Looking Back at Kodachrome – Kodak’s Most Famous Film and Why It’s So Special

As the song says, everything looks worse in black and white, and if there’s only one color film that could make “all the world a sunny day,” it was Kodachrome. Or so it seems. Like many film shooters today, I was born into an era in which Kodachrome was nothing more than an old, expensive film, slow to process and cumbersome to display (what’s a slide projector?). So any time I hear photo geeks of a certain age wax poetic on Kodachrome, I have to wonder, was it really so good?

It’s possible it wasn’t. After all, nostalgia is a funny thing. The over-used refrain “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is as inaccurate as it is ubiquitous. The reason we think products from the past were better than products today is because only the good ones have survived. What’s left after decades of wear and tear is the best of yesteryear’s gear, and the quality of these few survivors is eventually universally applied to all products of the past. In forty years, my grandkids will moan that their coffee teleportation unit broke again, saying “they don’t make coffee machines like they did back in the 2000s”, unaware of the hundreds of thousands of Keurig machines (not) decomposing in our landfills.

Could the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia be obscuring the vision of those who mistily recall the name Kodachrome? Because we see world-class Kodachrome shots on five decades worth of National Geographic pages, do we assume the film was also world-class, and forget its failings?

After years of hearing about how special Kodachrome was, I wanted to know more, so I spent some time poring through the online archives of the Library of Congress, reading the literature of the time, watching documentaries, and most crucially, talking with photographers who were shooting long before I was even alive. The sum total of this probing has been surprising; unanimous praise. People don’t talk about Kodachrome the way we usually talk about obsolete and replaced tech. People talk about Kodachrome as if it were an unforgettable lover.

“You mean my first true love?” The first words spoken when I asked Ned Bunnell, former President of Pentax US, if he’d like to talk to me about Kodachrome. “Never used it for everyday slide film due to its demand for perfect light, exposure, and careful composition. However, when the subject matter warranted the very best image, I’d always shoot with Kodachrome.”

In the short documentary The End of an Era, a National Geographic film crew follows Steve McCurry as he shoots and processes the final roll of Kodachrome to roll off the assembly line. A man who’s possibly shot more Kodachrome than anyone else (by his own estimation, over 800,000 images) calls it a legendary film, adding, “Probably the best film ever made.”

That’s pretty high praise. But what made it so phenomenal?

Kodak’s contemporary literature is decidedly understated when measured against all the lauding the film receives today. They described Kodachrome as nothing more than a moderate-speed, extremely fine grained film for daylight shooting. Nothing too special there. Even when rating the film’s resolving power, things were rather staid. With 96-135 lines per millimeter, it landed right in the middle of Kodak’s resolving power scale. But these descriptors fail even to hint at what made Kodachrome so special. For that, we have to talk to photographers.

Ned, when asked what made it so special, replied with one succinct phrase. “Brilliant, natural colors.”

And this sentiment’s been echoed by everyone I talked to, such as the owner of my local processing lab, a shop that’s been in business since the 1970s and has weathered all the storms of the past fifty years. “Kodachrome was unreal. Actually, it was extremely ‘real’. No other film could make such true, vivid images. When you exposed it right, you got a slice of real life on film. It was incredible. The best photos I ever took were made on Kodachrome.”

In the film, McCurry describes Kodachrome. “Sublime, rich colors. The best rendition of reality.”

But these words don’t tell the real story. Only staring into the depth and richness of Kodachrome images can the quality of the film be properly absorbed. For that, we’ve included some sample shots from contributors and a link to the online archives of the Library of Congress. Here and in other galleries is where we see the real magic of Kodachrome; in its incredible ability to archive moments in time with a stunning clarity I’ve never found in any other film.

Shots in this article were provided by Dane Liston, Robert Jagitsch, Adam Paul, and Ned Bunnell, published here with permission and many thanks.

It achieved its signature look by doing something no other film did to the time of its invention. Kodachrome’s dye couplers, which other films typically had embedded on them, weren’t added until the development process had begun. That meant that its emulsion layers could be thinner and less light was scattered on exposure, leading to sharper images. It was a film with high contrast, which further added to its punchiness, and yet its color remained subdued compared to other slide films of the day. The combination of high contrast and life-like color created images that were refined and poetic, and its archival abilities ensured that properly stored images would remain vibrant as the day they were made for upward of a hundred years (the proof of which we see today).

The overtly demanding and complicated nature of the beast meant that development was a laborious affair heavily reliant on operator skill and knowledge. For decades, development was handled only by Kodak. In the 1950s, Kodak Processing was declared a monopoly by the Department of Justice and the brand relinquished control, allowing independent labs to develop the film. This lowered the price of the film by over 40%, and helped spur Kodachrome’s popularity to heights never known by any film before it. For the next two decades, Kodachrome would be shot in hundreds of thousands of cameras all over the globe, capturing everything from family vacations to the Kennedy assassination, Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest to McCurry’s most famous shot, Afghan Girl.

