Early Colour Books for 35mm cameras

Color Photography by Paul Wolff

Toronto. We treat black and white images as niche photos today. Modern day digital cameras take beautiful full colour photos out of the box. The photographer needs to know little about colour, his (or her) camera, or the subject to get a colour balanced, correctly exposed image.

That wasn’t always the case. Seven decades ago the majority of photos were taken in black and white – films like Super XX,  Verichrome and  Tri-X prevailed. Even movies where monochrome delights.  Early television into the 1960s was back and white as well. When I was in Bell’s Engineering department in the mid 1960s, one lady had a new color TV. She preferred to watch only colour shows if one was available regardless of its content.

Colour was always the goal for improving photos. In the late 1800s and early 1900s various additive schemes were marketed to allow people to take colour photographs. The results didn’t fully replicate reality and were grainy. None of the processes would scale down to 35mm cameras which burst on the photographic scene in the 1930s.

Dr Paul Wolff was an early adopter of the Leica 35mm camera when it hit the market in 1924-5. He was a devoted user of black and white negative film. When colour products became available for 35mm, it took a mind change to use the new materials. While colour could be captured with them, a projector was required as they were transparencies. For these early films, the speed was very slow and the dynamic range quite narrow. In fact, if you were off more than a single stop, the transparency would be too dark or too light. Photographers use to using contrast to separate scene components in monochrome had to switch to using colour instead – a red hat and a yellow sweater, for example.

Using subtractive processes, both Kodachrome in America and  Agfacolor Neu in Germany  were announced and came to market in the mid 1930s. The two processes stacked layers of extra-thin black and white emulsion – a layer for the yellow, magenta, and cyan (or yellow, red, and blue as they were often described back then) components of the photograph (plus more layers for other technical reasons). Kodachrome used dyes in the colour developer requiring one colour developer process for each of the three colour layers.  The film required a detailed 19 to 23 steps using precise times and temperatures best done professionally in a factory. While very complex, this technique gave Kodak a wide latitude in the choice of dye materials for its Kodachrome film.

Hard on the heels of Kodachrome came the German Agfacolor Neu. Using the same concept of a subtractive process, Agfa chose to imbed the dyes into each colour layer. They were limited in the dye selection by the need to choose only dyes with large molecules so a dye could not migrate to other layers. The benefit of this approach was that only one colour developer was necessary allowing the film to be developed at home by any careful photographer – amateur or professional. The decisions taken resulted in two interpretations of a scene. Kodachrome was bright and cheery with its enhanced reds while Agfa Color Neu was more subdued, favouring blues and greens.

Dr Wolff’s book was published in 1948. The first American publication was in 1952 – a year after his untimely death. Both editions used German printing facilities for the colour plates. Each plate demanded precise alignment of six to eight press runs as the various colours were built up in printing ink. Only the screw mount Leica lens used for a plate was listed. Film, shutter speed, and aperture details were never recorded by Dr Wolff. In the front of the book are a series of short essays covering various aspects of colour photography.

The Leica Book in Color

Anton Baumann’s book was published a decade earlier in 1938 using only four press passes for each plate to build up the colour image from printing ink. The image plates in this book appear to use a better quality of clay coated paper. And there is far more detail listed for every plate – lens used, shutter speed, aperture, and film.

The book is edited by Kurt Karfeld and published in Munich. Like Wolff’s book, there are a number of essays on colour in the front section. Ironically while all the plates are from Kodachrome slides, there is an essay on the new Agfa Color Film. There is also a detailed section covering how colour transparency film is constructed and developed.

This 1938 book includes an illustrated article on how transparencies are converted to plates in four press runs, one each for yellow, magenta, and cyan components of the picture – and finally black run to crisp up the images. This four colour approach is used today when you see the ubiquitous CMYK inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). Of course more professional digital printers use even more inks giving added shades to each of the basic four.


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