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Print Film or Slide Film: The Big Decision

Even before everybody was forced to start deciding between film and digital, there was the great print film versus slide film debate. While most everyone has shot print film at one time or another, very few photographers in the general public ever switch to slide film. All you have to do is go to the corner drug store or supermarket and you'll find that practically all they sell is print film. Down on the bottom shelf there may a couple of rolls of slide film that are nearly past their expiration date, but by and large the only thing that actually sells in places like this is print film. The situation is much the same in other retail outlets as well unless you find your way to an actual camera store where they cater more to "real" photographers.

Yet anyone serious about their photography has probably at least heard the advice that slide film is the way to go. If this is in fact true, why do so few photographers in the general public shoot with it? So few, apparently, that there isn't much of a market for it in many stores.

In part, it becomes a self-reinforcing problem. Since few photographers shoot slide film, there isn't a large market for it. Because of this, it can be hard to find, making it even less likely for the average photographer to purchase slide film for use. In part it's due to economic forces. There is more profit to be made in processing and printing negative film than there is in simply developing and mounting slide film, so many stores would prefer to deal only in print film.

But part of it is due to the simple fact that slide film can be harder to shoot than print film, and many aspiring amateurs are simply unable to expose it correctly, getting frustrated whenever they do try slides. With print film, you can be wildly off in-camera and the lab will still compensate for your mistakes when printing without your even knowing they did it. Print film tolerates over-exposure much better than underexposure, but the lab will do their best with whatever you give them. What you get back may not be perfect, but it stands a chance of being acceptable. With slide film on the other hand, what you get back is what you shot: burned out highlights, dismally blocked up shadows, or right on. With print film, if your negatives have a blue or amber color cast from the light source, this is generally corrected by the print process automatically. If shot at sunset, you may want to get back images with a warm glow though, but this can be hard to do with print film. Again, with slides, you'd better get it right in-camera, because none of these "helpful" corrections occur in the lab.

If all you want is snapshots of your son's or daughter's birthday party or perhaps a family picnic, you may be thankful that the lab can get fairly decent prints no matter how badly you expose your negatives. If you've marveled at the results pros get and wondered how come your prints don't look nearly as good though, it may be time to try slide film and learn to do it right. Over the next few weeks, I'll post some tips that should be helpful if you're considering making the jump to shooting slides.

Date posted: March 16, 2003


Copyright © 2003 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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