Choosing the Right Film

Cathy Church

Whether you are just learning underwater photography or are seasoned shooter, choosing the film that best suits your needs is important. Some films handle limited light better than others, some produce brighter colors and sharper images and some are even forgiving of human error. This article provides an overview of today's most popular films for U/W photos.

Prints or Slides?
Print offers more room for exposure errors than slides do since they have less contrast and, thus, hold more detail in the light and dark areas. Consider print films if you are a beginner, or when controlling contrast in a difficult scene such as strobe-lit minnows in a dark cave. Slide films may be better when you want extra contrast when taking close-ups. They also are necessary, of course, for slide shows, and more generally used for publication purposes.
For prints, the printing process varies enormously, so if you are not thrilled with your results, ask a knowledgeable photographer to advise you if you should get them reprinted.

ISO
Films vary in their sensitivity to light. "Fast" films have high ISO numbers-Kodak Gold Max ISO 800 print film, for example-and need less light for an exposure. "Slow" films, such as Fujichrome Velvia ISO 50, have lower ISO numbers and require more light. Each time this ISO number is doubled, the film needs half as much light for a proper exposure. Generally, the higher the rating, the less contrast and color saturation the film has and the greater the grain. Newer films have much less inherent grain than older films, so graininess is becoming less of a consideration.

With high-speed films, you can use a smaller aperture so that you can have more depth of field-important for near/far photography or with normal lenses and point and shoot cameras. A rule of thumb is to use the lowest ISO film possible that still gives you enough light sensitivity to do the job. Fine-grain, low ISO film is of no advantage if your subject is blurred from poor depth of field, or if the high contrast makes your shadows too dark.

Film Comparison
Each of the featured photographs was taken with a Sea & Sea YS120 slave strobe on a fixed tripod on the left, and a hand-held YS120 slave strobe on the right, both activated by a YS60 strobe on the camera, aimed away from the scene. Sunlight varied slightly during the test.
Velvia ISO 50 slide film is an extremely fine-grained film with enhanced color. It is great for close-ups, especially when you want extra contrast, and it works well with brightly-lit, wide angle scenics. The slim exposure latitude and extreme contrast reduce this film's effectiveness for extreme wide-angle photography. These factors make it a difficult film for beginners, too.
Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Color 100 slide film is an excellent new film with enhanced color saturation. It is good for close-ups and telephoto pics, not to mention great for extra color in wide-angle photos with strobe lighting.

Fujichrome Provia 100 slide film is a great film with good color and fine grain. It is helpful when you need to maintain good shadow detail in the natural light portion of your photos, like when you're shooting wrecks.

Kodak Gold Plus 100 is an excellent print film for close-ups and long shots when you have ample light. It has bright color and fine grain.
Kodak E200 slide film is a surprisingly colorful and fine-grained film at ISO 200. It is great when you need the extra speed, especially since it pushes easily to 400, 800 and even 1400. It is excellent for use with normal lenses (35mm and 28mm) with strobe, or wide-angle in difficult situations such as caves and deep wrecks.
Kodak Gold Max (ISO 800) film is fantastic for point and shoot cameras with narrow lenses. It is so forgiving that even beginners get great results. The prints are bright and colorful.
Don't forget that in printing, your photos are subject to color variation.