Going for Gold — a cheap colour film alternative for 2021

What happens when you can’t afford professional 35mm films? Perhaps it’s time to rediscover those mid-range consumer classics…

I love shooting colour 35mm negative film. Like most general users of the 1990s, it was my first experience with photography.

Until recently, the C-41 chemical process was a cheap, popular pathway through analogue photography thanks to mini developing labs in almost every local pharmacy.

​But by the turn of the 2010s, that was set to change — and I’ve had to shift my choice of film too.

The soaring 20s

Following the inflation of slide film prices in the early 2000s, Kodak’s super-fine-grain Ektar 100 became my go-to colour film.

Ektar offers tack-sharp detail with saturated reds that pop like old Kodachromes, whilst providing latitude for exposure errors as wide as any off-the-shelf consumer emulsion. It’s a great film for an idiot amateur like me, servicing a bunch of aging cameras and unreliable shutters.

Such a pity, then, that Ektar is rapidly becoming unaffordable. In 2011, a 36-exposure roll cost £3.25. In 2021, prices start at £9 and reach a bonkers £15. That’s way above inflation: it should cost £4.50.

​The reason? Ever-shrinking demand and the general cost of producing, shipping and selling film in smaller, specialist quantities. Silver, a key ingredient in the mix, is also soaring in value.

​So now, I find myself sniffing out other options, which has taken me back to a general-purpose line I first shot thirty years ago.

Fool’s gold?

We must look elsewhere for affordable stock, without resorting to budget films.

I’ve seen El Cheapo Fujicolor 200 and Kodacolor 200 go for £7 a roll recently — utter madness when these were once the £1 rolls thrown in for free when you’d collect a pack of prints.

The midway point between such false economy budget brands and the expensive pro films is the often-ignored middle child of the family: the consumer Kodak Gold line.

General-purpose Kodacolor Gold was released in 1988 in 100, 200 and 400 speeds and was widely available up to 1997. Kodak Gold replaced the line in 1997 exclusively in 200 speed, with its final chemical formulation appearing in 2007. This is the iteration that’s readily available in many local chemists and supermarkets today.

​A pack of three Kodak Gold 24-exposure rolls will set you back about £9. That’s £3 a roll, or just over 12p per shot — excluding processing. A bargain, but is it actually any good?

The Midas touch

First off, Gold 200 isn’t a pro film and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s designed to be fool-proof, dependable, low-cost and stable on the shop shelf. So set expectations at the lower end, and you’ll be surprised.

Gold 200 has some fantastic, classical characteristics akin to early colour emulsions. Skin tones are rich, giving most complexions a pleasant, 1970s Hollywood tan. Perhaps this was due to Kodak knowing the range was very likely to be picked up by holiday makers on their jollies across Europe. It’s a film that likes sun-kissed faces.

Like most colour Kodak films, there’s a bias towards reds and yellows, whilst greens feel a little flat. This is something that can be upped in Photoshop if desired, but for me Gold 200 is an ideal choice for reddish autumnal hues, giving a rich vintage pallet and warm accents.

Kodak Gold 200 from 2010, using a Zuiko 35–70mm f4 zoom lens.

​A few tricks help this film on its way, such as using a polariser to deepen the skies and a 81B filter to warm up grass and sunlight.

Aside from being very easy to use and ideal for many applications — ISO 200 being a good compromise for indoor and outdoor photography — the film is also very forgiving and supportive of under/over exposure without nasty colour shifting. Even Ektar 100 goes a bit blue when underburnt, but not so with Kodak Gold — you just get a dusting of stylistic grain.

​The film also likes some gentle pushing. I’ve shot it up to ISO 800 with very vibrant results. Again, there’s some very apparent noise — evident in skies and flat areas — but otherwise it’s robust in detail and contrast.

Gold standard

The affordability and dependability of Gold 200 has allowed me to enjoy my colour shooting without the usual financial guilt.

It feels a little bit like 1991 all over again. I’ve come full circle and bounced back into Consumerville film — but it’s a happy place to be and I love having the option of picking up some trustworthy stock in almost every local camera shop.

So, it’s a huge leap ahead of the budget lines, whilst a not-too-shabby drop down from the Ektar beasts with a massive cost saving to boot.

If it means giving up colour film for good, or getting a second mortgage to access the top shelf titles, you’ve really got little to lose when going for Gold. Give it a try.