The Velvia Dissonance

| July 29, 2012

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.

Striped Slot

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.

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About the Author ()

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.

Comments (21)

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    FWIW I was never a fan a Velvia. I still see photographers arguing that you have to “get it right in the camera” and that Photoshop is cheating. No it isn’t. It is taking control of the process of creation.

  2. Hi Guy: As Tim Parkin has mentioned elsewhere, this appears to be a UK and not US discontinuation; there is nothing on the Fujifilm USA website that indicates Velvia is discontinued. Have you received confirmation from Fujifilm USA?

    I agree that Velvia has been largely obsolete for some time. For the benefit of film-based photographers, your equation of better and bigger creative possibilities from RAW capture also applies to color negative film. There is no “canned” option with color neg and it’s up to the user to “develop” their print. C41 options are on the wane, but one can always stock their freezer as I have…

  3. Steve Sieren says:

    Personally, I feel the film era died when medium and large format photographers began using photoshop to process their images.

    That was a whole other class of photography and all the other stuff is just digital. .

  4. I know digital is replacing film for the most part, but no mere mortal can afford a scanning back for a 4×5, and I doubt Canon/Nikon/Sony will make a CMOS sensor that big anytime soon. (Can I get a Fuji XPro1 sensor in 4×5 for $500 please? ;-) I’ve been moving toward large format, when the rest of the world wants tiny sensors. Born in the wrong decade, I guess. That’s what bothers me about this. I REALLY wanted to shoot a 4×5 with Velvia. The only 4×5 transparency that B&H caries is Fuji, so if they stop … shoot Ektar at $3 per shot?

  5. Guy Tal says:

    Kevin, you can still get Velvia in 4×5 format in the US. If you have your heart set on it, you may want to stock up.

  6. Ben Horne says:

    Velvia 50 is no longer my primary film — use mostly color negative film these days — but I often shoot a sheet of Velvia 50 alongside Color Neg film. I must disagree with you in some ways regrading the limitation of Velvia. I don’t see it as being negative.

    Large format in general is a very limiting. I find these limitations absolutely critical for my own creativity.

    From my standpoint, Limitation fosters creativity. The limited dynamic range of Velvia, combined with the inherent limitation of large format, helps focus my creative vision. It forces me to visualize my shots ahead of time, and think through the process of what is required to capture them.

    Rather than being distracted by the firework show of light going on around me at the peak moment, I focus my attention on the one shot I am truly after.

    Though I could artificially impose such restriction on myself while shooting digital, I fear I don’t have the patience to follow through.

    On another note, many of the current post processing techniques associated with digital photography are equally valid with Velvia. A good drum scan will retrieve a lot of information from both the shadows and the highlights. In some ways, I can tweak a scan even more than a digital file. Fragile gradients in the sky stand up much better with a scan than with digital.

    Before digital, photographers often underexposed their velvia shots to enhance the color. I’ve found that with a digital workflow, it is best to exposure my Velvia shots as bright as possible without blowing the highlights. This allows a proper scan of both the shadows and the highlights.

  7. Julian says:

    Your assertion that Velvia (and, by extension, other reversal films) offers very little (or no) opportunity for creative post-processing without first being scanned is easily refuted by the work of Christopher Burkett and Michael Fatali (amongst other masters of Ilfochrome printing…)

    Julian.

  8. Guy Tal says:

    Ben, that’s a very interesting perspective. I have read some research suggesting that self-imposed limitations indeed help creativity. I didn’t think of film in that context but I can see your point.

  9. Guy Tal says:

    Julian, that’s not what I said. I said that if your goal is to scan your film, there are better choices than Velvia (e.g. negative film, as Michael suggested). I don’t need to go to Burkett or Fatali to know that; several of the images on my own site are scanned from 4×5 and 120 Velvia and I have hundreds more in my files.

  10. Julian says:

    Hi Guy,

    ” 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.” And then you go on to talk about scanning. I agree that scanning and then printing digitally offers a wealth of options but then so does printing optically via Ilfochrome – if you know what you’re doing.

    People like Fatali and Burkett aren’t exactly throwing pre-packaged food in the microwave…

    Julian.

