JISHOU, HUNAN — Kodak has decided to cease production after 74 years of its famous slide film, Kodachrome 64.
Basically, it’s time to move on, the company says. Photogs are abandoning film for digital cameras, and anyway Kodak makes other films that are easier to process, like Ektachrome. (Only one lab in the USA still processes Kodachrome 64, but it will stop that service next year. Diehard fans can still buy Kodachrome 64 from the lab’s remaining stock.)
Paul Simon immortalized Kodachrome in his song of the same name, but it was a favorite of photographers for decades before for its fine grain and excellent color reproduction. Steve McCurry, for example, used Kodachrome 64 to capture this famous portrait of a young Afghan woman for National Geographic in 1985. (Click on the image to see it fullsize.)
Newer films, like Ektachrome, are faster (more sensitive to light) and are easier to process than Kodachrome 64 (the 64 refers to the film speed or light sensitivity, ASA 64). As popular as it once was among users, lately it has accounted for less than 1% of Kodak’s film sales. So it makes sense to retire it.
Kodachrome’s demise, though, is another example of the paradigm shift in still photography. Digital cameras are so convenient and affordable now that most everyday users have abandoned film cameras entirely. The quality of digital photos has also encouraged most professionals, save for a few diehards, to retire their film-camera bodies, perhaps forever.
I used Kodachrome sparingly myself. Since I did not have a decent slide projector, using Kodacolor or Fujicolor print films was more convenient than using slide film. When I came to China last August, I had a compact digital camera (Nikon Coolpix 3100) and a replacement for my late lamented Nikon FM, a camera that I had used for nearly 30 years and grown to love.
Problems surfaced, however. The replacement FM did not seem to take pictures as well as my old one, perhaps because the replacement needed adjustment and cleaning. I also missed my Vivitar 28 mm and 135 mm lenses, which while cheap were reasonably sharp. My new outfit included a Tamron 35-70 mm zoom lens, which seemed to be out of focus, and a Nikkor 200 mm telephoto, which I still use.
But the biggest problem was lack of decent local film processing. The Fujifilm shop in downtown Jishou sent film out for processing, and the lab typically would cut the prints inaccurately and would never provide negative sleeves. The colors never seemed to be as rich as I remember from labs in the States, either. Whether the camera or the lab caused the lack of saturation I can’t say.
Each roll of 36 exposures, with processing, was costing me about 50 yuan, which is about US$7.30 now. Then I would have to scan the photos in my college office for electronic preservation and sharing. So, with some reluctance, I decided to abandon film and my beloved Nikon FM last fall, spending a month’s pay on a new Nikon D60 with a Nikkor 18-55 zoom lens.
It’s a damned fine camera, which I am still learning to exploit to its fullest potential. It has enabled me to take literally thousands of photos (you can see most of them here), and in the process save a ton of money on film and processing. (I estimate the camera will pay for itself after about 3,200 photos, at local prices. I’m not sure if I’ve reached that point yet, but if not I am very close.
Paul Simon may have wanted his Kodachrome 64 in his Nikon camera, and I may have wanted to stay true to my Nikon FM, but time marches on. My students here were very perplexed by my need to visit the photo shop periodically. It was time to stop being a martyr to the old ways of photography.