I’m on top of the mountain Kehlstein in Obersalzburg, Germany. Nestled about thirty minutes west of Salzburg and fifteen minutes east of the more famous Berchtesgaden, Obersalzburg has the dubious legacy of being the Alpine retreat of the top Nazi goons. In fact, the chalet on the peak of the mountain Kehlstein – formerly called the Eagle’s Nest – was a birthday present from the Nazi party to its Führer, whose name need not be written here.
Fortunately, the previous owner was relieved of the property by the “band of brothers” from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division. Today, the chalet is a destination for the hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors who make the harrowing bus trip up the mountain, and ride the astoundingly long elevator to the summit. As I sit on the patio of the restaurant there, I stare at my F4 and wonder about the exposed images inside.
There’s no shortage of outstanding views from the summit of Kehlstein. Turn to your left and you’ll see the mountains of Berchtesgaden National Park surrounding Germany’s cleanest lake, Konigsee. Turn to the right and on a clear day you can make out the skyline of historic Salzburg in Austria. As I look at these views, it’s about 10 a.m. and the late-morning hi-key sun is making the scene less than ideally lit. The first roll loaded into the F4 was CineStill 50D, which is about as slow a film as you can get, these days.
And it proved to be too slow. For reasons beyond my photographic comprehension, my meter was showing unbelievably slow shutter speeds underneath intense lighting. Not wanting to walk away empty-handed, I sacrificed the roll and loaded a roll of Kodak Pro Image 100.
Only a few weeks before my trip, in July 2018, Kodak announced that it was bringing something called Pro Image 100 to the European market. This came after a trial period in the United Kingdom which Kodak judged to be overwhelmingly positive. The film must also have been well-received on the European continent, because just last month Kodak announced that Pro Image 100 would soon be (presumably) flying off of shelves in the United States.
But just because it’s arriving in America in 2019 doesn’t make this film a spring chicken. Kodak Pro Image 100 debuted in 1997, making it older than the current iterations of Kodak’s Portra and Ektar lines. For more than twenty years it was a mainstay in Asian and South American markets.
What is Pro Image 100?
It’s important to note that despite what the packaging says, Kodak Pro Image 100 is not a professional film emulsion. At first it was the little things that made me wonder; the seemingly twenty-year-old images on the packaging, its spec sheet only having three curve charts instead of the four shown on the sheets of Kodak’s professional films. Then there was the conversation I had with a Kodak representative at Photokina 2018. When I asked him for a spec sheet for Pro Image 100, he responded with “No, and that’s actually not a professional film.”
I say all of this up front, but I don’t mean to imply that Pro Image isn’t a good film. In fact, I think it’s a really good film for what it is, and is capable of producing images packed with saturation and contrast.
Kodak says that Kodak Pro Image 100 is intended for portrait and “social applications” (whatever that means). I interpret social applications to mean soccer games, barbecues, and bar mitzvahs. If this film is used for weddings, it would be in consumer point-and-shoots, not the camera of the wedding photographer.
Curiously, the film’s literature calls the ISO 100 Pro Image a “medium-speed film” at the same time that it calls the ISO 200 Kodak Gold a “low-speed film.” The same literature also says that Pro Image 100’s printing characteristics are similar to those of Kodak Gold. It goes on to say that Pro Image 100 has good under-exposure latitude and can be stored in hot, humid climates, which was probably a selling point for its initial markets.
But beyond all the talk of pro or not, beyond the comparisons even, the film’s most attractive attribute is its price. A five-pack of Pro Image from my local store only costs 27 euros (about $30 US). The same amount of Ektar or Portra 400 would be 39 and 45 euros respectively ($43 and $50 US). That’s a considerable savings.
Check out the film’s specification sheet for additional technical data.
Shooting Pro Image 100
My experience with Pro Image – filled with snapshots taken on travels in Europe – definitely falls under the “social application” umbrella. The photos in this review were made with a Nikon F4, Nikon L35AF, and a Werra 1, and were all processed at a film lab. The majority of the images were shot at box speed or pushed one stop, with just a few exposed at ISO 50.
A lot of the talk related to Pro Image is its supposed lack of grain. I’ve found that doesn’t bear out, both in chemical reality and real-world experience. Print Grain Index is a method of measuring the grain in a traditional photo print, in this case for a 4×6 inch print. The baseline is 25 units, which is the lowest amount visible to the human eye.
Among Kodak’s current low-to-medium speed color films, Portra 160 and 400 have 28 and 37 units respectively, and Ektar comes in at less than the threshold of 25. The number goes up with consumer films. Kodak Gold 200 is measured at 44 units with Ultramax slightly higher at 46. Pro Image fits in with the other consumer films at 43 units. These numbers are useful in a comparative sense, but when you add in the variables of the scanning process and the post-processing to correct it, the grain will be different than its index rating.
Few of my photos tried to test the film’s ability to reproduce skin tones, but the few I did take showed a normal reproduction, noticeably better than both Gold and Ultramax. Insomuch as sharpness can be measured (or matters), I didn’t see outstanding or lackluster characteristics. It’s suitably sharp for a film with its grain structure, and nowhere near as sharp as the similarly-rated Ektar.
I was ambivalent about my initial results with Pro Image 100. The film wasn’t a disappointment per se, but it didn’t stand out above many of the other consumer grade films that I’ve used. The images made the film feel like just another face in the crowd.
That changed when I shot another roll at the Palace of Venaria in Italy’s Piedmont Region. Located near Turin, the palace was one of the many homes of the House of Savoy, whose throne ruled from 1003 to 1946. With sprawling gardens and a backdrop of the Italian Alps, it seemed a good opportunity for some photos. Pro Image was the only film in my bag, and with the sun low in the sky I opted to push the film to ISO 200. When my images came back I was over the moon. Saturation was outstanding while sharpness was maintained. Grain was noticeably higher, but in a pleasing way that added to image.
It’s safe to say that among film profiles, warmth is the strength of Kodak film with coolness being Fuji’s wheelhouse. Greens and blues pop more with Fuji C200 and Fuji Pro 400H and reds pop more with Gold or Ektar. But the images of Venaria’s gardens tell a different story. Here Kodak was asserting a claim to outstanding green and blue reproduction. The reds of peppers popped, the greens of leaves and stems balancing their intensity. The blues of the ponds weren’t muddy and helped accent the white of the swans swimming atop.
Another advantage of Pro Image when compared to other consumer films is in its shadows. While it’s not going to hold a lot of shadow information, the film also doesn’t seem to blow apart or get noisy in post production. Shadow information may be in small supply, but the blacks are smooth and don’t cause any distraction.
It’s hard not to recommend Kodak Pro Image 100, especially to shooters on a budget that want try their hand with low-speed films. It’s not as cheap as Gold 200 and doesn’t even come close to Ektar’s sharpness or lack of grain, but it makes up for it by being a combination of both of those films at a very attractive price.
Consumer films were originally created with the intention of doing a lot of things in an acceptable way. They’re the films that parents load into their do-it-all point-and-shoot zooms to capture memories without a lot of work. But beyond their meat-and-potatoes utilitarianism, they allow the shooter to experiment and try new methods without going broke in the process.
For me, that experimentation was with saturation. Feeling burned out on overexposed dreamy pastels, I wanted to make some photos with an almost savory saturation. This film gave me that in spades. I think Kodak Pro Image 100 could satisfy a lot of needs for a lot of modern day film photographers. And with the film’s affordability and its new availability in North America, I predict it will do just that.