Film in the Age of Digital Domination

Kodak's New Ektar 100 Color Negative Film

By Abhay Sharma, Paul Sergeant Back to

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Kodak was once the giant of the photographic market, with a legacy stretching back to the 1880s. The company reigned supreme for a century until the advent of digital technologies challenged their position. Kodak slowly recognized the power of digital and has been investing in digital cameras and media. Yet even when we all thought f ilm was dead, Kodak has released a new film type—something that no one would expect. Why would a company that is closing f ilm plants release a new f ilm? Kodak has recognized that some users continue to use film, and through careful analysis has identified customers that will remain loyal to this format for at least a few more years.

Fine grain and vivid color

Transparency film for a long time has been the professional’s choice for rich detail, high saturation, and very fine grain. But as more and more labs shut their doors or only operate their E-6 machines on certain days of the week, what are photographers to do with their slide film? Kodak feels they have found an answer for them with their new Ektar 100 color negative film. Ektar 100 is a 35mm, acetate-base film that is daylight balanced, uses C- 41 processing, and only is available as 100 ASA. It was released in late 2008, with production beginning in early 2009.

As part of our review, we talked to Scott DiSabato, of Kodak’s Film, Photofinishing, and Entertainment Group. He described how Kodak has revamped their range of portrait films, and asserted that Ektar 100 film “helps the photographer capture unprecedented detail in remarkably vivid color.”

Those with a long memory know that the Ektar name has always been synonymous with fine-grain film such as Ektar 25. Due to its low speed and limited exposure latitude, Ektar 25 usually needed a tripod. Kodak has recycled the Ektar name and used the brand awareness of the early Ektar 25. The new Ektar 100 offers the same fine grain as its predecessor, but with improved latitude—two stops over and one stop under. Ektar 100 replaces Kodak’s Professional Ultra Color film 100UC, and we think may compete (or co-exist) with portrait
films—Professional Portra 400 NC (Natural Color) and Portra 400VC (Vivid Color).

Gamma

For hard-core film buffs, we provide information relating to the gamma of the new film. You will recall that gamma is based on the characteristic curve, which represents the characteristic response of the film. The curve shows how the film responds to light (i.e., exposure). As the light hitting the film increases, (from left to right on the horizontal axis), the developed density of the film increases (vertical axis). The steeper the curve, the higher contrast the film. Thus Kodalith Ortho films, used for line drawings, have a very steep curve, while the response of general purpose film, for example T-Max, is much gentler.

The shape of the characteristic curve changes with development time and temperature, thus the gamma value too, depends on development. The slope of the characteristic curve can be calculated using a simple formula, gamma = density difference/log exposure, as shown in Figure 1. You can easily calculate the gamma value from Kodak’s data sheets using this formula. Figure 2 displays some gamma values we calculated for well-known film types.

Figure 1. The gamma of the Ektar 100 characteristic curve was measured from Kodak data sheets. Ektar 100 is more contrasty than Portra NC, but has less contrast than Portra VC.

Figure 3. This wall mural included contrast between snow and dark shadows.

Grain

Ektar 100 is a fine-grain film. Kodak promotes it as the “world’s finest- grain color negative film.” Scott DiSabato explained that Ektar 100 is a mixed-grain film combining the light capturing efficiency of the f lat, tabular, T-grain emulsion with a more cubic silver-halide crystal. We note that many of the modern film types are “mixed” grain emulsions that enjoy the benefits of different grain types. Ektar 100 has borrowed technology from the motion-picture film industry, where the mixed grain helps to reduce the scattering of light and improve sharpness. Readers should note that color film does not really have silver-halide grain. During development, exposed silver-halide gives off oxidation by-products in each layer, which react with nearby dye couplers to form dye clouds. It is the dye clouds that form the image, and the size of the dye cloud determines the graininess of the film. Tiny dye clouds are magnif ied and this is what you see in a big enlargement or a very high-resolution scan. For color film we may therefore measure grain using the newer “Print Grain Index” and not the traditional root mean square (RMS) granularity.

Field testing

Does the new Ektar 100 live up to Kodak’s hype? The only way to determine this was to take it into the field and conduct tests on real-world subjects. A series of tests were performed on this film, including examination of grain, color saturation, and effects on skin tone when compared to other Kodak products.

We compared Ektar 100 to Portra NC160 and Portra VC160. The films were shot, processed in C-41, and the negatives were scanned using an Imacon scanner. If you zoom in close enough, there is a definitely finer grain in the Ektar 100, but this may be attributed to the slightly higher speed of the Portra films.

