Why This Film Photographer Is Preparing for Life After Film Starting in 2021

Why This Film Photographer Is Preparing for Life After Film Starting in 2021

Whether you’re a film photographer who also shoots digital or a film photographer exclusively, a life after film is on my mind and should be on yours as well. 

For those that are not familiar with me or my writings, I am a film photographer who has, admittedly, been a bit of a digital camera bigot for a few years. Like many of my film photographer counterparts, I would regularly heap praise onto film. Indeed, I have written several articles about film in my tenure at Fstoppers and will continue to do so as long as I’m shooting film. In this article, I’m going to outline why I’m planning to continue transitioning more and more back to digital. 

To Be Clear

Before I begin, please note that I am planning my transition out what I believe to be a necessity – not by choice. I really love film and I would like to see it stick around throughout the rest of my life. This is in no way an article to bash film photography. In addition, I hope that for some of the readers, this article calls attention to serious problems facing the film world — problems that, if not addressed, may well actually bring down film for good as opposed to the rut that film photography was in between the takeover of digital photography and the resurgence in popularity of film. 

One-Way Mirror

If you think the world of film photography is looking good, you’re looking through a one-way mirror. On one side of the mirror, we have cameras, and on the other, we have film. When you're standing on the camera side, looking through to the film side, things are looking pretty rosy. Standing on the film side, however, you're looking at a reflection. The state of film is looking pretty poor, and it's hard to get away from. 

As you may recall from an article recapping 2019, film (the actual product) was having a great year. A total of 10 new films were released in 35mm format with even more film stocks newly available when considering 120 and large format. Kodak increased its prices to a noticeable degree for the sake of generating revenue to reinvest in more production. That sounds great, right? Right. Personally, I don’t mind paying a little more per roll of film if it means that the manufacturers of film are better able to come out with new film stocks. The small sacrifices each photographer makes by paying just a little more amount to great strides in the world of film stock production. 

In reference to the same article mentioned above, there was a bit of a downside to the increased interest in film photography. At one point, towards the end of last year and the beginning of this year, Kodak and other film manufacturers were having a tough time keeping up with production. Indeed, many shelves were empty. If you could find just about any color negative film, you were doing quite well. The other and more serious downside and the other side to this one-way mirror is the film cameras. Also noted in the article, the price of cameras has been going up and up to a point that I, for one, am truly shocked. If you’re looking to feel sore about the price of the film camera you’ve had your eye one, look up reviews from a couple of years ago where the price was mentioned, and you will likely find that they were going for a substantial amount less than they are now. 

What Happened to Me?

What happened in my life to get me to start shifting gears and reintroducing my digital camera back into my camera bag? The Mamiya RB67 is what happened to me. The Mamiya RB67 was the very first medium format camera I ever had and used. While it took me a little while to love it given its monstrous size and weight, over the past couple of years, I have really grown to love it and have no intention of ever getting rid of it. In fact, I love it so much that for the past couple of years, it’s been one of my go-to suggestions for people looking to get into medium format film. Why not, right? It’s relatively inexpensive, it is insanely sharp, it has interchangeable backs, it’s modular (so it can be customized however you like), and above all, it produces an absolutely wonder 6x7 format negative.  

If what you’ve heard so far is only that I really love that camera, you’ve been paying attention. I love this camera so much that I want to continue using it for as long as I am able to photograph the world. A few months ago, I found that the one 6x7 back I have was starting to act up a bit, operating as intended up until the end of the roll, when it started feeling like it was grinding a bit. Worse yet, every time I went to open the back, either the roll was not all the way wound up or had caught on the bushings. Then, it seemed like just about every roll started to have light leaks on a good portion of the photos. I would have just bought another back for it, but that brings me to my main gripe and what ultimately drove me away from using the RB67. That is the sharp increase in prices for all things related to the Mamiya RB67. 

In late 2019, one of my best friends managed to pick up an entire RB67 kit from Midwest Photo, my local camera shop, for right around $350 shipped (to SC) and with both the prism and waist-level finder. That is a significant amount less than you would expect to pay now (less than a year later)! Further, around that same time, I distinctly remember wanting a waist-level finder for my RB, and at any given time, multiple copies were available for around $50 each. Fast-forward to earlier this year, and you couldn’t find one for less than $100-$125. Circling back around to buying a spare back for the RB, I used to see them regularly for $75 or less, but now, you can’t even get close to that.

