Fujifilm’s recent announcement about the discontinuation of Velvia signifies an end to an interesting era in photography. In its own way, the film was responsible for some of the most striking imagery of the 1990s. Yes, it really was that recent. I was working in Israel when Velvia was introduced. I remember the salesperson at a photography store in Tel Aviv telling me that I must try it. I did. And I loved it. For a couple of years, that is, until I began processing my images digitally.
It was strange for me to see the online eulogies following the discontinuation announcement. All the ones I’ve read so far seem to completely miss the point of what Velvia was, why it was popular, and why it makes perfect sense for Fujifilm to discontinue it. If anything, I often wondered why it took so long. Better emulsions were introduced more than a decade ago, and with digital capture, the entire niche of highly saturated positive film had become obsolete from a practical standpoint.
Velvia was a stopgap measure making up for severe shortcomings in what was possible using color film. To put it in perspective, B&W photographers always had the freedom to control tone in their work with great flexibility and accuracy using traditional darkroom methods. Processes for developing and printing B&W film allow for variation in chemical composition and concentration, temperature, and time, that can be used to control dynamic range, produce a variety of visual effects, and extend the creative process far beyond the click of the shutter. Color films were, comparably, at a severe disadvantage. Even the slightest variation in the development process was likely to result in very strange outcomes. Velvia added a canned option for high saturation that was simply not available to color photographers up to that point. It was as though B&W photographers had a fully stocked kitchen, and color photographers were limited to a selection of pre-packaged microwave dinners. Velvia added a dessert option — a very scrumptious and popular one, but still just one.
Things began to change when film scanning technologies became widely available. An often-missed part of the revolution was that with digital images, color photographers now had a means of controlling color and contrast beyond what was dictated by the chemistry in the film. In other words, color photographers were given additional creative options previously available only to B&W darkroom masters. It was at that point that Velvia became functionally obsolete, though other factors ensured its survival for a few more years. The reason it became obsolete was that if the aim is to produce a good scan (i.e., maximize detail and dynamic range), Velvia was one of the worst capture options. Its dynamic range was miserably narrow compared with negative film or less saturated positive emulsions, it tended to clip individual colors very easily, and it suffered from an annoying peppergrain effect when scanned.
The reason Velvia subsisted is that most commercial buyers still evaluated images by reviewing film on a light table, and nothing stands out better than Velvia when judged in this way. As more buyers began utilizing digital tools for review, this commercial advantage began to wane, too.
Today, RAW files from even entry level DSLRs offer better dynamic range and cleaner capture than Velvia, and color palettes are under the complete control of the photographer. With software putting immense control over RAW conversion (de-mosaicing), contrast, and color at the fingertips of anyone willing to invest in learning such skills, there is no longer a need to limit one’s creative options to the canned palette of any one film.
In my mind, the rise and dominance of positive highly-saturated film actually set back photography in some ways. These emulsions provided limited creative options at a time when no others existed. They allowed photographers to become lazy, clicking the shutter and relying on a canned effect to finish the image, rather than continuing the creative process into development and post-processing. In that sense, Velvia to RAW files can be thought of as what Instagram is to a DSLR, or a microwave dinner is to a well-stocked kitchen. Worse yet, generations of photographers who began their journeys at the time when such emulsions were dominant came to revere and romanticize them, to a point where today, even when having far greater freedom of expression, they still attempt to limit their interpretations to Velvia-vision rather than investing in mastering post-processing skills that were the hallmark of photographic masters since the dawn of photography and until very recently (Velvia was introduced a mere two decades ago).
While Velvia filled a sorely needed niche before better options were available, that niche, at least in practical terms, became moot more than a decade ago. It undoubtedly played a critical role in advancing nature photography, in particular, providing a means of rendering images in vibrant color that was simply not possible before it. Still, the period where such canned solutions were needed ended quite some time ago. Like glass plates, it served its purpose well when no better alternatives existed and had earned its rightful place in the history of great photographic technologies. Still, I will not miss it.
Image captured in the late 1990s on 4×5 Agfa RSX film
to overcome the limitations of higher-contrast emulsions
some years before digital capture was an option.
About the Author (Author Profile)Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.
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