Behind the Lens: Kodachrome makes the leap from recording history to being history

Behind the Lens is a new photography column from pro shooter Bill Green. It covers all things photographic, with a slant towards techniques and digital asset management in the field.


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

~ Paul Simon

There are only a handful of icons in the history of adventure travel. From the timeless Land Rover to the Roorkhee Campaign Chair, these icons either made the journey possible or shaped our view of the world. Kodachrome™ film was one of those classics. Whether loaded in a Leica, Nikon, Hasselblad or Linhoff, the world, its people, wonders and disasters were all documented with Kodachrome. It was used to capture nearly every major event of human history for the past 75 years.

Why the sudden nostalgia? After a 75 year run, mama finally did take our Kodachrome away. In late 2009, the Kodachrome production line shut down, with the very last roll going to the capable hands of renown National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry for a project he is working on about Kodachrome and its effect on the way we see the world.

When it was first developed and released in the 1930s, Kodachrome was a radical departure from any other photographic media. The color, saturation and sharpness it captured set the benchmark for every film since. It changed the way we saw our planet and the life on it. From the way it renders the sky to the way it immortalized McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” (on the cover of the June 1985 National Geographic) with her piercing eyes, Kodachrome colors are the standard to which we see the world, even as we march on carrying the latest digital SLR camera.

When you think about images of exotic destinations, you are probably seeing them the way they were rendered by Kodachrome – especially if your world-view was formed by thumbing through National Geographic. Kodachrome and Nat Geo have a bond that goes back to the beginning. I think you could make a case that neither one would have reached their legendary status without the other. While National Geographic showed us people and places we didn’t know existed, the images were brought to you by Kodachrome. Kodachrome became our vision. Not only did photographers use Kodachrome to take pictures of the moon, astronauts on the moon (and in orbit too) used Kodachrome-loaded Hasselblads to take pictures of the Earth. And what other film has a song and state park named for it?

So for old times sake, dig out those last few rolls of Kodachrome hiding behind the frozen pizzas, load the campaign chairs in your Land Rover, pull the old Leica or Nikon out of the closet and make some memories. The GPS-tethered DSLR can sit this round out. Just make sure you do it quickly– Dwayne’s Photo Service of Parsons, Kansas is the last remaining film processing center to develop Kodachrome. They will continue to develop the film until December 30, 2010, officially marking the end of an era.

Click below to read an interview with Steve McCurry about the demise of Kodachrome on NPR:


If you’ve tried to scan your old Kodachrome slides, the results probably left you feeling a little flat. Obviously the easiest and best way to scan the film is to send it to a place with a high-end drum scanner and knowledgable people who know what Kodachrome is supposed to look like (I personally recommend West Coast Imaging).

If you already have a good film scanner like a Nikon 5000, Minolta Scan Elite, or even better, a Flextight, you can still get most of the information out of the film. After you scan your film, what you will see on the screen will be almost horrifying, but fear not, all the Kodachrome goodness is in there somewhere. At first, you will see a cyan-heavy image devoid of any saturation. Surprisingly, this is very easy to fix. When you are doing your global corrections in Photoshop, open a selective color correction layer and crank up the yellow in the neutrals, as well as a few points of magenta and black. Suddenly the flat scan is starting to look a little more like the slide. Next, open a curves layer and dial in a gentle S-curve applied to the luminance channel. Finally, open a hue/saturation layer and add about 15 points of master saturation to the image. There are many ways to increase saturation in Photoshop, but the hue/sat slider effects primarily yellow, which is exactly the color range that is missing from most Kodachrome scans.

The process of getting that Kodachrome look from a DSLR is even easier. The first, most important thing is that you should ALWAYS shoot in RAW format. These steps are for Lightroom, but if you are using another raw processor, the process is similar. For a starting point, try the following settings:

Blacks: 5
Brightness: 0
Contrast: +45
Clarity: +50
Vibrance: +25
Saturation: +5
Curve: strong
Blue hue: +5
Red sat: +25
Green sat: +15
Blue sat: -5
Green luminance: -15
Blue luminance: -15
Grain: 35

Season to taste as results will differ with each camera profile. You’ll get the results starting with a custom profile. If you like what you see, don’t forget to save it as a preset.

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