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An era passes – the real end of Kodachrome

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Kodachrome film can no longer be processed

An era of photography passes


box of Kodachrome 25

Box of Kodachrome 25 film

Yes, it’s true. You can’t process those old rolls of Kodachrome any more – should we care?

Whilst you might keep rolls of film in your freezer, you will eventually need to process them.

For B/W and colour negative film, there are still chemical supplies and labs willing to process them, but for Kodachrome, time is up.

Today marks the switching off of the last processing machine – out in the wilds of Kansas.

The machine still works, but with Kodak stopping the production of the chemicals, it was only a matter of time until the last processing machine was turned off for good.

Over Christmas I was reminded just how much Kodachrome has recorded memories of the 20th century, when my in-laws produced a large box of medium format slides from the late 50’s & 60’s.

True to form, several of the cardboard Kodachrome mounts were splitting, whilst the ever more efficient dark blue Agfa plastic ones were still good and solid.

I have many yellow boxes of slides from my own childhood when I first got into photography…

There is a great NYT article about the closure of the processing machine. See here for some of the shots on the last ever roll.

OK, cut the music… Yes, the violins too…

You will probably read a lot about how important it was to many people and how it made the world look a sunny place.

What do I remember from using it in the 70’s? – long before I had any idea about becoming a professional photographer (that happened this century)

Well I hated its 25ASA standard speed
…and those cardboard mounts.
I never much cared for its colour rendition either.
Lots of burned out and underexposed shots

That’s from when I was 14 or so :-)

What do I say to the significant proportion of photographers today, to whom Kodachrome has no meaning, historical or otherwise?

Well, think of it as a creative Photoshop plugin that you’re stuck with for the next 24 or 36 shots.

It turns out that if you want to see what it looked like, you can mostly do it in software.

I know some don’t accept that this really counts, but unless you have a time machine you are not going to be taking any more ‘real’ shots with the ‘Kodachrome look’.

I’m currently looking at the DxO filmpack plugin which is based on an awful lot of measurements of real film exposed under differing conditions. You can use it in Photoshop as a plugin, or inside DxO Optics Pro, where it can do its work as part of the RAW processing process.

A quick example which reminds me why I just love top end digital so much more than film ever moved me.

First up, a picture of Seattle, last October, arriving by ferry. Processed in DxO with the Kodachrome 25 settings

Arriving at Seattle - Kodachrome version

Arriving at Seattle – ‘Kodachrome version’

I can remember subjecting people to slides from my travels, with just this ‘not quite how it was’ look about them…

Now the version, processed in Adobe camera raw, with only minor tweaks to levels.

ferry view of seattle

A view of Seattle – arriving by ferry

This to me is the big difference – I’m using a Canon 1Ds3, which is capable of recording a lot of picture information, and then letting me decide the ‘film type’ and ‘processing’ afterwards (-If- I want to).

The picture is just one of a whole series I took as we arrived in Seattle – most for a high resolution panoramic print from stitching several images together. The one I’ve picked is nothing special (not at this size anyway) and reminds me that for every really nice looking slide I’ve got, I’ve many more that really could do better.

I’ll be writing up more about the DxO FilmPack next year, and I will try to find some images where the ‘Kodachrome look’ works well ;-)

All Keith's DxO reviews may be found via the Article Categories listing for DxO in the right column of any page.

By all means admire and learn from the great photos recorded with Kodachrome, but try and make the distinction between yesterday’s technology and what is around today. Yes, I’d love to drive around in an old classic car, but seat belts and not needing to check lubricant levels every few hundred miles do have some advantages.

So, do I lament the passing of Kodachrome?

Well, I’ve not used any this century, but it was part of my photographic education and lots of people have taken some great photos with it. That said, it’s a tool for people to use, there are now others.

If it came back, would I try it again – Nope

Update 2017: Every so often somebody looks at resurrecting Kodachrome and other films, but not yet

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4 Comments
  • Rick | Dec 30, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    While I will miss it in a nostalgic sense, I hadn’t used it in 20+ years. When it was announced that it was being discontinued, I bought 4 rolls for “old times sake” and shot them over the past month. I got them back from Dwaynes a few days ago, and I was underwhelmed with the results. I know this may be heresy, but I much prefer Fuji Provia, which has been my go-to film for many years.

    So, Keith, gotta agree with your conclusion. The memories are more vivid than the reality.

    • Jim | Dec 30, 2010 at 6:22 pm

      To me it is really about what has changed in photography from a learning standpoint. That is what I miss (most?) about all film types…learning the look and feel of a particular emulsion/development/display process, and then visualizing that end product ath the very moment of exposure. One was forced to think about what it looked like at the beginning of the process. It’s the only thing I miss about film, though. The learning of the discipline. I’m with Keith on this one. Former lovers should stay that way.

  • John Fanchamps | Dec 30, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    If nothing else, it taught me how to get tolerably sharp hand held shots at ludicrously slow shutter speeds. Thinking about it some more, it also taught me to think carefully about how the scene I was looking at would be affected by the technology, a core skill which is still relevant today.
    I’m currently feeding my ageing 1v with Fuji film, how long before it has to be laid to rest due to lack of film I wonder?

    John

    • Keith | Dec 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm

      Yes, those are certainly skills it helped me with too, even if I didn’t always appreciate it at the time ;-)

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