"Wow, You Still Shoot Slides?  In 2013?"

It might come as a surprise to learn there are still lots of people shooting slide film-- and preferring to do so-- in 2013.  

Why would anybody do that, you ask? 

To those of us whose parents had carousels full of vacation slides "back in the day", there was something magical about a box of Kodachromes or Ektachromes.  Paris, Rome, even pictures from your family picnic:  slides made everything look so good.

The Colors

The following picture is an example of what photographers usually try not to do:  take pictures of people in harsh sunlight. 

Worse yet, here we have people wearing white and very light blues and khakis. 

Know what, though?  The first thing that jumps out at you is the colors:  the roses, the sky, everything.  This picture was more popular than most of the color negative film shots I took.  They liked it not because it's technically perfect (which it definitely isn't), and not because it was necessarily a better scene than the other pictures, but because of the color and richness.  Slide film offers something that nothing else can quite provide.  

With Velvia especially, the colors can be almost electric.     I had actually brought the Velvia along on a lark, thinking "Yeah, I'll just use up this roll and then shoot neg film."  Later I wished I'd brought more of the Velvia.   It can take boring, gray clouds and make them awesome purple;  the red roses practically jump out of the picture;  everything is just alive with color.  People don't expect you to do wedding pictures with slides nowadays, and when they see it they're like "How on earth did you get the pictures to look so good?"  As long as you meter and compose properly, the slide film will do the rest.  (And whatever you do, if you photograph a wedding with slide film, use UPS Ground or FedEx to ship, and make sure the lab uses that to ship 'em back.  Avoid those flat-rate envelopes... they rip open in the mail and your slides go bye-bye.)

By the way, a reader emailed me and mentioned that slides (and film in general) have a sort of "3-D" look to them.  How it's possible for a two-dimensional image to do that, I'm still not sure, but I know exactly what he means.  Is it the multiple layers that make up modern films?  I don't know, but it could be.  What I do know is that I have to remember to bring more RVP100 along next time.   (I know... RVP50 is better, but that extra stop offered by the 100 is helpful.)  Look how three-dimensional this photo appears:



Photojournalistic shots don't allow you to choose the lighting.  Harsh sun?  Too bad:  you either take the picture or miss the shot.
I'd rather use slide film than digital for these, though.  If the highlights do overload, it looks more natural on film.

I think I could probably get even better highlights out of this with a better scan. 
Actually, I know I could (Keep reading....)

Highlight Range

Slide film does have a fairly narrow highlight range:  about 2.5 stops, max.  (Update... you might also want to read this.)  However, it gently rolls off to white when overexposed.  That's the key difference from digital.  Most of today's digital cameras still have harsh clipping that looks un-natural.  They get to a certain point, then they just abruptly blow out.  If you study the picture above and look at the bridal dress, or the seated gentleman's white shirt, or the sunglass-wearing lady's shoulder, you can see that although the light colors are overexposed (or nearly so), there's no posterizing.  (The highlights in this scan are a little "loud" though... see below to understand why.)  A scene like this is extremely challenging for both digital and slide film, but I still prefer slide film because it handles the bright areas more naturally.  

When you see a digital photo with lost highlights, it's forever stuck that way unless the photographer has a much better RAW file somewhere.  When you see a film scan with lost highlights, it could just be a bad scan.  If they look posterized or nuclear-bright, it probably is the scan.   Auto-levels can yield nice, contrasty images, but sometimes they just plain ruin a picture.  If the bright areas of your scan look way too "loud", check the scan settings! 

Move your mouse pointer over the photo to see what I mean: 



Student volunteer working at Rimrock Overlook, Allegheny National Forest

This was cropped from a 35mm Velvia scan.  Mouse over to see the effect of bad scan settings!

First version:  Good settings.

Second version:  If you feel like you need welding goggles, there's probably too much contrast...


This can also happen with negative film, of course, but I thought I'd throw it in here because I happened to have a slide scan that got toasted in this way (see above). 

I want to emphasize that improvements in digital camera technology do not render slides redundant.  Digital's solutions are getting much better, but they have their own drawbacks as well.  A good digital image still has unique subtleties of appearance.  That's why we keep going back to the fact that they're really just two different tools for different uses.   Nikon with their great little D3100 and D3200 and Canon with their Rebel T3 are proving that superb photos can come from an entry-level DSLR, but would I drop slide film for these?   No way. 

