I’ve always sought to try something new almost every couple of weeks to keep photography interesting. With digital photography, something “new” was usually expensive gear, or a strange technique, or a new lens. When I moved to film photography, trying something new each week got a whole lot easier. Anytime I wanted to experience something totally new, I could just test a new film stock.
I began my journey with the cheapest film I could find. My local CVS sold three packs of Fuji Superia and Kodak Gold, so I was well-outfitted for quite a few weeks. Eventually I found my way to Cinestill, and was hooked on their films’ unique qualities for another month or so. Since those first weeks I’ve used almost every type of film being produced today, and after all of this time it’s hard to choose my favorite film.
Portra 160 is too muted. Portra 400 costs about ten bucks per roll. At almost fifteen dollars per roll, Cinestill has become prohibitively expensive since I’m such a prolific shooter. I eventually sought an affordable, professional quality film with the characteristics I love – fine grain, saturated colors.
At just under nine dollars a roll, Kodak Ektar 100 is a mid-priced film sitting somewhere between cheap stocks (three to four dollars) and the more expensive, previously mentioned films. Kodak describes Ektar as having “the World’s Finest Grain,” and it lives up to the hype. I’ve captured some of the most beautiful landscapes in ultra fine detail. So while I’m not positive that it’s my favorite film, there’s one thing that I can say – I find myself shooting Kodak Ektar 100 most frequently.
What is Kodak Ektar
The original Kodak Ektar film was first produced in 1989. This color negative film (C-41 process) was available in 25, 100, 400, and 1000 ISO, and was marketed as a semi-professional, fine-grain, ultra-saturated color film suitable for product photography, landscapes, and studio work. However, market segmentation lead to poor sales, and Ektar was discontinued in 1994 (though the 400 ISO version remained available for another few years – likely old stock overflow). Ektar’s replacement, officially, was the Kodak Royal Gold line (itself discontinued when Kodak released the new Ektar).
The modern Kodak Ektar 100 is a color negative film introduced in 2008 as a successor to the original Ektar. Like that older film, current Kodak Ektar is specialized for applications in which ultra-fine grain and high color saturation are desirable traits. It’s only available as an 100 ISO film (keeps that pesky market unsegmented), but it comes in multiple formats – 35mm, 120 medium format, and in 4×5 and 8×10 sheets.
Today, Ektar is commonly regarded as the finest grain film for color photography. It’s remarkably sharp and ultra-saturated, traits that seem to be gaining traction in the popular opinion. Within the film photography zeitgeist, I’ve anecdotally seen a shift from the omni-popular Portra and Cinestill toward Ektar 100. I’ve no hard data, of course, but it seems that Ektar is making a comeback and getting the recognition it deserves. And if I’m right, I see why. After my first few rolls of Ektar I immediately fell in love. It’s now my go-to film, especially easy to love, since it costs less than the most popular films (even if just a little bit less).
My Experience with Ektar
A few months after Christmas in 2019, I ran out of film and needed a supply of rolls that would occupy me for a few more months. However, I wasn’t ready to buy twelve rolls at the prices that Cinestill demands. This is when I found Kodak Ektar 100. I was immediately drawn to the idea of a pro-level film at a reasonable price (it’s the only reason I bought it, in fact). And, the rest is history! The first time I shot Ektar 100 was for its exact intended purpose – landscape photography. Everything that I read told me that Ektar 100 was truly meant for capturing landscapes. So, I went hiking with a few of my friends.
I packed my day bag with Ektar 100 and three different cameras, while my friends packed fruit snacks and granola bars. We traveled to Ralph Stover State Park, also known as High Rocks. The park was originally meant for rock climbing, and loose carabiners can be found along multiple trails. Now, the hiking trail has been opened with access to a ravine accompanied by a clean, flowing canal. The park provided endless beauty, certainly up to the task of testing a new film stock.
Antsy, I developed the film as soon as I had a chance. As I watched my negatives dry, I noticed a more bluish tint compared to the normal brown and red combination that some stocks might give. I could tell the colors were going to be something I was not used to, but to be honest, I was ready for something brand new. Something “brand new” was exactly what I got.
