Did we ever really understand film?

One of the coolest developments ever. But do we know what to do with it?

The word Columbusing has become a thing for describing the phenomenon by which a person believes that he is discovering something that in reality had always existed. It certainly seems possible that this is happening when people try to write reviews of cameras or films. I have now read hundreds of the film reviews in particular, and as an old-time Gen Xer, I realize that these writers are in a position to do one thing: demonstrate whether they as photographers can get a good image out of the material. The rest is of limited use.

Cachet qua cachet

Often, but not always a film review article will take this rough agenda. I think if you go back on my old site via the Wayback Machine, you may even find me doing this (though at the time I was writing about film, the cachet step wasn’t there, since almost all of today’s discontinued films were still sold then… In the early 2000s, when most of those pages were being written, film was just starting its tailspin.

Cachet signaling. This is the prelude. Usually consists of a description discussing how “those in the know” understand Film X (likely discontinued before the author ever picked up a camera, or in some cases was born), some information cobbled together from Google searches, and how the author came into possession of the now-expired film of unknown history, storage conditions, etc.

The low-sample test. Film X is frequently shot with a camera of significant vintage and unknown meter accuracy, sometimes used in conjunction with a meter of a certain age. Film is either commercially processed or done once, whether by the book, by guess, or by the Massive Film Development Chart (which can also be a crapshoot). Bonus points are awarded for random-guess compensations for the film’s age. Double secret bonus points if a restrainer is involved.

Abstraction to what the film is “about.” Author concludes that Film X is magical for xyz reason and that you should pay some scalper (or re-labeler) big time to get it.

Just stop here for a second. I am impressed at how good some of these writers are at photography. They have an eye. They can take a good picture and make a pleasing output. But nothing else they are doing is very instructive because their experience is not accurate or repeatable.

Call it a generational thing (or maybe half-generational) thing. As a group, Baby Boomers walked away from film photography and neither preserved nor transmitted decades of institutional knowledge on the subject. Most Gen X people know film as something you would shoot and take in to be processed. Even for them, unless they made pictures professionally or for a hobby, film photography became disposable as soon as digital became cheap. Which brings us to the millennial children of boomers: a knowledge discontinuity leads to satisfying feelings of discovery. But just as Columbus’ setting foot on Hispaniola did not mean a “new world” for peoples who were already there, superficial film reviews provide little (and really no) novel information.

Do b/w films really have looks?

But let’s back up to something in the cold light of day: with a few exceptions that came really late in the day, film was never really designed to have an aesthetic “look.” It was always designed to have a function. That drove aesthetics. To a point.

Almost 20 years into the 21st century, conventional black-and-white film has no real mysteries. For most of recorded history, film followed a pretty regimented set of tradeoffs: slower film had finer grain and finer tonal rendition. Things got grainier and lost dynamic range as film increased in speed. Although tablet grained b/w films helped increase performance, most of what you see in black and white films is the product of design tradeoffs rather than some deliberate aesthetic proposition.

Recall that the basis of film photography was science. I would suggest that, after a lot of time developing film, the differences between films of a given type and speed are actually relatively minor compared to the effects of varying developer, time, temperature, and agitation. Let’s take an example: Tri-X and TMY are different films, right, Tri-X with an S curve and TMY straight? Here is that classic Tri-X characteristic curve.

Ok, and here is your philistinic, “robot,” “soulless,” TMY, also developed in D-76:

Now develop both in T-Max developer and overlay the curves (black is TX, red is TMY). Don’t have a heart attack, but there are far more similarities than differences in response. Maybe a minute’s difference in developing time. Oh no…

But wow, this was like the holy of holy in differences in “look,” right?Nothing should be very surprising here; tablet-shaped film grains aside, the reaction of silver halide molecules to photons has not changed at all in 150 years of film photography.

So today, some films are grainier than others, some are contrastier than others, some are faster than others, normalized for a developer. But the choice and deployment of developer (if not also every other step of the output chain) can hugely influence or obliterate the “curve” which is the seat of the “look.” In other words, film is just a variable, and from a tone and grain standpoint, perhaps it’s far less of one than we thought.

Did consumers ever actually understand color film?

When you get to color film, things get more complicated because these start with silver halide, which is bleached out and functionally replaced with organic dyes. Color dyes are fickle.

When it was still made in a bunch of varieties, color negative film itself was somewhat inscrutable to anyone but pros and the very serious amateur. Moderately skilled (or more accurately, moderately informed) photographers knew that some types of film were better at skin tones than others (such as Kodak Vericolor III), but for the Joe Average, who had a skill level equivalent to most people writing about film, pretty much every C-41 negative film went through a minilab/printer, which was a highly automated way for drugstore personnel to make magic from your little canister and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process. If you were a pro, you would send your film out to a pro lab where professionals would make magic from your little canisters of film and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process.