The D800

Someone recently emailed me and suggested that the new Nikon D800 takes away most of the advantage that film has.   I can understand why someone would hold that opinion, because at first it seems to make sense.  The D800 is by all accounts an excellent camera.  However, the real point of contention is that it's supposed to offer unprecedented dynamic range, according to practically everyone.  (If anyone wants to lend me a D800 for the "Camera vs. Log" dynamic range test, email me and we'll arrange to see what it can really do.)  However, when take a step back from the hype (which comes around every year), we see that the D800 really has only 5 stops of highlight range... which is identical to the much less-expensive D5100 from last year.  To get this 5-stop highlight range, you have to turn Active D-Lighting all the way up.   And, it's still not quite the same as film.  (Actually, it's not even close... Active D-Lighting is sort of a trick, not a real increase in highlight range.)

And as you might have seen, even the shadow range of DSLR's may be overhyped.

Even if the D800 in practice is only as good as the older Fuji S5-- which was the best thing digital ever offered against the dynamic range problem-- then that's great, and maybe I'll eventually get one someday.  However, because film is my main "system", I'd more likely be eyeing up that gently-used, fully-loaded Pentax 67 kit.  (Nothing wrong with picking up a D800.  If you do, please use this link to help keep my site going.  Thanks!)

Supposing we eventually get a digital camera that can do 7+ stops of highlight range, we're still back to what I said about the overall appearance.  The subtleties of tone, color, and grain can have a remarkable effect on the overall feel of a picture.    In other words, a D800 or whatever might offer some of the qualities of slide film, but it's never going to be slide film.   The best digital rendition of analog reality is still just an array of close approximations.  Why not simply treat it as a different artistic tool in the toolbox, and use both?  I would be okay with that, and I bet you would be okay with that, too;  but some of the digital camera executives are not going to be okay with that.  The hard-core "bean counter" types out there think in terms of stamping out all competing products.  It's like the auto makers who, many years ago, tried to get rid of public transportation because it was cutting into the market for tires and automobiles (ask Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone about that...)  What the monopolistic types might not realize is that film cameras and digital cameras can stimulate sales of each other.  People nearly always think the grass is greener on the other side, and with photographers this translates to the purchase of more camera equipment.   Furthermore, professional mechanics require more than one wrench. 

Another photographer emailed me and said that no matter what he tried, he couldn't get his D7000 sunsets to look quite like the ones captured on film.   (Aside from its defeat in the Camera vs. Log test, the D7000 is a pretty sweet camera, so don't take it too hard.  The "different" appearance of pictures is true for digital cameras in general.)  With a bit of work, digital sunsets can be pretty nice, but again, they just look "different".   There's nothing wrong with that;  I enjoy making digital art also.   It really comes down to one thing;  I have a request for this mythical "everyone":  Quit tryin' to take away my slide film because you think "everyone" should use digital only.  If it weren't for that, I'd probably have more articles on this site talking about the upsides of digital.  For example, the high ISO performance of newer DSLR's is very impressive.  I can shoot 800 film at ISO 3200 or even 6400, but it tends to be very grainy.  I happen to like that look, because film grain is a lot more natural-looking than digital noise, but sometimes you might have a job that requires high ISO with very low noise or grain.  This is where the better DSLR's would come in.  Once again, "different tools for different jobs".

The File Compatibility Treadmill

So, we were talking about highlights.   Let's talk about how highlights are "brought up" with film vs. with a digital camera.  If you have a DSLR, you can shoot in RAW format and mess around with a huge file to try to preserve what highlight detail was in the original picture.  With proprietary software you can convert the RAW into a huge TIFF file on your computer, tweak it, wait half an hour for the computer to let you do the next step, and wear out your hard drive bearings because the RAM keeps swapping to disk.   I prefer to pull a 35mm slide out of the box, re-scan it as maybe an 8- or 10-megabyte JPG image, and work on the picture without a problem (if I need to do radical curves on it, I can scan it as 48-bit TIFF).   RAW isn't as much of a nuisance if you stick with, say, 6 MP images, but I still see a real advantage that slides have over RAW file formats.  The original slide contains as much information as can be;  it's just a matter of what method you prefer to digitize it.   In other words:  Get a better scanner, and you can pull even more detail out of a slide in the future.  Meanwhile, your digicam manufacturer decides to "update" its proprietary RAW format.  The software companies then have to release new versions to handle that, and pretty soon you have this huge library of RAW files that you can't import, except on your uber-slow computer that can't be updated anymore.   Or how about this... instead of updating the RAW format, they just go ahead and sucker you in to buying a camera with "more megapixels".  So the RAW files get so big that you need a roomful of Cray supercomputers to handle the resulting TIFF file.  Well, actually you just need a new multi-core CPU and eighty gigs of RAM or whatever the latest thing is.

