The Future of Colour Sheet Film: A Personal Perspective – Mark Darragh

The Future of Colour Sheet Film: A Personal Perspective – Mark Darragh

Gary Sauer-Thompson in his recent article has eloquently covered some of the philosophical considerations and broader challenges relating to the future of colour sheet film in Australia.

My contribution touches on some practical considerations and my personal experience as someone for whom colour sheet film has been at the heart of their photographic work for over 20 years.

Before talking about the current situation, I’ll give some context and background on my history of photographing with large format film. I’m a generation younger than the photographers such as Peter Dombroskis, Chris Bell, David Tatnall, and Harry Nankin who inspired me to pursue large-format wilderness photography. Like many who grew up with film photography, I started using a 35mm camera with colour and black and white negative film before moving on to colour transparencies. In those early years, my camera largely served as a documentary device rather than a tool for artistic expression. As my interest in photography and bushwalking developed, I became frustrated with the limitations of a 35mm system, as convenient as it was to carry into the wilds.

I began working with large-format film in the late 1990s. My initial reason was the pursuit of higher-quality reproduction in publication and, eventually, exhibition prints. After a few years of using a view camera and getting to understand its capabilities, my choice became based on the movements and perspective control offered by a view camera. That continues to be the major reason why I use 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 cameras.

In the late 2000’s, Fujifilm and Kodak ceased production of their respective 4×5 Quickload and Readyload pre-package films. This marked a time of transition for many large format landscape photographers. The decision by both companies was, of course, a commercial one. As the quality of digital camera systems improved, these quickly became the norm for many professional photographers who had previously shot 4 x 5 film. The market for those willing to pay a premium for pre-loaded film was obviously too small to be economically viable for either company. For many photographers shooting 4 x 5, Quickloads or Readyloads were the most convenient way of carrying film. The end of their production was a reason for many to transition from large format film to digital cameras. 

The rerelease of Kodak Ektachrome 100 sheet film in 2019 did provide a degree of certainty that colour transparency sheet film would continue to be available and that, in turn, E-6 processing of sheet film would continue in Australia. When Ektachrome 100 was released in the Australian market, it was priced at around $4–$4.50 per sheet. By the time I finished my review for View Camera Australia about six months later, the price was around $7-8 per sheet. Current prices are in the range of $12.50–$15.00 per sheet, and the cost of colour negative film has increased to similar levels. Part of this is due to the fall of the Australian dollar relative to the US dollar, but given the trend of price increases for sheet film by both Fujifilm and Kodak, it’s unlikely that prices will come down any time soon, if ever. In addition, the supply of colour sheet film continues to be an issue both in Australia and globally. The global disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in this, but there are no doubt other factors involved too.

All of this has created a perfect storm, one that started with the “digital revolution” in photography but really accelerated in the last three years. Transparency film was long the mainstay of the publishing industry, which was very quick to convert to digital capture for a whole host of practical and economic reasons. The already small market for processing colour sheet film in Australia, particularly E-6, quickly dwindled. As a result, many labs either closed or stopped processing film. Decades of processing experience were lost as technicians left the industry or retired. That has impacted the availability, consistency, and quality of the processing for colour negative and transparency sheet film. Demand is likely to continue to fall as the cost of film continues to increase. 

In discussions I’ve had in the last few years regarding the future of colour sheet film in Australia, the subject of processing one’s own film comes up frequently. The chemicals for E-6 and C-41 processing are readily available, and that will continue to be an option for some photographers. As a general rule, colour processing requires more precise temperature control and timing than black and white. In my own case, although I process my own black and white film using small daylight tanks, the lack of a darkroom or space for a processing unit such as a Jobo has meant that colour processing hasn’t been a viable option. Arguably, E-6 processing is better suited to a lab using a replenishment system, provided they have sufficient volume of film to maintain the stability of the chemistry.

As someone who often photographs in remote places, there are many practical reasons why working with a digital system would be far easier than large format film. Even though I’ve used digital cameras for over 15 years, a view camera is still my preferred tool. Digital backs such as the Phase One or Hasselblad systems work well on medium-format view cameras; the downside is that they are extremely expensive. The cost is not just in the camera back itself; the lenses needed to get the best from digital backs are far more expensive than comparable large-format lenses. For many photographers, a DSLR or mirrorless digital system coupled with a view camera platform such as the Arca-Swiss Universalis or the Cambo Actus provides a viable, less costly alternative.Since 2016, I have been using the Arca-Swiss Universalis paired with a mirrorless digital camera as well as in 4×5 film format. Initially, I used a Sony “full frame” camera, and more recently, a Fuji GFX 50R. The GFX is a remarkable camera, and I’ve been happier with that than with any other digital system, whether used as a standalone camera with a GFX lens, adapted medium format lenses, or as a “digital back” on the Arca-Swiss Universalis. The Arca/GFX combination has allowed me to make photographs that would not be possible using a film camera. 

Arca-Swiss Universalis 4 x 5 camera at work in Gariwerd/Grampians National Park.
Arca-Swiss Universalis with Fuji GFX 50R and 60mm lens.

Overall, I still find that using a view camera and sheet film results in my best work. This is not simply about nostalgia or reluctance to change. Film and digital sensors are fundamentally different in their response to light and rendering of colour. In the last few months, I was able to print some recent work for exhibition and compare film and digital versions of the same scene or composition. In all cases, I preferred the reproduction from the film originals which is what went on the wall in the exhibition. A well scanned 4×5 transparency holds more detail and has higher resolution than a single file from a 50 mb camera. Even when film is scanned and digitised, there is a difference in how film grain appears in a print compared to digital pixels. The chemical reaction of silver halides and dyes exposed to light and the stochasticity inherent in film also play a part. This translates to differing spectral response, colour rendition and saturation. I still find film has a better ability capture subtle variation in colour, particularly greens. Whether or not these differences are important is ultimately up to each photographer to decide.

