It was (is) All About the Medium

Kodachrome 25; 1990s

For potentially bored readers, I have some good news. I just returned from another European trip in October, which means some new images again, rather than my historical stroll down memory lane. I am post-processing images right now. But first, another reminiscent post:

Kodachrome, was simply the standard by which any other choice was measured. And until the 1980’s they generally just didn’t measure up.

My “evolution” series got me thinking a bit about the medium. Those who have been shooting only during the past 20 years may be vaguely aware of an old cellulose material called film. When I jumped in, film was all we had, and the “pickins” were slim.  If you wanted to shoot color slides (the medium of choice, it seems, for serious “nature” photographers), you mainly had Kodak. There were competitors, but in the early years, Kodak dominated the film world, for a number of reasons. Most shops and retail stores stocked Kodak products.

In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth ….. and Kodachrome

Perhaps the most important reason was that Kodachrome, was simply the standard by which any other choice was measured. And until the 1980’s the others generally just didn’t measure up.

prior to about 1936, color photography was not prevalent among all but a limited group of professionals. Color wasn’t really that great (though it was relative, I suppose). Early results (including some early color slide films) are reminiscent of the early “colorized” movies we saw. We all knew it was black and white with some color added. In my mind, this was true until Kodachrome became the standard.

In 1936, a couple of musician-turned-scientists were hired by Eastman Kodak to complete their experimental process. As I did my research, I was interested to learn that there actually was another “Kodachrome,” which was a 2-color process, developed by a Kodak engineer in 1913. In 1936, Kodak introduced the 3-layer process which became the vaunted Kodachrome. Called a non-substantive film (an odd name in my view – but addressing the lack of dye or colorant “substances” in the film emulsion itself), the Kodachrome process was complex. It was essentially a B&W film, in which color dyes were added to the 3 different layers during the development process.

Fuji Velvia

This meant that a specialized processing setup was necessary, and until 1954, Kodak successfully maintained a monopoly on this process (known as K-14), by selling Kodachrome only with pre-paid processing by Kodak as part of the deal. In 1954, the United States challenged this practice as an anti-trust violation, and an agreement was entered into, among other things, ending this practice (and of course, allowing competitors to acquire the accoutrements to develop Kodachrome).

Originally, Kodachrome was released at ISO 10. A 20-exposure cassette cost $3.50. That, for those interested, would have been about $65.00 in 2019 dollars!

Kodak (Ektachrome) E100SW

In 1936, there was no ISO (or ASA, as it was originally known). During the World War, the military wanted a single standard to be able to increase their efficiency. Prior to this time, there were several standards (and thus, several different marketed light meters – all handheld in those days). The American Standards Association created a “standard” measurement for light sensitivity measurement, which then became known as the film’s “ASA,” or ASA rating. In 1987, the International Organization for Standardization was created and film manufacturers worldwide shifted to this international standard (which is numerically identical to the old ASA standard). So we now refer to light sensitivity measure – on all media – as “ISO.”

There were non-believers …

That same year (1936) German film and camera manufacturer, AGFA, introduced Agfacolor. While very similar to Kodachrome, including its three layer emulsion, AGFA engineers embedded color dyes into the film emulsion, making the development process less complex. I shot maybe one or two rolls of Agfacolor. Didn’t care for it. It looked, as I noted above, like lightly colorized black and white. It did seem to make a big hit in the motion picture industry, however, and was widely used in film-making for a number of years.

The Fujifilm company was established in Japan in 1934. I was not able to find much about early film offered by Fuji. Of course, they catapulted into top status with the release of Velvia, years later.

Fuji Velvia

Kodachrome II, was introduced in 1961, with an ASA/ISO rating of 25. In 1962, they a released 64 ASA version (later they simply became known as K-25 and K-64). In 2007, K-25 production was discontinued. K-64 production followed suit in 2009). One source noted that in 2009, sales of Kodachrome made up 1% of Kodak sales revenue. Kodak had essentially ceased processing Kodachrome themselves by 2006, and by 2010, the only one Kodak-certified facility remaining was Dwayne’s Photo, in Parsons, Kansas. Later that year the even they ceased Kodachrome processing. Which led me to wonder, what if I had any rolls of undeveloped Kodachrome? Some “Google” research will reveal that there are processors out there who claim to be able to process it. But I checked my freezer. No film of any kind in there. Phew! 🙂

Nothing lasts forever …

In addition to its complexity and considerable expense, there were other Kodachrome drawbacks. Transparencies were designed, of course, to be projected with a relatively strong light (anybody else remember those “travelogue” slide shows that were prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s?). The medium was consequently, relatively high contrast with lots of shadows. This made it particularly touchy to produce photographic prints from. And, we have learned in later years, the process of scanning and converting Kodachrome to digital images often is challenged by colorcasts which need to be addressed in the scanning process.

