What makes a film stock professional?

5 min read

If you’ve ever had a hard time deciding between Ilford Delta 400 and HP5, or Kodak Ultramax and Portra 400, you’ve likely noticed the “professional” label added to one of these films along with a significantly higher price tag. 

But what does the “professional” moniker mean for film shooters? And is it worth the extra cost? 

Professional films have smaller grains, create sharper images, and have flatter color profiles. Professional film stocks can also usually be bought in a set with matching production numbers to ensure the colors and looks are the same between rolls. 

Non-professional film stocks, on the other hand, have more saturated color profiles, and more contrast, and tend to store better at room temperature. 

Professional film stocks are designed to ensure film photographers always have room to edit the images to get the look and colors you want. While non-professional films have a look that’s more baked into the roll. 

At the end of the day, non-professional films are mostly as good (and sometimes better!) than professional films for a modestly cheaper price. In this article today, we’re going to look at what makes a film stock professional, and why you might want to stick with consumer films. 

Waterlillies captured on HP5 and developed in Ilfotec DD-X
Image captured using the Zeiss Sonnar 150mm f/4 lens and Ilford HP5 film, developed in DD-X.

Are professional film stocks sharper and less grainy?

Professional film stocks are sharper and less grainy than their consumer film rivals thanks to the addition of T-Grains. 

T-Grains, or tabular grains, are a type of film grain that is flat, with sizes and proportions that are strictly controlled by the manufacturer. They are more efficient at gathering light and can be spread almost perfectly across the film using 30% less silver than traditional grains. 

The effect is that they appear sharper and much less grainy than traditional film. But to do that, they sacrifice tonality, meaning they can make images that are more contrasty without those same smooth gradations that make traditional grains so lovely. 

For most photographers, the difference in sharpness won’t be that noticeable in black and white — you can see a comparison between Delta 100 (professional t-grain) and FP4+ here. Though the difference in sharpness and grain becomes more pronounced when comparing color films, like Portra and Ultramax

A long exposure created with the 250mm f/5.6. This lens allowed me to make the background big enough to create more context for this photo. Image Captured on Kodak Portra 400 (find it on Amazon here, or Moment here.

Are professional films more contrasty? 

Contrast is a prized feature of film for many photographers. When used right, having good contrast can make an image pop off the page.

So it’s no wonder many photographers think a better film stock will have more contrast since that’s what they like to see in photos. But the truth is actually the opposite — professional film stocks typically have less contrast than consumer or non-professional film stocks. 

And that’s intentional. High-contrast images contain less information than low-contrast images. You can always crush the blacks and makes the highlights pure white in the darkroom or in Lightroom/Photoshop. But you can’t bring back information that wasn’t there in the first place. 

So professional film tends to look flat at the beginning when well shot. Then it’s up to the photographer to choose how much contrast they show in their images. 

Image captured on Kodak Portra 400

Do professional film stocks have more accurate colors? 

Professional color films are typically less saturated than consumer films and don’t always have the perfect color accuracy for every situation. 

For example, Kodak Ektar 100 is prized for landscape photography, but it does not render skin tones very nicely, often being too saturated for portraits. Cinestill 800t, which is a professional Kodak cinema film, also doesn’t tend to produce perfect skin tones, often requiring a fair bit of editing in post-production to get them looking just right. 

Fuji Superia and C200 on the other hand (find it on Moment for the best price here), tend to get skin tones just right every time (except in low light). 

The main difference in color between professional film and consumer film is that professional film stocks tend to have more latitude for adjustments in post-production, whereas consumer film is meant to have a flattering look without having to do any work.

The bottom line: when you shoot with professional film, you will have more latitude (meaning less contrast) and less saturated colors, so you will need to do more work to create good-looking images than if you used non-professional film. 

Kids running through the streets of Chefchaouen, captured using a Hasselblad Zeiss Distagon 40mm f/4
Image captured using Kodak Gold

Are consumer film stocks good? 

Yes! Cheap films like Kodak Gold, Colorplus, Fuji C200, and Ultramax are all designed to produce great-looking images without having to do too much work in post-production. These film stocks have brilliant color looks and flattering skin tones in a wide variety of lighting conditions. 

The main place when consumer films will fail is in low-light conditions, or when they’re underexposed. These film stocks don’t necessarily push as well as professional films, because they aren’t meant to be pushed. For example, Kodak Gold does not retain much detail in the shadows when compared with Kodak Portra — so it’s not a good film for use indoors.

But if you use Kodak Gold outside around sunset, at picnics, or on the beach with friends, it’s going to give you phenomenal results every time without having to do anything.

By Daren

Daren is a journalist and wedding photographer based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been taking personal and professional photos on film since 2017 and began developing and printing his own photos after wanting more control than what local labs could offer. Discover his newest publications at Soft Grain Books, or check out the print shop.

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