Some of the best negative film stocks to try

First published:
October 14, 2022
February 6, 2024

Some of the best negative film stocks to try

First published:
October 14, 2022
February 6, 2024

Film roll by Markus Spiske

If you’re looking for new film stock to try out for your photography, here are some ideas and photo examples

The film stock you choose to load into your analog camera will impact how you shoot and, sometimes, what you shoot. Read on if you're ready to load your 35mm camera and need inspiration on which negative film stock to pick. But, if you're still new to film photography, it's never too late to get started with this fun and challenging (but satisfying) medium.

Film for black and white photos

Black-and-white film photography is perfect for developing compositional skills and understanding light. Anyone starting with film photography will find black-and-white film stocks widely available. The cost of it is generally lower, and it's easier to develop it at home than color film.

Through the decades, the black and white film has contributed to the development of the photography genre, predating color film. Even though most people nowadays capture the world in color, black-and-white photography remains powerful and dynamic.

Ilford HP5 400 for a classic monochrome look

Ilford HP5 Plus will give a retro feel even to modern-day images. Photo by Jessica Bethel

Ilford HP5 Plus 400 is a budget-friendly and medium contrast film worth considering for photos with a muted, softer feel. Ilford released this particular iteration of film stock in 1976 as HP5. Later in 1981, the manufacturer introduced it as HP5 Plus, but the history of HP film dates back as far as 1931. Today, it's available in 35mm and 120 formats.

Los Angeles-based film photographer Jessica Bethel praises Ilford HP5 Plus as a "top-tier BW film stock that captures highlights and shadows beautifully." She has always loved the lower contrast it provides. "I tried this film stock in a studio natural lit setting, and it was beautiful," Bethel adds.

Moreover, Ilford HP5 Plus is sharp, making it perfect for capturing action and portrait subjects. It's worth noting the lower contrast may not suit everyone. Kodak Tri-X 400 might be a better choice if you want more drama.

"I tried this film stock in a studio natural lit setting, and it was beautiful" - Jessica Bethel

Kodak Tri-X 400 for a powerful contrast

You will find Kodak Tri-X 400 showcases the tonal range of your monochrome captures. Photo by Jessica Bethel

There is no doubt that the Kodak Tri-X 400 has contributed to significant captures of our culture and history around the world. First released for 35mm and 120 formats in 1954, it was once a popular film among photojournalists. Although color film took over in the popularity race, it's still a preferred choice for modern film shooters. 

Bethel has found this film stock to be soft enough for skin tones despite the higher contrast compared to Ilford HP5 Plus. This stock gives the tonal separation that works well in portraits, documentaries, street photography, and even fine art. Kodak Tri-X 400 also delivers an overall less polished, grittier look. Bethel believes it is a forgiving film stock which is particularly encouraging for beginners.

Cinestill BwXX for an artistic feel

For rich blacks, look no further than Cinestill BwXX film. Photo by Lucy Lumen

Also known as Eastman Kodak Double-X 5222, Cinestill BwXX is a variable-speed black-and-white film. Since its release in 1959, it has brought many iconic movies to the theatre screens. Examples include "Raging Bull," "Schindler's List," the opening sequence of "Casino Royale," and others. The film stock is just as good for stills as for motion pictures.

Photographer and YouTuber Lucy Lumen describes herself as a "diehard color shooter." When it comes to Cinestill BwXX, however, she is happy to switch.

"The rich tones and pleasing grain structure of this stock put it, for me, above any Ilford film available," she explains. "I literally can't fault this film. Perhaps the only downside is its price point when bought under the CineStill name. Avid shooters of this fine stuff buy it in bulk and spool it themselves to save money, which is a great option provided you have the time and tools to do so."

As a shooting tip, Lumen notes this film stock looks fantastic when "pushed" — also known as underexposed — to ISO 800 and above. Doing so produces rougher grain, which adds to the cinematic feel.

The wide range of color film

Color film likely attracts enthusiasts and professionals alike because the resulting color is not easy to replicate editing a digital image. Each color film stock has unique characteristics that are easier to discern than black and white film.

Purchasing color film is not always a simple process. Some rolls are no longer available for some camera formats. Others have been removed from production completely, leaving shooters searching for any stock left in warehouses or sold by others online.

At the same time, global supply chain disruptions still affect some parts of manufacturing — like the raw material shortages that halted the production of three Fujifilm slide films — and international delivery. All these factors contribute to higher prices and scarcity. With that in mind, getting off on the right foot with a suitable film stock is even more essential today to save money and headaches.

Fuji Pro 400H for skin tones and depth

If you track down any remaining stock of Fuji Pro 400H, try it for naturally-lit portraits. Photo by Jessica Bethel

Discontinued in early 2021, the professional color negative film Fuji Pro 400H and its last remaining stock can still appear in some stores. This film is aimed at social photographers for portraits, weddings, and events. At the same time, its pastel-like look with a subtle green cast can work for various subjects and scenes.

Bethel, whose work centers around Black and Brown subjects, has found this film particularly good for darker skin tones in natural light. "When photographing Black skin, I feel there's more depth with this film stock, and it captures Black skin beautifully. The colors are a bit richer," she says.

