In 2012, one of film photography’s most enduring brands reached the end of the line. Three years after Kodak announced it was discontinuing Kodachrome – the film favoured by National Geographic photographers, and given tribute in song by Paul Simon – it also brought the shutters down on another of its classics: Ektachrome.
By this time, demand for Ektachrome and its consumer-grade cousin Elite Chrome had dwindled – the only films still available were all 100-ISO; many landscape photographers who used to favour slide film had made the jump to digital, and the number of labs still able to process the film was dwindling every year.
It was a decision born from basic business sense, but to many film photographers, already used to seeing their favourite films extinguished one-by-one, it seemed a depressing confirmation of film’s inexorable, slow decline. If Ektachrome was on the way out, what else was going to go with it?
Fast forward to January 2017, and Kodak, like many other companies in the photography and tech worlds, is at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas. They use the show as the platform to announce a new product – or, as it turns out, the return of an old one: Ektachrome.
The announcement that Kodak was once again making slide film was reported across the world – from the Washington Post to the New Zealand Herald – aswell as a raft of photography sites and blogs. In less than five years, Kodak had taken the decision to end production of one of their best-loved brands, and then decided to reverse it (a decision that is unlikely to be cheap).
The Ektachrome news came amid a raft of other positive developments. Film Ferrania – who had rescued one of the R&D factories from former film giant Ferrania with a Kickstarter campaign back in 2014 – announced they were releasing a new black-and-white film. Adox, a small German film producer known for their fine-grained, fine-art black-and-white films, said they were doubling the size of their factory near Berlin because of demand. Bergger, France’s last manufacturer of films and papers, also released a brand new 400-speed black-and-white film. And the photography blog Japan Camera Hunter, run by Briton Bellamy Hunt in Tokyo, has also released its own film, a black-and-white film marketed for 35mm street photographers.
So, after a decade-and-a-half of post-digital decline, does 2017 signal a change? Is this the beginning of a film photography’s comeback?
The return of Ektachrome is thanks Kodak Alaris, the company that has produced and marketed Kodak photographic products since 2013. Ever since Ektachrome’s retirement, a core group of former users had lobbied for them to bring it back, says Dennis Olbrich, the president of Personalised Imaging at Kodak Alaris.
“We’ve seen a number of photographers come back to shooting film due to aesthetics, workflow or simply to differentiate themselves from other photographers,” says Olbrich. “We are also seeing a younger, creative crowd that grew up with digital now experiencing film for the first time. So we are definitely seeing a bit of a resurgence. We had been discussing the possibility of bringing back a slide film, and Eastman Kodak Company’s decision to launch a Super 8 movie camera provided us with the perfect opportunity to do so. Together, our combined scale makes this a viable project.”
The new of Ektachrome’s return opened the floodgates – forums have been deluged with requests for other long-dead Kodak films to hit the shelves once more – most noticeably, Kodachrome, the much-loved slide film that disappeared back in 2010.
So could Kodak bring back other retired films?
“Given the positive momentum for film, we’ve been looking for opportunities to expand our portfolio of products,” says Olbrich. “The Ektachrome announcement is an example of this process. The reintroduction of an emulsion is not as simple as you may think, as there may be significant R&D efforts necessary to reformulate the product based upon component availability, equipment changes that may have been made over the years and any changes to EH&S [Environmental Health and Safety] regulations.”
The past five years have left only two companies still producing slide film – Fujifilm and Agfa. The latter’s sole slide-film is mainly aimed at the Lomography market and sold under the Lomography/Rollei brands for cross-processing as a negative. While Fujifilm still has several slide films in its roster, the range has been cut back and the prices regularly increased. This has hastened a lack of demand, and in many cases made labs stop offering E-6 processing.
Is it a gamble for Kodak to enter a market that has shrunk so markedly?
“We have a great Kodak Professional Film App to help locate film sellers as well as processing labs,” says Olbrich. “It’s available for Android (download from Google Play) as well as iOS (download from the App Store). We have recently conducted a quick scan of the E6 processing lab availability, and there is pretty good coverage across the key markets. Later this year we will be updating the App to include Pro Labs offering E6 film processing.