Stemming partly from photographers (particularly consumers) demand for cheaper and more convenient products, and also partly borne out of the 1954 antitrust decree directing Kodak to endeavor to release a newer, more consumer-friendly film that was in development, Ektachrome, with a new “E-process” in which dyes were embedded in the film emulsion was introduced in 1955. Originally ASA 32, a 160 version was introduced in 1959, and 64 and 100 ASA versions in 1977. I wasn’t even shooting yet! Two years after I got started, in 1979, Ektachrome 400 was released.

Kodak Elite Chrome 100

Ektachrome had some advantages. It was cheaper than Kodachrome and cheaper and easier to process. You could have it processed locally. If you wanted to make the investment in color processing equipment (essentially, some relatively affordable tanks and chemicals), you could process it yourself.

I shot very little of it. This was probably partly due to the prejudice I acquired early on, from my shooting inspiration. But there was also still no doubt that Kodachrome was still the professional-preferred medium for most. Ektachrome also had a known blue color cast, and I found it cool, and a bit less saturated than my personal taste. So, throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s I shot Kodachrome.

Kodak Elite Chrome II (50)

When I came back to serious shooting in the early 1990’s, the industry had changed. Fuji introduced its Velvia 50 in 1990. Its characteristic was a very colorful, saturated, and contrasty profile. It took aim at Kodachrome and punched it in the face. It quickly became the slide film of choice for nature photographers – especially for landscape and flowers. And it used the E-6 process (by this time virtually every emulsion used the E-6 process, except for Kodachrome).

Again, while there were others, there really weren’t 🙂 . Fuji and Kodak went head to head. Fuji released Velvia. Kodak parried with Lumiere 100 (a neutral balanced Ektachrome) and Lumiere 100X (a warm-saturated Ektachrome). Fujia added Velvia 100. Lumiere was short-lived and said by some to have some inconsistency in color from roll to roll. Kodak replaced it with E100S (saturated), E100SW (warm saturated) and E100VS (very saturated – Kodak’s answer to Velvia).

Kodak Elite Chrome II (100)

Fuji, in 2003, in response to criticism that Velvia was just too colorful (perhaps unrealistic to some), introduced Provia, in 100, 200, 400, and 1600 ISO versions, and  Provia F (ultra-fine grain).

These were all so-called “professional” films. They tended to be more expensive. Whether they were that much better is probably a personal judgment. They probably had better quality control. I remember going to my photo shop in my community to buy these films (they weren’t generally available in the big box and drugstores), and they were generally stored in refrigerated conditions.

To cater to consumers, both companies released (almost simultaneously) “consumer” versions of the above film varieties. Kodak’s Ektachrome became Elite Chrome, Elite Chrome II, and Elite Chrome Extra Color.

Fuji Sensia II

Fuji’s consumer version of Provia was Sensia, Sensia II, and Sensia III, in various ISO ratings. I am not aware that they ever marketed a consumer version of Velvia.

Interesting stuff for some of us, and by the mid-2000’s, essentially irrelevant to most of us. 🙂

Fuji Sensia II (100)

Before I did the research for this piece, I spent a few hours going through my archives to find examples of some of my images made with all of the above media. The problem is that it is truly impossible to make comparisons, here. This is partly because in order to do this on a blog, it became necessary at some point to convert all the media to one single media: digital. So this may not have been a very useful exercise – but it was fun doing it. Presented as digital media, I can see some nuances, but not any huge differences (of course, post processing software has “recipes” to “recreate” film “looks” in digital post-processing these days. I have done very little of that, except for B&W, and cannot really say how accurate they are). I did very little post-processing of the “film” images; just a bit of sharpening mainly. I would be interested if you can see any difference.

For me, digital processing made everything possible; digital capture made it much more convenient


And there shall come a Rapture …..

Digital shifted the focus (see what I did there?) from all of the considerations of film, down to one thing: the digital sensor. And it is all about the quality, sharpness, and resolving capability of those tiny little electronic chips. We moved from cost and technical ability to manufacture affordable digital sensors, to “size” matters, and then back again these days to the fact that maybe it doesn’t even matter so much any more.

