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Sorry but there are no easy or simple answers. Do you use ISO 100, 200, 800?? Do you use black and white, color negative or color slide film? Do you buy the name brand box, the ‘house’ brand or the really cheap stuff neither you or any of your friends have ever heard of?
Unless you’ve tried them all it’s expensive and time-consuming to wade through all the myths and half-truths that surround these various products. For instance, I’ve heard that ISO 800 film is “the best all-round film you can buy”. It even says so on the yellow box. Unfortunately, you can’t believe everything a manufacturer tells you when he is trying to get you to part with some of your hard earned money.
With experience you will come to know which film works best for the type of pictures you ‘normally’ take. Pictures generally fall into three or four main categories: people, scenery or people in scenery. Pet photos are also very popular. Fortunately, most of us take pretty much the same kinds of photos most of the time so once we choose a film that works well for us we can stop worrying about it.
Let’s talk about ‘film speed’ for a minute. What this means in practical terms is that to get the best pictures we need to know what activity will be taking place and what the lighting conditions are going to be like where we plan to shoot.
Is there going to be a lot of water, snow or light-colored sand where the pictures will be taken? Is there going to be a lot of furious activity like car or boat racing or is it going to be the equivalent of a family picnic? Is it supposed to be sunny or isn’t it? These are the types of considerations that must be taken into account before choosing a roll of film.
I want to spend a minute relating film speed to camera settings. Assume we have a constant shutter speed of 1/60th of a second and ISO 100 speed film. The ideal aperture setting has been pre-determined to be f5.6. With ISO 200 film this setting would be f8; with ISO 400, f11 and with ISO 800 it would be f16. I hope this helps you a little to see the difference.
I never recommend using ISO 800 film unless there is a very specific need for a very fast, high-contrast film. It is simply impractical for general photographic use. It is a highly specialized film that should be used with experience and discretion. Otherwise it is generally a waste of money. It also creates serious difficulties for the processing lab because inexperienced users invariably overexpose the film and make it extremely difficult to get any kind of decent color from the negs.
In spite of what it says on the ever-popular yellow box, ISO 400 film does not work really well around snow, water or sand. The film is simply too fast for the shooting conditions. The highlights get ‘burned’ out and a lot of detail is lost unless it is quite cloudy. A picture taken in sunshine does not need as high film speed as those taken under low light conditions.
ISO 400 does not work well with flash shots of people either. Once again the highlights get lost because, unless you have a very sophisticated external flash gun you often times can’t compensate for the high film speed and the results are generally an overexposed negative. This results in very poor color.
Generally speaking ISO 100 or 200 is your best bet for all-round general photography. It works equally well in boats and in the family living room. You can usually use it for close-up flash photography (6 to 8 feet) without burning up things like faces.
You need to know that overexposed negatives do not produce good color.
Several years ago a lady came to my professional lab with a series of very badly overexposed 4X5 professionally taken wedding negatives. The photographer had really blown it because the shots were all about four or five stops overexposed. I accepted the order with the proviso that I could not guarantee the color results. As I recall it took close to five minutes to expose an 8X10 print. A normal negative would normally take a little less than 30 seconds to print.
The customer (like most people) simply did not understand that good color (or a good color ‘balance’) depends on a properly exposed negative. In spite of everything we could do in the lab, in order to get a decent flesh tone in the faces of the bridal party we had to turn the photos a ghastly greenish colour.
In the end, the client settled for dress colors that looked pretty well like the color of the dress material sample she provided to us even though the faces of the bridal party looked like the colour of overripe tomatoes.
A hard lesson learned. The wedding formals were essentially ‘toast’ until we employed a very old technology. In the end we were able to make some reasonably acceptable black and white prints which were then hand-colored with special print dyes.
I grew up with black and white photography and I probably have a built-in prejudice in favour of the older technology. Color has certainly taken its rightful place in the industry but I still love the soft, gentle tones that you can only get with black and white.
I had my favorite kinds of black and white film and developer combinations, most of which aren’t even available any more. There was a real art to taking good black and whites but to a large degree the skills have been lost.
Speaking of not being available any more – did you know that the largest camera ever built was called “The Mammoth”? It was built in 1858 by an English photographer by the name of C. Thurston Thompson. It was designed and built to take a promotional photograph of a brand new luxury railway train and took a 3 ft. by 3 ft. square picture. The camera body was so big it needed a railway flat car to move it about the country.
To its credit, Kodak has developed a very nice black and white film that has to be developed in (C-41) color developer and printed on an automatic color printer. Most of the black and whites I have seen going through the lab are poorly done but every once in a while there is a roll that goes through that is absolutely perfectly exposed and the results are very spectacular to say the least.
If you like to ‘play’ with your camera and are a little on the artistic side, here is a real challenge here for you. “Try it, you’ll like it!” I believe is the way the old saying goes. My new digital camera has a black and white capability which I am really starting to enjoy. You need to play with it to get good results but it’s a bunch of fun trying.
By the way, when people started using the old box camera in large numbers, the popular week-end activity was known as “Kodaking”.
Back to business!
The decision about what ‘brand’ of film to use can be a rather perplexing one. The larger retailers have their own ‘house’ brands that they sell as the “best” and then there are the familiar yellow boxes from Kodak or the green boxes from Fugi or the blue boxes from Konica and so on and so on.
A lot of the house brand film has in the past been manufactured by Fuji and Konica although the manufacturer is not always disclosed by the retailer. Some products are made by lesser-known firms, mostly from the Asian countries. It has been my experience that consistent results are best obtained by using the branded product.
The main reason for this is that you never know when the ‘house’ is going to change suppliers. The box looks the same but what’s inside may change without notice if the retailer finds a supplier with a better deal. You can always ask your retailer for the name of the film manufacturer of the house brand. Some can tell you and some can not. If they can’t it is my suggestion that it is because they keep switching suppliers.
In my experience, Kodak films usually favour the warmer colors, the reds and yellows with a rather soft contrast. Fuji on the other hand tends to lean towards the green and blue side with a somewhat higher contrast. Konica seems to me to have an overall better color balance and a contrast level that suits me. I like good colour ‘saturation’ and good, snappy contrast.
Many moons ago worked as a production supervisor for a very large photofinisher in Western Canada. The company does not exist today but it was about the largest company of its type back then.
The owners were staunch Kodak supporters. They used nothing but Kodak paper and chemistry for years and years. When the industry-wide competition started becoming ‘cut-throat’ in the early 1970’s it became crystal clear that costs of manufacturing had to be cut severely. That meant buying unbranded paper and chemicals. My employers did this.
My point is this. Hardly anyone noticed the difference in our output. The color looked the very much same as it did when we used the branded products and the end customers were satisfied with our work.
This happened because we were able to adapt our production processes to the new materials. The same can be true today of the lesser known brands. Just because you don’t recognize the name does not automatically mean it is a lesser product and can’t do an adequate job.
There’s a lot more that can be said but that will have to wait for another time.