Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

In Memory of Kodachrome

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The lead picture for my first National Geographic story. Shot at twilight on Kodachrome 64.

All the hoopla about Kodachrome is a bit baffling to me.  Yes it’s sentimental and sad to see this famous film pass into the history books but I will guess that most photographers stopped using Kodachrome nearly 15 years ago.  Kodachrome is beautiful and when the exposure is just right, and it is properly developed, nothing can beat it.

The key is that proper development.  Kodachrome is more complex then the E-6 process used for most other “chromes.”  I remember in the early 1990’s when I was still on contract at the National Geographic, problems began to appear with Kodachrome processing.   Even Kodak was sending back muddy looking slides.  At the same time, Fuji Velvia was becoming competitive with color and image sharpness.  With Velvia, Fuji solved their earlier issues that led to overly saturated greens in their film.   Most of us switched over to Velvia and never looked back.  In some ways Kodak may have been it’s own worst enemy by not solving their quality problems with the processing.  It became way too difficult to get this beautiful film processed.

For over ten years, I used Fuji Velvia 100 on most of my assignments.   The only Kodachrome I still used was Kodachrome 200 that I pushed to ISO 250.  Later, when Fuji 400 improved that became my fast film.  But I rarely used those films.  I have steady hands so I routinely shot below 1/25 of a second.  That way I could take advantage of the full value of slow, fine-grain film.  Which meant of course, some pictures were lost because of blur.  But when everything worked correctly, nothing could beat the rich colors and high resolution of that slow film.  Even when the faster digital cameras came out, and shooting at higher ISO’s became routine, I still hesitated to shoot above ISO 400.

Of course, these days film is a luxury.

Though I still love film, I switched to digital five years ago.  There really wasn’t a choice. Everyone wants the pictures “now.”  Film processing is too slow.  Without scanning—another time-consuming process—film can’t be sent over the Internet or dumped into ftp sites. If you aren’t shooting digital, your ability to survive as a working photographer is greatly reduced. Paying for film—once a routine expense—is unheard of.  Yes there are digital processing fees, but frankly, those don’t cover the time it takes to process the images, especially if it’s a large assignment.

With digital, clicking the shutter is only the beginning of the process.  There are curves and levels, darkening and lightening, cropping and sharpening—an endless range of tools to endlessly reshape your work, if you are so inclined.

But Kodachrome was final.  You opened the box, anxiously arranged the transparencies on the light table, picked up the loupe and saw sentence passed on your work.  You had the shot.  Or you didn’t.  No excuses.  I miss that.

Written by kasmauski

July 18, 2009 at 3:55 am

2 Responses

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  1. I really only started coming into my own as a photographer with the advent of digital, and never really was technically minded enough to go deep into the pluses and minuses of film – I left that to the professionals.
    I’d like to ask you if you think your photography improved with the introduction of digital, or wether you perhaps just improved your craft along the same upward curve? (For me, it meant I could get my shot, then start to experiment and get significantly more asthetically pleasing shots at no extra cost).

    Jeff Evans

    August 4, 2009 at 11:20 pm

  2. Jeff,
    I think I “perfected” the craft when using slides. The margin of error is very slim with slides, it doesn’t even have the flexibility of negative film . I always felt that beginning photographers should start out with a couple of rolls of slide film to see how precise their techical knowledge really is. Digital has made me technically sloppy as I figure I can always correct it, plus the way digital is captured, one has to actually correct it order to get an image close to what one sees. However, I do love the ability to shoot and shoot and shoot on the same memory card, wiping out mistakes without having to pay out for development. Film costs was always a problem.

    Karen Kasmauski

    August 5, 2009 at 5:31 pm


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