Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Monday, 27 August 2012

Why I won't mourn the demise of Velvia: a counterblast.

The news of the demise of Fuji Velvia as a large format film has been greeted with dismay it seems across the photographic spectrum, but more so than anywhere in my own genre of landscape photography. Here it is widely regarded as the film of choice for its extra saturation, it's contrast range and it's ability to reproduce deep, yet believably rendered colours. Yet I shan't mourn it's demise. Not because I don't believe that it can produce beautiful results that are still way beyond anything achievable in digital, and certainly not because I have anything against film itself. My reasons are more complex.

Perhaps I should, at his point, admit that in my landscape photography I am primarily a digital and a black and white photographer. 'So why would I care?' I can here you chorus through the ether! Well the fact that my phone suggests 'velociraptor' when I type Velvia may just be an ironic software glitch born out of a limited vocabulary, or as I prefer to believe it does illustrate a sort of dinosaurism in landscape photography. Now I don't want to deny anyone their pleasure if this is your sort of thing, but I do believe the demise of Velvia might serve to freshen things up a bit, challenge convention and force a bit of a rethink amongst many of its users.

The use of LF Velvia amongst landscape photographers has become so all pervasive that apparently without irony, lower saturation and lower contrast landscape photography has become accepted as somehow more artistic. Well okay, but maybe we have a difference of opinion about the definition of 'art' here? Don't worry I'm not intending to travel that road, except to say that it is the human element of artistic expression that interests me more than the illustrative, what it looks like should probably be driven by what you are trying to say, rather than because you happen to like strong colours or prefer a particular palette.

I am still madly passionate about the landscape, as a place, as an attractive retreat and it's environmental protection from the demands of big business and overbearing landlords. So you know there's little I like more than being out there, and failing that looking at what other photographers produce. Now while I'll happily allow that there are as many diverse opinions and different stages of artistic, photographic and even spiritual development out there, there is however an awful lot of similarity in the work produced.

It seems landscape photography is condemned to be primarily an illustrative genre. Now I will freely admit its a stage in our progression we all have to go through, myself included. There's a great excitement in simply finding a pleasing picture of what is before us, some may even start to consider such things as composition, light and colour rendition. These are or can be important elements, but in themselves they are just building blocks, technical
considerations that go into the making of art. The next step is to learn how to express ourselves with these tools. We, as people, have far more potential, far more to express in our relationship to the land as conscious, thinking beings rather than an empty all seeing eye.

Okay, you're saying, fair enough, but what has all this got to do with large format colour film? Well if there's a prevailing zeitgeist out there that spreads right from LF film to digital, then those at the top of the landscape photography tree must take some responsibility. Until very recently the chosen format for virtually all colour landscape photographers of any degree of seriousness has been a large format camera very probably loaded with Velvia. That is a massive investment in time, learning and skill, and to some extent money. For the majority (but thankfully not exclusively) of these leaders in our community the illustrative is still their primary aim. There are good reasons for this, illustrative is what sells, (to an extent, but the falling prices of both stock and gallery images might have something to do with the market being saturated with these style of images); illustrative is easy to communicate, it appeals to our predominantly low brow popular photographic press; illustrative is easy to teach, and many make a substantial part of their income from teaching /speaking rather than doing.

This hegemony has in turn bred an orthodoxy of approach. We look to our betters to learn from, in the early days imitate them, and perhaps to explore the possibilities available. But the irony is that a large format camera, filled with Velvia (and all that investment that goes along with it) is really the pinnacle of illustrative expression. One has to wonder if it serves any other purpose, whether the tools come to predict the output? If the basis of its appeal is the reality of its expression, then give me less reality! We all do it, we find a way of doing things that we think is better and proclaim it to the world, but fail to notice that it might only be a better way of doing what we do, that others may find different routes, have differing expressions and motivations. The overwhelming prevalence of LF Velvia users in the positions of authority, in British landscape photography especially, proclaims itself as just such an acme, or highest point in achievement. When in fact alternative approaches to the art exist, but as they don't fit in with the orthodox view, they are dismissed as inferior. I'm not saying this as some sort of paranoid, conspiracy theory, I'm sure nobody set out to create such an environment, but does it exist as much by default, because of the structural investment in equipment and film itself? One thing is certain, as the price of colour film is on a seemingly never ending upward spiral, a more haphazard, playful, exploratory approach becomes increasingly inconceivable amongst LF film users. Maybe just that approach is needed to find those ideas that will fresh up the genre's thinking.