A Symptom of a Larger Problem

As you may recall from one of my old articles, film photography is headed for trouble, and it doesn’t really seem like things will turn around. Though I’m not completely convinced, there is speculation that Nikon has discontinued manufacturing the F6. This camera was already exorbitantly expensive, but it was the last serious film SLR still being made new. If this camera was discontinued, it would certainly be a sign that in the long-term, film cameras (not film) will be the bottleneck for people that would like to get into film. With costs of working cameras going up and up and the stock of functioning film cameras dwindling, people are starting to be priced out for even decent gear. Personally, I really hope that new and affordable cameras start being manufactured, but I’m not holding my breath. Instead, I'm more and more coming to terms with it and preparing myself for life after film photography. 

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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Very good points. That's why over the years, whenever I found good deals, I bought several pieces of the cameras I really like, as backups. I have two 1932' Rolleiflex Old Standards, two Zeiss Ikon Nettars, three Konica T3s, two Olympus OM-1, etc. Plus I have a whole lot of other models, SLRs, TLRs, rangefinders, folding cameras, box cameras, viewfinder cameras, etc. I'm pretty confident I have enough cameras for the rest of my life! The bottleneck for me is gonna be film itself (and chemicals). Unfortunately, you can't really stockpile these.

I hear that. Had I the foresight to start building up an arsenal of film cameras or the interest in collecting, I'd probably be in a better place than I am now. I've tried to keep my camera collection trim and build around a system rather than buying into different systems. As for the film, do you keep yours in the freezer or fridge? Should give you more longevity that way.

I have a dedicated fridge. But you're right, I could get a big freezer to keep a long term stash, just in case.

I'm not sure I follow your logic. You're "preparing for a life after film" because film cameras & components (that are no longer being manufactured) are getting more expensive on the secondary market and film manufacturers are having trouble keeping up with demand even though they're charging more? The market indications you've described corroborate that film photography (while maybe just a hipster fad) is actually increasing in popularity. Small manufacturers are creating new, affordable film cameras and film emulsions. 3D printers can be used to repair and create new camera parts or entire cameras. The lab I use for color photo processing (The Darkroom) is actually in the process of expanding their business. 2021 will not be the year film dies.

It was never my intention to claim that film photography dies. I don't know where I made that claim in this article but if I did indirectly, it was unintentional. I fully expect film photography to continue building in popularity just as I expect the prices to continue to climb.

The article was intended to address how, for me specifically, the prices of gear have gotten so out of hand, I don't expect to pick up new gear in the future. For the top camera systems I hoped to pick up in the future, I feel like I have now been priced out of all of them whereas just last year they were all in range for me. Further, as much as I love my Mamiya Pro TL, when the day comes that it fails, I'll be parting out what I can and keeping the glass - the bodies of these alone are nearly double what I paid a couple years ago for a full kit. As much as I love the camera, it's not worth the going rate. Given that I anticipate it'll only continue to get more expensive next year and the year after, I have come to accept that I will not get another one.

As for repairing cameras, there are only a handful of people/businesses around the US equipped to properly repair a film camera and most of those individuals have long lead times, high prices, and are of an older age.

Thanks for clarifying. In other words, the cost of film and buying new (old) film photography gear is no longer worth it financially for you, and you never intended to claim film photography will die (except in this other article you wrote in May and linked to titled: "Film Photography Is at a Crossroads Headed for Extinction: What It Would Take to Turn It Around and Why It Won’t Happen" https://fstoppers.com/film/film-photography-crossroads-headed-extinction...)

"For the top camera systems I hoped to pick up in the future, I feel like I have now been priced out of all of them whereas just last year they were all in range for me."

You're thinking too much like a digital photographer and missing one of the fundamental advantages of film: You don't need a great camera to take a great image. Nor do you need to spend a lot of money. If I show you photos taken on my Ricohs and Minoltas (cheap in the day) and Nikons (expensive in the day), I guarantee you will not be able to tell which shots were taken by which cameras.

