The History of Photographic Formats After 1924 June 30 2023

The main challenge during the first 100 years of photographic printing was to develop a stable method for saving an image on paper. The following century was devoted to fine-tuning this process, yet, having reached the pinnacle of printing with exceptional clarity and vibrant colors, it is now largely ignored by many people who prefer smartphone digital images instead. So that the efforts of inventors and scientists are not forgotten, let’s revisit the highlights of photographic formats since 1924.



One of the most significant developments in mass-market photography was the introduction of 35mm film. Initially used in the motion picture industry, 35mm film became the key factor in designing cameras for the general public. Compared to the glass plates of the 1800s, the small size of 35mm film meant that cameras could be compact and portable.

Leica 1925 35mm

Camera Leica 35 mm from 1925

Kodak had already created the roll-film Box Brownie, but this camera had a fixed focus, a single aperture, a set shutter speed, and poor optics. It was a convenient way for amateurs to capture images of their family and friends, but the results were poor. Oskar Barnack, an optical engineer, precision mechanic, and industrial designer, was keen on landscape photography, but as a chronic asthma sufferer, he found it difficult to haul heavy, large-format cameras on his hikes through the local forests. But he realized that by using 35mm cine film, he could make a smaller camera that he could easily carry.

Barnack understood the disadvantage of using 35mm sprocketed cine film. He saw that celluloid film was transported vertically through the cameras of the day, giving only an 18x24mm image frame to capture an image. He incorporated a horizontal film transport system in his camera to take the frame size to 24x36mm. This created the 3:2 aspect ratio and negative size that is today’s industry standard. Around this concept, he built a metal-bodied camera with a retractable precision lens and a focal plane shutter with spring-tension-controlled shutter speeds.

Kodak roll-film Box Brownie

Kodak roll-film Box Brownie

To void loading and unloading film in the dark, Barnack also developed a reloadable film canister so that film could be changed in daylight. The maximum number of frames stored in this canister was 36, which is still the standard length of current film rolls. This camera entered the photographic market at the 1925 Leipzig Spring Fair trade show, and 1,000 were sold the first year. By 1935, the most profitable section of the company was its camera and enlarger division. Through its adoption by photojournalists, Leica swiftly became the benchmark for photographic excellence, capturing outstanding images of the era with ease.



Kodacolor Advertisement 1928

Kodacolor is a brand synonymous with photography, but it was initially made for the motion picture industry. In 1917, musicians Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes decided to devote their spare time to improving the quality of motion picture films. Their breakthrough came when they included three emulsions on a film base, each sensitive to a primary color. Their work was noticed by the director of research at Kodak, who invited these young men to work for him. With abundant resources available to them, it only took them until 1928 to create a vibrant color transparency movie film.

[IMAGE] Kodacolor Advertisement 1928

The Eastman Kodak Company bought the rights to this color movie film and improved the process with new and more stable sensitizing dyes before giving it the trade name ‘Kodacolor.’ That same year, it put this motion picture film on the market for amateur filmmakers. This revolutionary movie film was later turned into slide film, which became the first commercially successful amateur color film.



To satisfy the growing demand for 35mm photography, Kodak created the 135 format using single-use cartridges of 35mm film for use in its Retina camera as well as the Leica and the Zeiss Ikon Contax camera. The term 135 was introduced by Kodak as a designation for 35mm still photo film, perforated with Kodak Standard perforations. Using light-proof metal containers meant photographers could load their cameras in broad daylight. The size of 135 film is 36mm x 24mm, which is still the format used by full frame digital camera sensors.

Kodak chose to emulate Leica’s quantity of exposures in its film cartridges. At first, the standard full-length roll was 36 shots, but 20 exposure rolls were eventually made available. Around 1980, 20 exposure films were discontinued in favor of 12 and 24 exposure rolls.



Before Kodachrome slide film was marketed in 1936, most color photography had been achieved using additive methods. This was a disadvantage because it used elements that were visible when enlarged. And when projected, these transparencies absorbed up to 80% of light, requiring extremely bright projection lamps. Kodachrome used a subtractive method and was immediately appreciated by cinematographers and still photographers. Kodachrome quickly became the standard type of film for professional color photography, especially for images published in print media. The shooting and projection of color positives became a popular pastime for amateur photographers, but it also caught the attention of educational institutions and businesses, which found color slides to be a valuable tool for teaching, marketing, and sales.

