Like many other photographers, I was recently met with the temptation to shoot film. I say ‘temptation’, as I have been wanting to take it up for a long time, but was so far put off by the extra cost of development and scanning, not to speak of the, quite frankly, insane prices of film and of the analog camera itself. My reasoning for eventually picking up the pricey hobby was primarily the process. Having shot on various cameras and smartphones had made the experience of photography feel cheap, disposable and, at times, meaningless. Film photography, on the other hand felt intentional, I was finally able to take full control over my framing, color, exposure, and all this taking my own sweet time. Moreover, the anticipation of each newly developed roll felt like a little Christmas present or a magazine subscription: something that gives you a simple everyday thrill. After all, life is all about the small meaningful moments, like receiving your negatives back, for instance. Therefore, for me it was worth the investment.
When doing the research for this article, I found out my thoughts and experiences were shared by multiple other individuals, even brands and organizations.
Comeback of film and proof thereof
After more than a decade in old attics and dusty boxes, it seems old cameras and films are finally seeing the daylight. So is Kodak’s Ektachrome, which was revived especially for the sake of creating the perfect nostalgia environment in hit show Euphoria’s season 2.
Nonetheless, the trend has not always been progressive: ‘The film market peaked in 2003 with 960 million rolls of film, in 2017 it represented roughly 2% of that,’ says Manny Almeida, president of Fujifilm’s imaging division in North America. However, in the past three years, Kodak, Fujifilm and Harman Technology (manufacturer of Ilford BW films) are ‘seeing film growth of 5% year-on-year globally,’ says Giles Branthwaite, the sales and marketing director at Harman. ‘Our professional film sales have been increasing over the last two or three years,’ confirms Dennis Olbrich, president of Kodak Alaris’ imaging, paper, photo chemicals and film division.
As far as Fujifilm, its analog business revenue has increased by 5% in comparison to its whole business revenue in just two years.
This growth is primarily fueled by professional photographers diversifying their portfolio, as well as Gen Z, who have grown up with digital but are now discovering the magic of film.
As a result, photography equipment, like cameras and rolls have had an exponential sales growth, while film content is being increasingly fed into social media platforms like Youtube or Instagram.
As interest increases, so do prices. Film cameras, which five years ago one would be lucky to sell for 15 $ are now found online for the modest price of a few hundred dollars, and cost of film has increased from 6$ per pack to 15-20$ for the 36-shot film. This, however, doesn’t seem to discourage young enthusiasts, as online marketplace eBay confirmed that there has been a “high double-digit growth” in analog photography in recent years.
This has not only lead companies to bring back old products to the market, but also drawn new competitors in the game, such as German start-up Silbersaltz, who have been offering their own film, of course named Silbersaltz35, based on Kodak cinema film, but priced in a lower range.
The company now enjoys a roaring success, developing hundreds of film rolls per week, even struggling with the high demand. They have, therefore, decided to invest in new machines for the analog department, which should increase efficiency of development and scanning.
According to the CEO ‘Film photography is experiencing an incredible trend right now,’. The customers, half of whom under 20, have ‘a strong longing for the simple, the non-volatile,’ he says. ‘Furthermore, analog photography delivers high-quality results at relatively low entry-level prices compared to expensive digital cameras’, Bergmann adds.
And while lab development and scan is still an underserved market for brands like KODAK and Silbersaltz, competitor Fujifilm relies primarily on its Polaroid cameras in addition to photographic film. Those, too, have seen a significant upswing, where in just ten years the number of ‘Instax’ cameras sold per year has increased by 9.5 million.
If you are a Polaroid user, like me, you have likely heard of the Impossible Project: a film company founded by Florian Kaps, who protested against the discontinuing of instant film and persuaded Polaroid’s former product manager to join him in creating their own firm, which was so successful, that that it eventually bought the Polaroid brand name and branched out to make instant film cameras as well.
According to Fujifilm company research, ‘A lot of consumers indicate that they don’t even look at Instax as photography. It’s fun, it’s relaxed, it’s social communication.’
The process of photography seen as entertaining and even therapeutic is what draws new users to analog photography, as opposed to the end result. ‘When one of my friends first showed me the 35mm photos he’d been capturing, I was instantly hooked! I went bought a 35mm camera that week and have been shooting film, and Super8, ever since,’ a keen film photographer says.
The incredible fascination with film photography has driven a major change in a multitude of businesses: gigantic brands like Burberry and Uber use analog photography in their ad campaigns with increasing rates, while the music industry displays film photography on album covers and merchandising material more and more often. Major performers like Harry Styles and Taylor Swift have turned film into a signature style for their covers. All of this has further influenced the pubic and Instagram communities, who are exposed to analog content and are turning film photography into a growing worldwide phenomenon.