Although competing brands of film within a certain type (color negative, color slide) used different methods of getting to the “right” color, skin tones were the pivot. Color, oddly, never really got more differentiated than high-contrast/saturation (Velvia, Portra VC, etc.) and regular (Provia, Ektachrome, Portra NC…).

Did you ever notice how much people hate on Kodak ProImage 100 for being excessively grainy and undersaturated? Aside from slight desaturation, it’s essentially where 100-speed film was when people stopped putting money into developing 100-speed consumer color film. The point-and-shoot camera – typically with a slow lens – put a high premium on 400-speed performance, and that’s where manufacturers went. The faster film got to the point where Kodak HD200 and 400 were far smoother than good old GA-135. Here is an easy conversion from consumer to prosumer to pro:

  • Gold 100 gen 4 » Extinct » ProImage 100 (rebalanced)
  • Gold 200 gen X » ColorPlus
  • Gold 400 gen 6 » some other steps » Gold Max 400
  • Ektar 125 » Ektar 100 » Royal Gold 100 » Extinct » Ektar 100
  • Royal Gold 200 » Kodak HD200 » Extinct
  • Ektar 400 » Royal Gold 400 » Kodak HD400 » Extinct
  • Vericolor III » Portra 160NC » New Portra 160
  • Portra 160VC » Replaced by New Portra 160
  • Portra 400NC » New Portra 400
  • Portra 400VC » Replaced by New Portra 400
  • Portra 400UC » Extinct

Slide film might have been even more mysterious — and represented a medium that spanned the absolute best professional photography and the worst amateur work feared by man. And nothing in between. You either had it or you didn’t. Transparency film was sold in large quantities to tourists and people wanting to shoot color in the really old days. Which made a lot of sense when a goddamn color photograph was a big deal, even if it took 6/12/36 exposures to get one good one. Kodachrome was a tri-layer black and white film that got an infusion of dye during processing. Slow, sharp, permanent, and capable of delivering a nice looking picture assuming the constellations were lined up. And if they weren’t, blown highlights, blocked shadows, and blue. Slides were the ultimate measure-twice, cut-once medium — but few people bothered to measure. Ektachrome and Fujichrome made it cheaper and easier to generate huge boxes of vacation slides that no one wanted to see — and ultimately faded out transparencies that no one could see.

Today, unless you plan to look at tiny positives backlit by homemade ground glass after the Zombie Apocalypse, or have brought some friends over, Buffalo Bill style, to watch vacation pictures projected on a screen (“it puts the slides in the carousel”), digital photography does everything slide film did – but better. Where you can vary the ISO, get more dynamic range, infinitely adjust contrast and saturation, and crop at will, it’s hard to make the argument that Ektachrome came back for anything but nostalgia and motion pictures. Which is a worthy reason. Let’s just not pretend it’s scientific.

In addition to allowing things to happen that could never happen with a filter-based minilab, the rise of the Fuji Frontier in the late 1990s was really the nail in the coffin of film-awareness. With hyper-sharpening, dynamic range compression, and ultimately, smart automatic operation, the Frontier made every photo look perfect. The technology is not unlike how people deal with negatives today: develop, scan, print (in the case of the Frontier, onto photo paper, using a laser). Today, the Frontier’s weirdly regimented view of the world lives on in the hackneyed wedding presets used on Lightroom by an army of semiprofessional shooters using Canon 5Ds.

And if you remember old film packaging, there is the warning that “color dyes in time may fade” (Gospel of Eastman Kodak, K41:1). Everything on earth is capable of influencing the colors and balance of color films: lot, storage temperature, age, exposure, environmental radiation, magnetic fluids, and phlogiston. The same goes for the output media, which if you’ve seen old Fujichrome slides, can be interesting.

That’s part of why the support infrastructure was so complicated, whether it was a minilab computer or CC10, 20, and 30 filters in cyan, magenta, and yellow. And why pros – once they had a particular lot of film dialed in – like a particular lot of Ektachrome – they stayed with it as much as possible. And even pros sometimes had to lean on color correction experts at labs to make every one of those Glamour Shots® perfect.


Hopefully you have not found this discussion offensive, but as an almost old person, I am not at all hesitant to tell you that everyone in their 20s has a Dunning-Kruger delusion when it comes to the technical aspects of photography. As someone who was there for the twilight of mainstream film photography, I would mostly observe that until the bitter end, film R&D was aimed at making the medium a neutral one that could be manipulated via development, printing, or even scanning – and that today, you can easily mistake random errors for some intentional aesthetic balance.

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13 responses to “Did we ever really understand film?”