Staying off the file-compatibility treadmill is just one of the benefits of having a real, tangible slide.  On the other hand, if for some reason we all stopped using JPG, PNG, and TIFF (which I doubt would happen), you could always re-scan that slide in the new format. There's really no reason to abandon TIFF, though, because as processing power increases, it will become easier and easier to handle 300MB uncompressed image files.  (Hate to say it, but we're all stuck buying faster computers due to operating system "upgrades" anyway... unless you use an alternate Linux distro)    48-bit TIFF also has more color than the human eye requires to be able to perceive realism. Most photos are in JPG format, which is only 24 bit.

Anyway, slides bypass all those file-related considerations.  That's just one thing I like about them.



Velvia 100


The People Want Slide Film

Just so you know, I was thinking I had probably overworked this whole "film-vs-digital" thing and written enough of these articles to cover all the points.   Oh, sure, I believe in film and use it all the time, but I didn't know how well the photography audience would receive it.  Believe it or not, though, there was an overwhelmingly positive response.  People are emailing me and saying "write more film articles!!"  I'll gladly keep the articles going if that puts some balance back into the discussion, so consumers don't be in such a hurry to abandon a good thing.   Not long ago I did some product photography with Velvia (and some digital, too), and on recently comparing the pictures I remembered yet again why I like slide film so much.   Actually, whenever I do a photo shoot of anything, I try to do at least a few on slide film (and preferably the whole thing).

Again, the digicam companies' primary concern is to sell digital cameras at a profit, and ideally that profit should increase every quarter to satisfy the shareholders.  That's business.  If they can profit by selling you a camera that clips highlights above one or two stops, then that's what they'll do.  (Active D-Lighting improves that, as I've mentioned before, but it still lacks the response of film.)   If they know that only pros are going to complain about it, they'll offer the feature that fixes it... but only in a more expensive camera.   The image quality will eventually filter down to the more affordable models (maybe), but you end up having to buy a new digital camera every couple of years if you want to stay on top of that.

I won't try to peg any of the technical differences between film and digital as "the" reason for using film, because (at risk of sounding like a broken record) they are two different media with unique sets of pluses and minuses

If you use digital,  nobody is trying to invalidate your choice of artistic medium.  It's just that if we don't share the reasons why we love film-- and it sure calls for enthusiasm-- people are just going to assume that digital is the only way to go.  That would be bad, because if too many people think that, you and I won't have the variety of film that still exists today. As it is, Kodak stopped making Ektachrome and Elite Chrome, so that leaves us with only Fuji slide films.  The point here is that what people believe affects the market itself, and let's don't be so hasty to promote all this "death of film" nonsense.  

Velvia
is one of the best photographic inventions in history as far as I'm concerned, and it would be a shame to lose it because of a bunch of rumors, hype, and lukewarm marketing.  Provia is no slouch either, and it's a major plus that you can still buy Provia 400X (120 size here and 35mm here).   The prices have gone up, but if you're doing a wedding shoot with film, I can tell you from experience that slide film really impresses.  When people see it, they're like "How did you get the pictures to look so good?"  (Of course you have to do your part and correctly meter & compose.)   A lot of portrait and wedding shots are not in direct sunlight, and those extra two stops of Provia 400 come in handy.  Last time I was out and about doing street photography, I found that when the sun went down behind the buildings I was already down to f/3.5 at a 60th with 100 film.  A roll of Provia 400 would have really helped.

The archival qualities, the tangible original, the whole process, the subtleties of appearance...  In 2012 there still is something magical about slides, even now that improved digital cameras are available.   First of all, there's the incredible color and tone depth of slides.  You keep seeing me repeat this, but it's hard to overstate just how important the tones are to the overall appearance of a picture.  (If you think about it, the tones are the picture.)  There are other, more subtle qualities that make a slide picture look natural and "right".  Then, there's the benefit of having a box of slides you can just pick up and view, rather than having to turn on the computer.  And, in spite of what "everyone" says about slide film's narrow latitude, it doesn't clip highlights.  It gently washes out to white.    Instead of quantizing light values into binary data, film is an analog medium;  in other words, it can be considered to have an infinite range of tonal values between pure white and pure black.  (Recall from mathematics that there are an infinite number of non-integer values between any two integers.)  Digital has to break that continuum into pixels that have discrete values;  thus, information gets lost. 

