The idea for this developed between listening to Dan Bassini on the Sunny 16 podcast and scanning some old colour slides. Dan was saying how, when shooting film, you can’t be sure you got the shot. There’s no chimping analogue.
That goes double with slide film. Most negative films have a fair amount of latitude, so you are generally safe to overexpose a bit. With black and white film you could also under-develop a bit too. This reduces contrast and means you will likely have something usable on the negative. Think of it as raw for analogue. (And that’s raw, not RAW. It’s not an abbreviation. It’s as annoying as the people who write about LEAN methods.) </rant>
But slides. That really is photography without a safety net. Narrow range of latitude, precise exposure and no way of getting back a blown highlight. What you shot is what you got.
This is why large format shooters play around with spot meters and Zone systems – they are paying the same (or more) per shot than I pay per roll. I’d be nervous too. At least with 35mm I can easily bracket the exposure and not make my wallet cry.
Shooting slide film in large format must be a scary commitment. No way of anticipating what you’re getting and no way to save it if you cock it up. Back in the old days the large format people used to shoot tests on Polaroid, but that’s no longer possible. Perhaps what you do now is take a test shot on an old digital camera that can display a histogram or do the blinking highlights thing. The old sensors had about the same dynamic range as slide film so could show you where you were likely to lose the highlights. But if you’re doing that, why not shoot on digital anyway?
This commitment thing is not new though. It wasn’t until Polaroid came along that anyone could see how a picture turned out until later. And it was only roll film that allowed an easy second shot. This means that most of the important pictures in history were taken without immediate confirmation. Want to know what it was like? Turn off the picture review on your digital camera.
It’s not impossible but it is pretty difficult to change or adjust a slide later. I scan mine at the lowest contrast setting I have and it can still be difficult to get the full tonal range. I’ve got an HDR setting in the scanning software but that just means I have to convert it later – I might as well get it as right as I can at the scanning stage. Like negatives, good slides scan easily but the bad ones are buggers. By bad I mean deep shadows. There’s detail in there but it’s difficult to get at without losing the highlights or the colour saturation. Some of my slides are old too, so the colours can be all over the place.
Why shoot slide film at all then? Well, I don’t any more. I used to shoot reversal film exclusively though, as it gave the best rendition of colour. This was when we all shot colour negative and had it developed and printed at any convenient one-hour photo shop. Remember Max Spielmann? Even supermarkets used to develop film. But the prints were all done by a machine that averaged the exposure and colour correction, so a good print was a thing of both wonder and beauty. For some reason I decided that slides were the way to go, as the colour wasn’t altered by the processor. Fine if you have a projector, a screen and forgiving friends. Which is why I ultimately switched to colour print.
I still have a shed-load of old colour slides though, as I said, which I am gradually scanning. My favourite film, Agfachrome, has held up really well and was always forgiving. The Ilfochrome has gone magenta and the Orwochrome varies from ok to almost mono. The commitment is still there though, in little series of bracketed shots and the occasional punchy colours and contrast that sing. I know Ektachrome is back, but I really can’t see myself using it. I can get what I want from digital colour, that’s easier to process and show later and where the extra bracketing shots are effectively free.
It was a grand time, I have some pleasing pictures, but I just can’t find that commitment in me again.