Updated - September 2014
Hello Everyone! I get a lot of questions from fellow photographers about the types of color films I use and why I use them. I figured this would be a good subject to write about and give people some insight on film types. The question frequently comes from someone who may have just gotten their first film camera and wants to know what kind of film to use for landscapes. This always excites me as I'm glad there are still loads of people just starting out with film. The medium really has a lot of potential and life left in it. As a disclaimer, all of this is just based off of my personal experience and what works for me. Also, this information mostly applies to landscapes, as that is my expertise. If a film gives me the results I want for a certain situation then it's a winner in my book.
Firstly, there are two basic types of color films I'll go over. Then I'll go through the brands and lines of film that I have used. In the image above, I have two sheets of 4x5" film sitting on my light table. The one on the left is a color positive (also called a transparency or slide) and the one on the right is a color negative (also called print film). As you can see, they are quite different.
Positive film gives you an image the way you saw it when you snapped the shutter. It also produces rich, saturated colors and strong contrast. Due to these characteristics, it is very important that the exposure is perfect when using positive film. There is not much room for error, overexposed areas will quickly become completely white and unusable, underexposed areas will be very dark or even black and only recoverable with some very expensive scanning equipment, if it can be done at all. When using positive films, it's important that the scene not be too contrasty, or that it be controlled using graduated neutral density filters. However, when the scene is just right for positive films you get rewarded with fantastic colors. This type of film is also typically easier to scan and work with digitally.
Negative film looks like an orange mess when viewed on a light table, with only very saturated colors showing up as odd purple and cyan tones. It is meant to be inverted during the scanning or optical printing process to get the correct colors. This film creates softer, more natural colors and lower contrast than positive films, allowing for a much greater latitude with exposure and dynamic range. Highlights in the scene are usually handled wonderfully and these films can take quite a bit of overexposure. They tend to require a little more care when scanning to get the colors to match what you remember when you took the photo. It will typically appear too cyan for my taste and need some corrections. Now on to specific lines of film, starting with positive films:
Fuji Velvia 50: If someone were to come to me right now as a beginner and ask what kind of film to get for landscapes I would recommend some Velvia 50 as soon as possible before it's all gone. They discontinued it in large format a couple years ago and I hear they will be doing the same with other formats soon. It may take a while before you can get exposure down perfectly with this film, but I think you should get some and keep it in the fridge, just so you have the chance to use it someday.
Velvia 50 is a great film when the scene isn't too contrasty to handle it. It's great at bringing out the vibrant detail in intimate scenes that are in open shade or overcast conditions. Typically if there is going to be sky in the photo you may need to use a graduated ND filter to darken it or Velvia may not be able to hande the range, depending on the time of day and the scene. Only use Velvia when you really, really want strong colors. While I find the colors to be very accurate in hue, it's easy for it to go over the top with saturation. Expose it very carefully, and I think it's true speed may be closer to 40 than 50. If you overexpose the highlights just a tad they will be completely lost. Most exposure times will be rather long if you're using this film during golden hour, so plan on using a tripod.
Fuji Velvia 100: Sometimes you want the strong colors but can't deal with the long exposure times of Velvia 50. Velvia 100 does a good job of filling in that gap, but it doesn't produce the same colors that Velvia 50 does at all. In my experience, it tends to have a strong magenta color cast, especially in the shadows that usually needs corrected after scanning. Don't get me wrong though, it's a good film and has been used quite a bit by me for those times when there just weren't long enough breaks in the wind to be able to take the several second exposures I'd need on Velvia 50.
This would be a good example of Velvia 100's strong magenta cast. It renders the deeper tones of open shade in a far more magenta tone that most other films in my experience. As long as you know what results you can get out of your films it can work to your advantage. I think it worked rather well for a saturated sunset over these mystifying rock formations. As of late 2014 it looks like this film is still available in all formats, though I'm not sure what future plans Fuji has for it.
Kodak E100G: This is a fantastic film that was unfortunately discontinued in March 2012. All of the large format sheet film is gone (except for really expensive stuff on ebay) but you may be able find it in medium format and 35mm at several online stores. This film has great dynamic range for a slide film and a very pleasing color palette for all situations. It had wonderful warm colors and a unique rendition of greens. Unfortunately I discovered it only months before it was discontinued and was only able to take a few good images with it.
I still have a couple rolls of E100G left and make a habit out of loading some up when fall arrives. If you don't mind getting emotionally attached to the film and then having your heart broken because you can't find it again, then I recommend getting some if you can. I also tried it's more saturated brother, E100VS a few times, but I never cared for the color palette it offered. I found it to render some magenta tones around sunrise as a brown hue.
