Though we're a decade or so into the digital revolution, the triumphant march of the flash memory card over film has been so staggering, so Sherman-esque, that it's easy to overlook the fact that film hasn't gone quietly into the night.
Indeed, among fine art photographers, documentarians, avid amateurs, educators, and their young students, film remains a vital, relevant, creative medium. Though film sales continue to decline, the long-term prognosis isn't uniformly bleak. While consumer-oriented films (35mm color) is in the doldrums, suppliers say that for many of the professional formats-sheet film, medium format, black & white-sales have actually stabilized.
"A little over a year ago, we did a survey among commercial photographers in the U.S. and Europe, and more than half of them are still using film," says SCOTT DISABATO, marketing manager, Professional Film, Kodak. That's not half of all their clicks, he added, but nevertheless a significant portion of the pro market continues to "regularly rely on film."
"We still hear from film loyalists that they love the organic look, the depth, and the skin tones [they get from film]," says CHRISTIAN FRIDHOLM, vice president of marketing, Consumables, Imaging Group, Fujifilm. "We hear it from high-end portrait and wedding photographers-they'll use film to shoot the staged shots and then use digital to shoot candids."
Film still enjoys a reputation for photographic authenticity. Professionals shoot film today, Fridholm says, "to differentiate themselves."
"Some people just don't like digital," says ROD PARSONS, vice president, Technical Operations, Harman Technology. "They've worked in analog all their life."
Rather than surrender to the digital onslaught, many film photographers adopt a hybrid workflow to leverage the best of both worlds-shooting in film, then scanning and printing their work on inkjet, Parsons adds.
In a world of hard-drive-sized memory cards, photographers often appreciate the discipline that film imposes on how you shoot, Fridholm says: "They're more careful; they spend more time with their clients and less time behind the computer." Many committed photographers "will grab a field camera and expose a couple of pictures" on sheet film simply because it's the "un-digital" thing to do, DiSabato says. "People like the tangibility of film. They like to say ‘I processed it, I looked at it, I made contact prints.' It lends itself to the art of photography."
The education market has also proven to be an analog redoubt as students and teachers continue to use film and darkrooms alongside digital instruction, DiSabato says. "These students have a great foundation in digital, but they love the experimental nature of film," he says. "If you're going to be trained as a photographer, you need that traditional component. I know many administrators have fought hard to keep their chemical darkrooms."
There are also more prosaic reasons supporting film's persistence: "You're not leaving your images at the mercy of changing file formats," Parsons says. "Negatives are human-readable."
If film is not dead, it will be more expensive. Thanks to the well-publicized surge in oil prices and a similar run-up in silver prices, the major film manufacturers (read: Kodak and Fujifilm) have been forced to pass on price increases to their customers. Both firms said earlier this year that silver halide–based products would see double-digit increases, up to 20 percent in some cases.
"We haven't raised film prices in years," Fridholm says, "so I don't think it will impact [film consumption]."
Raw-material pressures had forced one of Fujifilm's more popular films, Velvia for Professionals, out of the market in 2005, but the company has since reintroduced it in the form of Velvia 50. In the past two years, Fujifilm has also introduced the Provia 400X and T64 films as part of a broader refresh of its professional film products. "The improvements include finer grain, better color, and image stability for long-term archiving," Fridholm says.
Kodak's stable includes 20 pro emulsions. Earlier this year, the company rolled out a new version of its 400-speed Portra film (400NC and 400VC) for portrait photographers, following an earlier refresh of other films in the Portra line over the last two years. The new films offer a finer grain than their predecessors, according to DiSabato.
In October 2007, Kodak launched a new version of its 400-speed T-MAX black & white film. The new emulsion featured technology (dubbed "antenna dye") originally developed by Kodak's motion-picture division. According to DiSabato, antenna dye conducts light more efficiently and results in a finer grain and improved scanning.
Harman Technology offers eight lines of Ilford-branded film in a variety of sizes. Once a year, the company runs a promotion where customers can place an order for unique sizes, with no minimum order requirements, Parsons says. "It does surprisingly well, as people usually don't have much access to these products," he explains.
The company recently reintroduced its SFX 200 film. Originally developed for traffic cameras in the U.K., the film behaves much like infrared film without the handling constraints, Parsons says. It is sold in 35mm and 120 roll formats.
