Where Have All the High ISO Color Films Gone?

Where Have All the High ISO Color Films Gone?

2800 1575 Charlotte Davis

For my thirteenth birthday I was given a Canon Sureshot 105 Zoom camera and a booklet explaining, among other things, how to load the film, frame a photo correctly, and shoot without getting your fingers in the frame. One page that I still remember today explained ISO values, and that sunny, outdoor shots were best made with a low sensitivity 200 ISO film, whereas indoor or fast-moving subjects needed something in the 800 or even 1600 range. The example given in the booklet was some kind of indoor jousting tournament, which on reflection was rather specific and a little bit bizarre. But what’s more bizarre to me now, is that it’s becoming harder and harder to find these high ISO films.

For black-and-white shooters, there are still at least a handful of films for late-night shoots. Ilford’s Delta 3200 and Kodak’s recently re-introduced T-Max P3200 are extremely high quality options. But for color film, and most photographs are made in color, it’s a different story.

In today’s world of phone cameras, is there still a need for high ISO color film? Film producers seem to think not. Fast color films have been cut from manufacturers’ rosters in recent years with alarming frequency. Fujifilm, the serial destroyer of film stock, have axed five of their high-sensitivity color films in the past few years (Press 800 and 1600, Superia 800 and 1600, and FujiColor 800). According to Wikipedia, there even used to be an 800 ISO version of the old faithful Agfa Vista film (but no longer).

[Shots in the gallery below were made by James on Fuji 1600, and would’ve likely been impossible on any slower film.]

A workaround?

Pushing film has always been an option for photographers trying to get the most flexibility from their rolls – this is achieved by tricking the camera into assuming the loaded film is a higher ISO than it is, taking the shots, and then compensating during the developing process. But this technique is most useful with black-and-white film where it’s not unheard of to push by two, three, or even four stops. Conventional wisdom advises to meter for the highlights if you fancy doing this, and my own personal advice would be “Remember To Label Your Film” – otherwise all that trickery will be for naught!

Kodak Tri-X is the king of pushing, as I’ve found on more than one occasion, and suits itself well to stand developing, my favourite method of lazy home development.

But color film is trickier to push. Doing so can can yield good results when we keep things chill, pushing just a single stop for example. But push any farther and things can quickly come undone (depending on what film we’re shooting). Excessive pushing with color film can easily lead to extremely chunky grain, or color shifts, or low-contrast images that simply look under-exposed.

All is not lost.

Kodak seems to be the only company still producing higher sensitivity color film, but even they have limited their production these days. Where they used to produce numerous variants of 800 speed color film (Kodak Max 800, Kodak Zoom 800, etc. – all the same film with different branding) now there is only Portra. This legendary range, beloved for its pastel tones and excellent rendering of skin tones, is available in the slower 160 speed, but also the mid-speed 400 and the high-speed 800 – all with a consistent colur palette, excellent sharpness and good availability.

[Shots in the galleries below were made by the author, Charlotte Davis.]

So why should we need anything more than Portra? Choice and preference (and cost).

My personal preference is a film that will, undoubtedly, bring me nothing but pain as the years go on. I just adore Fujifilm’s color rendering. I love how heavily-saturated the Superia line of films is, how the green of the grass pops against the red of a picnic blanket. I adore the crisp, inky blacks, and the way the vignetting of my XA4 darkens the corners to produce even deeper, almost indigo blue skies.

I’m not one for subtlety – I want party colors, brash and bold, and I want to be able to keep shooting well into the evening. For this reason, my few rolls of the now-discontinued Superia 800 left in the fridge will be used up this summer, then I’ll revert to the 400 ISO version, and see how well it handles being pushed.

What I find interesting is that both Kodak and Fujifilm are still producing and selling disposable one-time use cameras that come preloaded with their 800 ISO films (at the time of this writing). In fact, Lomography used to offer 800 ISO color film as well, though it’s fairly certain that these were rolls of the same Kodak 800 film found in the same mentioned disposable cameras, repackaged for Lomo (not that that’s a bad thing).

Whether or not Lomo’s 800 ISO film will come back (it’s currently unavailable) is hard to say. And whether or not the disposable cameras being sold today are simply sell-offs from a massive run of older production is equally opaque. No one outside the walled towers in Rochester and Tokyo knows the answers to these questions.

