Film photography. I’m lucky/old enough to remember film well. I started out on my photographic adventures with my fathers Contax 139 and a few rolls of XP2 way back in 1998, taking photos of my friends mountain biking. Back then the only choice was what film to use, then the three day wait to see if what you’ve photographed actually turned out ok. Digital turned the photo-world upside down. It made the learning curve quicker and easier with instant feedback. It levelled the playing field and allowed everyone to be able to take a half-decent image.
Many were saying that digital would spell the end of film but it could never match up with the quality, spawning the ongoing film vs digital debate. Indeed, lots of film stocks have now been discontinued as companies make the shift into more profitable areas. However, in recent years film has started to have a resurgence. Is this simply nostalgia for a past golden age, or is this the start of a new, more sustainable chapter in the story of photography?
Digital cameras had started to trickle into the mainstream when I first started in photography, but they were out of reach for an 18 year old student who liked to spend money on bike parts. It wasn’t until around 2003 that digital cameras became more affordable, and set on perusing photography more seriously, I saved up and bought a Nikon D100. The first thing I did was to head up the woods and photograph some bikes.
Unfortunately, the resulting photos were a little disappointing. They just didn’t seem to have the same feel about them as the Provia that I had been using. It was nice being able to see what I was shooting there and then, but there wasn’t the ‘look’ or ‘depth’ that there was with film. Digital just felt a little flat. After a few weeks learning I started to shoot in RAW which allowed me alter the colours a bit more, but there was still some character lacking. Still, the ease that digital gave soon outweighed the ‘look’, and the film gear ended up not being used at all.
By 2004 I was working at Boots on the photo counter. My job was to help in the lab and sell cameras. We were still processing film, but it was clear to see that people wanting a new camera were going digital. I think I sold less than five film cameras in the two years I was there. Digital photography was definitely on the rise.
The fall of film
With sales of digital cameras going up, it was only a matter of time before things started to take a turn for film companies. At Boots, the selling of film continued but more memory cards were appearing on the shelves. The companies had cottoned on; they needed to fully embrace digital or go under.
One of the biggest names in photography, Kodak, who ironically had developed a digital camera back in 1975 but decided it would impact too much on their film sales, probably had the biggest fall. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, stopping all consumer photography products and choosing to focus future endeavours on digital printing. Unable to find a foothold in the growing market, Kodak soon stopped producing consumer inkjet printers too. After selling off a lot of their assets, Kodak finally emerged from bankruptcy in 2013 aiming more for the corporate printing sector.
However the story doesn’t end there. In what seems a weird twist, Kodak announced in January 2017 that it was to re-introduce its Ektachrome film. So what happened?
The resurgence of analogue
Here’s my take on it. Film isn’t the only analogue resurgence that has happened recently. In the audio world vinyl and even cassette have started to make a comeback. My local Sainsbury’s even has a vinyl section. So there has to be something happening for records companies to decide they can turn a profit by re-issuing vinyl. We’re not talking about the limited runs of obscure white-labels for club DJ’s, but proper LPs of bands my mum’s heard of. I don’t think that dewy-eyed nostalgia is a factor either. Appealing to those who spent their teenage years listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ sat on a shag-pile rug. Instead we have to look at things from a wider point of view.
Everything today is available instantly. We can pull a small computer out of our pockets, order a pizza, book a holiday, listen to some obscure band, or read the news 24/7. Nothing stops. We live in a society that is reliant on speed and technology, and once we’ve consumed it, it’s discarded. Amazon Prime is the answer if you don’t want to wait three days for a gadget that you don’t really need to arrive, only to be discarded and forgotten about just as easily. Super fast broadband now means you can watch the latest film in your own home the second it’s released. Facebook will happily update you with everything that your 723 friends and ‘friends’ are doing while you’re at work, only to be forgotten about just as quickly.
The downside to this is that the quality of the experience suffers. We are used to the constant bombardment of information, but we have to sift through the detritus to find something worth reading, looking at, or listening too. However, I think that we’re coming close to hitting the ceiling in terms of what we can cope with. Sure, things will get faster, but it probably won’t improve our experience compared to what we have today. Were things better ten or 15 years ago? Probably.
In order to cope with the modern world, maybe we need to return to a time where things were appreciated more. Even if it’s just for an hour or two.