By the mid-1980s the film had been largely outmoded by faster, cheaper, films from Fuji and others. The high technical threshold for making successful photos and the complicated developing process that once made Kodachrome’s final images so incredible and cherished now acted as a liability. Consumers wanted friendlier, easier to shoot films that could be processed in under an hour by the summer help at the local drug store, and as the digital revolution picked up steam, fewer and fewer labs were willing and able to suffer the proprietary Kodak development machines and processes.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, Kodak eased production of many films, Kodachrome included, and production of the film stopped entirely in 2009. The last lab to develop Kodachrome ceased doing so shortly thereafter. And finally, after 75 years of making images, Kodachrome was finished.

Talking to the earlier generations of photo geeks, I get the distinct impression that the end of Kodachrome production meant more than just the loss of another film stock. For many, it seems, the end of Kodachrome signaled the end of an era, the end of shooting film. Indeed many older shooters I meet, especially those who are surprised to see a film camera on the street in 2017, mention Kodachrome by name, usually in a reverent sentence strung to the end of a conversation about their favorite cameras and where and when they used them. To these photo geeks who swore by Kodachrome and held onto their Nikon F3 or Pentax K1000 even as their friends were switching to digital, the end of Kodachrome was the final knell. And when the last rolls vacated store shelves, many of these diehard film shooters finally switched to digital, and for some it seems that photography was never quite the same. Even as digital cameras became masterful machines in their own right, a certain magic was lost.

But where does that leave us today? You’ve read all the fanfare and blinked in amazement over the classic images. You’re likely feeling a real desire to shoot this stuff. Which leads to one burning question – will Kodachrome ever come back?

No one I’ve talked to can imagine that Kodachrome, as it was in the past, will ever come back. The complicated and environmentally damaging chemistry, the specialized development process, and the expensive equipment all make large-scale development of Kodachrome in 2017 an impossible dream. Kodak themselves have shown tempered interest, but the brand seems to be struggling to bridge an ideological gap between the energetic development of exciting products and the harsh economic realities of manufacturing expensive, niche items in the modern world.

For the past few years the boys in Rochester have cyclically teased the photography and film communities with amazing ideas and jaw-dropping announcements, such as their Super 8 digital/film hybrid movie camera that was announced in 2016, quietly delayed in 2017, and later had its projected MSRP double. Now at the end of 2017, the thing has all but disappeared aside from unspecific messages on Instagram saying the brand’s still seeking to bring it to market. In January of 2017, Kodak Alaris announced the second coming of Ektachrome. We’re still waiting for details on that one, though it does seem that there’s movement toward opening processing facilities, hopefully in preparation for the new emulsion’s launch. The latest word is that it’ll be available sometime in 2018.

These rumblings of products that recall the past speaks to an understanding within Kodak of the passion that photographers still have for its historically excellent products and its most cherished film. Though we’ve yet to see these rumblings erupt into any tangible flow of product, it’s at least a glimmer of hope. It’s even true that things bearing classic film names are once again spilling out of Kodak, and while these things aren’t exactly film, it’s still good to see.

The dream that Kodachrome could ever come back in a meaningful way (there are individuals working on small scale development, but the results aren’t what we’d expect from Kodachrome) is only a dream. Kodachrome, as the world knew it, is gone. But that’s okay. All good things must come to an end.

Is there anything out there that can take its place? Will Kodak release a new emulsion to act as a suitable stand-in, if only in name and image characteristics? Time will tell. Until then, we’ll be firing up some Paul Simon, flicking through the archives of what most photo geeks claim is the best film ever made, and knowingly nodding when those old-timers tell us that we missed out on something special.


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21 Comments

  • Reply
    Frank Lehnen
    October 4, 2017 at 9:42 am

    kODACHROME….. I am by no means an accomplished or professional photographer but this film was my mainstay throughout my first film life. Now after a silly digital spree I’m back to film 100% and I miss this film…. but will have to live with the idea that it won’t return.

    Unfortunately, in one of my many movings I lost my whole lot of slide boxes. Kodachrome is gone forever!

    Hopefully Ektachrome will not stay a dream!

  • Reply
    bodegabayf2
    October 4, 2017 at 10:04 am

    Kodachrome also had amazing archival attributes. During my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, my Dad shot slides exclusively and used Kodachrome most of the time. He filed the slides away in metal magazines and a few times a year, would hold family slide shows, projecting them onto a screen with an Argus projector. 50 years later, most of those slides remain and I’ve scanned many of them and created digital files.

    The other Kodak slide films he shot, as well as the Anscochromes, have faded considerably over the decades. The Kodachromes remain bright and crisp with vivid colors–almost the same as they day they were shot!