‘This isn’t just a comeback,’ the team behind Revival (film about the comeback of analog) says. ‘It’s a movement.’
But what makes film photography so appealing to the public?
With analog photography results so unique and appealing, many celebrities incorporate film into their personal style.
Jennie of Blackpink and Gigi Hadid, for instance, have their own separate film photography accounts, @lesyeuxdenini and @gisposable. Other big names, like Dua Lipa and Frank Ocean, have shown off their film photography skills on their personal profiles, with the latter having captured the whole MET gala 2019 red carpet event on film.
Some celebrities take it to the next level and establish their separate film photography careers. Among those are Kendall Jenner, John Mayer, Lenny Kravitz and Cole Sprouse, who express their love for analog through big name-drop assignments, published photography books and big marketing campaigns for fashion brands.
Asked what draws her to film photography, Beverly, running a popular film photography account @filmthrills_ account, says ‘Shooting film is thrilling to me because it really makes you practice catching the right moments at the right time,’.
She is not the only one of this opinion. Euphoria director Sam Levinson has chosen to shoot all footage and behind the scenes photography for season 2 in film, bringing Kodak’s unique EKTACHROME 5294 format back to life specifically for the show. Kodak Vision3 Color Negative 5219 was also used in production stages of the show.
Those examples define film as a significant part of our culture and society, a subculture and a movement, bringing along the sense of warmth and nostalgia.
The visual aspect
The visual outcome when shooting film is another major factor when choosing one’s weapons in film and photography.
Show creator/executive producer/director and Marcel Rév, the show’s primary cinematographer, both say they made the decision to shoot in film solely primarily for two reasons. The first was the original idea to make the show on film starting from season 1, and the second was the desire to bring nostalgia in the expression of characters and action in the second season, therefore a transition from digital to film makes complete sense.
‘We shot season two the way we initially intended to shoot season one, Levinson explains. ‘We always imagined the show being shot on film. There is an inherent nostalgia to film. Each character, in their head, is the star of their own movie, which [for this show] immediately breaks it from the realism of being a teenager and into the imagination. Film has always been larger than life, and we wanted the ways in which we pushed and manipulated film stock to echo that.’
‘[HBO pushed for] digital for season one, but because that season was successful, we were able to make that change for season two. As much as I love digital, I feel that it’s unable to fully capture the depth, warmth, and texture that film can. It also adds a structure to the filmmaking process that forces you to move with intention. We wanted this show to be a sensory experience more than anything. And I do think the audience response has been in large part due to the way that it looks. I think shooting on film makes the show more commercial, because people can feel the care that we put into it.’
The team was aiming for ‘an emotional expression before a logical one’. So their approach for season two was to make the show look like a reflection of a memory or something one would be looking back upon. And for the film crew, those memories all started on film. If season one could be described as a house party at 2 am, season two should feel like 5 am, way past the point at which everyone should have gone home.
Dennis Olbrich confirms that a lot of influential motion pictures cinematographers and professional photographers nowadays find appeal in using film. According to him, this gives them a certain depth and richness to their product and they use it as a competitive advantage in their marketing.
But it is not just established creatives who are fascinated with film. As stated by film expert and photographer, Teo Crawford, Gen Z creators ‘have never been a part of an age where film was necessary but yet they strive to achieve a sense of age and authenticity in their photography. They like the colors and the vintage look,’ he says. ‘There are still people who would rather have the physical book than an e-book, and I think it’s the same sort of students who are attracted to using film.’
Film, meanwhile, pushes photographers to rethink how they shoot. ‘You can’t just shoot a hundred shots of your subject and review them immediately,’ says Olbrich. ‘Film forces you to think about the image, plan the image and really create the image mentally before you actually do the shoot. Film photographers believe that this process results in much more artistic and, in some cases, much more spectacular images.’
‘It’s not like a memory card,’ says Mico Mazza, a film photographer from Ontario, Canada. ‘You can’t shoot 2,000 photos and hope that a couple of them turn out. Because you have to think about every shot beforehand, it activates your creativity.’
Judith Walgren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and professor of photojournalism and new media at Michigan State University, says she tries to convey the learning process to her students through the means of film. ‘It is critical for students to understand the aesthetic nature involved in the organic way that grain populates a piece of film or photographic paper, and how it differs from the ordered way that pixels work in a digital image,’ she says.
An interesting aspect of film is its correlation to digital and, more specifically, to social media filters. Mazza explains that ‘Many of the filters on Instagram are based on particular film stocks or photographers,’ he says. ‘I think a lot of people, especially younger people who have gone through their middle and high school years using Instagram and other image-based social media, want to know where those filters come from.’