There was, however, a great difference in the color saturation of the Ektar 100 when compared to the 160VC. In our tests, Ektar 100 outperformed the Portra VC creating richer, brighter colors.

Generally we found Ektar 100 had good, punchy, saturated colors and excellent sharpness, equivalent to the best slide f ilm. The contrast was great for our photo shoot that took place during winter days with bright sunshine (Figures 3–5). We would be happy to use this film for nature, travel, outdoor, fashion, and product photography in a consumer or professional context.

Ektar 100 did not work for us when used for portraiture (Figure 5). This film is not designed for flesh tones because it tries to make colors more vibrant. In our usage, it accentuated the natural hues of Caucasian skin tones into almost comical bright colors. In all fairness, the Portra films are intended for portraiture, and that is probably the best option for the professional photographer at the moment.

For resolution testing, we used the USAF test pattern (Figure 6) to see if this film had finer grain than Portra NC and VC. The test pattern was photographed using a copy stand under very controlled guidelines. The distance and exposure were all exactly the same with each of the three film types. We would conclude that the Ektar 100 does have finer grain than the other film types tested.

Figure 4. Warm winter lighting created a play of shadows on a brick wall.

Figure 5. Ektar 100 is not strong on skin tones, but with digital scanning and processing, we were happy with the results.

Digital scanning

Many photographers now operate in “hybrid” mode— shooting on film, then scanning to digital. It is necessary to consider the scanner color settings in this process. Scanners have a “profile” or conversion table that they use to scan negative and positive film. For negatives, the generic color film setting is a good starting point: the scanner seeks to convert the negative to a positive image and remove the orange color cast at the same time. Users may adjust the scanner setting depending on their personal preference, or if they think the base setting does not do a good job. Many higher-end scanners have some built-in settings for different film types. For Ektar 100, the nearest film type Kodak recommends is the setting for Portra VC160. For mini-labs, Kodak recommends that labs use the Gold 200 film setting.

Kodak claims that this film is “ideal for scanning,” but really we saw nothing that makes this film particularly suitable or unsuitable for scanning. Something that would have made this claim credible is altering the colors of the spectral dyes used in the film to better match typical scanner CCD sensitivities.

If the dyes in the  film stock correlate well with the scanner’s CCD sensors, this gives the possibility of the best possible color reproduction. Because of the wide range of scanners from different manufacturers, there exists no standard, and thus no way to align scanner response to film-dye spectral curves. In this situation it is difficult to see how any film can be particularly suited or not-suited for scanning.

Figure 6. The USAF test chart was imaged using Ektar 100, Portra NC160, and Portra VC160.

The bottom line

The price for a roll of Ektar 100 is $5 with a typical processing cost of $7 (negatives in sleeves only). The typical cost of transparency film is $7 a roll, add processing and mounting for about $7. Is film-based photography still worth it? According to Kodak, more than half of the photographers they polled still use film, while a majority use both film and digital in their work.

Film is still used in the motion-picture industry, and if Kodak can add a few tweaks to motion-picture film and launch that film for still-photographers, why not? Overall, Ektar 100 is a very fine-quality film coming from the masters at Kodak. It helps to fill the void of the dying E-6 films, and allows the photographer to get the film processed at any photographic lab. Ektar 100 provides a way for Kodak to remain loyal to its followers, but how long can this last? As more and more analog photographers grow old and retire, what will become of this market? Considering that many of the newest generation of photographers have only met digital technologies, the remaining life span of film could be quite short. And should Kodak pour funding into technologies that have a very limited shelf-life? This new product gives the traditional photographer hope that film will not totally disappear and may continue for a bit longer as a specialized niche market. In short we think that the film is excellent, but the party is over.


About the Authors

Abhay Sharma
ASharma
Dr. Abhay Sharma is Program Chair of the Photographic Preservation and Collections Management program at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Paul Sergeant
PSergeant
Paul Sergeant studied at the Ontario College of Art & Design where he was the recipient of the prestigious photographic art medal in 2006. He has his Master’s in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management from Ryerson University. This allowed Paul the opportunity to study and work at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, in Rochester, NY. He is a founding member of the Tintype Studio, a Toronto basedteamofwet-platecollodionphotographers. Paul is also the Archive and Print Manager for Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. tintypestudio.tumblr.com