  11. Guy Tal says:

    Undoubtedly there are ways to overcome and mitigate some of the limitations. This does not change the objective facts, though.
    Films like Velvia are very well suited for some types of images (if they were not, they wouldn’t exist) and if one limits their work to those types of images it may work very well indeed. But, objectively speaking, they are limited in terms of dynamic range and contrast compared to other capture methods.
    I like Ben’s thoughts on working within limitations. Obviously some are doing it very well.

  12. Tim Parkin says:

    I’ve responded to this post on my website

    http://www.timparkin.co.uk/2012/07/is-velvia-just-saturation-a-response-to-velvia-dissonance/

    but I thought I’d respond to the ‘limitations’ of the dynamic range of Velvia. This limitation really is an advantage (beyond Ben’s insightful comments about self limitation). If your subject matter only has two or three stops of dynamic range (as happens quite often in overcast light or foggy conditions) your digital camera may only be using an 12% of it’s dynamic range.

    Film on the other hand will be well exposed with three stops of subject matter and I can programme the sensors in my drum scanner to spread the whole 12 bits across the three stops. The transitions and tonal separation will be better for this.

    The best dynamic range for a camera is exactly the same as the dynamic range of the subject.

  13. Guy Tal says:

    I agree, Tim. As I responded to Julian, there are some types of images that indeed lend themselves very well to the narrow latitude.

  14. Guy,

    While I’ve 98% transitioned to digital myself, and I’m more likely to shoot Provia than Velvia if I do put in a roll of film, I have to admit that I feel a nostalgic loss at the announcement. Velvia exposed at EI 40 was wonderful stuff, particularly in the quiet moments of deep forest shadows, heavily overcast days, and in twilight. Particularly the twilight hour after sunset — it pulled out colors that I have a hard time matching in digital. Perhaps it was something about the reciprocity response (I won’t call it “failure” because I loved it). That said, it had to be completely still to use it; the slightest touch of wind would ruin the exposures that ran into tens of seconds if not minutes…

  15. Rafael Rojas says:

    Hey, this is going to be an animated blog post! Geez, limited editions first, film-digital now!! LOL

    I must say that even if I grew as a photographer with a digital camera in hand, I love using film too. In a way, I cannot and will never be able to say that any tool is better than the other, they are just different. And that is exactly why when I hear about any discontinuation of film I feel sad: Because that means we have as photographers less options, and less differences…

    Digital is great since it gives more control to the photographer, and I really enjoy that. It is also great to foster a certain of “pushed” creativity, since the cost and limitations of film do not exist anymore. However, a digital photographer gets into the train of fast consumerism where every year you need to change the camera and all the lenses which come with it. But that is a tiny detail for me, what I really, really love about using film is the fact you have a “dumb” and “deaf” camera, a box with no voice, an empty LCD, and nothing screams, talks or throws blinkies or histograms to you. With film, I feel there is less interference between the land and myself, and that outer landscape meets the inner one much easily. So, basically, “it is not about the film, stupid”, :) but about the process. I am sure I will miss that process.

    That being said, in the same way I enjoy forests the most when I come from the mountains, I enjoy using my D800e when I have just used the pano 617 camera, and the opposite. Breaking the comfort zone and creating rupture points is the name of the game.

    And right now I just realized we photographers are, again, talking about gear…

    How many chefs out there talk about pans? :)

    great post Guy!

    rafa

  16. Dan Baumbach says:

    Guy,

    This post is well written and well thought out like all your posts, but I’m surprised that your conclusions are based on logic. ie. If one researched the best way to get an image, what would one do.

    Since when does logic have anything to do with creativity. If I wanted to be logical about being creative, I’d choose a lot less expensive way to express myself than through photography.

    I haven’t used Velvia 50 for a long time, even when I was shooting film, but I remember how much I loved it and I see how much some people love it today. So, even though I don’t expect to purchase or shoot Velvia myself, I do feel bad for the people who depend on it and wish it’s demise weren’t happening.

