Observations on Velvia 100

Chisos Basin - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Chisos Basin – Big Bend National Park, Texas

I’ve always been curious about Velvia, the super saturated film that’s typically used for landscapes. I’ve heard about its legendary colors for years and now that I’m playing with film, I finally gave it a try.

I brought several rolls of Velvia 100, a reformulated version of the classic Velvia film (which is now called Velvia 50), to Big Bend. I got to use it for the majestic western landscapes both in medium format and 35mm. It was going to be great. Except, it didn’t exactly turn out that way.

Rockface, Boquillas Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Velvia is slide film, which is different. Unlike the easy to use negative film, Velvia can’t be overexposed or the highlights get blown, kinda like digital. It also lacks the large exposure latitude of standard (negative) print film. I knew this going in so I under exposed by about 1/2 stop. I also tweaked my exposures somewhat, depending on the scene. The problem was I over compensated — many of the images came out darker than I hoped. At least I didn’t blow out the sky.

Rio Grande at the Rest Stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

In retrospect, I probably should’t have worried about the sky for most of my landscapes. The dynamic range on slide film wasn’t going to capture everything anyway. So what if the sky looked white, as long as I properly captured the magnificent landscapes. Luckily, not all my photographs were a total loss. Lesson learned, hopefully.

No question, Velvia is colorful. I like bold colors and for the first time, in film or digital, I didn’t need to increase the saturation. But there is a bigger problem — I don’t like the Velvia colors. I find them too red and too cool. I generally prefer the warmer tones, like what I get with Kodak Portra 400, especially after I digitally increase the saturation.

Rio Grande at the Rest Stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Rio Grande at the Rest Stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Take a look at these two photos. I took the first one with Velvia 100 on the Mamiya 645E and the second with the Nikon 35Ti with Portra 400. Portra is a portrait film with muted colors but I like the effect when I add saturation in post processing. I realize this is a personal thing. I’m sure some prefer the look of Velvia.

Rio Grande at the Rest Stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

I took the same Velvia image and shifted the colors to warm it up. I’m getting a closer match but things are a bit off and the sky is a bit wonky and I still prefer the warmth of Portra. The good thing is, I’m not a film purist. I have no hesitation to digitally manipulate my film scans to make them match my “vision”. But I don’t have a desire to do extensive changes. It’s a lot easier to get the look I like from Portra than Velvia.

Sharp Rocks and the Rio Grande - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

I understand the attraction to Velvia though, pre-digital. When you couldn’t increase saturation, Velvia was the way to go. I wouldn’t like Portra, for example, if I couldn’t amp up its colors. But Digital post processing is a game changer for film. I get the warmth of analog tweaked the way I want it. And even with all this digital manipulation, I still find that film, even manipulated film, has a different feel from photographs created with a digital camera.

Sotal Vista Morning - Big Bend National Park
Window at Sunset, Chisos Basin - Big Bend National Park, Texas

The salient question for me is, should I continue to shoot Velvia 100? I can tweak its colors but negative film is a lot easier to shoot and it costs less too. If my results with Velvia aren’t materially better, is it worth it? I hear that classic Velvia 50 is warmer with more yellows. Perhaps I should try that instead of the newer Velvia 100.

I’ve just started my journey with film and I have a lot to learn. It certainly is challenging but fun, in a different kind of way, from pure digital photography. I think there is a place for both in my repertoire.

Formation at Chisos Basin - Big Bend National Park, Texas

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7 thoughts on “Observations on Velvia 100

  1. Andy, you might want to invest a few short rolls in testing your current processing source against others. Same subject matter, same camera, same settings. Yes, the results also should be the same. But you may find otherwise.

    1. Thanks for your suggestion, Mike. To my knowledge, however, I don’t think 120 film comes in shorter rolls, though 35mm does. While the shorter rolls of 35mm film costs a bit less, the cost of development and scanning is a good part of the expense. At Precision Camera, development and scans of 12, 24 or 36 exposures are the same price. BTW, on 120 film, I get 15 exposures per roll on my Mamiya 645E.

