FPP RetroChrome 400 is the name given to a stock of 35mm Kodak EASTMAN EKTACHROME High-Speed Daylight Film 2253 (PDF datasheet) that expired in 2004 and is bulk loaded and sold by the Film Photography Project. The film was apparently very well cold-stored, meaning that it is still very useable without needing to change anything about the exposure. Rated at 400 ISO, I found it a very inviting offer, as my slide film use has so far been limited to the 100-speed current production emulsions – very limiting for day-to-day London street photography.
It’s a rare occasion for me to load a colour film in anything other than my Olympus XA, let alone a slide film, so the idea of shooting a roll of Retrochrome 400 went on hold almost as soon as I bought it, as the forecast told me rain and dark grey days. I wanted to find a couple of days where I would have access to sunlight and then overcast light, in order to see how I managed to work with the higher speed in different situations.
I’ve found 400 to be a perfect balance for all-round use for my film photography, but with the caveat that I tend to overexpose slightly in bright light in order to maintain a wider aperture – negative film is very forgiving to this workflow, and I never worry about losing my highlights, but for slide film I needed to be dead on.
I ended up finding a handful of days in early October where I would have the lighting conditions I was after. I loaded into my Leica M6, and set the ISO for exactly 400. I shot the whole roll with my 50mm Zeiss Planar, which is one of the most wonderful lenses I’ve ever used.
I wasted my first couple of images on my way to the bus stop and then got to work once I arrived at Oxford Street.
It wasn’t long before I noticed a neat detail, a man walking in front of me with a ripped shirt which looked like a face looking back to me.
At the time I hadn’t done much reading about Retrochrome aside from what was available on the site I purchased it from, Analogue Wonderland, which also features a few test shots of each film, so you don’t have to just rely on the description. What I wasn’t certain of was what possible “defects” I was going to incur from the expiry status.
I knew from the test shots that there was an orange cast, but I didn’t know what was likely in terms of possible light leaks, weird artefacts, and so on. When I spotted this shot I realised that the brown tone would probably work quite nicely with the cast, and from then on became invigorated to seek out truly colourful scenes to concentrate on, in order to use the film to its fullest.
This proved to be a successful pursuit in some frames and a bit of a waste in others. Many of the tones are washed out, and any whites or greys are replaced with orange or yellow, which can be a bit annoying when trying to draw attention to other colours in the scene.
At other times it can offer a “faux golden hour” replacing the regular sunlight with warmer, golden colour.
When I came across this small corner down by Old Cavendish Street I spotted this woman with a smear of sunlight across her face, with everything else in shadow. Metering for the light I decided to test the dynamic range of the film – definitely not the strongest in this area.
Further down the street I tried again – and the same results here. Little to no shadow detail when exposing for the light. As far as I remember it was a difference of around 4-5 stops between shadow and highlight.
I got to Hyde Park, and shot a few frames there. Green is my favourite colour, but in photographs I often find myself disliking the way it works with the colours around it. I think here the washed out-ness of the green is actually quite pleasing.
On my way back up towards Soho I shot this, which I think is one of the best to show what the colour cast does to an urban setting. Greys, whites, and light blues are the worst offenders, becoming creamy, or muddy.
However, I think if used effectively, especially during golden hour, this could really bring out something special. And as you may be able to tell from the shadow here golden hour was fast approaching…This was definitely my favourite image from that day. As soon as I saw their body language I had to step in and take a frame. The smoke, the colour palette which is limited yet shows off all of the colours this film excels at capturing, the golden tones in the hair and hands of the subjects; the sheer, absolute aesthetic of everything about this image (except the writing) is really really special to me.
The reds and greens of this scene especially pop to me, and I really think that the cast is partially to thank for this. If I was looking to capture some kind of vintage nostalgia in my Retrochrome frames then this was the image that justified my experiments.
I continued to shoot through golden hour, and while there were a few more nice images I don’t think any came close to the above.
I continued to shoot on this roll for the next couple of days, which were much more overcast. I haven’t done much in the way of editing or adjusting these scans, so I was interested that the gold tones were very apparent in some but not in others. The faded, washed-out look is prevalent, but it is possible to achieve cleaner whites, but never as stark as would be possible from a fresh film (I imagine).
I followed this woman for a minute or two before she paused in front of a clean background – I really liked the way she was holding the glove, and the red really popped and matched nicely with her visible thumbnail.
The grain of this film is quite intense but definitely manageable. I don’t think it’s ugly at all, quite the opposite. I think they really add to the overall vintage feeling to these images – a really timeless feeling which is a combination of all of the elements some would call drawbacks.
Similarly, the film retains very good sharpness – in line with what I expect from the Zeiss Planar, renowned for its sharpness. Viewed at 100% you can see some haze around the edges, but I don’t think that pixel/grain peeping is the point of the photography I try to do, so this would never be an issue in my workflow.
I was really happy with this photograph, taken very early of sunrise outside my bedroom window. Again, the warmness and grain go a long way to making this shot work. The black dots are birds, aside from the plane dead centre. I was really happy to have captured it as it passed through the contrail of another plane, which is like a teardrop streaking through the frame.
I finished the last few frames of the roll during the Extinction Rebellion action in Central London. I had some great weird scenes to work with here, as London was transformed into a festive, chaotic playground.While out I bumped into Matt Stuart, and caught this shot of him working a scene of his own. Really lovely guy!
I enjoyed shooting this, but was nervous throughout the roll, especially when I shot something I was really hoping to turn out good. That initial worry about the quality of the expired film wore off the second I got them on the light table – no light leak or anything I could immediately see, which meant that everything was down to the look. Now that I know how to use it effectively I’ll be reserving it for use in some wonderful golden scenes – ideally a decent autumn day.
The 400 speed was definitely useful to me, and I didn’t find myself making the compromises I would have if it had been a regular 100 slide option. I think the look is unique, and doesn’t require anything too special to invoke, unlike some films which need a special filter or condition to “activate” the special effect. This film offers that “vintage film look” in spades – anyone wanting to use this for friends/family photography, or personal documentary will not be disappointed.
Although the overcast images are nice, they’re just “fine” to me, and sometimes the encroaching warmth on the whites and greys are a little off-putting – not quite a look, so it seems like I’ve just done something wrong. It absolutely excelled in golden hour, and I can’t see myself deliberately wanting to shoot it under any other circumstances. The whole balance of the film lends itself to that light, and I’m really looking forward to seeing similar images in the future.
Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on Retrochrome 400! I really hope it’s helped some of you to make a decision in terms of trying some out yourself! If you liked my images here you might enjoy more of my photography, which you can find on my Instagram!
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