The End of Kodachrome and What It Tells Us About Quality

Jim Hamilton
Jun 23, 2009

I woke up this morning with a line from an old Paul Simon song stuck in my head and I’m sure I’m not the only aging Baby Boomer who began their day humming “Momma don’t take my Kodachrome away.” Kodak’s announcement that it would stop manufacturing its iconic Kodachrome film is important today mainly as a symbol of the demise of the photographic film market, but it does have other implications. It is an example of how times have changed, and specifically, how a higher quality method of capturing and reproducing photographs has lost out to a method that offers lower (but sufficient) quality as well as numerous other advantages that ultimately outweighed quality alone.

It reminds me of the early days of PostScript imagesetters. When they first came out they were unable to reproduce color without creating horrible moiré patterns. The problem was slowly resolved, but ever since that time there has been an ongoing debate about “good enough” color and its place in the market. The debate bubbles up every time new technologies reach the market. You hear the same thing all over again now with the introduction of high-speed continuous feed color inkjet devices. Is the quality good enough?

No print service provider wants to admit that they make concessions on quality. Print service providers always claim to have the highest quality standards, and yet quality, while important, is not the goal. A document’s first role is to communicate, and while print quality is an important piece of that, if the document is beautiful but doesn’t communicate, then it’s a failure. What print service providers really need are sellable pages. Quality certainly helps, but what else could help them sell? Quick turnaround, economical short run lengths, personalized messages, and true print-on-demand workflows are all very compelling selling points.

The digital cameras that spelled the end for Kodachrome not only provide good looking images (and finally today at resolutions that approach the detail that film can capture) but they also fit much better into their users’ concept of capturing and distributing images in an Internet age. So if it’s the ability to e-mail your images to a friend or post them on a web site or to use your digital camera to take pictures or shoot video, these devices provide usable quality and much more. So as we say goodbye to Kodachrome we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we miss the point when we obsess on print quality alone. The real value comes from technologies that provide capabilities above and beyond quality.

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