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Photography History Spotlight: Color Film

Photography History Spotlight: Color Film

The earliest photographic processes produced only black and white images. While photographs of any kind were a new wonder, a desire quickly arose for color photographs to perfectly capture the world. 

Hand-Colored Photographs

Hand Colored Photo

Before color photography was developed, photographers would manually add color to their monochrome photographs. Multiple processes were used for hand-coloring, commonly done by miniature painters. 

Unsatisfactory Results

Despite skilled painters achieving great work with hand-coloring, the process was ultimately unsatisfactory as it was unable to exactly reproduce the colors of nature. 

Early Photography Processes

After much experimentation and labor, the first color photography processes emerged in the 1890s. 

Additive Color Processes

The first color processes were known as “additive” processes, reproducing color by mixing red, green, and blue light.

Drawbacks of Additive Processes

There were disadvantages to additive processes. The filters they relied on blocked out the light, resulting in long exposure times. Perhaps the biggest drawback was that photographs made with these processes could only be viewed by projection or the use of specialized viewing devices.

Assembling B-25 Bombers

The Kromogram

Frederic Ives developed a system that was based on three color-separation negatives taken through colored filters. Positive transparencies were made from these negatives and placed in a special viewer known as a Kromskop. The resulting images were known as Kromograms, and despite being effective they were prohibitively expensive, created with an overly complex system.

The autochrome

Rider with Dog

In the early 20th century Auguste and Louis Lumiere invented the first commercially successful process, known as the autochrome. In this process, the filter screen and emulsion were combined on the same glass support. They began to produce autochrome plates commercially by 1907. 

Autochrome Production

To produce autochrome plates, microscopic starch grains (most commonly potato starch) were dyed red, green, and blue-violet, mixed, and spread over a glass plate. Charcoal powder was spread over the plate to fill any gaps, and after being flattened the plate was then coated with a varnish and panchromatic emulsion. 

Autochrome Functionality

Autochrome plates were simple to use, requiring no special devices; photographers could use their existing cameras. The downside was exposure length- even in bright sunlight a minimum exposure of one second was required, and cloudy conditions required 10 seconds or more. Studio portraits often required 30-second exposures. 


Created by Louis Dufay, the Dufaycolor process appeared as roll film in 1935 and remained popular for years. The quality was good and it was comparatively fast despite still only being one-third the speed of black and white film of the time. Dufaycolor was marketed to everyday consumers, providing a processing service that returned mounted transparencies. 

Subtractive Color Processes

Subtractive processes use pigments or dyes rather than filters and operate on the theory that color separation negatives can be used to produce three positive images, which are then dyed cyan, magenta, and yellow. Each of these colors absorbs a primary color. Cyan, for example, absorbs red light, reflecting a mixture of blue and green light. Yellow absorbs blue light, while magenta absorbs green light. By superimposing these three complementary colors, all other colors can be reproduced. 

Notably, because they work with reflected light, subtractive processes can be used to produce color photographs on paper.

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Use of Subtractive Processes

Conventional cameras could be used when taking color separation negatives of stationary subjects; the photographer needed only to change the color filter after each exposure. A “repeating back” made this simpler; this was a moving part of the camera that allowed different colored filters to drop into place. Simpler versions of this device were moved manually by the photographer, while more complex versions involved motors allowing three negatives to be exposed in rapid succession. 


The first Kodachrome 35mm film became available in the US in 1936 and was developed by Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, with the support of Eastman Kodak research laboratory director Kenneth Mees.

Kodachrome Functionality

Kodachrome is essentially black and white film that has colored dyes added during processing. This was because its creators put the color couplers in the developer, rather than the emulsion, to prevent the colored dyes from spreading between emulsion layers. 

Processing Kodachrome was an incredibly complex, 28-step process, involving repeated development, dyeing, and selective bleaching. Because it was so complex, photographers had to send their film to Eastman Kodak for processing. 


A German company called Agfa also announced a multi-layer color film in 1936. Agfa’s chemists were able to anchor couplers in the individual emulsion layers, which made Agfacolor film significantly easier to process; easy enough that photographers could do it themselves, unlike with Kodachrome.

Agfa’s research became freely available after WWII, allowing other companies to introduce color films of their own. Kodachrome and Agfacolor marked a new era of color photography, ending the search for a way to capture all the world’s color in a photograph.

A vintage color photograph of people on the ferris wheel at the Vermont State Fair
Check out our "Pop of Color" Collection to view all of our color images.
If you'd like to read more about photograph history, check out our article about the Stereograph format!

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