Film photography is not dead
There has been a bit of talk recently of the whole ‘death of film’. This seems to be an ongoing theme, and one that brings out all sorts of emotions. But I really don’t believe it is dead.
Recently there was an article in the Economist about what was claimed to be ‘the end of film’. It was a poorly written and poorly researched article which did nothing to point out how the use of film has changed. I expected more from the Ecomonist, but then, sometimes these things slip past the editors who just need an article up.
You see, film is changing. That is true, the way it is used and the range that is available has changed and will continue to do so. In the past the film photography industry was driven by professional and industrial uses, but since they have wained in favour of the faster and more forgiving digital systems the industry has had to change. It is not economically feasible to produce film in the same levels as it was in the past, as there are just not enough users. But that does not mean to say there are no users. And the users are not a smattering of geeks either. There is a strong and vibrant community, which has actually been gaining traction as more people either go back to film or become aware of it.
But what about the manufacturers? What are they doing about the industry? Well, from the big two, not much it would seem.
Fujifilm is not a lover of film. The company is a lover of the bottom line, as any large company has to be as they have a responsibility to their shareholders. But it seems like fujifilm cannot wait to get out of the film market. Every single year they cut film, claiming that there are no sales (although they have quietly re-started making a couple of products because of demand). I would not be bothered if Fuji did not make film any longer, as I would hope that they would just sell off their emulsions or facilities. But sadly this would not be the case. Fuji would rather burn the emulsions than let someone else make them. And they have been using their chemical facilities for the production of cosmetics, which is a far more profitable market. So, sadly it may be the case in the next 10 years that we see the end of the majority of films from Fujifilm. I think they will still make a very very basic line up. But nothing like we were used to.
Ilford, has been coming up with the goods for a long time. And they don’t seem to be stopping, in fact they have just (re)released new film disposable cameras. Which is fantastic news, as they are a good indicator of the health of the film market. If they can still afford to make these then there is still a viable market for them, and not just to geeks, but to the layman too.
There are a number of companies still making film, more than you might think in fact. You can actually find a complete list of the companies still manufacturing film here http://www.acecam.com/cr3index.html. The big players are all there, but there are a small ones too.
It is these companies that are going to be the places many people will look to in the future for their film, as the big boys have different priorities.
As for Kodak, well, what can you say really other than monumental mismanagement, mainly by people who are far more interested in lining their own pockets than working how to drop poorly performing lines and move into more profitable markets. If things keep on going the current way it is then there will be nothing at all left of what we know as Kodak. Now of course it is common knowledge that Kodak has a massive patent library waiting to be taken apart by the vultures, and part of that would be the massive library of emulsions. And this is where things get interesting. You see despite all of the naysayers, the Kodak film division has been and continues to be profitable. So someone is going to want that. And who is better placed to step into those shoes than Lomography?
In case you have been living under a rock, Lomo has been in the news recently. Some people are hailing them as the saviours of film. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. The article portrayed Lomo as having singlehandedly saved film photography from being sent into the mists of time. But I don’t think this is fair to the others who have done so much to ensure the popularity of film photography. I don’t use the words keep film alive as that does not sound very pleasant. It gives me the image of keeping someone on life support. Whilst film photography is not as popular as it used to be, it could never be so, it is still popular with a larger amount of people than many give credit for.
So film photography is going to change. It is not going to be the same as it was, it never could be, but it is still going to be around as long as there is a passionate group of users. They said the same thing about vinyl records, and look what happened there, still in production. I have heard the argument from some digital users that film is damaging for the environment, which makes me laugh. The manufacture (and eventual disposal of) digital sensors is hugely damaging for the environment, with mining of rare earth materials, and an extremely complicated manufacturing process involved. It really is an invalid argument. The reason why digital trumps film for many in convenience. We are living in a society that is based on convenience and we all want things now. Waiting for film to develop is only for people who have time and patience. But why these two methods can not co-exist? Of course they can. Some people like to get up on their soapboxes and shout “Yahboo film sucks” or “Digital is lame and you all smell” etc, but I don’t see the point in any of that. I shoot film for my personal work, and as a preference I shoot film. But I still use digital for my work, for this site, and for when I want to take pictures of my lunch for the world to see (because that is what is important now). Use film, use digital, use both, just stop being so daft and shouting down each others medium.
