Printing From Film In The Digital Age

Printing From Film In The Digital AgePrinting From Film In The Digital Age

Q) As of late, I don’t seem to be getting any quality prints from my slides. I’ve tried different labs and I’m still getting poor quality. The prints aren’t even close to what I’m seeing at the light table. Colors aren’t saturated, images aren’t sharp, etc. I’m still using the same Fujichrome Velvia and my techniques haven’t changed. My labs don’t seem to give me any answers. I’m shooting digitally as well, but is it possible that, in this digital age, printing processes have changed? Do labs not want to deal with slides anymore?

A) The print process from slides is fairly labor-intensive if the slides haven’t been digitized. In the past, you had the choice of either direct printing using type “R” silver-based photographic paper or you could have a standard silver print made from an internegative. Today, most labs scan slides and then print the digital file either onto a silver-based material or using an inkjet printer. Unfortunately, this process requires a skilled technician with good color sense and enough time to properly optimize the image before printing it. Many labs aren’t willing to go to this length to serve an increasingly diminishing film-based print market, and thus the final prints from slides generally aren’t that good.

The answer for many photographers in this digital age is to do it yourself; that is, acquire the skills and the equipment that will enable you to generate high-quality prints from your film-based and digital images.

Film scanners have come down in price as the quality of their output improves, and the files they generate will allow you to make excellent inkjet prints of considerable size. I’ve had excellent results with the Nikon V and Nikon 5000 film scanners; there are a number of other good scanners on the market as well. Flatbed scanners have improved, but I still prefer a film scanner to get the very most out of a 35mm slide.

Image-editing programs start at under $100 and will allow you to achieve the sharpness, contrast and color you’ve been missing. You can take this as far as you want, up to Photoshop CS3, though that’s such a powerful program that few of us will ever achieve its full benefits. Your scanned and optimized images are easily stored on hard drives and won’t fade or be damaged if you keep a backup in another location.

Quality inkjet printers from a number of competing manufacturers are priced from only a few hundred dollars (giving an 8.5 x 11-inch print) up to large-format professional printers in widths of 17, 24, 44 and 60 inches. In my home office, with my Canon iPF9000, I can make top-quality 60×90-inch prints (or up to 50 feet long) that will last 100 years. It comes down to this: If you want it done right, you may have to do it yourself, and you might even enjoy the process.

This image comes from Kodak E100S film from a few years ago that was scanned on a Nikon 5000 film scanner. It’s very important to me to optimize the image in Photoshop and then print the image myself. At that point, I can take full responsibility for the final result.


One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.