Kodachrome Photo by Alfred Palmer (1942)

Kodachrome Photo by Alfred Palmer (1942)

Even when color negatives became available in 1942, photographers preferred to shoot on Kodachrome because its fine grain produced sharper and clearer images. Kodachrome initially had a 10 ASA rating. In 1961 it produced a faster film speed of 25 ASA for its Kodachrome II film. This was followed in 1962 with Kodachrome-X, which had the familiar 64 ASA rating. In 1974, with the change to K-14 processing, these names were simplified as Kodachrome 25 and Kodachrome 64. In 1988, Kodachrome 200 ASA was released to capture more of the amateur photographer market.

Kodak had a monopoly over developing Kodachrome film because its processing required eight tanks of processing chemicals, each precisely controlled for concentration and temperature. Then the film was washed to remove residual chemicals before being dried, cut, and mounted in small cardboard frames that could be placed in projectors and slide-viewers.

Kodachrome’s archival properties and superb color made it the most popular film for professionals and amateurs in the 1900s. However, by the mid-1980s, sales of color print films from companies like Fuji and Polaroid overtook Kodachrome. These films could be processed by the ‘one-hour photo’ labs that became ubiquitous in the late 1980s.



Designed initially as educational toys for children, the View-Master took advantage of Kodachrome film’s vibrant images. View-Master is a stereoscope viewer that holds ‘reels’ of cardboard disks containing pairs of small transparencies. These reels featured travel photos that explored destinations from around the world. The View-Master rendered images in 3D, and after its launch at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair, it was an immediate success.

View-Master Reel

View-Master Reel

Each View-Master reel contained a travelogue of seven subjects supported by text on the packet. Around 1952 a camera was invented that allowed amateur photographers to create View-Master reels of their holidays. It only had limited success and was discontinued in 1955. However, the original concept of the View-Master and its scenic reels depicting tourist attractions stayed in production until 2009. Since 1939, around 100 million viewers have been sold, and more than 1.5 billion reels have been made.



Kodacolor Negatives Ad

In the middle of World War II, the world’s first true color negative film for still photography was produced. Eastman Kodak began using the Kodacolor brand as the name for its new color negatives. Kodak produced transparent celluloid negatives (images with inverted colors) that were exposed on photographic paper using an enlarger or by contact printing.

[IMAGE] Kodacolor Negatives Roll Film Advertisement from 1942

The general public found that looking at prints was much easier than viewing slides in darkened conditions. This new color print film was also much better for amateurs to use, as it tolerated inaccurate exposure, so it soon became the medium of choice for camera enthusiasts, as well as for wedding and social photographers.

With emulsion technology improvements, including new types of silver grain, the quality and speed of Kodacolor films steadily improved. Eastman Kodak’s processing techniques became the standard for color printing and were soon copied by its rivals at Agfa, Fuji, Konica, and GAF.



Chromogenic printing is a dependable form of color processing. It was relied upon for color printing through most of the late 1900s, even making its way into printing digital images. Digital C-Type printers project images onto paper covered with an emulsion of light-sensitive silver crystals. Rather than using an enlarger, light is directed to the treated paper with LEDs or lasers and then sent through a chemical processor.

Chromogenic color print

Chromogenic color print depicting a quaint shoe shine stand in Mendoza, ARG

Chromogenic prints have three silver halide layers (cyan, magenta, and yellow) which combine to form a full-color image. It’s a stable process, and pictures will likely last about 60 years of light exposure, which is more than pigment prints but less than archival pigment prints. This printing style was also adopted for making large-scale images.



Due to its archival qualities and color palette, Kodachrome was preferred by most photographers, but Ektachrome had one clear advantage. Because of Kodachrome’s complex processing requirements, users of this film had to post the film to Kodak, wait for them to develop it, and then wait again for the slides to be returned; however, Ektachrome could be developed by other companies. From the 1950s, independent professional labs could handle Ektachrome.

When photographers used good lighting, Ektachrome had minimal grain, bright whites, and excellent skin tones. It was versatile enough for landscape, street photography, and portraits. In the mid-1990s, Kodak upgraded Ektachrome to an improved E-6 development process. Appropriate chemistry kits were eventually sold for home darkrooms, making it possible for hobby photographers to develop their transparencies.

Ektachrome photo

Ektachrome photograph of a landscape

In 2013, due to declining sales, Kodak discontinued the production of all Ektachrome films. However, with the resurgence of interest in film photography that occurred later that decade, in 2018, Kodak decided to make the 35mm format of Ektachrome available again. Young photographers enamored with Instagram’s filters liked Ektachrome because it could be cross-processed to produce odd color shifts.



According to the Polaroid legend, in 1944, an American father took a photo of his daughter, and the young girl asked to see the image. The father, Edwin Land, explained that processing film took days rather than minutes. However, this discussion made him wonder what it would take to create an instant photo.