Intrepid makes new large format film cameras: https://intrepidcamera.co.uk/
Along with Polaroid and Fujifilm Instax, Urban Outfitters sells this cheap, point & shoot 35mm: https://www.urbanoutfitters.com/shop/autofocus-35mm-camera?category=came...
MiNT makes a few models of new instant cameras: https://mint-camera.com/rf70/
Lomography offers a large selection of new disposable, instant, 35mm, and medium format cameras: https://shop.lomography.com/en/cameras?country=us
The FauXPAN is an example of the DIY film camera community. It combines existing camera parts, lenses, and some 3D printing to create something new: https://www.35mmc.com/22/06/2020/fauxpan-just-another-diy-35mm-panorama-...
And yes, you can still get beautiful (but expensive) new Leica 35mm rangefinders and Linhof medium format panoramic shooters

I bought my Hasselblad 500c/m two years ago for $1000, that included the body, lens, waist level viewfinder and back. It was a good deal then as it is now. What I’ve found since is that those spare backs that really excited me are $$$$$ just one in good condition is almost more expensive than any 35mm I have on the shelf. The same is true for anything else you might want to buy a la carte. I’d always thought that’d be the advantage to Mamiya’s I guess maybe no longer. On another note I often wonder about the continued lifespan of film cameras especially electronic cameras. Unless someone steps up with something I suspect the demand for the more fixable all mechanical cameras will grow. Adding an F2 to go along with my F3 and F100 has long been on my mind.

For what it's worth, I have bought several 35mm film SLRs, mechanical and electronic, and the failure rate for both is about the same. What's nice about an electronic camera is that if it works at all, it probably works properly. My newest is from 2003 or thereabouts, while oldest is from around 1980. Just bought a Sears KS Auto of that vintage and it appears to be working perfectly.

The larger problem is on the lab side, I've worked in photo labs for the past 4 years. the last C41 transport processor was made like, 15+ years ago, every lab is running on old as hell outdated machines. The timeline on film will not be decided by the abundance of film availible, it will be the lack of affordable processing options.

This is not a big problem, home development for C41 is quite easy these days.

I agree with some of your points, but I think perspective is important too. You say that some of the accessories or components needed now cost over $100 (backs etc), but you or I would easily drop more than that on a new battery or SD card for a digital camera. And if this is the camera that brings you joy, I’d start to make a habit of scouring the relevant marketplaces for good deals to stock up.

Not sure I understand the argument here. Prices are only relatively expensive now - in real currency, film cameras are generally a lot cheaper than they were 25 years ago. My Contax G2 sells for about the same price I paid for it.... in 1998. We had a long period of massive decrease in prices for film cameras and accessories when few people were using them, now we are just seeing a bit of a rebound.

Certainly going digital is easier in all regards, but at what price?

I say this having pioneered digital monochrome photography with the Kodak DCS 760m, ten years before the first Leica Monochrom---then a beta tester for it. What do I photograph with today? Film.

Most of my work is in monochrome, and I am pulling off 150 MP files from 35mm using a drum scanner. Not all of that is resolution, but I can assure you all of it IS beauty.

Pain in the arse? Yes. I hate film lab mood swings. My antique cameras dont always work and have to get repaired. My favorite lens is 47-years old and has a few interesting restrictions. But those negatives are 20um thick, and the lens is painting THROUGH the emulsion, not just hitting a brick wall. Negative film images from the bottom-up in exposure, not top-down as digital. You like those low zones? Then film is your friend.

What you put into it, is what you get out of it.

When I need a snap, I use my wife's iPhone and it is great fun. But when I want to put myself into making the image, it is on film.

What we need to do collectively is to insist that new film cameras are made. It can be done. So far, no one has even made an attempt on the assumption that film is a thing of the past. Thankfully, Gen-Z seems to bring new interest to film.

"What we need to do collectively is to insist that new film cameras are made." -- I wish, Pete, but it won't happen. Digital has planned obsolescence. People buy one and are convinced that in two years they need another one. A film camera can be a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime purchase and it's the film companies that benefit, not the camera manufacturers. If you're a camera manufacturer, digital is better for business.

Another note for would be film photographers wishing to get back to film is that a lot of the "vintage" gear out there is 20-30 years old, its still functional and works but honestly, there are few Nikon F2's out there that do not need a good CLA and that goes for Hasselblads, Leicas or large format shutters and in my personal experience the few good guys out there doing that work tend to be much older, and are very busy. Sover Wong, the "patron saint of Nikon F2's" is one of the preeminent F2 repair/overhaul guys and he's booked like a year out. Just be aware to prospective buyers that even a mint looking older film camera will at least need a re-foaming of the backs and a shutter CLA.

