Watch this excellent explanation of how photographic film works

It’s easy to talk about cinema as if it were magic. Many analog shooters will speak at length about how the medium itself gives photography an intangible sense of curiosity and wonder. I am guilty of it myself. But, in reality, cinema is the product of hard science. The production of films requires meticulous mathematics and specific chemistry applied on a large scale. It is a truly impressive scientific feat. While many photographers could easily take and shoot a reel of film, understanding how it actually works is another story. This 24-minute video from the Smarter Every Day YouTube channel does a great job of digging into the chemical mechanisms that go into capturing photos.

Understand the basics

The film, as we know it, relies on photosensitive silver suspended in a gelatin-based emulsion. Light strikes this silver to create a latent image, which emerges when it crystallizes during the development process. The money stays in the negative when you shoot in black and white, which has always seemed very cool to me. This makes black and white film more difficult to scan as infrared sensors cannot penetrate metal for automatic dust removal. But, each black and white negative is, in a way, a tiny little silver sculpture of the scene you saw in front of you. Color developers use bleach to wash the silver off the film and the color itself comes from the dyes instead.

You don’t need to understand all of the chemical processes behind shooting a movie to be able to load a roll and go out with your camera. This basic knowledge can be helpful, however. For example, this explains why it is difficult to overexpose color film. When adding more light only makes the negative more dense, you have more flexibility. You can exceed the negative film by several stops while still getting a usable image.

Chemistry 201

Once you understand how a typical film works, it’s easy to fall into the burrow of alternative photographic processes. Some photographers still do awesome things with old-fashioned photography techniques like wet plates. If you’re looking for something with a lower barrier to entry (and less of the super toxic chemicals involved), you can try taking direct positive images on photographic paper.

Cinema is all the rage right now, but the process of making, filming and processing is still wonderfully old-fashioned. Check out our tour of the Kodak Film Factory for an overview of how it is made. Or, browse through this list of movies you should go shoot before they go. We’ve already lost a few good movie stocks this year, so it’s time to get your movie fix before other great options hit the market.

About Debra D. Johnson

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