Why do negatives need an orange mask? The simple answer is "impure dyes." This
is generally true of all chromogenic photographic materials, where the dye
molecules are made of a color coupler that is built into the emulsion, combined
with the by-product of the development of silver by a color developing agent.
With this kind of thing going on, the choice of dyes is a bit limited, and we end
with dyes that are not as good as some others. Ciba's approach to improving the
quality, with Cibachrome (now Ilfochrome), was to put all the dye in the paper to
begin with, then remove the part that wasn't needed for a particular print.
Another approach is masking, which can either be built into the film (as in color
negatives) or done externally (if you are so inclined, and your end-result goal
will support it).
The yellow dye layer is the most pure. The magenta dye layer has a noticeable
amount of yellow in it. The cyan dye layer has noticeable amounts of both yellow
and magenta in it.
How Masking Works
When a print is made from a color negative, it is easy to "tune out" a color
bias of any kind, simply by altering the intensity of the red, green, and blue
light shining through the negative. For now, consider the problem with the
magenta dye -- it has yellow in it. So everywhere there is magenta dye in the
image, there will be too much yellow. Suppose we added a little bit of yellow to
all of there areas where there is *not* magenta dye, too. Now we have a layer of
yellow over the whole image. Part of the layer is in the magenta dye, and the
rest of it is in the masking layer. We can simply turn up the blue light while
making the print, to compensate for the extra yellow. So the yellow that wasn't
supposed to be there has now been effectively removed, and the accuracy of the
The yellow masking layer is designed to develop in such a way that the more
magenta dye there is nearby, the less yellow dye will form. In the end, it all
balances out nicely.
The same principle applies to the cyan layer, where we're trying to mask out
both yellow and magenta. So we end up with a little more yellow in the mask, and
also some magenta. Yellow and magenta make orange.
There is no reason the mask has to be built into the film. If you're making a
print from a transparency, for example, there is no mask in the film. All else
being equal, the color will be less accurate in a slide, because no masking is
done, and the magenta and cyan dyes are rather impure. However, we can use clever
techniques to make a separate negative of the magenta layer, which, when combined
with the original slide, will effectively accomplish the same thing -- acting
like yellow dye, which is to say, blocking some of the blue light from passing
through the slide. In the end, if such masks are made properly, color prints from
transparencies can have color that is as accurate as prints from negatives. It is
difficult and expensive, though, so it is not often done.
And, in any case, you're still left with prints that are made from these same
impure dyes. The only way to fix that would be to add an orange mask to the
print, and illuminate the print with a very blueish-green light to
Similarly, transparencies for projection could have an orange mask added, if
the projection lamp color had enough blue and green to compensate. The color
would be more accurate.
Note that "accurate" color does not imply anything about the contrast. Some
people really love Ilfochrome/Cibachrome, a paper with high contrast and pure
dyes. If the print is made from a transparency without masking, however, those
wonderful and vibrant colors are a less accurate reproduction of the original
subject. You might like it better, and it may be more
"colorful", but it is probably not as accurate as a well-made print from a
negative would be.