Some Thoughts on Fuji Superia 200

Very early on in this exercise, I wrote about Fuji Superia 400 in what were rather unflattering ways. It’s still not my favorite film by a long shot, but I’ve also come to understand a bit more about how film characteristics are affected by other factors, so it seemed like perhaps I should write an update taking these things into account. Problem is, I haven’t shot Superia 400 in ages, so instead I decided to take a more thorough look at its slightly slower cousin, Superia 200.

Each film emulsion has its own character – color palette, grain, latitude – but I have come to appreciate more and more that the end product is not solely the result of the film. The lens has an awful lot to do with it as well, not just in terms of sharpness, but in color rendition and tonality as well. This should perhaps be a fairly obvious realization, but Your Humble Filmosaur is not always the sharpest tool in the shed. Note that these photos were not altered in any way except to remove dust from the scans and to add the watermarks.

Canon L1, Canon Serenar 50/1.9, Fuji Superia 200
Canon L1, Canon Serenar 50/1.9, Fuji Superia 200

Take for example this photo I recently posted. Superia 200 shot with a 1950s-vintage Canon Serenar 50/1.9. The colors are muted, tending toward a pastel-like palette, with low overall contrast. Not unpleasant at all in this shot, but a particular look to be sure, and one that might not be well-suited to other subjects. If one were to make a judgement about the film based strictly on this and other photos from this particular camera/lens combo (as I did in my earlier condemnation of Superia 400), you might form the impression that this film is going to produce these colors in any camera with any lens.

Pentax SFX, Pentax M-SMC 200/4, Fuji Superia 200
Pentax SFX, Pentax M-SMC 200/4, Fuji Superia 200

As the photo above shows, this is clearly not the case. This was taken with my Pentax SFX and a Pentax M-SMC 200/4, a considerably more modern lens than the Serenar, with more modern coatings. The camera was shot in aperture priority mode, ensuring proper exposure; not that the earlier shot was incorrectly exposed, but one should not fail to account for variables. Here the colors are vibrant and saturated, with higher contrast as well – if I were shown these two shots and asked if they were taken on the same film stock, I would have to guess that they were not, the differences in appearance simply being too great. And yet it was the very same film, from the very same production batch even.

What is going on here? Well, simply put, these examples demonstrate that the lens is a major factor in determining the look of the photo; not just the sharpness, not just the depth-of-field, but the color and contrast as well. Certainly, different films add important variables to the mix as well, but not the only ones. Having acquired many cameras and lenses, and shooting more types of film through them, I’ve begun matching films to cameras to achieve particular looks – for example, I’m not going to load Superia 200 in my vintage LTM rangefinders if I want high saturation; Kodak Ektar would likely be a better choice, or I could simply choose a different (probably more modern) camera. If nothing else, such considerations should make the end results a bit more predictable.

On Choosing Films

For all the doom and gloom one reads about the death of film, it just isn’t the case. Rather, the film world is in flux. Major producers are either cutting the number of film products or have closed up shop entirely, while smaller producers are emerging to supply the remaining demand. This is the way market-driven economics work.

So even though the selection available for a film photographer to choose from is not what it once was, there’s still enough that decisions have to be made. And those decisions are not always easy.

Let’s look at black-and-white first. There are three major players – Kodak, Ilford, and Fuji – and some smaller ones as well producing the common formats. Available speeds range from 25 up to 3200 (the latter being push-process; true speed closer to 1000 or so). Emulsions utilizing both traditional grain and finer tabular grain are available in multiple speeds, and chromogenic films that develop in C-41 chemistry are available in 400 speed. You call that a lack of choice?

The real problem is selecting one as your go-to film. There’s much to be said for experimentation with different emulsions, but ultimately it’s probably a good idea to settle on one or two for regular use, at least if your intention is to get the best possible images. This is particularly true if you do your own developing, as each film requires its own technique to get the most out of it. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of modern film stocks are quite tolerant, with good latitude, capable of nice tones, and with few annoying quirks.

So what do you want? Fast or slow? Multi-purpose or specialized? Traditional, T-grain, or chromogenic? And most importantly – and most difficult to nail down – what look are you after? Each film has its own character, and each photographer will have a preference (or likely more than one, depending on circumstances). The only way to figure out what you like is to try a bunch of different types and see how they turn out. This will be time-consuming, laborious, and potentially costly. Hey, you could always go digital….

After a fair bit of fooling around, I’m settling into Kodak’s Tri-X as my basic B&W film choice. It’s a traditional grain film, so it retains the characteristic look I prefer. Most of my cameras are old, and I like my photos to reflect the equipment; T-grain films generally look a little too modern for my taste. I haven’t worked out my slower speed choice fully yet, but right now it’s down to three: Ilford’s Pan F+ or FP4+, or Kentmere’s 100 (all three are Harman products). I’ve had good results with all of them, which doesn’t make it any easier.

But we’re not done yet – Fuji’s Acros is a T-grain film that also happens to have excellent reciprocity characteristics (meaning it doesn’t mind long exposures), making it perfect for pinhole photography. So when the pinhole cameras come out, they get Acros – the finer grain doesn’t bother me in this application, given the overall softness of pinhole images. I have also determined one other specialized use for T-grain B&W: half-frame cameras. The smaller frame benefits significantly from the sharpness and clarity possible with these films.

