Are We Nearing the End of the Film Bubble? What Will the Film World Look Like After?

Are We Nearing the End of the Film Bubble? What Will the Film World Look Like After?

For the past several years, the film community has seen a surprisingly strong revival that has brought with it some new film stocks, the return of old favorites, and unsustainable high prices.

As you may or may not know, I am a film photographer who this year started transitioning back to digital. Moreover, a little over a year ago I wrote an article about the impending end of the popularity of film in the photography world. It all came down to one reason: the perfect storm of wildly increasing popularity that has led to a sharp increase in demand meeting a finite and aging supply that dwindles day by day. These two things alone wouldn’t be a big deal, but given that there are not any good, reliable, and affordable new options to replenish the stock of old and getting older film cameras, the film photography world will eventually pay the price. If you have followed my writing, you would also know that I also wrote a note (really, it was more of a plea) to Pentax to be the company that brings back new film cameras. It seemed like a great idea: Pentax has been on life support for years, and in the days where film was king, no other company could compete with the range of offerings and reputation that Pentax had. I still stand by this. If Pentax decided to release a modern version of the Pentax 645 or Pentax 67, I would be first in line to pick up one of these cameras, particularly if they used the same mounts as they used to and new lenses were offered too. 

With all of this said, I may as well have been shouting into the wind, as my words have fallen on deaf ears as it pertains to the powers that be, so much so that even one of my fellow writers recently pondered the idea of Nikon or Canon remaking one or more of their classic 35mm film cameras). Will this ever happen? Absolutely not. Should Nikon or Canon return to offering 35mm film cameras? That’s difficult to say. While it is undeniable that film photography is enjoying a new height in its popularity, I’m not convinced that it will last all that long nor that the cameras would be bought enough to justify the production costs. Why, you ask? Because few people are willing to pay a lot for a film camera, and I cannot fathom Nikon nor Canon could or would produce a camera that would be affordable enough to be attractive to the average person looking to get into film. 

The Film Bubble

So, here we are in July of 2021, and prices for the most common and popular film cameras are at an all-time high in decades, so much so that if you look up reviews of some of these cameras from previous years, you’ll find that up until about 2018 to around 2019, the prices were pretty stable but since then, the price hike would hurt anyone’s heart. Take, for example, the Mamiya 645 Pro TL, my go-to film camera for years. Back when I bought it in 2018, I thought I was getting a less than fair deal paying $350 for the body, a back, AE prism, power winder, and a 55mm f/2.8 lens. Just over a year later, in writing my review, the typical price for a body only was $400-500. Nowadays, a body in good condition with a prism brings in $600 to $800. There are kits with basic to less-than-impressive lenses going for well north of $1,000. In my opinion, this is just beyond crazy. In all honesty, if I were attempting to get into film today, I doubt very seriously I would ever consider getting into medium format. 

The fact of the matter is that these ridiculous price jumps are not specific to the Mamiya 645 Pro TL. If you look back to my list of over- and underrated cameras in 2021 and compare it with the same list from 2020, you’ll see that several cameras were moved to the overrated list from the previous year. Indeed, even my beloved Mamiya 645 Pro TL is, in my opinion, entirely overrated and far overpriced. And I would go so far as to say that just about any Mamiya, Pentax, or Hasselblad medium format cameras are far more expensive now than they’re worth. 

I would also say that any photographer that has been deeply invested in the film world for the last couple of years or more is starting to become more and more disinterested in the film given the financial roadblocks that are appearing day by day. Sure, there are still many film photographers who have been staying the course, but many have been leaving — not just me. Take, for example, Jason Hunter, one of the founders of Restore From Backup, who was for years one of the biggest ambassadors to film. Since his interview with Fstoppers, he has sold all of his film gear and shoots exclusively digital. Matt Day, one of the most significant figures that brought the film back to its newfound popularity, also sold nearly all of his film gear, and his channel has featured fewer and fewer film camera reviews and tips. True, there are still several YouTube channels that I keep up with that primarily if not exclusively stick to film, such as Kyle McDougall, Jess Hobbs, Karin Majoka, and Mat Marrash. The number of people returning to digital after spending recent years living in the film world seems to be outnumbering those who have been shooting film and are sticking with it.

