[Editor’s Note : One of the most common questions I’m asked is one that’s very difficult to answer. People who’ve never shot film want to know where to start. To find the answer to this question demands that we ask and answer other questions; what type of photography do you want to shoot, in what lighting conditions, and with what camera? To help people choose the film that’s right for them, we publish our Film Profile series. But which film is best for a beginner? In this article, Josh makes the case for a fantastic film from Fujifilm- Superia 400, and shows how this film propelled him through the early days of his photographic journey. – James]
I awoke uncommonly early one morning struck by that “where am I?” feeling that’s so often the result of a particularly long and restless night. The jolt of panic was enough to spring me upright in my bed. I looked around the room for assurance. My books still sat on their shelves, my recently acquired Fender Jazz bass still rested on its stand, and my beloved new Nikon still sat on the desk. My eyes went to the clock. “6:15 AM” it read, along with a tiny illuminated date- November, 2008. I sighed in relief and rolled out of bed to begin the morning routine of a typical high school kid- blearily brush teeth, slowly shower, hurriedly eat, pack a messy bag, and get to the bus stop.
Before I left, I stuffed my bass into its case and slung it across my back, grabbed my camera from the desk, and started with a skip out of my room. But my tracks were halted halfway down the hall. I was forgetting something, but just what, I couldn’t recall. What could it be? I stood in my room taking inventory. Missing textbooks? Homework assignments? A freshly burned CD that I needed to give to a friend? No… Everything seemed in order. But just as I felt comfortable enough to finally leave, my eyes fixed on a small green canister sitting on a shelf. That’s it, the thought grabbed me. I had the camera, just not the film. Next time I’m keeping the whole box in my bag. I stuffed the film into my pocket and started out the door.
I plunged into the lukewarm air of Panorama City, California, a colorless and dreary neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles. As I made my way to the bus stop, I passed constant reminders of the neighborhood’s quiet squalor in the shape of abandoned shopping carts, dead or dying cars from decades past, and a breeze that carried with it the faint smells of gasoline and beer. Photography was a new friend, so new that I’d only developed a few rolls- nothing special, just some cheap film. I’d try to snap a picture of something interesting every morning on my walk to the stop, but tired eyes and an uninspiring environment fought me harder than normal that day. I arrived at the bus stop at the exact moment the bus arrived, and took up my usual resting spot at the window.
The bus lumbered on, the drab landscape of the San Fernando Valley tiredly scrolling by on the far side of a thick pane of glass. The drive of thirty-five minutes would get me to my high school in Chatsworth, a town only differentiated from Panorama City by the presence of hills and a slightly lower crime rate. Not much of a destination, but at least it was better than where I came from.
Wanting to forget the terrible monotony of the Valley, I turned my attention to the shiny Nikon FG and its Series E 50mm f/1.8 lens. I marvelled at its simple, uncluttered design. I took out that small green canister from my pocket and loaded it into the FG. Before closing the film door, I stopped to inspect the film. “Fuji Superia” the canister read, with the number 400 printed next to the name. I remembered that I needed to set that ISO thing on the camera to 400, and though I had know idea what the purpose of that dial was, I turned it anyway and then promptly forgot about it.
My gaze drifted back out the window to the silhouettes of strip malls, foreclosed homes, and the occasional squad car slipping past. I thought, why color? This place was made for black-and-white. I wondered if I’d been shooting the wrong film, but remembered it didn’t much matter. I couldn’t afford anything else. Realistically, there weren’t many options available to a ninth grader on a tight budget. At the time, a six-pack of Superia cost around nine bucks at the local Costco, making it the cheapest film out there by far, and considering how judicious I was with my shutter, I could stretch that six-pack of Superia to two, maybe three months.
But it wasn’t as if my necessary relationship with Superia was an unhappy union. Even in these early days I knew I liked the film, and though I knew not why at this early stage of my photo geekery, it helped me make nicer pictures than the other types I’d used. That was all I really needed to know. My young, doe-eyed self was happy to capture anything remotely decent. Superia did just that, and even on occasion I’d make a shot that would really knock my socks off. It would look like I shot it on a fancy DSLR, with all the biting sharpness of digital, minus the sterility. The colors were vibrant and punchy, but not overbearing, and those little dots, the texture… I knew they weren’t pixels, but what were they? My fourteen-year-old self didn’t know. I just knew I’d never seen them in an image before, and they looked good.
It was from those special images that I really came to know the power of film as a photographic medium. I came into film photography thinking that I’d get some quirky, old-school looking images that I’d enjoy for a moment or two. Instead, I came away with a deep appreciation for the power and potential of analog, and today I realize that Superia may just be the perfect film for leading new shooters into the vast, colorful world of film photography.
Superia is a daylight balanced, 400 speed, C-41 color negative film manufactured by our friends from the east, Fujifilm, and on the face of it the film sounds pretty average. To some, that’s enough to pass it over in favor of something with the word “Professional” in the name. But don’t let its average appearance fool you; Superia is a fantastic film that pushes the boundaries of what a consumer-grade emulsion can do. This film makes images that look downright pro, and shooters looking for the lo-fi charm of cheap film will more than likely be disappointed. It’s a thoroughly modern color film that was formulated to handle almost any situation, and as importantly, any level of shooter.
