Color Photography

Figure 1.--Autochrome was the first practical color film process developed in 1902. We at first thought that these French children were probably photographed in the 1930s, in part because earlier color photographs are so rare. A HBC reader points out, "I do not believe that this photograph is from the 1930s. The clothing looks rather like the 1910s to me. Note the old fashioned buttoned boots."

Color photographic processes were developed in the late 19th century, but black and white photography dominated for the first half of the 20th century. Commercial color photography appeared in the 1930s, but it was expensive and the dyes unstable. Some color negatives my father took in the 1940s had faded beyond use by the 1950s. Color snap shots did not become common until the 1960s. Kodak invented the Instamatic camera in 1963, and began the mass marketing of color film. Until then, virtually all photographs had been in black and white. In the early 1970s, sales of color film outstripped black and white and today it accounts for all but a tiny percentage of the film sold throughout the world. Families are now finding that photographs taken as recently as 30 years ago are already fading in the nation's family albums. The future probably may with the digital camera, but color film still is used for the vast majority of the photographs taken around the world and the ability to take photographs with a simple camera still appeals to many.


Many different processes have been developed for color photography. From the advent of the daguerreotype and the calotype in 1839, photographers began to search for a way to produce color prints. Photographers began to produce color prints fron the earliest years of the photogrraphic studio. These early color prints were only hand tinted black and white photographs. Early photographic materials were in fact blind to almost half of the visible spectrum. Researchers by the turn-of-the 20th century late-19th century were capable of making color photographs. The limitation was that the processes wee very complicated. Prokudin-Gorskii in Russia is a good example. The processes were so complicated, however, that they were not viable commercially.

Sientific concept of color

Photographers in the mid-19th century generally believed that color was a function of the surface of the photographic materials and that the different hues were due to differences in the molecular structure. Subsequently, a lot of research was done to find various silver salts sensitive to different colors. Occasionally, some apparent successes were reported by daguerreotypes having recorded traces of color.

Early processes

Chemist Robert Hunt in 1843 and Reverend Levi Hill (New York) in 1851 claimed to have developed a color daguerreotype process. Experts still debate the validity of these claims. At the same time, in 1851, a cousin of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Niépce de St. Victor, made naturally colored photographs. Unlike others, he proved his method repeatedly. It was based on the same direct principle as used by his predecessors, by employing silver compounds not only sensitive enough to record the intensity of the light, but also to assume some suggestion of the color of the light striking it. However, his approach was fatally flawed because he never devised any method of fixing the direct color images once they had been processed.

Gabriel Lippmann

The process of direct color transfer culminated with Gabriel Lippmann, a physicist at the Sorbonne. It was discovered that the direct transfer of color was the result of interference of light waves. Lippmann pursued this phenomenon with photographic emulsions. He succeeded in producing the most faithful color rendering at that time, and was awarded a Nobel Prize for his efforts. But his exposures were very lengthy and due to the technical difficulties, his method was incapable of practical development. Several other chemists addressed the problem and created color image during the late 19th century, but through laborious processes of color filters. There were limitatiins to the process because of the limited range of existing black and white emulsions.

Hermann Vogel

Dr. Hermann Vogel in 1873 discovered the process of dye sensitizing in Berlin, which greatly extends the sensitivity of silver halide emulsions into the green, yellow and red region of the spectrum.

Panchromatic film

It took several more years and the further research by Becquerel, Waterhouse, Eder and others to finally allow the production of a true panchromatic film (sensitive to all colors of the visible spectrum) in 1906. The first panchromatic plates were marketed by Wratten and Wainwright. Panchromatic sensitivity of black and white silver halide emulsions finally made true color films possible.

Color processes

Maxwell, Ducos du Hauron and Cros had shown that color images could be produced by either the additive or subtractive method. However, their methods were cumbersome and not very practical, requiring an elaborate specialized camera.

