A film for all seasons?
I've always loved Velvia RVP (now Velvia 50)
colour slide film, and for years it has been my exclusive choice,
no matter what country or what time of year or what time of day.
Its vibrant colours and fine detail make the results very satisfying...
but the ultra high contrast is sometimes a bane. It's true that
for countries blessed with strong light, like Australia, it is more
or less unbeatable, but in countries like Ireland, I've found more
and more that it's only really suited to high summer. Even then,
shadow areas fall abruptly into inky blackness devoid of detail.
Last winter I experimented with Fuji Provia
100F and this year I've also been trying Velvia 100 (not the -F
version). I've found that, at least in Northern Ireland, as the
seasons change so does my tendancy to reach for a particular film.
In summer Velvia 50 is my most likely choice. In the shoulder seasons,
including Autumn, Velvia 100 is preferable because it holds a little
more detail in the shadows as the light weakens in intensity yet
is very close to Vevia 50 in colour saturation and fine grained
detail resolution, and in the depths of winter when the sun arcs
lowest in the sky and is at its weakest, despite its much more muted
colours, I've found myself reaching for Provia 100F.
The more time you spend studying the quality of light - something
all addicted photographers do all of the time, the more you begin
to notice odd little things, like how deep into the grass the light
penetrates at different times of the year, or at different latitudes.
That sounds odd I guess, but after 6 years away from Australia this
was something that struck me about the quality of light there on
my last trip: it really gets down to where the grass comes out of
the ground, lighting the very base of the grass as well as the earth
underneath. The shot below, taken with my little digital compact,
shows what I mean. I know the relative thinness of the grass there
helps, but that's not the full explanation because even in northern
Europe there's a definite change through the seasons. In the depths
of winter the sunlight seems almost to stop right at the top of
the grass, leaving the lower levels quite dark compared to what
you'd see in mid summer.
Recently, something more insidious has been forcing me to consider
my choice of film just as much as artistic judgement - the fact
that traditional darkrom printing is on its way to being obselete.
I've known for a couple of years that many labs have been phasing
this out in preference of digital technology, but I didn't care
because the best printers for me (BPD Photech) have remained steadfast
in their dedication to the superior quality of hand printing Cibachrome
straight from slide in the darkroom. While there may not be much
difference at small sizes and for relatively bright subjects, darkroom
printing is definitely superior when printing large, and where light
levels include very bright or very dark spots. The kind of shots
I'm talking about are straight-at-the-sun shots near sunrise or
sunset, or shots that include dark shadowy areas of water, in fact
I guess it's generally where contrast is high, and this includes
a lot of my favourute shooting times, which tend to be around sunset
and sunrise, and maybe particularly after sunset. Darkroom prints
of film shots that include a strong sun, show it as you'd see it,
and the sun and its immediately surrounding sky looks completely
natural, but digital cameras, and even digital scans of film shots
have such wider exposure latutides that the sun and immediate surrounding
area burns out, loses colour, edge definition, and looks rubbish
and completely unnatural. Alas I can't illustrate that very well
in pictures on the site because it's a digital medium, but I'm sure
many of you know what I mean. It's even obvious in movies now because
they're being shot with digital HD cameras... and if a bright sun
looks unnatural on mega-buck movie cameras, what hope is there for
hardware at prices your average Joe can afford...
Anyway, with the sad news from BPD that they are soon to switch
to all digital, I find I have to now consider my film choice more
in terms of which will give enough shadow detail for a decent scan
(to print from), rather than which is the best combination of shadow,
colour, contrast and detail resolution - which is the purist way
of thinking, and how things should be, anything else is too much
compromise for my contentedness. BPD Photech have said they are
convinced that their new digital scan-and-print service will be
at least the equal of darkroom printing but for my low-light shots
I have enough experience of the limitations of current scanning
technology to be convinced that a lot of my after-sunset and high
contrast shots will not give satisfatory results from a digital
scan, unless they are prepared to spend hours painstakingly adjusting
the scan in Photoshop, and even then I'm dubious about what the
digital technology can extract from a slide compared to an enlarger
bulb. They invited film customers to test the new service, which
I'm on the verge of doing, so I'll report back with the results
soon. I have to admit though that I'm already saving in order to
get multiple darkroom prints of my favourite images before they
end the darkroom service...