Remembering Danny Burk
1960 - 2020

Many photographers avoid color negative film in favor of transparency. While it's true that transparency film is slightly sharper and less grainy than negative film, the wide latitude of the latter can have great benefits in light that's less than ideal. We've all seen transparencies that can't handle the range of light, burning out delicate highlights or plunging shadows into black holes. You may be surprised to learn that most of these images could have been saved by shooting color negative rather than transparency film.

Like so many, I formerly avoided color negative film. Frustrated with the limited latitude of transparency film, even a low-contrast film such as Astia, I decided to try Fuji's NPS color neg. (Now known as Pro160S color neg.) I chose it because it's the least contrasty, broadest-latitude color film available; after all, it's designed for wedding photographers who expect full detail from white to black. I was amazed by the results: even in harsh midday sun, I was able to preserve full detail ranging from white-painted wood in full sun to adjacent foliage in full shadow. Of course, to extract all this detail, one must individually select these areas and optimize them in Photoshop, but the detail is there for the taking. NPS will hold a range of 9 to 10 stops: a mind-boggling feat to those of us that are accustomed to a 5-6 stop range with transparency film!

Here are sample clips from pair of scans, one from Velvia 100F and one from NPS. Even though the scene from Redwood National Park was shot in soft light, parts of the forest are dense enough that there is a considerable variation in light from one area to another. The Velvia 100F image was properly exposed for overall ambient light, but this light decreased severely beneath the fern fronds at the forest floor; the film's limited latitude caused these areas to block up in shadow. On the other hand, the NPS image was exposed for shadow areas via my normal routine (I spotmeter the darkest area that must retain detail, then place at Zone III...i.e. two stops under the meter reading). It retains beautiful tonality and shadow detail throughout the image. Note that each image is direct from the scanner and hasn't been corrected for color balance, nor has either image had any alterations of contrast or tonality performed in Photoshop. The Velvia 100F image can, of course, be matched in color balance to the NPS image, and its shadow areas can be improved by selective Curves work. However, this unaltered scan illustrates the raw scanned image which, in spite of all the effort that one might put into Photoshop corrections, will never look as good as the NPS version. The latter has been necessarily corrected in color balance as part of removing the orange mask of negative film; in viewing these clips, please observe tonality and not color balance.

Velvia 100 Transparebcy Film Pro160S Negative Film

I've noticed that most scanning services avoid color neg film. Some go so far as to suggest that their customers shouldn't use it...that they won't get good results in the final print. Nonsense! The key is in knowing how to handle the film during scanning. Most services simply aren't familiar with the process. Instead, what they suggest is that the client modify his or her shooting to fit the lab's workflow, rather than the other way around.

Give color neg a try; I shoot NPS frequently and it makes beautiful scans and prints. I'm very familiar with handling it during scanning, and I can give you the same beautiful results. Drum scanning software allows a few tweaks that most scanners can't do, such as altering the scanning lens' aperture to reduce visible grain. I have the experience to get great results from color neg, so don't hesitate to give it a try. I think you'll be amazed. As always, I'm happy to help if you have questions.