Kodak announced Ektachrome E100's triumphant return to production a few years ago, and, for the past couple of years, the film has been available for 35mm and Super 8 shooters. Finally, at the end of 2019, Kodak has brought this much-missed film back to 120 and 4 x 5" sizes. At last, larger format photographers have a "new" film to fawn over; a medium contrast, moderate saturation color transparency film with impressive clarity and virtually no grain. In short, it feels like a slide film for us negative film photographers.
With color film, I've primarily been a negative film user for the majority of my photography career. In my earlier years, it was because I could hand-print color negative film in a darkroom, since my school had an RA-4 processor. After leaving the darkroom for scanning, I primarily chose color negative film due to familiarity. And over the years, I'd continue to choose negative films, compared to the few remaining transparency films, due to the lower contrast, more muted tones, and greater exposure flexibility. The last transparency film I truly adored was FUJIFILM's Astia, which was discontinued around 2010 or so—a couple of years before Kodak had discontinued all of its color transparency films. With Astia gone and with Kodak out of the E-6 market, I settled on making negative films (specifically Portra) my go-to for any and all color work for the past decade. And honestly, I didn't mind this; I'd always been happy with Portra—I still am—and never got so infatuated with slide film to truly miss it. When it was announced that Kodak was bringing back Ektachrome, I rallied with others and was happy with the news, of course, but I didn't think it'd do much to change my own way of shooting. But now that Ektachrome is available in 120, things might begin to change.
Coinciding with a trip I had planned to the west coast, I was given an opportunity to shoot a few rolls of this new film. I figured that, compared to the gray and dormant climate of wintertime New York, sunny California would be the perfect place to try this film. Citrus groves, beaches, mountains at sunset, and just the general directional winter light was really ideal for working with a film like Ektachrome. I didn't need a film to boost the color and saturation of the environment, I needed a film to reign it in.
Compared to working with Portra 400, the first thing I had to get used to about Ektachrome E100 is that it's a 100-speed film, obviously. Besides just being a different speed, it affected how I was shooting, since I had about two fewer stops to work with and I was only shooting handheld on this trip. The other consequence of this being a slide film is that its exposure tolerance is much narrower than that of a negative film. With Portra, I deliberately overexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop and know that I can also get away with underexposure and pushing the film if I absolutely need to. With slide film, you're not really afforded the same luxuries. I rated the film right at 100 and didn't want to venture into pushing or pulling for this test.
Not specific to Ektachrome E100, but working with slower film speeds definitely limits your flexibility a bit. Maybe it's that I'm spoiled with dealing with digital cameras everyday, some of which don't even go as low as ISO 100, or that my usual base is ASA 320, but I found it a unique challenge trying to adapt to shooting 100-speed film throughout an entire day. On the plus side, though, the slower speed of the film renders it virtually grainless; and this was one of the most striking aspects of working with the film. When scanning these shots on an Imacon 646, a "virtual drum scanner," at more than 3000 dpi, I couldn't see any grain. Even when working with T-Max 100, one of the finer grain negative films I use, I can still see into the grain structure on these full-res scans. With Ektachrome… nope. It was truly impressive.
The other notably impressive quality of this film is its resolution, and apparent clarity, compared to that of a negative film. This is a trait for color reversal films in general, and results in better sharpness when scanning. The mixture of extremely high acutance and virtually no grain is something very unique, and something you don't experience with negative films very often. The other thing I adored about working with positives is color-correcting the scans against the film itself. Versus color negative, where the film shows a reversed image that is obscured by the film's orange mask, a color transparency is, in essence, the final form of the image. It is showing you all of the colors available, and any straying from this standard is a reduction of image quality. Using a high-quality scanner seems important in this step so as not to lose much information during the digital process. As expected, Ektachrome gives a very realistic and lifelike image quality with maybe a bit more "oomph," if you will—sort of like wearing prescription sunglasses. It's vivid, but not surreal. Colors are accentuated, but not gross. And there's an airiness, lightness, and sharpness to the images that is really captivating when looking at the film itself on a lightbox.
When I look back at the film I shot over the course of a long weekend, I have a bit of a dilemma on my hands. I love the way the film looks. There's no denying it's one of the nicest color films I can remember using. I never shot enough of the old Kodachrome to develop nostalgia for it, so, for me, this Ektachrome is the maybe-ersatz sensation of seeing a film really come alive. On the other hand, the speed and inflexibility makes it a film I'd want to be very careful about shooting. It was perfect in the bright California light, where I could usually manage at least a 1/60-second shutter speed at all daylight times. In New York, though, I would have struggled a lot more in the gloomier and more shadow-filled conditions. I would have to just assume I'd be working from a tripod with this film—not the end of the world, but it's a consideration when thinking about which film to grab for a day of shooting. I can see Ektachrome E100 being a pretty stable choice for me on my trips out west, and am really looking forward to spending some time in the deserts of the Southwest with it, but it's not going to be a total replacement for the ultra-reliable Portra 400. Overall, though, I couldn't be more excited to have a slide film that matches the type of photography I like to do, and is more matched to the subdued aesthetic I prefer.
Have you had a chance to use the new Ektachrome yet? What are your thoughts on this re-released slide film? What are your thoughts on using slide films in general? Let us know your thoughts!