Five Film Stock Comparison Test by Sandra Coan

A few years ago I did a little experiment in my studio where I shot shot five different film stocks in the exact same light (strobe), metered exactly the same (for the shadows) and with the same subject (my somewhat creepy posing doll).  

The original inspiration behind the test was a selfish one.  I was trying to figure out what film stock I liked best for my studio work.  But the end results were so interesting, I decided to share them on my blog. I posted and then pretty much forgot the post.

The Story Behind The Film Stock Comparison Test

Then this year while at WPPI I met Mike Jefferies, one of the Technical Sales Reps for Kodak Alaris Professional Film.  Over drinks at the Richard Photo Lab party he mentioned that he’d seen my old blog post and wanted to discuss the results I’d shared.  And so we did.

  • We talked about how there is no universal standard for color film.  Each stock has its own unique color profile (which is one of the things that makes working with it so much fun!).  
  • We talked about exposure and how many film photographers intentionally overexpose their film.  
  • We talked about if overexposure was necessary for getting good results as well as how much is too much.
  • We also talked about the role photo labs play in the results one gets when shooting film.

It was a wonderful nerdy conversation!

What I used to think.

Our conversation got me thinking.  When I’d done my original film test all those years ago, I didn’t take all the variables that go into shooting film into consideration.  Back then I was looking for one film stock to work with in an effort to streamline my workflow and build my brand. I wanted to find which stock I liked best and I thought that one set of tests would give me an answer.

What I know now.

Now I know that shooting film is much more complex than that. So much goes into getting good results.  The stock you use, how you light and meter that stock, the lab you choose, the machine they scan on, the preferences you give the lab, how the person doing the scanning interprets those preferences… all those things will affect the look of your images.  

The Details of the Exposure Test

With this in mind,  when Mike asked me if I’d be interested in redoing my five film stock comparison test and I jumped at the chance.  We both wanted to see if what kind of results I'd getting knowing what I know now.

To get the best results we decided to approach this test as scientifically as possible:  

  • I would shoot the same subject with the same light, strobe light in my studio... easy peasy!
  • I would rate all of the film at box speed and meter for the mid tones to get as close to a true reading as possible.
  • Then I would send the film into Richard Photo Lab and have it all scanned on a Noritsu scanner using my Custom Color Pac.  That way, the skin tones in all of the scans would be the same, and we’d be able to see the differences in the stocks reflected in the backdrop.

The Results of the comparison Test

Here are the results with my gray Oliphant backdrop.

five film stock comparison test by Sandra coan

Here are the results shot against my white wall.

Five film stock comparison test

Fascinating, right?!!

The Takeaway

It’s pretty easy to see the color differences in the stocks. I was surprised to see the similarities in the Portra 400 and Fuji 400h.  I was also intrigued by the earthiness of the Portra 160 (more on that later!)

It’s also easy to see how some of the images were scanned a little brighter than others. (Remember, they we all exposed in exactly the same way... the brightness has to do with the scan, not the expsoure)

The truth is, scanning has a huge impact on the final results one gets when shooting film.  We could have these all rescanned at the same lab, with the same Color PAC and the results would be slightly different each time.  That is why it is SO important to work with a good lab when shooting film!

When I’d done my original film test back in 2015, I took the results and made assumptions about each of the stocks based on that one test.  Now I know it’s not that simple. I believe that to truly get to know a stock you have to spend some time with it. You have to shoot it for a while... see how it handles different lighting situations and skin tones, really get to know it!

Where this test has taken me.

I've learned that one test does not give you all the information.  

I’ve been a Fujifilm shooter for years and I feel like I really know that stock. But I’m not as familiar with the Kodak films as I would like to be.  This year I've made it my mission to learn! 

I’m diving deep into the world of Kodak Professional Film!

I’ve spent the last several months shooting Portra 160 exclusively and will share my results with you soon.  

Now I’m working with Portra 400 and plan on using it all summer long.  Once we get into the fall, I’ll switch to Portra 800.  

My hope is that spending time with each of these stocks will help me really get to know them and will help me answer some of the original questions Mike and I discussed way back in February... what are their color profiles... how much exposure (or over exposure) do they need? 

I'll be sharing my thoughts on all of this here on the blog, but to see my scans as they come in, follow along on Instagram!  And stay tuned… I’m be sharing more of my film journey soon!