How does Superia accomplish this? For one, there’s the advanced characteristics of those little dots I mentioned earlier. Superia employs what Fuji calls “Super-Fine Sigma” grain to improve the film’s grain structure. I don’t pretend to know what that means (and it sounds like meaningless marketing jargon to me), but whatever this stuff is, it helps create images with remarkably fine grain for such a high-speed film. Grain is by no means completely absent- it’s there in great enough quantity to render images that have the signature analog look we’re shooting for, but the grain is minimized enough that it never overwhelms the image. Then there’s Superia’s 400 film speed, a jack-of-all-trades speed which works for general purpose photography, and a speed that’s particularly well suited to available-light and golden hour photography. This combination of fine grain and high speed results in a film that, when fitted behind a quality lens, is capable of making photos that are tack-sharp and loaded with analog character.
Important to new shooters is the film’s exposure latitude. Luckily, for those who prefer the sunshine, Superia has loads of latitude for over-exposure. Fuji states it can handle up to two stops and still make perfect images. In my experience, over-exposure latitude reaches even further; three, or even four stops over-exposed and we’re still making beautiful images. As exposure times increase we actually see a further diminishing of the already fine film grain and slight increase in shadow detail. The trade-off for this being a minor drop in overall sharpness. Underexposure, however, is less forgiving. When under-exposed the film tends to turn shadows and lowlights green. For these reasons, a good rule may be to meter for the shadows of a shot and only over-expose by a single stop. Or shoot box speed- Superia’s so forgiving that all of this technical fiddling may be moot.
All this being said, Superia’s biggest claim to fame is its color rendition, which is simply fantastic. The gorgeous tones and stunning saturation are traits we most often find in pricier, “professional” film, and it’s even more stunning when we consider the low cost of Superia. This film absolutely shines when capturing vibrant scenes of the natural world, as well as bustling urban cityscapes. Colors are saturated without looking garish, and blues and greens render beautifully. The only caveat with Superia 400’s color rendition in daylight is that it might have a tendency to render lighter skins with a pinkish tone that may be unflattering for portraiture. On balance, over-exposure can help with this as well. As we increase the exposure times we see a shift that pushes dark tones closer to the highlights, tightening the curve, rendering skin brighter and making contrast from facial shadows less visible.
As comfort level increases and a photo geek becomes more experienced, it’s not uncommon to find shooters who talk of Superia in the same breath as some seriously revered professional films, such as Ektar and Portra. And while a seasoned pro can certainly spot the difference between Superia and these other amazing films, for most amateurs and enthusiasts, Superia looks just as sweet. It’s this capability and versatility that makes Superia easy to recommend as a first film. And even for seasoned veterans, the way that it shines in all shooting situations makes it one of the best films around.
All that being said, Superia’s greatest strength and chief asset to new analog photogs lies in its wide availability and low price. On Amazon, a four-pack of twenty-four exposure rolls is available for less than a couple drinks at Starbucks, and individual twenty-four exposure rolls at B&H Photo sell for the cost of an espresso. This is about the cheapest high-quality color film around. It’s the people’s film, an emulsion that ensures that all the joys of analog shooting are available to people on even the tightest budgets. It’s a film willing to be casually shot as well as professionally scrutinized, and it’s the perfect emulsion for transforming new shooters into full-on photo geeks. Superia has the unique ability to inject vibrancy into everyday scenes, a striking vibrancy that never overstays its welcome. Places that seem dreary and dark assume a new vitality when committed to Superia’s emulsion and the San Fernando Valley is no exception.
Late in the night, on that day in which I nearly forgot to carry a roll of film, I found myself playing electric bass in the marching band at our high school’s football game. If the Valley seemed bleak and somber during the day, it burst into magnificent color at night. The raucous noise of a high school marching band and the garish threads of the band uniforms made for quite the spectacle, and for me it was a spectacle worth committing to film. During our third quarter break, while the rest of the band ran off to stuff their faces with nachos and hot dogs, I pulled out my little Nikon FG and lingered to watch the drumline perform for the crowd.
Their precision beats and the serious demeanor with which they drummed was mesmerizing, and the crowd’s attention was firmly fixed on the line of drummers instead of the fact that we were getting scored on. The floodlights of the stadium served to illuminate them perfectly. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd and snapped only one picture of the scene, trusting my FG’s program mode to pull through.
A week later I picked up the prints from the local Costco and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The drumline scene popped with a glorious vibrancy that seemed brighter than memory. I’d memorialized that moment on analog film, rather than simply running an iPhone photo through a filter app. The rest of the exposures from those first few rolls of Superia exceeded every expectation I’d had for film photography, and launched dreams of infinite possibility within the medium. From then on, I was hooked. All these years later and I’ve shot countless rolls of film of every brand and price. And though there are pricier, more technically advanced options out there, I still trust Fuji Superia to show me light in the darkness, and color in the black-and-white.