So what about film users? Where are they and what are they doing? What is this ‘renaissance’ that people talk about? Well it is happening all around you. There are many passionate groups out there…
The BelieveInFilm site is a great community for film users. The site is growing and getting the word out about film use and users. This is also the place to look for some of those rare films. Definitely go and check out what is going on over there.
I Still Shoot Film is a great website dedicated to shooting film. There are some nice articles and a great community of photographers.
Choosefilm is a forum/community that promotes the use of film and film techniques through shared information. A great place to get to know more about film photography.
The Guide To film Photography site is a valuable resource to beginners. With lots of useful information. Although the site does not get updated as regularly as I would like.
*Edit* I completely forgot to add APUG, the Analog Photography Users Group, a growing and vibrant site dedicated to film photography. They have big name backing too. Check this one out for sure.
Mijonju admonished me for not adding Filmwasters, a great bunch of film fanatics who do it because they love it. Go and check them out for sure.
Obviously Lomography is a major site for film lovers. Though the focus tends to be more about toy cameras. For a community of photographers with exerience in different types of cameras then Rangefinderforum would be a great place to go. There are tons of users, articles and resources on there.
As you can see there are a lot of different communities based around film photography, and with pieces being featured on the national and international press many people are realising that film did not die.
I think we are going to see a change, which will be upsetting for some as their favourite films may be lost. But photographers are an adaptable bunch and we will adapt to what is available of the market. But film is not going to die completely, there is still plenty of money to be made from it, and too many supporting it. We are going to see a similar thing happen as with Polaroid and Impossible (Polaroid must be kicking themselves). A new skew on old emulsions perhaps. It will take money and passion, but it can be done.
Let’s see what the next few years hold…
What are your thoughts on this? It is a hot topic and a lot of people get pretty feisty about it. I would like to hear your views in the comments below. Perhaps you know of communities and links that you can share with people too. Add them as well.
Zvonimir from Australia mailed me this response. I think it is a very valid point and have decided to include it. I would love to hear your thoughts on this too.
Film is seen as a troubled matter now because its major manufacturers are ones led with poor business wisdom in other areas of their operation. If Kodak as company was out of trouble, and doing well, many wouldn’t even venture into these doom and gloom film scenarios.
But what everyone seems to miss from the picture are not film manufacturers. Was film prospering in the heydays of film just because film was film, ie ‘a synonym for greatness’?
No. That is what we are led to believe, but it’s a false premise. Plainly and simply, film was prospering because there were lots of cameras, made every year, and by many different manufacturers, that made use of film. More cameras were available, more film varieties were used.
As a contrast, how many versatile film cameras people could be compelled to buy are produced nowadays? Ironically, majority of camera manufacturers that made their way into memories of our mental landscape are those that made helluva lots of innovation in camera manufacturing during the days of film. During that same time they also developed their popular mounts, that enabled people to use cameras with varieties of lenses, and expand on creativity.
Today, film camera manufacture is left to a handful of small manufacturing business that produce medium and large format cameras on one side, or simple and cheap plasticky cameras on the other side. So we have a choice to buy either a camera too large for everyday use, or a camera too fragile. The area in between them — right where film was traditionally flourishing — is almost abandoned. Who is left there? Where are new film cameras — well at least one — by Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Pentax, Sony (former Minolta, former Konica), Contax, …?
Leica is there, with its M7 and MP models still in production, priced at around $4000+ or more, respectively. And that is without a single lens. Price hardly differs from their digital counterparts, and for many who even consider Leica’s offers, convenience of digital prevails — at such a price, to many, the choice is clear.
Would people be more intrigued about the magic and possibilities of film if there was a new Leica film camera priced at below $2000? Say, Zeiss still makes its Ikon rangefinder (or they are frantically trying to get rid of the last production batch and its more affordable. But Zeiss is not Leica, die hards would say (they will spend days in litanies about the virtues of Solms and Wetzlar), and they instead buy 30 years old M6s, or 60 years old M3s — or cameras that are officially unsupported by its manufacturer for over 30 and over 60 years.
All the major SLR manufacturers that made millions of lenses so far are in the similar boat: people who want to get back to film, or try film from afresh, are curious about film or simply want to expand horizons, are forced to buy old equipment, officially unsupported, out of warranty, out of everything official and convenient and are left to all shades of grey of the second-hand film camera market.
