It’s been a long, long time since I last shot slide film. 2006, to be exact; I stopped for two reasons: one, I was shooting (and developing) through about a third of my pay every month in film; secondly, scanning was beginning to take up all of my spare waking hours. And even then, I was never that happy with the results. But then, every so often – and I was a much, much worse photographer back then (not that I’m that good now, mind you) – you’d get one slide back that was so immersive, so detailed, so crisp that it was like peering into a little world of its own. And then you’d feel the itch to do it all over again. Sometimes this would happen a few times per roll, and then you were well and truly done for.
During my last trip to Amsterdam and Prague for the European workshop tour, I found an increasing number of frames I a) wanted to shoot in color, and b) wanted to shoot with medium format. Stupidly, I left my digital back at home; rather than pick up a very cheap second hand Phase One P20+ I saw in a store, I instead succumbed to a different and much cheaper form of temptation and bought a brick of Provia 100F. That, in itself, resulted in two very pleasant surprises: firstly, that it was still reasonably easy to get in Europe, and in 120 size for the Hasselblad; secondly, it wasn’t as expensive as I remember it to be. Duly loaded, I went out and recalibrated my eyes to see in color.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t try it sooner after picking up film again at the end of last year. Part of the reason is because 120 slide film is not easily obtainable in Kuala Lumpur, and then there’s the stickier issue of developing. Those of you living in the US or Europe still have decent pro labs in most of the major cities; if not, you can always mail it out. We don’t – international parcels get x-rayed, and that’s a disaster for film. Few remaining local labs can handle E6 processing; and even then, I found out it’s only on a few specific days of the week, because the demand is simply not there anymore. DIY developing is an option if you have access to the chemical and one of those Jobo developers that can maintain the necessarily very precise temperatures for you. There are a lot of steps, and temperature is very critical to obtaining accurate color. One simply does not have the latitude or control that is afforded with B&W film.
There’s another more pragmatic reason: all of the available E6 is now daylight balanced, which means it’s going to give you blue casts in the shade, and yellow casts indoors. The film is also pretty slow; though Provia 400 exists, it’s grainy and lacks the ‘bite’ of the slower emulsions. On top of that – digital makes it so much easier to get accurate color under all ambient lighting conditions. It’s actually difficult to make an argument for shooting slides. Or is it?
I am reasonably pleased with the developing. I say reasonably, because although four out of five rolls were flawless, there was a lot of dust requiring a second washing before scanning, and the fifth roll had an odd artefact along the edges of four frames – it looked as though something partially masked the film from the effects of one chemical, resulting in darkening and color shifts. Not good. No point in complaining because there’s nothing that can be done about it anyway. Certainly the negatives were not in as good condition as when I process them myself, but that’s always the risk of sending your film out: nobody is going to care as much about your pictures as you do.
I’ll be honest, though: putting the slides on the light table and flicking the lamps on was a revelation. I was prepared to be impressed, given the depth and three-dimensionality of 35mm slides; but 6×6 really took things to another level. With a magnifier – a Hasselblad’s standard waist level finder with its pop-up magnifier is perfect for this, by the way – they felt immersive. It was like the difference between peering into the scene, as opposed to looking at a photograph of it. I’d forgotten slide’s ability to preserve the punchy saturation in addition to smooth highlight rolloffs; not to mention the sheer resolving power.
Perhaps now is a good time to say something about the popular myths and legends about slide film. Firstly, exposure is critical. Not as critical as it used to be, but you have to be within a stop. Once highlights are gone, they’re gone; but fortunately the transition is still not as abrupt as digital, and you can have some fairly pleasing results even with intentional overexposure. The other good news is that dynamic range is much greater than I remember it to be; closer to 8-9 good stops than 5-6. Contrast is fairly high, but the rolloff in both shadows and highlights is smooth and not as abrupt as you might expect. I’d say it’s pretty close to the final contrast (or slightly greater) I’d want in a print; unlike B&W film where you have to deliberately hunt out very specific high contrast situations to maximize punch. It’s quite possible that both of these properties have something to do with a change in the emulsion; I’d only shot the non-F versions of Velvia and Provia previously.
The tricky part was the digitization process. I ‘scan’ my film with a D800E, AFS 60/2.8 Micro, an SB900 for light, and a custom jig to keep the camera and film planes perpendicular, aligned, film tensioned and fed. The Hasselblad’s 6×6 squares result in 23MP files from the D800E’s sensor after trimming the borders; ample resolution for pretty much all applications, and at this level, you see almost zero grain and close to pixel-level sharpness. Is there more resolution here? Probably, but I’m not sure how much more. Perhaps 30-36MP of equivalence or so.
The challenge comes when trying to correct the color: short of shooting a color chart under a wide range of color temperatures and developing conversion profiles for each one, it’s going to be tough to exactly replicate. I admit after many attempts, I still wasn’t fully happy with the output; it’s definitely pleasing, but not at all accurate. And unlike B&W film, whose tonal signature can be significantly manipulated by the photographer during the development and printing (or digitisation) process, that of slide film is pretty much baked in, and a property of the film. It’s almost like shooting JPEG in a way: either you like the output, or you don’t.
Despite all of the challenges, the experience frankly blew me away – enough that I’d do it again, providing I could find the film. I imagine it’s the photographic equivalent of being on crack; an old-school high, very bad for you, antisocial, and highly addictive. I’m not sure I’d go the whole hog and buy a developing machine, because I don’t think I’d shoot slides often enough. But I’d certainly recommend the experience to anybody who still has a film camera – and the larger the format, the better. It almost makes me want to try an 8×10″… MT
2014 Making Outstanding Images Workshops: Melbourne, Sydney and London – click here for more information and to book!
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved