Anyone who has been in the business of promoting their artwork for more than a few years probably has some 35mm slides of their work. Slides were the industry standard format for decades, all the way up to about 2005, when they fairly quickly were supplanted by digital. For artists this has been both a blessing and a curse.
On the good side, high-quality digital images taken by a skilled professional photographer are better than 35mm images could ever hope to be. In terms of sharpness, resolution, color fidelity, and tonal rendition there is really no comparison. The downside is that the world of digital images is far more complex than working with film. Whereas once the artist simply had to have slides shot, then send them to the show to apply, now they have to worry about resolution, file size, pixels, file format, RGB, CMYK, and more. I’ll be addressing some of these in other posts.
But one question I get asked often is, what should the artist do with all those old slides? Well, first off, I would say keep them as an archive of your work, but don’t expect to use them for show applications. There are several reasons. One is that virtually no shows accept slide submissions anymore. For show applications, the 35mm slide is effectively dead. Another is that even when scanned and processed by a skilled professional, they will never look as good as a good, modern, professional digital image. Finally, they will always look like a film image, and as such, they unavoidably look old. When you are applying for shows you need to be showing your current, or at least very recent work. If you include slide images, even ones that have been scanned and worked on in Photoshop, they will still be obviously taken from slides and that seriously dates them at this point.
OK, so what if the artist still wants to bring some of those slides into the digital world? Recently I have been asked by a jewelry artist how she might go about creating digital images from nearly 100 of her slides, both for personal archive purposes and for possible use in a retrospective portfolio. My recommendation is to have them scanned by a professional photographer such as myself who is very familiar with creating digital images of the medium in question. I cannot recommend simply sending your slides somewhere to have them “converted.” It will be done by an automated system, and what you get back will be no better than the slides, and will still retain all of the defects and artifacts of the original image. They might be good for basic archival purposes, but not much more.
Consider for example the above image. It is a high-res scan (3200 ppi) of a 35mm slide shot by one of the top jewelry photographers in the country, around 2000. As such, it was at the time considered to be an image of the highest quality, suitable for application into top shows or publications. However, I think you will agree that all of the film artifacts are immediately apparent in this image — overall softness, overall color cast toward blue and magenta, color banding in the background, flared highlights, and lots of film grain.
I would ask you to compare it to a modern digital image of a similar pair of earrings I recently shot for this same artist. I think the differences are self-evident, and I know which image I prefer!
So what can be done with those old slides? Well, it is possible to substantially improve them with some judicious Photoshop work. They will never be as nice as a modern digital image, but they can be made to look a lot a whole lot better. Below is the same slide scan as above after about fifteen minutes of Photoshop work wherein I cropped the image and painted out some small imperfections and dust bits. Then I added a fairly complicated curves layer to adjust for the color cast and reduce some of the background banding. Finally I significantly sharpened the image using Smart Sharpen. Sharpening is a two-edged sword, however. On the one hand it can bring out detail that is hard to see in the slide. On the other, using very much of it also enhances the film grain.
I think you will agree that the image is much improved. It is still not a great image, certainly not of a caliber for an application to a top show, but certainly good enough for archival use, for web use, and anywhere else the artist might want to use an image of a piece of work created a number of years ago. So my recommendation is, if you have slide images you want to bring into the digital world, have a professional work on them, and don’t expect too much. And for most of my artists that’s not a problem. They are happy to be able to see where they have been, but they are most excited about where they are going!