Watch this great explanation of how photographic film works

It’s easy to talk about film as if it were magic. Many analog shooters will talk at length about how the medium itself gives photography an intangible sense of curiosity and wonder. I myself am guilty of it. But, in reality, cinema is the product of hard science. Producing a film requires meticulous mathematics and specific chemistry applied on a large scale. This is a truly impressive scientific feat. While many photographers could easily pick up and shoot a roll 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 diving into the chemical mechanisms that go into capturing photos.

Understand the basics

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

You don’t need to understand all the chemical processes behind shooting film to enjoy loading a roll and going with your camera. This basic knowledge can, however, be useful. For example, this explains why it is difficult to overexpose color film. When adding more light only makes the negative denser, you have more flexibility. You can go several stops past negative film and still get a usable image.

Chemistry 201

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

Cinema is very hip right now, but the process of making, filming and processing is still wonderfully cheesy. Discover our visit to the Kodak film factory for an overview of how it is made. Or browse this list of movies you should shoot before they go. We’ve already lost some good film stock this year, so now’s the time to get your film fix before other great options are taken off the market.

About Debra D. Johnson

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