Sunday, 28 September 2014

Fuji Velvia: The Riot Begins

Olympus Pen (1959) / Fujichrome Velvia RVP / Varenna

Fuji Velvia is one of the most famous slide films. It defined the look of professional landscape photography in the 1990s and was very popular with advertising and magazine feature photographers. It's also one of the few slide films that you can still buy new. Since its introduction in 1990 it has gone through several different revisions, and I've never had a chance to shoot the original, original Velvia until recently, thus this blog post.

Velvia was originally called Fujichrome Velvia. It replaced Fujichrome 50, which apparently had some of Velvia's saturated colours but wasn't as sharp. Professional Photography has an extensive profile of the new film in their August 1990 issue:

The section on exposure latitude is particularly interesting - there's some debate on the internet about whether Velvia looks better and is more scannable at ISO 40 (lighter shadows) or ISO 64 (more saturation, very dense negative). My hunch is that ISO 50 plus Photoshop covers both of those bases, and that is the value I aimed at. The original Velvia was joined by Velvia 100F, which was launched in 2003 as a faster alternative, with a slightly different colour balance. They were both joined in 2005 by Velvia 100, which was well-received. A new version of the original, Velvia 50, was launched in 2006, by which time I assume it was aimed mainly at the few large format landscape photographers that still used film.

A shufty with Google suggests that there's almost no difference between the two 50-speed Velvias, and my own personal experience leads me to believe that any differences are less pronounced than Photoshop's ability to change them. I couldn't find a great deal about Velvia 100F, perhaps because writers at the time tended to call it Velvia 100, which confuses search returns. To complicate matters Fuji also sold Provia 100F, a general-purpose professional slide film, and Astia 100F, a slide film with a subdued palette aimed at portrait photographers.

All of these films are or were available in a range of formats, from 35mm up to 8x10". 100F was discontinued a couple of years ago. Only Velvia 50 and 100 remain, and then only in 35mm and 120. After they are dead they will hang around in freezers for a while, like Walt Disney's head. I suspect the thing that finally kills them will be the unavailability of slide film processing. It will be a negative feedback loop. If the only remaining slide film developer is in Kansas, no one will bother with the delay and expense of shooting slide film. Kansas is too far away.

Fuji tried to replicate the look of Velvia with some of its digital cameras - the S2 and S3 had Velvia-esque colour modes, which boosted reds and greens - and I have no idea if they still do. The first Coverdale/Page album is better than I expected. It was launched with a mass of hype and it did sell well, but in 1993 it felt too slick, and the timing for a new glammy hard rock band was all wrong in the midst of grunge. And no-one knew if Coverdale/Page was a new band or a one-off project along the lines of The Firm. And they didn't tour, and there was never a follow-up album.

The Popular Photography article above starts by asking if anybody shoots slide films any more, and that was 1990. I wonder if the widespread adoption of Photoshop later in the decade helped slide film or not. Velvia has very little grain and the colours are eye-popping, and you can just check the film strip if you want to check the colour balance. But negative film can be shot casually and rescued with Photoshop, whereas slide film benefits more from doing everything in camera, with ND filters and coloured gels. The two images below are of a cloud evaporating; the landscape will never look right, because the shadows are black. Perhaps I should have come back later in the day with a tripod and some ND filters, but (a) I didn't have a tripod (b) or any ND filters (c) the cloud would have gone (d) the castle would have been closed.

As with all slide films Velvia is difficult to use. It's slow, so you might expect it to work best on sunny days. But the limited exposure latitude and high contrast mean that if you shoot in full sun you end up with black shadows, or white skies, so you have to compromise. Compare the shots above of the yellow buildings against the sky. The triptych in the middle overexposes the sunlit paint, which reduces the saturation but leaves some of the sky visible. The shot at the bottom exposes the building more correctly- it's still a bit too bright - leaving the sky as a deep impenetrable purply-black. And the cloud on the right is blown-out.

