The magnitude of Kodak successfully rereleasing a film like Ektachrome is huge. It’s also a milestone that, frankly, many of us never thought possible. When the staff here at CP first heard whispers of an Ektachrome revival, we were happy, but skeptical. We’d been through this before with other film projects. Big promises on social media to #keepfilmalive, the flashy promotional campaign, the buzzworded crowdfunding, and the whole load of nothing that happens afterwards. For more than a year we heard just a few intermittent reports that Ektachrome was still coming. But we were entirely ready to be disappointed again.
When I walked out the doors of my local camera store holding an actual roll of new Kodak Professional Ektachrome E100, I was astonished. Those crazy folk from Rochester actually did it, I thought. They revived slide film.
The rerelease of Ektachrome was an important moment in the revival of film as a popular photographic and artistic medium, so we decided to give it some time before writing our impressions of the new emulsion. For the past six months, the entire CP staff has been shooting this film to get a complete picture of what it is, and how it fits in the age of film revivalism. Here’s what we’ve found.
What is the new Ektachrome
Ektachrome E100 is an E-6 process slide film, the most endangered of all film species. Once the creme-de-la-creme of all color film, E-6 slide film was hit the hardest by the digital revolution. Mounted slides of family vacations churning through the mechanical teeth of a projector were replaced by online photo sharing services. Professional fashion and editorial photographers abandoned the laborious process of shooting and developing slide film for the infinitely quicker and easier to use digital files. The neighborhood labs that developed everyone’s film naturally abandoned the E-6 process as fast as demand would allow.
Today, slide film is kept alive by the most hardcore of hardcore film shooters who love it for its high-risk, high-reward nature. They’ll gladly trade hard work, mental toil, and untold amounts of disposable income for the rich, vivid, and true-to-life images only slide film can bring. I’d even say those same shooters enjoy the laborious process of shooting slide film because it is the very antithesis of the fast-paced, ephemeral nature of modern photography. If you like film photography, you’ll probably like slide film.
But like all the hardcore segments of any market, these slide film shooters are far outnumbered by casual, everyday shooters. It would seemingly make more sense for Kodak to introduce an easy-to-use, affordable color negative film, not a technically demanding, outdated, niche film. And yet, here we are.
The new Ektachrome is a daylight-balanced color transparency film, like the old Ektachrome. It’s a lower contrast formula to provide balance and a wide dynamic range, and it has a neutral tonal scale for greater color accuracy. Super fine T-grain keeps images smooth and suitable for scanning.
Shooting the new Ektachrome
Ektachrome E100 is no different from old school slide films in that it’s a difficult, inflexible film meant for the more experienced shooter (or at least one who has a reliable camera with an accurate metering system, and a general understanding of light). At ISO 100 it’s a slow film. Shooters used to pushing C41 or recovering highlights and shadows on badly exposed shots in post processing, as well as lovers of high-contrast lighting conditions, will be in for a rude awakening. Ektachrome doesn’t hesitate to blow highlights and crush shadows if exposure is a half stop off. Nor will it hesitate to throw your colors out of whack if incorrectly exposed by even small amounts.
A difficult film like Ektachrome needs a more experienced touch to be shot to its advantages. Ektachrome demands an intimate knowledge of how to meter for specific situations, or at least an incredibly accurate metering and autoexposure system, lest you end up with a horribly exposed shot. I would hesitate to trust this film inside a pure auto-exposure camera, and I would also be very careful while running this through an old meterless mechanical camera unless you have a good handheld light meter or a perfectly-trained eye for light.
All those worrying words spoken, best practices for shooting Kodak’s new Ektachrome are actually surprisingly simple. For people with experience, Ektachrome is easy. Shoot it at box speed and meter for mid-tones. Over-exposing by one stop will create color shifts, and over-exposing by more will destroy highlights. Under-exposing will kill contrast and color. Just shoot it at 100, and make sure you’ve got the right camera, lens, and light for a 100 speed film.
