My travel assignments require me to create strong imagery that can be quickly and seamlessly integrated into a digital workflow, which is why my primary work camera is almost always a digital body.
While I love the consistently excellent results that I have been able to get with digital cameras, I have missed the beautiful imperfections, color subtleties, and tonal variations that make film such a unique and satisfying medium for visual storytelling. I will occasionally throw a 35mm SLR or compact medium format camera into my bag and shoot a few rolls of film while on assignment and am always impressed with the resulting shots, but until recently I never fully committed to the analog medium for work.
Logistical concerns were the primary reason I waited so long to add film to my travel assignments. Since my coverage of international relations and global affairs often takes me to far-flung locations around the world, I place a priority on packing efficiently, and only bringing the necessary tools for a particular job.
While I’m fine with checking a bag with clothes, I always carry my photography gear and other electronics onboard my flights. This self-imposed packing limitation means that I have to be especially conscientious about lens and body selections due to weight restrictions on many international airlines. For a week-long assignment, I typically try to split all my photo equipment up between a carry-on approved camera backpack and a small personal item-sized bag.
Given the limited space available for transporting gear, I have tried to standardize the equipment that goes into my carry on and will make minor tweaks to my kit based on the specific requirements of different assignments. These modifications can include swapping out certain zoom lenses for primes on assignments where I’ll be doing a lot of low light shooting or bringing along a large telephoto prime and teleconverter for sports or wildlife coverage.
Since I shoot NIKKOR lenses on Nikon DSLRs (and recently on the mirrorless Z-series bodies), throwing one of Nikon’s professional 35mm SLRs into my kit was the most efficient way to integrate film into my travel arsenal without dramatically increasing weight. The majority of Nikon’s full-frame F-mount lenses (excluding those with electronic apertures) are fully interchangeable between their DSLRs and their newer (relatively speaking) film SLRs, like the F100 and F6.
All of this brings me to my most recent assignment where I essentially threw caution to the wind and decided to fully embrace a hybrid digital/film workflow. In order to make myself shoot in a more thoughtful manner, I eschewed zoom lenses and brought only five primes in the following focal lengths: 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 105mm. This also allowed me to pack all my gear into just one carry-on backpack.
Having shot the Nikon D850 on multiple assignments with incredibly consistent results, I wanted to make sure I at least got some creative variation from the F6 shots and thus selected eight different rolls of 35mm film:
- Fujifilm FUJICOLOR C200
- Fujifilm FUJICHROME Provia 100F
- Fujifilm FUJICHROME Velvia 50
- Fujifilm FUJICOLOR Superia X-TRA 400
- Kodak ColorPlus 200
- Kodak Ektar 100
- Kodak EKTACHROME 100
- Kodak Portra 400
I carried both camera bodies on my shoots and tried to photograph the same scenes on both digital and film, but at different focal lengths. Every roll of film was shot at box speed and metered with the Nikon F6’s matrix meter.
On this assignment, I mainly relied on street photography to capture vignettes of daily life in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the national capitals of the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo respectively. Located on opposite sides of the Congo River in the heart of Africa, the two cities hold the distinction of being the world’s second-most closely geolocated national capitals after Rome and Vatican City. Despite being separated by only 4km of water, there are no bridges connecting the two major population centres, which results in each city having its own unique vibe.
Brazzaville, on the western bank of the Congo River is relatively laid back, with slightly less than two million residents, which constitutes approximately 40 percent of the country’s total population. Neighboring Kinshasa, on the other hand, is a bustling metropolis with a population of more than 11 million. It is the third-largest city on the continent and the cultural and economic hub of one of Africa’s largest countries. I spent three days in each city and shot four rolls of 35mm film in each location. The following observations are based on my past experiences shooting with these different film stocks, as well as how I believe each film performed on this particular assignment.
These are my personal opinions, and I am leaving myself open to the possibility that my views on any given emulsion may evolve as I use it more frequently, and in different situations.
Fujifilm FUJICOLOR C200
This medium speed film could easily be overlooked as just another cheap consumer film due to the fact that it is currently one of the least expensive film stocks available. I admit that I had very low expectations for C200 when I first started shooting with it earlier this year, but I’m more than happy to have been proven wrong by this incredibly forgiving film. Despite accidentally underexposing the very first roll I ever shot by almost three stops, I still got punchy, saturated colors and great contrast, and was able to salvage most of the photos. Thanks to that experience and subsequent fruitful shoots with C200, I knew I wanted this film in my bag for my Congo assignment.