As much as I hate to see it, I just cannot help but see these occurrences as signs that the film bubble is has reached a breaking point, not just for me, but for many others as well. With this said, perhaps it is not on the fringes of bursting. It seems entirely possible that prices will continue to be hiked up more and more to twice what they are now. I would doubt that very seriously, but I was saying the same thing when prices were close to half of what they are now. 

What are your thoughts? What do you see for the future of the film bubble that we’re in? Do you see it bursting any time soon, or is it going to continue to grow for the foreseeable future?

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James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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When the digital camera appeared on the scene pundits were predicting the "end of the film era"., yet 20 years later film is still being produced and photographers are buying it!
And trust me, there still tens of thousands of used film cameras still available including sleepers such as Ricoh, Vivtar and others at very reasonable prices.

The end of the film bubble coming? I don't think so!

The end of the film bubble doesn't mean the end of film photography. It just means the end of stupidly high prices.

Well, I suppose the writer could have meant it that way, but he could have also been predicting the end of film photography.

He began by pointing out that no company can profitably produce film cameras. I think he is saying that fact by itself will end film cameras. And that's pretty hard to argue with.

Polaroid and Fuji both do well with instant cameras and film

How much do you think I can get for my Nikon FE in decent condition? Is it even worth advertising it, or would I just get, like, $80 or $100 for it?

Search for it on eBay and follow an item and you will see what people are willing to pay for it.

Actually running a search on ebay for completed items only is a better way. But of course I know how to find the value myself if I wanted to do the work. I was hoping someone here would already know and be able to just tell me.

You only have to compare the film vs digital photography debate with other industries to see that there are always a few diehards who chose not to advance with technology; the audiophile and the valve amplifier for example; the goggle-wearing vintage car driver. And just because a few enthusiasts love the chuff chuff chuffing of a good old fashioned steam train, it's unrealistic to think that Bombardier is going to re-tool and start making locomotives anytime soon. Technological advance is exactly what it says it is. Things move on for good or for bad.

For me, it's a combination. I'll use my ES-2 so that I have digital files, but I also do some wet darkroom work for prints. Once the prints get beyond a certain size though, I'll definitely just inkjet print off the scan because I personally find anything above a 16x20 prints to be rather unwieldy to dodge and burn properly.

I do. So, at least one person. ;-)

For the record I have a full darkroom, dry to dry, meaning from film processing, to print processing, washing and drying and mounting onto mount board. However, I do scan the negatives just to bypass the proof sheets to save paper.

This is nice to hear as I too do the exact same thing. I have my own darkroom and develop the film and print for display and sales. I also scan negatives as a way to reduce on time printing contact sheets.

I shoot mostly film and develop and dslr scan (i used to use an epson scanner, but dslr scanning is faster), and make prints for my wall on my Canon photo printer all myself. You don't need a darkroom for just developing.

Can I get a similar image from just shooting digital to start with? Probably, but it takes more work than just scanning the film and messing with levels. Presets never really look right..

