For my thirteenth birthday I was given a Canon Sureshot 105 Zoom camera and a booklet explaining, among other things, how to load the film, frame a photo correctly, and shoot without getting your fingers in the frame. One page that I still remember today explained ISO values, and that sunny, outdoor shots were best made with a low sensitivity 200 ISO film, whereas indoor or fast-moving subjects needed something in the 800 or even 1600 range. The example given in the booklet was some kind of indoor jousting tournament, which on reflection was rather specific and a little bit bizarre. But what’s more bizarre to me now, is that it’s becoming harder and harder to find these high ISO films.
For black-and-white shooters, there are still at least a handful of films for late-night shoots. Ilford’s Delta 3200 and Kodak’s recently re-introduced T-Max P3200 are extremely high quality options. But for color film, and most photographs are made in color, it’s a different story.
In today’s world of phone cameras, is there still a need for high ISO color film? Film producers seem to think not. Fast color films have been cut from manufacturers’ rosters in recent years with alarming frequency. Fujifilm, the serial destroyer of film stock, have axed five of their high-sensitivity color films in the past few years (Press 800 and 1600, Superia 800 and 1600, and FujiColor 800). According to Wikipedia, there even used to be an 800 ISO version of the old faithful Agfa Vista film (but no longer).
[Shots in the gallery below were made by James on Fuji 1600, and would’ve likely been impossible on any slower film.]
Pushing film has always been an option for photographers trying to get the most flexibility from their rolls – this is achieved by tricking the camera into assuming the loaded film is a higher ISO than it is, taking the shots, and then compensating during the developing process. But this technique is most useful with black-and-white film where it’s not unheard of to push by two, three, or even four stops. Conventional wisdom advises to meter for the highlights if you fancy doing this, and my own personal advice would be “Remember To Label Your Film” – otherwise all that trickery will be for naught!
Kodak Tri-X is the king of pushing, as I’ve found on more than one occasion, and suits itself well to stand developing, my favourite method of lazy home development.
But color film is trickier to push. Doing so can can yield good results when we keep things chill, pushing just a single stop for example. But push any farther and things can quickly come undone (depending on what film we’re shooting). Excessive pushing with color film can easily lead to extremely chunky grain, or color shifts, or low-contrast images that simply look under-exposed.
All is not lost.
Kodak seems to be the only company still producing higher sensitivity color film, but even they have limited their production these days. Where they used to produce numerous variants of 800 speed color film (Kodak Max 800, Kodak Zoom 800, etc. – all the same film with different branding) now there is only Portra. This legendary range, beloved for its pastel tones and excellent rendering of skin tones, is available in the slower 160 speed, but also the mid-speed 400 and the high-speed 800 – all with a consistent colur palette, excellent sharpness and good availability.
[Shots in the galleries below were made by the author, Charlotte Davis.]
So why should we need anything more than Portra? Choice and preference (and cost).
My personal preference is a film that will, undoubtedly, bring me nothing but pain as the years go on. I just adore Fujifilm’s color rendering. I love how heavily-saturated the Superia line of films is, how the green of the grass pops against the red of a picnic blanket. I adore the crisp, inky blacks, and the way the vignetting of my XA4 darkens the corners to produce even deeper, almost indigo blue skies.
I’m not one for subtlety – I want party colors, brash and bold, and I want to be able to keep shooting well into the evening. For this reason, my few rolls of the now-discontinued Superia 800 left in the fridge will be used up this summer, then I’ll revert to the 400 ISO version, and see how well it handles being pushed.
What I find interesting is that both Kodak and Fujifilm are still producing and selling disposable one-time use cameras that come preloaded with their 800 ISO films (at the time of this writing). In fact, Lomography used to offer 800 ISO color film as well, though it’s fairly certain that these were rolls of the same Kodak 800 film found in the same mentioned disposable cameras, repackaged for Lomo (not that that’s a bad thing).
Whether or not Lomo’s 800 ISO film will come back (it’s currently unavailable) is hard to say. And whether or not the disposable cameras being sold today are simply sell-offs from a massive run of older production is equally opaque. No one outside the walled towers in Rochester and Tokyo knows the answers to these questions.
An outsider might also be found in cinema film – film that’s typically used for movies, but now often repurposed for still photography use. Cinestill offers its 800T tungsten-balanced film, which is also sold directly by Kodak under its original name, 500T (albeit without the remjet layer removed – you can read all about this in our review). Being tungsten-balanced means this film stock is geared towards use under warmer electric light, and can look quite cold in daylight. This can be easily corrected with a blue filter, or in post-production if you’re using a camera unable to accept filters.
Perhaps all is not lost – for now, at least, we still have Portra, we still have Superia 400 (which isn’t speedy enough, to be honest), and the occasional roll of super expensive cine film.
For me, these are not enough options. I lament the loss of Superia 1600, the old Agfa emulsions, and even the days when Kodak was making Max 800 and (the much less-known) Ektar 1000. Can you imagine Ektar at 1000? Perhaps more poignant than that, can you imagine a future in which we wax poetic about high-sensitivity color film on the whole in the same way the old folk do for Kodachrome slide film today? I hope that future never comes. But it looks like it might.
What are your favourite high-sensitivity colour film stocks? If you can think of any I’ve missed, let me know in the comments – I always need an excuse to fill up the film fridge with a few more rolls.