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.
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.
Agfacolor Vista 400
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.
Agfacolor Vista 800
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.
Fujicolor Superia X-TRA
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
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
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
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.
Kodak Portra 800
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
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
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.
Agfacolor Vista 400 And
Fujicolor Superia 1600 And
Konica Centuria 400 And
Kodak Supra 800 And 400
Kodak Portra 800 Pro