Nikon D100 (2002)
6 megapixel – “APS”

The Purple Coneflower is one of my first flower images made with direct digital capture. As noted above, it is difficult to make useful comparisons with film. First, doesn’t scanning a film image convert it to a “digital” image? Then, once we get into the post-processing world, everything we once knew kind of goes out the window. We can post-process a film scanned image in much the same ways we can post-process a digital capture. It may be possible to capture “cleaner” images directly, but we still have to deal with “digital” grain (noise). Color rendering becomes pretty much what you want it to be. One interpretation of the coneflower, for example, is that it has a “color-cast.” This is purposeful on my part because I like the warm, saturated color in many of my more colorful “nature” images. But I did this (of course, you can inadvertently capture color-casts, but if you shoot in the raw format, you can almost always correct, or adjust it, as can be seen from the white daylily image made with the Nikon D200).

Nikon D200
10 Megapixel; APS

I had to laugh as I reviewed digital images in my Lightroom Catalog. I apparently have an affinity for lilies, probably because they are an easy, plentiful, and colorful subject (emphasis perhaps on “easy” 🙂 ). In any event, I have almost 400 lily images. The closest second is around 25.

We moved from cost and technical ability to manufacture affordable digital sensors, to “size” matters, and then back again these days to the fact that maybe it doesn’t even matter so much any more

When I shifted to digital, I was satisfied with what was available, but not completely happy that the sensors were still small. Size, with sensors, had at least three dimensions: actual physical sensor size, and pixel depth (the number of pixels on that space), and the actual physical size of each individual pixel. Obviously, they are interrelated. And in the beginning, this was a pretty big deal. Larger sensors and larger pixels could handle capture with less noise, at higher ISO levels and more detail. So, almost from the beginning, there were “pixel wars” between the purveyors of digital cameras. But also in the beginning, the successful manufacture and hence, availability of larger sensors was prohibitively expensive. Of course, the sensor size itself also effected the optics in a big way. The 35mm SLR camera had become the sort of “standard” by which most of this stuff was measured. But the affordable sensors at first were the so-called “APS” sized sensor, which is significantly smaller than the 35mm film rectangle we were used to, but as you can see by the gold rectangle below, much larger that what we first had with Point & Shoot cameras.

Sensor Sizes Compared

APS sensors meant that the lenses made for the 35mm perspective, did not work the same way. There were pros and cons (covered ad nauseum by others elsewhere). Because of the perceived combined “advantage” of a higher-quality capture and regaining the use, especially, of their wide angle lenses, many 35mm users almost immediately began to call for a so-called “full frame” sensor. I have always found this kind of illogical. What would a “medium format” (4 x 5 inch), or a full 8 x 10″ view camera user call a sensor made to their size? :-). But “full frame” caught on. I eventually jumped on that train, believing “full frame” capture was necessary for me to achieve the image quality I desired. I want to emphasize that there is certainly nothing negative about owning the larger sensor. There is little doubt that you can coax more out of it than the smaller sensors. But to me, it may have been the purchase of a dump truck, when a small pickup (or even a wheelbarrow) was sufficient. There are a couple factors – all empirical for me – that bring me to this conclusion.

D800 “full frame”

First, I had some personal experience. While I am not sure this is any longer true, at the time, to me the “holy grail” was the photographic print, on traditional photographic paper. I have owned a couple Epson printers that were capable of making inkjet prints that rivaled anything I had ever received from any lab. And, I was able to do my own “darkroom” adjustments. For economic reasons, the largest I generally made were 13 x 19″ prints, and that became my de facto standard for measuring quality. And while I enjoyed and appreciated my “full frame” Nikons, my “testing” didn’t prove out the benefit (for me) of the larger sensor (except, perhaps with its integration with some really fine pro- zoom lenses designed for 35mm).

(equivalent to Nikon APS)

The real eye opener came some years later, when I made side-by-side images with my Sony “full frame” and my Sony RX100, and printed them. I could not see much difference. To be fair, much of what has gone on has been in the post-processing realm (both in terms of technology and my abilities). There have also been technology gains which have made the smaller sensor just that much better.

Zeiss 50mm f1.8 lens


The red lily image illustrates this, I think. It prints beautifully as a 13 x 19. I believe it could easily print much larger with no noticeable degradation. It illustrates to me my earlier premise that resolving power, low light, and clean capture-capable sensors (regardless of size, and often regardless of the number of megapixels) has really become the “media” of today.


