Speed Demons
The New Breed Of High Speed Print Fims

As recently as five years ago, few serious photographers routinely used fast color negative films. Any product over ISO 160 was considered only for problem solving: to be used when the "best" film would not achieve the desired effect. Today, however, even top wedding photographers routinely shoot ISO 400 print films on location. I have interviewed many who do not hesitate to reach for ISO 800 rolls when shooting handheld or in late afternoon light. Thanks to the significant advances in emulsion technology, the best of the new fast films are genuinely excellent.

Photo enthusiasts and snapshooters also benefit from the superior fast films. They're ideal when using a "slow" f/5.6-6.3 zoom lens or a compact camera with an even slower lens: f/10 to f/13, for example. A high ISO film allows for faster shutter speeds to reduce image blur from camera shake, "freeze" an action subject, or allow the use of smaller apertures for more depth of field. It can also extend the effective range of flash, a real plus with small, built-in flash units. Particularly with slow lenses, ISO 400 should be the standard choice in daylight, while ISO 800 should be used in heavily overcast conditions or indoors.

After recently shooting eight of the "new, improved" fast films, plus a new super-speed ISO 1600 product, I'm a convert, too. From now on, I won't hesitate to use a fast film even when testing lens/shutter compact cameras. My 8x12 prints from the best of these films, all in 35mm format, are superb. The grain is surprisingly fine, sharpness and resolution are high, and colors are fully saturated.

Review Procedure
I decided to shoot several rolls of each film, sometimes of the same subject for side-by-side comparison. However, one exposed roll of Konica Centuria 800 was lost during a hand inspection of my films at an airport and Fujicolor Superia 800 samples were not available until much later. Test subjects included the stained glass windows and statues inside cathedrals; people; Las Vegas night, daylight, and interior scenes; and the gorgeous red rocks of the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Due to limitations of space, we can only publish a few of the images, but this review is based on an examination of numerous prints including a broader variety of subject matter and lighting conditions.

For the sake of consistency, all of my images were printed by the same minilab. Custom printing or the use of different papers may have improved some of the prints, but the vast majority of photo enthusiasts do not routinely patronize custom labs due to the high cost. Thankfully, my lab, Milton Photo, is owner-operated and dedicated to very high standards of quality control. After years of experience, I know that they can produce fine results with films of all brands and types.

Film Reports

Agfacolor Vista 400
When my rolls were first printed, some had a blue cast; reds were weak and any blue subject matter seemed unusually prominent. This was solved when reprints were made with the overall balance done slightly warmer. My 8x12 prints of Las Vegas exteriors exhibit colors with high accuracy and moderately high color saturation; the reds and greens are especially bold and vivid. In red rock landscapes, the subject is not nearly as richly red as with some other films. Blue sky and water appear quite different than in prints from other brands of film, but are certainly pleasing.

At a normal viewing distance (3+ ft) grain is not visible in my 8x12s; under close examination, the grain structure appears fine and even. Sharpness and resolution of intricate detail is high, but not excessively so, preferable for close-ups of people. As with most fast film, contrast is moderately high, increasing the impression of sharpness. In extremely contrasty conditions, some detail was maintained in both shadow and highlight areas.

Evaluation. This film's color balance is a bit cool. On overcast days or in open shade, use an 81A filter, or ask your photofinisher to print it with a warmer balance. This would not be my preferred film for landscape photography with a lot of earth tones, but it does produce excellent results with colorful city scenes and in people pictures. If you dislike the super-saturated colors of some films, you may prefer the Vista 400 rendition, which tends to be more faithful, if not as dramatic.

An ideal scene for checking film characteristics, this Las Vegas "skyline" includes various hues and tones, blue sky (where grain is usually most noticeable) plus intricate detail and high contrast lighting. For reasons explained in the text, Fujicolor 800 and Konica Centuria 800 prints of this subject are not available. (New York, New York Hotel; polarizer.)
Photos © 2001, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

Agfacolor Vista 800
Bearing a strong family resemblance, this film appears almost identical to Vista 400 in 4x6 prints. In my 8x12 enlargements, contrast appears a bit higher, an advantage in the flat light of an overcast day. Sharpness is not quite as high, but that's noticeable only in a side by side comparison of prints. Grain is more visible, but still very fine in properly exposed prints. Color saturation is slightly lower but pleasing overall, with rich blues and greens; indoors with flash, reds seem surprisingly bold and well saturated.

Like most ISO 800 and faster films, Vista 800 should not be underexposed because the more prominent grain begins to obscure fine detail. For the best results indoors, overexpose Vista 800 by 1/3 stop to shed grain and enrich colors. Avoid further overexposure because dark backgrounds become a bit "smoky," brownish instead of rich, deep black.

