The first flexible photographic roll film was marketed by George Eastman in 1885, but this original “film” was actually a coating on a paper base. As part of the processing, the image-bearing layer was stripped from the paper and transferred to a hardened gelatin support. The first transparent plastic roll film followed in 1889. It was made from highly flammable nitrocellulose (“celluloid“), now usually called “nitrate film“.
Although cellulose acetate or “safety film” had been introduced by Kodak in 1908, at first it found only a few special applications as an alternative to the hazardous nitrate film, which had the advantages of being considerably tougher, slightly more transparent, and cheaper. The changeover was not completed for X-ray films until 1933, and although safety film was always used for 16 mm and 8 mm home movies, nitrate film remained standard for theatrical 35 mm motion pictures until it was finally discontinued in 1951.
Films remained the dominant form of photography until the early 21st century when advances in digital photography drew consumers to digital formats. Although modern photography is dominated by digital users, film continues to be used by enthusiasts and professional photographers. The distinctive “look” of film based photographs compared to digital images is likely due to a combination of factors, including: (1) differences in spectral and tonal sensitivity (S-shaped density-to-exposure (H&D curve) with film vs. linear response curve for digital CCD sensors)  (2) resolution and (3) continuity of tone.
Originally, all photography was monochrome, or black-and-white. Even after color film was readily available, black-and-white photography continued to dominate for decades, due to its lower cost and its “classic” photographic look. The tones and contrast between light and dark areas define black-and-white photography. It is important to note that monochromatic pictures are not necessarily composed of pure blacks, whites, and intermediate shades of gray but can involve shades of one particular hue depending on the process. The cyanotype process, for example, produces an image composed of blue tones. The albumen print process first used more than 170 years ago, produces brownish tones.
Many photographers continue to produce some monochrome images, sometimes because of the established archival permanence of well-processed silver-halide-based materials. Some full-color digital images are processed using a variety of techniques to create black-and-white results, and some manufacturers produce digital cameras that exclusively shoot monochrome. Monochrome printing or electronic display can be used to salvage certain photographs taken in color which are unsatisfactory in their original form; sometimes when presented as black-and-white or single-color-toned images they are found to be more effective. Although color photography has long predominated, monochrome images are still produced, mostly for artistic reasons. Almost all digital cameras have an option to shoot in monochrome, and almost all image editing software can combine or selectively discard RGB color channels to produce a monochrome image from one shot in color.
Color photography was explored beginning in the 1840s. Early experiments in color required extremely long exposures (hours or days for camera images) and could not “fix” the photograph to prevent the color from quickly fading when exposed to white light.
The first permanent color photograph was taken in 1861 using the three-color-separation principle first published by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1855. The foundation of virtually all practical color processes, Maxwell’s idea was to take three separate black-and-white photographs through red, green and blue filters. This provides the photographer with the three basic channels required to recreate a color image. Transparent prints of the images could be projected through similar color filters and superimposed on the projection screen, an additive method of color reproduction. A color print on paper could be produced by superimposing carbon prints of the three images made in their complementary colors, a subtractive method of color reproduction pioneered by Louis Ducos du Hauron in the late 1860s.
Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii made extensive use of this color separation technique, employing a special camera which successively exposed the three color-filtered images on different parts of an oblong plate. Because his exposures were not simultaneous, unsteady subjects exhibited color “fringes” or, if rapidly moving through the scene, appeared as brightly colored ghosts in the resulting projected or printed images.
Implementation of color photography was hindered by the limited sensitivity of early photographic materials, which were mostly sensitive to blue, only slightly sensitive to green, and virtually insensitive to red. The discovery of dye sensitization by photochemist Hermann Vogel in 1873 suddenly made it possible to add sensitivity to green, yellow and even red. Improved color sensitizers and ongoing improvements in the overall sensitivity of emulsions steadily reduced the once-prohibitive long exposure times required for color, bringing it ever closer to commercial viability.
Autochrome, the first commercially successful color process, was introduced by the Lumière brothers in 1907. Autochrome plates incorporated a mosaic color filter layer made of dyed grains of potato starch, which allowed the three color components to be recorded as adjacent microscopic image fragments. After an Autochrome plate was reversal processed to produce a positive transparency, the starch grains served to illuminate each fragment with the correct color and the tiny colored points blended together in the eye, synthesizing the color of the subject by the additive method. Autochrome plates were one of several varieties of additive color screen plates and films marketed between the 1890s and the 1950s.
Kodachrome, the first modern “integral tripack” (or “monopack”) color film, was introduced by Kodak in 1935. It captured the three color components in a multi-layer emulsion. One layer was sensitized to record the red-dominated part of the spectrum, another layer recorded only the green part and a third recorded only the blue. Without special film processing, the result would simply be three superimposed black-and-white images, but complementary cyan, magenta, and yellow dye images were created in those layers by adding color couplers during a complex processing procedure.
Agfa’s similarly structured Agfacolor Neu was introduced in 1936. Unlike Kodachrome, the color couplers in Agfacolor Neu were incorporated into the emulsion layers during manufacture, which greatly simplified the processing. Currently, available color films still employ a multi-layer emulsion and the same principles, most closely resembling Agfa’s product.
Color photography may form images as positive transparencies, which can be used in a slide projector, or as color negatives intended for use in creating positive color enlargements on specially coated paper. The latter is now the most common form of film (non-digital) color photography owing to the introduction of automated photo printing equipment. After a transition period centered around 1995–2005, color film was relegated to a niche market by inexpensive multi-megapixel digital cameras. Film continues to be the preference of some photographers because of its distinctive “look”.