Returning To Film:
An Exploration Of Film Choices For Landscape Photography
Recently, I developed an itch for shooting film again. I haven't used film in about 10 years. It's been a long time away. In fact, I sold my long-stashed-away Pentax MZ-7 and zoom lens in 2009 for about $50. I'm kicking myself for that now.
I'd figured digital was the only thing in my future and I'd never use the film camera again so, clean it out of the closet. Should have known. But not having that camera anymore gave me a chance to go back even farther in time as I searched through eBay listings.
I'm now using a Pentax K1000 and a 50mm f/2 lens for the purely nostalgic reason that this is the very first camera and lens combo I ever used when I got serious about photography. It just feels good in my hands – the weight, the construction, the irresistible feel of the shutter button and the satisfying sound of the curtains sliding open and closed. It's a great camera. And it was only $100, which in the world of expensive photography equipment feels like pocket change. Score! The only other gear I'm using is a tripod and a cable release. No piles of filters or various lens options. Just me, a camera and a handful of film.
Another new thing for me is dealing with a lab. Back in the day, I either developed film myself and printed my own prints in a darkroom, or gave my rolls to Costco and asked for 4x6s. Luckily a wonderful lab is right around the corner from me – they do a great job and are really helpful and supportive. That's important because it's kind of overwhelming and intimidating to wade into the film world again. And basically I'm starting out as a newbie. It's a really fun, though expensive and humbling, side hobby to my focus in wildlife and conservation photography.
The first thing I needed to do in this little venture was discover which film I like best. So I bought five different types recommended to me by various sources and started shooting.
All of the following is based on my experience of shooting 12 rolls of film, trying to figure out what I like most specifically for landscape photos. Every image shown below is how I got it back from the lab – except the Provia, for which I deepened the blacks in Lightroom and also show some side-by-side color corrections.
This is all in the spirit of fun and experimentation, and of course is entirely subjective. So enjoy what I've written here, and take it all with a grain of silver halide.
I will just start out with a favorite. Ektar 100 has quickly become my top choice for landscape photography. Okay, okay… I have only shot a few rolls. But I shot it after trying out four other film types. So I can say with some certainty, this one is easily a top choice. It isn't finicky about exposure and has amazing dynamic range. It handles contrast well, captures shadows and highlights without issue, the colors are wonderfully saturated without going overboard. This is just an easy-going, beautiful film and I love things that are easy-going and beautiful. I can't wait to load another roll into my camera and go on a hike.
I had a notion that I would really love Portra 160 for sunrises and my first roll proved my hunch was right. This film is about as easy-going as the Ektar in terms of happily capturing highlights and shadows and being forgiving when slightly under- or over-exposed. The difference is it has softer colors. Because I'm a big fan of rich colors, Ektar beats out Portra 160 for me, but only by a nose. I have another roll of Portra 160 in the fridge calling out to me and I'll be taking it on a sunrise hike soon.
This is a gorgeous slide film and I've seen it transformed into miraculous images in the hands of experienced film photographers. But for low-maintenance me, I found it to be too fussy. It doesn't handle contrasty scenes very well, so doesn't easily work for shooting into the light without needing graduated filters. It also leans toward blue tones, so a warming filter or color corrections of the scan are often needed. It does work pretty well if shooting toward the west at sunrise or east at sunset. When the light is more even, it seems to really shine.
Another thing is with slide film you have to be quite careful about your exposure. If you over-expose, your highlights are shot. If you under-expose, goodbye shadow detail. It is much too expensive both for the film and for processing costs for me to risk getting exposure wrong over and over again. So, while Provia is gorgeous, I've nixed it as an option for me for now. But I do love what it does with clouds.
Here's a sampling of images that show what Provia can do when shooting with soft light. Though, even here, I would want to do a touch of post-production work on these images before calling them done.
Here are a couple examples of the film's blue color cast. The original scan is on the left, and the image color-corrected to be more accurate to the scene is on the right. In the first example, I took a few frames of the ocean because I loved the pink light that was happening on the water at sunrise. But the film basically thumbed its nose at the pinks. And in the second example, the lichen I photographed is a very pale white-green color. The film picked it up with far more blue-green than it really has. A warming filter would probably have fixed this in camera. But I'm filter-free. I will probably come back to Provia in the future when I have more experience and can do what the film wants, rather than tangling in an (expensive) fight with it.
Fuji Pro 400h
It's no joke when people say this film is at its best when you over-expose. In the two test rolls I shot, the photos I liked the most were those that I over exposed by at least a stop or two. While it has a nice dynamic range and beautiful grain, this film is a bit ho-hum for me. I know folks love it for great skin tones and for events such as weddings where soft, cool colors are often preferred. But as someone who doesn't photograph people and who likes rich, warm colors and plenty of saturation in nature photos, I don't think I'll be picking up more 400h. Lovely film, just not for my use. But that's all part of experimenting. Have to try it to know for sure!
Ok, so the way I feel about Ektar 100 for landscapes is the way I feel about Portra 800 for walk-around general use film. I LOVE this film. It is so warm, so rich. The grain can admittedly be a little much sometimes, but that can be a plus in some ways. Having a lot of grain reminds me of the process of creating a photograph and feeling the overall mood and concept of an image, rather than analyzing the details for perfect sharpness and clarity. There's no pixel peeping in film! So a lot of grain is pretty much fine with me.
Though I am getting back into film for landscapes, I found myself mainly photographing my dog with Portra 800. He's always with me for these morning hikes, and I just leaned toward photographing him instead of the scene. I can't put my finger on why, but this film seems to make a lot more sense with a specific subject within a landscape, rather than as a landscape film. Maybe it's the grain after all — it just works with a live subject better than a landscape scene. Maybe it's the fact that at ISO 800 it's fast enough that I can actually hand-hold my camera at sunrise and sunset and so can more easily capture my dog in scenes. Maybe it's that I'm a wildlife photographer and not a landscape photographer so a frame doesn't feel quite complete to me unless there's an animal in it. I don't know. But I do know that for me, this is a must-have film for general use. Completely in love with it.
For example, I tried overexposing a couple frames of Portra 800 to see how well it can handle keeping highlights. I knew I was overexposing by a lot, so when I got Scan 1 back from the lab and saw the blown out highlights, I figured I just went beyond the abilities of the film. However, I liked the image enough that I wanted a larger scan file, so I took the negative back to the lab. Either another technician handled the scans or the first technician made a new choice about the brightness, because check out all the detail that was actually still on the negative that now shows up in Scan 2.
I understand the decision the technician made the first time around – the exposure here really gets the dog's face, and especially eyes, to stand out. But I much prefer Scan 2 because I have more flexibility to make adjustments to the scan in Lightroom, brightening the image to my taste without losing detail. I can't bring the detail back with Scan 1. So now I know to tell the lab that my preference is to have a nice bright image but to maintain detail in the highlights. Problem solved!
Technicians at the lab control much of the look of your final image, from exposure to color corrections. Check out the huge difference in the rescan below.
This is a great example of why learning how to communicate with a lab and getting on the same wavelength is such an important part of film photography. You work together to get the best image. (Unless of course you have your own film scanner. I tried that, and totally would rather have a lab do it for me!) Luckily, adjustments can be made at the lab or at home, so there is still quite a bit of flexibility for the final results.
If you want an analysis of film choices for landscapes from a pro, I've found this article by Alex Burke to be really helpful.
I'm entirely open to advice and input from experienced film users in the comments. Maybe what you have to say will save me some money in experimentation, and that I warmly welcome!
Originally published February 2016