Looking at the way digital cameras and cell phones uprooted the industry, it’s not surprising how quickly the film photography business dived during the 2000s. What has been surprising is after a decade of decline, film’s fortunes have suddenly reversed.
With film sales increasing year over year, Kodak has been motivated into reviving previously discontinued lines like T-Max 3200 (with Ektachrome still on the way), while others are back from the brink and introducing entirely new lines of film. Instant film has exploded in popularity, particularly Fuji’s Instax line. Camera stores that had nearly cleared out their film sections have slowly started to reintroduce product again.
There are still sour opinions that completely dismiss film’s revival in our modern world, and I agree with critics to the extent that the film market will never be what it once was. Mainstream stores continue to dismantle their mini-labs or source film development to third-party companies, and I don’t see that trend stopping in light of film’s comeback. (So don’t expect a new Fotomat to open up near you any time soon.)
Rather, I think film has been redefining itself to a growing segment of photographers, and driving it’s resurgence is the very thing that nearly doomed it…digital photography.
That’s quite the contradiction, but it makes perfect sense when you consider how digital photography made the art more accessible than ever before. As interest in photography continues to grow, there too comes a growing niche that are looking to diversify their craft, work more intimately with the media or simply explore the way photography used to be. While many photographers left the darkroom behind, an entirely new generation is reviving it.
So what is the appeal in film? While debates rage on whether film or digital is the superior format, few would disagree that film does offers a lot of leeway with an incredible tonal range and latitude. Different film brands have different characteristics and behave differently from one another, and many fanatics would agree that simulation programs like Silver Efex Pro are simply no substitute for the real thing.
Other people may simply enjoy the process, working with something more tangible and the experimental nature of developing in the darkroom. To them, bumping sliders in a RAW processor just isn’t nearly as magical as watching a print come to life before your eyes.
For some formats, film remains the only practical choice. Bigger sensors means bigger cost: full-frame (35mm) digital cameras are expensive enough and medium format options easily exceeds that. On the analog side, film cameras from 35mm to large format can often be had for cheaper than an entry-level DSLR and are a terrific and affordable gateway into exploring different types of photography.
Finally, film still has much to teach us. While modern conveniences like LCD screens, memory cards and histograms are absolutely beneficial to workflows, these technologies can work against us when we start relying on them in lieu of knowledge or technique. Film demands much of you as you only have one opportunity to get the shot, and these constraints forces you to get better at your craft. (The reward of success is also much sweeter.)
Film certainly isn’t for everyone. But for those who do want to give film a try, I think the time has never been more right to get started. Used film gear is readily available from sources like used camera shops, photography shows, auction and classified sites, and darkroom equipment may practically be given away.
I think prices on this gear will eventually creep up from scarcity as things are given away or sold, which is all the more reason why I think now is the best time to jump on it.
In future articles, I will write more on different film formats, developing your own film and getting started with a darkroom for printing.