In my experience, C200 excels in bright scenes with even lighting. It produces vibrant colors, particularly reds and greens, and has a fairly neutral color cast. It also handles skin tones nicely, though I probably wouldn’t consider it for portraiture due to its tendency to overemphasize red tones. Dynamic range leaves a bit to be desired, particularly in the highlights which have a tendency to blow out in challenging lighting. However, I was able to get very nice results on my Congo assignment thanks to the F6’s stellar matrix meter, which nearly always finds the exposure sweet spot. Grain, while noticeable, is very pleasing. To me, the grain’s texture added to the filmic feel that I was hoping to capture by shooting analog on this assignment.
The results from my most recent shoot have me sold on C200, especially for street work. I would, however, recommend that anyone considering using it as their exclusive film on an important assignment first shoot a couple of test rolls on something with lower stakes to make sure they like the crunchy, grainy, saturated look it provides.
Considering that C200 remains one of the best values out there, I will definitely be making this film a regular part of my analog portfolio.
Kodak Ektar 100
Anyone who regularly shoots film probably already knows that Ektar 100 is deliciously saturated, has nearly imperceptible grain and scans beautifully. This modern film stock takes advantage of all the years of research that Kodak put into developing negative process films, and creates crisp, vivid shots that are as true to life as any format I’ve shot with, film or digital.
Ektar 100 resolves detail better than any other color negative process film I’ve shot and is really only limited by the 35mm format itself when it comes to sharpness. In Brazzaville, I particularly appreciated the broader exposure latitude Ektar 100 afforded me compared to several of the slide film stocks that I also shot on this assignment. I’ve had mixed results with skin tone rendition when shooting portraits with this film in natural light, but in a studio setting, it gives very nice results.
As prices for E6 emulsions have skyrocketed recently, Ektar 100 has definitely become my pick as a more affordable C41 substitute for slide film. For street shooters looking to add a saturated, high definition, fine grain film to their arsenal, Ektar 100 delivers in spades. I’ve been shooting with it since 2007 and can’t image going on any future assignment without at least one roll of this top-notch film in my bag.
Fujifilm FUJICOLOR Superia X-TRA 400
This classic disposable camera film stock is easily my favorite inexpensive 35mm emulsion. Like other films marketed as consumer products, Superia 400 is a little rough around the edges: grain is obvious, a slight green color cast is often present, and quality control between rolls varies. On the flip side, the grain is gorgeously gritty, the color cast is usually correctable in post, and the variations between rolls can lead to unexpected surprises, or “happy little accidents,” as the late landscape painter Bob Ross famously liked to call mistakes that end up improving the final result.
With good lenses and proper focus, Superia 400 can be razor sharp, and it produces vivid colors, especially greens and reds. Like other Fujifilm negative process films, Superia 400 has a cooler color balance than its Kodak counterpart (I’m looking at you, Ultramax 400). The film can get really contrast-y in sunny scenes, with shadow areas tending to quickly drop off the deep end, so I try to shoot it in relatively even lighting.
Where Superia 400 really shines, though, is its versatility. Whether shooting at dawn, under the midday sun, at golden hour or in the waning moments of dusk, Superia 400 delivers fantastic results. I’ve had success pushing this film a stop for indoor shoots, but I actually prefer the results from Superia 800 in low light. If I were able to shoot only one type of (color) film for an entire day, I would probably select Superia 400. While it might not be my absolute favorite film, Superia 400 is certainly the best bang for your buck when it comes to speed and versatility.
Kodak Portra 400
I’m not likely going to add a lot of new insights about what is easily one of the most popular and beloved film stocks in the industry. I can say that not having shot much with this film, I was personally impressed with Portra 400’s utility in the dynamic environment in which I employed it. I shot most of my 36 frames at an outdoor music event that took place inside a shaded courtyard late in the afternoon. I have shot lots of Portra 160, so I knew approximately what to expect from the results, and I was delighted with how painterly the slightly grainier, EI 400 shots turned out.
At box speed, the grain in this film is beautifully understated, but Portra 400 can easily be pushed a stop to deliver very nice results. Like its siblings, Portra 400 has a distinctive pastel look that renders skin tones well. Although the overall color palette of this film is rather subdued for my taste, reds and pinks really pop and earth tones come as close to real-life as I’ve seen on any negative process film.
I really don’t have anything negative to say about Portra 400 but still prefer the smaller grain of 160 (if I’m shooting in better light), and the more saturated look I get from Portra 800 (an older emulsion with a different color profile) in really tough lighting situations. While I’m completely satisfied with the results from this shoot, I would still lean toward the grainier and more saturated Superia for future situations like this.
Fujifilm FUJICHROME Velvia 50
Before you immediately dismiss me for having shot an entire portrait session with the least qualified film for portraiture in my bag, let me explain the scenario. I was leading a visual storytelling presentation with photography students at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa, and they asked me if we could do an impromptu portrait session at the end of my lecture. Velvia 50 was the film in my F6 at the time, and I didn’t want to rewind the roll, so I decided to go with it.
