I Shot a Roll of Kodak Ektar 100 by Sroyon Mukherjee
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
This fragment is attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, but I first encountered it in an essay by Isaiah Berlin. Berlin argues that writers and thinkers, and perhaps human beings in general, fall into two categories. Hedgehogs – Berlin’s examples include Plato, Dostoevsky and Proust – think, feel and understand the world in relation to a single, all-embracing system. Foxes on the other hand – Shakespeare, Aristotle, Joyce – pursue multiple, often unrelated and even contradictory ends.
You could extend the analogy to film photography. Film hedgehogs tend to shoot one type of film, year in, year out. They get to know it intimately – how it responds to different types of light, to pushing and pulling, to various developers. They know its exposure latitude, grain structure, reciprocity failure.
Film foxes are seduced by variety. Before they are half-way through a roll of Tri-X, they are dying to try Cinestill 800T. Not content with available film stocks – a longer list than you might think! – they turn to expired or truly obscure film. They take ordinary film and push it – literally – to its limits.
I shot on film as a kid in the late 90s and intermittently over the last eight years, but for much of this time, I was neither a hedgehog nor a fox. If anything, I was more like a horse with blinkers. I put little or no thought into choosing film; instead I would buy the cheapest, most widely available film (usually Fuji C200 and an occasional Ilford FP4+) and take it from there.
Over the last one year, inspired partly by my girlfriend – who likes trying new things, while I am more a creature of habit – and partly by a few online film communities that I’m part of, I have been a fox. And so it was that I came to try Kodak Ektar 100.
Ektar is not an unusual film like some others on my list (hello Rollei Infrared 400), but it never figured in my choices since it is three times more expensive than the cheapest colour films – Kodak’s own ColorPlus 200, for example. What do you get for the extra £6 or so? That was one of the questions I sought to answer for myself when I bought my first roll of Ektar.
I shot it over a few sunny days in Copenhagen, using – to get the technicalities out of the way – a Leica M3 with a Leitz Summicron 50mm f2 and a Voigtländer Ultron 28mm f1.9. The M3 does not have a built-in light-meter, and my own approach to metering is rather slapdash. For approximately half the photos I used a free Android app, and for the other half I guessed. I rarely bracket, though I know I should, especially when trying new film types.
The roll was developed and scanned by One of Many Cameras. The photos I picked for this piece are not necessarily the best shots from the roll; rather, I wanted to show how it performs in various lighting conditions.
In bright daylight, Ektar produces bold, saturated colours. Skies are richer and bluer than with ColorPlus, water even more so, and reds and yellows (as in the bus photo) pop into near-cartoonish glory. Dynamic range is excellent: the photo of the swan, taken in direct late-afternoon sunlight, shows an impressive amount of shadow detail in the sand hollows, while preserving most of the highlight detail on the swan’s neck.
Kodak claims that Ektar is the
‘world’s finest grain colour negative’
and I have no reason to believe otherwise. Of the colour films I have personally shot with, Fuji Velvia is the only one which rivals Ektar’s fine grain and saturation (I’m not the first to make that comparison). However, Velvia of course is transparency and not negative film.
Most of my photos from the roll, like the samples shown above, were shot in bright daylight. I did not set out to ‘test’ Ektar, or else I would have tried to incorporate more variety. In particular, it would be interesting to see how it renders skin tones (prevailing wisdom seems to be: Ektar for landscape and Portra for portraits) and how it performs in the shade. As it happens, I have one example of each.
So much for daylight shooting; what do you do when the sun goes down? Not shoot with 100-ISO film, some would say. But Ektar is superb for sunsets, because it produces vivid colours while still being sensitive to subtle colour-variations. And even without a graduated neutral-density filter, its high dynamic range retained some detail in the cityscape.
In blue hour (the second photo below), its slow speed meant I was able to use a 4-second exposure to partially smooth out the water. The colour palette of course is predominantly blue, but the reds and yellows still stand out. At 4 seconds, reciprocity failure is not a concern: according to one source, for Ektar it sets in somewhere between 8 and 16 seconds.
And then, darkness falls. Here are two photos taken on my way home from work, when I was carrying neither a flash nor a tripod. But I was drawn to the grey heron at the lakeshore, and to smoke swirling out behind an already dramatic statue. Both photos were taken with the camera resting on my bicycle saddle, using my bike-light for added illumination. The background colours still look vibrant, and if the foreground illumination is a little ‘cold’, it is not Ektar but my LED bike-light that is to blame.
The last photo, of my friend cooking, is one I took mostly to see how Ektar reacts to artificial light – and I have to say, for a daylight-balanced film it does admirably well. Obviously there is some colour-shift, but the red of the pepper-mill, the green of the compost-bin and the blue of his T-shirt are all recognisable as such. The shutter-speed was 1/15 sec, two full stops below my phone app’s recommendation, but I was shooting handheld and did not dare go any slower. Thanks to Ektar’s tolerance for underexposure, the result, to my eye, is still acceptable.
If you like saturated colours, Ektar delivers in spades. It is generally recommended for nature and landscapes, but it I got good results – or at least, results which I like – with a variety of subjects and even, with a little improvisation, in low light. ColorPlus remains my go-to colour film, but only because it is substantially cheaper. On the odd occasion when I feel like treating myself to a higher-end film, Ektar will certainly be high on my list.