Slide film is an entirely different beast to C-41 aka color negative film, and arguably the logical next step in your film photography journey. Slide film, otherwise known as positive film, reversal film, or transparency film (and occasionally as E-6, a nod to its development process), was the choice of professional shooters back in film photography’s heyday before the advent of digital cameras. Nowadays, there is a wide(ish) range of different types of color reversal film available, but with so many being discontinued, some are as rare as hen's teeth.
Slide film, aside from its slick name, has always had a fan following for its instant image production—all you need is a little light. If you’ve always been intrigued and think it’s time to give slide film a go, here’s what you need to know before you take the plunge and start shooting slide film.
Slide Film vs Color Negative Film
What’s the difference between slide and C-41 film? Slide film produces a positive image on the film base after film processing in the darkroom, whereas negative film produces an inverted or reversed image. Instead of creating a negative to then print as a positive, slide film is already positive. The colors and tones correctly display on the film itself, producing miniature slides that are beautifully vibrant. There’s a certain magic to holding a developed E-6 slide up to the light, like a perfectly preserved moment in time.
Slide film is commonly referred to as E-6 film because this is the name given to its development process. It consists of no less than six chemical baths which include developer, stopper, and fixer. Color negatives, by contrast, are produced using C-41, the chromogenic color print film developing process introduced by Kodak in 1972. Compared to the C-41 color print process, E-6 has more steps and therefore more chemicals. Not all labs are equipped to perform E-6 development (and it's often more expensive), so be sure to check with your local lab before you head in.
How Slide Film Works
Color slide film works much like color print film, with layers of emulsions, each sensitive to a different color of light, and chemicals called dye couplers. When the film is developed, the interaction of the emulsion and the developer produces a positive image, which is (usually) cut and mounted in plastic or cardboard sleeves to create a color transparency that can be fit into a carrier for a slide viewer or slide projector (remember slideshows?).
All reversal film sold today uses the E-6 process, which is different from the K-14 process used by Kodak Kodachrome, a popular slide film from back in the day. One of the most important things to know about slide film is that whilst color negative film can handle overexposure up to three stops or even more, slide film simply cannot. (More on that in a moment.)
Additionally, be aware that black and white slide film is rare, almost to the point of nonexistent. Kodak makes Tri-X reversal film for Super 8 cameras, while some others like Agfa Scala 200x have been discontinued. However, regular black and white film can be processed in such a way to create slides (here's a guide by Ilford on how to do that).
Slide film produces images that are much brighter and more vibrant saturation than can be produced with color negative film. Slide film, like color negative, is also incredibly versatile and available in many formats, from 8mm to medium format, allowing for maximum flexibility. Slide film also offers some of the highest image quality available in photographic film. Its sharpness and resolution allow for highly detailed images that are unmistakably vivid and life-like, making them well suited to portraits and landscapes alike.
The positive nature of slide film also makes it much more resistant to deterioration than negative film, which can fade over time. Slide films are enchanting because they retain their original colors and image clarity decades after exposure, even with constant projection or handling. Finding pre-loved slides in a second-hand market can derail you for hours as you can’t help but peek into the tiny scenes within; it's about as analog as photography gets.
With all its amazing benefits, some drawbacks are worth noting before you order a year's supply of slide film. If you thought that Portra 400 was getting expensive, wait until you see Velvia 50. Yep, slide film is even more likely to burn a hole in the pocket of film camera owners. The extra chemicals required in developing make E-6 also more expensive to develop, too. While this is something you should keep in mind, don't let it stop you from trying slide film at least once.
Arguably the largest drawback of slide film is that it is frustratingly inflexible. Slide film has very little (read: zero) exposure latitude, therefore your metering demands scrupulous attention to detail. Many photographers would balk at the idea of shooting on Auto when loaded with a costly roll of slide film, not out of snobbery, but out of fear. You have to know what you’re doing to shoot slides, which is why it was (and still is) regarded as a professional film type.
This lack of dynamic range can be a hindrance when shooting in high-contrast lighting conditions, such as the middle of the day. In unforgiving light, there may not be enough exposure latitude to capture all the details in both the shadow and highlight areas. While you can always balance this in post when using good quality color negative film, with slide film, the highlights will be unrecoverable and shadows muddied. As such, it’s best to shoot slide film in good, consistent lighting.
On that note, it’s also important to mention that slide film also can't be color corrected in post (we're really selling this, aren’t we?), so the film must be balanced for the type of light you are shooting. Today, most slide film is daylight balanced (another limitation in itself), which some photographers may find restrictive. In the past, it was possible to buy tungsten-balanced slide film, but those days are no more (though you could use a filter, if you wanted).
Slide Film Stocks You Should Try
Fuji Velvia is a low-speed film that produces stunning colors and ultra-fine grain. The name is a portmanteau of "Velvet Media," a reference to its supposed velvet smooth image structure. As far as slide film goes, it handles exposure latitude arguably the best of the bunch. (For a slightly higher ISO, there's also Velvia 100.)
Fujifilm’s Provia 100F is considered one of the most versatile of all the slide films. It’s renowned for its ability to accurately replicate skin tones, and it’s probably the one film stock that dedicated slide shooters are most worried about going out of production.