If you're one of the majority that think the extent of landscape's remit is simply to find pleasing shapes and nice colours, then you're probably going to disagree with me. I, on the other hand, would contend that this is a blindly technocratic, backwards and limiting approach, that has learned nothing from art in the 20th century. This taught us that art is really to be found as much in ideas, the inner expression must at least equal the outer. Now I'm not claiming that we should throw away all convention, but at least find some individuality of expression, some new ways of seeing pretty shapes and colours that doesn't rely on a rigid simple formulae of foreground, middle ground and sky. Landscape photography has long been stuck in a comparative rut, it is in need of catching up with more modern ways of thinking. Perhaps the demise of Velvia will spurn new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing? Perhaps, in the long term, the demise of Velvia will be a good thing?


  1. I have to agree Rob, but you are brave man with such thoughts in the public domain. I think the rise in MF digital backs will also play its part in future development as their prices are almost on par with top end 35mm digital.

    1. Thanks John, Well if anyone want's an argument, I'm up for it! ;-)

      Not sure about those MF digibacks being that cheap yet.

  2. I can follow your reasoning and it's got its merit Rob, the whole concept of landscape photography as "trasmission of a pleasant scene from photographer to viewer" has to go. This is not the 19th century anymore, ("View of mountain river under moonlight - oil on canvas" and things like that) and i think we need to give a peculiar "character"
    - something of our own creation, something unique and personal - to the pictures we make.
    You pretty much nailed the reason why landscape photography isn't that "popular" with the masses anymore. People want fresh things, fresh ideas. Even small minds want something "more than the same old".

    Now, i personally regret the demise of large format velvia and i fear it will move forward to medium format and 35mm slides. Somehow, Fuji is doing a yearly check on its sales, and the moment they are not satisfied anymore with their revenues, they'll simply shut production down. This is what i think based on recent facts, and i don't think i'm the only one afraid that this is what will happen, eventually.

    I am both a digital and analog shooter, by the way, so why am i worried? Because i have always been using Velvia colors as means to an end, as my favourite colours to express part of my visual ideas. An example: when i use velvia during a spring twilight, i want the purple tones extremely deep because i want the scene to be something that seems to have come out of a dream, not just a pleasant purple twilight following a golden sunset. It's not just about rich tones, it's a handful of color tones that give the image an appearance of something both real and unreal.
    The greens are deep but not "overdone": generally, if you try the same with digital, you end up with way too much green, while velvia greens give natural foliage an emerald tone. The reds are strong but are great for making red things pop out in an image where the light is overcast or it's cloudy. It's a form of chosen "pre-production" that i use for my own purposes, to express an emotional state (stasis, dream-like conditions) rather than give the image the conventional rich velvia look.

    And since not all of my images are made with this intent in mind, i also shoot digitally when i want a different look or feel. More often than not, i have to admit.
    Of course, writing down a thought or two about the picture also helps with characterization. It's not an heresy anymore, trying to help the viewer's impression with words. I think this is the future of landscape photography, and i reckon you always write something personal when you present your images, am i right? :)

    1. Thanks Rolph, that's a very well considered and well thought through response. And that's what I primarily want to encourage "thinking". I am determined not to make this a film vs digital conversation though, I think my point is that LF film photography can be accused of being both a bit stuck in the mud and that it is maybe because the format predicates an illustrative response. That is what it is primarily best at doing. I love the idea of your dreamlike rationale however, long may it continue!

  3. It's only Velvia 100F and 50 that are discontinued for 4x5 and 8x10. Velvia RVP 100 is still safe and sound for now.. if anyone seriously mourns the loss of 50 just move up to 100. its only 1 stop.

    molehills people.

    1. Apart from the fact that Velvia 100 looks nothing like Velvia 50 - Velvia 100F would have been almost a substitute in some conditions but was still very unbalanced in certain light. It can't be a coincidence that despite Velvia 100 in general being 20% cheaper than Velvia 50, hardly any landscape photographers used it.

  4. I don't see the future in film to be long term as we see various companies reduce their offering and the service industries around them closing at an alarming rate. From a proffesional point of view why use film when digital is the format that will eventually be needed anyway for the end user. Landscape has no financial drive like an advertising/product photographer and therefore eventually we will see a very limited user base unable to fund the need of the multinational company. As for the great tones and colours, this may be printed into great images but the market for this declines as printers and image software improve.
    The LF photographer is generally at the top of his game with years of experience and I feel this is what we are losing, a badge of honour, the camera that says look at me I'm in control unlike you digital new boys, as a digital only now I dispair when I see the good camera takes great shots brigade. Its not the loss of the film that I worry about it's loss of those beautiful cameras and those magnificent gentlemen and ladies behind them.

