What is the difference between black and white film and color film? How does color film record color? Is it like black and white film with something more, or is it entirely different?

  • 1
    I assume you mean other than the obvious. :)
    – mattdm
    Apr 4, 2011 at 0:51
  • 1
    "This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form." Apr 4, 2011 at 1:09
  • 1
    I read this question as "how does film work?", but with an emphasis on the differences b&w and color film. Reworded in that form, would it still be over-broad?
    – Sean
    Apr 4, 2011 at 1:19
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    Despite the simplicity, and the fact that there is the "obvious" difference, I don't think the true intent of this question is lost or difficult to understand. Beside the fact that color film captures color, while B&W film does not, I think the question is entirely answerable as it is. I also know that we have numerous knowledgeable members who can answer this with ease, and I encourage them to do so, rather than discuss whether this is a valid question. Even though it is fairly general, it can still be answered at a general level. Specifics are not being asked, so they shouldn't be provided.
    – jrista
    Apr 5, 2011 at 2:46
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    If I read this question without any presumptions, or any assumptions, it has a distinct meaning: 'What is the difference between black and white film and color film?' It is not asking what the differences in developing B&W and Color film, it is not asking what the differences in specific technical design of the two types of film...it is just asking the difference between the two types of film...what makes color film "color" film?
    – jrista
    Apr 5, 2011 at 2:51

3 Answers 3


Color film contains several layers, each sensitive to a different color of light (red, green, blue). When exposed to light and developed, these produce magenta, cyan and yellow colors in the negative. The printing process works in a similar way. This is similar to the way digital sensors work, in that there are filters to exclude all but one color of light, so that a receptor can record the intensity of just that color, and then the separate RGB values are combined into a single image.

Black and white film typically has a single layer that responds to the all wavelengths of light and the negative that results has various densities between clear and black. There is no attempt to filter different colors, just to record the overall luminance.

  • 2
    and of course there are the different chemicals involved in the process.
    – jwenting
    Oct 24, 2011 at 5:50
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    +1 However, note that B&W film usually does not "respond to all wavelengths." Indeed, much B&W film does not even respond appreciably to all visible wavelengths. The variation in response over different wavelengths gives each B&W film a particular characteristic look; for instance, many are less sensitive in the red, thereby rendering warmer colors darker than the eye would see them. Non-response to reds (especially in coated papers) is what enables the use of red safelights in darkrooms, too.
    – whuber
    Dec 7, 2011 at 18:09

In terms of outcome, i would say the black and white films usually have wider latitude than color ones, which enables the black and white films to capture wider range of light. This is the major reason why there are photographers particularly preferring white and black films in certain creation - for better exposure.


Color film (specifically C-41 processed color negative film) has light sensitve silver halides in red-sensitive, blue-sensitive and green-sensitive layers. During processing the silver halides are replaced (not 100% on the chemistry here) with dyes, which carry the color information (but as a reversal, and the film also has an orange base color)

Black and White film (specifically traditional black and white negative film) has a single layer of light sensitive silver halides, these halides are converted into silver metal during processing. Unexposed but developed film has a mostly clear color, instead of orange. The negatives also have their tones reversed, with darker areas appearing lighter.

Because of the dye versus silver color and black and white film have different grain patterns and different expectations of longevity (the dyes would be more likely to fade if exposed to light regularly).

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