A Rebuttal: Film is Alive!… But it May Have a Terminal Illness

Every day several PetaPixel articles make their way on to my timeline. Often there are just too many to reasonably read on any given day so I end up scanning the headlines and picking a couple to read in order to at least attempt to say up to date with what is happening in the industry.

The defiant cry of the nostalgic hipster that’s become a hashtag: #filmisnotdead. But why? It’s 2019, people — the digital camera reigns supreme; why won’t this analog trend die? Rationalism abandons the old way in recognition of the new’s superior efficiency. The combine harvester supplanted the scythe, clocks replaced the sundial, and electric lights extinguished the candle.

The article I read this time was more of an opinion piece and it caught my eye because it was about film photography – something I still really enjoy shooting. Whilst a do agree with some of the content of the article I felt I needed to write a rebuttal to some other sections that I really do not agree with. If you would like to read the article in full a link can be found at the end of this post.

Ever since I started photography, I have always had the luxury of choosing either film or digital. In fact, I had two cameras when I first started: a Nikon D40 and a Pentax ME. Both were serviceable, and being that I only shot amateurish street photography, landscapes, and portraits, both cameras did essentially the same thing.

A bit about me – it is only fair! I never had this option when starting out. My first foray into photography was in the 1980s when my dad let me start using his Pentax KX. Whilst I’m sure digital was being talked about and even demonstrated at various shows and expos, I was completely oblivious to this. There was no choice and I got stuck into shooting with film when I could come up with the money to buy the film and get it processed.

It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I first processed my own roll of film when I discovered my school had an old disused darkroom. I also was given an old Yashica 6×6 twin reflex camera and dabbled with shooting medium format from time to time.

Towards the end of the 90’s I enrolled to study photography at what was then called the Natal Technikon. Our entire first year was exclusively done in Black & White and on 35mm film. By the end of that year, I was a fairly proficient printer, had shot with dozens of different film stocks, and had discovered that there was more than just Ilfotec HC developer (still a great all-purpose developer by the way). My time at Natal Tech is also where I started to dabble with digital photography. I remember when they bought a scanning back to use on the Sinar 4×5 cameras and then, within a year, they had bought an early Phase One instant capture back. Digital was comings – and it was coming fast!

I have selected some snippets from the article and provided my thoughts below them. As I said, I agree with much of the article but felt there were a few things I should chime in on.

And provided I have used the right film and exposed properly, I can get a decent print up to A1 size without too much grain.I printed this at A1 size. Shot on Kodak Gold 200 with a $5 Canon Sprint Point and Shoot.

This just reminded me of a quote a photographer in Durban always used to say when people kept going on about how grainy film was. He would always say, “but photographers love grain – we hate noise!”

The processing and storage of digital are both unlimited and far easier…

This is largely true and it is only getting better as far as digital storage is concerned. However, and I know that this argument isn’t the strongest, many of us film shooters still have our perfectly usable negatives from over two decades ago. I even have access to some that my parents and grandparents took even further back – all of them are perfectly usable. I have also lost a ton of images that were stored digitally. Drives have failed, devices have become obsolete, and I even have a few files that Photoshop refuses to open (I suspect this last one is user error). All of this adds up to a sort of scepticism towards digital storage. I almost expect it to fail but just don’t know when.

Digital storage can also be quite expensive. You need more drives, monthly cloud storage subscriptions, and other such expenses whereas for most people the cost of storing their negatives was negligible. You can even take it to another level by storing your negatives in a dedicated fridge which is a good way to control humidity. In South Africa, you can even pick up a half decent fridge for less money than some hard drives, and the cost of running a fridge that is hardly ever opened is also quite low.  Also, rescanning a few negatives is a whole lot cheaper than getting a failed hard drive recovered.

It is practical to them, but also fun with its inherent mysteries and spontaneity. A recent report can testify to my own anecdotal experience: “About a third of new film shooters are younger than 35, and roughly 60% of film users say they started shooting film in the last five years.”

This is true, and it ties in nicely with an earlier comment in the article about how celebrities have influenced people’s perceptions about film photography. A lot of the upswing has been driven by trends and fashion, but I think it is foolish to think that all of these people will also abandon it at the drop of a hat – although I’m sure many may do so.

