An appreciation of slide film

As a certified Gen-Xer, I do have a personal history with slide film. My dad definitely shot his share with his Nikon, and a family slideshow happened every once in a while. My fourth-grade teacher Ms. Roberts would share slideshows of her travels with the class. While for other students it meant a half-hour or so where they didn’t have to do schoolwork, for me it was enjoyable, as I liked seeing other places. I remember in particular a shot she surrepitiously took at the border crossing between Hong Kong and mainland China. This was in 1984 or somewhat earlier, when things were much stricter and dangerous there. And when I was applying to art schools, they usually wanted artwork submitted via slides. I never had to do that, as I didn’t go.

By 1997 slide film was uncommon amongst the “point-and-shoot” clientele we catered to at the Kmart I worked at. We had a few token rolls on hand in the Camera Department I managed, just as we had a few token rolls of Tri-X Pan1 in the off chance someone wanted black and white. But there were a couple instances with slides that stood out: There was one time a customer was pissed that she received slides instead of prints, insisting that the lab messed up. Never mind the fact that to get slides you have to use slide film. Qualex (the film processor) wasn’t going to do it by accident! That was a tough one to explain. Or the time someone sent off slides to get prints made: The original slides got scratched. While I felt for the customer, the Qualex rep bluntly told me that the customer shouldn’t have used them for that service (even though they provided it.)2 I’m sure that customer went to the Ritz Camera across the shopping plaza the next time she wanted prints from slides.

But that was 1997. Since then, I barely thought about slide film, as digital supplanted film. It’s only since I got back into film last year that I’ve thought about this particular type of film stock. For the uninitiated, slide film differs from standard negative film (originally used for prints) in two big ways: 1) The image is “positive” vs negative. When you look at the finished film, you’ll see exactly what you got. 2) It requires special developing using the E-6 process. This is a bit more complicated and expensive than C-41 processing used for color negative film, and there’s not as many places that process slide film anymore.

Slide film produces rich colors, fine grain, and sharp contrast. It was the film stock used by National Geographic and fashion shooters. And up until this year, I never used it. I was interested in trying it out, but the higher costs and the reputation surrounding it kept me away. Yes, reputation: Slide film is difficult. It doesn’t have the latitude of negative film. Other films can be over or underexposed and come out OK, not slide film. Exposure has to be spot-on, or it can look like crap. And the only modern slide film stocks are sold with ISOs of 50 or 100, slow speed stocks that need good light to work. It just seemed too risky.

Then I got my Minolta SR-T 101, an SLR built in the era when slide film was still strong. I was heading to The Dalles for an adventure, why not capture the beautiful Eastern Oregon landscape on slide film? I loaded up the SR-T 101 with Ektachrome 100. The results impressed me: the colors vibrant, the image sharp. After that, I decided to capture the cherry blossoms with expired Kodak Elite Chrome 100. The images were also fantastic.

Before this none of the premium color stocks did much for me. Kodak Portra in 160 and 400 are nice and all, but not enough that I feel the desire to shoot with them all the time. Kodak Ektar 100 is supposed to be closest to slide film in terms of “look”, but to me it just doesn’t compare. But slide film? That’s hooked me. I like the look and now I’m willing to pay the premium. No, it’s not going to become my day-to-day color film, that’ll still be fulfilled by ColorPlus 200 and Ultramax 400. The expense of slide film (the lowest I’ve found is about $15 for fresh Ektachrome) plus processing3 will mean it will be saved for more special occasions. The slow speeds of modern stocks mean it’ll be mostly for outdoor shots in good light, so bike tours may see more transparency documentation.

Besides the aesthetic appeal of slide film, there’s two more reasons why I dig transparencies. The first one has to do a bit with ego. I’ve been told that slide film is hard, so the fact that it didn’t feel so hard to me it makes me feel better about my photographic abilities. Mind you, it’s not like I was metering by eye, and I’m sure I’ll have a few mishaps along the way. But the misplaced idea that I’ve somehow mastered a small corner of the film world has gone a bit to my head!

The second reason digs deeper. The quandary of film photography in this digital era is thus: While the process of shooting and developing film is old-school analog, most of what happens after is new-school digital. Most people just digitize their finished negatives. What we often see for public consumption are usually jpgs or tiffs from negative scans. One could still print photos (and I do), but unless you’re doing it yourself in a darkroom or using one of the few labs who still do traditional optical prints, the prints from commercial labs come from digital scans.4 But slide film is different. I get my slides scanned, but I have the actual slide. I can look directly at what my camera captured. Unlike prints where there’s some form of color correction, however small it may be, the transparency is the unadulterated image. This is a big deal to me, and looking at slides on a light table or projected onto a screen is a thrill.

Are you someone like me who has recently gotten back into film photography and haven’t tried slide film yet? Give it a try! You’ll need a camera with a good meter, or one with manual exposure and an external meter. (You can even use a phone app if need be.) Certain types of cameras, like cheap fixed-focus point and shoots and late era superzooms are not good for slides, as they lack decent aperture and/or shutter range. But older cameras with fast lenses and a wide range of aperture settings should work well. You can still get scans when you get it developed, so you can share images easily.

As for myself, I’ll keep on shooting slide film, whether fresh Ektachrome 100 (the lowest priced current offering) or cold-stored old stock off eBay. And I really hope that my local lab finds a source for slide mounts, as that’s the only thing I haven’t experienced yet!

To see my photos taken on slide film, check out the dynamic flickr album below. Or click here.

Motel. The Dalles, OR. 25 March 2021

1 As this was nearly a (gasp) quarter-century ago, my memory is hazy. It could have very well been that we stocked that C-41 process black and white film that got popular in the 90s instead of Tri-X. Or also possible: we carried both.

2 I mean, I get what the rep was saying, but it was so cold. And maybe the lab shouldn’t offer the service if they couldn’t make sure the slides would be appropriately protected in transit?

3 Though my local lab, Citizens Photo, has pretty reasonable processing prices for E-6.

4 Blue Moon here in Portland is one of the few places that offer optical prints from negatives.

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