The Camera Film
Photographic film, or camera film, is the very first medium used to record images. Many people
feel that film is doomed by the arrival of memory cards, but they couldn’t be more wrong.
What is film in plain English? I get asked this a lot, mostly because virtually all of the
explanations out there are design to impress people that do not understand chemistry. So I’ve tried to
“translate” the essence of the definition into plain English: Photographic film is a sheet of transparent
plastic, coated with a blend of chemicals sensitive to light (silver halide salts), bonded by gelatin.
The size of the silver halide salt crystals, determines the sensitivity, contrast and resolution
of the film. Black and white film usually contains one layer of salt crystals, while color film usually contains
This is a basic description and by all means not very technical. It is aimed to normal people
that have not studied chemistry and I think it’s clear enough to be understood by all. The first ever camera film
to be used was made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor who we have to thank for the invention of
His “film” if we can call it so, was made with a polished pewter plate covered with “bitumen of
Judea”, a petroleum derivate. With exposure to light bitumen hardens and after the exposure the unhardened material
could be washed away and after polishing the plate was ready for printing.
He ended up with a plate that looked very much like the once used in Offset printing: the
polished plate could be pressed on a pad of ink and an image could be printed on a sheet of paper. Intriguing isn’t
Camera film has recently been replaced by memory cards, so the question is: how important is
photographic film today? I say it’s very important.
A photograph shot on film is quite simply real: it’s there, you can touch it and save it in your
desk’s drawer. An electronic image is a ghost that now is there and two seconds later it will vanish leaving no
trace of its existence.
Last weekend I went with my family on a day trip. I shot about 120 images and suddenly towards
the end of the day, my memory card became corrupted. Not only I was not able to shoot anymore, but I had lost all
of the 120 pictures... they simply vanished.
Technically speaking, a digital image has some serious negative points when compared with film.
One of these is the inability to reproduce highlights: try to take a picture of a sunset and you will see that most
of the very bright areas are simply a white hole with very little detail. Do the same with photographic film and
you will see the difference.
I personally prefer using real camera film, but technology got hold of me and it’s hard to move
back for many reasons, the cost of film being the main one. Before the arrival of digital photography, the film
together with the lens, was the most important thing in taking a good picture.
A question I used to get a lot (and still get actually) is: “what camera should I buy to get
good pictures?” And my reply was always the same: get yourself a good lens and some good film; whatever is in
between these two things (the camera) is absolutely not important.
The camera lens is everything; it captures a great image.
The film will record that great image as faithfully as possible. Whatever is in between is really not important.
The image only goes through the camera... I really mean it: when the shutter opens up there is just a hole
in the camera, that allows the lens and the film to “see” each other.
Therefore the camera is only there to aid you in personal comfort and speed, but NOT in creating
a good image. Now with digital photography things have changed slightly and the camera does play a more important
Unfortunately camera film is constantly selling less and less every day. Polaroid went bust
altogether a few years ago and film production is decreasing. In some cases, some kinds of film have been taken out
of production. Obviously if there is no demand, they can’t keep producing it... film companies do it for money, not
Having said this, a great number of people still shoots the traditional way and a surprisingly high
number of young people and students are actually learning to use the real thing. The rewards are truly
Camera film (like all chemicals) has an expiration date, after which the producing company
cannot guarantee good results. Film will actually be good for a surprising number of years after the expiration
date, so if you are not after a 100% faithful color reproduction, you can get very cheap of even free film
at shops that are trying to get rid of it.
If you rather shoot with real film, keep in mind that your images can be scanned with a film
scanner. It takes time, but this way you will have both a real picture as well as a digital one. Good film
scanners are expensive, but less demanding once can be purchase for little money and you can have your own
photo lab at home.
Kodak film is the most popular you can buy. This is because it has great constant quality and it
produces good-warm colors. Fuji film is just as good quality wise, but it produces colder colors. It’s all about
As you might be aware, camera film must be developed. Film developing is another industry
altogether and it is truly fascination. I remember when I was a kid, my father used to shoot slides when we went on
holiday and upon our return the developing was a big deal.
The rolls had to be brought to a specialist lab (there were not many around) and it took them at
least a week to return them. One hour photo labs started to appear in the 80s, but for slides they disappeared just
as fast. There was just not enough demand.
[You are in
Camera Film. Go back to LifeReportage Homepage]