Over the past few years, color film has never managed to grab me the way shooting black-and-white film does. I enjoy the depth of black and white images, the low cost and the process of developing my own negatives in the comfort of my kitchen. But very recently, all this has changed. During the past six months I’ve found myself loading my cameras with color film more and more often, for reasons I won’t get into here, and this newfound love affair with vibrant images has me diving into the world of color photography with new enthusiasm.
And the world of color photography is a wide world indeed. Choice is plentiful. We’ve got tried and true stocks like Kodak’s Portra and Ektar, a bevy of interesting old film like expired Ektachrome, and even some relatively new offerings from the likes of Cinestill and Maco. But if you’re hunting for pure speed, there’s nothing in the world of color film to match FujiFilm’s Superia 1600.
Branded as Natura 1600 in the Japanese market and as Superia 1600 stateside, Fuji’s 1600 speed color emulsion promises “high suitability for low-light environments, vibrant and dynamic reds, blues, and yellows – violets and a variety of greens, enhanced fidelity, and highly uniform grain.” This sounds amazing, and more amazing still, these promises are far from empty. Fuji’s 1600 speed film (by any name) is a remarkable film. It produces incredibly vibrant images in any lighting condition, allows us to make shots we couldn’t even dream of making with slower speed films, and in some cases enables the use of cameras that would otherwise stay home when the lights go down (I’m looking at you, compact point-and-shoots, and your tiny maximum apertures).
The film produces great natural skin tones and moderate saturation when exposed properly, which is critical with this stock, since it’s a very unforgiving film when underexposed. Not only do shadows tend to develop a lot of noise when it collects too few photons, but contrast (and perceived sharpness) is reduced drastically across the frame. When properly exposed (I shoot it at box speed and compensate in camera) tonal range is outstanding, but be warned that performance gains won’t be experienced by overexposing it, like with some other color film. Though Fuji claims it can be shot anywhere from 800 to 3200 with excellent results, pushing or pulling this film results in images that just look flat.
Like most of Fuji’s Superia film, there’s an unmistakable green cast to images which shows prominently in shadow detail. The resultant images aren’t unpleasant, but those with the means and inclination may want to bump the tint slider in your favorite photo editing app to help push things a bit more toward proper white balance. In certain situations, the slight green cast can serve to accentuate our scene, such as when shooting in a forest or making shots of wildlife. Think of this as part of the film’s profile, just as we’d think of Portra’s inherent warmth or Delta 3200’s pronounced grain, and we’ll begin to discern a real use for what some describe as an unpleasant characteristic.
Beyond color rendition, Superia/Natura 1600 further impresses with its exceptional grain structure. Higher ISO films have a general tendency to produce gobs of lumpy grain, and can end up making somewhat muddy images. Natura 1600, on the other hand, is a remarkably sharp film. The sharpness we’re seeing from this film looks more like the grain we’re used to seeing in a 400 speed film. Side by side with Fuji’s own Superia 400 shows just how smooth this stuff is. Just be sure to send this film to a good lab, because scanner quality is crucial to realizing good results from this high speed film.
This profile’s words by Dustin and James, photos by the CP staff. Shots in the galleries were made with an Olympus OM2 (50mm F/1.4 Zuiko), Minolta a7 (100mm Macro), and a Contax G2 (45mm F/2 Planar). Processing handled by The Darkroom in San Clemente, CA.
What’s most notable about Fuji’s 1600 speed film is just how adaptable it is to a massive range of shooting styles. Street photography at night? No problem. A walk in the woods? Easy. Macro photos (where light is always diminished greatly by bellows or extension tubes)? We did that. And shooters whose preferred glass are zoom lenses, which traditionally have slower maximum apertures compared to prime lenses, Superia 1600 is a must-shoot film. The only instance where this film’s high sensitivity might hamper our creative efforts is when we’re shooting fast primes on a bright day, and even then it’ll only cause issues with cameras that have a relatively slow maximum shutter speed. For the most part, Superia 1600 is a great film no matter what we’re shooting. It allows us to get the shot with a nice fast shutter speed, effectively eliminating worries over camera shake and mirror slap, and allowing us to travel without lugging around a bulky tripod.
This emulsion fills a tiny niche in an admittedly small market. Most film shooters don’t seem to have a need for ultra high-speed speed color film; which is also why you won’t find it in medium format, and also why Fuji seems to be cycling down its production (they’ve reportedly ceased making it). That sad caveat noted, Fuji 1600 is an excellent and unparalleled film for colorful shots of action, astro photography, and any other low light or indoor photography situations where the color films of slower speeds just won’t make the shot, and if you’re interested in trying it my suggestion is to grab some now before retailers sell through their stock.
But don’t expect to get it cheaply – the price of Superia 1600 from B&H is hovering around $10 per roll, and the price of the Natura branded film is (nonsensically) closer to $15 per 36 frames. Pricey stuff, undeniably.
But availability and cost issues aside, the big takeaway is that James and I are both big fans of this film. We’ve each made some of our favorite portraits of our families and pups with the stuff, and in the low-light conditions we seem to often find ourselves in, this high-speed color film is often the best of all available options. After a brief chat in which we both decided we’d happily plop down $90 – $100 for nine or ten rolls of the stuff, that’s exactly what we did. If this film looks like your kind of stock, I suggest you do the same before it’s all gone.