As a mainly large-format photographer, I thought I’d kick-off my new web journal not by wittering on about the well-worn advantages of view cameras (which can mostly be duplicated by modern DSLR’s anyway, with a little care and forethought) but by talking about one of the less obvious advantages: the ability to mix-and-match your choice of film to the image you are about to make.
Even now, in this digital era, there is still a good choice of emulsions when it comes to sheet film and it makes sense to use as many different types as possible – stimulating demand is one way to help make sure that no more emulsions are lost. On a recent trip, for example, I took Ektar, Portra and Fuji Pro 160S colour neg films as well as a stack of good ol’ Velvia (just in case I needed a quick fix of that film’s unique approach to colour). Why so many? Well, each has a different palette and dynamic range, for starters. And that’s one thing you can’t do with digital. You are stuck with the sensor you have in your camera with its intrinsic colour-characteristics and dynamic range. While you can expand dynamic range with a variety of techniques and enhance colour in post-production, the overall ‘look’ or ‘palette’ is harder to alter. There are Photoshop plug-ins available which go some of the way towards emulating popular emulsions but the fundamental problem is that film and silicon have a totally different response to light. Digital sensors are very linear but each different film has its own characteristically curved response – even down to each individual dye it contains. This is why the various plug-ins available ultimately fail to be entirely convincing: a plug-in can only modify the colour already contained within the image at the time the software is used whereas film’s starting point is the whole spectrum of light reflected from the original subject.
Since it first appeared, landscapers have leapt on Velvia as their emulsion of choice. The advantages it offers in terms of saturation, green/blue bias and punchy contrast are well-documented so it’s easy to see why Velvia, and the less-saturated but equally punchy Provia, have come to define the ‘look’ of landscape photography. For a long time, I bought into this. I exposed sheet after sheet of Velvia and practiced the techniques of careful gradding the film’s limited dynamic range demands. I recognised that there are certain scenes (backlit foliage, for example) which are off-limits due to the restricted dynamic-range available (not to mention that using graduated filters to equalise light-levels isn’t possible where the areas of high contrast are distributed randomly throughout the scene). Then, a few years ago, someone suggested I give colour negative film with its extended dynamic range a go. What a joy! New subjects became available to me and, from then on, I always carried some sheets of Fuji Pro 160 alongside the more traditional Velvia. But there was still one thing that slowly started to gnaw at me, though. Why was everyone ignoring Kodak emulsions in favour of those from Fuji? The received wisdom was that Fuji had the punchier films whereas Kodak’s offerings were more suited to those requiring a restrained colour-palette that was optimised for flesh-tones. I resolved to try some Kodak Portra. Early efforts were not promising and I quickly gave up the idea. Then Fuji’s decision to discontinue Pro 160 (my colour neg film of choice) forced me to reconsider. I bought a few boxes of Portra (and some Ektar, too, since a completely new emulsion is a rare enough thing these days that I simply had to give it a go) and set to work. What I discovered the second time around was a revelation! By comparison with 160NC, Fuji’s colour-neg emulsion looked positively Fisher-Price! Colours seemed to tend towards saturation in a quite different (and rather less appealing) way than Velvia. Not only that, but Kodak’s film offers a silky smooth tonality that seemed to be missing from Pro 160. The grain is finer, too. Yes, the film is less contrasty and does have something of a yellow-bias but overall the ‘look’ is pleasing and natural. With my normal post-scan processing I generally find it necessary to boost contrast and colour anyway since all but the very finest (and most expensive) pre-press scanners don’t do a terribly good job of maintaining color-fidelity (although profiling does help in this regard) so I find I can give my Portra scans a necessary ‘boost’ without upsetting the delicate colour-palette which I find so attractive.
Interestingly, there now seems to be something of an anti-Velvia counter-movement within the ever-shrinking world of landscapers who still use film. The excellent work of Tristan Campbell, Dav Thomas and Tim Parkin has led the way in defining a new aesthetic in which the tendency towards assaulting the viewer with a riot of strong colour is reversed in favour of delicate hues and thoughtful composition. I see this more as a reaction against trends in the digital world since most photographers who mastered Velvia work with an acute understanding of how to best employ that film’s various idiosyncrasies. On a personal note, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give up the punchy ‘Velvia aesthetic’ just yet, although I do use more negative than transparency stock now. I am, however, making a conscious effort to pull back on the saturated colours in many of the images I make. Like the previously mentioned photographers (and many others, of course), I feel strongly that good composition is the key to crafting an image which stays with the viewer and that trying to impress with high saturation and other ‘tricks of the trade’ leads to images which initially impress but then offer little in the way of lasting nourishment – rather like fast food. Fortunately, Kodak seems to be committed (at least for the foreseeable future) to maintaining the supply of their various emulsions (although there has been some inevitable rationalisation) so, hopefully, I shall continue to be able to enjoy my photography whilst keeping one foot in both the digital and the film camps.