Did Velvia Film Change Landscape Photography?

May 12th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Did the “over-saturation” of landscape photographs start with digital printing and Photoshop, or did it originate well before that in the film era with the advent of Fuji Velvia Film and Kodak Ektachrome E100VS Film? Is “over-saturation” a myth?

Urban Railroad Distortion, Reno, Nevada, copyright 2009 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90. Post-processed in Photoshop.

In his 1993 book Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography, Galen Rowell wrote a chapter called Velvet Media in which he extolled the virtues of Fuji Velvia film, with some cautions. Galen Rowell wrote:

After twenty-five years of using Kodachrome film whenever sharpness was of the utmost importance, I abruptly gave up on it in February 1990 after seeing tests of an amazing new slide film from Japan…. Fuji’s introduction of ISO 50 Velvia at the Photo Marketing Association show in Las Vegas… After I returned home, I ran controlled comparisons of Velvia against Kodachrome 25, Kodachrome 64 and Fuji Pro 50. On my own light table the next morning, I clearly saw the end of an era. Velvia was the best of all existing worlds. Its resolution exceeded that of Kodachrome 25 and the other test films in high-contrast tests simulating daylight and equaled Kodachrome 25 in soft light. Its color saturation and separation of tones exceeded those of Fuji Pro 50 and the other films. I was aware that many photographers would prefer Kodachrome’s relatively muted colors, but I believed much of this was due to a conditioned constancy illusion that Kodachrome slides accurately represented the natural world. I knew better and fully expected Velvia to establish a new constancy illusion with picture editors and the public… I wanted to see the world freshly through this new tool and to push it to the limit to see what it would do. Over the years, the limitations of other films had caused me to consider certain kinds of subject matter and lighting as impossible. Murky renditions of greens in shadow under a blue sky on Kodachrome became vivid on Velvia. Fuji Pro 50 renditions of delicate foliage have very strong color, but also a lack of resolution that calls attention to itself, especially when compared with Kodachrome 25. Velvia holds both color and sharpness.… I soon began asking, ‘Is anything wrong with this film?’ not only to myself but to other users. The few negative answers had to do with too strong colors and a slower film speed than the advertised ISO 50.

In early 2010, in the comments on Steve Sieren’s blog post, “Ever Wonder About The History Of Landscape Photography?” large format landscape photographer Michael Gordon commented about how Fuji Velvia film had changed Landscape Photography. Michael Gordon first did a blog post about Velvia in 2008. In his 2010 comment, Michael Gordon said, “Want to be shocked? Compare Hyde’s “Drylands” photos to the current crop of Velvia-ized desert landscape photographs. Porter too. Not many years have passed, and despite the drying climate, the desert sure got a lot more vibrant in photographs!” Other comments on Steve Sieren’s blog post addressed the effect Velvia film had in the hands of various landscape photographers and its general impact on all landscape photography.

Many galleries, museums, photographers and others blame “over-saturation,” if it exists and can be defined, on the advent of the digital age and Photoshop, but here we see much evidence that “over-saturation” began long before. Also in 2010, outdoor, documentary and landscape photographer Carr Clifton offered his thoughts and possible explanation as to what happened in landscape photography from 1990 through the early years of the new millennium. Carr Clifton said, “When we first started printing digitally, we were used to trying to get the richest and even the hottest color out of whatever film we were using. Many films didn’t have the rich color palette that we now see. The same thing happened back in the 1990s with Velvia. Velvia was different because for the first time, it offered too much color, more than you see in nature. When everybody started scanning film and making digital prints, even the scans of Velvia were too gaudy.”

On reading Galen Rowell’s Outdoor Photographer features, Sierra Magazine articles and several of his books I discovered that he wrote more eloquently about photography than perhaps just about anyone else ever, with the possible exception of Robert Adams, Charis Wilson, Edward Weston, Minor White and Ansel Adams at times. That puts Galen Rowell at the top of all writers on photography. He is also admirable as a landscape photographer because he was self-taught. My father, pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde has been said by many of the who’s who of photography today to have influenced a generation of photographers. See the blog posts, “How Color Came To Landscape Photography,” “The Golden Decade: California School Of Fine Arts Photography,” and the series beginning with the blog post, “The Battle Over Dinosaur: Birth Of Modern Environmentalism.”

