When I submitted my photos of Acadia National Park as a guest submission on Photography Life, I was amazed at the response, especially on the fact that the majority of photos were shot using a Nikon F100 with Fuji Velvia 50. Nasim contacted me to do an article on film considerations for landscape photography as a follow up. So this is my stab at it.
I first shot Velvia 50 (just Velvia henceforth in this article) in April 2012 using a Nikon FE and 24mm f/2.8 Ai lens. This was my super lightweight walk around system during my trip to visit family in India. Since, I was already using manual focus primes on my Nikon D700, understood exposure and zone system well, so it was not too hard for me to shoot using a Nikon FE. I shot two rolls in India (bracketing almost all exposures), got them developed at Foto Express in San Jose and then looked at the slides on a light table. The color, the tonality, the highlight roll off and rich shadows of the well exposed slides were really amazing and took my breath away. Then, I scanned few slides using a Nikon Coolscan IV, which I had access to at Stanford University. The scans were not that great (especially the color) and for me this was a serious limitation as I wanted to have the flexibility to scan my slides and share my work. As a result, I shot few rolls for the next two years but every time I reviewed the newly developed slides on a light table, I realized that the limited dynamic range had forced me to look for compositions I would usually overlook when shooting digital. By placing bounds, it was compelling me to pre-visualize more often as well as be more selective and disciplined in shooting. I really appreciated all these aspects but the limitation of not being able to create good quality scans on my own (using the scanner available then) kept me away from shooting film more often.
Earlier this year, I finally got a Nikon Coolscan 5000 off Ebay. After the initial learning curve, it produced scans of 35mm Velvia with relative ease that were really sharp, had a fine non-obtrusive grain and more importantly, the colors were close to that on a light table. With this scanner, I get a 16-bit tiff with a native print size of approximately 12 x 18 inches at 300 dpi (for comparison, Nikon D610 has a native print size of 13.5 x 20 at 300 dpi). This file prints beautifully up to 20×30 or even 24×36 (inches) and I may opt for a drum scan to pull out more even more details, especially if bigger prints are requested.
At this point, I feel apt to present a couple of my favorite images from my first few rolls of Velvia.
After acquiring the new scanner, I started to shoot film regularly and really liked the results. It became a habit to carry a 35mm film SLR along with a D610 and shoot interchangeably. Especially, after picking up a used F100, it is now very convenient as I can share the newer ‘G’ Nikkor lenses with vibration reduction between the two. I also prefer 35mm format (film or digital) for its flexibility and ease of capturing quality light, which is what I strive for in photography.
At this juncture, it is quite natural to ask how I decide when to shoot film or digital. After shooting both interchangeably for some time, I have the following mantra: If a location is unfamiliar and I am not sure about how fast light will move/change, I reach for the digital SLR. This also holds for moon lit landscapes, star fields and Milky Way shots, and wildlife. In addition, I shoot with my D610 when I consciously want all the dynamic range of my D610 and the composition is unsuitable for using graduated neutral density filters. On the contrary, if I am familiar with a location, can guess light confidently or can use graduated neutral density filters, I reach for my 35mm film camera; slow down and envisage that every click is sacred. On such occasions, I usually do some good work.
Fuji Velvia 50 is famed (even criticized) for its color saturation but for me that is not the motivation to use film because if it was about creating saturated colors, I can just abuse the saturation slider in either Lightroom or Photoshop to my liking. Instead, I like Velvia for its overall color palette (esp. its blues and greens) and more importantly for its color separation. The way this slide film pumps out the yellows and blues independently is rather unique. This is important for me as at the fringes of a day (times when landscape photographers are most active), different parts of a landscape are lit by skylight (cool), and low angled sunlight (golden-yellow), which creates a striking contrast. I find Velvia very good at highlighting these edges in light. For example, in the above photograph (Afternoon clouds…) the blue tones in clouds have been separated from the yellows without compromising either. While making this particular image, I remember observing this color contrast in the clouds for it was something I thought made the light unique.
In general, I like the way film renders the highlights in an image, while maintaining rich blacks. Also, the roll off from whites to neutrals to blacks is natural and closer to what I perceive. That said, it is important to not blow off the highlights when shooting Velvia. I have found that it has more latitude in shadows and this information can be pulled out by high quality scanners. I rate Velvia at ISO 50 and meter the deep shadow details I am interested in at -2 EV. If at this exposure setting, the highlights are blown, I will use a graduated neutral density filter to hold them. For example, in the next image, I metered the burnt grass at mid tone and then used a combination of 3 stop and 2 stop soft graduated neutral density filters to hold color in the sky.
Another example of beautiful highlight rendering in Velvia is shown in the following photograph. I really like the manner in which the dusk sky has been rendered here. The gradation from blue of the earth shadow (left) to pink/purple hues of band of Venus and then to the warm colors of post-sunset sky is very smooth and natural. Also, the glow on sand with its texture has been rendered almost perfectly.
Besides shooting Velvia 50, recently I also experimented with Kodak Ektar 100, Kodak Portra 160 and Kodak Portra 400. Ektar 100 is a nice color negative film with good color saturation and sharpness but I did not really like its overall color palette. Also the scans had a cyan color cast, which I had to correct in Photoshop. Nevertheless, I made few good images with it (e.g. the following image). Again, look at subtle highlight details in water.
During my recent trip to Varanasi, India, I shot Kodak Portra 160 and 400 exclusively for portraits using a Nikon F100. Portra 160 is very sharp with a fine grain and works well for landscapes too. Being a negative film, it has a wide exposure latitude and is much more forgiving in case of incorrect exposures (compared to Velvia). Portra 400 has a more prominent grain (being a fast film) and I used it to photograph some low light scenes by shooting at ISO 1600 and pushing the film by full 2 stops in development. Overall, this experiment went very well.
I get my film developed either at Foto Express in San Jose, CA or use a mail order form from the Slideprinter in Denver, CO or the Fuji mailer offered by Dwayne’s Lab in Parsons, KS (sold by B&H). All three places have given me excellent results with very reliable service. Since in my day job I spend significant amount of time working on a computer, I find it refreshing that
after a weekend of photography with a film camera, I can choose not to spend time in front of a digital screen, developing raw files and fiddling with color profiles. I just send the film for development, fully confident about the captured colors and tonality. Then, it feels like Christmas when the developed slides come back in mail and I put those on a light table to relive the moments.