To the analogue landscape photographer, choosing one’s film stock is one of the most crucial steps in the creative process. And the choice is truly vast: we have Portra for the bleak, washed-out look; Kodak T-Max for those happy to commit to monochrome; Fuji Provia or Kodak Ektachrome for those who want more contrast; infrared or colour infrared to turn even the most ordinary scene into something ethereal or psychedelic. But if, like me, you love nature’s colours and want to convey them in as honest and powerful a way as possible, there are but two options among professional films: Kodak Ektar 100 and Fuji Velvia 50.
Some have the luxury of interchangeable backs or holders, but for all but the wealthiest (who may have no issue taking exposures across multiple emulsions for every composition), we must still make a technical and creative decision about how these stocks have the potential to interpret light and shape. This comparison will, therefore, focus on the technical and creative differences between the films, from a landscape photographer’s perspective. No spec sheets, colour graphs or side-by-sides. The question is a simple one: which film should you use for which situation, and why?
The most fundamental and obvious difference between these two films – one you will no doubt be well aware of – is that Kodak Ektar 100 is a colour negative film, and Fuji Velvia 50 is colour positive. The implications of this upon dynamic range, reciprocity, saturation and cast, and the effects these can have in practice, will thus be discussed.
Truisms such as ‘expose for the shadows’ or ‘expose to the right’ will generally serve you well for colour negative film, and to this Ektar is no exception. This film enjoys plenty of light, which it will reward with colour. Overexposing slightly gives you a brilliant saturation in the highlights and midtones, while preserving plenty of shadow detail. By contrast, underexposure will dull Ektar’s legendary colours – at which point, one might as well just use Portra.
To achieve the former, I find myself exposing for the foreground in any given scene, or ‘tilting down’ on an average or centre-weighted meter reading. This less-than meticulous metering is possible in part due to the film’s latitude, boasting over 10 stops of dynamic range. The upshot of this is that even high-contrast scenes will usually fall within a ten-stop range, and even if highlights are clipped, the roll-off as with any other professional film is natural and pleasant.
Velvia 50, as you may have guessed, is very different in this regard. Slides by necessity must have a significantly lower dynamic range than print film, and Velvia 50’s, in particular, is notoriously low (around 5-6 stops). Nevertheless, the fact that so many landscape photographers still opt for this film over 15+ stop digital cameras with HDR modes is a testament to how well it handles natural light.
Metering Velvia and other slide films is more complicated than Ektar. Leaving sky highlights unclipped is more important as roll-off is more sudden and can look ugly, while shadow detail is yet harder to retain.
I have taken to using a simplified version of Adams’ Zone System: take a highlight reading, take a shadow reading and if these two values are within 6 stops of each other expose at the midway point. For example, if your spot reading of a sky highlight returns a suggestion of 1/30s and your reading of a shaded patch of ground suggests 1/2s, 1/8s will give you a safe exposure. When these two readings begin to fall outside the dynamic range, it becomes a more artistic question of what part of your image it is most important to preserve.
There are no rules here, but generally speaking, for landscapes it is best to leave highlights unclipped and allow the shadows to fade into total blackness, creating a very dramatic effect. An extension of this is the use of graduated neutral density filters – or ND grads – which are often necessary for high-contrast scenes to tame the skies and allow you to bring up foreground shadow detail, by as much as three stops. As horizons are seldom flat, a soft grad is the most versatile option here.
An extension of dynamic range is reciprocity, or the film’s ability to reciprocate predictable exposure values beyond standard long exposures of a few seconds. Generally speaking, the longer the exposure, the less sensitive the film will become and thus an even longer compensatory exposure is required.
Exposures of one minute or more may seem niche to those used to shooting on digital cameras, but medium or large format shooters are no strangers to excruciatingly long exposure times necessitated by apertures small enough to maintain a reasonable depth of field. Of the two films discussed here, Ektar is by far the more predictable; exposures up to several minutes need little to no compensation.