  • Reply
    baltimorebuspeople
    October 4, 2017 at 10:12 am

    I shot Kodachrome in the early 1990’s along with E6 emulsions. The consumer processing (Qualex?) by this point had some QC issues that often resulted in cyan or greenish casts more prominent that slides I’d acquired taken in the 1970’s. Though I had a reverence for Kodachrome (from having had it bring images of the decades before my birth to life in full color), my use of it was pretty intermittent due to the cost, inconvenience, and quality control issues associated with it.

    If you get a chance however, I wouldn’t hesitate to snap up a roll of late era Kodachrome to snap away and send off to Mr. Fuller for his color process of it. I’m about to send my second roll off to him today and look forward to seeing the results. While surely not the exact results that the K-14 (and earlier processes) developing would deliver, there is a certain sense of appreciation and awe to be able to shoot and develop this venerable stock that literally preserved the world in color in a way that no film before it was able to do.

  • Reply
    Mike Smith
    October 4, 2017 at 10:21 am

    Kodachrome — You had to be there, and understand what other film there was. Print film wasn’t nearly as good as it is today, the color wasn’t as good and the negs faded. Even Ektachrome faded, but I have a box of Kodachrome my father shot in the early 1950s, and the colors are as bright as they were 65 years ago. His Ektachromes look ghostly in comparison.

    OK, it was painfully slow compared to the digital-equivalent ISO 1 gazillion folks are used to today: When I started shooting in the early 1960s, K’chrome was ASA 25; I think it started as ASA 10, so 25 was fast. Then Kodachrome 64 came out. Wow — so fast it almost ran you off the road. K’chrome 200 followed, but I don’t think it was nearly as good, and was grainy. And you had to balance the light just right to get the best color. Indoors? Eh, not so good without a flash, and then it was wasted; might as well shoot negs. Editing usually resulted in a pile of bad transparencies on the floor. It was expensive compared to negative films, so a lot of money went out in the trash. And you couldn’t get it processed in an hour, unless you lived in Manhattan, because the equipment was way more complex than they had at Fotomat. Took a week, usually. If you bought Kodachrome outside the U.S., its price usually included processing, and a mailer was in the box.

    Enough, already. Bottom line is, Kodachrome was a great film in its day, one that old guys like me remember with fondness. But that was then, this is now: I’m happy with Ektar.

  • Reply
    robert
    October 4, 2017 at 11:46 am

    Thanks for this article, James. At least of the above images were shot with Kodachrome ASA 10. Also the image on the lower left appears to be reversed L to R.

    • Reply
      P.Sage
      October 4, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      Hi Robert! Curious as to which ones are the ASA 10! Is there a specific rendering that makes them easy to spot?

      • Reply
        Adam
        October 4, 2017 at 3:09 pm

        I can’t answer for what Robert sees, but I tend to notice the deep saturated intensity of blue skies is something I really don’t see in the post ’62 emulsions (or perhaps more accurately in the dyes in the process)

      • Reply
        Robert
        October 4, 2017 at 3:09 pm

        The two that I know to be ASA 10 were submitted by me and taken by my father. Top right, and second row, second from left.

  • Reply
    robert
    October 4, 2017 at 11:47 am

    that is, at least *two* 🙂

  • Reply
    Wilson Laidlaw
    October 4, 2017 at 11:53 am

    Another long time Kodachrome fan here. However, could I encourage folk to try a roll or two of Agfa’s E6 process, Precisa CT100 reversal film. I think you may be pleasantly surprised. Supposedly the film is made for Agfa by Fuji and uses a somewhat similar emulsion to Provia 100F but on a different substrate. In my view, Precisa is certainly warmer than Provia 100 but has the same very smooth appearance, sharpness and lack of apparent grain. The other benefit is that it is super easy to scan and comes out with near perfect colour balance, first time, with no fiddling about. I only bought it initially, as Provia 100 became close to unobtainable in France in recent months and Precisa was the nearest I could get. I now prefer it to Provia and it has the additional benefit of being about 20%+ cheaper. Of course compared to Ektar it has quite a narrow exposure window but I find it so much easier to get good colour balance scanning results from reversal film. It is fine in my two cameras with TTL metering (Leica M7 and CL) but it is a bit of a pain to use on non-metered cameras, having to keep checking a separate light meter, where with colour negative, you would get away with estimation.

  • Reply
    mmarquar
    October 4, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    In the early seventies, black and white was my usual film. When I did shoot color film, it was mostly Kodachrome. Kodachrome slides were always the best in almost all ways. Unfortunately, my collection of color slides has been lost, and I continues to mourn the loss. Thanks for this article remembering the past glory.

  • Reply
    Huss Hardan
    October 4, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    First off, wonderfully written piece. This really is what separates this site from others.

