Thursday, March 8, 2012


Velvia by Fuji Film is perhaps the single most famous family of modern slide films in existence1. It's actually a number of different films, but what they have in common is vivid (some would say garish) colour rendering that can really highlight nature scenes. That rendering does make it a less good choice for shooting people, though, as the bold colours that tend towards green can easily make your subjects resemble that of a seasick drunk. Which is not the impression you want to convey if you shoot, say, a wedding or a fashion show.

Velvia in its native habitat. Bold, vivid nature colours.

Slide films are a very small market even within the shrinking market for film in general. Some estimate that slide films are perhaps 5-6% of the entire film market and I have no trouble believing it. It's easy to see why: They're the most expensive films you can buy, and they tend to have short shelf-life. They have low latitude so you need to meter the light carefully or end up over- or underexposing them. They tend to have lower resolution than other film types. The large contrast means they're difficult to scan or print.

Modern negative films are really as good or better in every way, except that a properly treated slide film will give you an exact, repeatable colour rendering every time, and you can see the image right there on the negative. That is the reason magazines and other print have preferred slide film over other media.

Nara Institute of Science and Engineering, Nara.

But now, of course, digital cameras do it just as well — they have many of the same characteristics, with repeatable colour and high contrast — so the market for slide film, never big, has dropped off a cliff. The movie industry — the part that still haven't switched to digital — uses negative colour film, as do most hobbyists. It is cheaper, has much better latitude and tends to have better resolution. If you are going to scan the film, it's easy to adjust the final colour to your liking today, removing most of the advantage of slides. Kodak recently discontinued its last slide films, leaving Fuji as the sole manufacturer.

With that said, a slide image on a light table (or projected) is a beautiful sight to behold. There is something viscerally satisfying about the almost glowing colors that render even a mundane scene otherworldly beautiful. That glow does not quite translate into the scan or print, unfortunately, but it does give you something to aim for. And shooting slide film is fun if nothing else.

Nankinmachi, Kobe, at dusk.

Velvia is really made for nature photography. It pushes muted colours, greens especially, to make them clearer and more vivid. Drab leaves brighten up. Flat, rainy scenes glitter and sparkle. Autumn reds and yellows will pop. Of course, human skin will also "pop" and become ruddy and saturated, and any green tones will get exaggerated. It may give you a healthy outdoorsy look in some people, but make others look like they are drunk or suffer from high blood pressure. Man-made, colourful structures will tend to become overly garish.

Sunlit winter leaves.

For these reasons, Velvia has been considered a bad choice for portraits and street photography. I agree that you want something subtler for portraits, but I think it makes a fine film for street and urban photography. With digital photography, and with "HDR photography" especially, the goal posts have moved. With it-hurts-so-bad-I-must-claw-my-eyes-out hypersaturated images everywhere today, Velvia doesn't seem all that bold or saturated by comparison.

Shinsaibashi, Osaka. Note how the high contrast is a draback in this case; the film could barely capture both the sunlit and shaded areas at once.

Sakaisuji Honmachi
Sakaisuji Honmachi station, Osaka. This is home.

#1 Kodachrome, discounted a couple of years ago, is far more iconic but it was not a modern film by any means, and did not use the same chemistry as today's slide films.


  1. Slide film, oh yes! Surely digital has trampled most of it's usefulness but, backlit slides (I use sun reflected on a paper) or projected is a wonder. And there's a thing I love about slide film... the colours, that red (specially in kodachrome) is so brutal.

    I got in time just to catch the glimpse of Kodachrome and shot a bit of it. I'm of the last that can say they learned on this film. It was the first ever kind of slide I shot!
    I took 8 months of very careful and selective shooting + the risk of being new to it; that was October 09 to June '10.

    I want to buy a new stash of some color and don't know whether to go ektar and risk (they say it's a temperamental film) or try to catch some of the last consumer slide films. (I'm a poor student and bit of a cheapskate, heh) You might remember me saying I would try some, still haven't! I've shot TriX meanwhile, though.

    Being very busy studying can't find time anyways. Wasn't really shocked about the discontinuation of Ektachrome, the situation being bad for Kodak; sadly.

  2. Yes, the most depressing thing is medium format slides: you look at them on the light table and realize you can never, ever make them look nearly as good when you scan or print. Some day I would like to do 8x10 slide film photography, and not repro them at all, but simply mount them in frames with backlights.

    Actually, here in Japan slide development is cheaper than negative, so shooting slides ends up about the same price. Ektar is a good film, by the way; all you need to do is make sure you don't underexpose it. It can go a bit bluish if you do - nothing bad but noticeable.

  3. it-hurts-so-bad-I-must-claw-my-eyes-out

    thought you were exaggerating, until following that link.. instant migraine, wow-ow-ow.

    I have some thousand of slides, mostly Kodachrome with some Velvia, from a tour of the USA over the year 1992, which need looking at: remember some of them as worth keeping. As you say a good slide picture can be inimitably luminous.

  4. Doug, yes, that one is pretty bad. That said, I have dabbled in that genre myself, just for fun:

    I think it tells us something about the current visual zeitgeist that this is by far the most viewed of my pictures from this area, and one of my top 20 images by views in total.

  5. actually I kinda like that one ;-) it crosses over into the surreal, becomes more satirical than painful..

    the most popular image on my weblog is a drawing by my son.. so much for ego..

  6. I did make that image as satire (along with this one). I'm not about to do this kind of stuff seriously.

    But I have gotten a disturbing amount of comments asking, in all seriousness, how to achieve such wonderful results. Oh well.

  7. Well, after some thinking I got a pack of elitechrome on the web. Let's shoot again!

    Last saturday morning I went through my small slide archive, nostalgia hit.

    My desire for film shooting returned after I lost a folder full of files. I don't know why, but archiving and lasting is a little obsession of mine.
    Not to dismiss digital, but backing up, losing files... stuff that happens on PCs, rather bores me and drives me crazy. A price to pay for the convenience, it seems.

    About HDR, if it well done (subtle) it's quite acceptable, but the usual kind of eyebleeders just hurt.
    Talking of dynamic range, slide hasn't got much but it seems very elegant. Have some blown out parts of eg. Kodachrome (wild film) and it sofly goes to white.

    As of scanning, it's sadly the only way of printing nowadays. I will remain curious for what is Ilfochrome. I believe more tamed films will be easier to scan than Velvia.
    Well, it gets the essence of the slide. A MF+ tranny must be marvelous to look at.

    You can tell I had my philosophy class today, heh. So much ramblings.


Comment away. Be nice. I no longer allow anonymous posts to reduce the spam.