An outsider might also be found in cinema film – film that’s typically used for movies, but now often repurposed for still photography use. Cinestill offers its 800T tungsten-balanced film, which is also sold directly by Kodak under its original name, 500T (albeit without the remjet layer removed – you can read all about this in our review). Being tungsten-balanced means this film stock is geared towards use under warmer electric light, and can look quite cold in daylight. This can be easily corrected with a blue filter, or in post-production if you’re using a camera unable to accept filters.

Perhaps all is not lost – for now, at least, we still have Portra, we still have Superia 400 (which isn’t speedy enough, to be honest), and the occasional roll of super expensive cine film.

For me, these are not enough options. I lament the loss of Superia 1600, the old Agfa emulsions, and even the days when Kodak was making Max 800 and (the much less-known) Ektar 1000. Can you imagine Ektar at 1000? Perhaps more poignant than that, can you imagine a future in which we wax poetic about high-sensitivity color film on the whole in the same way the old folk do for Kodachrome slide film today? I hope that future never comes. But it looks like it might.


What are your favourite high-sensitivity colour film stocks? If you can think of any I’ve missed, let me know in the comments – I always need an excuse to fill up the film fridge with a few more rolls.

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Charlotte Davis

Based in Bristol, transplanted from London, I have been taking photos since I could hold a camera (sometimes I still drop them, but the sturdy ones survive).

All stories by:Charlotte Davis
22 comments
  • maybe would could petition to bring back high-iso color film

  • I lucked out last year and snagged a couple rolls of Superia 1600. I wish I had bought all the shop had, but it wasn’t cheap. Superia 800 has been my favorite stock for many year and it too is mostly gone now. Superia 400 is also going away. Fuji has already discontinued a couple of Superia 400 products, which has always proceeded full cancellation. I hear rumors that Fuji actually hasn’t made ANY 35mm film for a couple years and is just selling cold storage kept stocks until they run out, which explains why the films are getting discontinued piece meal.

    I stocked up on Superia 400 recently and have enough in the fridge to last me a good while. I find Superia 400 pushes one stop pretty well, in fact I only shot it this way for several years until i got a DSLR. I’m pretty down about the future of color films. I wasn’t terribly impressed with Cinestill, and Kodak’s consumer films just don’t deliver for me. The focus on reds and gold tones make everything look muddy to me and the contrast is no where as good as Fuji. It’s a shame Tokyo seems to only care about their Instax customers these days.

    • Charlie 🌈🦄🍄 (@mothdust) April 26, 2019 at 9:28 am

      I’m with you on Kodak often looking muddy. A friend has said he finds Cinestill processes best when shot at around 500/600 ISO.

      • Thanks for the tip! I’ll give that a try next time I pick some up, but for the price, if I’m gonna have to pull almost a full stop, I feel like I might as well shoot Fuji Pro 400H or Portra. I wonder how well Fujicolor 200 pushes?

  • I don’t know if it’s discontinued or not but I can still easily find Superia Venus 800 where I live (Thailand). It’s my favorite film for macro stuff (love these amazing colors: https://www.instagram.com/p/BsOzy8dgGGn/?igshid=avkclv9cdebb ).

  • Hello Charlotte, can you please tell us what your recipe is for stand developing Tri-X at higher ISOs? I tend to use Rodinal for stand development and I was under the impression that it should only be used for low ISO films.

    • Charlie 🌈🦄🍄 (@mothdust) April 26, 2019 at 5:21 am

      Hi Malcolm! I use the tried and tested “6ml of Rodinal, make the rest up with water” method. Apparently 6ml is the minimum amount you should use, per roll of 35mm film. I agitate gently for the first minute, let it sit, then swirl every 15 mins or so, leaving it for an hour in total. I’ve found pre-soaking in water to help immensely with bromide drag, so don’t skip this step.

    • I have done semi-stand developing using HC-110 before. From massive dev chart, semi stand develop of Tri-X pushed to 1600 would be 40 minutes at 20 degrees Celsius using 1:100 dilution. Continuous agitation 30-60 seconds up front, with 10 seconds agitation every 10 minutes.

  • There’s always the option of under-exposing and developing normally. UK Film Lab (now Canadian Film Lab) did a comparison of Portra 400 and Fuji 400H that includes shots at 2 stops under, ie shot at 1600, devved normally. See here http://canadianfilmlab.com/2014/04/24/film-stock-and-exposure-comparisons-kodak-portra-and-fuji/

  • Hear hear! I used Fuji Superia Xtra 800 all the time for handheld indoor work. It was all I ever needed. I have one lonely roll left, chilling in the fridge.

