The writing is on the wall for film photography. It is a zero-sum game with only one end result – the extinction of film photography. Perhaps something will happen to change that but I doubt it.
There are three types of film photographers: those that have been in the game before digital was around, those that got into shooting film in a world after digital cameras became ubiquitous, and those that have yet to try it but will in the future. For many young photographers, regardless of experience, they have at least one experience of al older photographer talking in a condescending manner towards them for shooting film. This blows my mind.
My personal experience with an older photographer of the curmudgeon variety was with the man who owned and ran the only film processing place in town who would do one of two things every time I saw him. One, he would tell me that he didn’t understand why I would shoot film – that it made no sense and I should stop. Or, if he wasn’t actively trying to discourage me from shooting film, he was trying to sell me more film than I needed or sell me one of his own cameras. It was the strangest juxtaposition. He didn’t want me to shoot film for selfish reasons but then again, he had a particular vested interest in me to continue shooting film and using their lab to process my film. It got to a point where I made an effort to only visit the shop when the owner wasn’t in.
At the end of the day, this whole dynamic was by and large one of the strangest I’ve ever had with another person. In summation, I needed his shop to be around so I could get my film processed and he needed me to continue being a customer because without me and others like me, he would have been out of business. That said, he despised young film photographers and I found his company grating. There was never a clear winner in our exchanges, only business transactions.
What is a zero-sum game you ask (or maybe didn’t)? It’s simple. For every team playing a "game," the wins are perfectly balanced with the losses. In its simplest form, there are two teams. Whatever amount team A starts to win by, team B starts to lose by as is how games work. In a zero-sum game, however, what goes up must come down and the wins of team A equate to the losses. Before it’s all said and done, all the wins along with all of the losses sum to zero.
Within the world of film photographers, the way I think about it, is that there are the people who have been shooting film for a while (team A) and then those who have only most recently got into film along with those who have yet to get into but will at some point in the future (team B). Team A includes people who remember when the price of a Contax T2, or Hasselblad 500CM, or Mamiya 7, or any other camera that was just a fraction of their current price just a few years ago compared with today’s market value. And then there’s team B, those who have only known todays price point or will come to know it this way when they start shooting film. The main loss for team A is obviously the stark increase in prices for cameras. It can be frustrating, I know. As you may know from the article on my most recent medium format acquisition, the Fujifilm GA645, the price for that camera just a couple years ago was hundreds of dollars less than the going rate now. I found it particularly difficult to shell out hundreds of dollars more than someone did just two years for the same camera. Except not for the same camera but rather a camera two years closer to breaking.
The primary to benefit to team A is in fact, indirectly, the sudden and substantial jump in camera and film prices – it is a sign of increased interest in film photography as a whole. Prior to this increased interest, in the days of nice cameras being cheaper, one film stock after another were being discontinued. It seems strange to think of Kodak’s TMax 3200P or Ektachrome E100 as anything but new stocks but in reality, they are more or less re-releases of films Kodak made and discontinued years ago. The same thing happened with Fujifilm Neopan Acros. (The list could go on but I’ll cap it here.) Without the uptick in popularity, prices on film cameras would have likely have remained low but more and more film stocks would have likely been discontinued, leaving the market more and more bare.
The Extinction of Film Photography
It is with a heavy heart that I come to terms with the finite nature of film photography. I would not at all be surprised if within my lifetime I see the end of new film production. It doesn’t take much to effort to come to the conclusion that with so few cameras being made today, the overwhelming majority of cameras in use were made decades ago. That fact coupled with fewer and fewer businesses equipped to repair older cameras, clearly spells out what will eventually be an end for vintage cameras being the norm.
In addition, I would argue that much of the reason film photography started gaining traction again was in large part because it was so inexpensive. A Pentax K1000 was easily $50 or less and most Minolta models were under the $50 price point. In fact, my reintroduction to film photography after college was through the purchase of a Nikon F2 (from the guy who owned the film lab I mentioned above) for $100, equipped with a 50mm f/1.4. Today we live in a vastly different world. More and more photographers and people wanting to get into photography are considering getting into film and as such the prices for cameras will continue to grow.
What Would Turn Things Around
I started this article talking about the zero-sum game because the film photography world needs more photographers to continue to grow and expand. The growing number of photographers, however, equates to higher and higher prices for both film and cameras. With so few manufacturers making new film cameras (and the cameras that are available are either very cheap or horribly expensive), photographers are relying more and more on decades old cameras which, with their finite stock, are getting further out of reach for people getting into film photography.
As such, I would argue that the only thing that could truly turn things around is for more manufacturers to present new options for cameras and among those that currently make them, to offer less expensive options. I don’t know anyone that is willing to pay the money for a Nikon F6 or Leica M-A which cost more than $2,500 and $5,000, respectively. (If you do and/or have, more power to you.) Gone are the days of the newly made Nikon F100 or Canon Elan 7. If any would just make 35mm cameras (or even medium format cameras!) that fit somewhere between the plastic, gimmicky Lomography cameras which don’t even get put into the 35mm category on B&H’s website and the ultra-expensive, “I should have just bought a digital camera” Nikon and Leica options. That said, I don’t think that will ever happen. Though camera sells have been on the decline, investing in the production of a film camera doesn’t even seem to be a remote possibility.
What do you think? Do you see any manufacturers staging the comeback of modern film cameras?