A Comparison of Eight Different ISO 100 Color Negative Films

Film is a fabulous medium to work with. There's nothing like the anticipation as you wait for the medium to develop to see how your pictures turn out. While the digital revolution currently offers us the instant gratification of seeing one's work, and offers imaging prowess that 35mm could not, there are some of us older photographers (and a growing number of younger ones) who still shoot with the medium that originally brought photography to the masses.  

This grainy and gritty medium, whose colors vary from one manufacturer to another, has a chemistry involved with it that sometimes borders on the mystical, the alchemical, the magical, something that Adobe and the digital revolution have taken out of the ethos of the craft, and placed it into zeros and ones, into the digital darkroom. Despite the many affordances digital cameras offer photographers, film refuses to go away. Many had predicted its demise years ago, yet it's still with us. Some things just refuse to die. Film is one of them.  

Nostalgia, comfort, familiarity, aesthetics, and curiosity are some reasons people still shoot with film. For me, it's the nostalgia behind it, the ability to still tinker with the magic that I learned when I was much younger. I'm not here to bash digital, because it's a magic I also have embraced--it is the future, of that there's no doubt. However, working with film has a different approach, a slower, more thoughtful, more methodical approach that many digital natives find either amusing, inspiring, or a waste of time. Whatever digital natives think, the slower approach was how the masters approached their craft--an approach that works with either medium. But this review isn't about comparing one medium to another, or even a technique or an approach to another. No, this review is
for those who still shoot with this medium in its negative format, and also to satisfy curiosity about the affordances of current ISO 100 negative films.

The tools I used for this test were a tripod, my Nikon FE, my Nikkor 50mm f1.8 AIS MKII, a Toshiba hand-held light meter, a Canoscan 4400f, and, of course, the film.

Before I discuss my findings, please know that I scanned all of these films using a Canoscan 4400f with every setting turned "off". The only setting I couldn't turn off was white balance. My intent in doing so was to compare the sharpness, grain, and out-of-camera colors of each film. It was not to test exposure latitude (though with all things being equal, I'll let you be the judge on that one). 

The image to the left shows you the settings I used to scan all of the negatives. Everything that I could turn off in the scanner (software) was turned off so that the grain, the sharpness, the tones, and the colors that came out could be compared in a fair manner. The only thing that I couldn't figure out how to turn off the white balance (simply because there was no button or option for it).

Click on the image to access the full sized screen capture, so you can read the scan details.



While this isn't the most scientific of comparisons, I made sure that the exposure meter in-camera, and my hand-held exposure meter matched. Both meters gave my the sunny 16 rule @ ISO 100. This table below lists the reciprocal relationships of the sunny 16 rule.

 ISO100
f2
 1/8000
   f2.8  1/4000
   f4  1/2000
   f5.6  1/1000
   f8  1/500
   f11  1/250
   f16  1/125
   f22  1/60

My camera's meter agreed with my hand-held meter from everything from 1/1000th down to 1/60. Beyond 1/1000th my FE's meter went above the "A" in auto (aperture priority mode). Supposedly the FE is capable of reaching speeds of 1/4000th and above, but this is not completely verified. Please keep this in mind when comparing the images shot between f1.8-f4.

The images shot between f1.8-f4 either used shutter speeds beyond the 1/1000th limit set on my FE, or the exposure latitude of the films covered for the brightness. To my way of thinking, and by looking at how nicely most of the f2.8 shots turned out, I do think my FE went beyond the 1/1000th limit. I say this because it would be unfair to say that all films have the same exposure latitude of +3 (perhaps Reala and Ektar do--the most expensive ones), but to say that all of them have that much latitude wouldn't make any sense, and would place the cheaper films (like Agfa Vista) in the same category as the more expensive ones.

Basically what I'm getting at, is take the shots between f1.8-f4 with a grain of salt. Either it was my shutter or the exposure latitude or a combination of both that kept the images exposed "correctly" and kept the colors even between those apertures.

From f5.6-f22 the tests are very valid, as both meters agreed, and the shutter speeds were within the controllable limits of my Nikon FE.

The way this review is organized is fairly straight forward. Each vertical image strip contains the corresponding apertures for each film shot. For example all of the f1.8 shots from each film are grouped together. All of the f2.8 shots are grouped together. All of the f4 shots are grouped together...etc. I think you get the point. They are large images (about 20MB in size, so click on the thumbnail to access the original via Picasa). The original TIFF files were well over 100MB in size. I don't think that would be worth the trouble to place on this site, or on Picassa, simply due to the bandwidth required to download 800MB! Having said that, please know that I am allowing complete access to the original scans (the individual scans) of every shot through my picassa folders. You'll find the links to the right of the chart (just click on the name of the film you'd like to see images of).

Although the images appear small...just click on them to access the larger files on Picassa. You can download the full sized vertical comparisons through Picassa.

 f1.8 f2.8
f4
f5.6
f8
f11
f16
f22
 ISO 100
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 Folders:

Ektar

Fuji Color


FujiProPlus II


Fuji Reala


Kodak Gold

KodakPImage


Mitsubishi MX


Agfa Vista

You be the judge of the strengths of each film. I know that to my eyes the Kodak Ektar blew everything else out of the water. Remember I was testing grain, sharpness, and out-of-camera colors. Kodak Ektar, to my way of seeing things, is the clear winner of all the films I tested. Granted, it is possible to change the colors, sharpness, and the tones of any film via post-processing, but that's beyond the scope of this review. And, no, I don't work for Kodak! I'm just a teacher, who loves photography, and who occasionally shoots with film. I hate to leave Fuji, but Kodak has really outdone itself with the Ektar 100.
 
Here's an example of what has convinced me to switch over to Ektar as my film of choice:

Kodak Ektar 100, f5.6 @ 1/1000th. Shot with a Nikon FE and a Nikkor 50mm f1.8 AIS MKII.

The above image was as "raw" as scan as my scanner allows--no post-processing was applied to the image. The colors, the grain, and sharpness are unmatched by the other films. It really is a very fine grain film, and one that I'll be using a little more regularly. Again, I'm not going to throw punches or tell you what to buy--you be judge and decide what's best for you. Perhaps the punchy colors and the fine grain of the Ektar aren't what you're after--in that case there are other films you can use. I hope this helps others make a more informed decision about which 100 ISO film to use.

If you'd like to access the individual scans, click here (or the folder names in the chart) to access the picassa folder where they're stored. All images are (c) J.S. Velasquez. If you'd like to post them somewhere on the net, please email me and ask for permission (relax, I won't charge you anything).