Film Photography Is at a Crossroads Headed for Extinction: What It Would Take to Turn It Around and Why It Won’t Happen

Film Photography Is at a Crossroads Headed for Extinction: What It Would Take to Turn It Around and Why It Won’t Happen

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. 

Zero-Sum Game

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? 

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117 Comments

Mike Ditz's picture

Ok, I'll click the bait No, other than Leica making a revolutionary, non digital, all manual film camera, a limited special edition for six grand I don't think there will be any new film cameras from major manufacturers.
But there are probably a few people with an idea and 3d printers who are making limited production runs of cameras or selling the plans to let folks DIY on a 3D printer, heck they can do it with guns why not cameras?
The thing is about SLR from the 1960-90s is they are so simple and pretty bullet proof that there is an almost endless supply out there. A friend gave me a Konica T3 that was their dads, I sold it on CL in a day for $50. The meter was dead but t worked fine.
You forgot about the Team C film photographer who did it the first time around and bought F2s or Hasselblads at full price in the 80s, when a A12 back was $300+ now they are $50, I am keeping my eye on a 50mm Distagon for my 500c/m that's $249, new it was like $1500 1988 dollars.

As long as film is still being made, some people will pay the price to shoot it.

As far as your cranky film lab guy? In my 30 years of having film processed, I think about 75% of lab guys were like that, maybe some thing with the chem fumes,

PS Who is making new film cameras these days?

James Madison's picture

Ha! Clickbait. I do find that there's a fine line between click bait and a title that captures someone interest well enough to have them read it.

I honestly did not even think about 3d printed cameras. I would think that's possible to build a light tight box a lens can mount to but I cannot imagine the inner workings would be smooth. The end result will be less like your 500C/M and more like my grandmothers old Brownie that took huge roll film that had the thickness of fabric.

Nikon and Leica are the only manufactures I'm aware of that are producing sturdy 35mm cameras. I don't know of anyone making new medium format cameras. As for large format, there are several manufacturers around.

Your statement of the lab guys actually, properly made me laugh out loud. Perhaps it is indeed the chem fumes.

Mike Ditz's picture

3D printing quality will only get better. Your grandmother's brownie is still working , isn't it ;-)

Timothy Gasper's picture

Isn't Alpa making new medium format cameras....that can go either digital or film? Alpa 12 TC...for one. Doesn't it accept film backs? Ah yes....I just looked it up. And they make others as well.

Brad Smith's picture

c'mon..do the research. 3d printed cameras already exist for medium format options, such as the Mercury.

Christian Monnet's picture

Go to see Dora Goodman 3D camera (working with Mamiya RZ back and Mamiya 23 Press lenses) on her instagram. She also posts some people's work shot with the camera she designed. You'll see that there's no "less like your 500C/M and more like my grandmothers old Brownieless like your 500C/M and more like my grandmothers old Brownie

D Chon's picture

Nikon is still building the F6 in small batches to order.

Deleted Account's picture

I'm sure we'll see paint, pencils, and charcoal as artistic mediums go extinct as well now that we have Photoshop and Illustrator... Oh wait.

Speaking seriously, we're probably not going to see the type of film photography revival that involves major manufacturers producing new models of cameras, but I do think that we'll see a robust ecosystem for repairing existing cameras. Things like electronic circuit boards in later model film cameras are not sensible to replace, but a lot of older cameras are just a bunch of metal, hinges, and springs. Yes, they're complex devices, but there's no reason why you couldn't produce small batches of certain parts to replace broken components. It'll likely be a very long while before cameras like the OM-1, FM2, K1000, etc. are so far gone that there's no more hardware to support the niche community. Film and chemical manufacturers have already adjusted their operations to produce at a sustainable scale so that's not an issue like it was in the initial crash either. I see no reason why film photography cannot continue in some form or another long into the future.

