. I had vague memories of using some point and shoot cameras from my dad around 20 years ago, it was fun to just press the shutter button and get something totally expected. I got Canon Canonet as my first camera, shot with a roll of Kodak Gold 200 and the journey.

First film camera - Canon Canonet
First roll of colour negative - Kodak Gold 200
First roll of colour negative - Kodak Gold 200

Even today I still remember the smell of the unboxed film and feeling the “temperature” of that day. I shoot film mainly because I lost count of photos that I took with digital but film has a limited frame count of 36 helps me in both visualising and remember different moments. Other than that I love looking at film stripes and I feel more tangible by just viewing it under the scopes and all these moments imprinted on the negatives just flush into your mind. Sometimes the best memory happened inside the viewfinder more than from the picture itself.

The main reason I stick to film is that I personally don’t enjoy editing photographs. I get bored after checking the first 10-20 shots from my digital camera but film is just right for me to get the result as is.

Shooting film for the first time

Some of my friends used to shoot digital and they adjust ISO sensitivity frequently for aperture because the environment is too dark. Something that every film beginners would like to know is that, can I change the ISO after inserting film in the camera? The answer is NO. First time shooting film is always feel scary because you don’t know what is being captured and often asking whether there is actually any picture taken with the film. For me, it felt like driving for the first time alone, once you departed closing the film door, there is no way of turning back. But in fact, there are tips for you to watch out in order to get things done easily. Stay tuned and this will be my upcoming posts for every film beginners.

Different film types

There are many kinds of film but categorised into three kinds, Positive, Colour negatives and Black and White Negatives. Don’t worry I will explain more when it comes to each type of film. You just have to remember they behave differently on colour tone, ISO sensitivity, dynamic range, grain and sharpness. I like most of them but I do like the result from certain film more than the others especially the magic from black and white film.

Positive Reversal Film (Slide)

People call it slide film because they use a slide projector to enlarge it to the wall. It is the only  film after development is in its original colour, which means it is same as what we see when we press the shutter button. It has quite narrow exposure latitude, referring to easy to get exposure wrong if you didn’t meter it properly. The images from the positive film are often in higher contrast,  softer and not as sharp as colour negative films. It usually contains heavy temperature shift and often has the much cooler tone and heavy magenta, it has colour inaccuracy at night and the hue is quite wrong but produces an interesting effect.

It is expensive to get and not many labs doing E6 process for positive slide film now, the cost of developing it is also very costly. But a film that every film shooter must try! 

I will recommend you to try Fujifilm Velvia 100 or Fujifilm Provia 100F simply because ISO 100 is much easier to shoot with and better performance than Kodak Ektachrome E100.

Positive film strip with lightbox
Positive Slide Film - Fujichrome Velvia 100
Positive Slide Film - Fujichrome Velvia 100

Colour Negative Film

Most common film in the market and readily available in the market. The image taken with this film is processed with C41 the photo is in inverted colour. It has higher dynamic range compare with Positive Slide film which means more room for error and much higher sharpness. But usually more grainy and heavier colour shift but depends on brands. It is usually the easiest film that can be processed in different labs.

Different film users describe Fujifilm having more green tint and producing the cooler tone. Kodak has a relatively warmer tone and more sensitive to red and yellow colour. It is more common to see negatively film at ISO 100 to 800. 

To begin with, I would suggest you try Kodak Ultramax 400, Fujifilm C200, Kodak Portra 400 and Kodak Ektar 100.

Film stripe colour negative
Colour Negative film - Agfa Vista 400
Colour Negative film - Agfa Vista 400
Colour Negative film - Agfa Vista 400

Black and White Negative Film

This film type only produces monotone images, it has a wide variety of black and white film stocks still offering in the market for example the famous Kodak Tri-x 400, Kentmere 400, Ilford HP5 and JCH Pan 400. In general, they all look quite different in terms of the tonality in black, grey and white. You have to try a different black and white film stock to see which one you like the most. But I will recommend you to begin with Ilford HP5 and Kodak Tri-X. You can understand more in the film review. 

There are so many options out there and the price of black and white film is usually not that expensive. There is so much fun to shoot with it simply because you can push and pull the film easily depends on the available light and condition you have and can be developed at home easily with much lower costs. There are different developers and way of developing the film and it gives you so many combinations to get the taste you want. You can make prints on your own in the darkroom!

Not every lab will do black and white film processing because it involves manual developing each roll of film and the processing costs is usually higher.

Black and white negative - Kentmere 400
Black and white negative - Kentmere 400

Cine Film (Motion Picture Film)

Generally, use in film making. It has much better colour accuracy, dynamic range and sharpness. But usually has a coating of rem-jet on it which requires a special process called ECN-2 and much more costly to develop this film. Kodak Double-X,  Kodak Vision 3 250D and Kodak Vision 3 500T are my top recommendation to try. Must try!

Cine film - Kodak Vision 3 250D
Cine film - Kodak Vision 3 500T


I think every new joiner should try all of them to see which one they like. For example, if you like to take portraits and you want a softer tone and more accurate skin tone, you may find Kodak Portra or Fujifilm RDP III very nice to work with. For landscape, maybe Ektar 100 better grain structure or long exposure with some Kodak Tri-X 400. It all depends on developing costs and characteristic that you like. 

You don’t really need the most expensive gear to start with. As long as you take more rolls, you will discover why these cameras or lenses actually cost more usually because of their better performance on prints. In the digital world, it is quite hard to determine whether the lens is good or bad but sharp or not sharp some expensive gear simply because of their rarity like Leica camera/lenses. 

If you have any problem shooting film, feel free to let me know because the first film experience is always very important some people had a bad experience with their first roll and stopped but actually there are always ways to fix it and some times it is a problem with their cameras.

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