Finding Kodachrome - by Zheng Li for 35mmc
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Finding Kodachrome and Bringing Back Color (the Digital Way)- By Zheng Li

May 5, 2022

Some of us know Kodachrome from the iconic Afghan Girl photo by National Geographic’s Steve McCurry. Some of us might even have watched the 2017 movie of the same name, about an estranged son trying to develop the last few rolls of exposed Kodachrome from his late father. Some of us, lucky enough, might have even shot, developed and marvelled at those glorious Kodachrome slides on a light table or through a projector.

But Kodachrome is no more: Kodak stopped its production in 2009, while Dwayne’s (the last lab that processed Kodachrome, and featured in the movie) ran out of K-14 chemistry in 2010. So it became more a memory of the past, like many other discontinued film stocks. But Kodachrome holds a special place in many photographer’s hearts, a nostalgic milestone in the photographic journey.

Then I found 6 rolls of Kodachrome.

The negative

The Kodachrome I found was Kodachrome 64 in 135 format, of unknown expiration date. They seem to be reasonably fresh and in excellent condition. I went back to my journals and found that I last used them in 2009, when Kodachrome could still be processed at Dwayne’s. The slides from that last batch were a bit dark, with intense red and blue.

I searched online and watched some YouTube videos, and it seems there are several good tutorials on how to develop the Kodachrome in Black and White. The only trick is to remove the remjet, which Kodachrome shares with cine film such as Kodak Vision 3.

According to Kodak technical literature, Kodachrome is actually a three layered black and white film plus orange filter. Each of the layers are sensitive to a particular colored light, and in the K-14 process different dye were added to each layer in order to create the final color positive.

Enough science and chemistry for me, now it’s time to get my hands dirty. To test out the little batch, I went to the Japanese Gardens at San Mateo’s Central Park. It was a late March afternoon, a very nice sunny but cool spring day with blue sky, temperature around 60F. The camera was a Nikon FE2 with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 lens, set on Aperture Priority. The film was rated at 25 ISO, since I was not too sure how expired it was.

The darkroom

Kodachrome 64 contact sheet

Kodachrome 64 contact sheet

The tutorial I followed was by Dean Chartier from Tekarra Studio. You can find the full instructions in the appendix at the bottom, so I won’t repeat. I just add a few notes about what I have deviated from the tutorial.

  • Instead of a 10% Borax solution, I used a 10% Baking Soda solution (35 grams of baking soda dissolved in 350ML warm water) at 105F. Time was about the same.
  • After step 1 Alkaline solution, the water came out as yellowish green.
  • After step 2 rigorous washing and rinsing, the first time water came out black. But the next wash it became mostly clear.
  • After step 6, a new step 6.1 is added to clean off the last bit of remjet.
  • To bleach or not to bleach: bleaching is good. Without bleaching, the negative was dark orange and too dense. With 20-25 minutes of bleaching, the negatives became more like C41 negatives with light brown color and good dynamic range. It was easier to scan after bleaching.
  • Step 9: dissolve 35 grams of citric acid powder in 350ML of fixer (reused from step 5, Ilford Rapid Fixer 1+4), stir until they are well combined. The bleach/fixer was clear. Once the film was dipped in, the liquid started to turn yellow-greenish and cloudy. Check negatives every 5 minutes to make sure you don’t over bleach.

The B&W digital post processing

The Kodachrome 64 negatives were scanned using Epson V700 flatbed scanner, with factory 135 negative carriers. Scanned as black and white negative, at 2400 DPI, 16 bit grayscale, saved as TIFF file.

The scans look a bit contrasty and sharp, with good dynamic range and fine grain. I did a small amount of adjustments in Lightroom: exposure, contrast, black point, curves. Nothing dramatic, just fine tuning to my liking.

Recreate the color palette

It would have been the end of this article, since right now B&W processing of Kodachrome 64 is the only way to enjoy the remaining stock. But we have to push one step further: colorization!

It is no longer the age of tedious colorization using manual tools. Artificial Intelligence, or rather Machine Learning, has enabled 1-click colorization of B&W photos. The main purpose is to restore old photos, but here we use it to re-visualize what Kodachrome might see in color.

There are several ways to colorize a B&W photo in general:

  1. Using free online tools such as imagecolorizer, which is based on an open source project called “DeepAI” by Jason Antic. They do have image size limitations and also there is no parameters to tune.
  2. Using Adobe Photoshop’s new Neural Filter “Colorize”, more flexible to tune the results.