Evaluation. My comments are similar to those made for Vista 400. Although this is a faster film, its contrast is not excessively high. However, I also want to re-emphasize the importance of proper exposure. When in doubt, overexpose slightly using exposure compensation. If your lens/shutter camera does not have such a control, try this: take the light meter reading from a subject that is slightly darker than a mid tone or is in light shadow. Maintain pressure on the shutter release button to hold this exposure (AE Lock) value while recomposing. (Note: Not all lens/shutter cameras have this feature.) With proper exposure, especially outdoors, Vista 800 produces beautiful 4x6 prints and 8x12 enlargements that will satisfy most viewers.

My bracketed series of this colorful subject (artist unknown) confirms the characteristics of Fuji Superia 800: enhanced color rendition, high sharpness, snappy contrast, fine grain, and wide exposure latitude.

Fujicolor Superia X-TRA 800
The last of the new films to reach me (weeks after my shooting trips), X-TRA 800 made an immediate impression. As we looked through the 4x6 prints, several friends assumed that I had used an ISO 200 product. Grain is invisible, sharpness is high, and colors are surprisingly rich and brilliant for a fast film, especially blues, purples, and reds. High contrast certainly increases the apparent sharpness and a high D-max (maximum density) assures that black backgrounds are richly dark.

The enlargements are pleasing, too, reminiscent of those from Superia 400: almost as fine-grained and sharp, moderately warm in balance, but more contrasty. Photos of a cathedral interior, with mixed lighting plus dark unlit areas, clearly illustrate this: some highlight details are blown out (excessively bright) when I exposed for the shadows. However, stained glass windows and multicolored outdoor subjects produce high visual impact, with very vivid hues and tones.

Evaluation. This ISO 800 product could become a standard, all-purpose film for those using slow zoom lenses. Of course, they must like enhanced colors and a "punchy" overall look. Most of my bracketed images (at 2/3 stop increments) look great, except those made in extremely contrasty conditions, as mentioned earlier. Even so, the surprisingly wide exposure latitude should make this film useful with affordable lens/shutter cameras without a highly sophisticated light metering system.

Fujicolor Superia 1600
The fastest of all the new films tested, this ISO 1600 product would not be considered an all-purpose film by most photographers. How-ever, the high ISO would be useful with a lens/shutter camera with a long zoom with very small maximum aperture at the long end. My 4x6 prints of outdoor scenes are sharp and very colorful, while indoor shots (with flash) of floating gondolas at the Venetian resort are bold and vivid; reds and blues are particularly rich. When I did not use flash in a DC cathedral, colors are still highly acceptable (though not quite as vivid), in spite of the very unusual mix of artificial lights. With slight underexposure, grain becomes prominent and begins to obscure fine detail. This improves with slight overexposure, although contrast becomes even higher. When overexposed a 1/2 stop, my photos of stained glass windows and of statues (especially with flash)--are quite pleasing: colorful, sharp, and without a muddy look; black backgrounds are richly rendered thanks to a good D-max. In my 8x12 prints, grain is certainly noticeable, but the pattern is even. The color in a red rock landscape is a bit flat, and the film seems to emphasize the bluish shrubs; hence, this would not be my first choice for earth-tone subjects. However, outdoor Las Vegas scenes appear sharp and fully saturated with reds and greens especially striking. Only on close examination does the lower resolution of fine detail become noticeable; it's caused by prominent grain to some extent. Even so, the general effect is sharp, bright, and colorful.

Evaluation. Since Fuji's ISO 800 product is superior, I would use that slower film for richer colors and the higher sharpness and resolution important in 8x12 prints. Still, it's great to have an ISO 1600 film that produces great 4x6 prints and highly acceptable 5x7 enlargements in low-light conditions. Think of Superia 1600 as a problem-solving film. Carry a few rolls in your bag for situations where flash or tripod is not allowed or for shooting indoor sports. You'll be pleasantly surprised with the results, especially if you overexpose indoor scenes by a 1/2 stop.

Kodak Supra 400
This is a professional film with similarities to the new Max Zoom 400. Its colors are equally rich, bold, and vibrant--especially the reds, greens, and blues of a Las Vegas scene. Skin tones are natural though a bit light. Color balance is warm (toward the yellow) and contrast is high, ideal during the heavy overcast in Sedona, Arizona. With the red rock landscape, this film produced the most stunning prints, with rich, warm, brilliant reds. Overall, its colors produce high visual appeal in most any situation.

