Reminiscing on the Glories of Transparencies and Their Color Reliability


transparency photoAs digital images have become the standard, and with galleries, competitions and publications now accepting digital images, slides have faded into obscurity. With the difficulty of acquiring film, and finding places to process the film, it is simply no longer practical.

This is unfortunate. Transparencies or “slides” of artwork were a glorious thing. When shot with the correct color balance and exposure, they produced extremely reliable color and provided a long-lasting guide for color matching. For example, if I sell a painting and all I have is a digital image, and that digital image is not an accurate rendition of my original (and many are not), then I have no real record of the accurate color. Of course, digital images can also produce reliable color, but it is a much more complex process involving many steps. This is one of those situations where the “old way of doing it” has been supplanted by a newer, more cost effective method, yet the newer method is considerably more problematic for everyone.

Color management with digital images is a very arcane science. Everyone’s monitor displays color differently. And even on the same monitor images will look different depending on what program you look at them in! What’s more, different “color profiles” are attached to different images, which adds yet another variable. Therefore, an artist who photographs and color corrects images on their PC will require a good understanding of the steps in the digital color workflow. Even if that artist did have an accurate and reliable digital image of their painting, there is, as yet, no fool proof method to ensure that those viewing it on some other computer, will see it the same way. Transparencies had fewer variables to contend with.


About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 40,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials. He led painting adventures in Italy in 2015 with Arte Umbria and in 2017 with Winslow Art Center. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.


  1. Another loss from slides is in reference photos. The slides capture the “glow” of outdoors better. Although they are small to work with through a viewer, their intensity differs from the digital images I now use for reference. As I look back on earlier work for which I used slide reference, the colors were stronger because the light that came through the back of the slide illuminating the image. There are still a few places in town that will create slides but most are geared now to printing images from digital media. It’s still much cheaper to take several shots of a painting as opposed tp paying for duplicate slides later, so keep this in mind as you shoot slides. Mitch talks about as historical documents of your work. I’ve found using T64 film and the special bulbs for indoors work best, although I know folks who just use outdoor light and get good results.

  2. Yes there are benefits of slides. However the reality of finding film and processing is rapidly disappearing. That said, the quality of digital cameras, sensors, proper white balance, and large file images almost make the use of film obsolete. As it is the only copy … loose it and your record is gone. Whereas digital can be copied, and it is important to maintain a backup, and a backup of the backup in a safe, fire proof place. There is the reality of not truly being able to have an archival copy of any digital image. As one copies a copy and then a copy and so on…there is digital compression and decay of the original. The very material that these copies are on claim to be long term, but the fact of the matter is that many research facilities claim that this is not the case ( The Smithsonian, Canadian National Archives, to name a few … but many institutions are in a quandary over which route to take for “preserving” these files.) The situation is as it is — make copies on various archive materials — hard drives, optical DVD or CD disks and protect them from heat and sunlight as best as you can. However the reality is such that digital is it for now, and it is an amazing solution to unstable dyes and gelatine supports, which are all more vulnerable to decay from environmental concerns. All the best. Hiring a photographer to do 4 x 5 slides is still viable and reliable and the film is much more available than 35mm formatted film. As per sources, I have discussed the matter with … namely archivists!