In a world where digital photography has become the norm, there is still a place for those who want to use physical film stock. While digital technology has made it easier to be a photographer, physical celluloid still has a charm and texture that no digital camera can ever fully replicate. And above all else, since photography can be so nuanced, the differences between digital and physical can mean a lot. So when it comes to photography, what is film stock and what types are there?

Film Stock Definition

Defining the medium

It’s important to provide a film stock definition, since the type of stock you have will matter when shooting. That might sound obvious enough, but it never hurts to learn or remember the basics. We will also explain how “film stocks” differentiate from “film gauges.”


What is film stock?

Film stock is a physical analog medium used for recording images made from celluloid and coated with light-sensitive gelatin emulsion. Light is used to capture an image onto the film; it is later developed under a specific chemical process and produces the images. Film stock comes in different sizes and styles; they are also differentiated by their chemical make-up, size of film grain, and color retention.

Film stock characteristics:

  • Textured physical celluloid
  • High quality images (depending on the size and type)
  • Film grain (amount can vary depending on the film size)

Film Stock Explained

Working with film

If you’re curious about what makes physical celluloid film stock different from a film gauge, it really comes down to what you’re referring to. Basically, all film has a film gauge, since that’s just referring to the size and shape of the stock. However, film gauge is also identified by sizes, like 35mm. 

Film stock is a more general term, so it does not automatically refer to a size, but rather a type and style that can vary in shape and size. You can learn a bit more about film gauges in the video below.

What is Film Stock?  •  Not film gauges

Film is also unique from a digital medium because, well, it’s a physical medium. This means that working with it is a different experience. Taking the photos won’t be too foreign if you’re used to digital, but loading film in your camera might be.

When using physical stock, you have to know what you’re using and going to be putting into your camera. You then have to know what sort of exposure your stock allows. Can it be underexposed without any problems? Should you actually overexpose it? 

This will depend on what you’re aiming for, but it will also depend on the stock itself. After all, if you overexpose or underexpose too much, your final image may not be to your liking. And remember: Each type of stock comes with its own ways of rendering color and film grain.

On top of all this, you have to get the film developed, a process that does not exist in digital photography. You can scan photos onto a computer, but before that, the film itself must be developed by a lab.

It’s not unusual for the photographer to develop their own film, but it’s fairly common (and recommended) for the photographer to go to a lab and have them develop it for you.

Types of Film Stock

Common types of film stock

When you’re ready to shoot with physical film, you have to choose between black and white or color. There is, of course, no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing between the two, but each one comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.

And like anything, it will come down to what you want out of the stock, what you aim to photograph, and what you want out of your subject. The video below gives an overview of differences between the two types of film stock.

What is Film Stock?  •  Comparisons

Now, let’s talk about the different types of film stock available.

Black and White

There are plenty of options for black and white, which include brands like Kodak, Fujifilm, and Illford. In general, though, when using black and white, you have to figure out how deep you want your blacks to look, as some black and white film will lean towards gray.

One important thing to note about black and white is panchromatic film stock, which has been in use for a long time and is now the norm. Though it might be the standard in black and white photography, panchromatic film is special in how it renders B&W imagery in a way that mimics the way our eyes see things. So, for example, if you’re looking at a tri-color flag in black and white, the three “colors” will be varying levels of black, grey, or white.

Black and white film manages to look fairly good when you’re using the recommended ISO, but you can also overexpose it by one or two stops most of the time. It may look a bit muddied when you underexpose it, so maybe don’t do that, since physical film usually prefers to be overexposed rather than underexposed. But again, it depends on what you’re looking for.

Color Film Stock

Then there’s color film stock, which also comes in many different types from brands you know and love, like Kodak and Fujifilm. Specific to Kodak is Ektachrome film stock, which has been used since the 1940s. It was originally discontinued in the early 2010s, but in the last few years, Kodak has brought it back for all to enjoy.

Another one of the popular types of film stock is Tungsten film. Where other color stocks might stick to an orange hue, Tungsten film features a cooler blue look. This makes it fairly ideal for low light settings, but it can also be used in regular daylight. 

In fact, Tungsten film is famous for being used in “day for night” scenes, since the blue hue can make any daytime setting almost look like nighttime.

What is Film Stock?  •  Tungsten vs Daylight

Since you would be dealing with color, it’s important to understand how different stock types will bring out different shades in your images (overexposing vs underexposing). One type of film might bring out the greens while the other brings out the reds; in some cases, a stock might make skin tones look too saturated. 

Whichever film you choose, make sure to play around with different exposure rates to further solidify the look that’s best for you.

Movie Film Stock

Before finishing up, let’s quickly talk about motion picture film stock. Not everyone today uses celluloid for making movies, but it can still be important to know about. Specifically, silver nitrate film is what has been most commonly used when making movies on 35mm stock. Whether black and white or color, silver nitrate film stock has been a standard in the movie business. 

Technicolor film stock is a notable example of spectacular color usage in cinema, which helped pave the way for more color films later on. While black and white was the norm, Technicolor film stock helped introduce audiences to the possibilities of color in cinema.


Explaining the Exposure Triangle

Now that we have answered “what is film stock” and gone over the types that exist, you should look into the different things that go into photographing and filmmaking. Dubbed “The Exposure Triangle,” this shape helps you understand all about aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, all of which are a part of photography and filmmaking.

Up Next: The Exposure Triangle →
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  • Rafael Abreu received his M.A. in Cinema Studies from New York University. He’s written reviews, scripts, and analytical essays focusing on all aspects of cinema. He can’t stop talking about aspect ratios.

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