Photographic Film


Photographic film is a chemically reactive material that records a fixed or still image when the film is exposed to light. Typically, film is placed in a camera, and light from the image being photographed is allowed to enter and is focused and sometimes made larger or smaller by the camera lens. The film is exposed to the image by opening a shutter in the camera body, and the combination of the speed of the shutter and the film speed (which is the chemical reactivity of the film) controls the amount of light that strikes the film. The image is recorded on the film, but it is a latent or invisible image. When the film is removed from the camera, it is developed by chemical processes into a visible image. This visible image is negative or the reverse in brightness of the way our eyes see light; the brightest parts of the photographed object appear the darkest on the negative where the film received the most exposure to light. The negative image is made positive, or as our eyes see it, by another type of processing whereby the negative is printed on sensitive paper. Color-reversal films are positives and are used for making slides. All of the elements of the process—the parts of the camera, the type and parts of the lens, the type of film, including its chemistry, the developing process, the printing process, and the type of paper—contribute to the sharpness or trueness of the finished photograph.


Film was "discovered" in a chemistry laboratory. In 1727, Johann Henrich Schulze, a German doctor, mixed chalk, silver, and nitric acid in a flask to make silver nitrate. When the solution was exposed to sunlight, it changed color from white to purple. When Schulze pasted cutouts of letters and numbers on the outside of a flask of freshly made solution and exposed it to the light, the cutouts appeared to have been printed on the solution. Although the discovery marked the birth of photography, it was not used for over 100 years. In 1839, Louis Daguerre, a French painter, created a photographic process in which liquid iodine was placed on a silvered copper plate, and the plate was exposed to light. The liquid iodine was the emulsion, or light-reactive chemical, and the copper plate was the base for these photographs called "daguerreotypes." The American inventor Samuel F.B. Morse learned the art of daguerreotypy and taught it to Matthew Brady, who made images of the Civil War that are treasured both as historical records and artistic landmarks in photography.

Daguerreotypy was cumbersome to use; the "wet plate" process was awkward, the box-type cameras had to hold the large plates, and the finished photographs were the size of the plates. While Daguerre was developing his process, William Henry Fox Talbot, an English archaeologist, created his own process called "calotype," meaning "beautiful picture" in 1841. Talbot coated a paper base with an emulsion of silver iodide and produced a negative by a developing process. The calotype is more like today's film and photographic process, and the intermediate step resulting in a negative permitted more than one print to be made.

The flexibility of photography was improved further in 1871 when R.L. Maddox invented the "dry plate" process. Gelatin

Photographic Film
made from animal bones and hides was used to coat glass plates, and silver iodide was precipitated inside the gelatin layer. The plates and their dried jelly could be exposed, then the photograph could be developed later by rewetting the gelatin. The complicated procedure of manufacturing the plate, exposing it, and processing it into the finished photograph was broken into parts that made the photographer's work easier and made photography and photo processing a manufacturing industry.

George Eastman combined the paper base of Talbot's calotype with the gelatinous silver nitrate emulsion from Maddox's process to invent flexible roll film in 1884. Eastman quickly made the transition to an emulsion-bearing plastic, transparent film by 1889, which was a year after his company introduced the first Kodak camera. These developments made photography a simple, compact, portable practice that is now the most popular hobby in the United States.

Raw Materials

A roll of film consists of the emulsion and base that compose the film itself, the cassette or cartridge, and outer protective packaging. The materials used to make the emulsion are silver, nitric acid, and gelatin. The base consists of cellulose and solvents that are mixed to form a thick fluid called dope. Film that is packed in a cassette (35-millimeter film is typically packed this way) requires a metal spool, the protective metal canister, and plastic strips at the canister opening where the film emerges. Other sizes of film including Polaroid film are protected from light and air by plastic cartridges or packs. Outer packaging, which varies among film products, is made from foil-lined paper, plastic, and thin cardboard cartons. The outer packaging is also insulating and protects the film from exposure to light, heat, and air.

The Manufacturing



Coating process


Quality Control

In all phases of manufacture, photographic film is extremely sensitive to light, heat, dust, and impurities. Air flow into the film-manufacturing rooms is washed and filtered. Temperature and humidity are carefully regulated. Production rooms are scrubbed clean daily, and plant workers wear protective clothing and enter sensitive work areas through air showers that clean personnel of dust and contaminants. Each step of manufacture is carefully inspected and controlled. For example, the chromium-plated wheel on which the base is formed is inspected to maintain a mirror-like finish because tiny imperfections will affect the quality of the film. Finally, samples of film are removed from completed batches and subjected to many tests, including the taking of photographs with the samples.


Factory workers and the environment must also be protected from the hazardous chemicals, fumes, and wastes that can be generated during the process. Protective clothing keeps the product clean and insulates the workers from possible contaminants. Air released to the outside is also filtered and monitored. Extensive recycling is done, not only to protect the environment but also to salvage valuable materials such as silver for purifying and reuse. The photographic film industry was also among the first to use incineration successfully to burn wastes efficiently and control emissions.

The Future

Film manufacturers are continually improving the quality of film so that photographs are sharper, color is truer, graininess is reduced, and film speed is improved. Several new camera films use "T-grain" emulsion technology, in which the molecular structure of the silver halide crystals is modified to create silver grains shaped like tiny tablets. The flat shape helps them collect light efficiently, so sharper photographs are produced from higher-speed films. This technology also benefits the environment because fewer chemicals are needed for processing film, and the opportunity for chemicals to enter the environment is reduced.

The next advance in photography does not require film at all; the film-free camera stores photographs digitally without any film. Digital cameras electronically transfer images to computers which can then print the images.

Where To Learn More


Bailey, Adrian and Adrian Holloway. The Book of Color Photography. Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.

Collins, Douglas. The Story of Kodak. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1990.


Antonoff, Michael. "Digital Snapshots from My Vacation." Popular Science, June 1995, pp. 72-76.


From Glass Plates to Digital Images. Eastman Kodak Company, 1994. 343 State St., Rochester, NY 14650. (716)724-4000.

Gillian S. Holmes

Also read article about Photographic Film from Wikipedia

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