Here at the lab we regularly have conversations with our clients about all sorts of film related topics. While some people have been shooting film for a while and may know a lot about different film stocks, techniques, and scanning, some photographers are just starting out and want to go over the basics.
One of the first things you need to do after you get your film camera is choose which film you are going to use in it. There are three different kinds of film currently available for 35mm and medium format cameras: C41 Color Negative Film, E6 Color Positive (Slide) Film, and Black and White Film. The numbers and letters (C41, E6) denote the different chemical processes that are used for development. For color shooting, the vast majority of film options are going to be C41 negative films. That includes Fuji 200, Superia 400, and Kodak Gold, Ultramax, and Portra. All of these films are great options if you're starting out and are eager to see the classic look of print film in your work.
E6 film is less common with the main options being Fuji Velvia, Fuji Provia, and Kodak Ektachrome. These films have a distinctively different look from all of the C41 films and can be a little trickier to master since they are less tolerant to over and under exposure.
Here's a quick reference chart for C41 vs E6
C41 Color Negative film
E6 Color Positive Film
Low to Moderately High
Moderate to High
Very High (Velvia) or Moderate (Ektachrome and Provia)
Very High. Some Films 4+ Stops
Moderate. Most films -1 Stop
Most Common Uses
Portraits, Everyday, Low Light, Special Effect Films
Landscapes, Studio or Controlled Light Work
Having words and charts that talk about the differences is handy but ultimately images speak for themselves so we shot some test rolls to show how the same scenes would look when shot with Portra 160 and Ektachrome 100. For this comparison the Portra was rated at 100. Both rolls were shot with a Contax 645, alternating film backs to get shots of the same scene with each film. The portraits were metered with a handheld light meter, bulb out, held below the chin and facing toward the camera. The rest of the photos were shot using the camera's built in meter. Both rolls were scanned on the Noritsu HS-1800 with minimal adjustments to the scan files.
These first shots show how a portrait looks on both films.
The higher contrast and cooler rendition of the slide film are the immediate differences but you can also see differences in the level of detail in the shadows and how the highlights in the face are handled.
We also took some shots at +2 stops of overexposure to show how both films respond. You can see how Portra benefits from the extra exposure and gains more contrast and saturation while retaining realistic skin tones. The Ektachrome shot gains more shadow detail but the skin tones are getting pretty light.
Below you can see that that when you underexpose both films significantly, you get extreme loss of contrast and color shifts. If you like darker scans, expose your film normally and tell us to scan for highlight detail. That way you get the look you want without the swampy shadows of underexposed film.
Although most of Kodak's films are known for their warmth, Ektachrome actually has a tendency to accentuate the cool tones in an image. This can be great if you like your greens on the more cyan side or you want to enhance the blue of the ocean or sky but it may not be as inherently flattering for skin tones as any of the Portra films. In the comparison below, Portra 160's red warmth and lower contrast gives the scene a completely different look from the stark cold tones of the E100 image.
When we underexpose the same scene by one stop, we can see how negative film can tolerate the underexposure better than slide film. They both lose contrast and shadow detail but the Portra shot has much more definition in the dark areas and looks less murky.
Here are some more examples that show the distinct color and contrast differences between both films.
Since Portra 160 is a relatively low speed film, it has a very fine grain. Even so, Ektachrome is even finer and when properly exposed will produce extremely clean scans that are great for large prints. You can see the advantage of the low grain, fine detail, and vibrant greens/blues in the Ektachrome shot of this palm tree
And cropped in to get a better look at the fine detail:
Under controlled lighting, both films do a good job but you get more shadow detail and more natural color from Portra.
For most common uses, C41 films like Portra are going to be more flexible than E6 but we strongly encourage all film photographers to give slide film a try! When you nail the exposure and get your scans back you might realize that you love the punchy aesthetic and unique color interpretation of slide film. There's also nothing like being able to hold your film up to the light or look down at a light table and see your images in true color.
Here are some tips for good results when shooting E6/Slide film.
•Do remember to set the ISO on your camera or meter to whatever it says on the film packaging.
•Do compensate your exposure if your subject is backlit. Make sure you're getting enough light on your film!
•If its your first time shooting slide film, try shooting a few scenes that you've shot before with other films to get your own comparison of how it looks vs C41.
•Don't overexpose slide film the same way you might a negative film. Color negative looks great when overexposed a stop or two but you can start losing detail in your slide film after just one stop of overexposure.
•Don't load slide film into your camera if you're going to be shooting in low light/night without a flash or tripod. You'll either end up with blurry images from slow shutter speeds or extreme underexposure from shooting a low ISO film in the dark.
•Don't worry too much! Sure you may have to pay a little more attention to your meter when you're shooting slide film but at the end of the day, a few wonky exposures can happen to anyone. If you get some disappointing results and aren't sure whats going on, talk to us! We can look at your scans and give you some feedback on how you might be able to improve your technique on your next roll.