Horses for courses
For thousands of years, horses were the main means of transport. Today it’s the car, but there are still horses around. People ride horses, people race horses, people like horses. Horses are now used for pleasure rather than transport. This probably suits the horses too. Of course, you can pop to the shops on one but you’ll get odd looks and it’s not too practical. The analogue world is seeing a resurgence not solely because people want to reminisce, but because they enjoy the pleasure of a slower, better quality experience. Younger people, bought up on CDs and MP3’s are starting to appreciate the quality and experience that vinyl brings, and savour the time spent listening to it.
The analogue world is now becoming what we do for pleasure and to relax. With music, you can quickly hear then forget about a few nondescript songs played though your phone on the way to work. But how about putting on a record of your favourite artist or band and sitting back with a glass of wine or beer. Admire the cover art, read the notes and actually listen to a well produced record for an hour or so. In much the same way people would sit and read a book.
With film photography the comparisons are similar. We use our phones for quick snaps and to take a plethora of pictures on holiday, but do we need to? Surely limiting ourselves to say 36 shots may produce 30 decent, considered photos, rather than having to sift though hundreds of shots of every meal we ate to find the best handful. Just because we can fit 1000’s of pictures on one memory card doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Then what do we do with the photos? Occasionally printed out, but usually uploaded to Facebook or Flickr and soon forgotten among pictures of food, a night out, or the pet cat sleeping. Not really any way to treasure a precious holiday memory.
Quality, not quantity
Film photography is a return to a quality experience, with the end result being a physical object in our hands. It gives the process of photography some life. Valuing and treasuring our free time becomes more important in today’s hectic fast-paced society. Film photography is all about the experience. Slowing down and carefully preserving what we see.
Another reason may be that many people are now growing up solely using digital cameras. They haven’t had the experience of shooting film, and want to have a ‘feel’ of what it was like. Film photography is pretty affordable too. For half the price of a mediocre AF lens, you can get a second hand film SLR kit. Buying film and loading it is a tactile experience. The not knowing what you’ve got until you get your prints back is part of the fun.
Fuji’s Instax instant camera, the modern-day Polaroid, has become a surprise hit which may be attributed to the fact that its target market may have never seen a photograph that they’ve taken printed out. They’re used to the instant feedback that digital brings, but with the look and feel of a proper photograph in their hands. Instax fits this gap perfectly. Lomography, formally the preserve of the hipster as an ironic shun of the popularisation of digital has now gone mainstream. Younger people interesting in photography are now experimenting and shooting with this cheap toy camera, and it’s not for the nostalgia or to eschew the mainstream. Film is cool.
The Future of film photography
It’s clear that film photography is on the rise, but for how long? With more people discovering the wonders of film it looks like film photography will become more popular over the next few years. A few film companies have been preparing films thanks to Kickstarter campaigns, and with the likes of Kodak re-introducing film, the future looks healthy. However, it would be foolish to think that there will ever be a return to the heights film use in the 90’s. For many people digital suits them fine and they don’t need or want to return to using film.
Digital offers a much quicker, more streamlined workflow. It wins hands down if you want to photograph your dog and email it to your cousin in Australia, or your client wants 20 processed files tomorrow. But film offers something extra. It’s not just the final product but the experience of using it that gives us something that is missing from digital: the expectation of what we’ve captured. I’ve written before on slowing down, but sometimes it’s nice to take our time with something. Why should taking a photo be any different. Savoir the moment.
Film is fun
Film has made a positive return (no pun intended). It will find its place in the market and hopefully be sustainable long term. There will be enough ‘old dogs’ who will always lavish praise on film. People like me who love the ease of digital, but also love the aesthetic, feel, look and process that using film brings, especially in other formats such as 120 and 5×4.
To help film photography in it’s renaissance and for it to survive long-term, there is a new generation of ‘young pups’ who are discovering it for the first time though Instax and Lomography. They may move into developing and processing film and finding out just how varied and hands-on photography can be. To me, this is definitely where photography becomes an art form. (But that’s for another post).
Where will this lead us? Just as we now have vinyl as well as MP3s and streaming, we will continue to have film photography alongside digital photography. They can both exist side by side, but for different reasons. Digital hasn’t relegated film to history, it will always be a niche product but having film photography as an alternative way to make images will help its revival.
Film photography is different. Film photography is fun, and having fun is why we all started photography isn’t it?