Easily my all-time favorite slide film, Velvia 50 is nothing if not overstated. This slow E6 process film is famous for its carnivalesque colors, infamous for its extremely unforgiving exposure latitude, and loved and loathed in equal measure for its insatiable appetite for light. Getting consistent results from this film requires understanding what makes it tick, and for me, that means shooting it in strong even lighting where the dynamic range between shadows and highlights doesn’t exceed 5 stops.
During my portrait session with the photography students, I completely embraced the saturation situation by photographing subjects against a bright teal wall with diffused golden hour sunlight as my only light source. I’m actually quite happy with the resulting shots, which have an illustrative feel to them. Would I intentionally shoot Velvia 50 for a portrait session again? Probably not unless I was going for a very particular look. But for landscapes, architecture and street scenes with strong, predictably even lighting, this is my number one film.
Kodak EKTACHROME E100
If it wasn’t evident from the last several entries, I appreciate a saturated film. That’s why I was so excited when Kodak decided to rerelease their much heralded E100 slide film after having discontinued its predecessors, E100G and E100VS, several years ago. Unfortunately, the new E100 has not yet shown me the type of results I was hoping for.
I can actually live with the new film’s color rendition, which is somewhere between the neutral profile of E100G and the “exploding piñata filled with glitter” saturation of E100VS (one of my all-time favorite film stocks). What I’m really disappointed about is the film’s extremely limited dynamic range. In challenging light, I get plenty of contrast, but at the expense of blown highlights and cave-like shadow areas. While this is not a weakness unique to this particular emulsion (all transparency films have relatively limited dynamic range), I was hoping for more from Kodak’s newest slide film.
In more evenly lit scenes, I was able to make some punchy shots that provided a tantalizing hint of the potential this film has if it is handled with the kid gloves it requires. Perhaps I simply haven’t shot enough rolls of this popular film to be such a harsh judge, or maybe I just need to use a fill flash like a normal person. Either way, I’m hoping that as I use this film more often, I’ll discover the magic that all of its fans continue to enthuse about online. For the time being, E100 remains near the bottom of my film repertoire.
Kodak ColorPlus 200
The yin to Fujicolor C200’s yang, this inexpensive medium speed film is a decent performer with a few caveats. ColorPlus 200 has a distinctive warm tone that emphasizes yellow, orange and red hues, and creates (to my eye) one of the most “retro” looks of the different films I have shot recently. This film also has noticeable grain like C200, and is available at a similar budget price point.
Where ColorPlus 200 really shows its consumer film pedigree is in its washed-out highlights and generally flat contrast. The film is great for capturing a stylized faded look without the Instagram filter. However, this same characteristic makes it a hassle to color correct resulting shots into something that more closely approximates reality.
I’m happy with the shots I was able to make with ColorPlus 200 on my assignment, but probably won’t take it along on every trip. While its warm color palette and wallet-friendly price should keep most photographers happy, it’s more of a niche product for me.
Fujifilm FUJICHROME Provia 100F
I have a complicated relationship with Provia 100F. There is no doubt that this is a technically adept slide film that produces sharp, clean images that rivalled digital sensors not so long ago. Provia 100F renders daylight scenes with a noticeable blue cast and feels cooler overall than its Kodak counterpart, E100. Like all slide films, Provia 100F’s dynamic range is limited, but in my experience, it is more forgiving than E100. Colors are vibrant, but controlled, and it probably gets the closest to accurately rendering skin tones of the slide films I shoot.
All of these features may make Provia 100F seem like the perfect goldilocks film, and for many slide shooters, it probably is. However, given how expensive Fujifilm has become since the company raised prices earlier this year, I would rather spend my money on the more stylized Velvia emulsions, and just shoot digital when I’m looking for photorealism.
Provia 100F is a good film that sadly doesn’t feel like it is different enough from digital to merit such premium pricing. I would be more than happy to continue shooting it when my existing stock is gone, but only if I can find it on sale. My feelings notwithstanding, if you’re looking for a slide film with nearly imperceptible grain, reliably consistent colors, strong contrast, and stellar resolution, consider Provia 100F for your next assignment.
Having now seen my film results from this recent assignment, and sorted out the logistical challenges of travelling abroad with a hybrid gear setup, I am looking forward to tackling future projects with different emulsions and lenses. The delayed gratification and sometimes unexpected results associated with film photography rekindled some of the wonder I had lost over the years as a working photographer and reminded me of why I was first drawn to this medium in the first place.
In this easily distracted era, it is nice to return to a process that requires patience, reflection, and careful consideration. While I will certainly continue to shoot digital for all of the technological benefits that it provides, I’m now committed to challenging myself with different film formats.
With film in hand, I’m sure to discover new and exciting opportunities, and just maybe, create some timeless visual stories along the way.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to read more about this DRC, Isaac has published an article for the US Department of State’s magazine. I highly recommend heading over to read it.
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