When it comes to landscapes analog photographers traditionally would choose slide film. Before the widespread availability of high resolution digital cameras slide film offered the highest fidelity of image quality. Fine grain, impressive resolving power, and colors that leap out at you are just a few of the qualities that bring chrome films to landscape subjects. Those great features also came with a price in several senses of the word. Slide films are literally becoming more expensive than their b/w and print film relatives in unit cost and processing. In addition they can be notoriously unforgiving with very limited dynamic range having exposure latitude in the 6-8 stops range. Even with all that in mind there are perhaps few pleasures as wonderful as holding a positive image in hand.
While I may sound engrossed with slides, and believe me I am, I want to talk about a color negative film that shares many of the great benefits of slide film but at both a fraction of the cost and difficulty. Yes, a print film with fine grain, wide exposure latitude, bold color rendition, and a reasonable price. This film would of course be the impressive Kodak Ektar 100.
Following the rough format as my last film review, Fomapan 100, I am going to break down my thoughts into a couple sections with an additional section on interesting background facts.
Kodak Ektar 100 is a color negative, process C-41, film available in 35mm, 120, 4x5, and 8x10 sizes from most major vendors. Other specialty large format sizes can be obtained through special order, Canham Camera often organizes such endeavors (http://www.canhamcameras.com/kodakfilm.html). The film was introduced in late 2008 initially in just 35mm but eventually in the aforementioned sizes.
Although Ektar 100 is a recently released film from Kodak, only slightly older than the latest Portra films, it has long a heritage. The name Ektar has been used by Kodak on various products for the last century. Starting in the 1930s and going through the 1960s Ektar was a name applied to a range of pro lenses for the 2"x3" format. My first exposure to the name was with the 2x3 Graflex I used for a few years which had a Kodak Ektar 107mm f/3.7 lens. Later Kodak reimagined the name for a range of color negative films introduced in the late 1980s in several flavors including 25, 125, and 1000 speeds. All promising fine grain and vivid color rendition. Kodak produced those films for about a decade but have long been discontinued.
NOTE: I am not much of a historian nor am I an expert researcher but I would recommend the curious to read up on the wikipedia page and elsewhere. Kodak has a fascinating history with their nomenclature which deserves its own deep dive and study. Much of the above information is easily viewable on the wiki page, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ektar.
In short, this film was made for landscapes.
First thing first is the different approach to a scene this film makes you take. As with c41 films, in contrast with slide film, overexposure is alway preferred to under exposure and at times even box exposure. This film love's light and the shadows do too. When working with Fuji Velvia or Kodak E100VS I would always err on the side of 1/4 - 1/3 stop underexposure to make sure highlights were not blown out. This strategy often would yield lovely shots with blacked out shadows leaving me regretting not applying layers of graduated ND filters.
Ektar by comparison is easy — almost too easy to shoot with. Even using basic average metering you won't ever have any issue with blown highlights or murky shadows. Perhaps the film's greatest advantage is the dynamic range. From my experience it is perhaps double that of Fuji Velvia.
However, Velvia still has some edge on Ektar. The color pop of Ektar is good but does not compare to the radiant and bold color Velvia produces. Some might argue that this pop can be pushed in post via vibrance/saturation but I find that it is not the same. I've also noticed that Ektar has a habit of blue shadows, perhaps due to non-linear color saturation curve. More on this in the technical factors.
Perhaps a better way to describe what I am getting at is that Ektar has a much more subtle, not in-your-face, way of saturating colors. When looking at the world through the lens of Ektar all colors seen appear as plausible and real; no color looks over saturated or out of place. This even applies to skin tones, which I'll cover below. Compare that with Fuji Velvia which can easily turn a scene garish or even abstract; shifting caucasian skin tones to fire red.
