Many people will tell you that there’s nothing as scary in film photography as shooting slide film. It’s harsh, unforgiving, and only for experts. With every shot, they say, slide film will either deliver you to a film shooter’s heaven filled with brilliantly saturated color and unmatched sharpness, or damn you to a hell of blown highlights, crushed blacks, and lab scan-induced bank overdraft notices. Scary indeed.
It doesn’t help that in 2017, shooting slide film has become totally anachronistic. What was once the professional’s workhorse in color photography has been quietly put to pasture by today’s incredible digital sensors. Over the last decade, labs which once proudly processed slide film have either dropped support for E-6 or shuttered entirely, and manufacturers have unceremoniously axed once-loved slide film emulsions from their rosters year after year. To the average shooter, slide film looks like it’s long been on the way out.
Fortunately, our crazy community of film enthusiasts have kept the aged heart of slide film sluggishly pumping. Though most of the old emulsions are gone, a few still remain for us to enjoy, and thankfully they’re some of the best of the bunch. Today we’ll be taking a look at my personal favorite, Fuji Provia 100F.
Fuji’s Provia line stands as one half of Fuji’s flagship slide film lineup, the other being the legendary Velvia line. Like all great duos, Velvia and Provia balance each other out. Velvia can be thought of the swashbuckling, take-on-all-comers protagonist, while Provia is the calm, more calculating sidekick.
But this doesn’t mean that Provia’s a dull film. Quite the contrary. Provia to Velvia is like Scottie Pippen to Michael Jordan, Hannibal Buress to Eric Andre, or Jaco Pastorius to literally every other musician he ever played with. The sidekick’s contribution may not be as obvious, but they’re just as potent and possibly even more impressive for their understatement and nuance.
Tenuous personification of inanimate film stock aside, what’s so special about Provia? A look at Fujifilm’s spec sheet promises much, but nothing we wouldn’t naturally expect from a slide film. It looks the same as any other slide film emulsion, with a slow box speed of ISO 100 that promises extremely fine grain, neutral color rendering, and excellent sharpness.
Where things start to get interesting is when we observe just how far Fuji went in trying to perfect all these parameters. To start, Fuji endowed Provia with some of the finest grain ever seen in a film, measured at an 8 on the RMS granularity scale. This probably signifies something incredibly interesting for more technical photo geeks, but for myself, I let the results speak for themselves. There’s almost no grain to be found in any of my Provia scans, a truly remarkable feat.
Shots in the galleries were made with Nikon’s F3.
As for color rendition, Fuji not only promises balanced neutrality, but something even greater – color equilibrium in both primary and pastel colors, with no bias toward either. For anybody involved in color photography, both of the negative and positive kind, this might seem like crazy talk, but Provia delivers. Its remarkable color balance gives many modern digital sensors a run for their money, especially when scanned properly by a dedicated and professional photo lab.
Fuji also addressed the problem of slide film’s notoriously terrible exposure latitude. Slide film is unforgiving, and often only allows for a half stop of either under- or over-exposure. Fuji improved this as much as they could, allowing for the film to be over-exposed by as much as two stops. That’s optimistic in a slide emulsion. In my own testing, I’ve found that the film doesn’t respond very well to under-exposure (as expected) but can handle some over-exposure moderately well. Highlight detail suffers somewhat at +1 EV and these completely blow out at +2, while shadow detail starts to suffer at -1 EV, and completely disappears by -2. Impressive for slide film, but still pretty dismal compared to even consumer-grade color negative film. Even with the added latitude, I would recommend shooting this film through a camera with an accurate auto-exposure mode, or at the very least, an accurate light meter.
Fuji also engineered Provia to excel at long exposures. It allows for an astonishing 128 seconds of exposure before reciprocity failure kicks in, perfect for long exposures of city lights, stars, or whatever tickles your long exposure fancy. Provia’s astonishing long exposure characteristics can also benefit those who fancy multiple exposure shots, with allowance for up to eight multiple exposures to be taken with a flash. Impressive.
All of this points to Provia’s deserved position as one of the best films available when it comes to color reproduction and image rendition. Its insane accuracy and balance begets an incredible versatility, making it perfect for almost every shooting situation. It’s one of those unique films that can take the number one spot in both the landscape and portrait arenas with little to no compromise.
But there’s an elephant in the room here. All of Provia’s characteristics sound just like the characteristics of a good digital sensor. Absolute neutrality, virtually invisible grain, incredible reciprocity failure characteristics, all these things sound like things we want (and get) in a digital sensor.
Which begs the question – why shoot Provia? Why spend ten dollars on a roll and double that for development and scanning when you could just invest in a good digital camera and be done with it? That’s what all the professionals did, so why shouldn’t we do that?
To answer these questions is to get to the very heart of why Provia, and film in general, is worth shooting. Sure, Provia’s a technically brilliant, clinical film, but that’s only half the story. One look at a well-exposed slide of Provia tells us as much. The colors come ready-made with the kind of punch and nuanced saturation people spend hours trying to replicate in Photoshop.
Yes, Provia’s sharpness can be easily matched by a digital sensor, but it also possesses a refined kind of sharpness that remains the exclusive domain of film. We’ve all seen over-sharpened digital files, and they’re gross. That won’t happen with Provia, and if you get the chance to take a look at a Provia slide on a light table (or better yet, projected through a slide projector), you’ll understand why people still swear by slide film. The images seem to come to life for that brief moment before you realize you’re only looking at a slide. And if i’m being completely honest, i’ve just never gotten that feeling from a digital file. I couldn’t tell you why, but it’s just never happened.
I realize this may sound like the ramblings of a slide film fanboy, but I strongly suspect it’s thoughts like these that keep speciality films like Provia alive. Is Provia worth the $11 price tag and the god-knows-how-much professional labs will charge you for development and scanning? I don’t know. That’s up to the shooter to decide. But one thing’s for sure; films like Provia prove that slide film, no matter how risky, expensive, and anachronistic they may be, are still worth shooting in 2017.