While digital clicks will continue to cannibalize film exposures, vendors appear committed to film for the foreseeable future. Maintaining a sustainable business model in a declining market may mean some SKU consolidation, Fridholm says, but the broader commitment to the industry remains firm. Kodak's reorganization, which brought all the traditional business groups under one roof, has also put the company in a better position businesswise, DiSabato says.
"We're still making investments in film," he adds, "and we wouldn't be making investments if we didn't expect a return."
Mike McGregor (www.mikemcgregor.com)
What camera and film do you use?
The Hasselblad 555 and Kodak T-Max 400 film.
Why are you still shooting film?
I shoot film because it's got more soul. When you're looking at big, beautiful prints, they look better coming off of film. Despite all the work you do in digital, it's still coming back to an analog world. The analog world that we live in translates more accurately in film, and you can feel that in a fine art print.
Every time I shoot, I think about the possibility of an exhibition, and I want to have the option to have the best 40x60 prints possible.
Analog has a truth to it that digital won't be able to replicate. I don't think digital should try to replicate film, either; it should be its own individual tool.
Do you also shoot digital?
Yes, it's about 50-50 between film and digital. A lot of the magazines I shoot for: Time, Newsweek are on ridiculous time constraints, so it's shoot digital or turn the job down.
How long do you envision using film?
I do foresee myself shooting film in the future. The only problem I have with film is that it's bad for the environment. But that's a necessary evil.
Jon Ortner (www.OrtnerPhoto.com)
What cameras and film are you using?
I use a Fujifilm Panorama GX617 6x17cm view camera, a Linhof Master Technika 4x5 view camera, and a Pentax 67II 6x7cm medium-format camera. For film, I use Fujifilm Velvia 50, Velvia 100, and T64.
Why are you still shooting film?
My photographic style is bold and graphic, saturated with vivid color. Recently, my focus has been on the canyons of the Southwest, with stunning red rock formations, golden dunes, and vast blue skies. The vibrant color palette of Fujifilm transparency films reproduces these colors perfectly. The fine grain structure allows me to capture subtle textures and great tonal range, which gives the images an emotional dimension.
Architecture is my other specialty. I do quite a bit of twilight and long-exposure night photography. I find that, especially for the subtle light of sunrise and sunset, I get the best results with medium- or large-format film cameras, and Fuji transparency film. Fujifilm's fine grain structure records extraordinary detail and allows the creation of truly spectacular large-sized prints for exhibition and advertising. Velvia also has superb stability.
Do you also shoot digital?
Yes, I'm discovering applications every day. Learning digital capture was client-driven for me; my hotel and real estate clients want it for the ease of posting on the web and skipping the scanning step. I also saw what could be achieved with the white balance in interiors. The mixed lighting is a nightmare to try to correctly filter, but digital and Photoshop smoothly solve those problems.
How long do you envision using film?
I look at film as an irreplaceable and essential component of photography, and the foundation of one of the most important art forms in the world. In the past, film has represented truth and an accurate reflection of reality and will continue to do so. Digital photography has already gone well beyond representational imaging and will evolve and create its own universe. But film remains the preferred choice for photographers and artists who want to express a wide spectrum of textures, emotions, and beauty that people respond to and value.
Frank Ockenfels (www.frankockenfels3.com)
What camera/film do you use?
It all depends-I carry many different formats and kinds of cameras. I shoot with a Super D Graflex when shooting 4x5. I shoot Type 55 Pola Neg. I also still have Type 665 that I use in an old passport camera that I then cut up and collage. I also shoot with Widelux and Horseman panoramic cameras.
Why do you still shoot film?
The lack of depth-of-field and the sharpness mix create a certain feel that can't be done in digital. [There's] also that process of peeling open the negative and putting it in the tank and all the happy accidents or scratches or solarizations that can happen.
Do you shoot digital?
I do shoot digital. I do movie and TV advertising, and the studios and networks prefer it. It is also easier to change ideas in the middle [of shooting] and move lights around because we now have the "one-second Polaroid" to show the client or to make sure we have the shot they're looking for. We're able to move quicker, which is good and bad. In a short time, people have become lazy and forget the "decisive moment"-but that's another conversation.