And you’d like to see film more supported, bought and eventually resurrected in the future? So what do you think a prudent course of action would be?
In today’s situation it may mean buying more of the old equipment. Let’s but it all, dammit, until all supplies are finally depleted and no spare parts left. And from today’s 20-40 million rolls of film sold per year, we’ll slowly but steadily come to 2-4 millions of rolls sold. And then, we’ll finally give up and — with a sigh full of cognitive dissonance — proclaim that digital has finally killed the film and that’s digital ‘was better anyway’.
Now I ask more seriously: What is there to do, to *really* reverse the trend?
Start buying M7s or MPs simply to support one manufacturer which admitted publicly it wanted to kill film (yes, with its Monochrome Leica M)? Leica has made its choice quite clear — they are there to support their name, not film for film’s sake.
Coming to an end of this little reflection, I ask myself: what we’re up and against in fact? Don’t we — you, I, readers of this blog — contribute to faster demise of film just because we — people who swear by film — play the wrong notes all along?
To me, it is now quite clear that love for film is now about love for continuous buying of old and used equipment. That makes film even more obsolete.
To make film interesting again, or make it rediscovered from a novel angle, there must be some interesting and quality film cameras resurrected again, supported again and not ridiculously priced.
We indeed need some fresh thinking that may start, perhaps, with writing letters and petitions sending them to major camera manufacturers with mounts that support millions of lenses: they have made their names and stature in the days of film, and isn’t it prudent that they at least support film with one prudent product we’d love to buy from them?
If they don’t and won’t hear about it, then explore alternative avenues. Say, publicly pledge to start making film cameras in a mount that would have its copyrights expired by then. Say, a Nikon or Pentax film camera but not made by Nikon or Pentax if they really don’t want to. And in such a way put them up and against their own heritage, their own past and the sense of self-worth.
Another response, this time from reader Marcus Riccoboni:
I’ve been reading this thread with great interest.
I think Zvonimir has really hit the nail on the head here: if film is to stay for the long term, we need access to new film bodies, fitted with mounts that will work with modern lenses. Simply resurrecting old equipment, whilst being a very worthy activity, will not provide new photographers in twenty or thirty years time the opportunity to enjoy shooting film.
Statements, from people like Trevor, such as “The digital age has made film a niche product, but one that will likely exist far longer than any of us will live…so stop worrying, and go shoot film” are a great morale booster and very seductive on a personal level. Indeed, they help keep up demand in the short term. However, they do not address the fundamental issue that Zvonimir raised: if there are no new (and economical) film cameras being made, film will, eventually, die off.
Similarly, I have heard comparisons to vinyl, which has steadfastly failed to die. Again, these are seductive to those of us who want to continue to enjoy shooting film, but I fear they are misplaced – I wager the fixed costs of producing vinyl and record players is far less than that of film and camera bodies. This leads us to the thorny question of just what are the minimum economies of scale necessary for film and film equipment production?
The key issues here are economic in nature – simple supply and demand. There is a minimum level of demand for film and cameras beneath which it is commercially unviable to supply them. Other than the film producers and camera manufacturers themselves, does anyone have any sensible estimates for what these numbers are?
If we could find out this sort of information it would be easier to pull together petitions, or groups of genuinely committed enthusiasts in sufficient numbers to stand behind one or two manufacturers who then might be willing to come up with a long-term commitment to producing film (think Ilford) and, more importantly, the essential camera equipment that will guarantee its long-term survival.
Right now, we may have a limited but golden window of opportunity – a sufficient number of genuine enthusiasts who are willing to join forces and influence the outcome of an issue close to all our hearts.
Supply and demand – simple. We can pull together to concentrate the demand whilst working out who has the most appropriate supply to keep film (and film cameras) alive.
I’m willing to spend time investigating this and doing the calculations to work out the feasibility of such a campaign. And I’m sure people like Bellamy and BelieveInFilm Gordon (@filmdevelop) would be willing to help spread the word and bring enthusiasts together. That leaves us looking for people who have access to (or sensible estimates of) some of the commercial numbers we need to get the ball rolling.
Who wants to get involved?