Film Photography is Dead!

Many years ago, I heard an older friend of mine refer to another really old guy saying “he’s dead, but he doesn’t know enough to lay down”

So it seems is the situation with film photography despite the film photography supporters and pundits constantly declaring a rebirth and renaissance. Film photography may not be actually dead yet, but it’s going to figure out how to lay down pretty soon. It’s not from the lack of film either, it’s the cameras

Back in the early 2000’s we all thought film was really dead. You could buy flagship film cameras from the eighties and nineties for $50-$60 or thereabouts. I passed on a few Nikon F3s in great condition that were well under a hundred bucks. Because I, like many others thought film would be completely gone before 2010 and the cameras would be nothing more than paperweights. Despite popular expectation and prognostication, film is still here 10 years later in 2020. It seems there are a few folks keeping it on life support. Fuji, Kodak, Ilford, and a few others are still producing and selling film. While you really can’t drop it off at the corner drug store for processing, in most cases, there are enough mail-in labs, easily found online, to accommodate most shooters. Of course, there is always the “develop at home” option for the hard-core hobbyist. Rest assured, the film manufacturers will continue to make and sell film as long as there is a profitable demand. The demand will wane when the cameras begin to really increase in price due to rarity, ultimately leading to disuse.

The price increase is already under way. That $50.00 Nikon F3 from 2005 is now (in the same basic condition) a $500.00 camera and they are increasing all the time. Unfortunately the supply of serviceable examples is decreasing and that is partly what is causing the price increase generally seen across the board in film cameras. The supply is decreasing due to unrepairable problems. It is cheaper to toss the broken camera than to have it repaired, as a rule, even if it is reparable, no one is making replacement parts anymore. The repair people have to cannnibalize another camera to get parts to repair the first one. The extinction of a certain camera model only depends on the rate of attrition.

The problem will reach critical mass when shutter mechanisms start failing at rapid rate. In some cases certain parts can be made by various machining processes, at a price. Shutters and light meters are really the only things that cannot be made individually for anything resembling a reasonable price. As to the light meter? Ok you can use “sunny 16” or an external meter. However, if the shutter fails, you are done. The major manufacturers no longer make those old film camera shutters and you cannot adapt a shutter from a digital camera. Your only option is to take one from another camera of the same model (that has had a different failure). Since no new film cameras are currently being produced, it’s only a matter of time before we run out of donor cameras. Then, as the remainder fail, the amount dwindles until that particular model has gone the way of the DoDo bird. Thus it will continue across models until only a few cameras exist in working order, and their use will not support the film manufacturers at a level that will maintain profitability. At that point it’s over.

Of course there remains the hope that someone will start making film cameras anew. An independent company cannot do that. The engineering and pre-production costs are too high to make it a profitable venture. Recently Nikon cancelled the F6 (their last remaining film camera) which was pretty much prohibitively priced at some $2600.00 USD and a while back Canon discontinued their EOS 1v in 2018. Yes, supposedly the Nikon FM10 is still available but, a cursory Google search does not produce any new options for purchase, only used. So we can surmise that it is also out of production at this time. The major camera companies just do not see demand for new film cameras. When they do, they just end up competing against themselves. Take the Nikon F6 at $2599.00 brand new. A lightly used F5 in generally good condition can be found for less than $500.00 USD all day long. There is just no market share there. Besides, film aficionados are really not looking for modern cameras. They are looking for vintage cameras. They enjoy the haptics of manually focusing, setting the exposure, and advancing the film. Modern “do-it-all” film cameras from the late 1980’s onward do not offer that experience. They are more akin to shooting a DSLR which does not align with the “film experience”.

The only film option that may remain for the longer term is large format – 4×5 and 8×10. Those cameras have always been made by smaller companies and, indeed, there are new companies making them as I write this. They are, essentially primitive simple machines that rely on zero technology. lenses are readily available and replaceable. However, since the shutter is generally in the lens, we might run into the same shutter problem as we do with other film cameras. The shutters in view cameras, though, should have more life left as view cameras are not shot near as much as SLRs or other roll film cameras. We will see.

So, for now, if you shoot film, just enjoy it,  don’t pretend it’s not dead or it will really surprise you when it decides to lay down.

As always, stay safe and see the world your own way.

Thanks for reading.