I see the film future parallel the digital camera marketplace. The bottom will be 'cheap and cheerful' Instax - equivalent to the mobile phone eating the digital PNS market. The mid-tier 35mm market will be mostly pushed towards the high-end DSLRs that will be kept alive due to their increasingly higher costs (Canon, Nikon pro bodies and lenses, Leicas, etc) while the 80s/90s PNS plastic-fantastic will slowly disappear. The MF market will be the 'healthiest', with even the new Hasselblad digital camera being mountable to the old 500 series bodies. The MF film size is probably the smallest film size that can compete with digital resolution for even large format prints, so it'll always be an option even for pro photo shoots.
Looking at what cameras are available to buy new, the Large Format ones are getting smaller, which to me looks like we'll see a MF camera being offered soon - most likely candidate being Hasselblad, since they already have a back for it. Leica is selling more MPs and M-As than it can produce, so there definitely is a market for high-end 35mm cameras as well, just need more manufacturers.
I'd say we're living at the end of the 'cheap/affordable era', even though it feels expensive vs 20 years ago. Stock for good older cameras are getting low, films are getting harder to produce using the same recipes as before (see Velvia 100, Kodakchrome, Acros, etc). It will become a very expensive hobby in a few years, and the prices will skyrocket very quickly, I'm afraid. Same as what happened to vinyl, or fountain pens, or any other 'old' technology that was replaced by some new, cheaper tech which proved to lack the 'soul' of the latter.
If you have money to spare, buy good cameras - not much has doubled in price in 5 years that isn't real estate.

Without my own darkroom film is basically an expensive yet terrible memeory card. Shoot film, send if off to get developed, get digital scans back. Just seems to make a lot more sense to save money and shoot digital while avoiding the hassel and waiting times.

Unless you enjoy the darkroom process or are an older individual feeding off nostalgia I just don't see any point or benefits to film. It's obsolete technology, I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes impossible to buy film in another decade.

Well said! As soon as you scan the negative or slide... you are digital. Film shooters are far less analog than they think.

Yes and no. Yes in that the process is definitely digital for the finishing...but it still doesn't change that the final output looks like film.

I am almost entirely a digital photographer, but I shoot a roll or two of film a year for fun, and then I 'scan' the negatives using my digital camera and a macro lens, which yields significantly better files than what I get from my lab. And while at that point I am processing a digital photo of an analog negative, the tonal rolloff, the colors and the grain are all that of the film. It is definitely a hybrid process (and chosen because I am adept at digital photo processing and know literally nothing about darkroom processing), but the end result is still undeniably a film look.

Very true. I sold all my old film cameras years ago, and also my darkroom kit. Part of me would like to shoot some film, but I have no way to use a darkroom any more, so as Doug says, as soon as you scan it - it’s digital. As Michael says unless you do the darkroom work in an analogue darkroom, film is a rather inefficient memory card.

One can go from exposing the negative to the final hand done print entirely without electricity if they are willing to do so. Easier with Large Format negatives and contact printing.

The problem with releasing new film hardware is that the cost to produce a niche product like that in such small quantities (because of small market) would naturally mean that they would be have to be pretty expensive and despite all of the film photography fans out there, few of them want to actually pay the proper price for a new camera like that in 2021. If you want evidence, look at the Nikon F6 which is probably the best 35mm film photography camera ever produced and how many people lambasted the price and encouraged people shop on the used market instead. I'm not saying that used cameras aren't a better value (they are), but simply that no new camera is going to be able to compete with a used camera that was manufactured when the economy of scale was completely different and as long as people aren't buying new cameras, nobody's going to want to make them.

This is kind of the primary crisis of film photography because it's not sustainable long term to simply rely on the used market of cameras, many of which are over 40 years old now. No matter how big the supply is, it will eventually dwindle and exhaust as they break. Yes, many of them can be repaired, but on top of the expertise needed, there's also the issue of acquiring parts that are no longer being manufactured. While some can be 3D printed, more often than not, getting parts means ripping them from donor bodies which will eventually run out as well. I really do wish that all of these companies would keep at least one film body in production even if it had to be special ordered.

Personally I do hope that the film market comes crashing down again because prices have just gotten absurd and I think they're due for a correction.

James, I think you're right. It is a hype. And why should Nikon (or Canon) produce a completely new analog camera when there are so many great cameras available second hand. Have look at the Nikon F100. You can get it for as low as $200 in mint condition and it works with all available lenses (F-mount). It's AF is quite up to date, the handling not very different from modern Nikon DSLRs. So to enter the analog world if you are a Nikon shooter already, does cost less than an average used modern AF lens.
That said: Quite modern used analog cameras (35mm) are available in big numbers, but where are all the analog shooters who buy it if it so cheap to enter the analog world?

