The Devolution of Film Photography

 

I was recently at a major conference in Chicago hosted by Workday, an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system growing very quickly with an expanding customer base.

The keynote was by Dr. Peter Diamandis. Diamandis is founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation and a two-time New York Times bestselling author.  He was recently named one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune magazine.  His presentation looked at the disruptive effects of an exponentially expanding digital environment and how organizations can choose to ignore it or embrace it.

 

One of the corporations used as an example in his presentation was Kodak, a company overcome by the digital revolution.  Although they invented the first digital camera, the Kodak Board apparently refused to recognize the opportunity or the threat, ignoring the possibilities of the technology, choosing instead to hang on to their paper, film and chemical business.

Dr. Diamadis shared many other examples, one a slide showing the exponential growth of digital photography and the slippery and quick drop-off of film sales.   There were over 6,000 people in this large conference space listening to his presentation.  I chuckled knowing I was likely the only person in the audience who was actually carrying two 35mm film cameras and 10 rolls of Kodak film…right there in my backpack.  I was tempted to pull out my cameras and film to proudly proclaim myself as a film user!  I didn’t but I truly felt like a revolutionary at that moment, proud of going my own way. The thoughts his presentation left with me were still troubling however.

The question for film photographers is acute requiring our acknowledgement of this divergence from the rest of the world who are apparently leaving us behind at light speed. What does it mean for us?  Are we destined to eventually lose our ability to shoot film?

 

One thing it likely means is that we will find it increasingly hard to keep up with the pace of photography. As film users, we operate at a comparative snails pace compared to our digital cousins. We’re the photography version of the post office. Who is communicating in the analog world these days, who still writes letters?  Very few if us it seems. Even fewer of us even rely on getting our bills by mail anymore.  The post office has reluctantly moved on to a much heavier reliance on generating revenue through small package delivery competing with the likes of UPS, DHL and Federal Express to offset their mounting losses in first and third class mail delivery. Can we sustain a market for film if photographers have faster and increasingly better options in digital?

We will be challenged to sustain the foundation of our photography, namely film. As we decline in numbers, the market we need for product will continue to shrink. Film production will become even more of a boutique industry.  As film users, we have to make a concerted effort to share our experiences shooting film and let people know why film photography is so compelling. What are those compelling arguments?  The case for film is not as a faster, better or cheaper way to photograph. We need to offer more to potential film users to grow our numbers and sustain the financial health of our film manufacturers.

Film photography can be a differentiator from our growing digital world. With film, perhaps we can set ourselves apart as old school “artists” but can that make a compelling argument for film?

 

We all know that the essence of a good photograph derives from the feelings it excites. Film can help in a many ways but not uniquely. The “look” of film is increasingly being emulated in digital. It’s only a matter of time till the advanced properties of sensors and the processing power of cameras allows closure of the gaps between digital and film. With advancing technology, the ability to narrow the differences between digital and film will become increasingly seamless.

The lower cost to enter large and medium format film photography can’t be matched by digital as of today. The lower cost of legacy cameras and the quality and dynamic range of film in these larger sizes provides a significant cost advantage compared to digital.  But we are seeing potentially major disruption to the market as digital camera makers like Fuji and Hasselblad move into this consumer space.  While the cost for these cameras is out of reach for most non professional photographers, prices will come down as the pace of exponential technology advances continue.  Within five or so years, I expect medium format digital cameras to be in the prosumer and consumer spaces.  Perhaps even larger digital formats will be in the consumer market in the near future as well.  Film photographers on the fence will be increasingly tempted to leave the medium behind as new and increasingly cheaper technologies are offered by these and other major camera makers.

While the inevitability of newer and better camera technologies take hold there will hopefully always be a significant number of us that will continue to love the hands on nature of working with film and the unique qualities it provides even if they can be closely reproduced with digital.  The avid film photographer doesn’t always follow a logical path that can be plainly argued for use of the medium, perhaps we should stop trying to present these arguments as they will be even harder and harder to win.

The love of the film medium has a uniqueness all on its own.  For now, there are a significant number of photographers still using film and others looking to move towards more film photography even while continuing to shoot digital.  While film users will always be a relatively small group compared to the growing number of digital photographers, we are generally very passionate about film and as long as we can continue to sustain this market with our passion and enthusiasm, film promises to be around for many years to come.  Keep sharing your work and your love for film photography.

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