My 8x12 prints are very sharp, with especially high edge sharpness, helped in part by the very snappy contrast. Grain is almost invisible even in images that were underexposed by 2/3 stop; resolution of fine detail is moderately high. Some of the overexposed prints were too bright; frankly, I found no need to overexpose Supra 400 because grain is already so fine and colors so bold.

Evaluation. Because this is a contrasty film, it's not ideal for portraits in bright light; the results can be somewhat harsh. In contrasty light, fill flash is useful with nearby subjects. As well, not everyone loves the "amplified" color saturation. Some photographers will certainly prefer Portra 400 (not reviewed with this group) for its more accurate colors and lower contrast. Personally, I would stick with Supra 400 for general photography because most viewers are impressed with its rich, warm, and dramatic color rendition.

Kodak Supra 800
The 8x12 prints of a Las Vegas scene appear almost identical to those made with Supra 400. On closer examination, I noticed that sharpness and resolution are a bit lower, although again, high contrast makes for a snappy look. As well, the colors are a tad less vibrant, especially blue skies. The color balance is warm, although a lab could produce prints with less of a yellow cast, if desired.

Frankly, many viewers appreciate the warm balance, even though it makes colors appear less accurate. Surprisingly, the Supra 800 prints of red rock formations are not nearly as richly saturated as those from Supra 400.

Evaluation. This is another of those ISO 800 products that could become the single, all-purpose film for those who frequently need higher shutter speeds. Sports and travel photographers especially will impress viewers and clients with the bold colors; few will ever suspect they used ISO 800 film, due to its surprisingly fine grain. Again, others will prefer a less contrasty film with more "realistic" colors, and will choose Portra 800 instead.

When printed with care, Kodak Portra 800 film produces pleasing, accurate skin tones and vivid colors. Contrast is not too high so the overall effect is not harsh and detail is maintained in both highlight and shadow areas. (Venetian Resort, Las Vegas; flash.)

Kodak Portra 800
This portrait film exhibits lower contrast, preferable in harsh lighting when shadow and highlight detail are both important. It's also more suitable for portraiture, wedding and team photography, etc. Colors in the Las Vegas scene appear fully saturated and color balance is moderately warm. The red rock formations and blue sky are not as boldly rendered as with Supra 800; although the color balance is still warm, they appear more faithful to the original scene.

In terms of sharpness, resolution, and grain, the 8x12 prints are similar to those from Supra 800. Although the Supra prints seem sharper at first glance, the resolution of intricate detail appears to be a bit higher in the Portra 800 prints. In my 4x6 prints of portraits made indoors with flash, skin tones were ruddy; when making 8x12 prints, the lab produced more accurate results. A pro or custom lab should be even more successful with skin tones and may also use a paper with lower contrast.

Evaluation. I do not want to characterize Portra 800 as a film with flat contrast and dull colors. In fact, the contrast is pleasing and moderately snappy, but without the harsh look produced by more contrasty films. And colors are still fully saturated, but without that "enhanced" effect. At one time, portrait and wedding photographers may have preferred a more subtle film. Today, their clients probably want a slightly more striking effect and Portra 800 will meet their demands.

Konica Centuria 400
Until recently, Konica seemed to primarily target snapshooters, but this has changed since the introduction of the improved Centuria films. My 4x6 prints from Centuria 400 exhibited high sharpness and bold color saturation, vivid but not enhanced hues and tones. A noticeable magenta cast actually enhanced the look of red rocks and any earth-toned buildings in Las Vegas.

In my 8x12 prints, sharpness and resolution are moderately high; grain is visible, but the pattern is quite fine. Reds, greens, yellows, and blues are especially rich. The red rock formations appear vivid, but without an "exaggerated" color rendition. Contrast is snappy but not excessive. My enlargement of the Vegas "skyline" also had a noticeable magenta cast. I asked for a reprint and this was solved, but the second print seems cool, without the striking effect of the first.

Evaluation. Those who like fully saturated films with a warm balance will appreciate this fine all-purpose film. It seems to handle underexposure well, making it suitable for lens/shutter compact cameras. Labs unfamiliar with Konica films may not get the color balance right on the first try, although a magenta cast is actually very pleasing with certain subjects, such as fall colors and other earth tones. It may also help to counter the green cast created by fluorescent lighting, useful for some indoor photography or city skylines in the evening. However, if you're not happy with the results, ask for a reprint.

Konica Centuria 800 produces pleasing images indoors under mixed lighting, especially when slightly overexposed or when flash is used. (Caesars Palace, Las Vegas; 1/2 stop overexposure from mid-tone reading.)

