Film Rises Again

Perhaps the most puzzling trend I have seen in photography since I became immersed in it in 2014 is the rising popularity of film photography. The digital revolution essentially killed the still film photography industry in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Storefronts and labs closed, film production ceased, makers like Kodak essentially went out of business. But things have changed bigtime. There have always been the stalwarts that preferentially choose this medium. The puzzle is around young photographers or average non-photographer folk who now select this as their preferred way of presenting their creations. I have some thoughts on why this might be happening.

Most of us, especially those of us who are older, have preferred ways of doing things. Some of these are just force of habit – we have no real affinity for the specific approach used for the activity, but we’ve always done it that way and it is easiest to continue it that way. For some of us, doing it the same way is all about the comfort and speed of familiarity. For others, it is something of a fear of the unknown – not believing that the same or better results can be achieved in a new way. The hassle of learning a new way would detract from the pleasure of achieving the expected result.

As I observe older photographers, I see both of these approaches clearly. I can even say now that I fall into the first camp. When I came back to photography in 2014, I started using Canon equipment and Apple computers, because the media training I was pursuing wanted us to. I had also used Canon equipment in the 1990’s, with a variety of point and shoot cameras. Over the next few years since 2014, I dabbled in other systems, completely switching out my photography equipment twice. But I am now back with Canon. I am comfortable with the ease of use of their equipment and can honestly say that I will never switch again. Is it easy to use because it was the first digital system that I did use, way back when? I suspect so. Nothing really ever matched it.

On the flipside, as mentioned, are those that perhaps distrust the unknown or perhaps dislike the alternatives. Most, if not all of us older folk grew up with two kinds of film cameras – those that the “professionals” used and those that we could buy at the corner store, with cartridges of film and cubes of flashes.

If we had access to a professional film camera, we might have kept rolls of film in the fridge, selected just the right ASA and grain and contrast for that day’s shooting, carefully loaded the film, measured exposure with a pocket light meter, manually set the aperture and focus, attached the shutter release cable, then taken the shot. It took time, the process was distinctly defined, and it was all manual. Many photographers enjoy that complete sense of control, where every decision requires a specific action, and the camera doesn’t overcome any of your shortcomings. If you blow it, it’s on you. I’m told that’s the main attraction of continuing to use film for some established photographers.

Today’s digital snaps just don’t give you that same sense of accomplishment, especially when higher-end digital cameras include heads-up displays and simulations that tell you exactly how your image will turn out. I can say that sense of accomplishment was true for me when I shot film very casually in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It didn’t come very often though, since many of my film images ended up in the garbage. But the hassles of using film far outweighed the benefits for me and I eventually stopped shooting film altogether and didn’t start shooting again until the digital revolution.

But there is that other cohort in the older community too – those who simply want to replicate that easy process they grew up with. It is familiar and works. There is one lady who is a customer at the camera store where I work. She has no email or digital camera or cellphone. Instead, she buys an average of 10 disposable cameras with each visit, each having a roll of 100 ASA colour film with 27 exposures. She uses each one, and labels and organizes each camera so that the images can be printed in order submitted. And she picks up 10 envelops of 4×6 prints, organized as desired, a few weeks later. No fuss, no muss.

We offered her the option of digital copies of her prints – to make it easier to get reprints. She declined. To her, film is familiar and is the way she has always done it. You bring in your film – you get your prints. And we’ve made it even easier than ever with preloaded disposable cameras. Use once, take it in for processing and replace it with another. No need to know anything about film or even know what it looks like. I don’t know for sure, but I can imagine that she may have used a Kodak cartridge camera years ago.

So that covers us older folks who would have been “exposed” (pardon the pun) to film. That provides some logical understanding perhaps of why it is still popular with us. But there is a whole new cohort using film now. Young people. Those under 25. They definitely didn’t grow up with it, and on its face, there is no logical reason why film would be popular with them. So I asked a few of our young customers in the store, and this is what I found out.

There is an interest in all things retro with young people. They go searching for examples of it, in flea markets and thrift stores. The older generation in their lives is passing on and donating much of what they own. Or gifting it to their grandchildren. Everything from impressive early Leicas to plastic bodied Kodak and Vivitar cameras are finding their way into the hands of young people. They like them because they are basic – nothing to plug in or charge. Just point and shoot. And most important, much cheaper to acquire than a digital camera.

For the most part, it isn’t an interest in film as a medium per se that is driving this trend. How do I know: a real lack of knowledge about it. Four examples:

  • One young person who brought in an old film camera they had just purchased at a thrift store, only to discover that they had to spend money buying film to put in it. They had no idea there was a recurring extra cost.
  • Another young person who asked about getting their prints and how they could get copies later and stared blankly when I mentioned negatives. They had no idea what negatives were.
  • Another young person who discovered that the camera they were using no longer fired the shutter and could not understand why. It was because the roll of film was finished. They had no idea that it had to be removed and replaced.
  • When offered the option to also receive digital files via email, almost all are delighted with this option, in many cases saying that that’s all they really wanted anyway.

So what do all my observations tell me? Film is returning to popularity for two reasons: it is the medium of choice for specific photographers who want that aesthetic and that workflow, but it is also perceived as cheap and easy and retro-cool by non-photographer members of the public. It is regaining the market that it used to have when I was young, even in this age of cellphones and insta-everything.

And that’s the ultimate irony for me. If you really think about it, there is NOTHING easy or convenient about using film. Film is much more expensive today on a shot by shot basis than anything digital. Film ideally needs to be stored in a cool location. Film expires. Film cannot be exposed to light until you are ready to shoot. Loading film into a camera can be an exercise in frustration if the sprockets don’t catch. Exposure is derived manually; everything else about the camera may be manual as well. You have to take film somewhere to process it or you have to use toxic chemicals yourself to process it. You have to pay to buy the film, then pay again to process it. Some labs do a good job and others – MEH! You have to wait weeks in some cases to see the result and pay for prints that turn out to be trash.

Film is once again a booming business, including for the camera store where I work. We take in 50-100 rolls for processing in a week. It seems that film producers can’t keep up with demand for roll and sheet film. Photo processing labs that were almost closed are now hiring three full shifts of workers. Machinery to process film is almost impossible to find and harder to maintain.

Maybe it’s a bit of a backlash to ever more complicated devices that require more and more expertise to learn how to use them. A bit of a signal to those device makers, maybe? Maybe we don’t need the next 3-D, motion activated, immersive, ultra-stereophonic, trillion-colour display. And maybe without it, we would pay less for our cellphones and our service too. Wouldn’t that be nice?

One thought on “Film Rises Again

  1. Very interesting Nina, the phrase ‘what goes around comes around’ comes to mind. Although I still own Canon film cameras, and dearly love reminiscing about my days at the Toronto Camera Club competing in the B&W division and teaching basic film developing and printing, I have completely embraced digital. It’s just so much easier. Thanks for your thoughts and how interesting that Henry’s is still in the film processing business, or knows where to send it.

    Stay safe! Judi G


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