Film speed is the measure of a photographic film's sensitivity to light. Stock with lower sensitivity (lower ISO speed rating) requires a longer exposure and is thus called a slow film, while stock with higher sensitivity (higher ISO speed rating) can shoot the same scene with a shorter exposure and is called a fast film.
In the first approximation the amount of light energy which reaches the film determines the effect on the emulsion, so that if the brightness of the light is multiplied by a factor and the exposure of the film decreased by the same factor so that the energy received is the same, the film will be exposed to the same density; this rule is called reciprocity, and the concept of a unique speed for an emulsion is possible because reciprocity holds. In practice this holds reasonably well for normal photographic films for the range of exposures usually used, say 1/1000 sec to 1 sec, but longer exposures, different for different films, are required outside these limits, a phenomenon known as reciprocity failure.
ISO film speed scales
The standard known as ISO 5800:1987 from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines both a linear scale and a logarithmic scale for measuring film speed.
In the ISO linear scale, which corresponds to the older ASA scale, doubling the speed of a film (that is, halving the amount of light that is necessary to expose the film) implies doubling the numeric value that designates the film speed. In the ISO logarithmic scale, which corresponds to the older DIN scale, doubling the speed of a film implies adding 3° to the numeric value that designates the film speed. For example, a film rated ISO 200/24° is twice as sensitive as a film rated ISO 100/21°.
Commonly, the logarithmic (DIN) component is omitted from film speed ratings, and only the linear component is given (e.g. "ISO 100"). In such cases, the quoted "ISO" rating is in effect synonymous with the older ASA standard.
GOST (Russian: ГОСТ) is a pre-1987 linear standard used in the former Eastern Bloc. It was almost, but not quite identical to the ASA standard. After 1987 the GOST scale was aligned to the ISO scale. GOST markings are only found on pre-1987 photographic equipment (film, cameras, lightmeters, etc.) of Eastern Bloc manufacture.
The most common ISO film ratings are 25/15°, 50/18°, 100/21°, 200/24°, 400/27°, 800/30°, 1600/33°, and 3200/36°. Consumer films are generally rated between 100/21° and 800/30°, inclusive.
A film speed is converted from the linear scale to the logarithmic scale by this formula (plus rounding to the nearest integer)
The following table shows the correspondence between these scales:
ISO linear scale
(old ASA scale) ISO log scale
(old DIN scale) GOST
(Soviet pre-1987) Example of film stock
with this nominal speed
6 9° original Kodachrome
10 11° Kodachrome 8 mm film
12 12° 11 Gevacolor 8 mm reversal film
16 13° 11 Agfacolor 8 mm reversal film
20 14° 16
25 15° 22 old Agfacolor, Kodachrome 25
32 16° 22 Kodak Panatomic-X
40 17° 32 Kodachrome 40 (movie)
50 18° 45 Fuji RVP (Velvia)
64 19° 45 Kodachrome 64, Ektachrome-X
80 20° 65 Ilford Commercial Ortho
100 21° 90 Kodacolor Gold, Kodak T-Max (TMX)
125 22° 90 Ilford FP4, Kodak Plus-X Pan
160 23° 130 Fuji NPS, Kodak High-Speed Ektachrome
200 24° 180 Fujicolor Superia 200
250 25° 180
320 26° 250 Kodak Tri-X Pan Professional (TXP)
400 27° 350 Kodak T-Max (TMY), Tri-X 400, Ilford HP5
500 28° 350
640 29° 560 Polaroid 600
800 30° 700 Fuji NPZ
1000 31° 700 Ilford Delta 3200 (see text below)
1600 33° 1400–1440 Fujicolor 1600
3200 36° 2800–2880 old Konica 3200
Determining film speed
Film speed is found by referencing the Hurter–Driffield curve, or D–logE curve, for the film. This is a plot of optical density vs. log of exposure (lux-s). There are typically five regions in the curve: the base + fog, the toe, the linear region, the shoulder, and the overexposed region. Following the curve to the point where density exceeds the base + fog by 0.1, find the corresponding exposure. Dividing 0.8 by that exposure yields the linear ISO speed rating.
Applying film speed
Film speed is used in the exposure equation to find the appropriate exposure parameters. Four variables are available to the photographer to obtain the desired effect: lighting, film speed, f-number (aperture size), and shutter speed (exposure time). The equation may be expressed as ratios, or, by taking the logarithm (base 2) of both sides, by addition, using the APEX system, in which every increment of 1 is a doubling of exposure, known as a "stop". The f-number is proportional to the ratio between the lens focal length and aperture diameter, which is proportional to the square root of the aperture area. Thus, a lens set to f/1.4 allows twice as much light to strike the focal plane as a lens set to f/2. Therefore, each f-number factor of the square root of two (approximately 1.4) is also a stop, so lenses are typically marked in that progression: f/1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32, etc.
Exposure index, or EI, refers to speed rating assigned to a particular film and shooting situation, and used in the exposure meter or equation, to compensate for equipment calibration inaccuracies or process variables, or to achieve certain effects. Exposure index may or may not be the same as manufacturer's film speed rating for that particular film.
The exposure index is sometimes called the speed setting, as opposed to the speed rating.
For example, a photographer may choose to rate a 400 ISO speed film at 800 and then use push processing in order to get printable negatives from low-light conditions. In this case it is said that film has been shot at EI 800.
Another example of a situation when exposure index would differ from film manufacturer's rating is when a camera shutter is known to be miscalibrated and consistently overexposes or underexposes the film; similarly, a light meter can be known to understate or overstate lighting conditions. In such cases one could adjust EI rating accordingly in order to compensate for these effects and consistently produce correctly exposed negatives.
Digital camera ISO speed and exposure index
For digital photo cameras ("digital still cameras"), the ISO standard 12232:2006 specifies several definitions of the speed rating depending on the sensor sensitivity, the sensor noise, and the appearance of the resulting image. The digital ISO speed ratings are related to the conventional film-speed ratings in how a standard 18 percent reflective surface would appear in an image under given lighting conditions.
First of all, ISO speed ratings of a digital camera are based on the properties of the sensor and the image processing done in the camera, and are expressed in terms of the luminous exposure H (in lux seconds) arriving at the sensor.