Photo Tip: Slides or prints?





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Most people shooting in color shoot color negative film and get prints made from them. They rarely consider shooting fact, slides are often strange and alien territory to them. This is too bad -- shooting slides isn't for everybody, but it shouldn't be a scary and foreign concept, either. Shooting slides has its advantages...and its disadvantages, as you'll see. Weigh the pros and cons and make your own choice.

First, you should understand that the slide is the very film that was in your camera. Slides are just like negatives in that regard, except the developed roll of slides film is chopped up into individual frames and put into slide mounts. The slides are in no way some derivative product of what you shot: they ARE exactly what you shot.

And herein lies one of the great advantages of shooting slides. The prints that are made from your negatives are derivative products that, unless you do your own color darkroom work, some technician in a photo lab is printing for you. There are many equally legitimate ways of printing a negative, and that photo technician cannot read your mind to know just how YOU want it done. So the prints you get back from the lab might not match what you had intended, all because the all-important step of printing is out of your control. And this isn't even getting into the issue of the competence of the photo technician: it's is quite possible to get back poorly focused prints with a distinct color cast, not because of any problems on your end, but simply because of an inept lab.

With slides, however, what you shot is what you get. Period. The sharpness, the color, the exposure, all of these return to you exactly as you shot them. If they are good, the skill and art you put into them at the time of exposure is preserved; if they are bad, you've no one to blame but yourself.

This, by the way, makes shooting slides the ultimate learning tool. Even if you will ultimately return to shooting negative film, there is no better way to hone your technique than shooting slides.

Other nice things about slides: per exposure, they are the cheapest way to shoot. They are easier to store and to edit than prints. The colors are brighter and grain is finer than with print film (at least for slower film speeds). And, if you ever fancy getting your work published, slides are essentially the only way to go.

Now for the downside. Viewing a slide is more difficult than viewing a print. You don't need a slide projector, though! (In fact, for critically examining your slides for exposure and sharpness you should not use a projector anyway. Projector lenses of unknown quality and uneven projection screens make it difficult to determine image sharpness, and variables in projector bulb strength and distance to screen make judging exposure impossible.) The best way to view a slide for editing and evaluation is on a light table, a uniformly lit surface with a precisely calibrated daylight-white color balanced illumination. You can get one that is 8" x 10" for around $50 - $75. (You can also just hold the slide up to the window or the overhead lights, but all bets are off as far as color balance if you do that.) You can look at the slide through a magnifier called a loupe. Cheap plastic loupes cost $8, expensive loupes with excellent optics cost around $125. My favorite trick is to use a 50 mm lens from a camera as a loupe; the optics are excellent and you probably already have one. (Look through the lens backwards -- not as the film would view then lens but rather through the front lens element.)

All this about viewing a slide is just for you to see it. If you want to share it with others, yes, you do need a slide projector, and they are not cheap. On the other hand, no print in the world can rival the brilliant color of a projected slide. Slide shows can be stunning visually and fun socially. (Just don't run on too long!)

Another problem with slides is that they are very finicky when it comes to exposure. Miss by half a stop or more and you are in trouble. You therefore have to work a little harder to shoot slides than negatives. Again, a wonderful teaching tool! If you can shoot slides, you can shoot anything.

One thing that is NOT a problem with slides, or at least not as big a problem as you might think, is making prints from them. Not only can you make prints from them, you can make stunning prints from them. (With only rare exceptions, all of my fine-art exhibition prints are from slide originals.) For exactly how, see my tip on making prints from slides.

These prints from slides will be costlier than getting prints from a color negative. Per print (as opposed to per exposure) color negatives are cheaper than slides.


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Timothy Edberg / 6511 Homestake Dr. South / Bowie, MD / 20720
(301) 809-5857 / 1-877-471-6414 (toll-free)