Thursday, August 26, 2010

An Obsession with Slides

Slide Viewer. Photograph by Tim Irving
A Thing of Beauty!
I fully support the Impossible Project with its goal of manufacturing instant film for old cameras, good luck to them! There's another endangered species on the 'at risk' register, it's slide film. At the time of writing my supplier stocks 12 types of 35mm colour transparency film, 7 made by Fuji and 5 by Kodak. 12 types of slide film doesn't sound too bad, but there's another problem; more and more labs are no longer processing these films because the demand isn't there. While slide - or if you prefer, transparency film is still being made it can be saved, so let's save it!

Who Cares?
Well I care. I enjoy the diversity of traditional photography. If I had the money I'd make Daguerreotypes but the cost is prohibitive, but not so with slides. I love slides because like a Daguerreotype, each one is a totally unique original framed picture. They are luminous and are true modern icons (windows to heaven). Slides can't be made digitally, if they disappear - then they disappear for ever, unless the Impossible Project steps in to create a slide film. Part of the charm of 35mm slides is their size, they are miniatures and have a long distinguished history in art, they are produced today by some very talented artists, have a look at some examples from a modern miniature painter, Diane Meyboom.

Miniature art gets your attention and draws you in, you get the same experience looking into a slide viewer, it's totally absorbing. It's art for the selfish who don't want to share the experience. Enlarged photographs (which I also love), are like wide screen TV, whereas slides are like a small book with tiny pages.

Who uses Slide Film?
Slide film is used by professional photographers and elitist amateurs. Until very recently,  professionals used it because it produces the best reproduction in print, it was demanded by editors and publishers. Amateurs used it with projectors and created slide shows on screens or made beautiful colour saturated prints called Cibachromes. Truth is slide film still outshines digital by a long way, but more of this later.
Radio Slide Viewer. Photograph by Tim Irving
Arrow, Cream Plastic and Gold, Radio/Slide Viewer
The pros and cons of slides 
When a slide film is developed in chemicals it produces a positive original, unlike film for prints which produce a negative. With negative film there is a lot of room for exposure error, in fact it's difficult to get wrong. Use any old camera with any old negative film and 99% of your photographs will be printable.

But slide film has a low tolerance to exposure error, your exposure has to be spot on to get a good image. For my entire career as a photographer, I've always bracketed (taking 3 or 4 shots at different settings), when using slide film just to make sure I've got one useable slide. Experience helps, using the same type of film and same camera over a long peried of time gives you a good feel for getting the correct exposure, but to be honest, slide film is difficult. 

The secret weapon
Until about 4 years ago I would always use a professional camera with tried and trusted metering systems to shoot slides, Leica, Contax and Nikon were my trusted brands. Then one day my neighbour bought his first digital camera and asked me for a quick run through of the controls. When we'd finished the lesson he gave me 6 bottles of Alhambra beer, a bag of oranges and his old film camera, an Olympus µ Mju 1 (also called Olympus Stylus in the US). The µ is a Greek letter used as a symbol for micro (Mju rhymes with spew), the camera is very small. It's very basic, it has a f/3.5 lens, no zoom, and  it's completely automatic except for turning the flash on or off.

The only film I had available to me at the time was a roll of Fuji Provia 100 slide film which I loaded in the camera. It was summer in Spain and I photographed morning, noon and evening. I had very low expectations of the camera getting the exposure right, but was hoping for the odd surprise. I dropped the film off at a camera shop and had to wait 5 days to see the results. When I did collect the film and saw the results, well, you could have knocked me off my perch. Every exposure was on the nail. From that day I've used an Olympus Mju 1 exclusively for slides and it has never let me down. It produces punchy, colour saturated transparencies every time. It has a good contrasty lens with no distortion I can see. It actually gets 39, perfect exposures from a roll of slide film, it's a modern miracle!

I've since discovered that there are dozens of point and shoot cameras from Canon, Nikon and Minolta that like the Olympus have accuate meters and will produce well exposed slides.These little cameras have been abandoned all over the world, nobody wants them, nobody loves them. You can pick them up for $5-10 at boot sales, charity stores or Ebay.

Olympus Mju 1
Viewing slides
Unless you have the eyesight of superman, slides have to be viewed using one of two gadgets, a projector or a slide viewer like the ones on this page. Projectors take time to set up and you need a screen. When stored, a projector and screen take up valuable space, although not too much, these are the down sides to a slide projector. The up side of a projector is that if you enjoy looking at photographs at near life size, the traditional slide projector is by far the best way to see them. The modern alternative is the digital projector. The digital projector doesn't even come close to the quality of traditional slide projectors, in fact the quality of all but the most expensive digital projectors is laughable, ha ha! You can read a comparison between traditional and digital projectors on Ken Rockwells site.

The other method of viewing slides is the simple slide viewer. I find slide viewers lurverly. They come from a golden age when plastic was playful and colour was used with flair. I have a considerable collection of viewers, some I chose for the colour and others for their features like my Arrow radio/viewer. As I write this the Arrow is glowing in front of me with a recent slide from Paris, the AM radio, tuned to a French station that fades in and out, accompanied by static.

Marbled plastic viewer
Except for the Arrow and a few cigarette lighter models, most viewers are very simple. I think it's the simplicity of form that encouraged designers to show a bit of style. During the 60's and 70's a few British slide viewers were chosen for display at the Design Centre in London, these chosen ones have a small stamp on the packaging and are truly great modernist designs.
Slide viewer box with the Design Centre Logo
So come on, let's make some miniature masterpieces. There has never been a better time to start using slides. Cameras, viewers, even projectors are available at rock bottom prices. Film is dirt cheap and E-6 processing (while it lasts), costs next to nothing or you could even do it yourself. You could probably set your self up with everything you need for the price of an English breakfast.

1 comment:

  1. After cowering in shame over my photographic past while reading your blog(s) this past year, it seems I've finally done something right: slide film. After purchasing a "serious" camera in 1981, all I shot were slides. AND I have a good slide projector.

    This was a really good post, I learned a lot. And those viewers are groovy.



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