Also, just on a side note, I'm not sure you actually appreciate the sheer number of film cameras that are lying around out there. We tend to only look at a few popular examples like the F2 or M3, but if you're just looking to shoot film, there's an entire world of cameras that most people have never even heard of that work just fine and take wonderful photos. Who knows what advances will be made in manufacturing by the time that the supply dries up?

James Madison's picture

I would argue that the film cameras that are new enough to have all of the electronics are a big pull to many photographers. There are plenty of digital photographers that don't want the completely manual experience and would prefer a camera with auto focus and aperture priority. I would also doubt that there are enough parts floating around out there to fix just any camera that breaks. Perhaps some of the bigger, more poplar cameras but for the more rare cameras, I have my doubts.

I don't know what I said to give the impression that I'm unaware of just how many different types of film cameras there are and their availability at seemingly random shops. One of the camera shops in town here have a "junk room" full or broken cameras - hundreds and hundreds of them. The majority of which are models I'd never heard of.

It is my hope that one day there will be a return to manufacturing new film cameras for a new generation of photographers to become acquainted with this medium.

Brad Smith's picture

Sorry, but your initial idea doesn't hold water. 1) Yes, there are plenty of used cameras out there to sustain film shooters as both users and parts cameras. You might not know the models, but they're probably common to those of us using film. Feel free to give us some examples. 2) your idea of having film cameras return to being manufactured...well, that is dead. The market is too small and the tooling costs too much to open up a line. This is exactly why the only new cameras that are for sale now are largely those selling at a premium.

Deleted Account's picture

I have roll upon roll of unprocessed film which is just sitting there, and I don't care enough to spend the money on processing. With the exception of pinhole I think I'm done.

James Madison's picture

You have no interest in knowing what's on those rolls?

Deleted Account's picture

Honestly, not really. I may or may not get around to it eventually.

Terry Waggoner's picture

That's not uncommon.........Garry Winogrand......Vivian Maier come to mind

chris bryant's picture

For a minute there, I thought it was 2005. Weren’t ‘they’ saying the same 15years ago, and guess what?

James Madison's picture

Fifteen years ago, things started looking pretty bleak for film. Times were still probably better for it than they are now. The recent uptick in sales and business around film doesn't change the fact that the supply of cameras is finite and now 15 years older.

Brad Smith's picture

It also doesn't take into account the market size. The reality is that even though film isn't a major part of the market it is growing, and film suppliers themselves have opened new lines. New cameras themselves aren't needed for this, and there are plenty to supply the market of photographers who do shoot film. You're making an assumption that the supply of cameras is too small.

chris bryant's picture

That may be the case in murica, but in the UK film was on its knees 15 years ago. Nether is the “uptick” (what a quaint little colloquialism) recent. The film market has been slowly increasing for a good part of a decade. No need to worry about the supply of cameras, there are more than enough to go around. You can have some of mine, people dump them on me. The final irony may be that in 100 year’s time some film cameras will be fully working (such as my Leica M2 and Olympus Trip 35), one will not be able to say the same about one’s M 240.

B Laramie's picture

Hi James, interesting article. I was an amateur film photographer for decades and still have a Nikon F2 that I bought new in 1975. One of the best cameras I ever owned. However, for important projects, I mostly used medium format and 4x5 inch for the added quality. I made the switch to digital in 2003 and have never looked back. I think a lot of the current interest in film is just nostalgic. Much like the Vinyl record resurgence as a statement against digital mediums (especially the CD). There is a look and feel to older analog technologies that appeals to many. I also think that part of the interest in film is from younger people who never got the chance to spend long hours in a darkroom and the skillset that was required for photography back then. Digital photography has opened the secrets and has made it possible, even easy, for anyone to take technically superb photos on digital cameras and iPhones. And that's fine with me, I relish the quantum leap in quality and control.

James Madison's picture

Sure sure. In the parallel with vinyl, new turn tables and receivers are still being manufactured. The entire industry around vinyl has risen the medium to a new high. The difference here is that there is little to no return to manufacturing outside of film itself.

