Color print film (otherwise known as color negative film) was the most popular variety of film in the pre-digital photography era, primarily because it was cheap to develop and easy to show and share the resultant prints. Color print film is also known as ‘C-41’ for the name of the standardized process used to develop it.
One of the best aspects of color print film is its generous exposure latitude, which means that it is very forgiving of incorrect exposure, particularly overexposure – you can be 1 to 2 (or sometimes 3 or 4) stops off the proper exposure and still get a usable image. Cheap point-and-shoot and disposable cameras often have a small range of exposure settings and rely on the latitude of color print film to get good pictures. For today’s film photographers, especially those new to manual-exposure cameras, this latitude helps ensure good results even if your technique isn’t perfect.
An Oversimplified Explanation of how Color Print Film Works
Like black and white film (read our guide: What you need to know about B&W film), color film relies on light-sensitive silver halide crystals, but instead of a single layer of emulsion, color film has three, each sensitive to a different color of light (generally, blue, green and red). The emulsion layers include chemicals called dye couplers. When the film is developed, the interaction of the silver halide, dye couplers and developing chemicals produces dyes that form a negative image. Color negatives have a strong orange hue.
Cheap point-and-shoots and disposable cameras have a single exposure setting and rely on the latitude of color print film to get good pictures
In the film era, color negatives were printed onto photographic paper and then developed using a similar process to film. Nowadays, scanning negatives (or scanning followed by digital printing) is much more common. Color negative film can still be printed in a darkroom, however unlike B&W printing, which can be done under a safelight, color prints must be made and developed in complete darkness.
Types of Color Print Film
Color print films come in many varieties, with the chief differences being speed and color reproduction. Film speed is expressed as an ISO number (ASA is an older standard for the same basic thing). Higher ISO film is more sensitive to light and therefore requires a lower exposure (shorter exposure times or smaller apertures), but will have more visible grain (somewhat akin to noise in digital photography). Most color film is in the 50 to 800 ASA range, with 100 being ideal for a sunny day and 400 for overcast skies.
Different films will render colors differently, which is part of what gives them their individuality
One of the primary differences between digital photography and film photography is that film cannot be white balanced, though color adjustment/correction is possible during the printing and scanning process. Different films will render colors differently, which is part of what gives them their individuality.
Lower-cost films like Kodak Colorplus have pale, washed-out colors reminiscent of classic film photographs, while Kodak Ektar produces bright, vibrant colors similar to slide film and digital cameras. Kodak Portra, meanwhile, is optimized for skin tones and easy scanning. Some color print films use motion picture emulsions, which have their own unique look, and Lomography/other boutique brands sells films that introduce random patterns or color splashes into your images.
How Much Does Color Print Film Cost?
If you’re shooting 35mm, you’ll find lower-end films like Kodak Colorplus and Kodak Gold starting around $5 for a 36-exposure roll, while faster or finer-grain films like Fujicolor Pro 400H (RIP) or Kodak Ektar are closer to $10 per roll. Specialty films like Kodak Portra and Cinestill cost around $13 per roll. Unlike B&W film, color film is generally not sold in bulk rolls, but some film types are sold in 3- to 5-roll packs at a lower per-roll cost.
Lower-end films like Kodak Colorplus and Kodak Gold starting around $5 for a 36-exposure roll
When it comes to 120-size medium-format color film, generally only ‘pro’ emulsions like Ektar, Portra and Fujicolor Pro are available. You’ll generally pay between $8 and $15 per roll, which yields between 8 and 16 shots depending on the camera’s format. As with 35mm, you can save money by buying in 5-roll packs.
Developing Color Print Film
Color print film is generally cheaper to have processed than B&W film, as the C-41 process is standardized and usually done by machine, and therefore less labor-intensive. Developed film can be printed or scanned, and most labs will do either or both when you have your film processed. You can also buy your own film scanner.
Color print film is generally cheaper to have processed than B&W film, as the C-41 process is standardized and usually done by machine
As with B&W film, it is possible to develop color film at home using the same tanks and reels, although the C-41 process is more exacting. While B&W developing can be done at room temperature, color processing chemicals must be maintained around 102 degrees F (39 ° C). Variations in temperature or timing can cause undesired color shifts. Color developing chemicals are more expensive and have a shorter shelf life than B&W chemicals, but home developing can still save money over lab developing.
Printing at home is much more of a challenge than with B&W, as the paper must be exposed and developed in complete darkness, and it’s up to you to get the color balance right (using filters in the enlarger, the device used to project the negative onto the paper). Hand-processing color prints is a tedious and precise process, and automated processing machines are very expensive.
Our ‘Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography’ is an educational series of articles focused on demystifying the ins and outs of analog photography. Geared toward those discovering (or re-discovering) film, the series will cover everything from gear, to technique and more. View all of the articles in our guide here.