“There has been some positive momentum for film recently, and that makes us very optimistic about the future. Kodak Alaris has been active in the use of social media to promote the virtues of film, but it is admittedly an uphill battle to get the word out to the masses. Everyone in the industry that loves film can help by being evangelists for the benefits of film.”
The return of Ektachrome also makes more sense if you consider what has happened to the “Italian Kodak”, Ferrania.
Ferrania was once the fourth-biggest manufacturer of still camera film, including slides – in the US they were marketed as Scotch Chrome. Like many film manufacturers, Ferrania found the early 2000s tough. Falling demand for film eventually led to it going out of business in 2009.
But some of Ferrania’s former employees thought a scaled-down version of the company could survive in a film market seeing gradual growth; by bringing back to life the old R&D lab that was part of the Ferrania campus at Cairo Montenotte, near Genoa in north-western Italy.
Seeing a gap in the market, the Film Ferrania founders set up a Kickstarter hoping to bring back the old Ferrania 100 slide film, one responsible for so many holiday photos from Trieste to Trondheim back in decades past. Some 5,500 people pledged more than $320,000 to help get the project off the ground.
The downsizing and destruction of the past 15 years has created a situation where almost no single company can make the product from start to finish completely internally – Dave Bias, Film Ferrania
The post-Kickstarter reality has been anything but easy, says David Bias, who heads up Film Ferrania’s North American operation. And part of that is down to the sheer physical complexity of the product they’re making – and some of the knock-on effects of the damage to the industry over the last 15 years.
“To paraphrase a Kodak representative at CES 2016 – analogue film is one of the most complicated consumer products ever invented,” Bias says. “Making film is incredibly difficult, requires custom-made machinery and, most critically, technicians with a level of experience and expertise that is disappearing as they retire.
“As such, I do not see new companies being created. In fact, the infrastructure for film manufacture is very much at a tipping point. The downsizing and destruction of the past 15 years has created a situation where almost no single company can make the product from start to finish completely internally – and worse, the cost of building new machinery in this reduced market size is extremely prohibitive. It would take a jump in the market size of 5-10% to warrant entirely new machinery to be commissioned, and despite my great optimism for the future, I think this kind of increase is entirely unrealistic.
“This is why it was so critical for Film Ferrania to save equipment, even if it’s just in storage and could take years for us to install, refurbish and return to service.”
The delays – caused by everything from building maintenance to deal with asbestos in the building and trying to restore water and power to the facility – have pushed the slide film further and further back. Currently, it’s slated to be on sale late in 2017.
“Film Ferrania has the potential to become completely self-contained, producing finished products from just a few raw materials,” says Bias. “If we are able to achieve this status in a few years’ time, we will have only one or two peers in the entire industry – but at a fraction of the size of those peers, and with the entirely unique opportunity to expand, rather than contract, our operations.
“With this said, I do see great potential for the existing manufacturers to expand their offerings. Perhaps by re-releasing old products but perhaps more importantly by introducing entirely new products.”
This isn’t just marketing talk. A few weeks after the news of Ektachrome, Ferrania suddenly announced they were releasing a new film – an 80-ISO black-and-white negative film called P30, and based on the kind of film stock used by celebrated Italian film-makers in the 1960s.
“We were more surprised than anyone!” says Bias.
“Until a few weeks ago, we never intended to release B&W film and in fact we had some emulsion from another supplier to use for testing a two-layer coat.
“During our long delay, that emulsion expired and when the team reconvened to discuss next steps, it was decided that we would synthesise new emulsion from the P30 formula that had been slightly updated in the early 1970s specifically to work on our Precision Coater. This decision was made because during the delay, we managed to restore much of our internal synthesis equipment and the team was eager to use it. After the successful single-layer green coating, we were certain that the coater had not been damaged during the delay, and we proceeded to mix some P30 emulsion.
“A single strip was hand-coated and shot in late November and the results were simply stunning. However, we still needed to machine-coat a small batch before we got too excited.”
