Characterized by its bold, true-to-life colors, punchy contrast and fine grain, Kodak Ektachrome has a legendary following. It’s been used to photograph global conflicts, give life to developing nations, it’s even been to the moon and back.

Few film stocks have a more dedicated following, and thus I felt Ektachrome was a perfect choice to kick off a new series of film reviews in which I look back at the photochemical magicianry that turned light into photos long before the rise of semiconductors.

Ektachrome’s illustrious history

Now before we dig into my experience shooing Ektachrome, let’s take a look back at the film’s illustrious history.

Ektachrome, along with its much more vibrant sibling, Kodachrome, were particularly popular among National Geographic photographers. However, while Kodachrome offered beautifully exaggerated colors and tonality, Ektachrome was no doubt the more versatile of the two. Ektachrome could be had in a variety of sensitivities making it more useful in tricky lighting or when shooting fast-moving subjects.

It’s versatility saw it used to photograph some of the most famous photographs in human history including the moon landing.

Three photos taken by the Apollo astronauts using Kodak Ektachrome.
During the Apollo era, Kodak was commissioned to develop thinner 70mm films for use by NASA astronauts. These included specially modified Kodak Panatomic-X fine-grained, black and white film and two varieties of Ektachrome. Photo credit: NASA

Ektachrome had another advantage too. Unlike Kodachrome, which required a complex and proprietary bath of chemicals to be developed, Ektachrome could be developed using a much more common process which is now in its sixth iteration (E-6). More importantly, that same process was used by completing slide films like Fuji Velvia and Provia, which meant you didn’t need to seek out a specialized lab to develop Ektachrome.

So when Ektachrome was completely discontinued by Kodak in 2013, the E-6 process continued to see use in labs around the world.

This alone made it possible for the newly formed Kodak Alaris to resurrect the film in September 2018 to great fanfare. However, it should be noted that the newly resurrected film isn’t an exact replica. During the process of bringing the film back into production, Kodak ran into trouble sourcing some of the chemicals originally used to make the film and was forced to reformulate.

While some would argue that this formulation makes it an entirely different film stock inspired by Ektachrome, it’s important to remember that Ektachrome has undergone several reformulations since it was first released in the ’40s.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ektachrome’s illustrious history check out Emulsive’s comprehensive timeline here.

My process

For this review, I shot a 36-exposure roll of 35mm Ektachrome on my Canon EOS-1 over the course of two days in a variety of lighting conditions.

I settled on the EOS-1 because its modern metering and autofocus eliminated the possibility of human error and allowed me to expose the film as consistently possible.

The images were developed and scanned at the Darkroom’s facilities in California.

Exploring Ektachrome’s bold character

Niecie poses for a portrait near the Colorado State Capital. Shot on Ektachrome 100
Niecie poses for a portrait near the Colorado State Capital. Shot on Ektachrome 100
The RTD Train Stop At 16th and California Streets in Denver. Shot on Ektachrome 100
The RTD train stop at 16th and California Streets in Denver. Shot on Ektachrome 100
A crane towers over the 16th Street Mall In Denver Shot on Ektachrome 100
A crane towers over the 16th Street Mall in Denver Shot on Ektachrome 100

This being my first experience shooting slide film, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Ektachrome is famous for its highly saturated and contrasty colors, but I was actually surprised how well it handled color.

When properly exposed, Ektachrome renders colors that are surprisingly true to life and for the most part free of color casts common to color negative films. If anything, I found my images shot around midday to be slightly on the cool side.

Like most color films, Ektachrome is balanced for daylight. However, I found that it handled flat, overcast conditions quite well, rendering accurate tones that were neither too warm nor too cool.

An RTD test train passes my office on a cloudy February afternoon. Shot on Ektachrome 100
An RTD test train passes my office on a cloudy February afternoon. Shot on Ektachrome 100
In this shot a traveler greets his dog after a brief stop at a nearby store.
In this shot, a traveler greets his dog after a brief stop at a nearby store.

The above image of a traveler greeting his dog after a brief stop at a nearby grocery store shows just how well Ektachrome handles shooting in overcast conditions.

One area where I didn’t test the film was in artificial lighting. However, the slightly blue daylight colors would lead me to believe it should handle warm artificial lighting fairly well.