Color negative is a little easier, if for no other reason than that there are fewer readily-available choices. Only Kodak and Fuji are playing here, and they’ve both narrowed their offerings down pretty significantly: each offers consumer films in 200 and 400 (in addition, Fuji offers an 800), and professional films in 400 (Kodak has the clear edge here, offering 100, 160, and 800 as well). Still, though, there are plenty of differences. Both manufacturers have their own distinctive color palettes, and Kodak’s Ektar looks vastly different than their Portra line. The consumer films are far cheaper, but the grain is larger and the images look more old-fashioned (for want of a better characterization).

Again, the question is what look you’re after, and how much you’re willing to pay for it. In color moreso than in black-and-white, you pay a lot more for the professional quality films. Thus, for general shooting, I’ll tend to stick with the consumer films. I prefer Kodak’s colors to Fuji’s – Kodak films tend to be more saturated (especially the reds) and a little warmer. I’ve had better results with the 200 speed offerings from both than I have with the faster options, but they’re all serviceable. I particularly like the way the Kodak Gold 200 works with uncoated lenses.

The jump to professional color emulsions is huge. The grain almost disappears, the colors assume more subtle gradations, and for the Portra films in particular the tolerance goes way up (Ektar is far less able to deal with exposure errors). This is where color film really shows its stuff. In any situation that demands the best possible color images, there is no question that professional films are worth the cost.

My choice here is simpler. Kodak’s Portra line, and specifically the 160 speed, is my go-to 35mm color for serious shooting. The colors are a bit subdued at times, but usually strike a really nice balance. Oddly, though, where the palette works well for me in 35mm, it seems far more neutral – almost washed out – in 120. So for medium format I have settled on Ektar, which provides a more saturated look, especially with the uncoated lens on my Rolleiflex. Oddly, I like Ektar for half-frame as well – like the T-grain B&W films, the super fine grain of Ektar allows you to get the most out of the small negative (though Portra will work just fine here as well).

Your Humble Filmosaur, in spite of being rather opinionated and not at all unwilling to share said opinions, is not in any way suggesting that these choices are right for everyone. Quite frankly, they aren’t even always right for me. Instead, my purpose here is simply to suggest that anyone who shoots film these days has enough choices available that some real thought needs to be put into just what films to choose if they want to maintain as much control over their photos as possible. And the only way to find answers here is to do the research for yourself.

Sometimes Thinking Doesn’t Just Get You in Trouble

We’ve discussed the merits and limitations of the Yashica Samurai Z here before. After shooting several rolls of various color films with it, Your Humble Filmosaur has frankly been at a bit of a loss as to just how to use this particular camera effectively, meaning in such a way as to produce satisfactory images with reasonable consistency. Half-frame 35mm produces a pretty small (18x24mm) negative, meaning that grain and softness that might be acceptable in full-frame 35mm or larger quickly become problematic in half-frame.

Now, you might be asking, why this sudden concern about sharpness and resolution? Isn’t this the same Filmosaur who was just recently extolling the virtues of Tri-X and pre-war lens designs? If I wanted razor-sharpness and lack of grain, I’d be out buying modern lenses and film emulsions, right? Well, my preferences for the classic over the latest-and-greatest still hold true, but there comes a point where grain and/or a lack of sharpness becomes less about achieving a certain look and ends up just being distracting. The latter condition is what I’ve found with more of the Samurai’s photos than I would prefer. Something had to be done.

A potential solution came about not as a result of deep thought or some sort of startling revelation. The reality is far more mundane: I spotted some short-date Kodak T-Max 100 on sale at my local camera shop. Much of what I’d heard about T-Max, including from at least one of the employees at that very shop, was not exactly complimentary: it was far pickier about exposure than Tri-X, it looked clinical and lacked Tri-X’s character, and it was expensive.

So why buy it? Well, as I thought about what camera I might conceivably use it in rather than Tri-X, the Samurai came (eventually) to mind. Once that clicked all the basic objections fell away rapidly. The film was cheap because it was on sale and about to expire, plus I’d get 48 frames rather than 24; the Samurai being auto-exposure only and TTL metered, it should be exposed accurately; and the sharpness and fine grain that could detract from a larger negative might just help to mitigate the grain and softness I’d been trying overcome with the half-frame Yashica. So I grabbed a couple rolls.

Being a half-frame camera, even a short 24-exposure roll takes forever to finish. But when I finally got it done and saw the results, I realized that I had chosen wisely.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100

And that’s an unsharpened 1200dpi scan; I could probably tease out a little more from a higher resolution scan with a bit of subtle post-processing. Regardless, the quality right off the scanner is far higher than I’ve seen from anything else I’ve tried in this camera.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100

I think it’s always a good idea to click the photos for the higher resolution view, but I really recommend it for these. I find it frankly startling how much detail is visible out of such a small negative.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100

The vignetting on the wider shots is the result of experimenting with a lens hood on this camera in an attempt to improve overall image quality. Apparently I need to go to a wide-angle hood to avoid this problem.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100

The lens on the Samurai doesn’t produce the prettiest out-of-focus effect, but honestly the clarity of the in-focus areas is so drastically improved from what I’ve been seeing that I don’t really care.

Film choice matters; anyone who shoots film knows that. But my experience with T-Max in the Samurai has reinforced the importance of matching film to camera (or lens), at least if you’re interested in getting the most out of both. I hadn’t been particularly happy with the results I’d seen with other films I’d tried in the Yashica, and I don’t think I’d like the more modern look of T-Max in with my old cameras and lenses, but this combination works, and works well. Apparently owning more cameras than you need and opportunistically buying cheap old film can actually teach you something, if you’re willing to actually stop and think for a minute or two.