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Over the past decade, analog film photography has experienced an impressive resurgence and along with it, so have film cameras, especially those that use 35mm film. This type of film—originally denoted as 135—was introduced by Kodak in 1934 specifically for still photography. You're probably familiar with the type of film we're talking about; even if you don't shoot film, you know what those little canisters look like.
There are three main types of 35mm film. Within each type of film there are many nuances in speed and aesthetic (think VSCO filters, but baked into the fabric of the photograph). There are also differences in how each type of film is developed. These three types of film are color negative, black and white, and slide film.
Film speed, the number in a film stock's name, which refers to its ISO and is a measure of how sensitive it is to light—the general rule of thumb is the higher the ISO number, the less light is required, and vice versa—is one of the most important factors to consider when selecting film. Exposure latitude, which refers to the level of detail preserved in both the highlights and shadows, is another important factor. Aesthetic, the look of the film once developed, might be the most important.
The recent increase in film photographers has led to a proliferation of film stocks, some of them bizarre, some brought some back from the dead. With so many different 35mm film brands and ISO ratings, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start.
In this article, we’ll be focusing on 35mm film stocks and the conditions they are best suited for. Selecting the best 35mm film for your needs can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t need to be. While Kodak Portra 160 and Cinestill 800 will both work in your Canon AE-1 or Pentax K1000 and can both produce excellent results, each one will truly excel in very different environments. With this handy guide, you’ll find shopping for 35mm a breeze no matter the environment you’re heading into.
The Best 35mm Film
Best Color Film for Landscapes: Kodak Portra 400
Many film shooters will readily tell you that Portra 400 is their favorite film stock if not the best film stock in the world. Its wide exposure latitude (the level of detail simultaneously preserved in the highlights and shadows) is unparalleled, and it boasts the world’s finest grain. It is warm, muted, sunny, and produces reliable results with perfect contrast, making it ideal for landscape photography. It produces excellent image quality with midtones that look natural and warm, unlike some of the more vivid Kodak films, and it's the film people think of when they think of “the classic film look.”
With ISO 400, it performs exceptionally well in tricky lighting conditions whether that’s brighter-than-bright ski slopes or blue hour at a campsite. When you’re not sure what’s ahead in the weather forecast, Portra 400 is the most reliable roll of film you can have in your camera (SLR and point-and-shoot alike). Kodak also makes Portra 160 and Portra 800 if you're looking for a high-speed or low-speed alternative.
Price: $80 (5 rolls)
Best Color Film for Sunny Days: Kodak Gold 200
Kodak Gold imbues silky smooth, vivid gold tones into your negatives and resulting photographs. Some would argue it's a cheaper alternative to Portra 400 with similar likeness. This film excels when confronted with sunny skies and golden hues, performing well under brighter conditions where lighting is ample. It will struggle in darker conditions, having the same limitations of any ISO 200 speed film. A low ISO 200 film stock is best suited for sunny days, and Kodak Gold 200 is the best of the bunch for those who love warm tones and a classic grainy look in their images.
Best Color Film for Overcast Days: Kodak Ultramax 400
This film stock is much cooler in color balance than the previous two films. While all films in this article will perform better when given beautiful lighting conditions, Ultramax performs excellently in cloudy, overcast conditions. It’s a versatile, daylight-balanced, color negative film with true to life color rendition. Where some films such as Kodak Ektar are renowned for compromising some skin-tones with garish orange and red hues, Kodak Ultramax 400 renders beautifully when exposed correctly and shot at box speed.
Price: $20 (3 rolls)
Best Black and White Film for Landscapes: Kodak Tri-X 400
Kodak’s Tri-X doesn’t care if it's overcast, and neither should you. Black and white is also perhaps an even wiser choice over color film for unpredictable weather days—which can be frequent when shooting outside. Some would say that overcast days, with mixed or subdued lighting, bring out the best in black and white film stocks. Clouds will diffuse the light, turning the sky into a giant soft-box. Kodak Tri-X 400 is a winner in this category as it successfully balances punchy, high contrast and excellent grain with a wide dynamic range, which is no mean feat. Its ability to do so has given it a cult following and makes it particularly suitable for landscapes (but try it out for street photography too).
Best Color Film for Tungsten Lighting: CineStill 800T
CineStill 800T is a truly unique color film. It was designed for tough, low-light situations and is balanced for tungsten light. It is a motion picture film stock used by top cinematographers around the world—adapted for use as a still photography film. One of its instantly recognisable effects is that Cinestill accentuates light halos in red and neon light. This staple halation effects add warmth and atmosphere to night-times images giving photos the iconic ‘film’ look. Take this film for an evening walk around Chinatown or search for that late night neon Motel sign for Cinestill to really shine.
Best Black and White Film for Portraits: Ilford HP5 Plus 400
Ilford HP5 Plus 400 film is known as one of the best black and white film stocks out there, period. This film produces a monochrome look that is comparable to the Leica Monochrom, and it’s priced very well compared to other films on the market. Its signature low-contrast look means it has gained a reputation of being one of the best black and white films for portraits. Despite being popular with photography students due to its forgiving nature, Ilford HP5 Plus 400 is an excellent choice for both landscapes and portraits at a professional standard, too.
Best Color Film For Portraits: Fujifilm Pro 400H
Fuji Pro 400H is a fantastic professional film stock that is revered for its classic Fuji colors, breathtaking skin tones and wide dynamic range. As such, it's adored by wedding and portrait photographers for its soft, neutral colors, perfect contrast and relatively fine grain. Fuji Pro 400H is a film that can infuse your photos with a dreamy, ethereal quality and is often synonymous with excellence and reliability. This film was discontinued in 2021, but is still available on second hand sites such as eBay.
Best Overall 35mm Slide Film: Kodak Ektachrome 100
This color reversal film was reintroduced to the market in 2018 and is currently the most readily available slide film on the market. Ektachrome is known for its vibrant, punchy colors and cool hues that favor the blue end of the color spectrum. Typical of all slide film, Ektachrome E100 is designed for a photographer with a reliable camera, an accurate metering system, and a good working understanding of light.
The Best Color Film for the Wes Anderson Look: Kodak Ektar 100
We invented this category to talk about Ektar 100, but it’s warranted. Ektar 100 is a saturated, fine grain, color negative film that is part of Kodak's Professional line of 35mm film stocks. It offers supersaturated warm colors and crisp detail—most notably its rich detail in the shadows. It's set apart from its counterparts by its color rendition, dynamic range, and, of course, the ultra fine grain. This premium Kodak emulsion was designed to develop sharp, virtually grainless images with lots of contrast and saturation.
Best New Film To Get Excited About: Cinestill 400D
While some beloved film stocks are disappearing into the history books, in 2022, Cinestill released a new one: their Kickstarter-funded 400D. This daylight balanced film offers soft contrast, great exposure latitude, slightly muted color saturation, plus the signature red halo effect Cinestill is known for. As a 400 ISO film, its usage is akin to that of Portra 400 or Kodak Ultramax mentioned above. It preserves skin tones well, with a slightly muted color palette that gives a very neutral, natural yet distinctly Cinestill look.
Price: $80 (5 rolls)