    The film geek in me always wondered about the exposure settings of Afghan Girl. McCurry uses KR 64, with an Nikon FM2 and 105 2.5 lens.
    Looking at the pic I’m guestimating f/4 at 1/15. Any larger an aperture would not allow both eyes to be in focus w/ a 105 lens on 35mm film.
    KR 64 would be rated at 1/60 sec at f4 in open shade. This is in a doorway? Seems that it would be at least 2 stops more exposure.
    Which shows how great it is from a technical perspective, the eyes are perfectly sharp. And how great KR 64 was to allow this quality of detail from 35mm film.

    I still have a few rolls of KR 40 left in my fridge. Came w/ a big batch of expired film. I am using one as a test roll just to make sure that ‘new’ cameras that I have acquired load and feed properly. That one roll has about 1100 exposures on it! ( I also used it to test how long a set of rechargeable batteries lasts in my F6, but that’s another story..)

    I found these KR photos to be fascinating, and gorgeous:

    https://pavelkosenko.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/4×5-kodachromes/

    • Reply
      Chris Cushing
      October 4, 2017 at 6:46 pm

      Huss- just so you know, many of those photos in the link you posted are on the Library of Congress’ Flickr page, as well as on the LoC’s website(which is linked in the article). They provide WONDERFUL high-res scans, up to 60+MB TIF files, free to download.

  • Reply
    yashicachris
    October 4, 2017 at 10:37 pm

    Great memories. My go-to film in the late 1970s. My slides from then are as bright and colorful as the day I shot them (almost).

  • Reply
    Scott Edwards
    October 4, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    Excellent – thank you for this piece. And just look at those images. I’ll comment on the last two… the green richness of that car perfectly captures the tones of my childhood… and Chicago image on the right… the flesh tones of the sailors and other passersby, the blue-tinted afternoon-lit concrete is nothing short of brilliant perfection.

  • Reply
    Randle P. McMurphy
    October 5, 2017 at 5:53 am

    Kodachrome had something (color/grain/looks) no ohter slidefilm ever came near to and digital will never get
    One of the films I miss most and also the great Ektar 25 and Agfa APX 25

  • Reply
    Jerry
    October 5, 2017 at 6:15 am

    I’m a recent convert to film photography having taken it up when I was a child under my grandfather’s supervision, and quickly dropped it again when my teenage years cam and other interests (if you know what I mean) took over. Picking up a film camera now takes me back to those days – I think we used colour+ or gold rather than anything else..

    The resources, information and knowledgeable views on this site are excellent and have certainly helped continue my interest in using film over digital. I’m visiting Venice and Florence soon and only taking my film camera, so the pressure is on. Hope I come back with some good results. Keep up the good work with the site!

  • Reply
    Jordi
    October 7, 2017 at 7:53 am

    Memories there. I was in my teen years at the tail end of last decade (2009), september and I just bought a handful of EU process paid KR64. After the announcement of the discontinuation a fellow forumer told me “it is a now or never, why not try it?” so I went.

    Found out about http://www.kodachromeproject.com/ which I think was intended to publish a Book all shot on Kodachrome. Dan is still active around APUG but I think the project went shelved amongst the commercial photographer’s bustle.
    One roll I just took 9 months to shoot through, the rest I took on a trip and it may not have been the best condition to shoot them. Teen kid without much $ shooting very carefully as it is historical material. Fun times!

    Would be interesting to have seen that 1990 test KR400 that never made it past Pilot production or having it in 120. Just need a Time machine to bring rolls from the past, shoot them now and back to the past for development.

  • Reply
    Michael McDermott
    October 7, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    From the age of 6-18 I shot only 620 film as I started with a point and shoot in 1959. Mostly always Kodacolor. Learned to develop B&W when 13 in 7th grade graphic arts class. Then at 18 I bought my first 35mm camera, a SRT-101. From that point on I shot only Plus-X and Kodachrome 25 and 64 which I had heard about. Now even though I never had a slide projector for viewing I enjoyed looking at the vivid color in the slides with my naked eye. For the first time I scanned slides from 1971, from a car show, and now I got to see what I got. They are still amazing to this day. Temperamental about exposure didn’t seem to be a problem for me. Cost and waiting didn’t bother me in 1971 so it was a non-issue. Always loved when they arrived back from Kodak in the mail. It was like opening a Christmas present. I still have a dozen rolls in my freezer right now.
    As a comparison I just shot a roll of Ektachrome for the first time. Once Kodachrome was discontinued I fell out of color film for my classic cameras. My wife’s orchid actually put out four flowers that are white with yellow to rust colored interiors. Shot using a Minolta XE-7 and the Rokkor MD 50mm macro with adapter for 1:1. We will see how they turn out.

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