Poppies - Banff #4.
Color negative film (print film) is great for making lots and lots of inexpensive prints. Indeed, it is probably the best choice if you plan to fill a scrapbook with 4x6 prints from Wal-Mart. Print film is also great for scanning with relatively inexpensive (<$500) desktop scanners as it is less dense than slide film; however, be warned that obtaining accurate color balance from scanned print film can drive even the most laid back photographer crazy. Print film has tremendous exposure latitude--you can underexpose it up to a full stop or overexpose it by as many as 2 stops and still get a decent looking print. In general, print film begins to produce higher quality images (compared to slide film) at higher (400 or greater) ISO.
Color reversal film (slide film) is the preferred film of most photographers who photograph anything other than portraits. Slide film can hold a tremendous amount of contrast but has very limited exposure latitude: over- or underexpose by more than 1/3 stop and your image may be completely ruined. On the other hand, viewing a perfectly exposed slide on a light box has probably done more to inspire a career in photography than anything else. If you're working digitally, scanning slide film requires a significant capital investment in an expensive (>$500) film scanner or $50-150 for a drum scan at your local service bureau. Color balance is easier using slide film as the slide itself serves as a guide to color. In general, slide film produces higher quality images at lower (100 or so) ISO.
What do I use? I use both: I use what is best suited to the situation. In general, if I'm taking photograph of my family (to fill a scrapbook with 4x6 prints) I shoot print film. If I'm taking a landscape to sell as fine art, I'll always shoot slide film (and then make prints to order digitally).
If I'm photographing any natural scene from a summer sunset to a waterfall surrounded by lush tropical ferns, Velvia is my film of choice. The film is high contrast, extremely saturated (indeed some distracters refer to it as "Disneychrome") and, with an RMS of 9 one of the finest grain films available. Velvia is ISO 50 (although some individuals rate it at ISO 40 to obtain more shadow detail). Regardless, if you're shooting Velvia, you'd better bring a tripod. The film starts to suffer from reciprocity failure around 4 seconds, so if my exposure is going to be longer, I'll normally choose another film. I think Velvia works best during the so-called "golden hour" (the hour before sunset and the hour after sunrise) and when the light is relatively flat (i.e. overcast). Velvia's high contrast tends to backfire with high contrast subjects (i.e. midday sun). Velvia is not so gentle with skin tones and it is clearly NOT a portrait film. Many have enjoyed great success pushing it to ISO 100; however, I find the contrast far too great (even if rated at ISO 80) and thus I prefer to use a true 100-speed film. With the release of Velvia 100F and Velvia 100 (see below), I'm told that Fuji plans to discontinue classic Velvia in 2006.
In mid-2003, Fuji introduced two more "flavors" of Velvia. Velvia 100F (RVP 100F) and Velvia 100 (RVP 100). I expected Velvia 100F to be the landscape film of my dreams having all the advantages of classic Velvia 50 with the additional advantages of even less grain (RMS 8) and better skin tones. Nevertheless, Velvia 100F ended up being something of a disappointment--I just don't like it. What's more is that I'm not even sure why I don't like it. The film is more saturated and has more contrast than Provia 100F (see below) and has obviously less contrast and saturation than classic Velvia. I've heard that Fuji's engineers worked hard to perfect the "flawed" color balance of classic Velvia 50 and introduced Velvia 100f with "perfectly neutral" color balance. As most photographers don't typically photograph color balance targets, perhaps this was unnecessary. It may be that classic Velvia's imperfections are part of what made it special.
In the summer of 2005, Fuji introduce Velvia 100. As I am now 100% digital, I have not personally used the film. Nevertheless, I understand that it performs very close to classic Velvia 50, but has an ISO of 100 and finer grain. Were it not for digital, I'm sure the photo-world would be a-buzz about this film.
Anasazi Granaries at Nankoweap - Grand Canyon #1
I use E100VS essentially whenever classic Velvia is too slow. Although it may be difficult to imagine a situation where E100VS (at ISO 100) would be significantly faster than classic Velvia (at ISO 50) these situations do arise (for example, photographing from a slowly rocking boat). In addition, I normally reach for E100VS (which does not suffer from reciprocity until an exposure of 10 seconds or longer) whenever Velvia would require an exposure longer than 4 seconds. Like Velvia, it produces vivid, saturated colors with especially rich reds and yellows. E100VS offers relatively fine grain at RMS 11; however, this difference is clearly visible from finer grained films such as Velvia and Provia 100F. The contrast is extremely high, although slightly less than that of Velvia. E100VS is a little gentler with skin tones than Velvia, although I would not suggest using E100VS for portraits.
When the above was originally written in 2002, there were few super-saturated ISO 100 slide films. Now with Velvia 100 and Velvia 100F, E100VS has become the proverbial dinosaur of the group...
Sunset from Humpback Rock - Sunset in the Blue Ridge #2
Provia 100F was the first film to be released with an incredible RMS of 8. Indeed, its texture can make even extremely fine-grained films like E100VS look like its emulsion is made of marbles. Although there are other films with similar grain (for example, Kodak's E100GX--see below), Provia 100F still finds a place in my camera bag. Provia 100F produces nicely saturated images that have visibly less contrast than either Velvia or E100VS. Some have argued that it's lack of contrast and relative lack of saturation are a small price to pay for it's fine grain. Indeed, color and contrast can be added later (if necessary) digitally. While I respect this perspective, I endeavor to make as few changes to an image as possible and thus rarely take this approach. With less saturation and less contrast, Provia 100F is often favored by those who appreciate its subtlety for macro photography. Like E100VS, Provia 100F does not suffer reciprocity until an exposure is greater than 10 seconds.
