Most serious photographers today don't personally remember when Eastman Kodak Co. first introduced Kodachrome in 16mm amateur motion picture rolls in April 1935, and then brought Kodachrome 35mm slide film to consumers in August 1936. (Kodak 35mm slide mounting service, however, didn't appear until 1939.)
Although other color films existed as early as 1907, Kodachrome was, without a doubt, the first totally reliable film that offered significant color dye stability. It is still regarded as the most archival of all color transparency films, and many stock photography agencies demand or prefer slides made on Kodachrome because of the legendary longevity and sharpness of its high-quality images. Kodachrome is a unique emulsion and it has never been matched by any other film manufacturer.
The key to the Kodachrome's archival stability is that the color dyes (unlike Ektachrome and other E-6 Process films) are not placed in the film emulsion during manufacturing. Kodachrome is basically a black-and-white film with three light sensitive layers, each of which is "filtered" to record magenta, cyan, or yellow "light". During film processing, the correct color dyes are introduced into the respective layers to produce the full-color positive image. This is a much more complicated operation (the original K-11 Process required 28 different steps) than processing color films in which color dyes are already within each of the emulsion layers. But, the Kodachrome approach provides far greater color stability.
Over the years, photographers have acknowledged Kodachrome is the premier color transparency film. After World War II, it was available in 4-by-5 and 8-by-10 sheet film sizes for mainly commercial photography until 1951. Today, modern K-14 Process Kodachrome is available in 35mm-format with speeds of ISO 25, 64, and 200 (plus an A-Type ISO 40 emulsion balanced for 3,400 K-degree lamps) and 120 roll film in ISO 64 in daylight balanced emulsions.
A longtime favorite film among stock photography agencies, photographers were once advised that all their stock images had to be made on Kodachrome. Vast improvements in E-series transparency films helped move photographers from Kodachrome. With their high-quality and process-locally capability, the latest E-6 generation of films overtook Kodachrome's decades-long popularity among professional image-makers.
Despite reoccurring rumors to the contrary, Kodak's dedication to Kodachrome has been unwavering, even through the color stability of E-6 film emulsions have become far more reliable and archival than the earlier E-2 and E-4 versions. For example, Kodak has already announced that it is providing on-site 35mm Kodachrome processing at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta, Ga. It is even offering push-processing for Kodachrome 200 to E.I. 800.
A flurry of independent Kodachrome processing labs were set up in the late 1970s and '80s, however few of these exist today. Among the remaining independent custom-quality K-14 Process labs that process both 35m and 120 rolls are A&I Color Labs, Los Angeles, and BWC Chrome Labs, Miami Beach. Also processing Kodachrome in the U.S are Kodak's Kodalux facilities at Rockville, Maryland; Fairlawn, New Jersey, and Dallas, plus a handful of amateur-oriented labs, such as LaSalle Color, Chicago, Ill.
Eric M. Rose of BWC Chrome Labs, says, "Within the four years our lab has been processing Kodachrome, we've attracted up a wide variety of clients around the United States. Most of our customers are outside the Miami area and air express film to us at the rate of 250 packages a day-we provide a one-day turnaround. Customers range from publications and sports and media photographers to fashion and advertising shooters, or long-standing Kodachrome users, who will shoot nothing else. We get film from New York City pros as well as an international coterie of photographers, who travel to Miami Beach in wintertime to shoot next-year's summer catalog fashions. And, then there are amateur wildlife photographers, and other serious photo buffs, who have money and want the best of everything-including the best film and best Kodachrome processing possible. And, a great number of doctors and hospital technicians exclusively shoot Kodachrome for their medical records and send us their film."
"The reason for our labs growth is the top custom-quality and the high customer service we provide. It's the best in the country-we have a full-time chemist regulating the Kodachrome line. We are constantly reevaluation our work procedures and listen very closely to our clients' feedback. We have our ZIP Chrome Department for shipping processed film back, and seldom has a roll been misdirected. We try to provide all sorts of special custom services whenever possible, such as push-processing Kodachrome 200 to E.I. 1000. That's one reason sports photographers like the lab and use Kodachrome: the film can be push-processed and doesn't exhibit an E-6 color shift and still offers good looking grain structure," Rose continues.
"If there is a down-side to Kodachrome, it's the up-side of E-6 films. Today, there's a great variety of E-6 emulsions with choices of different characteristics and color palettes, plus you can get good E-6 processing in any major city in the U.S.," he adds.
"Many Kodachrome-using photographers find us because they are tried of getting the run-around from low-end and less-customer-conscious labs. Sometimes I spend an hour on the telephone advising a customer-photographers want to send their work to a lab that cares about them. We only process Kodachrome and E-6 film so we're specialists in 'chrome' film. We don't do anything else." Rose concludes
Lou George is the owner of BWC Chrome Labs and also operates the full-service Dallas-based BWC Imaging Labs. She comments, "We're pleased to learn that Kodak may introduce a low-volume Kodachrome processing station, because it will bring new attention to this wonderful film and offer greater access to processing. Since BWC Chrome mainly serves pros, and other individuals seeking the best custom-quality processing, who express ship many rolls of Kodachrome to us a one time, I don't think mini-lab processors will affect our business. We would like to see Kodachrome get the recognition it deserves from a new generation of photographers."
"We find that Kodachrome use is notoriously seasonal," comments Jim Yates, marketing manager at A&I Color Labs, Los Angeles. "It slacks off in the winter months, while we usually process 1,500 to 1,600 rolls a day in the summertime. There's a lot of photographers who believe in it and shoot Kodachrome everyday. They range from magazine staff photographers (A&I receives Kodachrome from Playboy studios in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles) to nature photographers working in the wilds of the Northwest. It's a real mixed bag of clients," he says.
"However, there seems to be a modest decline in Kodachrome processing every year, with an equivalent increase in E-6 film processing. Many photographers today-particularly in advertising photography-find E-6 films more convenient, and the newer photographers in the business don't have the same allegiance to Kodachrome that the old guys had. Both Kodak and Fuji have outstanding E-6 films, and a lot of the shooters like Fuji Velvia. Most of the advertising photographers don't care about archival qualities-the images are only expected to be in use for a couple of months," Yates continued.
"There's a good market for Kodachrome processing. In addition to developing 35mm and 120, we modified our equipment to do Kodachrome 16mm and 8mm movie film processing," Yates concludes.
"Why aren't more photographers using Kodachrome today?" Photo Marketing asked a group of established pros in Chicago recently. None of the eight individuals sitting around the table said they were Kodachrome users. They were all E-6 shooters and all members of the American Society of Media Photographers, a group who are probably among the greatest potential users for Kodachrome in the world.
Why has this great, time-honored transparency film fallen into only occasional use by so many serious photographers? Here are some speculations:
Perhaps Kodachrome's greatest single drawback is a lack of fast turnaround from proven, custom-quality processing sources. In Chicago, the Kodak's Kodachrome processing lab once provided pros with early afternoon pickup of processed Kodachrome that was dropped off in the morning. Evening film drop-offs could be picked up the next morning. Now, Eastman Kodak's closest Kodachrome processing facility is Rockville or Fairlawn, since the Finley, Ohio, Kodalux Kodachrome line closed down.
Once upon a time, Chicago's Ross-Ehlert Photo Lab did a good business in Kodachrome processing for pro photographers. But. the line closed and Ross-Ehlert was purchased by Wace Midwest Photo Imaging, who has no interest in Kodachrome, and even cutback on its around-the-clock E-6 processing.