If you’re just starting out with film photography, whether it be still film or motion picture film, you may find yourself scratching your head whilst shopping: Color positive? Color negative? Slide film? Black and white positive? Black and White Reversal? What does it all mean and which should you shoot? Let’s break down the two big differences in film type to help make that decision a little easier.
What’s the difference between positive and negative film?
The words positive and negative seem obvious for those who have shot film for a long time, but for new film shooters (and especially those who may have grown up in the digital era) the two terms may seem a bit odd. Here’s the main differences:
Negative film is by far the most popular choice in still photography. It comes in two basic flavors: black and white negative and color negative. To view images correctly, these films need to be either scanned digitally or be printed on photographic paper in a darkroom to provide a correct image. This is also why we call the finished processed film “negatives” because the images on the film after they come back from the lab, are basically ‘negative’ images of what you captured. This becomes most obvious in black and white negative film because when you hold the finished film up to the light, you’ll notice that all the white areas on your images appear black, and all the light images appear black. When the film is scanned digitally, the software corrects the image and a similar process happens when the film is printed on paper in the darkroom.
Reversal film can be a bit more confusing, mostly because it is called by a few different names and, like negative film, can be either color or black and white (though black and white reversal film is not nearly as common in still film formats.) Adding to the confusion is the fact that reversal film can be called several different things, but it is all the same: positive film, slide film, and transparency film. All of these are the same names for a film that produces a ‘positive’ image. This means when you hold the processed film up to the light, you can see the finished image without needing to scan it digitally or print it on photographic paper in a darkroom. It also means that you can use a device (such as a slide projector or a movie projector in the case of movie film) to shine light through the film and project the image on a wall or a screen. Usually, you’ll see these films described as “reversal” films because the method of processing the film in the lab is known as “reversing.”
In still film (like 35mm, 120, 110, 620, etc.,), the most common reversal film you’ll find is color reversal, such as Kodak’s iconic Ektachrome film. Black and white reversal film also exists for still film but it is less common.
In motion picture film (like Super 8, Regular 8, and 16mm), you’ll find both color reversal film (such as Kodak’s Ektachrome) and black and white reversal (such as FPP’s Cine40 or Fomapan’s R100).
Which Film Should I Shoot?
This is a big topic–and there is a laundry list of reasons why you might choose negative film or reversal film depending on what you’re looking for in a finished product.
One of the most common reasons people shoot reversal film is to project the image on a wall or screen with a movie projector (in the case of motion picture film) or a slide projector (in the case of 35mm film.) Many labs that process 35mm reversal film offer the ability to ‘mount’ your film on paper or plastic slide holders. These slides can then be loaded into a slide projector and enlarged on a wall to show your friends and family.
Negative film cannot be projected because you would see a ‘negative’ image of the world. These films are best if you’re looking to create prints on photographic paper (which can be done in a darkroom by your photo lab) or can be scanned digitally and printed on a digital printer.
Most experienced photographers will tell you that shooting reversal films can be tricky. They need near perfect exposure to get good images, while color or black and white negative films have a bit more flexibility–if you accidently under or over expose your film, some or most of that can be fixed when scanning or printing. This is much more difficult with reversal films.
Where Can I Get Film Processed?
Most modern photo labs can process both black and white and color negative films in just about any format. You can choose to get your film back with digital scans or paper prints or both.
Color reversal film processing is readily available from many photo labs around the world. It is important to make sure the lab you’re sending your film to can process the film correctly. Look for a service option called “E6 processing” as this is the chemical processes needed. If you don’t see it listed as an option at your lab, be sure to ask. For still film, you can usually specify if you want your film mounted on paper or plastic slide mounts (for use in a slide projector) or as strips of film that are put in protective sleeves. For movie film formats, you’ll usually get your film back on a reel for projection.
Black and white reversal film processing for still film formats (like 35mm and 120) is far less common. There are only a handful of labs who can properly handle this film, so be sure to ask your lab if they can handle it since it is not the same process as color reversal film.
Black and white reversal film processing for movie film is very common, and most labs that process movie film can handle this as well.
TheDarkroom.com is FPP’s recommendation for just about any still film processing (including both negative and reversal films). If you’re looking to process movie film, the FPP offers both processing and scanning of just about all types of movie films out there.
Still have more questions? Send Mike a note and he’ll point you in the right direction: email@example.com