  2. This is interesting because I used to shoot Velvia almost exclusively for a number of years and I don’t remember the results ever looking like that. In fact it couldn’t have looked like that because I would have stopped using it after a couple of rolls. The colours were definitely punchy and saturated but they were so across the whole range. Mike’s advice may be worth a try.

  3. Andy

    I have been following your blog for a little while, following a link posted by Kirk Tuck, and thought I would provide you with a little feedback concerning your recent posts about using film.

    First of all, your experience using Velvia 100 is a bit similar to mine. After using a few rolls I felt it was too kluge-y (if this is a word) or wonky and dropped it like a hot rock. I did not bother to shoot the few rolls I had after my first few I had developed. Even as bad as I thought it was, the 100 was still a warm film. So if you don’t think the 100 gives very warm colors you are probably being done in by the amount of under exposure you used, and possibly development is playing a roll.

    On the other hand, once you learn how to use Velvia (the original 50) it is wonderful and when you get it working to your advantage, it will give you results that can be similar in resolution to your Canon 6D. Though to do this you really need to nail your exposures, plus your developer needs to have firm control of the E6 process. Fortunately I think Austin still has a good professional film lab in Holland Photo Imaging. Don’t waste your time & funds at a non-professional lab. If cost is a factor forgo the scanning for a while or scan only the best images.

    So should you try Velvia [only the 50 is worthy of the name]? Absolutely! Though here are some things to keep in mind to get the most out of the film.

    1. Velvia is really a 40 ISO film, not 50. Fuji prints 50 on the box to trick us into under exposing by 1/3 stop which produces the most vivid colors; this is true for most slide films. So manually set your ISO to 40 and bracket +/- 1/3 stop for your important images, or all images while you are starting out.
    2. Always use a polarizing filter outdoors. The question is not when you do use a polarizer, it is when you do not use one. Velvia is a very high contast film and you probably have pretty high contrast lenses, so a polarizer is needed to bring up the tonal differences in similar colors, which highlights the details in your subjects. This is very true of almost all lenses made by the Japanese camera companies, and all slide films. Adding a lens shade is also helpful.
    3. Always use a good tripod. Since you will be using a slow film and using a polarizing filter, you need to think big, heavy, and stiff. Carbon fiber is a great material and can give you some flexibility, but there is such a thing as being too lightweight. Adding weight to a super light tripod is not the same thing.
    4. Calibrate your camera’s internal light meter to your lenses. Most people accept the results that the camera light meter gives without questioning the result. When the mechanical tolerances in your lenses can have a big effect on the ultimate exposure you get. To do this get a grey card and use the Sunny 16 Rule in bright sunlight to calibrate the meter for each lens. Do this by setting the camera to ISO 50, the lens aperture to f16, and the shutter speed to 1/50 or the closest setting you have. Fill the frame with the gray card in bright sunlight and check the exposure; ideally this set up will be correct for each lens. Adjust the ISO until the meter shows proper exposure for this setting. The difference between the final ISO setting and the original setting, is the amount of compensation needed for this lens on this camera; I have had variations of +/- 2/3’s of a stop and different results on different cameras. Repeat this for each lens you have, and each film speed you intend to use, as older meters can vary with setting. If there is a lot of variation label it right on the camera so it is easy to find. Fortunately this only needs to be done once in a while.
    5. Shoot in the golden hours of the day, or under even light.

    Concerning Portra 160/400 film much of the above will help, with the exception of the exposure setting. Unlike slide films, print films generally benefit from some over exposure. So for Portra 160/400, I would suggest over exposing between 2/3 and one full stop. Also, using a polarizing filter can help with tonality and details, but it will not bring out a deep blue sky on print film the way it does on slide film. The reason for this is the orange film base does not allow the deep blues to develop the way the clear film base in slide film does.

    As you go forward with film, select one or two and get to know them well. Don’t try several in rapid succession, as you won’t get much from any of them. Film does have a personality and you need to take time to get to know it.



  4. I just shot rolls of Velvia 100 for the first time using my Pentax K1000. After getting the prints back, I noticed all the sky shots were overexposed and all white. Google brought me here after searching for the issue. Such a shame, I’m hoping I can fix them in photoshop.

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