No new film cameras? You aren't shooting Large Format. A lot of new gear out there and a lot of solid old favorites still being made - and getting service is easy.

Dan Howell said,

"Why is this article not labeled as Opinion. There are no facts offered in supporting any of your statements. It's fine if you want to write essays, but they should be labeled as such."

Most of the articles here on Fstoppers are opinion pieces, and their titles usually make it clear that they are opinion or conjecture. The title of this article is a question, asking,

"Are We Nearing the End of the Film Bubble? What Will the Film World Look Like After?"

When the title is written this way, isn't it really super obvious that the article is not going to be declaring facts, but rather exploring what may or may not be? I mean, if you saw that title and then were surprised and disappointed that the content wasn't delivering cold hard facts and concrete data ..... well then I don't know what to tell you.

So what? who cares?

Since changing to digital with a Minolta Dimage 7i I have never wanted to go back to film and I absolutely love the digital cameras of today and in particular, my Olympus OMD EM1ii . Film revival is just another hipster fad/trend just like cassette tapes and vinyl records but it will fizz out again soon

It is not a "bubble". . So the rest of article is irrelevant.

I just have to think back to the time when I did professional performing arts photography, to find the absurdity of the "film revival". I wish I had at my disposal, my D810 back then.

No working all night to get a set of prints out for a press release after a show. How about those long hours spent in a dark smelly humid darkroom. With digital files I would have had infinitely better image quality and vastly reduced PP time. Not to mention delivery by Email.

I have been going back over my Jazz negatives. With Capture 1 or DXO I can dodge and burn just as well and I can use masks to have variable contrast on the same frame. I have pulled a ton more detail out of those negatives, compared to when I wet printed.

I feel the film revival is just an exercise in nostalgia, unless you are working with Large Format, where advantages over digital exist.

We can compare this film nostalgia to the clever marketing ploy by the record companies of the Vinyl record revival. I am told by a friend who is a musical consultant to one of Italy's leading opera houses that the technical sound quality of a CD is superior to that od a vinyl record. The so called "warm sound" is in fact distortion. The problem with CD's is mainly the quality of the mastering.

For those who like TLR medium format cameras, there are still a lot of affordable Mamiya C330 near mint on eBay. Or C220 under $300. I had one and were very pleased with it.

My brother-in-law gave me his father's Mamiya C3. It's pretty cool to play with but heavy. It does take a few more steps just to take a photo from shot to shot. Pictures are great though.

“If Pentax decided to release a modern version of the Pentax 645 or Pentax 67, I would be first in line to pick up one of these”.

- I was interested in a Pentax 67 a long time ago. I saw one in a second hand camera shop and asked to look at it. I was almost not able to lift it and immediately said that I was no more interested. I would not carry such a stone heavy camera everyday in my bag.

I 'm forced to agree with you, but only because the cell phone and digital world has to kill off film. I'm watching Fuji cancel films and raise their price forcing new buyers to their to their digital cameras or a new cell phone. They have to kill off film to save their investment in digital. If I were younger, and had enough resources I'd start a small, but ever growing film and processing company like the old days. Roll of film $8 includes processing. I'd team with who ever for the film and who ever for the processing. Maybe have some like minded friends, and we could do it together. I see digital dying faster than film with cell phones coming on hard and fast. If it were me, and it is me, a new phone/camera every 2 years for my junk shots/internet shot like most digital stuff I see now days, and film for the most important better quality real photography. As for a new film camera, why??? There's enough used gear for now. One more important item to remember it's harder to fake film, you have a slide or negative. I was on a job 2 years ago, I asked a women if I could photograph her, she said sure, (and I quote) "it's all fake anyway" I asked what? "it'll just get photoshopped later to show what you/they want" My reply I'll use my film camera that way no faking I have/own the slide. So if you see this image changed in anyway let me know as I have the slide to prove the truth. She smiled, and said "smart man" I know you can scan a slide, but I own the original and you/they don't.