I know why. Because click bait. And we all fell for it

I can easily follow your train of thought, however it will not necessarily end there. If prices of Seco d hand film gear keep rising like they do, we'll eventually reach a point where a commercial point for manufacturing film cameras is given. The Lomography stuff is an example of what is currently possible (quality wise) at a price that the market accepts. A further upwards trend could well trigger someone to use the new willingness to spend more and come up with something like a modern OM2 or even an RB. We are easily approaching 500 for certain 35mm bodies and double that for 120. That should do the trick financially...

James, I enjoy your stuff, but I gotta be honest -- you are completely out to lunch on this one, my friend.

First, you're basing your doom-and-gloom predictions on personal observations. You said "many shelves were empty." Really? Because whenever I visit Freestyle here in Los Angeles, there's plenty of film in stock. Are you basing this on actual investigative reporting -- like, you've called dozens of retailers around the country -- or is this just supposition?

Second, I don't think the fact that prices are going up for RB67 parts is any indication of what's happening in the camera market as a whole. The RB67 is a magnificent camera, and of course people are going to figure out that it's underpriced. It's a professional instrument. It's also a difficult-to-use cinder block, and frankly I think you're nuts to use it as walk-around camera, though I also take my hat off to you for that. :) I have one on loan, and I think it spoils spontaneity and breeds boring photos, but that's my opinion and out of place here.

Fact is people are still digging film cameras out of closets and will be until my generation finishes popping off, which hopefully will be another 50 years from now. I just bought a Sears KS-Auto (Ricoh XR-2s) on eBay for $15 shipped. Bought another Richo last month for $35 shipped. Bought a $17 Minolta Maxxum 5 with features out the ying the month before that. Plenty of bargains out there, and you would better serve the community by educating them that there are plenty of cameras out there besides overblown/overpriced cams like the AE-1, K1000 and F/FE/FM series.

Basically you're just creating more arguments for the digital photographers who have an inexplicable need to bash film.

As a journalist, stories like this get my ire up. This isn't news, it isn't reporting, it's merely opinion, and furthermore its fear-mongering and muck-raking. It's the reason decent journalists are tarred with the brush "fake news". I won't use those words to describe any story, but this one tempted me.

You can do better, James!

There are still many companies making large format cameras, including social media's fave, the Intrepid (although I don't think anyone's making new LF lenses). And if you're going to shoot film, it might as well be LF if you can manage it. It's going to be around for a long time. And for times when LF isn't practical (including a low bank balance), just use digital. No need to overthink and philosophize about the situation. Try living in the moment instead.

Utter nonsense, you have no idea what you're talking about. I work in film professionally and know the market and where it's heading, not a silly millennial like you who just picked up on the film photography bandwagon and feels entitled to throw around ridiculous statements and opinions on something you barely understand or research for your pockets to be filled by Fstoppers.

Another stupid article by James Madison, move on.

Hi James, I'm exactly at the opposite of you. I try to explain around me that film days are just now !

You can find a lot of inexpensive cameras on ebay in mint condition for so much less that the cost of a new digital camera. I'm speaking here about very brilliant gears. This is mainly true for 35mm cameras. All the professional cameras since the 90th are very easy to find (Nikon F4, F5, F100, Canon Eos-1V, for example) and I think that they still are affordable. And they are really a joy to use.

Of course if you try to go on the medium format side, the prices will increase. But my Sony A7R IV cost more new than a Sinar 4X5 in perfect condition and I had spent a lot more on good glasses for this digital tool. We are not speaking here about 50 to 125 $ but about thousands of bucks (maybe 10'000). I will surely buy more and more film cameras in the next months just because they are so inexpensive in my mind. Not only for my use, but also for lending them to my friends, so they also can start a new photographic life.

The real point now, is the prices of film which can really increase with demand (just see the Fuji Acros : crazy price).

I hope that you will find hope in the future of film. Nothing better for having fun in this days than a real tool and a picture on a piece of film !

Those were some interesting points you brought up, and it was nice to see some mediocre photographs too, but you fail to come to a conclusion. As a large format photographer, there is an adequite supply of film, and no competition from digital on the horizon.