New American Color Fujifilm Recipe
Ever since I discovered the work of Joel Sternfeld I’ve been obsessing over how to achieve a similar look in-camera. Here’s my take on it.
I think I have gotten as close as is possible. Digital is not film, but given the level of control we get with Fujifilm film simulations and in-camera processing we can get pretty close.
Recipe and examples at the bottom. Find more examples on my Instagram.
Distilling Sternfeld’s Look
Joel Sternfeld is one of the photographers grouped under the term New American Color Photography; the movement and exhibition in 1976 that made color photography accepted as art photography. The others being William Eggelston, Stephen Shore and Richard Misrach.
I’ve read that Sternfeld’s early work was shot on Kodachrome. However I’m more interested in his later large-format work from the book Stranger Passing, which appears to have softer color and contrast.
I’m no film expert, but I wanted to replicate the look nonetheless. After quite some time of thorough research I have distilled the key points down to these:
- Color saturation: Medium. Sternfeld’s colors may seem to pop. However the perception of color saturation is pretty relative in my experience. With hard contrast, colors seem more saturated and vice versa. Overall it’s Sternfeld’s control over the colors present in his frame that make them pop, not some saturation slider. Color Chrome Effect is very effective at giving more film-like color saturation by pulling back the luminance of the most saturated colors. Color Chrome FX Blue on is better left at weak because it would otherwise push the sky brightness too far down. It also tends to produce unnatural color gradients elsewhere.
- Hue and tint: We should aim for something pretty neutral, but we are probably talking Kodak film stock. Most Kodak films have a subtle warm look overall, while leaning ever so slightly towards warm green in the shadows. I achieved this to a certain degree using the White Balance Shift, but full control over this would require an RGB curve adjustment which isn’t available in camera (please, FUJIFILM X/GFX USA 🙏). To get the most consistent look I tend to favor a white balance setting of Auto White Priority as a base.
- Sharpness: The biggest factor here is that we are mimicking film on digital, which will always be a too sharp starting point. We can compensate for that with a combination of maximum negative sharpness, maximum positive noise reduction and weak, large grain.
- Contrast is the most complicated part. Digital sensors are good at capturing shadow details, but less so in the highlights. For that reason you would typically expose for the highlights on digital to retain maximum dynamic range. With film it’s the other way around. When shooting film a common practice is to expose for the shadows and let highlights fall where they may. Sternfeld is not much different, which shows in the histogram of most of his work.
To achieve a film-like contrast curve you want a noticeable degree of crushed, but lifted shadows. A slight crushed fade if you will. Then you want your low mid-tones stretched towards the middle of the histogram, with most mid-tones shifted towards the upper mid-tone area (exposed for the shadows). Then tapering off into almost pure white. Film stock will have a tendency towards low highlight contrast for a smooth rolloff towards white. Essentially a theoretical histogram like this:
To achieve this I let Astia push the shadows down and then lift them by 0.5 to get a slight fade. I use a dynamic range of 200 to hold the upper highlights back and rely on a combination of Astia’s contrast and a highlight adjustment of +1 to push the lower highlights up. However, to get all the way there we cannot get around having to add positive exposure compensation.
Fujifilm Nostalgic Neg Simulation
Fujifilm has given the GFX range a new film simulation named Nostalgic Neg that is supposed to mimic precisely the New American Color style. It is not available on the X-series camera, but fujixweekly.com does have a replica version you can use. In reviewing that one though I found a couple of points that I think could be improved:
- The recipe is based on Classic Chrome. I think this is a mistake because it’s contrast and clarity is overall a bit too harsh and it gives the final image a cold tint, especially in the shadows. The film stock Sternfeld used typically leans towards graduated, warmer shadows. I chose Astia to replace it because it has more customization latitude and a contrast curve that would push the lower mid-tones towards black.
- The recipe uses negative Clarity. This feature, while quite essential to the smoothness of the result, is a no-go for me because of the added processing time and EVF blackout. Instead I’m relying on maximum negative sharpness combined with maximum NR and large grain to achieve almost the same.
I went back and forth in X-Raw Studio for hours adjusting and comparing my images to my favorites Sternfeld’s book Stranger Passing. Here’s the result (samples below):
Film Simulation: Astia
Grain: Weak Large
Dynamic Range: 200
White balance: Auto white priority
WB offset: R: 3, B -4
Color chrome effect: Strong
Color chrome FX blue: Weak
Noise Reduction: +4
Exposure compensation: Typically +1/3 — +2/3
The positive exposure compensation is really a key part of this. No other adjustment can achieve the big shift in tonal distribution that you get from exposing for the shadows. I recommend using photometry mode Multi and going from there. Spot meeting the way you typically would use it will generally expose too dark (unless you point it at the shadows).
In my experience Fujifilm Bayer array sensors are extremely good at handling blown out highlights. Even though we are pushing it here, trust that DR200 and your Fujifilm sensor will cope!
I find the recipe is best suited for shade and overcast daylight conditions. Coincidentally those are the conditions in which Joel Sternfeld shot some of his best images in my mind.
I hope this brings more shooting joy to someone besides me. If you would like to see how I use this recipe, please follow me on Instagram.
These are all converted to JPG in camera and unedited besides cropping and straightening.