An Odd Move for Kodak

While it's certainly true that I made many great images on Kodak's P3200 film, and that it was head and shoulders above Tri-X for low-light venues, I have absolutely no desire to go back to using it.
While it’s certainly true that I made many great images on Kodak’s P3200 film, and that it was head and shoulders above Tri-X for low-light venues, I have absolutely no desire to go back to using it.

Kodak Alaris, the film and paper division of the bankrupt Great Yellow Father, Kodak, announced recently the reintroduction of Kodak P3200 35mm film. I consider this an odd move – and probably a mistake – because this film, first introduced in the 1980s, was a solution to the problem that existing films weren’t adequate for very low light situations.

Even half a stop of underexposure in the shadows of a P3200 negative creates a very muddy image that's hard to fix.
Even half a stop of underexposure in the shadows of a P3200 negative creates a very muddy image that’s hard to fix.

In 1985, I was working for the Associated Press and, by November, a newspaper, and with the inherent need to cover sports in very low light – football, basketball, volleyball – found myself trying to figure out all the schemes my fellow news shooters and I were using to get existing films to act with more sensitivity to low light. We shot Kodak’s Tri-X, a great film in the 1960s and 1970s, but long in the tooth by the 1980s. We used all sorts of tricks and schemes to get more sensitivity out of Tri-X, from snake oil products like Crone-C developer additive, to relatively obscure chemistry like Accu-Fine and Diafine, to time and temperature experiments with possibly my favorite black-and-white developer, HC-110. None of it got Tri-X above about ISO 2000.

Technology needed to step in, and Kodak needed to bring it.

Enter Kodak T-Max P3200, a very high speed film that could be “push processed” into the ISO stratosphere, which I did all the time. I used Kodak’s T-Max developer and regularly exposed this film at ISO 6400. It was a game-changer. For more than a decade, I relied on this film for imaging, especially sports, in all manner of low-light, almost-no-light venues.

Ada High School Couganns greet their team in the Ada Junior High gym in 1998, near the end of the film era. It's a usable Kodak P3200 image, but compared to digital, it is grainy, contrasty, dusty, and expensive.
Ada High School Couganns greet their team in the Ada Junior High gym in 1998, near the end of the film era. It’s a usable Kodak P3200 image, but compared to digital, it is grainy, contrasty, dusty, and expensive.

Then in 2001, my newspaper bought my first digital camera, a Nikon D1H. From almost exactly that day, my use of P3200 stopped. Color film lingered a while longer, but by the end of 2004, I was done with film.

My wife Abby likes to tell me that her photography was reinvented by digital, and she could finally express herself without the hassle of film – processing, printing, archiving, and especially paying for film and prints.

I, too, was very happy when I could leave film behind and shoot my low-light stuff digitally. Digital solved every problem with film: toxic silver-based chemicals, grainy images, time-consuming printing and/or scanning, and, possibly most significantly, a very limited number of frames.

Calvin basketball fans clamor for their kids at the state tournament in Oklahoma City in 1994. Kodak P3200 was a problem-solver then, but a solution looking for a problem today.
Calvin basketball fans clamor for their kids at the state tournament in Oklahoma City in 1994. Kodak P3200 was a problem-solver then, but a solution looking for a problem today.

Sure, a good print or scan from a P3200 negative is good, but the same shot with a modern DSLR is amazing by comparison.

Also, think about what almost always happens to a film frame in the latter day: it gets scanned to make it digital, and from there makes its way to a print, a publication, or a web site. It does not get printed onto photographic paper using an enlarger, which, in the end, is the only true path to analog photography. Adding film to a digital workflow is like recording your phonograph albums to 8-track tape then ripping those tapes to MP3.

I can almost get interested in a super-low-ISO, super-fine-grained film for fine art, but on the grainy end? Did we not just spend a trillion dollars to get rid of grain and noise?

Also, if you thought dust on your digital sensor was a problem in the early 2000s, you are in for an unpleasant surprise: the cleanest negatives from the cleanest darkrooms have a ton of dust on them, and every speck shows up when you scan.

So what might Kodak be hoping with this move? To light a fire under a previously unknown revenue stream? To be the next big retro thing? To pander to the 1% of millennials who both regard film as edgy and retro and are actually willing to use it? Kodak certainly showed us how to navigate a corporate juggernaut right into the ground, and this idea seems like more of that same thinking.

I pulled a sleeve out of a file box from basketball I covered in March 1994, and found myself thinking about how slow and messy the film process is compared to digital.
I pulled a sleeve out of a file box from basketball I covered in March 1994, and found myself thinking about how slow and messy the film process is compared to digital.
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2 Comments

  1. I probably was very resistant to photography back in the film days (when I started in journalism) precisely because the developing process was so lengthy, tedious, messy, and – in certain respects – incomprehensible. I had no interest in the chemical side of photography but was forced to deal with it. We had to wear aprons and gloves and be careful of the lights (I do miss those red-filtered “darkroom” lights). I remember those days clearly, as if they were yesterday: the souping, the printing, the chem wash, the rinse bath, the prints clipped (with clothes pins!) to a wire to dry … enormously expensive and complicated, and very, very few people wanted anything to do with it.
    Yet it was also fun, and I learned a lot. We also used Kodak T-Max P3200; the words are a flashback to 1989.
    You make a great point, which is that technology was bound to step in, and once the tech was in place, there was no point, nor even any DESIRE, to go back. All the peripherals of photography – the chemicals, the storage, the paper, the archiving – have all virtually been done away with, and we can focus now almost wholly on the image itself. The old days are fun to reflect on, but like you, I don’t know anybody who’d want to go back to those old, outmoded, inconvenient tools.

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  2. Kodak P3200…I remember this film back when I was shooting for UPI (Do you remember them?) that film sure changed low light photography with the KodakTmax developer.

    You got shadow detail and you didn’t blow out the highlights plus it was pretty easy to process in a hurry. No more being forced to shoot at ASA 1600 now you could go to 3200 or higher if you didn’t have a choice and still get something usable to print.

    I’m glad the great Yellow Father (Kodak) brought it back again. Maybe film is really coming back! I do miss some of the magic of film and darkroom.

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