Metering for Ektachrome

One of the biggest challenges associated with shooting Ektachrome is its limited dynamic range. Like most slide films, Ektachrome is prone to under and overexposure. There is not a terrific degree of dynamic range to play with, so nailing your exposure the first time is critical.

While conventional wisdom is to overexpose color negative films, like Ektar 100 or Porta 400, by one or two stops, color reversal films like Ektachrome aren’t very forgiving. Overexposing by one stop or more is sure to blow out your highlights entirely, while underexposing will almost certainly reduce your shadows to a pool of black pitch.

You really need to think very carefully about whether you’re going to expose for the highlights or shadows before you take the shot, especially in high contrast scenarios.

This photograph of the United Artists theater near the 16th Street Mall in Denver, metered for the highlights, illustrates just how limited Ektachrome’s dynamic range really is.

For this reason, I found Ektachrome particularly well suited to soft light where its high contrast and vibrant colors make up for its limited dynamic range.

On that note, I found Ektachrome much more forgiving of overexposure, but only slightly.  Given the choice between metering for the highlights or the shadows I’m apt to meter for the shadows and hope that highlights are too blown out.

When shooting a portrait in challenging lighting, my advice is to meter for the skin tones and avoid underexposing.

This shot of myself taken by my fiancé, Niecie, shows how important it is to think about your exposure.

In this heavily backlit photo taken by my fiancé, Niecie, the camera’s meter was overwhelmed by the bright buildings behind me. The EOS-1 did an admirable job finding a happy middle ground between the two. But while this might have worked on color negative film, it illustrates how important it is to expose for your subject when shooting with Ektachrome. It’s certainly not a bad photo, but just half a stop more light would have made the difference between an okay photo and a good one.

Grain Structure

Here you can see the Ektachrome’s fine grain structure at 100% magnification. This kind of grain is practically imperceptible at normal viewing distances even when printed on large canvases.

Ektachrome, like most slide film, has an extremely fine grain structure that’s really only visible in close crops like the one pictured above. And in prints, the grain is essentially invisible.

Note: because these images were scanned, it is difficult to say how much of what we’re seeing here is actually film grain and how much is noise introduced by the scanner. That said, the amount of grain in this image does fit with what I’d expect to see at 100 ISO.

What you should know before shooting Ektachrome

1. Meter For Success

Ektachrome is extremely unforgiving of poor exposure. While color-negative film has a wide latitude of exposure, color reversal film does not. If you’ve got a meter, make sure you use it. Meter for what’s important and understand that in high contrast scenarios you’re likely going to have some clipped highlights or crushed shadows.

2. Ektachrome emphasizes color

Ektachrome seems to favor warm, well-lit environments with vibrant colors. Bright colors, like reds, oranges and yellows will pop when framed against duller colors like concrete and steel.

3. Local development may not be an option

The E6 process used to develop Ektachrome and other slide films isn’t always offered by local labs. Always check before dropping off your film for development. Ektachrome can be developed using the more common C-41 process, but cross-processing your images will result in unpredictable color shifts.

Your lab may also charge a premium for E-6 development. Do some research and make sure your lab is equipped to process slide film.

4. You can develop at home

While it is possible to develop slide film at home, it is not generally advised for beginners because the process is highly time and temperature-sensitive. But if you find yourself shooting a lot of slide film, it might be worth investing in development tanks, a heater and chemicals.

5. Ektachrome can be pricey, shop around

Just like the E-6 development it requires, Ektachrome can be fairly expensive compared to other professional films like Portra 400 or Ektar 100. For the best bang for your buck try to buy Ektachrome in bulk. Your local film lab might even offer a discount on large orders.

Get your Ektachrome on – Amazon

Takeaways

Ektachrome is a beautiful film stock that renders lovely images packed with character. If you can recognize its limitations, it is an incredibly rewarding slide film that emphasizes colors and tonality.

The colors produced by Ektachrome are nothing like what you’ll get out of color negative films like Ektar 100. The natural colors it reproduces are vibrant, but not over the top. It’s no surprise why this film was favored by photojournalists.

It is, however, a tricky film to meter for. I typically leave my cameras on evaluative metering, but with Ektachrome, I often found myself needing to switch to center-weighted or spot metering on a regular basis to keep my subjects properly exposed. This is not the kind of film I’d shoot with in any of my manual range finders, at least not without a handheld meter.

If you’ve been thinking about picking up a roll of Ektachrome, just do it. You won’t be disappointed with the results.


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