The first machine coating of this “surprise” film took place in December. “After much internal deliberation, we decided to release this film. We weighed the pros and cons and, in fact, we anticipated some backlash for not proceeding directly to our originally promised colour reversal film.
“But at the same time, we’ve been telling the world for two years now that our factory is designed to be inherently flexible and agile – so why stick to something we said two years ago when we had (almost accidentally) created such a beautiful black and white film?”
P30 will be available to pre-order through Film Ferrania’s online store in February – signalling the return of a film manufacturer that had seemed consigned to the history books.
Film photography is never going to return to the glory days of the late 90s – the global market for film is around 1% of what it was at its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That is, however, still tens of millions of rolls every year. And its rise in recent times has largely been with photographers too young to have used it the first time round, a new army of devotees seeing film as something new and exciting.
It’s some of the brands often regarded as novelties that may have given the wider analogue photography eco-system some time to regroup. Lomography, which has been selling toy cameras, revitalised Soviet cameras and experimental films since the early 1990s, introduced a new breed of photographers to the fun of film. And Fuji’s Instax format – small instant pictures – grew to the point where it was one of the most popular products on Amazon in the lead up to Christmas 2015; that means a lot of instant pictures being shot.
Even Polaroid film has escaped the kiss of death. The Impossible Project rescued the last functioning Polaroid factory in Holland so it could make new film for Polaroid’s iconic range of instant cameras; they followed it up last year with their first camera, the I-1.
Film has a cachet again – in January, Time ran a series of articles on film’s resurgence – even down to which secondhand film cameras you might want to buy.
But despite the good news, some realism is called for – digital dealt film photography some very serious blows.
“The industry largely collapsed, and pretty much every film company, save for Fujifilm, which invested heavily in digital and other industries) went bankrupt,” says Canadian journalist David Sax, author of the book The Revenge of Analog. “But I think the smartphone may have been the turning point, because that really had a bigger effect on the digital camera industry, which saw its sales decline after the iPhone 4 came out. Suddenly, everyone had a great camera in their pocket, which cost nothing, and because of that the interest in photography grew even further, thanks to places like Instagram.”
According to Sax, this had a positive effect for film. As photography enjoyed the biggest boom in its history, this meant more people being bitten by the picture-taking bug – and more people curious about trying other kinds of photography, such as film.
Anyone looking at the camera industry today is looking at Instax and FujiFilm’s crazy success with it – David Sax, The Return of Analog
“Kodak isn’t going to make tons of money from Ektachrome, or from Super 8, but they realise the value this has for their brand and how people perceive them,” says Sax. “And as the world leader in film, at least in the public imagination, it’s important to have someone like them say that film has a value now, even if it’s as a niche product. It’s a recognition that film shooters matter, and there’s an audience for those products that can grow and make money. That sends a signal to everyone else that film has a place.
“If there’s a market for it, people will serve it. Instant is the best example of this. Anyone looking at the camera industry today is looking at Instax and FujiFilm’s crazy success with it and saying, ‘Ok, there’s potential to not only sell something here but to keep growing a market.’ The more film comes into that market, the more people will shoot it, the more they’ll want to try other film, the more opportunity there is. As Nicola Baldini from Film Ferrania told me, the market will respond to new products and new ideas, because it shows momentum. That’s crucial.”
There is one film manufacturer that seems to have escaped the very worst of the post-digital downturn. Ilford Photo, the British company that has been making black-and-white film since 1879, initially looked to be an early victim. In 2004, it went into receivership, only to be saved by a management buyout under a new company called Harman Technology Ltd. Rolls of Ilford film remained staples on the shelves. And while many colour films disappeared, Ilford’s stable of black-and-white emulsion grew.
“We have seen a global year-on-year growth in film for the last three years. Last year (2016) saw volume grow more than 5% globally,” Ilford’s marketing team told Zorki Photo in a joint statement.
Ilford Photo carried out a survey in 2014, looking at the demographics of those shooting film. The survey, of thousands of film users from more than 70 countries, found nearly one-third were under the age of 35 – something that even surprised Ilford Photo.