    • Charlie 🌈🦄🍄 (@mothdust) April 26, 2019 at 4:13 pm

      I think we’ll be left pushing Superia 400… the problem for me is that my XA4 reads the DX code on the film canister, so to trick it, I guess I’d need to put some electrical tape over the code and manually set it.

  • You forgot to mention Fuji Natura 1600. Now selling around the $50 mark on eBay.

  • The funny thing is I just shot a couple of rolls of Lomo 800 (got it from their office) & really liked the look. And I was thinking about trying more high ISO film like Cinestill 800T. I’m able to still get Superia 800 for the moment, but maybe I should really start stocking up. I regret not buying the 1600 when I had the chance, because it would of really came in handy a few times.

    I really like fuji’s look, but I know pretty soon I’ll have no choice but to switch to Kodak. I think I’m going to make a investment for the future & buy alot of fuji right now while I can.

  • How much more expensive are colour film emulsions to research and produce compared to b&w? Because I think that in a not so distant future indie manufacturers will start focusing on high ISO colour film. I say this because compact cameras, in all price ranges, that go up to 3200 ISO sell like crazy nowadays and people will want to experiment with high ISO numbers. Indoors, outdoors, dim lit parties, concerts etc. Not having 1600-3200 ISO film to put in your 3200 ISO camera is like driving a Formula 1 car in a parking lot; you’re not using it to its full potential. It’s especially true for compacts because you have auto-focus, EV compensation etc so they’re perfect for when you have just a few seconds to compose and take a picture. So I think the demand exists. Personally I don’t shoot colour, but if I were I would want high ISO and put it in a compact. I guess it depends on costs of R&D and manufacture if we’ll have 3200 ISO colour films sooner rather than later.

  • I don’t believe Lomo 800 is discontinued? It comes in waves based on production. Anyway, here in Australia you can find it everywhere still.

  • I used to use Kodak Ektachrome tungsten balanced ASA 320 film which I would have the lab push 3 stops to ASA 2,500. This was to photograph stage shows for a magazine and I had very good results. Even 12 x 18 prints looked good. I kept this up until I switched to digital. You can’t get the film any more.

  • Lomo 800 is still available at the Lomo site. I highly recommend it – I use it in P&S cameras at night. This was taken with a Nikon L35AW

    https://www.flickr.com/gp/39133227@N08/7Z5T2F

    I like it just as much as Superia 800 and Portra 800 as my useage is low light. If I’m doing daytime portraiture, I’m not shooting ISO 800 film!

    Cinestill 800 seems to have quality control issues. Some rolls I’ve used have come out fantastic, others just a murky disappointment shot under the same conditions. Given its cost and lack of reliability, I’m done with it as I need my gear to perform.

    Cinestill 800 in a Rollei QZ35W

    https://www.flickr.com/gp/39133227@N08/2o2tCE

    • Thomas Harding May 7, 2019 at 9:51 am

      I had similar issues with Cinestill, though I’m not willing to discount that they may have had some damage from summer heat. I expected some weirdness since it doesn’t have an anti-halation layer, but the weirdness i got seemed to be something not related to halation. Either way, I haven’t been chomping at the bit to give them another try at $13 a roll. For the money I’d rather have ProH or Portra where at least I know if the colors are coming out wrong, it was my own damn fault.

  • Rolf-Werner Eilert May 6, 2019 at 5:50 am

    On our photo forum, I just read that someone tried a medium format Fuji Provia 200 pushed to ISO 2000 with very good result (he included some examples which looked really nice). So push development seems to be at least an interim solution.

    On the other hand, some time ago I found couple of 6×6 slides on Agfa 1000 (or how much was it?) from the 80s, and I was not so much impressed. The grain was in fact visible by the naked eye, without projecting them, and I remembered that at that time, I thought “hm, is it really worth its higher price?”

  • Fujifilm Venus 800 (Japan version of Superia 800) is still officially available in Japan and sold in europe as a parallel import.

  • Ok I spoke too soon, predictably Venus 800 was axed on May 9th! with stock expected to last to december. http://ffis.fujifilm.co.jp/information/articlein_0090.html

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Charlotte Davis

Based in Bristol, transplanted from London, I have been taking photos since I could hold a camera (sometimes I still drop them, but the sturdy ones survive).

All stories by:Charlotte Davis