Photo Tip: Making prints from slides

(Revised March 2007.)




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The process of making prints from slides is getting easier ­ because there are fewer choices to make. Traditional wet chemistry darkroom printing can still be done by you in your own darkroom, but the number if labs offering these services is dropping like an anvil down a well. These days, about the only way to get your slides printed by a lab is to have them digitally scan the slides and then print from the digital files.

I think this change if for the better, by the way, since a high-quality scan captures all of the detail present in the slide, and image control in digital printing is infinitely greater than the crude control one had in the darkroom. A scan at a resolution of 4,000 ppi will capture almost all the information in the transparency. Scans of 5,000 to 6,000 ppi record everything the slide has to offer. Drum scans, which are expensive, give the highest quality scan due to their high resolution and superb dynamic range. High-end desktop scanners are almost as good, and should suffice for all but the most demanding applications.

Let's look at some slide printing options.




Materials are still available to do your own Ilfochrome printing. Ilfochrome is a paper/chemistry system to print directly from slides. (It is sometimes known under its older name of Cibachrome.) These prints have high resolution, incredibly dynamic color, and decent archival lifespan. They are also expensive. The Deluxe Glossy "paper" is Ilfochrome's best: the emulsion is coated onto a polyester (mylar plastic) base and has a remarkably glossy finish.

Ilfochromes can appear stunning, but the paper is contrasty and can be hard to print. A master printer can control the contrast by use of contrast masks, which are black and white negatives that are exposed in registration with the original slide. When the slide is printed in registration with the mask, the mask holds back light from the bright parts of the scene and thus the contrast range is reduced. If you want to learn more about Ilfochrome printing, check out The Lightroom. This site provides a great tutorial. Without a mask, Ilfochrome will work best for low-contrast slides.

Fuji makes a very similar product - also on a polyester base - called Fujichrome Super-Gloss Printing Material Type 35. The Fuji website lists this as having "limited availability," however, so it's anyone's guess how long they will continue to offer it.


An internegative is a color negative shot from your slide. One can then use the negative to make conventional darkroom color prints. Internegs are shot using a special film, however, that as near as I can tell is no longer available, so internegative printing is now only of historical interest.



A high quality scan of your slide provides the luxury of correcting or improving upon your image in the computer. You can enhance the shadow detail that is barely present in your slide, correct adverse color casts, and so forth. After you're done with any manipulations you might care to do, you have your choice of three main digital output options: inkjet prints, traditional paper prints, and dye-sublimation prints.



Inkjet prints can give fully photorealistic output. Inkjet printers can print on a wide variety of paper surface finishes, from paper that looks like a traditional photograph, to fiber-base watercolor papers, to canvas.

Be careful with your choice of paper and inkjet. Some ink/paper combinations will fade within a few months! On the other hand, archival pigmented inks and a few archival dye-based inks that are now available offer, on the right paper, a predicted lifespan of over a century. Even if that prediction is off, the best inkjets will outlast the best traditional color prints, those made on Fuji Crystal Archive paper.


You can have a lab "burn" the digital image with precision colored lasers or LEDs directly to Crystal Archive paper in a special machine. The Crystal Archive paper then gets processed chemically. The image colors get painted across the face of the paper, exposing it in a similar way that your color TV "exposes" the phosphor screen. Brand names of some of these specialized exposure boxes are the Fuji Frontier, Cymbolic Sciences LightJet, Durst Lambda, and the ZBE Chromira. If your lab is using one of these machines to make your prints, you are getting a print on traditional color photo paper.

The cheapest way that I know of to get prints from slides is to use The Slideprinter, a mail-in service located in Colorado. They scan your slide and burn the file to Crystal Archive paper. The results are as good as you can expect from a non-custom lab.


The last major digital output possibility is a dye-sublimation print. Dye-subs look photorealistic and avoid the tendency of inkjet prints to smear when wet. Dye-subs are limited, however, in the largest print size and in the papers available. They are also more expensive than inkjet prints. A photographer who shoots an event and provides prints by the end of the shindig is probably taking advantage of the speed of dye-sublimation printing. In terms of color range, print consistency, print sharpness, and longevity as compared to inkjet prints, there seems to be little consensus.

Self-serve machines that let you print a slide, a negative, or even copy a print, probably use dye-sublimation. Nothing is faster for getting a print out, and the results often look great. But with the limited controls these machines have, a great print is by no means guaranteed.

When using self-service machine, by the way, be sure never to copy someone else's photo. Copying a wedding shot or portrait that a professional photographer took is tempting; we often think of them as "our" photos to do with what we will. But they are almost certainly under copyright protection, so copying them is illegal. Even if the law doesn't bother you, an ethical person would not act to take money out of the pocket of the hardworking pro who took the original photos. They offered you reprints on their price list; buy your extra copies from them.



In this Photo Tip I've been restricting myself to relatively inexpensive techniques for printing slides, techniques that will be of most interest to most photographers. There are other deluxe methods available that give superior image quality and phenomenal archival lifespan, but they come with a hefty price tag. Because of the expense of these processes I haven't gone into them here.


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Timothy Edberg / 6511 Homestake Dr. South / Bowie, MD / 20720
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