When speaking in terms of grain acutance and resolution Velvia and other slide films will also edge out Ektar. Personally I don't find this to be much of an issue. Ektar is extremely fine grained for a negative film, too, and is remarkably sharp. When scanning and editing large batches of film I've noticed that Ektar scans are always sharper than those from Portra 160/400 and most b/w stocks I shoot. If I was shooting more 35mm I might care a bit more about this factor but honestly if you are so worried about such things as accutane and resolution these days you shouldn't bother shooting film and jump on the digital train.
When it comes to skin tones and people Ektar can be a mixed bag. It comes down to that look you are trying to achieve. It is a higher saturated film and colors will be punchy. Importantly, though, skin tones tend to remain on the natural and believable side of the scale. Unlike Velvia which turns anything resembling skin into a mess of red hues.
Of the portrait work I've done with Ektar most of it has been done with caucasian skin tones. Under natural light, such as shade or window light, skin remains pleasantly warm. Notatably, oranges and blues stand out the most. Be warned, it isn't that difficult to have the oranges shift into reds from changing light or over aggressive post processing. Even with that I overall enjoy the general spirited and fiery look Ektar can give to a portrait shoot.
Personally I prefer the look of Kodak Portra 400 at e.i. 200 for my people work as of late but the inexpensive and easier accessibility of obtaining Ektar often lead me to using it on shoots. I find it works best with bright natural light, or shade, exposed at e.i. 50 or 80.
There are not too many technical factors to consider with this film. Technical factors might even be too strong of phrasing as guidelines might be a more fitting descriptor.
One of the larger guidelines or considerations are blue shadows. Alluded to throughout this post, at box speed or under exposure in daylight I have noticed a strong tendency for blue shadows. Very much overcomeable with a nudge in metering or post processing. Don't be surprising to see a scan come out blue.
Another aspect to be aware of is over exposure. As a color negative film Ektar over exposes beautifully, but only up to a point. Unlike it's Portra siblings I've noticed highlights blowing out more quickly with over exposure. As I mentioned in the People section I like shooting at e.i. 50/80 for portraits. As your exposure approaches past e.i. 50 be prepared for blown whites. Conversely Portra can handle 2+ stops over exposure much more easily. After all Ektar is aimed at landscapes so more exact metering shouldn't be a big deal.
More often than not these days I use a lab to process my color film. My free time is much more strained than it used to be. When I did have more available time I would process much of my C41, and even E6, film. If you do plan to self develop Ektar I had the best results from wet chemical kits, (i.e. chemicals that come as liquids versus powder). These wet kits are a touch more expensive but the final negatives always turned out with better color balance.
Powder kits, from my experience, only yield passable results from the first batch. Each reuse yields poorer colors and blocked up shadows (developer and blix exhaustion). These kits are fun to experiment with and make color film much more economical to shoot. Be warned they will not give the best results from your film. I've been burned, figuratively, with home processing several times and now just eat the extra few bucks and send off to a lab that uses the full C41 process (separate bleach and fix steps, among others things).
Things are easy when it comes to scanning too. Ektar dries very flat and remains flat with no noticeable curl. I use an Epson v500 for scanning almost all my film and find it scans very easily with VueScan. The film is also fairly receptive to Digital ICE, which removes dust and hair from the scan automatically (via an infrared scan pass). I also had the pleasure of using a Nikon Coolscann 8000 for a few years and echo the same sentiments with that scanner. Kodak Ektar scans easily and well. Using VueScan I am easily able to find the proper exposure and color balance. Raw scans also are very sharp and crisp.
To summarize a few key points:
- ~$5 120 roll, ~$6 35mm roll, ~$35 10 sheet 4x5 box
- Prices from freestylephoto.biz
- Easy to process / get processed (C-41)
- Slide film like look (great color)
- Decent dynamic range
- Sharp and easy to scan
During my journey with the film I have shot it in 35mm, 120, and recently 4x5 with subjects ranging from people, landscapes, and street/candids. I've been shooting it since 2009, (nearly ten years!), and it continues to be my go to color film.
As you might have inferred by this point I really like this film. Perhaps the best way to end this review is to say that there must be something special about this film for it to remain always stocked in both my freezer and bag!