Kodachrome and my Nikon Camera – 1996

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

Paul Simon; 1973

Pink Rose Nikon N6006 Kodachrome 25 Copyright Andy Richards 1996
Kodachrome 25
Nikon N6006
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

I started shooting again in 1996.  In earlier years, I fell in love with the realism produced by color slide films, and Kodachrome 25 quickly became my film of choice.  When I started serious shooting in the late 70’s, there were really only two or three choices: Kodachrome 25, Kodachrome 64, some Kodak Ektachromes and a couple of Agfa emulsions (I am sure there were others, but these were what I seemed to find in the camera stores).  There was something about K25 that just hooked me.  Ektachrome was a slide film that could be “home” developed and often local shops had the processing equipment to do so.  But to me it seemed washed out and kind of “bluish.”  The Kodachrome films involved a complex development process that required expensive equipment.  It ensured that rolls of film were going to be sent in and you were going to generally wait a week or so for the results.  It took me a while to work up to the Nikon camera :-), but by the time we reached the ’90’s I was a confirmed “Black Hatter.”  And in my closet, I had an old, cracked, brown leatherette bag stashed with 2 Nikkormat bodies and an assortment of “eh” third party glass.  My only Nikkor lens was the 50mm lens.

By 1996, a lot had changed in the industry.  And yet nothing had really changed

Nikon N6006 Kodak Elitechrome II (50) Copyright 1996 f4.5; 1/60 sec Flowers Vol. 1, #3
Nikon N6006
Kodak Elitechrome II (50)
Copyright 1996
f4.5; 1/60 sec
Flowers Vol. 1, #3

By 1996, a lot had changed in the industry.  And yet nothing had really changed (the real change came in the late 1990s – early 2000s with the advent of the consumer-affordable digital capture DSLR).  My first Asahiflex SLR camera had a focal plane, horizontal, fabric shutter.  The lenses screwed into the body and there were no mechanical linkages.  “Stopping the lens down” to the selected aperture (in all but one case — wide-open) was done manually with a ring on the lens barrel.  Focusing and composing was done by using a waist-level viewfinder.  My second SLR, a Canon TX, incorporated radical changes :-).  It had a pentaprism viewfinder, bayonet mounting lenses, and on the mount, a little lever that “automatically” stopped down the lens, when the shutter was tripped (that was first meaning of “automatic” with reference to SLR cameras).  While those were hugely convenient new touches for me, I was mildly surprised to realize they did not improve the quality of my images :-).  This was my first inkling of the idea that “its all just gear.”  My third SLR was my first Nikon.  There were really only minor differences and I quickly assimilated to it.  All of those cameras had to be fed film and mine were nurtured with virtually 100% Kodachrome 25 when shooting for myself (the Nikon ran through a fair amount of B&W Tri-X as a college student staff shooter).  But in the end, the cameras were all functionally identical; a light-tight box that accepted various lenses and allowed us to adjust shutter speed and aperture, and to variably focus the lenses.

The one constant was the most important one; film

Nikon N6006 Kodachrome 25 f5.6; 1/8 sec. Flowers, Vol. 1, #34
Nikon N6006
Kodachrome 25
f5.6; 1/8 sec.
Flowers, Vol. 1, #34

There was also a “new automatic.”  While I was “sleeping” during the 1980’s, Nikon, Pentax led the charge, first with integrated motor drives and then with “autofocus.”  In 1985, along came Minolta and put what was perhaps the first programming function into their Maxxum line of cameras.  I remember keeping up and reading from time to time and was very enamored with the idea.  I have always been a “gadget-guy” and I think that intrigued me.  Today, I yearn for a simpler body that has just the features I find useful.  Every camera I have owned since I moved up to modern SLR cameras have had “program” functions.  I have never used one of them and consider them bloatware on the cameras.  Anyway, the newer bodies all had auto-focus, integrated motor-drives, and in Nikon’s case, some pretty impressive flash technology.  But as I said.  Nothing had really changed.  Don’t get me wrong.  These were often fun and convenient features.  But they really did nothing to change the essence of the camera (again, a light-tight, interchangeable lens camera).  Getting caught up in the “gear” thing, I traded that cracked brown bag, and the gear in it, for my first “all-automatic” Nikon; a N6006.  I eventually acquired an old manual F2 as a backup and moved my main body up to an N90s.  The N90s was probably my favorite camera body if all time and was the last SLR I owned before moving to digital.