Image Quality and Character
What are the advantages of this troublesome film? Ektachrome’s technical data sheet notes a remarkable sharpness and a neutral, but rich color palette, which should result in a truer-to-life image compared with most C41 film. While this is objectively true, it only scratches the surface of what this film really is. Let’s dig a little deeper.
To get closer, let’s first take a tip from St. Thomas Aquinas and define this film in terms of what it is not. Despite its marketing as a professional film, Ektachrome is not the most capable, most accurate slide film on offer. That title still belongs to Fuji Provia 100F. Provia is a more versatile film because of its wider exposure latitude, and for my money, it’s a more accurate film when it comes to color balance. If pressed for a job that required an accurate color slide film, I’d choose Provia over Ektachrome.
We could end it there, but measuring Ektachrome by the yardstick of sheer technical achievement is a mistake. In fact, I’d argue that technical achievement was never the point of Ektachrome to begin with. Ektachrome’s value doesn’t lie in the sheer majesty of its technical ability, but in the way it leverages that technical ability. For example, Ektachrome is incredibly sharp, but it still features a bit more grain than would be expected for a modern film. Ektachrome uses this to its advantage – images recall the older slide films that populated the pages of old National Geographic issues from the 1980s and 90s. These shots are super fine, but we can still tell they’re made on 35mm film.
An even bigger part of Ektachrome’s signature look is its color rendition. As stated before, its color balance is much more neutral than its color negative counterparts, but still falls a little short of the absolute neutrality of a film like Fuji Provia. It features a slight emphasis towards blue, which again is a signature of old school E-6 slide film. Ektachrome also features a signature color saturation and contrast that I’ve never seen with other films. The colors are deep, rich, and vivid, but never cartoon-esque as some C41 color films can be. Skin tones of any flavor are perfect, true-to-life. Looking at Ektachrome’s colors is like looking at a well-preserved painting by Titian himself, which makes most color offerings look like dime-store Fauvism by comparison.
All this being said, it’s a film that requires the right context and setting to succeed. I’d hesitate to recommend this film to run-and-gun street shooters, first for its lack of exposure latitude, and then because of its high saturation, which can unnaturally emphasize more incidental parts of a scene. This is a film that excels under controlled lighting, or with a slower, more careful style of shooting. It rewards patience and anticipation, precise subject placement, and an intimate understanding of color. Ektachrome also excels particularly well in diffused lighting, which tames its high contrast and saturation and lets details pop just a little bit more.
Ektachrome’s specificity makes it hard to place among other color films. It’s not a do-it-all film like Kodak Portra 400 or Fuji Pro 400H. It’s not even the cream of the crop professional tool like Fuji Provia 100F. If I had to place it anywhere, I’d place it close to Kodak Ektar in that it’s a bit of a character piece, even though it features a better overall color rendition than that film. But if I really think about it, Ektachrome stands alone.
I suppose that’s fitting – by all rights, Ektachrome shouldn’t even be here. Up until a few months ago it was all but certain that we’d be saying goodbye to E-6 slide film. Kodachrome fell in 2010. Fujifilm, though producing some of the best film in the game, keeps cutting film from their catalog like a bitter ex deleting every photo of you off of their phone. And even though film is experiencing a resurgence, it never looked like the difficult, strange pleasures of slide film would ever be attractive to new shooters, not to mention film manufacturers.
And yet, here we are with a newly manufactured but completely old-school film in Ektachrome. Even if it acts much like its old, outdated predecessors, people love this film, if not for what it is, then for what it represents. The reintroduction of Ektachrome represents a big vote of confidence from the world’s biggest film manufacturers, and bodes well for film photography as a whole. It ensures us that slide film, still an integral part of film photography, is preserved for the foreseeable future. Most importantly, it’s a sign that a big company like Kodak thinks that our weird little obsession with film is actually worth something. As somebody who loves film, that means everything.