Imagecolorizer results

Let me first show you the results from the free online tool. I did a bit of contrast and color tuning after the conversion, based on Kodachrome Lightroom presets. You can say the algorithm is trained towards recovering old photos, and the colors are a bit more muted and pastel.

Photoshop neural filter results

Next I will show you the results using Photoshop’s new neural filter “Colorize”. There is a difference! I can get more pleasing color photos most of the time. There are a few parameters you can tune in the neural filter: since we are talking about Kodachrome and vivid colors here, I increased the color saturation by 15-20 points.

In addition, Photoshop can enable even more fine-tuned local area adjustment as well as color by color enhancements. This might be the topic of another article. Now the results:

Epilogue

Now that I have developed the venerable Kodachrome 64 into B&W negative and colorized them digitally, what should I do with the remaining stock? Portrait will definitely be one of the next steps. I have just loaded my Nikon FM2n with the venerable 105/2.5 lens (Steve McCurry combo), and am now looking for a green eyed girl and a red shawl..

Trivia 1: did you know that they used the iris recognition of the Afghan girl to find her many years later. Thus you can tell that Kodachrome is not lacking in resolution or details.

Trivia 2: there was a 2020 Emulsive article about Kelly-Shane Fuller who was still trying his best to bring back the enigmatic Kodachrome K-14 process with some degree of success. I wish him good luck.

Appendix A: Kodachrome B&W processing chart
Modified from Source: https://tekarra.net/kodachrome-bw-process

Developer: Rodinal 1+50 (my choice, you can use any B&W developer you like)

Step-by-step Instructions:

Step 1: Alkaline (10% Borax) Pre Wash (30C) – 5 Minutes. Agitate first 30 seconds then 10 seconds every minute

Step 2: Rinse (25C) – Agitate first minute then 15 seconds each following minute – 5 Minutes

Step 3: Develop (20C) – 11 minutes

Step 4: Stop Bath – 1 Minute

Step 5: Fix – 5 Minutes

Step 6: Rinse – 10 Minutes

Step 6.1 Wipe off remaining remjet with a clean wet white microfiber cloth. 10-15 times until clean.

Step 7: Dry Film – Overnight

Step 8: Re-spool & Pre-soak – 3-5 Minutes

Step 9: Bleach (10% Citric Acid + Fixer) (Rotational agitation every 5 mins) – 25 Minutes

Step 10: Hypo Clear – 2 Minutes

Step 11: Rinse – 10 Minutes

Step 12: Photo Flo – 1 Minute

Thanks fort reading

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Bob Janes
    May 5, 2022 at 10:12 am

    Bravo!

    A lovely article from so many aspects: Informative, entertaining and useful from a practical POV for anyone embarking on similar.

    Thank you.

    • Reply
      Zheng Li
      May 5, 2022 at 4:21 pm

      Thank you Bob! I have been a long time fan of your writing too. I guess like many photographers, we like photography as well as tinkering. 🙂

  • Reply
    jason gold
    May 5, 2022 at 11:28 am

    Your negatives look perfect! I think better than remaining images by Alex Webb in Mirror City (Rochester).
    It seems do-able but i have one roll 120 size.. Not sure which Kodachrome version.!
    Many thanks for information and Bravo for your images.

    • Reply
      Zheng Li
      May 5, 2022 at 4:23 pm

      Good luck with your processing that Kodachrome 120 roll! It must be quite rare now, since all I can find are 35mm or movie stock (8mm, Super 8, 16mm0.

  • Reply
    goodnitesteve
    May 5, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    Lovely article. Over 10 years ago, I tried to get a roll of Kodachrome developed and found out the same thing. I ended up sending mine to Blue Moon on the west coast of the US. They could only develop it in a blue tinted monochrome and only two images came out. It’s possible the roll was never finished or deteriorated over time. It was shot in 2004 and not kept cool and out of the elements.

    Recently, I’ve been scanning in my grandparents photo albums, a lot of them Kodachrome and a lot of them faded. I’m contemplating what to do with them in order to restore their color. Have to look into what the solutions might be. I sure wish I had the negatives still, but those are long gone.

    • Reply
      Zheng Li
      May 5, 2022 at 4:41 pm

      Thank you! I remember there are a few Adobe Lightroom presets for converting digital photos to the Kodachrome palette. Even though their starting point is photos out of digital camera, you might be able to customize the preset for restoring your old prints to its former vibrant colors.

