One of the most common questions that we get asked appears to be a simple one:
What film should I use?
Of course, there is no simple answer to that question. The choice of film that you make is often one of personal preference, dictated by the conditions you intend to shoot in, the subjects you expect to capture and the eventual use of the photograph that you plan. Let's explore some of these issues as we journey through the seemingly complex world of film.
Before deciding on a brand or type of film, it is important to first understand a few fundamentals about film and film types.
The way in which any film captures an image is through the exposure of tiny grains of light sensitive silver emulsion to light. This light, of course, is passed through the lens of the camera and onto the film for a very brief period of time (the time in which the camera's shutter is left open). Different films have different sensitivity to light; some film requires a longer exposure to this light to accurately capture the image while others require less amounts of exposure. The way to tell a particular film's light sensitivity is by its Speed. Film Speed is indicated by its ASA rating (ASA stands for American Standards Association). For example, some films have an ASA rating of ASA 50 or lower while others have a rating of ASA 400 or higher. The smaller the number, the less sensitive the film is to light. Conversely, the higher the number the more sensitive the film is to light. What this means is that films with a higher ASA rating are better able to capture images in darker situations while films with smaller numbers can work well is bright conditions. Another factor to consider is the graininess of the final image. Films with smaller ASA numbers have a finer grain and this will result in sharper images. While film companies have made great advances recently in producing fine grained, higher ASA film, the general rule still applies: the higher the ASA, the "grainer" the results will be.
Prints vs. Slides
Because print film often allows for greater exposure error due to its relatively lower levels of contrast, this is often a good choice for photographers who are starting out and who are getting used to their cameras and to photographing the underwater world. In addition, the developing process for print films can vary enormously. This means that you often have the option of having your negatives re-printed if you are unhappy with the results. However, slides are often the preferred medium for underwater photographers for several reasons. They are easier to display publicly (e.g., slide shows, etc.) and are the preferred medium for publication purposes. Since the slide is the actual negative (reverse transparency) of the image, there is no option of getting the slide "re-printed" if the results are not to your liking.
Color vs. Black & White
This is purely a matter of personal and artistic choice. While many photographers choose color film to capture the beauty and splendor of our natural world and the rich splashes of color that are exhibited underwater, more and more professionals are beginning to produce very striking results with black and white film. This is an area that is open for experimentation and we encourage all photographers to explore their own frontiers of creativity.
Film Brands & Our Favorites
There is a universe of possibilities for the photographer today. Film companies have made wonderful advances in the technology of film and there is a seemingly endless choice of films to choose from. Here are some of the more popular films:
Fuji Velvia (ASA 50) - This is a slide film with an extremely fine grain and enhanced color. It is an excellent choice for macro photography and for situations when the photographer desires extra contrast. Some people dislike the enhanced color, especially in the areas of reds. Also, because of the slim exposure latitude that this film has and its extreme contrast, it is not a good wide-angle film. Still, Velvia is often the film of choice for professional underwater photographers and is one of our consistent favorites.
Fujichrome Provia 100 (ASA 100) - This is a slide film with good color and fine grain. This film works well above and below the surface and, because of its ability to capture good shadow detail, is an excellent choice for clear water wide-angle shipwreck shots.
Fujichrome Sensia 100 (ASA 100) - This is a slide film that also produces good color with a fine grain. Sensia is great for surface photography and for wide-angle underwater photography. Sensia also is one of our favorite films.
Kodachrome 64 (ASA 64) - For years, Kodachrome 64 was a perennial favorite among underwater photographers. It has a fine grain and produces very sharp pictures. Colors are reproduced naturally and it produces pleasing skin tones. Underwater photographers looking to capture the rich and subtle shades of color underwater often turn to Kodachrome. Contrary to some rumors we have heard, Kodak is still manufacturing this film. It is an excellent choice for macro photography.
Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100 (ASA 100) - This is a relatively new slide film with enhanced color saturation. It works well in close up situations and for providing extra color in wide-angle photography when extra light is provided by a strobe.
Kodak Ecktrachrome 200 (ASA 200) - This slide film is an excellent choice for wide-angle situations and for those times when the photographer wishes to capture images with lower light levels. Because this film can be "pushed" to 400 or 800 easily, it is a very versatile film. The color saturation tends to favor the blue color, which is ideal for those wishing to enhance or emphasize the blue color of the water. This film is also one of our long time favorites.
Kodak Gold Max (ASA 800) - This is an ideal print film for point and shoot cameras, which usually have fairly narrow lenses. It is a great choice for beginning photographers because it is very forgiving film…even beginners can get bright, colorful results.
Agfachrome CT Precisa (ASA 100 or 200) - This slide film has very true color reproduction, even for strong colors such as red and yellow. Because of a very neutral color rendition of even the seemingly bland colors (white, gray, black), there is very little hue added to these colors.
Let's examine a few common situations to see what type of film works best.
Example 1: You are snorkeling on a shallow reef in clear water on a bright sunny day. You intend to shoot wide-angle shots to capture the beauty of the reef in its natural light. Because of the bright light and clear water, you have some freedom to use slower speed film (lower ASA). Because you are not using a strobe, you want to use a film that can capture colors naturally. Fujichrome Sensia 100 might be a good choice here.
Example 2: You are diving along a colorful wall in the tropics, rich with colorful sponges and corals. You are interested in capturing the grandeur of the wall along with the colorful red and yellow sponges and soft corals. You will be doing wide-angle photography with some very wide exposures and some close focus images as well and you will be employing a strobe. Since you want to highlight the colors of the reef and will also be trying to shoot the wall from a wide-angle perspective, we would recommend Kodak Elite Chrome 100 or Kodak Ecktachrome 200. Both films will work well in a wide-angle situation. The Elite Chrome will do better emphasizing the colors of the reef while the Ecktachrome will emphasize the blue of the surrounding water.
Example 3: You are diving deep along a sunken sea mount and expect to encounter sharks and big pelagic animals. These will be fast moving and you may not get close enough to do anything but natural light photography. An excellent choice here is the Kodak Ecktachrome 200. The film's exposure latitude will enable you to shoot these animals with a fast enough shutter speed to "freeze" the action and avoid blurry images. Also, the surrounding water will be a nicer shade of blue to further enhance the photos.
Example 4: You will be shooting close up or macro photography in the cold, dark waters of the Pacific Northwest. The subjects will be a variety of colorful invertebrates but you will be using strobes to provide light. We would recommend Fuji Velvia. This film will result in bright, eye-popping colors on very sharp images. Because the strobe is supplying the light, the surrounding darkness is of no consequence and the low ASA will work just fine.
As you can tell, there are a lot of choices available to the underwater photographer today. Once you understand the basics of film technology, you can begin the enjoyable journey of trying to match the right film to the right situation to get the best results. As with all aspects of photography, the trick is to experiment and see what works best for you. So, in conclusion, what is the answer to the question " What film should I use?" Well, it depends…
Available Books, Videos & Cameras
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Other Travel Storage Systems
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