It was with some bemusement last week I read the news that Ektachrome, Kodak’s discontinued colour transparency (i.e. slide) film, was making a comeback. The news flashed up in my Facebook feed, and knowing how susceptible social media feeds can be to fake news, confirmed it with a couple of other sources to ensure that this positive (heh) news was indeed accurate…and that Hillary Clinton is NOT a shape-shifting lizard person who feasts on the brains of children in the Rothchilds’ upstate New York compound. In fact the announcement of a new reversal film from Kodak is probably more substantial than Clinton’s reptilian reshaping. But the news of a new film being released the good news it seems?
The relaunch of Ektachrome is completely unexpected. While we keep on hearing about the resurgence/revival/renaissance etc. of photographic film, in reality this new age is limited to black and white and colour negative films only. Why? Because B&W and colour negative films are widely available in a variety of emulsions from manufacturers all over the world, and are comparatively easy to develop either at home or at the local minilab.
Colour reversal is not. For years, colour reversal film was the photographic medium for colour accuracy and longevity. It was favoured by commercial photographers for reproduction in publications, but offered almost no benefits for the average family snapper. Although it looked pretty on the lightbox (or on the family projector), colour reversal film was and remains particularly finicky about exposure (overexposure=death), more difficult to develop, offered slower speeds and was very difficult to get prints from.
Colour negative films, on the other hand, were a consumer’s best friend. Although early colour neg films were pretty ordinary, by the 1970s, it had largely displaced reversal as the consumers’ medium. Colour negative could be processed quickly (ubiquitous one hour photos anyone?), was better in low light and was much more forgiving of errors in exposure (important given the no-frills nature of most point-and-shoot cameras). But perhaps most importantly for the family album, prints could be made easily from colour negatives and at the same time as processing.
Although negatives didn’t immediately end the positive, colour reversal became a niche professionals’ and enthusiasts’ medium. As digital capture improved throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the market for reversal film pretty much evaporated. Except for a few specialists (such as large format and landscape photographers) and holdouts in the commercial world, colour reversal ceased to be a mainstream format by the end of the first decade of the 2000s.
With the decline in film use more broadly, the number of labs that offered the E-6 process (Kodak’s designation for colour reversal processing) dwindled and, in most cities around the world, the already expensive costs associated with colour reversal photography increased.
In Melbourne, for example, we went from 8 (from memory) E-6 labs in 2008 to 2 in January 2017.
Along with lab availability, the range of emulsions also rapidly shrank. In 2007, you could reasonably expect a photographic speciality store stock Fujifilm Astia 100F; Velvia 50, 100, 100F; Provia 100F, 400X; Sensia 100, 200, 400; and Kodak Ektachrome E100G, E100VS, 100 Plus, 200; and Elite Chrome, each in a variety of sizes. 10 years later, most of these films have been discontinued.
By 2012, Kodak had killed off its entire colour reversal product line, and every year since has brought further discontinuation notices from Fujifilm. If the aforementioned films haven’t been nixed, their format availability has been severely limited.
In 2007, Fujifilm Velvia 50, long a mainstay of landscape photographers, was available in 35mm, 120, 220, 4x5 and 8x10. Today, it’s available only in 35mm and 120. Whispers and rumours constantly suggest that Fujifilm are going to cease production of their reversal films, and the constant stream of discontinuation and price hike notices from Japan suggest this sad juncture can’t be too far away.
So we should be happy Kodak is reintroducing Ektachrome, right? Well, hold up there one sec. In principle, I’m always in favour of more film, but it’s got to be the right films that have a viable future. I just don’t think that Ektachrome is that product.
Colour reversal film is in its death throes not because of its unavailability, but rather because of its expense and diminishing practicality. Colour reversal cannot be revived just by releasing new emulsions, it’s got have have a commensurate increase in processing infrastructure to go with it. Unless Kodak is getting back into the minilab business, I can’t see this happening. The reintroduction of Ektachrome, as welcome as it is, won’t address the broader issues of cost and availability of reversal film.
In addition, unlike expired colour negative film, colour reversal isn’t a ‘fun’ medium. Unless you’re cross processing (and that’s very expensive to do these days with fresh film), it’s a serious medium that requires some serious skill to get the most out of it. Nothing would dampen a shooter’s first experience with the new Ektachrome more than spending a heap on stock and processing only to receive 36 overexposed frames in return.
I love colour reversal film. Or at least I did. When it didn’t cost an arm, two legs and a kidney to get processed, it was always a thrill popping up to the lab to get my little red or yellow box with 36–38 mounted frames inside. Holding them up to the light to see if they came out the way I had imagined all those days or weeks before. But that is where the excitement ended for me; the rest of the process was incredibly frustrating.
I could see these sharp, vibrant images popping off the lightbox, but the resulting scans were almost always a dull and fuzzy imitation of the original.
Even as I upgraded scanning equipment to a Nikon Coolscan 5000ED — regarded as one of the best consumer film scanners around — slides were always better viewed through a loupe against a backlight than as a digital file. Back in the day, the preferable option would have been to order a Cibachrome of my very best one or two frames, but sadly this impressive printing method fell victim to digital disruption quite a few years back (if you get a chance to see a Jeff Wall or similar Cibachrome backlit in a gallery, don’t pass it up. They are stunning).
I have not shot a roll of colour reversal film in over two years. In this digital world, it could never live up to its projected potential, at least not without spending a lot of time and money getting the perfect scan, adding extra cost (and time) to an already expensive process. Still, there’s an undeniable vibrancy to a well-exposed slide on a lightbox that simply cannot be matched by even the highest resolution LCD. It’s this unparalleled colour that Kodak no doubt hope will bring people back to Ektachrome.
On the one hand, I’m delighted to see Kodak invest in the future of film, but on the other, I’m struggling to see where the market for the new Ektachrome is. Is it professionals? Unlikely, because they’re shooting digital and even if they weren’t, they probably wouldn’t shoot 35mm anyway. Is it enthusiasts? Maybe, but again this market has largely gone digital and even where it hasn’t, the limited availability of E-6 labs will impact the desirability of shooting reversal film.
I wish Kodak all the best with the new Ektachrome. I hope they have trouble keeping up with demand and all the stock is snapped up by enthusiastic photographers and cinematographers. I hope we can add colour reversal film to the popular ‘revivals’ of the analogue age the early 21st century has seen and that there is a flourishing of new labs around the world who can professionally process all types of film. I know I’ll be grabbing a couple of rolls when it’s released.
But I can’t help but think that all the investment in retooling the vast Rochester production lines for smaller batches of this once ubiquitous film could be better placed into new and exciting B&W and colour negative emulsions. Should the new Ektachrome not succeed, I hope the bean counters at Kodak don’t view it as a failure of film more broadly as a medium. I hope they don’t feel less inclined to make investments in the future of their professional negative film portfolios, just because Ektachrome didn’t succeed. If that were to occur, it would truly turn this positive into a dire negative.