Fuji NHGII 800

I wish I had an underexposed shot of this so you could get some idea of just how dark it was. Notice the lights are on and overexposing the white fence. (Taken at 1/15 at f/2.8, Bronica SQ-A with 80mm lens. Tripod mounted. Stacy and Kris Glidden.)
Photos © 1999, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

If you'll allow me a little history, let me reminisce for a moment. The first article I did for Shutterbug was in the late '80s. It was about shooting Kodak VPH 400 film at weddings. The film was a big step forward in shooting candid type photos at weddings. And while it was nice to have the speed boost, most shooters, myself included, still shot the formal groups and important photos on good old VPS because we didn't really trust that 400 speed stuff. But within months, all us wedding shooters were shooting the 400 stuff and not even thinking twice about it. The revolution had begun.

In the early '90s, Fuji introduced its NHG 400 film. I remember I tested some, and made a 20x24" print of a rabbi that I had shot by daylight. I was able to borrow a friend's darkroom and was astounded by how sharp it was. I was able to focus on the threads of his shawl. Kodak also updated its 400 speed selection, coming out with 400 PMC and then 400 PPF films that offered 400 speed with the contrast of your choice. Fuji introduced NPH film, which was a 400 speed film with moderate contrast to round out the family. These were all important films because now the professional had 400 speed films he could rely on for every shot, from Kodak and Fuji. I haven't used anything slower than 400 for wedding photography since '92.

I like to use a wide angle lens and get in close for dancing.

Fuji now has made a bold move by introducing the NHGII 800--they stopped making the NHG 400. They wanted us professionals to consider using this 800 speed film as an "everyday" film. The NHG 400 film was loved by many, and now Fuji was taking it off the market and forcing its customers to choose the 800 film or go shop somewhere else. Many photographers hoarded the NHG 400 and bought whatever was left off the dealers' shelves. What was Fuji thinking?

I didn't try any for a little while, until I saw some impressive looking 24x30 prints at a trade show. They looked pretty good, but when it comes to what I do for a living, I gotta see it from my own negatives. I tested a couple of rolls of 120 on some outdoor portraits, then decided to try a few rolls on a wedding. An ideal test presented itself quickly. I had a 7:00pm wedding and the bride wanted outdoor shots at a special location after the ceremony. I knew by the time we got to the park where we were to do the photography, light was going to be in precious little supply. Did I mention she was getting there by horse and buggy? This looked like a job for Fuji NHG 800.

Action candids are a breeze with the fast film speed. Just set the shutter speed and f/stop ahead of time, focus, and shoot. (Bronica, 80mm lens.)

It was. Exper-ienced wedding photographers know that most weddings run from a little to a lot late. This one was no exception. By the time I got to the park, I checked my meter. With ISO 400 film, I was already looking at 1/30 of a sec at f/4. That was the good news. The bad news was that we all know when the light gets down to that level it starts disappearing in a hurry. More bad news--the bride and groom weren't even there yet, courtesy of Black Beauty's relative. I was getting nervous. I feel I have an obligation to every couple to produce my "signature" outdoor poses. I didn't like my options at the hotel where the reception was. The light and time were working against me.

When they arrived, I worked even faster than usual. I yelled at everybody to move fast. I told the bride and groom we had 15 minutes max to do the group photos and the pictures of them, too. They got the crew in overdrive.

I don't like to use different film speeds on a wedding, it creates an opportunity for mistakes. That means any film must be able to be used as a general purpose film, not just in low-light situations. This is a typical wedding photo that I usually shoot without a tripod, making it a snap for the NHG 800. (Stacey Glidden and father, Bronica SQ-A with 150mm lens.)

I shot the groups first. The wedding party, guys, then girls. The families could wait until the hotel or I wouldn't get the bride and groom. By the time I got to the bride and groom, my meter reading was 1/15 at f/2.8, the maximum opening on my 80mm lens. Oh, that's with the meter set to 800. It was really getting dark, and focusing was becoming a problem. I shot a series of poses in a hurry with my camera mounted on a tripod. Finally it got so dark, I resorted to flash, something I don't like to do unless I'm looking for a special effect.

Now I know that if I properly exposed the film, it should look fine. It shouldn't look dark, I should have shadow detail. But I still had this nagging suspicion in the back of my brain that these were going to be thin negatives. I'd have to wait until I got the proofs back from my lab. With serious trepidation, I flipped through the stack of photos looking for the "low-light specials." After all, they were the most important photos in the entire set. How were they?

The proofs looked great. My first concern was speed. Could I trust the 800 rating? In a word, yes. Exposure was right on the money.

Reception pictures. The problem is, I like to use a bare-bulb attachment on a Vivitar 283. If I just use the 283 with no attachment, the light is vignetted top and bottom. With the 800 speed film, I've now got enough speed to do this. The wedding of Cindy and Keith Pietrowski.

But there are more issues here. Just because the speed checked out, how was print quality going to be? Would it be comparable to its slower predecessor? I'm talking about sharpness, color, and contrast. Let's talk about color and contrast first.

I find the color and contrast quite similar to that of the NHG 400, which is saying I like it a lot. It definitely has more contrast than Fuji NPH film. Color is quite pleasing, and I've always been fond of Fuji greens. Is it because of the box it comes in? So now I'm sold on the contrast and color, but will it hold up to a high degree of enlargement? I was about to find out, via another assignment.

I had to photograph six different bands in a high school gym. The groups ranged in size from 70-150 members. I was to print several 16x20 photos from each group from my 21/4 square negatives. Even using a couple of high powered studio lighting units, I needed some serious film speed to be able to work at smaller f/stops. Based upon my tests already with the Fuji film, I decided to use it.

While I was test firing my lights and metering the scene, I had a hard time believing I was going to be shooting at f/16, but that's what my meter was telling me. Being the super cautious guy I am and not wanting to look like an idiot in front of hundreds of teen-agers if they were underexposed, I shot at f/16 and also f/11 for security. Turns out I didn't need the f/11. I had about 50 16x20s made from the six different negatives, and they looked great. Good color saturation, excellent contrast, and they were sharp. I now had complete confidence in the film.
There are many advantages to using high speed films. All of the following benefits apply to the Fuji NHG 800 film:
· Smaller f/stops and faster shutter speeds available.
· Action stopping capabilities.
· Ability to use smaller flash units and still get the desired f/stop.
· Bounce flash in large rooms.
· Less need for a tripod.

Of course, these advantages only apply if you have confidence in the film to meet your quality expectations. As you can ascertain from the above, this film certainly passed all of my tests. I still have to knock my light meter against my head to make sure I'm not dreaming about the displayed exposure value. Can you use it for a general purpose film? That's an unqualified "yes."

Just be sure to bring a neutral density filter if you're shooting in bright sun. Because using the "f/16 rule" is tough when you've got 1/800 at f/16. My leaf shutter only goes to 500; looks like the cameras are going to have to catch up to the film.