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What are the advantages and disadvantages of negative/print film compared to reversal/slide film?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I started with (color) negative film then switched to slide film for one specific reason: I wanted control over my pictures. With negatives, unless you develop and print yourself (which is a convoluted process for color film), when you drop your film at the local shop, you have almost no control over the look of your prints (exposure, contrast). And with negative film, it's hard to judge how good your picture is without a print (negative has crazy colors).

With slides, it's very simple: the process is the same for all slide film, the result is always the same, and the slide you see is 100% your picture, your work. If you under- or over-expose (on purpose or by mistake), it's your work, not that of the machine that made your prints. Plus, colors on slides, especially saturated films (eg. Velvia), looks worlds better (to me), but that's a matter of taste.

Also, when developing slide film, prints are extra, but I don't spend money for any print up front: I select those pictures I like and scan them, they can be printed like any digital picture.

On the downside, slide film is much less forgiving of bad exposure: when light is very contrasted, you have to choose if you sacrifice highlights or shadows (similar to digital), while negative film can take more contrast. It's also getting hard to find slide film in brick-and-mortar shops (I buy all of mine online), so when travelling you better bring enough film. Also, scanning film to have prints is more work, and good scanners for slide or film are more expensive than entry level scanners.

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Sounds like Ken Rockwell to me, although I can't find the source. –  Karel Aug 3 '10 at 20:54
@Karel: I read Ken's blog a lot in the past years :) The guy has a lot of good advice. He got me to try Velvia (and I got hooked), but I was a control freak and frustrated with color negative film long before I heard about him. –  foo Aug 5 '10 at 8:22
Doesn't sound hyperbolic enough to be Ken Rockwell, IMO. :) –  Reid Oct 31 '10 at 2:00
He'd also need a couple dozen amazon referral links in the text, to be a real Ken Rockwell :D –  JoséNunoFerreira Jun 6 at 12:45

Reversal film has a smaller exposure latitude than negative film, so it's harder to expose correctly. Also, as there is an extra step from negative to print, a negative that is slightly under- or overexposed can be corrected.

The extra step of printing negative images can also be used to control the contrast of the photo, by using papers with different contrast grade. This is mostly used in black and white photography, though.

There is of course also the difference in the final result. Reversal film can also be printed on paper, but it's mostly used as slides. Photo prints can easily be viewed without any equipment, while you need a viewer or projector to view slides. On the other hand, slides can be projected very large, while large prints are very expensive.

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One of the key disadvantages of slide & transparency film is the ability to casually browse the results.

My father preferred slide film for many years, for its quality, and as a result, many of his family photos are locked away in boxes of slides, unseen for years, while his prints are available for browsing in an album at any time.

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I'd suggest slides are easier to browse than negative film. I tend to get my slides printed & processed (& scanned) by the lab I use as a default setting, so you can still idly scan through prints. –  Rowland Shaw Jul 22 '10 at 7:48
I think you are comparing different things (film and prints). Slides are far easier to "read" on a light table than negatives. –  Karel Jul 22 '10 at 12:59
I take your point(s). If the final destination is a print anyway, my answer doesn't stand. –  Oddthinking Jul 23 '10 at 2:21

Another difference - negative film is darker than slide film and is therefore harder to scan properly. You need a quality scanner with a strong light source to properly scan negative film. (Of course, you need a quality scanner to properly scan dark parts of a slide film but sometimes you can handle loss of detail in dark areas.)

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I would argue against the claim that negative film is darker. It's darker in the key areas, which are usually midtones to highlights and you need a scanner with good Dmax to get details from those areas. This will also cause more noise in those areas in contrary to the slides. In terms of density, slides probably win. –  Karel Jul 22 '10 at 13:04
@Karel: That's maybe a better formulation, agreed. –  gabr Jul 23 '10 at 17:26

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