Gleeful giggling, happy screams, and the thunderous reverberations of a three-year-old girl hopping up and down on hardwood flooring. These were the sounds that rang through my house the first time my daughter saw a photo projected on the wall of her bedroom. There, towering six feet tall, was a shot I’d made of Disney World’s Cinderella’s Castle, a place she truly loved. And for as long as the projector beamed its magical light, she was there again.
“It’s the castle, Dada!” she shouted. “I love it! I love it!”
When she was finally finished bouncing, I pressed a switch, and with a metallic rattle and a sequence of clacks the image of the castle slid away, replaced moments later by a shot of our family running through Tomorrowland. My daughter’s excitement renewed itself as she pointed out and named each member of her family, and yelled to the other room for my wife to come see. My wife did come and see, and though she has virtually no interest in cameras or vintage photo gear, the massive image with brilliant clarity that was shining in the dimly lit room made her stop and stare.
“Woah. That’s awesome.” She said simply.
It hit me then that there’s something special about slide film and projectors. The depth of the image, the ritual of curating and loading slides, the sensory stimuli of the process, and of course, the sheer wonder of seeing an image projected through pure optics. There’s nothing like it, and if you’re a photo geek who’s never experienced it, you should try to fix that.
But let’s not pretend the process is without barriers to entry, real and perceived. There are plenty of reasons that few shooters are shooting slide film and that even fewer are using slide projectors. But it’s also true that there are plenty of shooters who would shoot and project slides if they only knew that the real barriers to entry are small, and that the many perceived barriers to entry are mostly myth.
To start, shooting slide film isn’t as difficult as everyone says. Across random camera blogs and photography forums, the typical refrain is that slide film is unforgiving, and that’s a valid claim when comparing certain slide film to black-and-white and color negative films. You do need to be more precise with your exposures. But let’s not be so dramatic. Modern slide film has improved exposure latitude over the days of our grandparents’ film; Fujichrome Provia shows minimal color and gradation variation in push/pull processing, with Fuji confidently encouraging shots from -1/2 all the way to +3 exposure index. That’s pretty forgiving. Match this increased latitude with the effectiveness of the in-camera light meters found in cameras stretching back to the days of disco, and we start to realize just how much of a mountain has been made of this molehill. Get a camera with an accurate meter and shoot that E-6 stuff without fear.
Is slide film more expensive? We could certainly argue the point. Sure, a roll of slide film will cost more than the bargain films from Fuji and Kodak, but compared to other professional grade films, slide film can actually be cheaper per roll. Fuji’s Provia 100F costs approximately $7 per 35mm 36-exposure roll, while Kodak’s Portra 400 (a C-41 film) costs $7.50 for the same number of shots. Development costs do increase with slide film, from approximately $5 per roll with C-41 to approximately $12 per roll with slide film. That’s not cheap, but digital scans of each cost the same and with E-6 film you’ll get slides mounted and mailed to you, which as we’ll discuss momentarily, is something more valuable than seven bucks.
Yes, on the whole, slide film may be slightly more expensive than other types of film. But it’s not egregiously over-priced as many commentators often say. And let’s face it; shooting film isn’t a cost-effective way of making images, and people who shoot film cameras aren’t doing so to save money. We do it because there’s something special about film and the cameras that use film. This truth noted, the cost argument misses the point.
Okay, you’re convinced you should try slide film. Great. But what the hell are you going to do about getting a projector? This archaic technology is totally foreign. You know nothing about projectors. Aren’t they just garbage tech from the 1970s? There are too many models. You don’t know where to start, and you’re sure that most of them are broken or need repair. Right?
Hey, guess what? We just described the train of thought that half of our readers ran when they first decided to try a film camera. Funny, right? And yet here you are, shooting a Canon FTb or a Minolta CLE like a champ, processing your own film at home, and telling strangers on the street “Yes, this is a film camera, and yes, they still make film. No, I’m not a hipster.” So don’t give me that nonsense about projectors being a closed book. You’re smart enough.
