Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Limitations of Transparency Film

For years I used transparency film in larger format cameras such as the Linhof  6x12cm. and Fuji 6x17cm. In my opinion the dynamic range of transparency film is barely  adequate when photographing normally lit out-door scenery. I have always struggled to compress the visible contrast range onto film.

I used all sorts of techniques such as graduated filters, dark room developing variations and print manipulation to drag down highlight areas and boost shadow zones, but I still struggled.

Learning to expose accurately helped and as time went by I learned to analyse each scene and calculate the contrast range, I learned which transparency films had the most exposure latitude and matched the film to the subject. The closest I ever got to achieving the perfect exposure ( I do not mean the image but the calculation of exposure )was more than 20 years after I started using transparency film.

The image is the cover photograph of my book "New Zealand Landscapes"

On your screen it probably does not tell you much but the process that went through my mind at the time was the result of 20 years of experimentation. I sat in my little Stabi-Craft in George Sound in front of this scene and watched the play of light. The contrast range was way out of range of any film.

Sunlight on white clouds at one extreme and dark green bush in shadow at the other. It took me an hour or so but I waited until the higher cloud was shaded from direct sunlight and and the foreground bush and small islands were softly lit by sunlight. At that point I "knew" it was within the capability of the film I was using.

So with experience and patience, it is possible to compress  the visible extremes and squeeze  the exposure to match the capabilities of your film. Ansel Adams was a master at this. I admire him because of his refusal to accept the limitations of film. He experimented and developed (sorry)  the zone system, and found a way to compress a very wide tonal range onto film.


  1. I agree with you about transparency film. It's difficult to use, but I've found the results worth the effort. I appreciate your thoughs on the subject. Thanks.

  2. Hi Andris - How do you feel about the use of drum scanners to get the most out of slide film? I've found a good eight stops using Velvia 50 and possibly a little more if you want to pull some 'tone' out of the highlights using photoshop. In the darkroom getting even five stops is tough though without contrast masking. Tim