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Slide vs. Print Film
by Vivid Light Staff

A question that gets asked an awful lot is whether slide film is better then print film "because that's what all the pros use".

The truth of the matter is that, like so many things in photography, both have their pros and cons.  The key is in understanding what they are and determining what works best for you for a given situation.

The good news is that both slide and print films have improved dramatically in the last few years.  This has made faster films less of a compromise as grain has gotten tighter, and less noticeable.  This fact really hit me recently when I scanned some 400 speed negatives from seven or eight years ago.  The improvements in today's films have really been amazing.  

What's so great about slide film?
A Positive image for starters. With slides what you see is what you get.  Unlike negatives where your prints reflect what the photofinisher thought the picture should look like, slides show you exactly what was captured on the film.  This can be a great advantage in a couple of ways.  First, this makes slides a great teaching tool as you can see exactly what effect certain camera settings had on the image.  You'll also know if you're over exposing or under exposing certain scenes.

It can also be an advantage for scanning.  Three years from now you won't remember the exact tones of a given image (at least I won't).  This can leave you guessing when scanning and printing from negatives.  Not so with slides.  If color accuracy is important then slides offer a definite advantage.

From an emotional standpoint looking at slides on a light table can be addictive.  Images from slides generally have more saturated colors and are more contrasty, giving the image more "pop".  This is particularly true for low contrast scenes and landscapes.

For most of us slides are easier to store and take up less room.  When we get negatives processed we typically get prints with them.   You need prints because it's difficult to make out what image is on a negative.  With slides you can easily see what you've got, and with no prints, they can be stored in a much smaller space.  Think that's no big deal?  If you get serious about photography you'll shoot hundreds of rolls of film.  That's a lot of prints.

If you have any aspirations of turning pro, then slides are the way to go.  Most publications require slides from photographers and won't even consider negatives as submissions (although some will now take digital submissions or scan from 8x10s, and it is possible to have slides made from negatives).  

So why doesn't everybody use slides?
Slides are less forgiving then negatives.  Blow the exposure on a negative and the printer can usually make something out of it.  This is rarely the case with slides (unless you're off but pretty close).  Blow the shot with slides and you've generally blown the shot.

That greater contrast and saturation that makes brightly colored images look better can also cause you to loose detail in shadowed areas of the image.  This is referred to as the tonal range of a film.  Print film can record a wider tonal range then slide film.  The problem is that today's papers can't hold that wide tonal range, so you lose much of it when printing.  So why is it important.  If you've captured the information you can now make creative choices when printing.  This is one of the reasons that print film is more forgiving.

It takes longer to get slides developed.  Most 1 hour labs can turn your prints around in just that - one hour.  Most labs have to send slide film, called E-6, out to a specialty lab which can add a day or two wait to the process.  Kodak's Kodachrome films are even more specialized.  All Kodachromes go back to Kodak for processing.

You have to be aware of the light you're shooting under with slide film.  Virtually all consumer print films are daylight balanced.  When you shoot indoors you think nothing of it.  But did you ever get a roll of film back where the pictures had a yellowish cast?  That's because the light bulbs in your house have a yellowish color cast, and the film you used is balanced for daylight or white light (5000K).  Most photofinishers simply compensate for this when printing your images.  But if you're shooting with slides there is no intermediate step so when shooting indoors you have to use slide film that is balanced for the color temperature of light you're shooting under, or use a color correction filter.

You need a way to view your slides.  That means buying a light box and a loupe, or a slide projector.  A loupe is a magnifying lens that allows you to look at your slides in detail.

Want prints from your slides? Again it can take a while and it's going to be more expensive.  When you drop off your negatives you automatically get prints or even double prints.  If you want prints from slides you have to send the slides out to have Ilfochromes done.  An alternative that is beginning to show up in some mini labs are scanners that allow you (or a lab tech) to scan your slides and output the image directly to an inkjet print or in some cases onto standard photo paper.  Prices vary significantly from lab to lab for this service. 

Want high speed?  Until recently high speed was the domain of print film.  High speed slide film was a rarity that had to be special ordered by all but the most well stocked photo suppliers.  However a new range of higher speed slide films has become available recently including Fuji's new 100-1000 speed slide film.  But if you want to shoot it at higher speeds you'll need to have it push processed which can double your processing costs at many labs.

Purchase price becomes a factor as well.  You can often find print film, even "higher end" print films on sale.  However as slide film is viewed by retailers as being strictly an "enthusiast" product you will almost never find it discounted unless it is almost expired.  This enthusiast view can also make it difficult to find slide films when traveling.  If you're shooting slides it's best to stock up before you go.

Some real pros for prints
We've touched on some of these already.  You'll find that negatives are much more forgiving.  Forget to change the film speed setting when you reload?  With negatives you can still get some usable prints out of a roll that is off by two stops, with slides you probably won't.  Processing is cheap and readily available with many retailers offering discounts on everything from 8x10s to coffee mugs with your photos on them.

You can find, buy, and have print film processed almost anywhere.  Prints from your negatives are cheap and some labs will even give you free double prints.  Traveling, no problem you can find print film in the lobbies of almost any big hotel or tourist trap in most parts of the world in speeds ranging from ISO 100 to 1000.

So why doesn't everyone use negatives?
Well for all the reasons we said you'd want to use slides at the beginning of this article.  Many photographers are frustrated that prints force them to rely on the printer to interpret their images and the quality of the techs at many labs, even so called pro labs, can be spotty.  You can spend a fortune on equipment, spend hours getting the perfect image, and wind up thinking it was all for naught because the guy in the lab had too many beers last night and did a lousy job printing the image (yes this happened to me).  

For this same reason it's difficult to learn from your mistakes.  Good printers cover up those mistakes by adjusting color, contrast, and exposure, so you may never know what you're doing wrong (unless you ask for all of your prints to be printed uncorrected).

And finally, looking at slides on a light table really is addictive.  The first time you throw down a brightly colored slide and watch it pop out on the table you just might be hooked.

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both slide and print films have improved dramatically in the last few years













slides generally have more saturated colors and are more contrasty, giving the image more "pop"







You can find, buy, and have print film processed almost anywhere








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