There is a ‘inherent mystery’ about film photography as the author suggests and this is what keeps many coming back to film. It is the whole process that people enjoy. Those who opt to try out an instant camera and drop off the film at a lab for processing and scanning are probably the ones who won’t stick around in the long run. However, if a few users go beyond this and process a few rolls of film themselves, try shooting & processing medium format, or even print their own work using an enlarger they are almost certain to hang around. It is this whole process that most of us are passionate about – not just the shooting of film.

At my lab, Dropbox changed the game for us. People found new convenience in the scans being emailed directly to them, with the pictures available straight on the camera roll, ‘filter’ preapplied. All it needs is a #filmisnotdead hashtag and it’s Insta-ready. Film processing is costly, but it’s also like outsourcing the file management of digital so you can concentrate on the photography part of photography.

This is so true that I just had to leave it in – I couldn’t wait to do all my own editing when I switched professionally to digital photography. I was going to save soooooo much money. I couldn’t have been more wrong! What I saved in processing fees I paid for dearly in time. I miss the days of being able to drop my films off at the lab on a Monday and saying to the owner, “see you on Wednesday” knowing that when I collected all my editing would be done. This is something I need to get back to doing with regards to my professional work.

However, I much prefer processing and printing film in a darkroom over editing digital files in Lightroom when it comes to my private work. I can’t explain it, to be honest. Spending hours in a darkroom, for me anyway, is just way more appealing than sitting behind a desk staring at a screen and editing those some images.

So the niche seems to be deeply carved out for film photography and the manufacturers, at least in the short-to-mid term. The real prognosis for analog is ironically tethered to the lifespan of certain digital cameras: the minilab scanner, which is slowly going extinct.

Professional minilab scanners are key to film’s continued survival. Yes, you can scan with any digital camera or flatbed just as well as a dedicated film scanner, provided you know what you’re doing and build a good mask to hold the film flat. But the efficiency of a scanner like the FP-3000 is unrivaled, and essential for a lab to remain profitable.

Sadly, I think there is an element of truth to this for some photographers, but as I mentioned above, there are a lot of people who opt to not only process their own film but print it as well using an enlarger. These folks will be unaffected. I also have pretty strong faith in the market and feel that if there is enough of a demand there will be a manufacturer who carves out a niche for themselves making decent scanners. There are also a lot of very good flatbed scanners still available from the likes of Epson that do a fantastic job all the way up to 8×10 size negatives/transparencies.

Unless someone starts making new scanning machines that can be both as efficient and deliver similar image quality, the long-term future of film looks bleak.

It may very well be bleak for those that rely on scanners, but then again it may not for the reasons I mentioned above. I think those discovering film photography as an art form rather than just another medium will be fine.

They will be happy discovering different film stocks, seeing what effect different developers have, and how fibre base papers really are better than any of the modern inkjet papers in look and feel. They will print their photos, get them framed and hung on walls…….and they will be fine.

Source: Film is Alive!… But it May Have a Terminal Illness

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  • Emil10/01/2019 - 06:22

    Personally I think digital copying of negs using the old slide dupe systems will become more popular with the newer hi res cameras. I ‘copied’ two rolls of Ilford yesterday using an old Minolta slide duplicator with Tokina macro lens on my Nikon DSLR in about 15 minutes (okay, so I still need to process the images admittedly – change them from Neg to positive). Still, 15 minutes for 60 images as opposed to 4 minutes an image with my old Coolscan 5000. The point is, if digitizing remains simple and easy, film will grow some more in the coming years I suspect…long live the hipsters who think it’s cool! ReplyCancel

  • Greg Isaacson08/01/2019 - 19:47

    Speaking as a hobbyist, I always enjoyed using my Nikon film SLR. Film has a tangible existence, which makes it seem more “real” than a digital file, and there is something cool about handling film – loading it into the camera, snapping the back shut and hearing the whir of the take-up spool, dropping off the roll at the local pharmacy and getting back an envelope full of prints and negatives that can be displayed, passed around, stored in an album… It’s definitely less convenient than digital but there is something special about the process that can’t be replicated on a computer screen. By the way, a professional photographer once told me that the best way to learn photography skills is to start with a film camera, because digital cameras make everything too easy.ReplyCancel

    • Graham Carruthers08/01/2019 - 19:49

      Couldn’t agree more! It is definitely the complete process that makes it special. I also think that in an instant world there is something calming about a technology that doesn’t like to be rushed.ReplyCancel

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