I tend to get my colour film developed in batches, because I can get a discount for 5 or more rolls at a time. If you add this to the fact that I don’t shoot a lot of colour film, for reasons of cost mostly, then it turns out that I end up scanning and post-processing a whole six months worth of colour photography in one go. This is good and bad; I finally get to see great shots that I’d almost forgotten I took, but it means I end up posting summer landscapes in the depths of winter. Another pitfall is that I get to see how badly I messed up what I thought was a great shot, but with no chance of remembering what I might have done wrong. This is one reason I try to keep notes of my exposures – if I know what the exposure was when I mess up, there’s hopefully less chance of messing up again.
So why all the fuss? Well even though I don’t shoot much colour film, there’s nothing quite like opening the envelope and holding up a sheet with a four strips of three 6×6 transparencies up to the light and seeing the living colour captured and held right there in your hand. There’s just something unquantifiable about it that is better than looking at a replay on an LCD, or even full-screen on a monitor. I think partly it is related to the permanence of film. A digital image is all well and good – hugely cheaper and more convenient in numerous ways – but a transparency has pigments fixed by physics and chemistry into something you can hold in your hand and see for yourself. It’s a physical object, not a mathematical representation of how light fell on a sensor.
That’s enough philosophising, what’s the fuss about? Well the quick answer is, of course, “it depends”. There are many different colour films about and they all have their place. I’ve been talking about slide film so far as that’s mostly what I’ve shot in medium format colour, it’s easier to see your results, and it’s easier to scan. However it has it’s limits, and in this latest batch I’ve really run up against them. When I was out and about in the forest in the autumn, I couldn’t have been happier with the mono and infrared results I got, but at the same time I shot some colour frames, and the results of those are much less pleasing.
Woodland scenes are very high contrast, and the range of slide film, like that of digital, is just not up to it. It’s the classic nightmare exposure – to avoid white skies you expose for the highlights, and the forest floor is lost in gloomy shadow, expose for the shadows and the glorious blue sky is blown out. In a woodland setting an ND grad isn’t really an option as then you end up with trees that are darker at the top than the bottom, and anyway I don’t have one. Typically with a digital camera I get around this by combining multiple exposures, which is one reason I shoot less colour film than black and white – which does have the range required to capture the whole scene – but that too has its drawbacks, particularly if it’s in anyway windy.
So I’m starting to think I should get some colour negative film to play around with. The range should be greater than slide film, and it should also be cheaper to buy and process than slide film, even if it is a bit more fiddly to scan, and not nearly as much fun to just look at as something like this frame of Velvia.