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30 Great 35mm Films

Jack and Sue Drafahl, May, 2002

The best of today's batch

In celebration of Photographic Magazine's 30 years, we were asked to compile a list naming 30 of the best 35mm films available today. It sounded like an easy task at first, but as we worked to assemble the list, we had a hard time limiting the number to just 30 films. We have been reviewing film for Photographic Magazine for 20 of those 30 years and during that time we have tested some great emulsions. There are now more than 100 film flavors designed to handle just about every photo situation possible, so how could we possibly choose?

Our first step was to group the slide, color-negative and black-and-white films, and then select the top films from each group. Since more than 97% of the images today are taken on color-negative film, it proved to be the most difficult group to weed down. We had to consider some of the new directions film has taken in the past few years, like film families. The film-family concept enables photographers to choose various film speeds from emulsions sharing like film technologies. Film families, like Kodak Supra, Fujifilm Superia and Agfa Vista, allow you to match the film to the light level and still maintain continuity in your results. Some emulsions also feature additional variations such as lower or higher color saturation. For example, Kodak offers Portra 400NC (natural color) and Portra 400VC (vivid color) to provide film solutions for all types of portrait applications. All these options are great for the photographer, but sure made our final decision a bit tougher.

It seems that there has been an increased interest in black-and-white photography as a creative art form. Higher-speed films boasting tighter grain patterns and smoother tonal ranges have brought many photographers back into the world of black-and-white. The chromogenic black-and-white films, the ones that are processed in standard C-41 color-negative chemistry, have helped encourage many black-and-white shooters back into the fold.

Photographic film has also taken on new meaning with the introduction of digital photography. Just as the digital camera collects data using bytes of electronic information, film can now be considered a permanent chemical storage device that uses silver halide crystals to collect its data. Thanks to film scanners, images on films of all types are now being converted to digital. New scanner technologies enable emulsion scratches to be removed and grain to be reduced. There are even bulk scanning devices, so you can convert entire rolls of film to digital at once. For the most part, films convert well to digital and it keeps getting easier and better.

The RMS rating indicates a film's relative graininess. A film with a RMS of 5 is twice as grainy as one with a rating of 4. You can compare RMS values (assuming the manufacturer provides them) between two print films or two slide films, but you can't directly compare RMS values between slide and print film. If you multiply a print film's RMS rating by 2.5, you can then compare its graininess to a slide film's rating. To make matters tougher, one manufacturer has switched to a Print Grain Index (PGI), and which there is no correlation between PGI and RMS.

We consider a film test to be more than just analyzing layers of color dye, silver-halide crystals, film backing, and all that makes up today's complex films. Most new films have a niche, a preference, or a specific field of photography for which they are best suited. When a new film comes in for review, we look at its specifications, preferred application, and each film test is a new adventure for us. Your film selection will depend mostly on your subject matter and shooting style. Take a look at our samples and the brief synopses of our 30 top films. Hopefully they will help in your film-purchasing decisions. (The following list includes color-print films, then color-slide films, then black-and-white films. In each category, the films are listed from slowest to fastest, in alphabetical order by manufacturer.)

All photos by Jack and Sue Drafahl unless otherwise noted.

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