For decades, slide film was the material of choice for many serious photographers, whether pros or amateurs. Image quality and projection experience were unmatched. But despite the revival of film photography, the age of the slide seems to be drawing to a close. Only a few films are still on the market, while digital projectors get better and better. Time to say goodbye?
I was overcome by the pain of parting when I read this small and actually trivial email. It came from the Gepe company. I had always bought the brand of slide mounts. Model 7011, with a metal mask, the slides lie super-flat in it, they hardly bulge during projection and have a wonderfully sharp margin. Now my stock was running low, I couldn’t find any supplies anywhere. Gepe wrote: “Sorry, we don’t make slide mounts anymore.” Over and done with. It was a hard moment for me.
Of course, there are other slide mounts, and quite good ones too. But I felt that something was coming to an end – and not just my framing workflow. For the first time, I realised that the long era of photographing on slide film might be over for me too. And yes, I became a little sentimental. Since 1988, I had worked extensively on colour transparency film. A perfect slide – framing, focus, exposure, the right moment, a strong message and a compelling composition – had always been my ambition. And now this. Gepe lets me down and confronts me with an uncomfortable question that I had long avoided.
I had mainly used black and white film for my journalistic work from the late 80s to the late 90s. Colour negative film seemed to be more for amateurs, for point-and-shoot cameras with inaccurate exposure control and rather approximate framing (later I, shot slide films with my humble Olympus Mju-II and was impressed by the good results). On a print from the negative, you still had the chance to correct something. On the slide, you never had this opportunity except with enormous effort. It is the ultimate challenge. Get it right or mess it up. One or zero. A neat binary choice for an analogue world.
I stuck by slide film even when the whole world was already taking digital photos. Every year I took photos of the children, shot a few rolls on holiday, and documented other important events. The slide just seemed more durable than a file. You can look at it and decode it without any technical device, it survives every hard drive crash. What’s more, projected to 1.5 by 1.5 metres, it creates an incredible visual experience. So much detail, such beautiful colours, such fine nuances!
Before I become too effusive, let’s take a brief look at the history of the slide as we know it (in fact, the backlit and projected image has a much longer history, but this really is a different story). It was the way to go for many photographers when colour started to take over after WW II. The Kodachrome process was basically invented in 1935, the alternative and cheaper (both in terms of film manufacturing and lab workflow) E-6 process followed later. With the growing popularity came a great selection of films, mounts, projectors and other accessories. The pinnacle was reached in the late 1990s and early 2000s when microprocessor-equipped control units for two, three or even more projectors (even featuring MP3 music and text synchronisation) allowed for exceptional slide shows.
Today, all this technology is available only on the secondhand market, and most manufacturers have long ceased to make projectors. They were produced by some of the last companies representing the photo industry in Germany: Kindermann in Ochsenfurt gave up the segment a couple of years ago. Rollei at Braunschweig, which built high-tech twin projectors with the unique possibility of running a cross-fade show from one single tray, went through several insolvencies. Today, it is not much more than a brand name for some accessory products. Leica first bought their competitor Zett, only to sell off their last Pradovits in bulk to resellers a few years later. Yet the company at least is alive and kicking (again). It seems that Braun in Nürnberg is one of the very last manufacturers still to offer new slide projectors.
With the shrinking market, the choice of slide film has become much smaller. There are some Fuji films left – all from the professional range. Sadly, the Sensia with its excellent value for money has long been discontinued. Kodak Alaris, the new company, re-introduced the legendary Ektachrome 100 in 2018 (oh yes, it is really a wonderful film). Lab processing is harder to find now, but some labs have fortunately specialised in niche products. Here in Germany, I have my occasional roll of slide film developed at MeinFilmLab which also offers excellent scanning.
If I am in the mood to do something really exotic, I shoot a roll of black-and-white slide film. The legendary Agfa Scala was discontinued years ago, but Adox offers a decent alternative (good source: Fotoimpex, Berlin, by online order). The tonal bandwidth of these images is simply breathtaking. There is a lab at Stuttgart (Studio 13) which processes the black-and-white reversal film until the end of the year 2021. From 2022, it will be difficult to find another lab, but there is some hope with a photographer in Berlin who offers processing. Developing black-and-white slides yourself is generally possible but complicated, and the risk of messing it up is considerable.
For me, the advantages of slide film become most evident when working in medium format. I rarely find the time to use my very old Hasselblad, but I regularly activate all shutter speeds on the lens, and it works flawlessly. But in the rare instances I expose a slide roll film and watch the pictures projected with a vintage Rollei projector, I am blown away by the enormous contrast, the natural colours, the unbelievable transitions between sharp and unsharp. No scan can give an idea of this.
My existing 35 mm slides get little attention today. I sometimes stage a small show for the family, more for nostalgic reasons (yes, children, your parents were young once), or I present some audio slide shows I produced after travelling through Ireland and England in the 1990s. They are fun and not much more, the photos are of mixed quality, to say the least. Taking a perfect slide is and remains much more difficult than getting a spectacular shot with your digital camera where you can control the complete imaging chain right into comprehensive post-processing. A slide is just as it comes from the lab.
I reported earlier here on Macfilos how I digitalised some 20,000 slides my father had left us. One day I imagine I will take this step with my own archive, retaining only a very small number of the original slides. They will be mainly the ones with people on them – people who mean or meant much to me. Add a few landscapes and cities, and that’s it. I have no real hurry with it, but it will be a job for next winter or so. Slides do not get better over time, even if stored safely. The colour conversation seems largely to depend on the brand, batch, process and the roll’s individual history (what happened before exposing and between exposing and processing?). Kodachrome is generally better; bad luck for me as someone who always preferred the E-6 process.
The idea of the slide show will survive, however, and not just through the parlance in PowerPoint presentations and the design of computer icons. The big screen and its auditorium remain attractive even as TV monitors become bigger, brighter and sharper. Electronic projectors have become much better and cheaper in the past few years. You can now buy decent models with 4K resolution for well under €1,000. But what I have seen so far seems okay, but not exciting.
It is a bit like watching photos on most TVs: You see over-saturated colours, sharpening artefacts and, all-in-all, an unnatural rendering. But with some fiddling in the settings, it should be possible to get good or even great quality. And one day, there might just be no alternative. The slide film is not the vinyl record of photography – the niche is simply too small, and the cost for the whole slide thing is rising fast. Film, processing and projector maintenance have become expensive. As Nelly Furtado once sang: “All good things come to an end”.
So maybe it is not at all strange that I see something fading away. Maybe it’s just a bit odd that my perception first set in only a year or so ago. Many others have had their mourning period long since. When Steve McCurry was allowed to expose the last roll of Kodachrome in 2009/2010, and National Geographic reported on it in detail, this was a first-class funeral. I worked almost exclusively with E-6 films and didn’t really understand the true message back then. I will, however, take a little time yet for my final farewell to the slides. I still have a small stock of films and mounts…
What do you think about the future of the slide film? Will it defend its niche position – or is it obsolete already now? When did you shoot your latest roll of slide film and will it be also your last? What special memories are connected with slides for you? What are you doing with your slides? Or are you glad you never got involved in this arcane pursuit?
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