Fuji Velvia Sheet film discontinued - a few thoughts

26th July 2012
In: Gear, Blog
Edit - Update April 2013 - It has transpired that Fuji have NOT discontinued Velvia sheet film, other than 5x7" size - more here.


The dunes of Fuerteventura, courtesy of Fuji Velvia 50


As the calendar turned from 2011 to 2012 everything in the photography world seemed to be going so well. It finally looked like everyone had seen sense and could appreciate analogue and digital photography for their respective benefits. Analogue photography looked to have weathered the storm of the mid-2000s digital onslaught and come out of the other side. Runaway depreciation of film cameras ground to a halt, retailers even reported an increase in film sales. Online forums for film-users sprung up like birch trees after a wildfire. Business for wetplate workshops had never been better. Fuji had brought out two new medium format cameras. Even some crazy people in the Netherlands* managed to resurrect Polaroid instant flim and proved the impossible was indeed possible. Life seemed pretty good.

And then this year two things happened to change all that.

Firstly the out-of-control juggernaut that is Kodak announced that it was going to stop making all E6 transparency film. During the Kodachrome days Kodak ruled the world when it came to slide film, and it had been that way for decades. But during the 1980s Fuji in Japan had been rapidly gaining ground on Kodak, and when Fuji released Velvia in 1989 Kodak didn't have an answer for it. Most former habitual Kodachrome shooters jumped ship almost overnight (like Galen Rowell for instance). Since that point Kodak's range of slide film has always played second fiddle to Fujifilm outside of a few patriotic photographers in the US. That's not to say Kodak’s slide emulsions were bad, they were very good. But Velvia was just better.

So when Kodak announced the discontinuation of their E6 range this year most of the Velvia users in the world probably did as I did, shrugged their shoulders and thought "well that's a shame, but it was never as good as Velvia anyway, and they'd NEVER discontinue Velvia would they?". Velvia is Fujifilm's flagship emulsion and their crowning glory. It would be like Heinz discontinuing baked beans, or Volkswagen discontinuing the Golf. Unthinkable.


The Burren, Ireland, Velvia 50


Well it turns out we were wrong. We were wrong to assume that Fuji had our backs, and wrong to assume that the rest of the film-buying public felt the same about Velvia. Last week news emerged via the BJP that Fuji were discontinuing Velvia 100F in all formats, and also Velvia 50 in sheet film, i.e. 4x5" and 10x8". To say this is a worrying development is an understatement. At the time of writing this it would seem that the discontinuation is really happening at a global level and the UK distributors of Fujifilm are just the first to announce it. I would love this to be some kind of misunderstanding, but it seems to be accurate.

So once Velvia 50 is gone in sheet film sizes and Velvia 100F is gone entirely, this is what we are left with as far as currently manufactured slide film goes:

  • Provia 100F in 35mm, 120, 4x5" and 10x8" - a less saturated film, still good colours but with a distinctive and slightly muted/slatey colour palate. Very good reciprocity characteristics.
  • Velvia 100 in 35mm, 120, 4x5" and 10x8" - roughly similar to Velvia 50 but slightly more contrasty, without Velvia's added warmth to yellows, and easy to overcook the reds at sunrise/sunset.
  • Velvia 50 in 35mm and 120 - THE classic landscape film.

Fuji may also be still producing their tungsten balanced film, I've lost track, but that's irrelevant as its of little use to outdoor, nature or landscape shooters. I also think someone in Europe, maybe Agfa or whoever holds the Agfa trademark is still making some slide film in 35mm format. **EDIT** Looks like I was thinking of Rollei Digibase CR 200, I've no idea if its any good**


The emulsion being discontinued entirely is Velvia 100F. This is supposedly like classic Velvia except less saturated (still more saturated than Provia) with lower contrast and better skintones. It has never really gained the following of Velvia but I quite like it for climbing shots.

Essentially it means for large format transparency users you'll have to use Provia or Velvia 100, and if you want classic Velvia 50 you'll have to use 120 film either in a 120 back or a medium format camera. Now don't get me wrong this is not the end of the world as Provia and Velvia 100 are still very good and useable products, but never the less its a kick in the teeth to large format users and slide film users in general. Worryingly it begs the question if these are being discontinued, how long can the other large format emulsions, and Velvia in general, hang on? Despite being, as far as I'm concerned, the best colour film ever made, sales appear to be down. Amazing but apparently true.

The announcement of the discontinuation provoked such strong feeling among Velvia devotees that this online petition appeared, if you have a minute and you care about colour photography, please sign it:

www.change.org/petitions/fujifilm-continue-manufacture-of-velvia-50-sheet-film



Sardinian granite, 120 6x17 format Velvia 50


At this point a few people are probably thinking "Come on Dave can't you just use digital or negative film and tweak the shots in Photoshop to look like Velvia?". Well the problem is you can't. Many people claim to be able to do so, but they can't. In some cases you might be able to create a close approximation, but thats as far as it goes. Bear this in mind - Fujifilm, the makers of Velvia, also make digital cameras and always seem to include "film" modes on these camera that they say are supposed to replicate the look of Velvia or Provia. But they always fail. I put it to you that if Fuji themselves can't make digital photos look like Velvia then what chance does anyone else have?

People will criticise Velvia and say it isn't real and doesn't represent reality accurately. But human perception isn't a fixed thing, we all see things differently, and as far as I am concerned Velvia certainly has a less self-consciously idiosyncratic look than either negative film or digital. Slide film when used properly, especially in large format, is "transparent", in that you feel you are actually looking at the scene, rather than a photograph of it. Frankly negative film can't touch this - although colour neg film has gained a certain following in recent years I really don't like the look of it (and I'll leave discussions of archival stability of colour neg film dyes for other people.).

The other question, a better question, is "why do you need the look of Velvia, can't you just take digital or negative film shots and Photoshop them to look like you want and forget about Velvia altogether?". The look of my work on this website is largely down to Velvia, I know how it works and know how to get the results I want from it. I also know its faults and its flaws and how you work to make them its strengths. I find that working within the restrictions of a fixed medium like Velvia is conducive to creativity rather than stifling it. It simplifies things, you know what will work and what wont. Its a bit like how shooting with a prime lens instead of a zoom can be liberating. I don't like the idea of sitting down at the computer with a file that you can make look more or less like anything you want. I get paralysed by choice. I've been using digital long enough that adjusting images on the computer long since lost its novelty. You can take it anywhere, but it leaves you nowhere to go.

So back to practical matters; what am I going to do? Should I go out and panic-buy as much Velvia as I can afford? I went down into the cellar last night and did a stocktake. I've already got about 700 sheets of large format transparecy film in the freezer, mostly Velvia but also some Velvia 100F, 100 and Provia. I've even got a box of E100VS. At my current rate of shooting this should last me about 4 years. I've also got about 100 rolls of 120 (again a mixture but mostly Velvia), so if I were to mix up the 120 film (in a 6x12 or 6x17 back) with the 4x5 film, and also factor in my increasing interest in black & white, I could easily milk a few more years out of the stash. So I'm not panic buying. I've heard of people hoarding decades worth of film, but I will offer the warning that if all E6 film disappears in say a decade, if you've got a freezer full of a lifetime supply of slide film then how are you going to process it? If E6 film disappears then the labs and chemicals to process it won't be far behind.

Despite the doom and gloom surrounding last week's annoucement I still remain upbeat and philosophical about the whole thing. Much as I would hate to lose Velvia in particular, film photography as a genre remains vibrant and sustainable. Plustek this year are bringing out a new medium format scanner to replace the Nikon 8000/9000 models. Ilford Harman seem to be going from strength to strength despite the recent rises in the value of silver. In the back of my mind I think I could do a lot of good work in monochrome, which would allow me to continue using my favourite large format approach, so maybe that's the way I will go in future once the Velvia has dried up. Although thousands of photographers around the world will mourn the loss of Velvia sheet film, we still have options for slide film, and for the time being Velvia will remain in medium format. Maybe I should suck it in and buy a Mamiya 7 as insurance!


Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens at dusk, Velvia 50


Whatever happens we must be ready to face facts that this might be the beginning of the twilight years for the incredible Fuji Velvia. Maybe that's an appropriate metaphor, as twighlight is one thing Velvia excels at, and it will be sorely missed.

*As one reader kindly pointed out to me, it The Impossible Project is based in the Netherlands, not Belgium.

Update April 2013 - It has transpired that Fuji have not discontinued Velvia sheet film, other than 5x7" size - more here.

Comments

Photo comment By Martin Jan Köhler: Dave, excellent article! It couldn't match my thoughts and feelings more closely! All the best, Martin
Photo comment By andrew: i will support you in any way i can to keep velvia alive
Photo comment By Rob: The reintroduction of Velvia 50 rekindled my passion for film photography after a short dalliance with digital. Like you I know the loss of Velvia 50 would not be the end of the world, but it would be the end of a particular vision of the world. But then I do have my recently purchased Mamiya 7II ...
Photo comment By Stef Dunn: Thanks for writing this Dave. It very nicely captures my own thoughts as well. Although Mamiya! Meh! Film, just like motorcycles, makes it hard to go down in engine size... Let's hope we can save Velvia 50 in sheets!
Photo comment By John MacMurray: Dave thanks for the thoughts. I have been a 4x5 sheet film user for 26 years. I have used Velvia exclusively since it's introduction. I mourn it's loss as the best transparency sheet film ever made. What were the folks at Fuji thinking?

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