Rose Copyright Andy Richards 1996
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

But the one constant was the most important one; film.  And because of its nature, you either had to shoot the entire roll, figure out how to wind it up into the canister and then fish it back out again, or use multiple camera bodies (something many of us ultimately did do).  I carried 2 bodies in the field most of the time, usually loaded with different films.  Film really changed a lot during that periodFuji began making its Velvia emulsion which was vibrant and contrasty and especially favored by nature photographers.  Kodak eventually caught up with some of its Elite Chrome (Ektachrome) emulsions and it was a time for experimentation on my part.  As the Fuji and Kodak (all new development for them was in Ektachrome films) films got better and better, I essentially would leave K25 behind.  Newer films were rated at much higher ISO ratings (Kodak Elite Chrome II for example, was 100 compared to Kodachrome’s 25 or 64 — isn’t there a Chicago song in there somewhere 🙂 ?–and could be push processed to 200).

Nikon N6006 Kodak Elite chrome II 50 Copyright Andy Richards 1996
Nikon N6006
Kodak Elite chrome II 50
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

My primary interest in those days was so-called “nature photography.”  By this time I was a little older and a little smarter, and realized that what I did not know about photography was an awful lot more than what I did know.  I began to read.  The best book I have ever read on the subject was (still available) a book by pro, Bryan Peterson, called “Understanding Exposure.”  It was, for me, an eye opener.  I followed up by reading other books he has written.  His were the best resources I had (and still have).   I also read wildlife shooters Moose Peterson, John Shaw,  and the late Larry West (a premiere birding photographer, whose “How To Photograph Birds” remains, in my view, the best succinct handbook on this subject), and many others as well.

Day Lily Copyright Andy Richards 1996
Day Lily
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Flower shots are often one of the first love’s of new shooters.  They are cooperative.  They are colorful.  They are easy to find and can be shot in a variety of conditions and setups (natural and man-made).  I was no exception and began photographing flowers.  Lots of them.  Too many of them.  But I did learn a lot about lighting and depth of field.  As you can see from some of the images here, soft lighting and harsh lighting can have very different effects on a subject.  I also began experimenting with flash to control the image background and/or to fill shadows in contrasty image conditions.  These images are also illustrative of the need for critical focus.   They are often shot with very shallow depth of field and critical focus on some part of the image is pretty important.  It is ok (even desirable in many cases) to have parts of an image out of focus, but the shooter needs to be able to see and control that (unfortunately there is sometimes a certain softness introduced by the film to digital scanning process).

Nikon N6006 Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter Fuji Sensia 100 (200) f5.6; Copyright Andy Richards 1996
Nikon N6006
Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter
Fuji Sensia 100 (200)
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

I also began shooting wildlife shots.  I immediately learned that there really are some areas where “gear” matters.  And this is especially true with birds.  Unless your name is Grizzly Adams, it is pretty unlikely that you will get close enough to make wildlife portraits with a 50mm (or even a 135mm) lens.  Many of the “consumer” zoom lenses of that day has some serious shortcomings.  In addition to the fact that the best light occurs most often in early morning or evening, those also tend to be the times when certain wildlife are most active.  Most consumer zooms were variable aperture, with f5.6 often being the best you could hope for at the long end.  This makes capturing wildlife, who are rarely still, a challenge.  I purchased a Tokina “prosumer” 80-400 zoom lens.  While Tokina produced some very fine glass at prices roughly 1/2 the cost of good Nikon or Canon glass, this particular model was a bit on the soft side, as the wildlife images here demonstrate.  In later years, for a time, I owned a 300mm f2.8 prime lens, which was great for wildlife and sports, but also required a virtual caisson to move around and to mount.  The image of the deer was one my most frustrating and disappointing moments.  It highlights the limits of f5.6and really not very good quality glass, as well as the further negative of a teleconverter (only in the late 2000’s did Nikon finally produce a sharp teleconverter – up to that time, all the commentators agreed that all teleconverters were going to produce some image degradation on long glass).  At a distance, a significant crop with those variables was — as can be seen — hopeless.  Yet the setting and the pose was really nice.  I wasn’t going to get any closer to this guy who was all the way across a cornfield.  While slightly better, you can also see that the Great Blue Heron shot lacks the nice detail (partly due to harsh lighting) we would like to see on bird feathers, and lacks the “razor-sharpness” bird photographers demand from their best work.  But heck, I was shooting.  And I was having fun!

Nikon N6006 Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter Fuji Sensia 100 (200) Copyright Andy Richards 1996
Nikon N6006
Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter
Fuji Sensia 100 (200)
Copyright Andy Richards 1996