A lot of shooting I've done is the past 10 or so years has been on print film. There were many reasons, but the primary one was convenience, and it's alot more fun going through your shots than holding up some small little transparency to the window trying to judge if it's worth keeping. But - someone changed my mind on this a few years ago, and here's why.
First the Basics
What is the difference between slide film and print film you ask? Slide (or "chrome", or "transparency") film is a totally different medium than print film. Here's how it goes: you load a roll of - say - FujiChrome in your 35mm, shoot away, and it gets processed by various developer and conditioning baths. The slides that you get back from the lab are made up of the very film you had in your camera, and are transparent. So the images are first generation, and quite sharp. It is a different chemical process than print film, referred to as E-6. Kodak originally came out with E2, then E3, E4... etc. E6 is superior for a lot of technical reasons, but suffice to say the result is a positive image viewed by light passing through the slide.
Print film, when developed, is a negative image. The developing process is called "C41", and is similar to E6, but the chemicals are different. The developed negative is then placed into an enlarger where a light passing through shines onto a sheet of photographic paper, which in turn is developed by it's own chemical processes. The resulting printed photo is viewed by reflective, rather than transmitive light. The enlarger, chemicals, and paper all have an influence on the quality of the end product as well. So as you can see, prints are a second-generation image, with more dependencies on physics, chemistry, and the mood of the operator! This is primarily why slides are preferred by magazine publishers. More on that later.
So - after that lesson in slide & print science, let's move on to the pros and cons.
Colour Saturation and Brilliance
There's no doubt about it, if you want a real punchy image which huge "wow" factor, slides are the way to go. As mentioned above, part of the reason for this has to do with the fact that light is passing through the picture, as opposed to reflecting off the surface like a regular print. Also, being a first generation photo, the sharpness is not compromised, unless of course the shot is out of focus. Suffice to say the colours are brilliant, as can be seen when viewing slides on a light box or from a projector.
Sold on slides? Don't make up your mind yet... there are drawbacks.
Other than the obvious colour-cast difference, the slide shot on the left loses detail in the
shadow areas, as opposed to the print film (shot by my wife with the same model of camera)
on the right with it's narrower contrast ratio. This is particularly noticeable in the water itself.
Exposure Lattitude and Contrast Ratios... Huh?!?
Before you run off and buy chrome film in bulk, consider it's limitations. The first major one is it's exposure lattitude is less forgiving than print film. Your camera's exposure settings have to be dead on, otherwise the image will be too light, or too dark. Also, the difference between highlights and shadows is emphasized, so your subject matter should not include extremes of dark and light. For this reason, slide film tends to be used when you can control light with specialty filters such as neutral grads and polarizers, which I use when shooting landscapes. Alternatively print film tends to be more forgiving in this way, so shooting can also tend to be a bit more haphazard, with less thought put into the composition. This is being somewhat general, but it pretty well describes the feeling of most people in the industry.
It's hard to show the difference on a 72-DPI monitior, but the detail
and colour brilliance was only possible with the use of slide film.
Click to enlarge.
I've received compliments from the picture above because i) it was shot with slide film, and ii) the film size is medium format. I had it professionally scanned and converted to a 1440 DPI digital image. The file size wasn't that big, but the detail and colors are great. The true quality is realized when printed on a good photographic ink-jet printer; had this been shot and printed using conventional print film, the results would definitely have been less stellar.
After what seems like a strong arguement for using slide film most of the time, there's also a sector of the professional world that use print film. These photographers are the portrait and wedding specialists. There's some good print film out there, and particularly if one is shooting with a medium format camera that has a negative 3 times that of a 35mm. Why? Enlargements - even up to life-size - will maintain relative sharpness. And, the natural skin tones and softness make print film a great choice for more romantic qualities in the end product. Kodak's NC (natural color) and Portra films render very pleasant-looking photographs.
Another consideration with print film is it's ease of handling. Customers like to have a tangible product they can see and feel, so 3 x 5 proofs of weddings and portrait sittings keep alot of photo labs alive, and photographers busy.
So other than the professional use of print film for weddings, etc, what are the advantages for you and me? As mentioned earlier, prints have a more even, and hence "forgiving" exposure lattitude. In simple terms, it means a better chance of a good exposure because it's not as "contrasty". The waterfalls picture illustrates that quite well. A note on developing prints: I had an experience a few years ago where I used a roll of 100 ASA print film to test a new TTL flash for my Pentax MZ-5n. I decided to get the roll developed at a pro lab instead of the usual corner-store budget place, and the prints were the sharpest I've seen yet for print film... It's worth the extra clams to have your film treated by pros.
Using slide film is my preference mostly because I'm forced to think about what I'm shooting - I like that. This translates into more "keepers" that I'll later get scanned and printed, which is the whole point: creating memorable photographs for printing, framing, and if I'm lucky, publishing. It's all about the creative expression of our view of the world - and photography is certainly a wonderful means to that end. Finding the film medium that's right for you can make all the difference in the world.
p.s. See another article on the same subject I just co-authored at this link.
Jim Hutchison is a part-time photographer who resides in Burnstown, Ontario with his wife Moira.