The death of film

As amazing as digital single lens reflex (dSLR) cameras have become, it is a bit sad that Canon’s website now includes only one film SLR: the absurdly expensive EOS-1v. Nikon’s page has two: the $2000 F6 and the $350 FM10.

This makes me glad I went ahead and bought an Elan 7N four years ago, while digital bodies were still totally unaffordable. While it lacks the convenience of the digital options, there is still much to be said for film. A cheap roll of Velvia or T-Max can give you better performance than a $5000 digital camera, and negatives are comparatably easy to archive in a way that will endure for fifty or one hundred years. Also, changing the kind of film you use can have a big effect on the kind of photos you produce, and it is a lot easier than buying a new digital sensor with different properties.

No photographic technology ever really dies. There are still artists and enthusiasts who make Daguerreotypes, after all. Film will simply move from being the default medium to one that professionals and hobbyists explicitly select.

For now, people who are interested in getting involved in serious artistic photography should definitely consider the option of picking up a cut-price used film SLR, a bunch of rolls of good film, and some processing and scanning from a good lab. For the price of an entry-level dSLR, you could do a lot of shooting, with equipment that will not be considered any more antiquated in ten years than it is now.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

24 thoughts on “The death of film”

  1. I love film too… Have an old Pentax LX that I refuse to part with. It’s what I learned photography on.

    Never fear though, digital backs are expensive and fully digital medium and large format cameras are really expensive so most pros still use film. Not that a film Hasselblad is cheap!

    That said, I am surprised that you would pick film over digital given the difference in environmental impact there is between the two (it’s not pretty for film!). Visit Rochester, NY sometime! Though I pick on Kodak, I do think they are committed to changing their environmental impact, more than just greenwashing, though even today they are consistently ranked one of NY state’s worst polluters!

    That said digital still has a long way to go in catching up to film in quality as Mr. Rockwell demonstrated.

  2. For most people, the convenience of digital outweighs other considerations. Being able to see the results of your decisions instantly is also a pretty good learning tool.

    That being said, I agree that there is a future for film in at least some quarters.

  3. I am no die-hard film fan.

    Virtually all of my photos of the day are shot on digital.

    I just think there is much to be celebrated about film (though environmental impacts should certainly be borne in mind). I am glad to see that people still make Daguerreotypes and glad to know at least a few people will still be exposing silver halides in the decades and (hopefully) centuries to come.

    All that being said, I am definitely excited about what I think I could do with a dSLR.

  4. It would be nice if this were true, but I don’t think it is. To get a good used Film SLR you are still going to have to spend 200$, and for 400$ you can get a nikon D40 with a very sharp kit zoom lens. The main advantage of the film camera is that you can buy a wider range of lenses and have the AF work (although this isn’t a problem for Canon’s cheap DSLRs).

    How much film processing can you really get for the difference of 200$?

  5. The cheapest dSLRs are now quite competitive with film bodies, though I have seen some pretty amazing film body deals on Craigslist ($200 for an Elan 7N, a good non-kit zoom, and accessories).

    If all you care about is the cost per photo, it is very hard to beat digital. That being said, film does have other advantages.

    Those thinking of buying a full-frame dSLR should definitely think about the comparative economics of film and scanning.

  6. Full frame film in comparison to full frame digital is definitly a case where your argument works out.

  7. The economic point is certainly less clear in relation to cheaper dSLRs, especially if you already have a good computer.

    Do you think there is still some value in the idea that learning photography starts best with a manual SLR, black and white film, and time in a physical darkroom?

  8. I think that working in a darkroom is its own skill. I’m glad I learned it, and I’d like to do more of it. I don’t think there is any reason to start with a Manuel SLR, I think what’s more important is to understand how the camera you have works. There is no reason not to use P on an SLR, so long as it’s not used as a crutch to never learn what shutter speeds and aperture’s mean, how they affect the photo. Matrix metering is great, there is no reason to learn how to use a centre weighted meter. You could still make a case for learning to use a spot meter and zone system, but there is really no advantage of zone system exposure over matrix, since matrix is an automated zone metering system, especially if you add the bracketing which is made easy on DLSR’s.

    If you are really worried about getting the negative exactly right in a specific way, you should probably be shooting medium or large format.

  9. I collect daguerreotypes. I love them. Because they were fragile, they were encased in little cases behind glass and and brass, with a velvet pillow opposite. They’re three dimensional objects, with holographic depth,and if you tilt them, you can see the image change from positive to negative and back again. Photography is so ubiquitous now, but back in the 1850s every single photograph represented an investment of time, money and thought. It’s hard to imagine that in 150 years anybody will cherish film or digital photographs the way we cherish daguerreotypes today.

