Film notes, July, 2006

Ready with the film

The problem with film reviews is that they get stale over time as things change and don't get updated.

Since most of the articles out there were written when 3M, Agfa, and Konica were all making film, I decided to put down some of my notes on things for people to take advantage of.

This review is oriented towards the sorts of film that I use regularly. You will notice that there's many types of film not present, primarily because I haven't used them and therefore can't give intelligent information about them.

I would like to note that none of these films are the "best" film. The best film to use depends on the situation you find yourself in. The closest I come to this is having Provia in my SLR and TMax P3200 in my Olympus Stylus, one for when I have light, the other for when I don't.

I would also like to note that no two photographers think alike. My father, after seeing how prints fared over time, doesn't trust Fuji because his Kodak prints were the least faded. I know plenty of people who prefer E100G over Provia. I shoot Velvia for long exposure night photography against the advice of several knowledgeable photographers.

The subject of reciprocity comes up when I talk about film. In the normal shooting range, film follows reciprocity: you double the shutter speed and open up the aperture one stop and the two images will have the same exposure. However, at a certain point, which depends on the film, this reciprocity no longer holds and what should be a 10 minute exposure is now a 2 hour exposure. With color films, you start to experience a color shift, which is sometimes fixed with a filter, but if you go far enough out, you start to see color shifting that cannot be easily fixed. Some films do a better job with this than others. For my work, this is important. For many photographers, it isn't.

Slow Slide Films

If you want an image that will look better than what you'd get out of a cheap digital SLR, slide films are the way to go. There's often more resolution and definitely better colors.

Before Velvia came out in 1990, Kodachrome ruled this market. Now, Kodachrome is slowly disappearing from the marketplace, with only 3 places left in the whole world that will develop it and Kodachrome 25 is already completely gone.

Slow slide films also have the best reciprocity. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you are using just the moon for illumination, you will often times have the shutter open for longer with 400 ASA films than with a 100 ASA slide film.

The biggest problem is that these films have a relatively small dynamic range, so you have to control your scenes carefully. If you want to capture more stops of detail, without using neutral density filters, polarizers, and flashes, you want print film.

Velvia 100

Velvia has beautiful saturated colors, high contrast, and beautiful deep blacks with impressive shadow detail. Great for scenery, awful for people.

Velvia 100 is the replacement for the famed Kodachrome-killing Velvia 50. It is regarded as being not quite as good as Velvia 50 by those used to it. On the other hand, it's a stop faster, has finer grain, and has dramatically better reciprocity.

Not to be confused with Velvia 100F, which doesn't have the color saturation of Velvia 50 or 100, just the high contrast.

For those people who love Velvia 50, you are going to have to get used to Velvia 100, as they've already stopped producing 50. I came to the slide film party late, so I just opted to get used to Velvia 100.

Often, folks claim that Velvia is "overrated", which is really a myth. The film speed is just a agreed upon and technically measured number to suggest a correct exposure. In some cases, the manufacturers will suggest alternative numbers for film speed, but they are usually quite straightforward when they do. To get the best results, the photographer must pick out how much highlight and shadow detail they prefer and use that to determine how to expose the film. I find that I like it at about box speed or maybe 1/3 stop underexposed from there.

It is also said that Velvia is unforgiving, although I have not had problems correctly exposing it. It is also said that Velvia is hard to scan because of the deep blacks, although I haven't had too many problems with that, either. You definitely need a scanner with sufficient DMax to see into the deep blacks, so the cheapest available scanner is simply not going to work.

Kodak makes E100VS, which is intended to compete. I think E100VS looks great when crossed but have never played with it developed normally. Numerically speaking, it's granier than any of the Velvias and doesn't have nearly as rich of blacks and most people who have used the film will tend to agree that. Kodak makes a big deal about it having superb reciprocity, but, at this point, Velvia 100 has better reciprocity.

Provia 100F

A good general-purpose film. It has pretty much the best reciprocity behavior of any color film available. Easy to scan, good for all kinds of subjects. If you had to pick one type of film, this is it.

Kodak makes E100G and E100GX (The E100GX is designed to be slightly warmer -- more orange) that have the same specifications and are aimed at the same applications. I have not played with them. They don't have nearly as good reciprocity behavior, which is important to me. Some people like the grain pattern of the Kodak films more than Provia.

Astia 100F

I use this one intermittently. It is the polar opposite of Velvia, it has desaturated, pastel colors, to the point of being just as spectacular of an effect as Velvia's saturated colors. Intended for photographing fashion. In theory, it has a little more room for under/exposure, although I don't think that it makes too much of a difference.

One of the finest grained films you can get these days. E100G and E100GX are the closest Kodak equivalent.

Sensia 100 / Elite Chrome 100

Sensia 100 is rumored to be either exactly like Astia or Provia. I'm not sure if that claim, although it does seem to be rather close to Provia. Similarly, Elite Chrome 100 is rumored to be just like E100G or E100GX. You can sometimes save a few dollars with these, although whenever I've seen Elite Chrome in the grocery store, it's priced absurdly high.

Fujichrome 64T

This is in the process of being replaced by Fujichrome T64.