While still a physics student, Land eventually discovered a cheap way of polarizing light by using crystals laid on a thin sheet of material. And by combining a developer and fixer in the same solution and separating the development process from the printing process with a thin layer of gel, he made the first self-contained negative-print process. By 1948 he had invented the instant camera called the Land Model 95. The secret to this camera’s success was the rollers that burst a pod of processing reagent and distributed it evenly onto the print. Once the processing was complete, a black and white, 3.3 x 4.3-inch print was peeled away from the negative strip. Processing only took one minute. Edwin Land called this system ‘Polaroid,’ and he started a company to produce it on a larger scale.

Polaroid Inventor

Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land with the 1948 Polaroid Land model 95

When the first Polaroid camera went on sale in 1948 at a department store in Boston, it sold out in minutes. This camera only produced sepia-toned images, and although the quality of the prints was less than could be achieved with traditional film, customers loved seeing results in only 60 seconds.

By 1956 one million Polaroid cameras had been sold, but it wasn’t only teenagers and families who wanted them. Polaroid film provided an instant check on lighting in professional photoshoots. When it was confirmed that the studio lights were in the correct position, the final images were taken with conventional film or transparencies. Some professional photographers also used Polaroid film at dinners, functions, and social events before selling these instant pictures to the attendees.

Polaroid Instructions Manual

Polaroid Instructions Manual

Over the decades, Polaroid made many innovations to its cameras and improved its processing systems, significantly improving picture quality. By 1957 its black and white instant prints were described by the New York Times asequal in tonal range and brilliance to some of the finest prints made by the usual darkroom routine. But the needs of consumers eventually changed, and by the end of 2008, Polaroid withdrew from the instant film market altogether.


1954: Tri-X FILM

When photographers think of photojournalism, they think of Tri-X, Kodak’s exceptional black and white film. With its classic grain profile, Tri-X has been the favorite film of photojournalists since its release in 1954. This 400 ASA film was revolutionary when it was released because its fast speed and incredible exposure latitude allowed photojournalists to work in challenging conditions.

Tri-X FILM 1954

Kodak Tri-X Film (1954)

Since the arrival of digital photography, Tri-X is now rarely used for photojournalism. Still, film photographers commonly choose it for street photography, and it can be used for beautiful portraits as well. With the current desire to embrace all things retro, it has gained a second life with young amateur photographers.



Fifteen years after instant black and white photography became available, Polaroid invented the camera that could produce color prints in less than a minute. Traditional color print film had been gaining popularity for two decades, so Polaroid felt compelled to find a way to produce color prints from its instant cameras.

Polaroid camera Ad

Advertisement introducing the new Polaroid Instant Color Film (1963)

Polaroid scientists had to invent new dyes, developers, and chemical reactions for this latest creation. Polaroid tested 5,000 compounds during the formation of its color prints. When Polaroid’s instant color film debuted in 1963, sales increased six-fold in the following decade, making it a commercial and technical success.



Although 35mm film was relatively easy to load into cameras, some people struggled to get it right, especially those who only brought out the camera a few times a year for snapshots. When the film was finally developed, consumers found it incredibly frustrating if they discovered it had not connected or was light-fogged because they had accidentally opened the back of the camera before rewinding it.

Kodak found a solution to failsafe photography through a revolutionary camera using a drop-in cartridge holding 126 film. The Kodak Instamatic camera was compact and had a plastic-molded body with a shutter-release button and film advance on the top. The shutter locked after each shot to avoid double exposures; another photo could not be taken until the film was transported to the next frame. Each camera had provision for flash cubes. Later models had a low-light indicator in the viewfinder window.


Kodak Instamatic camera and it 126 cartridge film format

Using Eastman Kodak’s 1xx film numbering system, the 126 designation indicated that the negative frame was 26mm square. New fine-grain film emulsions, coupled with high-quality acrylic lenses, allowed this smaller negative size to be enlarged without a noticeable loss of print quality. The Instamatic became Kodaks most successful camera ever, with approximately 70 million sold.



Kodak’s 126 cartridge showed the commercial potential of a foolproof, drop-in camera loading method. With further development of finer-grained emulsions, the company manufactured an even smaller cartridge film. In 1972 it introduced the 110 cartridge, using 16mm film, similar to that used in movie cameras. It was initially produced with a 100 ASA speed, followed later by a more sensitive 400 ASA film that allowed faster shutter speeds, reducing blurred photos from camera shake.