  10. Film: The Real Raw
    © 2009 All rights reserved.

    A raw file is not an original image. A raw file has already sampled and quantized the image, which loses information, while film retains the original image to be retrieved at any time in the future.

  11. Film and Digital Reprise

    If you catch me in public, like shopping at Price Club, you’ll usually find me with a D40 and 35mm f/1.8 around my neck.

    Digital is best for action, people, news, sports, anything on deadline, and just about everything most people shoot. For most of what I and everyone else shoot, digital is best.

    Digital is cleaner and faster. I can shoot digital at ISO 1,600 without changing film mid-roll, and it looks great. I can shoot 1,000 shots or more on a single charge of my D40 and never have to swap film.

    If you are a local Marine Force Recon or Navy SEAL and sneak past the guards at my studio located in a drab industrial park (actually, you’re always welcome), you’ll see me shooting the product shots you see on these pages with my D3, Novatron strobes and AF MICRO-NIKKOR 200mm f/4. I shoot it, and it’s up on the site in seconds (OK, after minutes of spotting out all the dust on the product in Photoshop).

    But if you see me out someplace scenic, far away from San Diego, you’ll see me shooting film.

    Why? Not only does film look better for scenic stuff if you’re really careful, I’m lazy and with film I have smaller cameras and no need to bring camera chargers, a computer, power cords for the computer, a card reader, a backup drive, spare CDs and DVDs for backup, a mouse, the firewire cords to connect all this, the power strip to run it all in the motel, and ten tons of other crap that are needed for field operations with digital capture. I bring an extra ziplock bag to hold my exposed film, and I’m done.

  12. Tuesday, June 23, 2009
    Fuckin’ A : KODACHROME Discontinuation
    I predicted it was coming, but dreaded the day. It has come:

    Eastman Kodak Company announced on June 22, 2009 that it will discontinue sales of KODACHROME Color Film this year, concluding its 74-year run as a photography icon. Sales of KODACHROME, which became the world’s first commercially successful color film in 1935, have declined dramatically in recent years as photographers turned to other films or digital capture. Today, KODACHROME represents just a fraction of one percent of Kodak’s total sales of still-picture films.

  13. Last Roll of Kodachrome Processed

    “Freelance photojournalist Steve McCurry, whose work has graced the pages of National Geographic, laid 36 slides representing the last frames of Kodachrome film on the light board sitting on a counter in Dwayne’s Photo Service in Parsons [Kansas]. … National Geographic has closely documented the journey of the final roll of Kodachrome manufactured, down to its being processed. Dwayne’s is the only photo lab left in the world to handle Kodachrome processing…”

  14. Kodachrome’s Last Day

    Today was the last day that the last lab on Earth, Dwayne’s, accepted Kodachrome for developing.

    I was interviewed by KCBS radio in San Francisco; you might hear my interview on the air about this.

    Essentially, I explained as I have explained before that Kodachrome, introduced in the 1930s, became obsolete in the 1990s as Fuji took over the professional market. E-6 films, which look better and develop in only an hour or two, better meet the needs of professionals today. For the past 30 years, transparency films (slides) like these are mostly shot by pros and serious photographers. Since the 1980s, casual shooters have shot print film instead.

    Since so few people bought Kodachrome, of course Kodak stopped making it, and thus Dwayne’s stopped developing it. New films, like Kodak Ektar, continue to be developed (hee hee) because they are what people want today. Kodachrome went away for lack of sufficient interest. Remember, back when pros shot Kodachrome up through 1990, each individual pro photographer would shoot dozens, or hundreds, of rolls a day, every day. Hobbyists buying a roll or two at a time do not a viable professional film make.

    I stopped shooting Kodachrome in 1990 when I upgraded to Fuji Velvia.

    It was sad in the 1990s and 2000s when we all kept expecting Kodak to come out with a film that looked better than Velvia, and each of Kodak’s attempts, like Lumiere and E100VS, all bombed.

    Yes, I still shoot lots of Velvia, as do many serious photographers.

  15. Kodak, which owned half of the world’s market share in the 90s, hiked its film prices in 2020 and 2021, and plans to raise prices by a further 20% in March. The company said that the initial hike went, in part, to investments in production capacity. They also said they’ve hired 350 people since 2021 to help boost production, claiming to have doubled production of 35mm still film in the last few years, but even that’s not meeting demand.

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