John Joly

John Joly in 1873 devised a somewhat simplified system. He designed a screen made of alternating microscopic transparent strips colored red, green and blue. This screen was positioned in front of the emulsion of a conventional black and white plate. Once exposed, developed and converted to a positive and finally projected through the original screen, this provided a color image from a single plate with just a single projector. While a great improvement, it was still far from being a system that the average person could use.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944)

Tsarist photographer Prokudin-Gorskii in the early 20th century produced beautiful color images. His color phothographs provide vibrant images of the last years of the Tsaeist Empire. Thankfully for modern historians, his choice of subjects was ecletic. We see a mixture of old Russia as well as images of an emerging industrial power. We see medieval churches and monasteries as well as the railroads and new factories of an emerging industrial state. Most engagingly are the images of the people of the Tsaeist Russia. And Prokudin-Gorskii did not just photograph Russians, but the many ethnicities of the emense Tsarist Empire. And most surprisingly--all in brilliant color images. Prokudin-Gorskii came up with a project to compile a photogeaphic inventory of the Tsar's Empire and diverse subjects. And thankfully, Tsar Nicholas II approved and funded the project. Thus Prokudin-Gorskii took a huge number of images (1909-1912 and 1915). He worked in eleven regions. Financed by the Tsae, he traveled in a well equipped railroad car provided by the Ministry of Transportation. Given the complexity of his color process, he needed the railroad car. After the Revolution, given his connections with the Tsar, Prokudin-Gorskii was forced to leave Russia (1918). He managed to reach Norway and England and finally settling in France. The Tsae was executed (1918) and the Blosheviks rapidly moving to destroy the Tsaeist world that he recorded on glass plates. Eventually the United States Library of Congress purchased his photographic collection (1948). One example is Jewish boys in Samarkand taken in 1911. While the results were stunning, the process was still too complicated for a viable commercial purposes. The sad thing is that the color photographs viewed in the early-20h century were not seen as good as we see them today. The principal draw back was the cuumbersome printing process. Each plate took 7 hours to process.

Early Color Photographs

Almost all photogeaphs taken in the early 19th century were black and white photographs. As explained above, however, there were a number of scientists and photographers working on color processes. Several processes were developed, some which produced wonderful color images, but they were too cumbersome and complicated for commercial use. They did produce a small number of images. HBC has found a number of color images from the early 20th century. Most of these are colorized images, not actual color photographs. Usually it is relatively easy to tell, but not always. There are a few that we are not sure about. One is a photogeaph of the Tsareivitch Alexei in 1913.

Figure 2.--This Biocolour image of a little boy playing in the sand is part of the forst British color movie in 1927. We think he is at Torbay. The film was done in parts to show scenes all over england by Claude Friese-Gene, the son of Williamn Frirse-Grene who invented Biocolour.


The work on color photography was to create still images. One early color system was developed for use in motion pictures just as they fitst appered. William Friese-Greene was especially interested in color at a time that there was no commercially viable color process. One of the most unteresting aspect of Friese-Greene's work with motion pictures was his development of the additive color film process which he called called 'Biocolour' because it was based on adding two colors to the film. The Biocolour process produced an illusion of color by exposing alternate frames of ordinary black-and-white film stock through two different colored filters. Each alternate frame of the monochrome (black and white) print was then stained red or green--a slow process. The projection of Biocolour prints did provide an illusion of true color, depending on how the film was exposed. Bright sunlight oproduced the best results, but a duller day and the colors are not so good. Trees are anything but green and don't stand out from the background. Filming in the rain was a dead loss the images is very blue. Indeed brown and blue seem to be the main colours. True color as produced by modern film and television require three colors. We are not sure if Friese-Greene tried that. There were a range of limitations with the Biocolour system, noticeable flickering and red-and-green fringing with rapid motion. Even so, as the only early color system, it was an impressive first step. His is work is today largely unacknowledged. Unfortunately, legal difficulties over copytights impaired his efforts. He encountered all kinds of financial and legal problems. Much of his work was carried out in the late-19th century. After the turn-of the-20th century he and his son was involved in intractable legal battles, the nature of which, partially explain why England lagged behind in both motion pictures and color photography.

Commercial Processes

The developments of a series of chemists and inventors had suceeded in producing increasingly refined color images. The processes and equipment involved were not commercially practical. The turn of the 20th century, however, finally introduced a practical color process. The costs of color photograohy, however, limited its widespread adoption until the 1960s.


