A film for all seasons? (November 2010)

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...