110 film cartridge (front and rear views)

With their small size, the cameras were named Pocket Instamatics, and they were intended for point-and-shoot photographers. In 1978, a new range of 110 cameras called the Ektra incorporated a sensing device that used the notches on the cartridge to adjust the camera for either 100 or 400 ASA film speed, further reducing user error. In less than three years, more than 25 million Pocket Instamatics were produced by Kodak, and this format remained popular into the 1990s.



Although color Polaroid film was immensely popular, the creator, Edwin Land, desired further simplicity. Whereas existing Polaroids required the negative sheet to be peeled back to reveal the photo, he wanted users to be able to watch the image develop before their eyes.

In 1972, his vision was realized through a complex sequence of developers and dyes within a self-contained, postcard-sized print. And it came from an elegant, folding camera that was the size of a small handbag. This futuristic camera wasn’t just a means for taking instant photos; the Polaroid SX-70 became a fashion accessory for pop stars and avant-garde artists like Andy Warhol.

Polaroid sX70

Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera

Despite its huge price tag, it sold reasonably well. However, Polaroid initially lost money on every camera and film pack sold. Polaroid chose to make a cheaper version of the camera, and after an aggressive advertising campaign featuring British actor Laurence Olivier, sales increased and made it a financially viable product. The SX-70 range of cameras was manufactured until 1981, and in 2008, Polaroid stopped producing instant film. The Polaroid story doesn’t end at that point, however. Dutch entrepreneurs Florian Kaps and André Bosman founded The Impossible Project that same year. They bought the Netherlands factory, the last one in the world manufacturing Polaroid instant film. Since 2010 The Impossible Project has released films for the Spectra, SX-70, and 600-type cameras.



Kodak introduced DX (Digital indeX) coding in March 1983. This barcode was on the cartridge and celluloid edge of 135 and (eventually) APS photographic film. A DX code tells the camera the speed (ISO) of the film and is used by photofinishing machines to know the brand and film type being scanned.

kodak dx coding



The success of 110 and 126 films showed that consumers enjoyed using cartridge films. They were easy to load and rewind, and very little could go wrong. In 1996, a similar film format, the Advanced Photo System (APS), was introduced. Canon, Eastman Kodak, Fuji, Minolta, and Nikon jointly developed it.

The advantage of this system was its three sizes of photos that could be printed from the same film. ‘C’ was the Classic 2:3 ratio yielding a 4x6 inch print. ‘H’ was for High Definition, which printed as 4x7 inch prints. ‘P’ was for Panoramic, which gave 4x11 inch prints. It had 15, 25, and 40 exposure lengths. It used a more compact cartridge than the standard 135 size, which allowed smaller cameras to be made.

Kodak Advantik APS film cartridge

Kodak Advantik APS film cartridge

Unfortunately, at this time, digital photography began to impact the industry. In the face of this competition, the Advanced Photo System was short-lived. Several major companies, including Eastman Kodak, discontinued APS camera manufacture by 2004. APS film was discontinued in 2011.



Fujifilm successfully joined the instant print craze with its Instax (Mini & Wide) cameras which push out a print that self-develops within two minutes. Prints from the small format camera (Instax Mini) are only 1.8 x 2.4 inches, approximately the size of a credit card. The Instax Wide camera’s format is twice the width (2.4 x 3.9 inches), making it closer in size to a standard (3.5 x 5 inch) photo from a 35mm film. Both films are daylight balanced, with a film speed of ISO 800.

Fujifilm Instax

Fujifilm’s Instax Wide camera is shaped like a DSLR and has a zone-focus system, so it is popular with more serious photographers. In contrast, the Mini cameras with a mirror next to the lens are marketed as ideal for selfies. Some models give control over exposure, flash, and focal range, but they are all basic cameras designed for point-and-shoot situations. The quality of prints is average, but that’s all that can be expected from novelty cameras. Their role is simply to give people a taste of sharing physical photos they can hold in their hands instead of sharing ephemeral smartphone images.



From a historical point of view, photography has played an essential role in documenting the significant changes the world has experienced during the last two centuries. Cameras have also recorded everyday individuals and families celebrating milestones and going about their lives. Both are equally important visual reminders of the past. What will happen to the art and science of photography in the next 200 years?



JOHNSON, William S. A History of Photography (3rd Edition)
EDER, Josef Maria. History of Photography
ANG, Tom. Photography: The Definitive Visual History
NEWHALL, Beaumont. The History of Photography
PRITCHARD, Michael. The History of Photography in 50 Cameras
ROSENBLUM, Naomi. A World History of Photography (3rd Edition)
EMERLING, Jae. Photography: History and Theory



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Yousuf Karsh – Photographer

Antoni Esplugas: From Painter to Pioneering Photographer 


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