Fuji Provia 100f: This is a great all around slide film and is always readily available. I assume Fuji consolidated all of their slide film production down to just this one film that is very usable and good for almost all slide shooting. Colors are still strong as it is a slide film but not over the top and it has reasonable dynamic range. I like it most when I'm photographing in the desert as it keeps the colors tasteful in rock formations and other bare earth. It does seem to always have a strong blue cast in the shadows, so I usually have to correct that after scanning. It can also be a good idea to use an 81B warming filter under most shooting conditions.
Above is a good example of Provia's usefulness in desert landscapes. It still has strong enough contrast to bring out the textures in the sand ripples, but it doesn't oversaturate the delicate hues of the morning light. When it comes to photographing sand dunes I tend to have almost all of my film holders loaded with Provia.
Fuji Astia 100f: This film was known for it's softer colors for a slide film, making it famous among portrait and fashion photographers but made it less popular with landscape photographers. I have only made a few good photographs with it, the one above being the best. This was possibly the strongest aplenglow colors I had ever seen. I knew that any other slide film would have likely made the mountains an overly powerful red that would have just been too much so I took the shot on Astia. This film has a bit of an odd warm, yellowish color cast in most cases that isn't always flattering for landscapes, though I have seen some photographers make outstanding photographs of river scenes with it. It also was discontinued some time in the last year, but it can still be found in some formats. As of late 2014, it looks like finding Astia would be a challenge. The only sources seem to be overpriced eBay auctions.
Now we're on to negative films:
Kodak Ektar 100: I just started using this film a few years ago and it has changed everything for me. Introduced in late 2008, it's a rather new film from Kodak. It has colors nearly as strong as slide film, but the dynamic range is just plain ridiculous. I find it to have very good greens and reds, and have had great luck using it to photograph waterfalls and rivers with lush green foliage around them. Usually the water appears too bright or the foliage too dark when using slide film. I still try to use graduated ND filters with Ektar, as keeping the exposure right around the middle zone will give the most accurate colors, I wouldn't recommend overexposing it the way you might with other color negative films. This film really works for all situations. The scene above would have previously been impossible for me to photograph. Using this incredible film, I was able to keep the backlit aspen bright and still have a blue sky behind them.
Ektar has pretty much become my go-to film for backlit scenes. When I'm ever worried at a scene may be too contrasty for any of my slide films I will often also take a shot on Ektar. It's always able to handle details in the shadows and even with the sun directly in the frame it does a good job of keeping it from washing out the sky. As a note, I will say that underexposed areas will become rather saturated which is common on negative films. Try to use that to your advantage but beware that it can easily become too much. I hope this film sticks around for a long time!
Kodak Portra 160 and 400: Portra is all about the subtleties. Soft colors, tons of detail and a dynamic range even better than Ektar. It handles highlights unlike anything else and usually looks good a bit overexposed. I find it to be a film for special purposes when it's qualities are exactly what you want. Not always ideal for landscapes if you are going for more of a strong color and contrast look. I use it frequently for my project on the oil industry around Weld County, as the soft colors and contrast are exactly the look I'm going for. The Portra VC(vivid color) and NC (natural color) lines were consolidated into this new film a few years ago and no longer exist. The new film is somewhere in between the two on color saturation and, as Kodak claims, it really does seem to scan better with more accurate colors. It's availability in 400 speed is fantastic for handheld shooting. It's my go-to film when walking around with my medium format camera. This film is in a league of its own.
I've recently taken a liking to Portra when used for bright snowy scenes. The low saturation of the film and high overexposure tolerance give a true white look to the snow without any unwanted color casts. Don't be afraid to really add a lot of exposure for a sunlit snowy scene with this film.
Fuji Pro 160NS: This recommendation is for my fans outside the US, as the film is hardly available without crossing an ocean in either direction. I was recently given a box of this film by a very kind and generous gentleman who lives in Europe, and I've been happy with the results so far. My initial impression is that it has a very unique rendition of green, looking far more like a slide film in some ways. It still has all the incredible dynamic range of a negative film and I was quite happy with the results along this foggy trail. If you live in a place where you can actually find this film it's certainly worth a try.
Quite often, someone will ask me what my favorite film is. As you can see, there is a reason to use just about each film so it is hard to choose favorites. They all have their purposes. One of the major benefits of shooting large format is that I can change the film type with every shot, instead of having to burn through a whole roll before moving on to the next one. While I recommend that people at least get some Velvia and E100G in the fridge while they are still available, I think that the best films to start with for landscapes would be Provia and Ektar. They are both good, all-purpose films and trying both positive and negative film will help you get an idea of what works best for you.
Next up is what to do with the film once you've gotten your perfect exposures. I get a lot of questions on how I scan and edit my color negative film, so I've written a blog post showing you my entire workflow for a sheet of Ektar. Check it out here.
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