Pundits have been predicting the "end of the film era" and the pundits were right. Film photography still exists of course but the market for tools that create images, such as cameras and films, has clearly been won by digital products.

It's like you didn't read the article...

"Matt Day, one of the most significant figures that brought the film back to its newfound popularity, also sold nearly all of his film gear, and his channel has featured fewer and fewer film camera reviews and tips."

I read this and thought "Really? That's too bad." And then I followed the link. His recent videos are chronicling his new 4x5 camera! Not only is he NOT ditching his 35mm film gear, he's gone to large format! Jesus, F-Stoppers. Get your shit straight.

Now I'm off to scan and print some more of my long-dead grandfathers negatives, which look as good as the day they were processed 70 years ago. Good luck having your grandkids access your photography by data recovery on your 70-year-old hard drives.

I sold all my film and film gear last year except for my F4, my late father's FM3a, a 4x5 field camera and abt 12 packs of 80s era Tri-pan for 4x5 film pack. I shot some of my favorite work with that film 11 years ago and it was kept frozen until about November of 2020... it's now in a cooler in my basement...

Before the film bubble age, Film photographers have always bought and developed the films themselves, so this is one of the reasons it is still relatively cheap to shoot in film...

Eastman Kodak more than doubled its production of still films between 2015 and 2019 because of the huge rise in demand. I've got a fridge full of film and have purchased more than a dozen used film cameras in recent years so I will never be without one. The compact disc failed to replace vinyl records and even tube amplifiers are making a come-back as people realize the inadequacy of digital tech. They still make sailboats, too.

I've been shooting film since I was a kid. . . . got pretty good at available light candids of close family and friends. After several decades of shooting everything from an Argus C3 to a Nikon F5 someone gifted me a very nice digital SLR and for several years I didnt touch my film bodies. But - slowly over time - I used the DSLR less and less until one day - I just stopped altogether. I thought I had outgrown artist in me. Fast forward a couple of years and We lost my father-in-law halfway thru COVID. As the family sat around celebrating his life, someone grabbed a shoe box and album of some of my work. . . . . we sat there with several bottles of wine and poured over those photos for a couple of hours . . . . laughing . .. . . crying. It hit me in that moment that my film work was very different than the digital stuff I had shot. You could see it in the pictures that people chose to ask "Remember THIS?" One can argue that the result is the same - maybe it is - maybe it isnt. What I know and have concluded is that process matters and affects the outcome and digital is (for me) akin to masturbation - - - - while my film process is akin to love making. One is slow, pensive, and considerate. The other is "bang - bang - bang" shoot-shoot-shoot - one of these will be the one I want. Someone once said you could put a monkey in front of a typewriter and eventually the monkey will write a novel. My experiences with digital were a bit like that. .. . . . In the end - maybe you get what you wanted but the process with film is (for me) very different than my digital process and both that process and the result - - are far more gratifying to me and appear to be for my audience.... Whatever you shoot and however your process works - I hope you all get what you need. I'm shooting more film today than ever before and missing so many of those film stocks from back in the day. Anyone know where I can pick up some properly stored Polaroid 100 on the cheap?

I blame film camera reviewing YouTubers. If they'd all just kept their mouths shut we could all still afford our favourite film cameras should one ever need replacing. Now RZ67's are going for nearly 3000 pounds instead of 500 pounds. Adapting these to digital is now even out of the question since price gougers are hoarding adapters and selling them for 2500 pounds. Can't get a Mamiya 645 for a fair price anymore. I just hope everyone holds strong and refuses to pay the riduclous asking prices and then the bubble can burst and the market price will return back to normal again.