Photochrom was an early attempt at color photography. It was not, however, a true color photographic process. Photochrom was a colorization printing process worked out in Switzerland which is why it is spelled without the final "e". As the process began to be used in America, the "e" was added to for the English pronunciation. A Photochrom image is a lithographic print made from an initial black-and-white negative. The color images were created by using multiple lithographic stones to add the color. The process was quite complicated. Photochrom prints, often used for postcards, were made by the Detroit Photographic Company. The company imported the lithographic stones from Bavaria. The stones were coated with a thin layer of Syrian 'asphaltum' a the gel-like substance that was chemically sensitive to light. The asphaltum coated stones were exposed to the sun through the negative for fairly lengthy periods, in some cases several hours. The original photographic negative never came in contact with asphatum gel so it could be reused. The resulting image on the stones was then then developed in turpentine oils. The areas of the asphalt gel receiving the greatest exposure (the light areas of the negaive) hardened abd became insoluble. The areas receiving the smallest exposure (dark areas of the negative) did not harden and were washed away. The company could adjust tonal values by varying the chemistry used and and development times. Further work could burn and dodge the image. Some work could be done with brushes as well as polishing with pumice powder. The stones were then subjected to an acid etch which bonded the image followed by a glycerin bath. The resulting stone had a very fine grin producing a high quality image. Multiple stones were needed for each color. A full color image required at least four stones. High quality color image required more and in some cases up to 14 stones were employed. Transparent ink was used to coat each stone. Thin was then transferred to the paper which was made to look like photographic paper. After the print was finished, a varnish was applied which gave a sence of depth and added to the richness of the color. Variation in the results for the same negative occurred because of the number of individuals involved and variatins in chemistry and developing times. Also the stones sometimes had to be re-ground. The result while not a true form of color printing was not the colorized postcard image in which colors were painted on without any regard to actual colors. The hues may not be precisely correct, but looking at the image, they seem very accurate indeed. An example is street scene in Little Italy, probably during the 1890s.


The Autochrome process was invented by the Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1904 and was the world’s first practical color process. This example here of a group of three French children probably dates from the late 1930s (figure 1). They replaced the screen used by Joly with color dots. These were made from colored potato starch particles which had a diameter of only 15/1000 of a millimeter. These were first colored in batches of orange-red, green and cyan. After complete drying, these colored powders were mixed such that the resulting powder did not show any discernable color at all. Then, this mixture was applied to a sticky glass plate with a very fine haired brush. This had to be done very carefully to obtain a single layer of the starch particles. The resulting open spaces between these particles were closed with pulverized charcoal. With 3 years of further research, they were able to devise a commercially feasible process to produce these plates for the photography market in 1907. It is interesting to note that the emulsions of these plates were only about twice as thick as those of modern color films. The screen processes, good as they were, also had their faults. They were relatively insensitive. Autochrome, for instance, required 50 times more exposure than the black and white emulsions which it was used with. Also, the images could not be enlarged very much without showing the screen texture.


Other films of this type appeared on the market. However, most of them replaced the starch particles with screens of ruled lines. Dufaycolor was one of the most successful, and it was available until the 1940s.


The first color plate, Autochrome, was invented by the French Lumière brothers (1904). They were followed a decade later by the German Agfa company. Agfa developed the first substantial improvement of the screen process (1914). They replaced the starch particles with colored particles made of a resin. These screens could be made without the necessity of pulverized charcoal, since the resin particles would fit together without leaving any spaces. Sensitivity and granularity were also greatly improved, although exposure still needed to be eight times more than with black and white. These plates were first marketed by Agfa in 1916, with more improvements to follow in 1923. This final version of these screen films is generally considered the best ever available. The final stage in the development of the modern color films of today started in 1912. The idea was to generate the color dyes within the film emulsion during development. Until now, the dyes were not introduced until after the film (or plates) were developed. Dr. Rudolf Fischer patented the principle of dye coupling in 1912. He had discovered that exposed silver halogens could form color dyes by oxidation during development. However, it still was to be a long way until the first three emulsion films became available. Dr. Gustav Wilmanns and Dr. Wilhelm Schneider at Agfa in Germany worked on the development of such a film. They had been able to isolate dye couplers which could produce just the right dyes necessary for the individual three color layers. However, the main difficulty they experienced was the tendency of the dyes to migrate or bleed into the other emulsion layers, which caused color shifts and generally unacceptable results.


Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, professional musicians and passionate amateur photographers in the United States, had tried for some time to develop a modern, three emulsion film. After years of intermittent experimentation, Kodak offered them the use of modern facilities in Rochester, New York. Mannes and Godowsky experienced the same problems of dye migration as Willmans and Schneider did at Agfa. They finally gave up on the idea of confining the dye couplers to specific emulsion layers. Instead they researched the possibility of using coloring agents contained in the developing solutions. This simplified the problem of isolating the colors to specific emulsion layers, and Kodak was able to introduce the first modern, three-emulsion color (integrated tri-pack) film--Kodachrome (1935). The techniques for developing Kodachrome remains so complicated that even today it requires complicated machinery. Only a few labs throughout the world are set up to develop Kodachrome. Kodachrome was a marvelous film. Not only wee the colors vivid, but the resolution was unparalled permiting substantial enlargement. The quality of the film can be seen by the number of professional photographers that used it.

Figure 3.--This Agfacolor image shows a Hitler Youth drim and bugle corps. Agfa until World War II was the leading company manufacturing color film.

Neu Agfacolor and Ektacolor

Willmans and Schneider continued their research with emulsion incorporated dye couplers. They finally solved the problem of dye migration. Neu Agfacolor was an important refinement of the Kodachrome tri-pack process because the color couplers were integral with the emulsion layers. Agfa formulated the dye couplers so that the dye molecules were so large that they could not migrate within the much smaller molecules of the emulsion layers. This greatly simplified the film processing. Agfa was able to introduce Agfacolor commercially in 1936. It was called Agfacolor Neu (New Agfacolor) to distinguish it from the Agfacolor screen films. Virtually all color films today are based on the technology developed by Willmans and Schneider at Agfa, with the only exception being Kodachrome. The Agfacolor process also laid the foundation for color negative films and papers, making the production of color photographs and enlargements finally a reality in 1939. This also led to the first full length color motion picture film to be produced by UFA in Berlin in 1941 which did not require the more cumbersome and more expensive Technicolor process. Kodak’s equivalent to the Agfacolor, Ektacolor, did not become available until 1941.


A quite different approach was described by Christiansen in 1918 and later by Gaspar in the early 1930s. Gasparcolor employed the principle of dye destruction. In this process the image dyes are incorporated in the emulsion during manufacture. During processing, these dyes are selectively bleached as the silver image is removed during processing. This process has the advantage of relatively stable dyes and exceptional sharpness. While there are no films vailable using this process, it is well known today as the Cibachrome/Ilfochrome process with papers intended to yield prints from slides.


Yet another approach is used by Polaroid. They use several different methods of producing "instant" color images. The Polacolor instant transparency film, using a screen process, was mentioned earlier. The so called peel-apart films use a technology not unlike standard color films. However, during development, the dyes are allowed to migrate to a receptor sheet, which is the part which actually is kept as the photograph. An incredibly complex and ingenious film was introduced in 1972 for the SX-70 camera. The film contains sixteen different emulsion layers and an opaque chemical layer which protects the developing image from light. After the developing action, this opaque layer gradually becomes transparent, revealing the developed color image.


Over the years, the film industry has standardized their processes, allowing any film from any manufacturer to be developed in the same chemicals. The only exceptions being Kodachrome, Cibachrome/Ilfochrome and, of course, Polaroid. All color negative films can be processed with the Kodak C-41 process, and all transparency films are being processed in Kodak E-6 or their respective equivalents. The same is true for print processing, which is done virtually exclusively with the Kodak RA-4 type process, which replaced the former EP-2 process.

Popular acceptance

Color snap shots did not become common until the 1960s. Kodak invented the Instamatic camera in 1963, and began the mass marketing of color film. Until then, virtually all photographs had been in black and white. Much of the color photography shot was transparancies (slides) and not color print film. Color photography was expensive and thus for the affluent or for a special occasion. It was not until the early 1970s, sales of color film outstripped black and white and today it accounts for all but a tiny percentage of the film sold throughout the world.