Notwithstanding, Galen Rowell also influenced a generation, the next generation, our generation, the landscape photographers just coming into prominence now. Galen Rowell was also one of the most talented photographers who ever lived. He was the master of “fast and light” and capturing unusually powerful landscape photographs. When we showed the Philip Hyde exhibition at Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery, I found through talking to guests and staff that Galen Rowell was also known as a life-changing mentor, a generous mountain guide, a driven activist for various conservation and social causes and a dynamic leader of an organization of top quality people who continue to inspire the world. However, some segments of the art establishment hardly recognize him because they feel he overdid the color. Carr Clifton, who also greatly admired Galen Rowell put forward the theory that when Velvia film first emerged on the scene and also in the early days of digital printing, that Galen Rowell went a little far with the color, but never lived to rein in when other photographers did.

“It was around 2003-2004 that everybody started to pull back some and bring their color back into the realm of reality,” Carr Clifton said. “All except for a few blatant examples that remain. Galen, unfortunately for all of photography, died in the plane crash in early 2002. We were all very sad about it. Now Galen’s prints are frozen in a state of too much syrup. He never made it to the time in 2003-2004 when everyone backed their color off.” Because Galen was so admired, there are now many photographers who try to do what he did with sunrise-drenched mountain tops, brilliant reflections and ultra-vivid colors. Other landscape photographers agree with Carr Clifton. They believe that Galen Rowell might very well have pushed his own work back down the color saturation scale if he had lived. It’s all conjecture, but an interesting theory and something to consider in view of how much landscape photographers try to emulate Galen Rowell’s work. For more about other concerns over the direction of landscape photography today see the blog post, “Is Landscape Photography Thriving Or Dying?” For a new way to look at it and other remedies see the blog post, “What Urban Exploration Photography Learned From Nature.”

Travel and landscape photographer Richard Wong wrote on this subject in November 2010:

…Galen did have a large audience probably due to several factors, one of which was a long relationship with Outdoor Photographer Magazine dating back to the beginning from what I understand, but even before that he had “street cred” in the outdoor community for being a prolific adventurer and rock climber. There were photographers just as good if not better out there at all the different things he did but he was able to connect with and convey his philosophy to his audience much more effectively than most. He was a great writer. And also someone who was always striving to innovate. Looking at his body of work, you can clearly see the evolution over the years. You also have a good point about the color. I was told that his staff worked on those digital masters from his slides in the years prior to his death and probably against advisement, he wanted to push the envelop on the saturation. You can tell by looking at some of his prints up close at his gallery and also in some of his books that some highlight detail was probably sacrificed due to saturation. His Evolution Lake image for example. With that said, I have always overlooked that phase of his career because that doesn’t define his body of work. One thing I’ve always pondered is what Galen would be doing now on the Nikon D700 if he were still around. Breaking new ground for photography I would imagine.

Fuji Velvia film was not the only film that amped up the saturation. Galen Rowell provided a warning against overdoing the color saturation in this quote also from the 1995 book, Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography:

 

Much of what people were saying when Velvia first came out applies to Kodak E100VS today. Sometimes it looks garish, sometimes it looks great, and much of the time it will produce the image that editors will choose. Kodak E100VS often produces bright colors closer to what you believe you saw in flat light or at a distance, but if you use it all the time, you risk having the sum total of your style appear garish and suspect. In direct light this film doesn’t just come near the edge of the color saturation envelope; it moves beyond into a realm that requires the same sort of restraint as the use of color-enhancing filters does.

Probably the same could be said for the color saturation adjustment slider in Photoshop. What do you think? Is “over-saturation” an overblown issue? Is it a myth? Is over-saturation a problem in landscape photography today?

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64 comments

  1. Thanks for your comments, Felix.

  2. H William says:

    I think that over saturation is a problem with many landscape photos. Also, HDR when it goes to extremes does a disservice to the photo. I also realize, that as an artist, the photographer is free to produce his or her own interpretation of the scene. It does not have to be true to life.

