Paul Simon may have sung proudly about his Nikon camera and his Kodachrome, but those greens he mentioned, well they were really and truly the domain of Velvia. For me, Velvia 50 was the end-all-be-all of film for landscape photography.
I discovered it when I was 19 years old in the coolers of my local camera store—a stack of small green and gold boxes. Inside, a blank slate onto which my mind projected visions of pristine mountain lakes and dramatic sunsets. Still cutting my teeth photographically, my lens rarely cast anything more than a mediocre image upon that celluloid, but in my memory its deep shadows and crisp, saturated colors still hold a special place.
It’s been reported that Velvia 50 and 100F are now discontinued in most formats. This should be no surprise. The best Velvia frame I ever shot is unlikely to compare to the majority of images I have produced with a 12-megapixel DSLR. Yet it feels as though an old friend is leaving. In homage I have selected a few images I made on Velvia 50 120 over the years, images which I have never posted.
Now, were we to meet, I would be the first one to tell you, honestly and openly, that film is no match for digital in any aspect of image quality. Indeed, one can easily simulate “film” effects with any digital image—better yet, you can simulate multiple film effects with the same image and select your favorite. So why the nostalgia? Why not bid good riddance?
Butterfly wings and stained glass.
Growing up on film meant that, for me, photography was a very abstract process. No preview, no histogram, no LCD and no idea whether your exposure was dead on or dead off. More importantly, the relationship between color and light was markedly different on film than in your eye. Just as we learn to “see” at 14mm or at 50mm, we used to learn to “see” in Velvia. You knew what kind of rich blues an early twilight would render, or how big a magenta shift you’d get in a longer exposure.
This meant there was this transformative moment when, two steps outside of the photo lab door, you popped open the little cardboard sleeve in which your slides were kept, held them up to the light one by one and felt yourself rush back to those moments immortalized in little, colorful windows made of stained glass or butterfly wings mounted inside a rectangle of cardboard.
Certainly, you might argue, that same transformation occurs in the digital process albeit with the photographer and his or her computer playing a larger, more active role. You’d be right (after all, isn’t that moment what we amateur photographers are seeking), but for one thing. For all its flaws, film gave you the sense that you were playing within the rules. Yes, film images are just as malleable as digital images and yes, the mantra that photographs = reality was no more true on Velvia 50 than it is on a D800. These “rules” are not the ones I mean.
When one opened a new spool of Velvia 50 and loaded into the camera, he knew there was a set of rules that could not be broken or even bent. The little windows I was to get back would be the result of my being able to “see” in Velvia and obey the hard and fast rules of ISO 50 and a steep tone curve.
A rose by any other name.
Would I have captured beautiful images of Lake Tahoe two Octobers ago if I had only my digital camera with me? Absolutely. But would I have applied the “Velvia” tone curve to those images, would I have clipped the shadows and cranked the saturation? Almost certainly not. Clearly, the transformation digital has wrought is that, as photographs and as photo consumers, we have begun to demand more finely tuned tonality and color. There is assuredly a market for “retro” processing in mobile and event photography (think Instagram and VSCO), but I think of that as more of a fad, a death rattle of the film age.
I certainly strive to create images that are white-balance accurate and capture something of the eye’s dynamic range. I am loathe to clip the shadows as deeply as Velvia would, nor would I shift as hard to magenta in long exposures or saturate greens as strongly.
No, just as we will all eventually lose our ability to see in Velvia or Kodachrome, so too will our nostalgia for these artifacts disappear.
When, like those camera store coolers, my fridge is emptied of those little green and gold boxes and the last stained glass window is processed, selected and placed upon the shelf, I will look back fondly and not without a little pity for those who never rushed home from the store with a precious box or two, holding the promise of 36 more frames.