I don't know, I probably rambled on more than even the die-hard film people want to hear, but...

Check This Out

Suppose you took a digital photo with the sky looking this bright:



The bright areas (sky detail) would be pretty much gone, just as they look here.  That is, they'd be at 255 in a lot of places and therefore unrecoverable.  The Fuji S5 and the Nikon D800 could lessen that tendency, but there is still going to be some loss of highlights.

Ah, but this picture wasn't from a digital camera.  It was actually a slide scan.  Velvia 100, to be exact.  Adjusting some levels on the sky, we find there was still a lot of information there:



Whoa!  How cool is that??   What's amazing is that this was not even a re-scan, only an adjustment made after-the-fact.  Re-scanning the slide, I could bring out even more detail.  (Remember from the previous example that scanners, uncarefully operated, can sometimes blow out highlights, too.  Go easy on the "white point", curves, and levels!) 

There are people right now spreading rumors of Velvia's discontinuance in recent times, but these are based on a third-hand distortion of information originally published in the British Journal of Photography.  Namely, Velvia 50 was discontinued in large format.  Did you ever play "telephone"?  I can't stand that game.  The players make no effort to retain message integrity.  Well, the next thing you know they're saying you can't get Velvia at all.  Forget the rumors and hype.  Go buy a 5-pack of Velvia 100 now for your 35mm (or get some for your medium format), and then get out there and take pictures!   You can still buy Velvia 100F in 4x5 from Amazon, as of the time of this writing (email me if that changes.)   Somewhere kicking around on this site I have a recent 4x5 I shot on 100F... I'll link to it when I get the chance.

Velvia 50 has even better color than the 100.  You can get the 50 in 120 size here as a 5-pack.  You can get the 35mm size here. (5-pack here).

The Future

I don't know what the future holds for Fuji's film division, but if they're smart, they'll realize something I've been saying all along.  As long as you hire marketing guys that aren't totally inept, you should find that sales of film can stimulate digital camera sales, and digital camera sales can stimulate sales of film.  Once a person gets bitten with the camera bug, that's just how it is.  

Kodak is selling off their film division, and many see that as only a bad thing, but think of it this way.  Kodak couldn't have done the best job marketing film, simply because of how they were structured.  They had divisions with conflicting interests (take note, Fuji) because their marketing people were using the wrong paradigm.   That is, if one division is going to market film aggressively, then the other division sees it as competition.  Once people realize what they can achieve by using film, they will use film, even with the somewhat higher per-picture expense.   (As I said, though, I think it will even out, because most photographers will see the merits of both.....)

I've heard all the "show stopper" arguments about how film is supposedly "magically impossible" to make.  According to them, film would be uniquely unable to surmount the obstacles of economies-of-scale or whatever.  I've heard all the questions like "Where are they going to get engineers to keep the film going?"   You'd think, from these kinds of statements, that the unemployed engineers and coating chemists took a rocket to Saturn and can't be reached, and even if they could, there's no way they'd want another job.   Well, I guess the people at Impossible Project never got that memo.

I don't see film going away, but of course I don't know exactly what the future holds.  I do know one thing.  I plan to keep using film as long as it's being made.  It's unequaled by anything out there.  Film in general is so good that people have emailed me and said they feel I'm understating its qualities.   Slide film, especially, is pure awesome.  Find out for yourself.  Go shoot some slides;   get them developed at a place like Dale Labs;  and when you get the slides back, pick one up in your hand.  View it on a light box or against a bright window.   Nothing is quite like it.

As one reader aptly commented, picking up a color slide is like holding a colorful jewel in your hand.   Slides are practically magical. 




Lava Sunset

Velvia 100 slide film (35mm)
October 2012



There are many pros and advanced amateurs who still prefer slide film in 2013, 2014, and onward.   Based on what I see around the Internet, that number is growing.   One thing I think you'll find is that even those who love their DSLR's are often still using their film cameras for landscape work and anywhere else they want "the look". 

If there's one thing I'd say to readers in conclusion, it's this:  believe in what's good, and keep shooting film! 

By the way, you can really help me out by using the links on this site to pick up your photo gear.  It helps me keep up this site. 

Thanks for reading!


 




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Film vs. Digital

Film vs. the D800




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