Looking to the future, the decision to keep working with colour sheet film or to move to a solely digital workflow may not be mine to make. Firstly, the continued manufacture of colour sheet film by Fujifilm and Kodak is far from assured. I still have enough stock of 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 colour sheet film to see me through the next few years. Beyond that, even if colour sheet film remains available, the cost of new film may become too expensive to continue to work with it in any meaningful way.  Since its inception, photography has always been a changing medium, and I’ll be interested to see what the photographic landscape looks like if the day comes when I’ve exposed my last sheet of film.

Detail of Mosses and Maiden Hair ferns, Gariwerd/Grampians National Park, Victoria. Photographed at approximately 1/2 life-size using Fujichrome Velvia 100 4×5 film and 150mm lens.
Detail of Mosses and Maiden Hair ferns, Gariwerd/Grampians National Park, Victoria. Composite of 12 files from the Fuji GFX50R.
Shore detail, Rocky Cape National Park, Tasmania. Photographed at approximately 1/2 life-size using using Fujichrome Provia 100 4×5 film and 150mm lens.
Shore detail, Rocky Cape National Park, Tasmania. Composite of 6 files from the Fuji GFX50R using 120mm macro lens.

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Mark Darragh is a Melbourne based photographer who specialises in photographs of Tasmania using large format film and digital cameras.

There are 6 comments for this article
  1. David Tatnall at 12:38 am

    Mark, thank you for this personal perspective on the future of large format colour photography in Australia.
    The writing has been on the wall for some years now in regards to the future of commercial labs that process colour sheet film in Australia.
    Photography has always changed and evolved and will continue to do so. What has been happening to colour sheet film in Australia is just part of that process.
    I’m curious that you process your own black & white sheet film but don’t process your own colour sheet film.
    The C41 and E6 processes are easy to do and can be done in the same daylight tanks you process black and white film in. Yes the temperature of the chemistry is less tolerant to chance, but can easily be achieved without much cost or drama by using a tropical fish tank heater to keep chemistry at exactly 20C. Or of course it can be done in an expensive motorised Jobo system. The chemicals can be dispose of the same way you dispose your black and white chemicals, either the local council waste service or commercial waste disposal service.
    The cost of processing you own colour sheet film is around $2 per sheet a great deal less expensive than commercial labs.

    • Mark Darragh at 10:55 pm

      Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience, David.

      Regarding processing my own colour work, I’m probably representative of quite a number of large format photographers who process their own black and white film but not colour. In my case, there are a number of reasons why I haven’t gone down that path.

      The first relate to some negative experiences with Jobo processing back in my early days shooting colour sheet film. Switching to a reliable commercial lab made sense and the cost, for many years, was reasonable. The single largest ongoing cost for me has been high resolution scanning and that is where I have concentrated my efforts in the last 15+ years. In view of the situation now in Australia, I’ve certainly been considering the home processing option seriously to work through my existing colour film stock and may end up doing that.

  2. Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:20 am

    Thankyou for responding to, and developing, my post on the future of large format colour photography in Australia.

    With respect to your article, you write:

    “I still find film has a better ability capture subtle variation in colour, particularly greens. Whether or not these differences are important is ultimately up to each photographer to decide”.

    As the images appear here on VCA I would say that you are right about the image entitled ‘Detail of Mosses and Maiden Hair ferns, Gariwerd/Grampians National Park, Victoria. The film version is much better in the subtle variation in colour. The colour is much richer in the film version.

    However, judging from the two versions of ‘Shore detail, Rocky Cape National Park, Tasmania’ –5×4 Fujichrome Provia 100 and composite of 6 files from the Fuji GFX50R — I would say that the latter version is the better one in terms of the depth or intensity of colour.

    • Mark Darragh at 11:15 pm

      Thank you, Gary. Our goal was to start some conversations regarding the future of working with colour sheet film, hopefully both articles contribute to that.

      I chose the image examples in the article to illustrate some of the differences (and similarities) I’ve found in film and digital. Of course, viewing them online doesn’t give you a true sense, looking at high res files and ultimately prints is where the differences become apparent. Of course, that’s just my experience, there are plenty of photographers who have moved from film to digital who wish they had today’s digital cameras twenty or more years go.

      Perhaps the biggest difference I have found working with the two media is the amount of post processing. In that sense, files from a digital camera are like working with a colour negative, there are vast possibilities for adjustment and rendering colour, contrast etc . My approach to working with transparencies is generally the opposite, if you get everything right at the time of exposure, a well processed and scanned sheet of film requires minimal post processing.

  3. Andy Cross at 2:59 am

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for your insight to colour sheet film availability and processing which is something all colour photographers need to be aware of not just here in Australia but the world over. It was for this very reason I embarked on the Bermphol project. See article. For me colour reproduction has to be non-fugitive. I elected to use the dye transfer process and the tri-colour carbon process for this reason. Both colour transparency and colour negative films are indeed fugitive. So the gold toned colour separation negatives I make from the trannies are more important than the originals or the prints I make from those seps. One day when we both expose our last sheet of solour film I will be glad I have the Bermpohl.
    Just as a note. Just as films can be frozen to preserve them so too can all types of colour chemistry. They will keep for many years. This can help reduce waste and cost.

    • Mark Darragh at 11:29 pm

      Thank you for sharing your comments and insights, Andy. Sharing your technical knowledge and depth of understanding about working in colour has been really valuable to the analogue photographic community. Dye transfer and colour carbon, to me, are the ultimate for reproducing colour photographs and it’s heartening to see photographers like you and Ellie Young in Australia and Calvin Grier in Spain keeping these beautiful processes alive.

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