  • Reply
    Charlie B.
    May 5, 2022 at 3:30 pm

    Great walkthrough! It’s great to see those who are interested can still shoot Kodachrome (if they can find it!). Interesting to see the differences between the two colorization methods. I agree with you that the Photoshop method definitely gives a more realistic feel.

    • Reply
      Zheng Li
      May 5, 2022 at 4:26 pm

      You can still find Kodachrome 35mm on the bay from time to time, and sometimes at reasonable price. Most of them are “very” expired, but so far they seem to hold up well if not stored next to the oven. 🙂

      Regarding Photoshop colorizing, I still need to learn and tweak to get the best results. I think it is easier for “typical” images, but could be quite off for unique photos.

  • Reply
    Paul
    May 5, 2022 at 4:00 pm

    Fantastic article, very insightful !! Well done, loved it 💯👍

  • Reply
    Murray Kriner
    May 5, 2022 at 5:55 pm

    What a great article. Yes I’ve used this film when first I was permitted to touch a real camera as a youth. I primarily use only film, and disdain the whole digital photography scene, shooting with mostly repaired dust collector’s from aged past. Most don’t have any metering, but Sunny Sixteen always works well enough for consumer grade lens sets like I use. Beautiful Images Mr.Li. I was most impressed just how well the colorization mimicks the real thing from it’s heyday when I was chasing “Bubble Economics” to put myself on the map, as I snapped family photos and used Dr. Martin’s to hand colorize what would have been just fine in Black & White. Warmest Regards and joy to you Sir.

  • Reply
    Ken Rowin
    May 5, 2022 at 11:51 pm

    Perhaps I am missing something. Why go to all of this trouble to get B&W negatives? As you doubtlessly know there are many fine monochrome emulsions available that don’t require the rather involved processing that you have detailed here. Why not use one of them and colorize the negs using the same methods? Please explain this to a very perplexed reader.

    • Reply
      Zheng Li
      May 6, 2022 at 12:13 am

      I totally get what you are saying. As a matter of fact, I personally develop quite a lot of B&W film and there are definitely better and fresher B&W film emulsions out there that beats Kodachrome hands down in terms of technical or aesthetic quality. But there are a couple of reasons:

      1) People still have unused Kodachrome film lying around. Because K-14 process has been orphaned, those film might get wasted. I actually almost threw those 5 films to the trash. It is more a salvage operation. Although clumsy, this process does let us enjoy the last few rolls of Kodachrome and produce usable reasonable image.

      2) Kodachrome still have some nostalgic value for some photographers. And this might rekindle their memory of an emulsion lost.

  • Reply
    Tobias Eriksson
    May 6, 2022 at 8:25 am

    Thanks for a thorough instruction! I tried C-41 x-pro, Ilfosol b&w developer as well as caffenol of this film, with mediocre results. Never did the bleach part, which in hindsight may have saved some of the Ilfosol batch.
    FYI caffenol dissolves remjet very effectively – at least when I do stand developing.
    Old Ektachrome develops very well in caffenol. Doesn’t need (much) bleaching.
    /Tobias

    • Reply
      Zheng Li
      May 6, 2022 at 4:11 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience! Might try Caffenol some time.

  • Reply
    Hashem
    May 6, 2022 at 9:50 am

    This was such a fun read! Great job on the experiment, a pleasant surprise for me when seeing the results too.

  • Reply
    Otto Mellais
    June 30, 2022 at 9:47 pm

    Wow. One of the best photography articles I’ve read. Clear and accurate; I just developed a roll following your steps – amazing results! I have a small stash of Kodachrome but so far I’ve only shot two rolls with b&w development in mind. I developed the other one earlier using different instructions and got “challenging” negatives. Maybe it was my choice to use Rodinal semi stand, maybe something else. But after that I though it’s better to reserve KC for the more experimental shoots. Now I’m pretty sure I will burn it all in a week. Just can’t wait!
    You’re also a good storyteller. Shooting Kodachrome, no matter if left black and white or colorized, feels not only justified but also a privilege. Hope you find those green eyes soon and we can see the photos here with another story to read. Thank you Zheng!

    • Reply
      Zheng Li
      June 30, 2022 at 10:29 pm

      Thank you Otto. I’m glad your experiments turned out successful, and we can all continue to enjoy the Kodachrome while they last!

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