  1. Fazal Majid says :

    I enjoyed your old articles, specially the one about developing Tri-X in Diafine, but this Franco-American Gen-Xer must insist that it’s spelled “cachet”, not “caché”. Also, the physico-chemsitry of latent image development is still poorly understood, and most likely we will never truly know given the irrelevance of film outside hipster demographics.

  2. Stephen J says :

    I like this article, it reminds me of what film photography was really like back in the olden days. People did not buy film to create a certain look, they just bought, or in the UK loaded the next “free film”. We used to send our colour film to a processor, many of whom would send back a free (own brand) film with the negs and prints. Most of us didn’t bother with B&W because of the cost, pro’s did that.

    However, there is one significant difference between film and digital systems. The former is less capable of being altered beyond all recognition. Whilst one can mess with quite a lot, the image always remains fairly faithful to the original exposure.

    However, I think that form of indexicality (new word) is fatally compromised by the more modern practise of printing either to screen or paper, via a software program and a scanning camera.

    In the end, it is all about composition though.

  3. Don Cardwell says :

    Lovely. And then some. With 25+ years in Photoshop, almost 60 in film … I think you’re exactly right. The old joke is still true: “Guy says, yesterday, I bought a piano, now I have a piano. Other guy, That’s nothing. Yesterday I bought a camera and now I’m a photographer !”. There is little difference in how we shoot digital and how we shot film… IF we wanted a specific result. Results demand Intention and Competence. I still use film, often in a system with digital processes, and usually, in a system incorporating hand-crafted processes. It isn’t better or worse than anything, but it makes me happy and I get to make what I want to make. Sort of like Roy Underhill making chairs. And I can do that, too. Matter of fact, it is the same thing. It isn’t that one thing is “better” than other, but whether it lets the craftsperson get the result that’s intended. Which is worth everything.

  4. lala says :

    “Nothing should be very surprising here; tablet-shaped film grains aside, the reaction of silver halide molecules to photons has not changed at all in 150 years of film photography.”

    I would argue that a lot has changed over the 150 years of film photography in respect to silver halides. From emulsion technologies to cyanine (organic dye) sensitization, there had been greater control and response of the silver halide chemistries. But I’m also a chemist who started working on cyanine dyes after getting into film photography… so I’m obviously biased.

    Alternatively, my dad and my maternal grandfather where both photographers. I’m a millennial but it’s been great talking to my dad about photography and him lending me equipment he used in high school. We need more ways to have some cross generational knowledge sharing!

    • The Machine Planet says :

      Hi Lala – I will admit that I am being rough with numbers. Really, flexible roll film is the origin point of modern film. That was 1888, or now 132 years ago. But I don’t agree with your assessment.

      First, cyanine doping – which is how pan film is made – came into widespread use by 1918, 102 years ago. I’ll leave it to an organic chemist to say whether it fundamentally changes the AgX itself or coats it and translates light into wavelengths that AgX can “see.” But it’s almost an academic difference, since even pan film is now a century – 5 generations – in the past.

      Another is that when you look at all the old Kodak lab books with films no one has heard of anymore, you find that curves haven’t changed, sensitivity hasn’t changed (“TMax 3200” film – which is now 35 years old – is not in real life faster than Royal X pan was), and you can still develop most of earth’s films for 7 minutes at 20 degrees C. In fact things have taken a step back, since TMZ does not come in 120 and RP did.

      And most depressingly, when you look at spectral sensitivity, what you think is a change with the Tmax films might really reflect that filter factors for older pan films were exaggerated.

      Progress, yes. But glacial if not epochal.

  5. Leo Tam says :

    So many people shoot film for the film look, when it’s really the film/minilab look

    ColorPlus is apparently 1980s style VR200 not Gold 200 (which the status of is always in question because it’s currently available at B&H, but that comes and goes)

    • The Machine Planet says :

      So it’s Gold 200 generation -1. But your point is right-on. Frontier scanning/printing – which has its own aesthetic – is what many people associate with “film.” That, and underexposed grainy shadows from cameras with failed CdS meters.

  6. նորայր says :

    i also think that gold200 and colorplus200 are different films. at least they have different masks, that becomes obvious when scanning.

    modern ektar, it seems has only the name of the old line, and otherwise is a different film.

    • brotato says :

      Regardless of the naming convention, Ektar 100 might just be the greatest color film ever made. In terms of grain, accuracy, etc. the color film we have today is far better than 20-30 years ago. Modern Portra is leagues better than VPS, for example.

  7. Clive Harrison says :

    Love the article. I wonder if in 100 years time if photos are still being taken by digital cameras another ‘nearly old’ person waxes lyrical about different sensors and their ‘looks’….

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