Slides, Positives, Chromes, and Transparencies, Oh My!

Call them what you will, photos shot on slide film stand apart from their negative brethren in several ways. The film itself is expensive, and it requires the relatively uncommon (these days) and costly E-6 process for development, relegating slide film use to the devoted or the crazy (or both – the intersecting subset is likely quite large). On top of that, it is far less tolerant of exposure errors than negative film, and has far less dynamic range to boot. Why is anyone using this stuff?

Because the photographs, when everything comes together properly, can be glorious. Results are immediately apparent on first glance – no prints or scans required. Colors pop in a way that negative films struggle to approach without significant manipulation (more on that later).

Yet in spite of these qualities it seemed like slide film’s days were numbered. Once Kodachrome, the gold standard for transparencies, was discontinued, things headed downhill fast, with emulsion after emulsion discontinued, the prices for those remaining edging ever-higher, the availability of development services dwindling, and competition from digital cameras constantly threatening to squeeze the last gasp of life out of slide film.

No one in their right mind would have bet that Kodak would announce just a few months ago that it was reviving the long-dead Ektachrome and restarting its slide film production. Queen Elizabeth doing a juggling act on a unicycle at the Super Bowl halftime show would have seemed utterly predictable in comparison. Yet they did it. And while Fuji seems committed to getting out the slide film business – their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding (“Really, we are committed to supporting our film customers. Oh, by the way, here is the latest list of emulsions we are discontinuing. But we are committed to film.” Uh huh.) – other manufacturers, like the newly-revived Film Ferrania, are working to ensure that slide film survives.

My first dabbling with slide film came about not by design, but rather because I was given a number of rolls of the stuff. A few months ago I took a roll of Velvia 50, stuck it in my Rollei 35, and headed up to Maine. I was careful to shoot it as you do with slide film – expose for highlights, and pay close attention to actual light conditions – and I was very pleased with the way the photos came out.

But not being one to leave well enough alone, I also had my Fuji X-E1 with me (you can see some of the photos here). Seeing as Fuji built the camera with several slide film emulation modes, Velvia included, I though it would be interesting to see how the film shots stacked up against the digital ones. It’s not a scientific comparison, but so what? I could not care less about the technical points; this is all about the look, and specifically, how well does the digital camera do at replicating the look of slide film? I’ll leave my conclusions for the end of this piece. For now, some photos (as usual, click any photo to open the gallery).

So, what to make of this? A few things come to mind. First off, I didn’t find exposing the film as difficult as I expected. Granted, I was not shooting in particularly tricky light, but I had a lingering fear of half my shots being ruined by some minor miscalculation – they weren’t. I did check the meter on the little Rollei far more often than I would have with negative film (I rarely look it with negatives), but even so I didn’t really need to make too many unexpected adjustments.

Second, wow. Just wow. The colors are fantastic. So much richer than anything you get with negative film, even Ektar. It’s not suitable for everything, obviously, but when you want not just color but COLOR, this is your stuff.

Finally, there is an astonishing degree of similarity between these slides and the digital images I shot with the X-E1 (go to the link above and compare if you haven’t already). Yes, I have made a few in-camera adjustments to get closer to what I want out of the images, but nothing outlandish or extreme, and my adjustments were made before I knew what the slides would produce, not after. Indeed, this may help to explain why Fuji keep dropping slide films: they’ve gotten very good at replicating the look digitally. I’m sure they can’t understand why a bunch of Luddites want to use old technology when the newer one is available, but that’s due to a lack of philosophical imagination, and philosophical imagination rarely animates business decision-making for large industrial conglomerates.

Anyway, I like it and I hope it remains available. It’s too expensive to shoot all the time, but it’s nice to have the option. If Velvia does disappear, let’s hope other manufacturers more committed to film will pick up the ball and run with it.