  17. Excellent post, Guy. I read Tim Parkin’s response-rebuttal first, and tend to agree more with some of his technical points, but more with your overall position. I like a contrarian argument, though I’m not sure whether the contrarian is Tim or you, Guy, maybe a little of each. Carr Clifton summed it up much the way you have. He said that for many years photographers had been attempting to get more color out of their film. Suddenly Velvia gave them way more than they had ever seen and many got carried away mainly with over-saturation. At the same time, regarding one of your smaller points about scanning: I am quite sure that Rich Seiling of West Coast Imaging would disagree with you. With a staff of experts doing the scanning with the world’s best scanning software and drum scans, I am certain that Rich would agree with Tim about the ease of producing quality scans from Velvia. However, your more central point that it is precisely the problems with over-saturation that are Velvia’s main drawback, renders the minor advantages less relevant in my opinion. For the primary reason of saturation, it is widely agreed that Velvia changed landscape photography for the worse as you say and as I argue in my post: http://landscapephotographyblogger.com/photography-history/did-velvia-film-change-landscape-photography/
    Furthermore, it is the attempts to match Velvia in Photoshop, that Tim proved himself to render inferior results and that continue to send the landscape genre into nature-fake land.

  18. Justin K says:

    Your article is provocative, because of the bold stance you take on an inherently subjective and controversial issue. After all, ultimately we’re dealing with perceptions of the representation of the natural world on screen and in-print.

    My opinion is in stark contrast to yours on a couple of points. I think one of Velvia’s strengths is that it yields a canned response. These days, many digital photographs have color boosted to the max beyond anything Velvia did, rays of light and glowing gold hues that, that not only are embellished, are added entirely and fictitiously after the fact. Ho-hum sunsets are turned into epic fiery displays, with clouds ablaze in pinks and oranges that were created at the hands of the skilled Photoshop technician (i.e. photographer). It has become acceptable, and even desirable, in the eyes of many photographers, to produce a rendering of a scene that shares little in common with the actual landscape that was witnessed in-person.

    Counter arguments to the above often invoke the high saturation properties of Velvia as iron clad proof that any sort of color manipulation is fair game. However, Velvia’s own predictable color responses while unrealistic, are more believable than the creations of most digital photogs (and I count myself in that group). At least with RVP, it’s possible to know how greens are rendered automatically, how sunsets are transmitted, and contrast handled. And a slide can be shown giving the viewer some assurance of authenticity. The scene the photographer witnessed was subjected to a known and constrained process and produced a rather consistent output. Now, it feels like photography has morphed into a sort of hybrid art, caught in between painting, computer graphics, and photography, dependent on the whims of the artisan as he sits in front of the screen. And as technology progresses, it’s probable that the most heralded photographers will be those with the most computer savvy, instead of those with the most patient and discerning eye in the field.

    I believe it takes a great deal of skill to create stunning captures with Velvia, due to its inherently small dynamic range and contrasty/saturated results and slow speed. On a side note, according to my local camera shop, only 100f is being discontinued across the board for all formats, while RVP 50 will still be available for all formats and 100 for medium format and 35mm. But if and when the entire line of Velvia ceases to be produced, for me it will mark the end of an era that I look back on with not with disdain, but with nostalgia.

  19. Jim Becia says:

    Guy,

    First of all, I think only Velvia 50 is being discontinued from what I have read. (I am basing these comments on Velvia 50.) I am going to disagree with the premise of your article. I always found Velvia 50 to be a “tool” in many respects. I learned early to use it in the right conditions. Yes, it is limited to certain situations, but that is what made Velvia 50 special. I knew the response and what I would obtain. I would not and still do not use Velvia for every image just like I don’t use a wide angle for every image. Now I, like Ben, shoot mostly 8×10, but also some 4×10, 5×7, and 4×5. I can’t afford the digital back that can come close to the scans I receive from my film. I will use the film that suits the subject and lighting. In the right conditions, Velvia just sings. Yes, digital capture has a wider dynamic range, but I like Ben, have always worked within the range when using Velvia 50. But Velvia 50 is not the only film in my bag, just like a wide angle is not the only lens in my bag. I think a couple of comments mentioned the work of both Burkett and Fatali, both who have and may still use Velvia. Their artistic interpretations and printing using Velvia are as good as any digital capture/processing as far as I am concerned. Someone else mentioned that most post processing of digital images now look much more saturated and “cooked” than Velvia. Personally, I am saddened to see this film go, but then again, I have a freezer that is now fairly stocked full of these films that I will use over the next 5 years. (Just have to keep some processing labs in business during this time.)