  3. Chuck KItsman says:

    Hi David: I had the honor of participating in a workshop at Anderson Ranch in the late 1980s given by your father and this discussion of oversaturation, Velvia and Ektachrome is pretty accurate. He had strong opinions about even using Fujichrome 50 and there’s no question the beauty of his work has a timeless quality. I do want to say, however, that he gave us a demonstration making an image in a meadow of dried grass and blossoms that remains in my mind. He showed us how to shoot directly into the light for a backlit subject which absolutely fired up the scene. The “fire” in the image was not from the film, it was the backlighting Nature provided. I know that my initial interest in Velvia moderated as Fuji brought out more toned down films (Provia became my first choice). Yet, I can’t forget looking under his Ardis-made darkcloth through the process lens he favored and seeing such a great image. Velvia would have overcooked it, and we are fortunate that films have been developed which take the best aspects of color and detail now.

  4. Hi Chuck, welcome to Landscape Photography Blogger. I’m honored to have you here with your great story about my father’s workshop demonstration. I’ll look forward to corresponding with you further if you are willing, regarding your experiences with Dad. Films have been developed to bring out the best in color without overdoing it, but what about Photoshop? Perhaps if you are still doing large format film photography, you don’t care about digital photography. I wouldn’t blame you if that is the case, but what about having some kind of speed limit sign on the saturation slider in Photoshop or Lightroom? There’s no governor on it that only allows a max of 55 mph like in a school bus.

  5. Chuck KItsman says:

    Hi David – regarding the speed limit sign on the saturation slider in Photoshop, I know what you’re saying about overcooking the color with these controls. However, I do not believe that I could print from a digital file or a scanned transparency file without Photoshop and several of its controls and sliders. I was once asked if I was a purist about color printing – would I feel free to use various tools of photoshop to get to my final image? I had to admit that I had already been corrupted by the techniques employed with b&w printing, so yes I was open to using a lot of manipulations with PS to get what I wanted. The initial scan of a transparency or the raw digital file are to me like the process Ansel Adams talked about, the negative is the score and the print is the performance. Don’t get me wrong, I try to print where there are no artifacts or overdoing of the manipulations I make. I know that a straight print will seldom carry the meaning I would like my finished print to have, so I use the controls and sliders judiciously but sometimes you need a little something to make the viewer’s perception of the print “read” the right way. A good example is the notion from the zone system that there should be the least amount of texture in the highlights. When you have a transparency with parts of the sky just slightly burned out, without texture, adding “visual noise” can retrieve an otherwise superb image. I’m open to that and some other techniques to get that print to be what I saw and what I experienced and felt when I exposed the film or created the file. So while I try to get the best transparency, negative or file I can to realize what I have previsualized, I recognize I may need a little help. So I’m not willing to limit the scale of the tools even though I may only use part of it.
    A good friend and superb photographer once said that nobody said photographs were real. They are, rather, lies we tell to help others see or realize the truth. So clearly, I do not consider myself a purist where the image cannot be manipulated, that it must be only what came through the lens and only the film or sensor. I just want it to appear that way, that my “enhancements” are not obvious or overdone, that there are no artifacts hanging around in the image.
    I believe we photograph to say something we could not otherwise say and to show people something they may not have seen or known. You sometimes need tools to do that.

  6. Hi Chuck, your perspective on this is similar to mine in one sense. We’ve had many, many of these discussions on this blog, if you dig around a little you’ll see them. They are quite interesting. All views have some good points and at least some validity. Photoshop, in tasteful hands, is parallel to whatever post-processing photographers have done with older technology. At the same time, photographers have an unwritten agreement with society, because the viewing public expects or believes a photograph to represent reality. Notice I did not claim that any photograph IS reality. Photographs are considered proof, in criminal and civil court cases, and in many other settings, precisely because of their unique properties and standing as a method for pure representation, besides their regular appearance as an art form, the two approaches being often inseparable. I believe any artist has the right to take their own photographs as far as they like, in any direction, but they are then susceptible to having an image called something else and no longer considered a photograph. It may be art, of some kind, but it is not necessarily a photograph and what’s wrong with that? There really is no speed limit sign, or any other way of limiting others, but there are limits to what can be considered straight photography or pictorialism. These limits are, however, subjective, up to the viewer’s discretion, or the viewer’s judgement. Photographic styles and all forms of art are limited only by the marketplace. This may be one reason why saturation levels have crept up steadily. Photographers and artists often want to push to gain a little more edge and notice.

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