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The Return to Film – Colour Negative Film

Over the last year the most read article on my blog has also been one of my first ones called The Return to Film.

The second part of this article that concentrated on Cameras is funnily the second most popular article and so as promised for a long time – I have finally started to write about Films.

Over the last 18 months I have been like a greedy child in a sweet shop – keen to grab and try everything I can get my hands on and then push, pull and cross them to hell and back – to find the one film that is going to scratch that itch.

After literally thousands of films I think I have now found for myself a calm place from which I can now make better choices on film choice and so for the purpose of illustration – here is the journey from film Feb 2010 to date.

To make this as readable as possible I have split the article into three that are irrespective of film size –

– C41 (Colour)

– E6 (Slide)

– Black & White

The first one for today is therefore Colour Negative Film and is going to be split into three sections of slow, medium and fast films.

I should also tell you that I am not going to write about every film out there – expired or new. This is a brief summary of some of what is available. If you have a question about a specific film and you want my view – then drop a question in the comments and I will give you some examples of what I have seen and some ideas of the pros and cons.

Slow Colour Negative

If I briefly go back to why I started using film again; then it all started when I realised that my dream of one day owning a Hassleblad could be partially realised, at a fraction of the cost, by buying the all plastic TLR from Lomography – the Lubitel 166+.

OK – I know this is really nothing like a Hassleblad – but it is Medium Format and that has always been something of the exotic draw to the Hassleblad for me.

Initially I didn’t know where to get the film in Hong Kong and knew nothing of the film camera market and so ended up in a shop that still had some 120 on the shelf and this limited me to using Kodak Protra 160 NC as it was all they had.

The Kodak Portra 160 NC is a great film that is very natural colours, low contrast, extremely fine grain and should be run at 160 ISO in most natural lighting conditions but for the first 4 months of using film and old cameras again I didn’t have a light meter and so had to rely on vast amounts of uneducated guess work.

Add to this that we spent time in South Africa in Feb 2010 where the light is simply amazing and I think I got some decent results from the 160NC (as well as a vast amount of over exposed ones). The best thing about colour negative film is that you can be out by a couple of stops and still get an image that is very close to the correctly exposed one and so if you are without a meter and just want to estimate then this type of film is where you should be going.

I would compare this film in the grain size and the colour/contrast levels to Kodak Ektar 100 that I use on 135 and 120 cameras – where you are looking for colour reproduction to be as close as possible to actual.

I have used both films extensively on a range of cameras and so have lots of images to choose from but most of them don’t give me enough of what I am looking for from Colour Negative film.

There just isn’t enough zing to the pictures – even though they do have their own charm with either natural light or a flash.

They are not exactly aged in appearance but they do carry some old fashioned charm. The colours are soft without being muted and the image is razor sharp on both films.

These are from the Lubitel and the Kiev 60 & 88 with the first two being from the trip to South Africa.

I thought that to find the film that I wanted to use I would have to try anything and everything and so rather misguidedly bought every piece of rubbish I could find and thanks to Lomography having an extensive range on their web site I went through all of the cheap and old options you can find – from Click Max, to 10 year old Fuji Superia I found in a junk shop.

Along the way I found myself moving to the more vivid colour options and subsequently found some of my favourite colour film and realised that with Colour Negative it is a only two horse race – Fuji or Kodak.

If you are looking for a Colour Negative film then I would suggest that you don’t ever bother with any other make as they just won’t be as good. This is the most price competative area of the film market and so Fuji and Kodak have spent vast amounts on R&D to assure that they have the best options out there.

I wouldn’t bother with anything at 200 either as this becomes a poor middle ground that is not either 100 with fine grain or 400 with low light ability. 200 generally has poor grain as well as limited use and isn’t really any faster than 100 or better quality than 400.

So my pick for Slow Colour Negative film became fairly obvious as Portra 160 VC in both the old and the new emulsion. I think if you wanted to go with the Fuji VC version of the same film you wouldn’t be disappointed either but I have gone with Kodak for it’s low price in Hong Kong and ready availability in both 135 and 120.

Medium Colour Negative

This is the largest category of Colour Negative film for me at 400ISO and has within it the most versatile films. Remember that I am not a Pro Photographer and so tend to drift towards a film that may well stay in the camera to be used across a few shoots – indoor and outdoor and various light conditions. Occasionally I will run a film or a few films off at one sitting but that is the exception and not the rule.

For this reason I find that for both Colour Negative and B/W film that 400 is the most used speed for me and for E6 it always tends towards 100 for reasons I will go into when I write that article.

As stated before, Fuji and Kodak are the two choices here and they both have their good and bad points.

For Fuji I have ended up choosing Pro 400 H which is not wildly vivid, but very good grain for a 400 in the dark as well as light. Really a fantastic film with great contrast and good results with flash as can be seen on the top picture that was taken at night in quite a dark room and the flash mounted on the camera.

The last two are a couple of great Russian lenses on the Mamiya MSX 1000. The top one is from Mir and was produced in 1958 and is a 37/2.8 with a 42mm mount. The top picture of this group was taken with the lens and it is a great close up lens.

The bottom one is the Helios 44-2 2/58 that I bought as it is meant to have swirling bokeh (look up the lens and you will see what people have got it to do). So far I haven’t had mine work for me but as the strange bokeh is a aberration on the glass then not every lens will give you identical results.

