The 1970s must have been the decade that the God of Photography (known as Kodagfuji to his acolytes) laid a curse upon the world.

Through history, the methods used for photography have changed, leading to a general improvement over time (with image quality sometimes being sacrificed for convenience).

The first photograph was taken by Joseph NiĆ©pce. He got a bit of metal and spread bitumen (yes, bitumen!) and oil of lavender on it (to hide the smell of the bitumen?), and put it in a box and started exposing it to his scene.  For eight hours. Changes in technology could only improve things from here.


Soon after, the beautiful process of Daguerreotypes was developed. This used silver that sat just above a mirror which reflected the image at the viewer. The photographs were great, and the process ended up being really, really high speed... photos could be taken in as little as 20 seconds! The problem was that you only ended up with a single Daguerreotype: there were no negatives and no prints.

Wet and Dry Glass Plate Negatives

So glass plates were invented. These were huge things: maybe 20 by 25 cm in size. Many different types of noxious chemicals were used to develop them.


Glass plates were tricky. Drop a box of them when you arrive back home and they would shatter and you would have to turn around and go straight back to Tibet/Crimea/The Source of the Nile/The Battlefields of the Civil War and take all your photos all over again. So cellulose film bases were invented. The general physical and chemical process for film was set for the next century.

Dozens of different film sizes were used. Medium format film (still available in one form today as 120 roll film) was huge by modern standards. It was called
"medium" because it was smaller than those large 20 by 25cm plates.

In the late 1920s early 1930s, a "small" film format called 35mm (or 135) became popular. This was partly because it was a nice convenient format, and partly because it was convenient for a manufacturer to make film the same size for movie pictures and still photographers. (Did you realise that the 35mm film you used to load into your film cameras has exactly the same sprocket holes as the film still (in 2007) used in your local cinema?)

So far, so good. Pictures taken in the 1930s on 35mm cameras wasn't the highest quality. Medium and large film formats gave better pictures. Film stocks were still relatively primitive. But what you got back was a relatively decent shot. If you shot Kodachrome slides in the 1930s you got pictures that you could reasonably display on a large projector screen.


In the 1960s, Kodak decided that it would sell more film if it made things easier for people. So it invented 126 film. This came in a cartridge that you simply dropped into your camera. So there was no fiddly threading needed to be done. Good stuff.

A 126 photo I took in 1974 in Papua New Guinea. (From one of my films at that time that didn't get damaged by the tropical heat.)

The negative was exactly as wide as 35mm film, but because the threading was done as part of the cartridge, less film needed to be wasted on sprockets. The negative could be a little taller if there were fewer sprocket holes. Again, good stuff.

Kodak decided to make the negative square. That was kind of strange. There's a slight logic to it: a square negative won't waste much of the capabilities of a lens (that will typically resolve a circular image). (Circular photos would have been even more efficient, but Kodak weren't crazy enough to think that circular snapshots were going to work.)

All in all, 126 wasn't an entirely bad format. Kodagfuji was still smiling on the world. (Remember him? The God of Photography)

Another picture I took in Port Moresby in 1974. Pretty square, and not the sharpest photo ever, but not bad.


And then the 1970s started. Kodak decided that people would take more photos if their cameras were smaller. So they took the 126 format and shrank it. A lot.
For reasons of efficiency, they chose a film width that was less than half as wide as 35mm/126 film. That made the negatives tiny: 13 by 17mm. Less than 1/4 the size of 35mm film. About the size of my little thumbnail. That means the negative needs to be enlarged almost ten times for a standard sized photograph.

There are reports that the films of the 1970s could almost give a decent enlargement... if the lens was good and exposure was spot on. Unfortunately, most 110 cameras were graced with cheap plastic lenses that were only slightly better than the plastic you get in a soft drink bottle. And they often dropped the even the limited exposure control you got on a 126 camera (a switch that let you choose between sunny and cloudy days). So one exposure setting had to cater for any lighting condition.

A dismal 110 image. Taken by me in 1979. Nauru House has just been pipped as Melbourne's tallest building by one of the two Collins Towers under construction to its right. The ugly Gas and Fuel Buildings can just be made out on the left of the photo, just to the right of the spire of St Paul's.
One of my better 110 pictures (!)

Pictures were awful. But worse was to come.


We're out of the 1970s now. In 1982 Kodak introduced Disc film. Imagine a large flat circle, with negatives around the edges. Instead of sitting tidily (and compactly) on a spook, the negatives were now tiny 8 by 11mm petals on the edge of a circle. The disc wasn't really that small, but the negatives were tiny. This format died a pretty quick death.


This was Kodak's last attempt to relieve people of the troubles Kodak thought they were suffering trying to thread 35mm film in their cameras. They were joined by Fuji and some camera manufacturers. Photos could be taken in three sizes, but in the classic size the negative was a respectable (but smaller than 35mm) 25 by 17mm. (Just over half the size of 35mm.) The cameras were fractionally smaller than 35mm cameras, but not small enough to make much of a difference.

But by the time this format was introduced in 1996, the 'problem' of film loading had been solved by reliable motor drives that made loading 35mm film dead simple. 35mm film won the format wars. When Kodak shuts down its last film production line in about 10 years time, the last film that rolls off the line will be 35mm. (Check back in 2017 to see whether my prediction that the major film manufacturers will have given up on film by the end of 2017 is correct!)

Kodagfuji is a very small god. Although there are millions (billions) of people who take photographs, not many people choose to pray to him. He's useful in moments when photographers are thinking things like "I wonder if I'll still have space to take photographs when the bride finally throws the bouquet" and "Eew, a jet plummeting out of the sky in flames. I wonder where I put my camera?" It's not known whether he was paying attention when Mr Zapruder wondered "Should I go three blocks uptown to the other spot I saw in order to photograph the motorcade that will be here shortly, or should I just stay here on this nice grassy knoll?"

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Anthony Holmes May 25th, 2007 08:54:51 PM

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