  5. Hi Rob,

    Not sure if I'm part of the hegemony or not... but some interesting thoughts. Personally I don't think Velvia is to blame for the supposed hegemony, rather I think two other factors are key.

    Firstly, a lack of imagination of most of the editors of the photographic press is certainly to blame for some lack of diversity. Secondly, good old fashioned human nature plays a big part. Most consumers and producers of photography only want illustrations, they're not interested in something mysterious or deep. It's the lowest common denominator rule, that's why boy bands sell so many more records than creatively challenging artists. I'm not sure we can ever do anything to change this. But I'm pretty sure that Velvia disappearing will make photography less diverse not more. It will make LF a much less attractive prospect and the real joy of LF isn't the size of the piece of film it's the control and manipulation of perspective and focus. Sure you can do some of that on a medium format view camera but not to the same degree nor with the same ease.

    David Ward

  6. Rob
    I'm not a LF user, nor (these days) a velvia user, but what is sad about the news is that it reduces choice. If people aspire to LF velvia in a 'certain way' then so be it (you even admit that this might be right of passage), but to deny them the opportunity to experiment with it and to see whether it fits what they want to do is a bad thing. And to put the fear of a future without cut film into the hearts of existing and aspiring LF users, when_LF can do things that no other format can, is a _very_ bad thing.
    If this sounds like I am agreeing with David, it is because I am... and gawd knows I normally make a point playing devils advocate.

    Giles Stokoe

  7. Firstly Rob, I acknowledge that you have been highly creative in your explorations of photographic techniques. I don't know your shutter count, but some of your recent landscapes have gone beyond what would be possible with a film camera, if only because the cost of multiple experiments would have led me close to bankruptcy before I achieved anything like the proficiency you now have.

    You are also creative in the 'other' sense. You have a knack of targeting your subject selectively, judiciously employing techniques that enhance the image and (presumably) succeeding in saying exactly what you want to say about it. This applies equally to what I've seen of your wedding shots as to your landscapes, (and, where appropriate, even to your street shots).

    I think we'd agree that neither medium nor format have a qualitative relevance, since a plastic lens Holga and an Nikon D4, in the right hands, can produce works of equal importance. But I disagree with a number of your assumptions, especially regarding the historical use of Velvia and of large format cameras. I wonder if what you have written is in fact a critique on your own reflections as much as a diatribe against popular tastes.

    Back in the day, book and magazine publishers were geared to work with transparancy emulsions. The range of available films wasa obviously limited, but it did allow for selection. Kodachrome was notable for a certain 'look' but through the seventies and eighties it wasn't necessarily a look that publishers wanted. Kodak also provided several versions of Ektachrome which, to my eye, had a softer palette and a far less strident red. Agfa, Ilford and Fuji were not just another choice, they were inevitably a different choice. There were always options to choose from, between pastel and primary. Not one of them could be said to faithfully replicate the colours of nature, but they could certainly produce pretty pictures - especially if chromatic filters were also used. I would guess that fully half the photos in a NatGeo from the period would have been shot with a polariser and warm up filter. It hardly matters whether it was art or illustrative or both, this was a key technique of the day.

    Velvia, (or Velveeta, as it was often referred to) was less a game changer than just one additional palette to add to the armoury, along with Provia and Sensia. You will read many a claim, such as "I only use Velvia" or "Velvia is the colour of nature" which suggest a cult-like addiction to its punchy vibrancy, but the fact is, it reproduced well in print to the extent that stock photography was flooded with it. Again, it cannot replicate the colours of nature, and it was always crap for skin tones, but you can't argue with a cult. (You can, I mean only that it will get you nowhere.) However, the status of a film among the masses says nothing whatsoever about its use by serious photographers. Indeed, why do you think it was known as Velveeta?

    Today the best CMOS sensors, (among others) can provide a wider chromatic range than any one filtered emulsion, and a wider range of colour palettes than all of them put together. The photographer who wants to replicate natural colours can do so in Photoshop to the limits of their eye or their monitor, while those who have other ideas can follow them. Print publishers are no longer dependent on slide film, and in partial consequence, neither are photographers. Velvia will be mourned by the few, just as Kodachrome was mourned some years ago, and for similar reasons.

    And on a side point, do you really think that large format Velvia is at the top of the landscape tree, or that it has ever been? In my view it has been no more than one leaf on a very broad bush.

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