Unfortunately both lenses interfere with the meter and as I have to meter off camera I have not used them as much as I should have done – but perhaps re-sorting pictures for this article will make me get them back on a body and use them again – especially the Mir 1 as I am reminded that they are great lenses.

For Kodak I have gone with two choices and one of these is still available in my local supermarket in Hong Kong.

So the cheap and easy to find choice is UltraMax 400 and I am going to let the pictures show why this has to be a choice;

So it is a bit grainy but for me that is part of the charm. The colours pop and it has the unmistakable look of film. You just can’t get digital to look like this and for me that is one of the reasons for having switched back.

The second Kodak is the more expensive and professional choice of Protra 400VC.

Sold as the Worlds Finest Grain 400 ISO film it does have great skin reproduction and saturation in many different lighting conditions. All of the above are in Natural Light but when I start more portraits later this year it will be the film I use for Colour Negative with a strobe and soft box set up.

Fast Colour Negative

And it is here that I have to admit that I don’t like 800 + ISO Colour Negative Film. If you can’t get it with 400 then don’t bother to go to 800 in such dark situations that you have to use it. Grain is too big and the colour reproduction isn’t good.

The best that I have found is Fuji 800Z and I have used this primarily on Medium Format where I just didn’t have the chance of better light. If anyone has read this far and wants to drop me a line to give me tips or tricks for better use of 800 film them please do as I would love to find a fast option.


I did buy a Fuji P&S last year called the Natura Classica that is made specifically for use with the 1600 Natura Classica film and made to be shot in low light conditions.

For a P&S (and I already have my wife’s old Leica mini II from the 80’s and an LC-A) it is both over priced, poorly made and doesn’t give results that you would achieve on any camera where you pull the film by one or two stops and so until I read through this article I had even forgotten that I hadn’t mentioned it in the Fast Films.

I ran the camera on Neopan 1600 B/W too and the results were just as poor when I compare both the Natura Classica and the camera to the results the Leica mini II P&S and any old 400 film.

So here are a few of better of the Natura Classica 1600 Colour Negative results.

And Finally

Before anyone asks – I have pushed Colour Negative film and don’t like the massive grain that always comes from as little as one stop. I have also developed colour film in B/W chemistry and Flickr has a whole Group dedicated to this if you like the sepia tones and grain you will get.

I find however that with the choices at 160 and 400 ISO readily available to us all that pushing and pulling isn’t as necessary as good metering and correct lighting on Colour Negative film.

Also as stated before, you can be a couple of stops over or under with the slower films and not see any difference in the end print – so why would you want to push and risk the grains.

Next article will be on E6 Slide Films and will cover both normal chemistry and crossed film.

Hopefully this size of article hasn’t put you off too much as unfortunately E6 will be bigger and the B/W article will undoubtably be sodding enormous…

Posted by simon on June 22, 2011
7 Comments Post a comment
  1. 06/25/2011

    nice write-up, simon. you have gotten great results with all of these films. my favorite remains portra 160 vc and ektar 100. i guess my primary reason for using these is the fine grain and dependable saturated colors. although you seem to favor faster film for more versatile use. any thoughts on the new portra?

    i haven’t tried it yet.

    • 06/25/2011

      I did an article on the new Ektachrome 160 in Jan here and love this film too. Haven’t tried the Portra 160 that replaces the NC and VC but going to get film later for a trip to Thailand next month and so will get some too

  2. 05/17/2012

    Hi Simon,

    I just discovered your blog by chance and have enjoyed reading through your articles. A friend of mine is bringing some films over to the UK for me next month since films are expensive here. It would be much appreciated if you can recommend where I can source some reasonable prices 120 or 35mm Fuji films? Many thanks!


    • 05/17/2012

      Thanks for both finding the blog and having a read.
      I’m assuming you want to know where in HK to find the best prices for film as that is where I live so here goes.

      On the Island is a street called Stanley Street that has a number of decent shops. There are two that stand out as being the best for film and photographic accessories.

      Can’t ever remember the names but the first is on the left as you enter Stanley Street from the Queens Road end and has a chap called Mr Po always say behind the counter.

      They have every film you could want (more or less).

      If you then carry on up the road and again on the left hand side on the corner of Pottinger Street is a place that looks like it sells mainly digital, but at the back they have loads of film. The film here is cheaper but slightly less choice than Mr Po.

      I would say you are looking At between HK$40 and HK$60 a film depending on the type with films like Provia being more expensive than a standard colour film.

      If you didn’t mean HK then go on eBay as there you will get amazing deals on film or buy from the big stores in the US.



      • 05/18/2012

        Thanks for the recommendations! Yes, I did mean HK. 🙂 My friend is based in Happy Valley so not too far at all. I shall get her to check it out for me. I’ll be visiting the States later on this year and definitely will be stocking up some films when I am there. Thanks again!

  3. 04/13/2016

    Now 4 years later and some of the films you mention are no longer made. Kodak Ektar 100 is still around and looks great in medium format. And Kodak Ultramax (135 only) is truly unique in its fantastic colors (and nothing like Kodak 200). The great thing about these two films — no post-processing is ever needed. Shoot at box speed, get them processed and scanned by a lab, and behold!


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