Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The short, sad decline of film

As a kid I learned to take pictures with my dad's 35mm Nikomat camera. In those days, all of the photos were taken on Kodachrome 64, a slide film that holds its color for a very long time. Later I found a little 126 camera and started buying film for it. Although it had almost no features and was a very odd format (26mm by 26mm officially, although the film was actually 28mm square), I learned the concepts of taking good pictures by trial and error. I remember that my favorite picture was one I took of a dog while I was running along side it. I liked the photo because the dog was in focus and the background was blurred.

In 2001 we bought a Nikon N80 film camera to take with us to the olympics. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out which films to use. It was amazing the variety! There were tons of films, but as I recall I bought a lot of Agfa Optima Pro II 400 and Konica 200. I also shot a lot of Kodak Supra 100 and loved the fact that Kodak Supra 800 could be pushed to 3200, making it perfect for things like hockey!

None of those films exist anymore.

First Konica went out of business. Then Agfa. Then Kodak started discontinuing films left and right. Recently they discontinued HIE, the infra-red film that I shot in Chicago and Colorado last year. I was very dismayed by this loss, as there is nothing else quite like it on the market.

2001 was probably the high point for film. At that time the best digital camera on the market, the Nikon D1x was 5.1 Megapixels. There were higher pixel counts, but that (well, the original D1) was the first truly high end pro DSLR from a major manufacturer. Previously Kodak would take Nikon bodies and adapt them for digital, but Nikon, Canon, Minolta and Olympus were not making DSLR's until the release of the Nikon D1.

Digital was beginning to take hold, but film still was the dominant player. The competing film companies were producing better and better emulsions and competing for business. In the five years that followed 2001, film sales would evaporate as pro DSLR's came into their own. The drop in professional sales ended film research, and began the steady decline of film as a medium. On the consumer end, digital point and shoots completely destroyed the low end camera market. APS was the first casualty, followed quickly by the advanced 35mm point and shoot.

And then came the death blow. In 2003 Canon produced the digital rebel for less than $1000. With that, the consumer SLR market crashed. By early 2006 Nikon had discontinued all of their film cameras except for the mighty F6 (the best film camera ever made) and the FM10, a model aimed at beginning photography students. People stopped buying film bodies and began to buy DSLR's. Without the prosumer purchases, film companies began dropping left and right.

For color print film, Kodak and Fuji are essentially all that remains. It seems that every few months Kodak announces the discontinuation of more films. What is left is a small collection of print films, and a slightly larger collection of slide films. Even black and white seems to have taken a beating. The workflow of digital photography is simply too appealing. It takes a lot less time to import photos than it does to scan the negatives or the slides.

I am one of the holdouts. I still use the N80 that we purchased in 2001. We have added a 10MP Point & Shoot to our equipment, but the best pictures we take still come from the N80. But our options are dwindling. There is now only one place worldwide to get Kodachrome developed. How long will that last? I used to process slides at my local costco. That services has been discontinued. I have to drive nearly 60 miles to find a place that will process my true black and white film. Color print film remains easy to process, primarily because of the popularity of disposable cameras, and the fact that the same equipment creates prints from negatives and digital files.

I miss the variety of films. Each of them brought something different to the table. Each of them affected the photographs in various ways, and those films are lost, gone forever. Digital cameras now contain modes to emulate the effects of those various films (most commonly Velvia), but it isn't quite the same.

Film will never totally go away, but the attrition is far from over. Rumors are now swirling that Kodak might stop selling film altogether or sell the business. When this all shakes out there will be very few options for film photographers, and possibly only one company.

I like Fuji Slide films. I shoot Provia 100F almost exclusively. I don't care for their print films. Superia X-TRA 400 doesn't scan well, and doesn't look as good as the shots I take with Kodak 400UC. I don't generally shoot 100 print film, I use slide film for those occasions. I no longer have any film that I can push to 3200 like I used to. This is a real loss. Kodak's discontinuing of HIE is a huge loss. I expect that eventually they will discontinue 125PX, if they haven't already. Fewer and fewer options will make shooting with film less attractive.

Such is life I guess, but it's a bummer.

You can file this as a lament :-)


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