For other folks it is the anticipation that drives their passion for film.
‘I love how you can’t see the photos you took right away until after you developed them, I love that I can discover it later’” says Julie Le, a student at the University of Calgary and an amateur film photographer.
Another film photographer, Azriel Knight describes the joy of finally seeing the developed photos as ‘magical’, while astrophotographer Abdul Dremali explains that he chooses film ‘99 percent of the time because of the lack of instant gratification. I work in a strenuous field day-to-day and am a naturally very hasty and anxious person. Shooting film gives me no choice but to slow down, compose my shot, meter my light correctly and wait for the right moment.’
The digital detox
In an all-digital era, where even our clothes are virtual, it is difficult to immerse oneself in an analogue, off-screen experience.
As a result, more photographers are putting down their smartphones or DSLR cameras in favor of shooting the old-fashioned manner. In the same way people still find pleasure in using vinyl and typewriter, reading magazines and books, there is something about film photography that grants an almost meditative state of creation, authenticity and a full understanding of the process. Meanwhile one creates a unique piece of art, which cannot be replicated.
The look of the finished product is a big part of that, but so is the process. Snaps we take on a smartphone can feel cheap and easy.
While some creators try to achieve the unique style of film photos by applying filters to their digital images, there is still the feeling of having cheated. This is because film photography is mostly about the experience, not the result.
‘The younger generation especially is turning to photographic film and Polaroid’, Andy Ross of Fujifilm Europe says. ‘If you grow up in a digital world, photo film is a digital detox, of sorts.’
With smartphone photography being fast and easy, skill matters less, the number of variables involved in taking a photo has been engineered to a minimum. Hence why, digital photography can feel cold and artificial and the artist may feel less creatively challenged.
Analog photography, on the other hand, is dignifying because it’s beyond the algorithms, which means it grants one the freedom to make their own mistakes. Bearing the consequences of human error is paradoxically liberating, and a great picture can provide a level of excitement equivalent to winning a marathon.
Similarly, when asked his opinion on digital filters, photographer Stephen Shore described them as gimmicks, remarking that a photograph “is good because of the decisions the photographer makes.”
Eddy Chen, who captured stunning and surreal photos of Euphoria’s actors on set, advises people interested in starting out in film photography:
‘Go for it! It’s easy to pick up a digital camera or take throwaway photos on your phone. In digital, you snap, snap, snap away, and if you don’t like it, you delete it. With film, because it’s more expensive, every frame counts and every frame is precious. It allows you to slow down and think about how you want to frame up your shot before you take it. That’s what a part of it is really about — taking your time to make a cool picture before you snap away. No one’s going to burn through a roll of film just shooting off their shots without thinking about it. Technically, it trains you, and it trains your eye.’
For others, who were born and raised with film, like Mexico-based photographer Olivia Crumm, traditional photography never went out of style. ‘I don’t think film ever really died, she says. ‘Analog photography has been around for over a century. Digital, on the other hand, is new and is still in the process of being perfected. I also think there’s a quality to film that really cannot be matched by a digital image.’
For her, the process is crucial: ‘I enjoy working with film, looking at my negatives and taking the time to make prints,’ Crumm says. ‘The labor of it is an important part of my process. When I shoot digital, sometimes it feels like my work doesn’t exist anywhere.’
She also describes the outcome of film as much more valuable in the marketplace and elaborates: ‘There is an inherent respect for the handmade that is re-emerging after years of trying to replace the analog ways with the new and sexy methods.’
Karen Thurman, owner of the U.K.-based Thurmanovich Gallery, agrees. She sees film prints as a boost for her business, which is increasingly moving toward photographers who specialize in analog photographic processes. ‘We only sell in limited editions, so we’re looking for unique,’ she says. ‘Even if two prints are printed one after the other, they’re never going to be exactly the same.’
So, is film photography a short-lived trend or is it here to stay?
Thomas Bergmann of Kodak is certain of the latter. He believes in film photography stronger than in digital camera shots, as, according to him, many prefer to use their smartphone for non-analog shots.
According to Japan’s Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA), digital camera sales plummeted nearly 90% between 2010 and 2019, with the COVID crisis worsening it. Low demand on digital cameras worldwide is also recognized by Cologne-based photokina, the world’s leading trade show for the photo and video industry.
As the case may be, photography’s future will see us using our smartphone cameras for everyday snapshots, while an analog camera with its limited amount of shots per roll will be reserved for creative photography and commemorating special moments.
In multiple scenarios, however, film has established itself as a photography tool, which brings its user learnings, joy, anticipation and a note of the ever so longed for nostalgia.