I was comfortable shooting in color. Before testing much of Kodak’s film, I started my film journey with Cinestill and Fuji. I noticed Fuji’s stocks were loaded with green tones and Cinestill’s stocks had a pastel look in the daylight, with bold, warm tones when exposed at night. When I scanned my first roll of Ektar, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s extreme saturation.
Remembering the hike from days before, the greens of the trees and the yellows of the rocky caverns, I was sure that these were shown in my photos to be far more vibrant than reality. It’s true, what they say, that Kodak Ektar is ultra-saturated. No color is left behind; nothing is muted. Ektar scans remind me of my time with digital photography when I would turn the saturation and vibrance dial up all the way (just to see the results).
After hiking in the woods of Ralph Stover, with its palette of heavy greens and subtle reds, I decided to test my new film in different settings. I took a roll to the coast of Sea Isle City, New Jersey. Like any shore town, it’s a place loaded with heavy blues and varieties of light pastels, comfort colors. My father and I drove around until we found something interesting to shoot. We pulled over at the foot of the bridge that connects the shore points of Sea Isle City and Avalon.
The scene was dominated by shades of blue, speckled with rocks lining the sea providing yellows and browns. Boats sailing by provided whites that popped amongst the surrounding deepness of color. I was able to compose some pretty decent shots. Locals were fishing. Tourists were riding jet-skis. The bridge was lifting for boats passing by.
I was less frantic to develop this roll as I’d dealt with Ektar before, but I should’ve been frantic so I could see these as soon as possible. The way Ektar treated the blues of the Atlantic was absolutely beautiful. The way Ektar treated the water’s reflection on the clouds was even better. As I reviewed the pictures taken farther inland, I noticed Ektar always seems to render the sky beautifully. The shadows within the clouds were always lifted while the highlights were dragged down. So the shape of the clouds are clearly visible to the naked eye with a thorough presentation of blue in the shadows. I was becoming obsessed with Ektar.
Continuing this obsession, I decided to combine the two treatments of yellow and blue by taking a roll of medium format Ektar to a brick railroad bridge crossing over the Delaware River. I thought that my compositions of the bridge came out beautiful, but there was something interesting I noticed with the frames I took while at that location. I was accompanied by the same friend that guided me around Ralph Stover. With the composition we wanted to created, I had him wear a short sleeve hoodie with a bandana and walk along the train tracks. The shots turned out nice. But this is where I learned how Ektar treats lighter skin tones. Turns out, when you turn the saturation and vibrance dial all the way to a hundred, lighter skin tones don’t look particularly normal.
Wanting to learn more about this, I dedicated yet another roll of Ektar 100 to a portrait project I had in mind. They did not turn out well. Although that’s not necessarily fair. In a sense they turned out fine. The compositions are really nice. I shot what I intended to shoot. But my subjects’ skin was shown either super red, yellow, or orange depending on the reflections of the surrounding landscapes. The results left me torn. I’d been obsessed with Ektar. But, how am I supposed to capture memories of my family and friends if their skin always looks like they’ve just finished applying their fourth layer of clown makeup?
I decided to compromise. Yes, Kodak Ektar is a film meant for landscape, but that doesn’t mean skin tones can’t be fixed. Most of the time skin tones are redder in the highlights, which I think can be easily looked over. So, I continue to use Ektar. The portraits I take don’t seem to turn out as “normal” as they would with stocks like Kodak Gold or Portra. But the beauty that this stock draws from the landscapes I capture is too grand to steer away just because I don’t like how it treats certain skin tones.
My final thoughts on Kodak Ektar 100? This is a film stock that will always be at the top of my list. Next time I plan a trip where I know I’ll be shooting film, Ektar will always be packed. If I can, I’ll take multiple rolls. I will, however, always carry along stocks that treat skin politely for when I want to capture memories of friends and family that won’t make them look overly saturated.
Ektar 100 is a special film. For me, it’s made for compositions where the final image will look different (a good different) from the real world. This stock is something that brings a vibrance to pictures, even to places that seem to have none. For that reason, Ektar 100 will always have a place in my heart.
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Great review of Ektar and interesting results! I’ve also just stepped into the world of Ektar but my results have been way less saturated than yours. I also self develop and scan maybe its just a difference in our process. What software are you using to convert your negative images?