Agfa just introduced a new technology which will make conventional films ten times faster without loss of color fidelity and sharpness. Even current film materials are substantially better than what was available only ten years ago. Continued research will lead to further improvements which will assure the use of conventional film materials for years to come. Film photography ofers a simple way of taking photographs with inexpensive cameras. Digital photography requires a computer which many people do not want to bother with. Film photography at this time offers superior resolutiin than disgital photographt. Although the two will probably reach comparable levels in the near future. Conventional and digital photography will compliment each other, as they do already and they will coexist. Photography and film, as we know them, will certainly change, but they will not go away.

Transparancy and Print Film

Figure 3.--These Ballial boys are seen on the day that Hitler visited Rome. Note their caps--a very destinctive part of their uniform. The film was taken by an amateur photographer using some of the earliest color film, presumably Agfa film. Notice the severe fading.


Photographers both professional and amateur are finding that millions of images taken since the development of modern colour photography are changing because of the way their dyes break down. Just as the 19th century is now viewed in shades of sepia, so future generations may look back on the last three decades of the 20th century in a strange, almost psycadelic array of colors--an era of purple lawns and red skies. Newspaper accounts quote Kate Rouse, archivist for the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, said: "After about 30 years, you begin to see a degradation of the image. The three dyes which make up the picture fade at different rates and there is a shift in colour. Eventually, the image is just going to fade away. We are reaching the point where the first ones have started to degrade and people are beginning to notice." HBC notes that Kodak color print film used in the 1940s has deteriorted terribly. Kodak color slides (Ektachrome and Kodachrome) used in the 1960s and now nearly 40 years show no signs of deterioration. Some cheaper film began deteriorating years ago. The short life of colour photographs is a headache for gallery and museum curators and archivists as well as amateur photographers and families around the world that hace chronicled their history which color snap shots. Professionals are now studying how to slow the ageing process. It is a more personal disaster for generations whose most cherished moments are proving far more fleeting than they ever imagined. The 21st century may inherit a better record of Victorian ancestors posing sternly in black and white than of the present gener ation. The principle of using layers of cyan, magenta and yellow dye to produce a colour image has remained the same. Ken Rogerson, technical manager for Fuji, said: "Organic dyes are inherently liable to fade, and they all fade at different rates. I don't want it to sound like a Doomsday scenario, but ultimately they will break down into a colorless compound. Whites in a print may also turn yellow with time. Black and white is a metal image and has far greate r stability." The fading may be only gradual, but, as each dye breaks down, the color of the image distorts. Skin tones can turn a deathly blue. The conditions in which the print is kept determine which dyes go first. Light, heat and humidity are the death of a color photograph.


Storage makes a big difference. A portrait of a loved one displayed in a frame on the window will fade in a short period. Even indirect sunlight can bleach the image within months. Keeping a photograph in the dark in the fridge will prolong its life, but not indefinitely. Chemicals in paper and clear plastic covers can also affect images. Hanging on to the negatives is no guarantee either, as they use similar dyes, and forget transparencies if you want to look at the photographs. Slides can start showing signs of color change in less time than it takes an oil painting to dry if left in front of a projection bulb. The artist David Hockney keeps his work in a cold store in Los Angeles. He acknowledges that much of it has a limited life span. In the introduction to a recent exhibition of his work in Bradford, he wrote: "Colour is fugitive in life, like it is in pictures. Colour is the most fugitive element in all pictures, a great deal more than line. The piece of paper is beautiful, it will slowly change like everything else."

Archival Papers

Some manufacturers such as Fuji have begun producing "archival" photographic papers, but they are unlikely to be used by high-street film processors and are not guaranteed to be fade free for more than 50 years.

Color of Old Photographs

One aspect of historic clothing that the old black and white photographs do not provide is color. Some boys clothing is rather dark muted colors, black, greys, and dark greens, blues, and browns. Not all clothing are these colors. Unfortunately the black and white photography gives the impression that the clothes worn by boys were these muted colors.


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Created: March 23, 1999
Last updated: 7:00 PM 4/14/2009