Konica Centuria 800
The lab produced 4x6 prints with a similar color rendition and a pleasing magenta cast; however, I noticed that the color of the red rocks was richer when underexposed a 1/2 stop. The grain pattern is smooth but certainly more noticeable than with Centuria 400. I shot a lot of this film in low light, inside two cathedrals where the high speed was very useful. Without flash, icons and statues lacked some sparkle and colors were not as vivid as in outdoor photography. When I used flash to photograph colorfully dressed people indoors, the results were better, with richer reds but fairly subtle blues.

Contrast is high but the 8x12 prints are very sharp; most colors are vivid outdoors or when flash is used and skin tones are a bit ruddy but pleasing.

Evaluation. Underexposed images taken indoors seem quite grainy and this degrades fine detail; colors become a bit muddy, too. A 1/2 stop of overexposure certainly helps both factors, but dark backgrounds then become a bit "smoky." I preferred this film for outdoor scenes and it would be useful when fast shutter speeds are required with slow zoom lenses or for sports photography. Note: It is extremely difficult to reproduce all image characteristics with absolute fidelity on the printed page. Hence, if the illustrations do not seem to exactly match the written analysis of each films characteristics, rely on the text as the accurate representation of the prints.

Tech Notes
Each manufacturer publishes information as to the technology, specifications, and intended characteristics of their films, but the amount of data varies significantly. Kodak's tech notes for example, provide neither resolving power nor RMS Granularity data; they provide the Print Grain Index instead. This is not comparable to RMS data. Note that all of the following information was provided by the manufacturers.

Agfacolor Vista 400 And 800
The primary improvement is in color fidelity, with Eye Vision technology for more accurate results under fluorescent lighting, in green fabrics, and with blue-colored flowers. Vista 800 is an entirely new film with its fine grain due to more sensitive Surface Extended Multi-structured crystals. Six DIR couplers enhance color rendition, sharpness, and granularity. Color couplers in the interlayers also increase the efficiency of the SXM crystals and produce finer granularity.
RMS Granularity Values: Vista 400: RMS 4.5. Vista 800: RMS 5.0.
Resolving Power With High Contrast Target: Vista 400: 130 lines/mm. Vista 800: 110 lines/mm.

Fujicolor Superia 1600 And X-tra 800
Both incorporate the patented fourth (cyan sensitive) emulsion layer to improve color fidelity, especially in the green portion of the spectrum for more vibrant greens and true-to-life colors even under fluorescent light. Other features include two-stage timing DIR couplers for improved color brilliance, enhanced edge sharpness, and vastly improved reds and purples. Fine Sigma Technology produces exceptional granularity and enhances the appearance of sharpness.
RMS Granularity Values: Superia X-tra 800: RMS 5. Superia 1600: RMS 7.
Resolving Power With High Contrast Target: Superia X-tra 800: 125 lines/mm. Superia 1600: 90 lines/mm.

Konica Centuria 400 And 800
These films take advantage of three advances: Multi-Coated Crystal Technology to inhibit fogging and a coating that enhances grain efficiency; this also assures stability of exposed but unprocessed negatives; Ultra Constant Crystal Technology assuring uniform size and characteristics; and DIR Coupler for more natural color reproduction, finer grain, higher sharpness. No other data was available.

Kodak Supra 800 And 400 Pro
Supra 800 includes new high-efficiency T-grain emulsion, Improved DIR and DIAR couplers, plus Advanced Development Accelerator for ultrahigh sharpness, exceptionally fine grain, and superior color saturation even when underexposed. It can be push processed up to two stops (to EI 3200) "with minimal impact on grain, contrast, color, and shadow detail." Supra 400 employs an Advanced Development Accelerator for ultra-fine grain, Color Precision Technology for more accurate colors: vibrant but without over-saturated skin tones. A new emulsion overcoat makes negatives more durable. One stop push processing produces minimal impact on image characteristics.

Kodak Portra 800 Pro
This film includes the same technology as Supra 800 and offers similar benefits plus excellent flesh tones, outstanding performance in mixed and fluorescent lighting, wider exposure latitude, and better highlight and shadow detail.

Manufacturers/Distributors
Agfa Corporation
(201) 440-2500
fax: (201) 807-9851
www.agfaphoto.com

Eastman Kodak Company
(716) 724-4373
fax: (716) 781-1730
www.kodak.com

Fuji Photo Film USA Inc.
(914) 789-8100
fax: (914) 789-8656
www.fujifilm.com

Konica
(201) 574-4000
fax: (201) 574-4010
www.konica.com

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