64T, the current version, is a tad grainy compared to Provia / Astia / Velvia, but it is the only Fuji film with a tungsten color balance and it has excellent reciprocity on the long-exposure side. One curiosity is that if you look at the spec sheet, it isn't recommended to use shutter speeds 1/30 and lower. Great for architectural photography, photographing paintings, and night photography.

T64 should be really interesting. It will have even better reciprocity, finer grain, and better colors. I haven't used it yet.

Kodak makes three tungsten slide films, in 64 ASA, 160 ASA, and 320 ASA, but I haven't played with any of them.

Color Print Films

I used to shoot nothing but color print films. After I got my first batch of slide film back, I realized what I was missing and don't shoot too much of it anymore.

I also discovered that slide film tends to have better reciprocity, which is better for night work.

Most of these benefit from at least a little bit of overexposure. You get a usable image if you underexpose a stop or two, but it will become very grainy. Because of the wide dynamic range of the film, if you are metering your exposures carefully, there's plenty of highlight detail to trade off for shadow detail.

The biggest problem is color consistency. With slide films, the film may distort the colors you actually saw, but after that it's very clear what the slide is supposed to look like. With print films, each film has a slightly different set of dyes, so each type of film requires a different set of adjustments and color profiles to get a neutral scan.

Also, the 400 ASA and above print films tend to look better than the 400 ASA slide films when you just don't have enough light.

Kodak Ultra Color 400

A heavily saturated color print film. Intended for people who want the contrasty, saturated look of slide film, but in print film form. It does a beautiful job on skin tones, so it's more akin to Provia / E100G than Velvia or E100VS. Sometimes it shows up in the grocery stores.

I like it, but I like slide film even more.

In theory, Fuji's Superia Reala competes with this, but I haven't tried it.

Fuji Pro 400H

This is often called "Wedding film". It's a low contrast fine-grained 400 ASA film. I was blown away by how crisp the images were compared to many other 400 ASA films I've seen and how well it flattered skintones. It used to be called NPH and was much adored as such.

Kodak's Porta 400NC competes with this, but I haven't tried it.

Great for all sorts of situations where slide film doesn't work, most notably where you want to retain detail in the bride's white dress and the groom's black tuxedo.

Black and White Films

Black and white film has been on a decline ever since USA Today came out and printed most of the photos in color, which set off a trend of newspaper reporters primarily shooting in color and then desaturating the image if they need a black and white image if they need it.

However, there are many advantages of using black and white film even today. Black and white films can still record a wider dynamic range than color films, for example. You can develop it at home easily. Finally, black and white films tend to be better looking at the highest ISOs.

Like color print films, you can overexpose these, but underexposure is not necessarily going to look good.

Kodak BW400

A 400 ASA black and white film that can be developed as color print film (c-41) and is very nearly grainless when properly exposed. It shows up reasonably inexpensively at the grocery stores.

The nice thing about it being developed as a color print film is that you can scan it with dust reduction. The not-so-nice thing about it is that runs the risk of fading faster than traditional B&W films.

Ilford makes XP2 Super. I have not used it, although XP2 Super can be printed on real B&W paper, whereas BW400 has an orange base that makes it hard to print it on real B&W paper.

Kodak Tri-X 400

I tend to feel that people are pre-programmed to get a certain sort of feeling from shots taken on this film. It spent so long as the favorite film of photojournalists that it's film grain has become part of the photographic lexicon. It was a breakthrough when it came out for natural-light photography and hasn't been substantially changed since then. It is pretty grainy at 400 ASA, but in a pleasant way that the new films aren't. It's also very tolerant of exposure and developing errors. You can push it to 1600, although I discovered I wasn't as fond of the look I thought I would be.

Ilford makes HP5 Plus, which is very similar.

Kodak also makes Tri-X 320 Professional, which is a very different film, intended for studio portraits, which I have never tried.

Kodak also makes T-Max 400 and Ilford makes Delta 400, which are both newer in design and finer grained, but I'm not so interested in them. BW400 is a finer grained film than T-Max 400, and I tend to like grain in my black and white shots most of the time.

Kodak T-Max P3200

I keep a film P&S camera loaded with this. You can shoot in astonishingly low light with no flash. Heavy grain, but that's what you get for shooting at 3200 ASA. It's really about a 800-1000 ASA film that's designed to be pushed to 3200 and beyond. The film canister is DX-coded as 3200, but you can override that and shoot anywhere between 800 and 12,000 and just change the developing times.

Fuji makes Neopan 1600 which is sometimes cheaper and one stop slower. I've been told it can't be pushed beyond 1600, however.

Ilford makes Delta 3200 which is maybe 1000-1200 ASA. It's different, with better midtones. It's also the fastest film available in 120 format -- Neopan 1600 and T-max P3200 are both only available in 35mm.

At the box speeds, all of these films have a contrasty "film noir" look to them.

Recent Advances

Fuji announced Provia 400X, which has the grain of a 100 ASA slide film. I'm still waiting to try it out, along with the aforementioned new T64 tungsten film.

Kodak announced a new Porta 800 that has the grain of 400 ASA print film. I shot a roll of Fuji's Superia Reala 800 and was impressed with it, so I might give both of these films a closer look in the future.

Kodak also announced the development of a 24,000 ASA black and white positive film with the grain of a 400 ASA film, but isn't going to market it, much to my dismay.



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