In the run-up to this article I bought four projectors from four different brands, made over four different decades, from the most unreliable kind of seller (random people on eBay). They all arrived in perfect working condition and required no special knowledge or skill to operate. And the icing on the cake? For less than eighty bucks I got a pristine product with a big, red dot. What other Leica product costs so little? Maybe a lens hood. Maybe.
If you’re ready to buy, there are some things to consider. First, every major manufacturer created slide projectors for many decades, and similar to all other consumer products, these manufacturers created a range of products to satisfy certain market segments. There are cheap projectors and professional projectors just the same as there are cheap cameras and pro cameras. Choosing which you’d like to own is a great place to start.
A basic, manually operated Minolta Mini projector can be bought for less than $20. It focuses by hand and each slide will need to be fitted by hand. These work fine, and could be a great choice for someone looking to dabble. Step up to an automated projector and you’ll be well-served to look at Kodak’s Carousel models or the heavier Ektagraphic models. These were the slide projectors found in every middle-class household in the heyday of film. They provide great image quality at a low price (around $50). With varying degrees of automation that speed up the slideshow and facilitate accurate focusing, these are good projectors for the average user.
The mid-range Leica projector I purchased as a personal keeper is the Pradovit P 150, and it’s a phenomenal performer relative to cost. With an exceptional lens (even though it’s the most basic available), fast autofocus, and intuitive controls, it’s the only slide projector I’ll ever need. And if I want to upgrade its lens in the future, I can do so easily. Reaching to the higher end we find that even the best projectors from Rollei and Leica cost only a few hundred dollars. It’s a buyer’s market.
Case by case, buying a projector is the same as buying any other product. Practice diligence and find one in good condition and chances are high you’ll own a perfectly functional projector for years. When shopping, look for damage and wear, signs of hard use or improper storage, and burned out bulbs. The latter of these issues is easily fixable – just buy replacement bulbs if you need them. No big deal. If a seller doesn’t guarantee a working product, move along. There are literally hundreds of thousands of perfectly good projectors sitting around waiting to be used. If you can’t find a perfect condition model for under $150, you might not be connected to the internet and you should check your router.
When you get the projector home, load up some slides, shut off the lights, and project that glorious image onto a flat, white surface. Projection screens are ideal, but not necessary. A wall works, a ceiling works, a fence outside under a starry sky works. The fun thing about projectors is that every surface becomes a viewing screen. Sure, we want a textureless white surface to improve fidelity and color, but any surface will do. Don’t stress about it, and keep an eye out for a bargain screen – they’re as common and as cheap as projectors.
And this part, the part that follows after exposing slide film and acquiring a projector, is the part of the process that’s most difficult to explain to someone who’s never experienced it. A projected slide has an incredible clarity and depth, and an unquantifiable presence that’s impossible to compare to an image as shown on a screen or in print. Without bluster, there’s something truly exceptional about a projected image. Though my daughter has seen countless photos in print and on a computer screen or on a phone, she’s never reacted to a photo the way she reacts to photos projected on a wall or on a projection screen. For me, that’s the proof, and reason enough to own and occasionally use a slide projector.
I won’t shoot exclusively slide film, and we’re not saying you should either. And though it’s true that most of the hurdles have been exaggerated, it’s also true that for those who’ve never shot it there are small knowledge barriers to overcome. But just as it’s worth it to shoot a film camera, the effort here is worth it, too. And with Kodak’s recent announcement that the brand is producing a new version of the previously discontinued Kodak Ektachrome slide film, now might be the perfect time to pick up an inexpensive projector and get comfortable with shooting slides.
I think it’s important that more shooters experience this wonderful type of film and the incomparable viewing experience that comes with it. Slide film is a treat. Projectors are a joy. Just like shooting film in the digital age, they provide an experience in photography that’s different from what we’re used to. Give it a try. Shoot slide film at special moments and in special places, and put those slides in a carousel and listen to that projector hum to life. And even if you’re a bit too old to bounce and giggle, I promise you’ll love what you see.