Jake Keane's picture

I shoot both film and digital. I'd agree that with you that a lot of the interest in film is coming from the pure nostalgia crowd. But now that film cameras and film are getting so expensive I'm not so sure how long this will last. I think there is also a growing proportion of film shooters like myself who are shooting film not because we think old things are cool, but because we prefer the more tactile, challenging and deliberate experience of shooting film. We have found it changes the way 'feel' when we are taking photos, and come to prefer that shooting experience. The age of the camera is irrelevant. This has also had an impact on the way I shoot digital. This is the market that i think will be willing to pay more money for film gear going forward as it grows more expensive. I think there will always be a proportion of people who get into photography who come to discover that that shooting experience is more important than 'quality and control' as you put it, and that analogue shooting can lead to creative pathways and style for your photography that may not be discovered in other ways.

B Laramie's picture

Hi Jake, I agree with you that the experience with film is very beneficial. I didn't intend to imply that interest in film is just some kind of retro fad. Mastering film enriches the creative process and creates discipline that make better photographers. The skill-set that is required for shooting film and the darkroom experience is not only rewarding but also expands our understanding and capabilities. Among many other things it taught me discipline in keeping the number of exposures down and to resist the temptation to create photographs that are over-the-top and unreal. But now, after 40 plus years with film, I appreciate and enjoy the advances of the medium that digital offers and I have left film behind. I am ready to take the next evolutionary step in photography as I age (74).

Timothy Roper's picture

I shoot film a lot, and except for my new Chamonix 4x5 "body," everything else is, indeed, pretty old. And if you actually shoot a lot of film outside a studio (like while backpacking), things do break. I can and have gotten my Leica and my Mamiya 6 repaired more than once, and in addition to being expensive, it's very inconvenient (and stressful--can it be fixed?). And so, I do find myself wondering, what happens if repairs get even harder to have done, by people I trust? I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. But right now, I have to go develop some film I shot on the Mamiya 6. I hope they turn out good! Cheers.

James Madison's picture

I find myself wondering the same thing about my Mamiya 645. The mirror stop is its Achilles heel and I've tried to look for someone who could replace it should it break and I've found nothing.

Good luck with your film!

Jakub Valovič's picture

I hope you're wrong. Film photography (and analog as whole) is just so absolutely different compared to digital. Decisions are permanent and sources limited. Risking to sound utterly preposterous, sometimes it's like writing a haiku, but you have to do it in one go, no corrections, no revisions.

Also, darkroom printing - it's directly creating the images...

I would hate to see the medium go, as it provides qualities the digital will never be able to...not everything is number of pixels, dynamic range, stacked exposures and stacked focus points (and still, 8x10 film gives stupendous image quality).

All the talk about how digital gives more options and is superbly flexible - and all the photographs looks the same. Lifeless documentary photos, artificial-looking portraits and nudes, ridiculously over the top landscapes etc. Photogrpahy artists has traded feling for (so-called) image quality...

James Madison's picture

I suspect it will, albeit not likely to happen for a while. There are still many functioning cameras out there to keep it going for a while. I cannot help but think that the finite supply of old cameras will eventually catch up.

Jakub Valovič's picture

Actually, I was thinking if learning to repair fine mechanisms (shutters, film transport etc.) wouldn't be worthwhile endeavour...
In worst case scenario, alternative processes can be usually done without shutter, just fieldcamera, lens and a lens cap :)
Though, I wish I will not see (smaller) film go in my lifetime...

In what I see additional problem is b&w paper - while there is some resurgence of film lately, most of the people scan and do not continue in darkroom

Steve Smith's picture

I bought some film about two months ago and broke out my Ricoh KR-30SP, circa 1984. I'm not sure why but I am enjoying it. I guess that is reason enough.

James Madison's picture

That's awesome to hear! Well done

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