For Velvia however, the requirement to compensate is extreme and may affect anything over one second by decreasing sensitivity, increasing contrast and potentially adding colour casts. In the below example, my meter suggested an exposure time of 30s, but naturally I bracketed the shot with exposures of 15s and 60s. Without accounting for reciprocity failure however, I found that even the longest exposure retained little to no shadow detail and a striking red colour cast.
While painstakingly detailed reciprocity tables are available for these films, the best way to avoid this problem is to bracket by up to 3 stops of over-exposure, or pull down exposure times by removing filters and opening the aperture.
The more explicitly creative aspects of these emulsions come down to their respective distinctive ‘looks’, or the way in which they interpret light and colour. Creatively, both films have their own set of requirements and circumstances under which they are more, or less, ideal.
In my own experience, Ektar best represents more intricate variations in light, texture and colour – scenes which are not as easily divided into highlight and shadow, which may feature areas of more complex detail. Though not quite reaching the bleak, washed-out tones of Portra or Fuji NPH, in comparison to slide film, Ektar’s colours do give a pleasingly soft and almost nostalgic look. Ektar’s palette is perhaps most reminiscent of romantic painting; when I see pastoral scenes rendered with this film, with its beautifully subtle graduations of colour and tone, and slight yellow-green cast as opposed to Velvia’s purple, I often feel I am looking at a Turner or Constable.
If Ektar were to be Constable’s film of choice, Velvia would be Van Gogh’s. This slide film is one which shines in bolder, simpler images where its high contrast and saturation can emphasise a particular shape, texture or colour, rather than an environment.
An image on Velvia is not a window into a past scene, but an entirely new interpretation – a work of art more in its own right. The slower speed, lower reciprocity and harsher casts (flaws to some) can be ways of organically emphasising movement or differences in light and colour unattainable to those using other stocks. In particular, I find myself using Velvia’s tendency to bring out purples and reds in clouded skies to my advantage by shooting at the bookends of the day.
Where Ektar may sap the life out of an image shot in dull conditions, Velvia can give these scenes more mileage provided there is still a chromatic focal point. By this I mean that Velvia requires only two or three central colours to achieve its characteristic boldness – any many more and the effect is muddied and lost.
A vocal critic of the way digital presets have invaded modern landscape photography, I am often asked the difference in principle between, say, VSCO and Velvia. What, indeed, is the difference between one photographic tool which turns the sky cyan and all foliage brown, and another which turns the sky purple and all foliage a bright green? I recently heard Charlie Waite say that one of the most important things a photographer can do to their audience is establish trust. If your audience does not trust you or your image, if trust is broken (rightly or wrongly), it becomes impossible to reach them and your art becomes impotent.
In working in a digital medium so synonymous with photoshopping, where colours are replaced rather than reinterpreted, and skies and other landscape features are cut, pasted and remade, there is an implicit risk of filters breaching the fundamental trust between you and your viewer. The medium is, in effect, inherently dishonest and even disrespectful of your subject matter. In working in an analogue medium, even one with a digital intermediate, you are wearing your process on your sleeve. Where digital filters assimilate images to a dizzying deja-vu effect, analogue tools like Velvia, no matter how distinctive, allow captured scenes to take on their own identities through an organic, chemical, and often unpredictable process of interpretation.
This comes to the crux of the conversation between Ektar and Velvia: in order to understand how each will render aspects of your scene, be it shape, colour, texture or tone, you must understand the chemical properties of each and the way in which they react to, or interpret, light, before putting this into practice creatively. As both have their respective best- and worst use cases, each their own strengths and limitations (be they aesthetic or physical), I can recommend nothing more than ensuring both are part of your photographic arsenal.
Thanks for reading,
My two primary cameras are a Mamiya RB67 Pro SD and a Hasselblad 500CM. The RB I prefer for its legendary solid build, larger and more flexible 6×7 format and the looks I get when passing people carrying it over my shoulder. I use the Hasselblad in situations where the RB is simply too unwieldy (ie. anything more than a modest hike). Generally, I prefer SLRs for their interchangeable lenses and backs, as well as the ability to use and preview filters.
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