Bethel notes it may not be the best choice for studio and other indoor settings. In a recent test shoot in a studio, she found the photos came back "muddy" and had distorted colors. She adds it could also have been a technical issue at the point of shooting. But if the last remaining rolls in circulation are scarce, it's helpful knowing which scenarios the film excels in and which ones it doesn't.

Kodak Portra 400 for polished captures

The lower contrast of Kodak Portra 400 makes it a great choice for flattering portraits, but it works well for most types of natural photographs. Photo by Jessica Bethel

Kodak Portra 400 is popular among professionals and amateurs. This color negative film stock has a fine grain, plenty of sharpness, and balanced color saturation. Compared to Fuji Pro 400H, it has slightly more warmth which some photographers prefer. These characteristics make Kodak Portra 400 great for different genres – from portraits and weddings to landscape, nature, and city captures.

Bethel has also noticed the versatility of this film. "I love how soft and forgiving this film stock is. It's quite universal and what I was taught to shoot color on in school," she explains. Bethel can't fault this stock and uses it to shoot many styles — portraits, street, nature, and more.

As a professional film stock, Kodak Portra 400 demands a higher price than other consumer Kodak film stocks. It's widely available online and in stores. You can pick it up for 35mm and 120 formats.

"I love how soft and forgiving this film stock is. It's quite universal and what I was taught to shoot color on in school" - Jessica Bethel

Fujifilm 200 for photography on a budget

Who says consumer film stock like the Fujifilm 200 can’t be used for a professional-looking result? Photo by Lucy Lumen

Fujifilm Fujicolor C200, now known as Fujifilm 200 has a cooler color palette than Kodak film. Like Fuji Pro 400H, the available stock has significantly dried up. But this consumer film stock hasn't been discontinued and likely will populate more shelves in the future.

For Lumen, Fujifilm 200 is a "perfect choice for anything." This includes skin tones which the stock captures almost as well as Portra 400. You can also get lush greens and pleasant reds.

"Also, depending on where you're located, word on the street is that some C200 being released is actually repackaged Kodak Gold which is a great film in itself but totally different in look and feel," Lumen reveals.

"Despite all that, it still has my heart, and I think it's a perfect all-rounder film stock for any occasion. When comparing it to the more readily available, sometimes anyway, Kodak Color Plus 200, it has a lot more character and defining features. Put this way, if I see it, I buy it."

Kodak Ultra Max 400 for color vibrancy

Even without the use of flash, Kodak UltraMax 400 gives a pleasing retro look. Photo by Lucy Lumen

Touted for its versatility both in the day and low light settings, Kodak Ultra Max 400 is another color negative film stock for consumers. As a teen, Lumen found it to be an affordable film at the start of her photography journey, and it remains one today.

"It's not just that though. When comparing it to the other consumer stocks like [Kodak] Gold and Colorplus, it always seems to me that Ultra Max has a more saturated look, and the reds really pop, not quite as much as Ektar, but there is a vibrancy to this stock that the others don't quite achieve," Lumen says.

"For me, this stock shot in my Nikon L35AF with the flash seems to yield this cool 90's grunge magazine look and feel to it. The grain is most certainly there, but I welcome that when I've had a stint shooting roll after roll of Ektar."

The downside to this famous film stock is its lower print quality, for example, compared to Kodak Ektar. As the primary target audience is the general consumer, not a professional, you can still lean into the unique characteristics of this film and make the most of it.

Kodak Ektar 100 for smooth grain

If you want to produce sharp, vivid prints of your work, Kodak Ektar 100 is a top choice. Photo by Lucy Lumen

Professional film stock Kodak Ektar 100 is a solid choice for landscape and nature photography. It gives vibrant and bold colors, and it's also an all-time favorite for Lumen. The film is available in 35mm and 120 formats.

"I recently shot Ektar at night with on-camera flash, and despite it being a 100-speed film, the shots come out like nothing else I've ever seen" - Lucy Lumen

The resulting photos have a fine grain — a bonus for those who want to print large. And, when it comes to capturing beautiful blue sky or anything red, Lumen hasn't found a film stock that beats what Ektar produces.

While some film stocks may shine in certain genres and styles, it’s still worth experimenting with different shooting environments. Photo by Lucy Lumen

While beautiful sunshine contributes to visually pleasing photos with Ektar, the film stock's 100 ISO may not be enough for photographers shooting in more gloomy weather conditions. Lumen also points out there is still debate among analog photographers about whether this film stock is for portraits. You shouldn't automatically discount it, though. Sometimes, it simply takes the right lighting conditions to achieve flattering skin tones.

As with most types of film, there is room for experimentation. "I recently shot Ektar at night with on-camera flash, and despite it being a 100-speed film, the shots come out like nothing else I've ever seen," Lumen says. "This is an uncommon and creative way to use this stock which otherwise is often reserved for landscapes."

Author final notes:

The world of analog photography can be challenging and frustrating, especially when your favorite film stock is… out of stock. At the same time, you can find too-many-to-count types of film stock sold online and in stores. You may even come across an old, expired film that gives an unexpected result. Above all, film photography is satisfying because it makes you slow down in a world filled with instant digital photos. What is your favourite film stock to shoot?
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