Velvia is one of the few films that looks great in dull, overcast conditions, and it would probably look cartoonish with a polarising filter. It also suffers from something called reciprocity failure, which means that exposures in subdued light - such as the stereotypical shot of a rocky beach at sunset, with neutral density filters darkening the sky so that it matches the rocks - have to be much longer than the meter suggests. Which would be long in any case because the film is only ISO 50.


For the shots in this blog post I used an original Olympus Pen, a manual-everything half-frame camera from 1959, and set the exposure with a Sekonic L-308. The Pen has a 1/50 shutter speed, and so in theory I could have used the old sunny 16 rule and just shot at 1/50, f/16 all the time; off the top of my head I think I stuck with 1/125 and either f/8 and f/11 depending on my mood, going 1/50 f/3.5 in shade. With my Epson V500 the emulsion scans with a reddish tinge, but once I set the levels correctly everything falls into place.

Do I like Velvia? Photography isn't just a technical medium, it's an emotional art form, and on an emotional level I can't warm to it. There are several problems. The film was embraced by professional photographers during the 1990s, and when I think of Velvia I think of cigarette advertisements and grunge album covers and Athena posters. Features in magazines. It just doesn't strike me as a romantic film. In fact it makes me think of Miami Vice, which is nonsense because Miami Vice predated Velvia by half a decade. But they occupy the same emotional space, they are both slick and performant. The problem with that approach is that it invites obsolescence, and Velvia strikes me as a film that became superfluous once digital photography became practical. It strikes me as a film that people used because it had some of the airbrushed, illustrated look of Tron-style proto-CGI. The synaesthetic part of my brain thinks plastic, chocolate.

Velvia was also available as a motion picture film. As far as I can tell it was launched in the late 1990s, used sparingly, and discontinued in the early 2000s. The only major motion picture that used it extensively was What Dreams May Come, which was set in heaven. Take a look at this relatively subdued screenshot here, which demonstrates why Velvia was never popular as a portrait film; it makes skin look odd. I haven't seen What Dreams May Come. It caught Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr at the point when their careers were about to crash and burn, although they didn't know it at the time. And of course it's a film in which Robin Williams dies (and his kids die, and so does his wife). Dreams won an Academy Award for visual effects, and belongs to the brief age when films were shot on film and then run through a computer in order to make everything look as if it had been created with CGI. We shall not see its like again.

As the dominant professional film of the 1990s, or at least the one that most people had heard of, it was the default choice for amateur photographers who assumed that simply shooting with Velvia would lift them above the crowd. and Flickr and so forth - particularly, which was around in the late 1990s, during the late heyday of film photography - have lots of boring, emotionally dead images taken by unimaginative people who used Velvia. In fact Velvia seems to have attracted this kind of photographer, because it had a mystique.

Beyond the work of National Geographic photographers it seems not to have left much of a trace, in the great ark of humanity's visual heritage. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of photographs were taken with Velvia, but now they are dust in the wind. Photojournalists shunned it, ordinary men and women didn't buy it, and in any case it existed at a time when our visual heritage was generated and passed on with video tape. It was a specialised still film in an age of moving pictures. "We can't rewind, we've gone too far." The Lomo crowd were never interested in it, although the combination of film speed, aperture, and shutter speed are such that it would produce at least usable results in a Holga. Velvia will eventually become the name of a Photoshop action, used by people who will not know that it used to be a film.

This wasn't shot with Velvia, or even a film camera - I used a 5D plus a coloured ND filter. I include it because (a) I had it lying about (b) I can't actually find a copy of the XP desktop image on any of my machines! XP is of course dead, although like Velvia it lingers on.

No, tell a lie. There was one really really famous image shot with Fuji Velvia. The Windows XP desktop. You remember it; a rolling green field that looked like CGI. I mention this at the end of the post because it is the most depressing thing about Velvia. It is the only film I mentally associate with being unable to connect to a networked printer. With having to wear a shirt, and use a fax machine, and wake up before 10:00. I hate shirts, and fax machines, and printers. And having to wake up before 10:00.