I tend to use Provia 100F whenever I find myself shooting in bad, high-contrast light. Indeed, Provia 100F, having lower contrast, is better equipped to handle high contrast lighting. I also like Provia 100F for animal photography in direct sunlight. The film renders skin tones nicely and I have used it for outdoor portraits on occasion.
Sunset from Humpback Rock - Sunset in the Blue Ridge #1
In the fall of 2003, Fuji released Astia 100F. The film is designed portrait and commercial photography and thus I have never used it. The film offers unparalleled grain with an almost unbelievable RMS of 7. Were it not for the digital "revolution," an E-6 film with an RMS of 7 would have been big news!
In 2004, Kodak decided to change the name of Portra 400UC to Ultra Color 400UC. I'm not sure why this was done--maybe Kodak just wanted me to update this web page!
When I first started using Kodak's Ultra Color 400UC in early 2003 (then called Portra 400UC), I was as excited as I can remember being about a print film. I continue to be so impressed by it that 400UC has virtually replaced NPH (see below) as my film of choice for indoor, "people" photography. The film is far and away the finest grain ISO 400 color negative film I have ever used. Indeed, according to Kodak's own product information, 400UC has the same Print Grain Index as Portra 160VC, a film 1 and 1/3 stops slower. Although the incredible grain (or lack thereof) will impress any photographer, it is not the most exciting aspect of 400UC.
The film produces nicely saturated--the "UC" stands for Ultra Color--colors that punch up photographs. Despite its increased saturation, skin tones are rendered beautifully without excessive contrast or color. Indeed, 400UC seems to give photographers the best of both worlds by providing a film that promises rich, exciting color yet maintains the smooth, gentle skin tones required by portrait photographers. Kodak claims to have somehow "optimized" all the Portra and Ultra Color films for scanning and I have found that 400UC scans very well. Using VueScan and my Minolta Dimage Scan Multi Pro, I've found that I get better, more accurate results than I get with most color-negative films. I've had good luck rating the film at ISO 400.
I've received a lot of e-mail from various photographers asking me if I've had any luck using the film for weddings. Honestly, I don't shoot weddings professionally anymore (Thank God!) but if I still did, I think I'd look to NPH or Portra 400NC (see below). Although 400UC does feature great skin tones, the film is quite saturated and thus tends to be "about" color. Using 400UC to capture any scene dominated by black and white (like a wedding) probably wouldn't be the best combination.
Current offerings in Kodak's ISO 400 Portra family include Portra 400NC and Portra 400VC. The "NC" stands for natural color and contrast and the "VC" stands for vivid color and contrast. I shot a lot of both "NC" and "VC" when they were first released several years ago. At the time, I considered 400VC to be a little too grainy (as compared with other available ISO 400 print films) and I came to prefer Fuji's NPH over 400NC...
Dark Hollow Falls - Shenandoah Waterfall #4
Although, as noted above, Kodak Portra 400UC has virtually replaced as NPH as my indoor "people" film, I continue to shoot a lot of NPH. NPH at ISO 400 is part of a larger group of professional film that most photographers often refer to as "wedding film." Wedding film is called "wedding film" because it is offers "reduced" contrast (preserving detail in both the groom's black tux and the bride's white dress) and offers neutral skin tones. Indeed, in my opinion NPH has better skin tones than any currently available ISO 400 film. Skin tones are smooth and creamy and facial blemishes are de-emphasized by the film's low contrast. Indeed, some photographers consider the film to be too flat. The film promises the extremely wide exposure latitude common to many print films; however, it's ability to maintain a neutral color balance is second to none. I've probably shot more than 100 rolls of NPH at weddings over the years, and I've never heard a bride (or groom) complain about how they look. I've also used this film for snapshots of my family with a camera-mounted flash. Although the film is ISO 400, like many professionals, I normally rate the film at 320 to obtain a little more detail in the dark areas.
I tend to use NPZ whenever I would use NPH or Portra 400UC, but need another stop. NPZ is part of new trend by Fuji and Kodak to produce ISO 800 portrait films for "available light" photography. NPZ has more contrast and color saturation than NPH, but is still subtle enough to be considered portrait film. What's amazing is that despite being a full stop faster than NPH, it has virtually no increase in grain. Indeed, because of its excellent grain/speed ratio, I know of several photographers who have taken to using NPZ as their primary wedding color print film. NPZ features Fuji's 4th Color Layer Technology and provides accurate and natural color even under fluorescent light. I've pushed NPZ as many as 2 stops during a "no flash" wedding ceremony with more than acceptable results. As noted above, Kodak makes a Portra 800 although I have never used it.
Dawn in Yosemite Valley - Yosemite #4
Reala is the print film for those who want to have their cake and eat it too. Reala offers richly saturated colors and yet maintains low enough contrast to still work splendidly as a portrait film. Reala is, in my opinion, the finest grain ISO 100 color print film available. Like NPZ and NPH, Reala offers Fuji's 4th Color Layer Technology (actually, Rela was the first film to offer this technology) and provides accurate and faithful color even in complicated situations. Unlike most print films, it has a relatively narrow exposure latitude allowing no more than a one-stop overexposure and a half-stop underexposure.
I use Reala most frequently in the studio and when I'm photographing outdoors and need to use a color negative film. Indeed, Reala is my "family in front of the Grand Canyon film." Its saturated colors make the Grand Canyon look great while its medium contrast and neutral color balance will please even the most self-conscious teenager.