Traditionally our core users has been those that grew up using film, but now we are seeing a brand new generation of enthusiasts in the 24-to-35 age bracket, as well as those more established customers. This trend is also reflected in things like our social media followers and many of those using our products now grew up in the digital age and have actively chosen to use film.”
Did black-and-white perhaps weather digital photography better, given how the qualities of atmospheric grain and range of tones can be harder to replicate digitally? “Possibly yes, we’ve always seen a strong black-and-white demand given its interest from artists, although it could also be down to the fact that the colour producers had significantly larger, less flexible production lines.”
Our film sales indicate this resurgence has been on the cards for several years although there does seem to be a gathering momentum at present – Ilford Photo
The sudden announcement of three new films in just a few week is proof, Ilford Photo says, the film market is getting healthier. “It’s great to hear of films being brought back to market and anything that gets photographers or the media talking about or thinking about film is a real positive. Our film sales indicate this resurgence has been on the cards for several years although there does seem to be a gathering momentum at present and new products always have a way of getting the market talking.
“As a business we’ve always aimed to avoid stopping products. On the odd occasion it was necessary we re-introduced them, eg our SFX 200 film in 2007. Since then we have brought several new products to market including our pinhole cameras and Multigrade Art paper.”
The one thing, it seems, Ilford won’t do is dip their toes back into the slide film market – despite once making a range of colour slide films from the 1940s to the late 1960s. “Our focus has been on the black-and-white market and we will continue to stay with that, looking to build on the resurgence we are seeing. We see it as far more important to sustain this growth than take our eye off the ball and diversify into such a challenging area.”
Another black-and-white film manufacturer is also growing – though this isn’t just down to the fact there’s more demand for their films.
Adox began life in 1860, though its current form, aimed at those who use fine-art black-and-white films and papers, dates from 1992. Their black-and-white films, especially the fine-grained emulsions, have a fervent following.
This month, Adox announced it was doubling the size of its factory at Bad Saarow, near Berlin.
The reasons are a lot more complicated than simply more demand, says Adox’s Mirko Boddecker. “One would probably expect a straight ‘because we are growing’ but it is a mixture of achieved growth and the approach to overcome challenges in the market.
“We are the smallest manufacturer of silver halide products, so we are growing into the new, smaller market. On the other hand there are still suppliers in this market who are to big or at least used to much larger volumes. These suppliers aren’t necessarily the names the end consumer will know. They are important suppliers of pre-products which you need to run a photo factory. In recent years we have seen a consolidation to a monopoly with:
– 35mm metal-film cassettes
– 120 backing paper
– Hydroquinone and other important chemicals
– Triacetate base for film
..and other pre-products.
“Many other needed ingredients or services have not boiled down to a monopoly yet but they are a duopoly or at best there are three suppliers, which also means a very weak position for the dependant manufacturer asking for a quote.
“On most of the above items from the list we are either facing extreme price increases or even total cut-offs in supply due to the fact that the manufacturing is now owned by competitors.
“Thus we need to increase our vertical integration (depths of production) in order to keep putting out products at all. The new building provides us with the necessary space for doing both: growing and increasing the depth of production.”
Since the old suppliers started to struggle and collapse our challenges were always to find new suppliers – Mirko Boddecker, Adox
If new players want to make film, they also have to make everything else – the cassettes the film comes in, the plastic tubs, the packaging and stickers that go on the cassettes. It’s either that, or be dependant on another manufacturer who might refuse to make stuff for you if they think you’re competing with your product.
“I have always believed in analogue film. We got into it in 1992 and we have had increasing sales in every single year,” says Boddecker. “We were never in the old mass markets. The digital revolution never struck us. Since the old suppliers started to struggle and collapse our challenges were always to find new suppliers. We never had a problem on the sales side. Consequently we started to produce ourselves in 2010 (after five years or preparation).”
But film is only a small part of what Adox does. They also bought Agfa’s chemistry and paper ranges when they started their own manufacturing five years ago.
The announcement of new films is welcome, he says, but coming up with new products is a lot harder for the small operators, who don’t have the economy of scale of larger opeators like Kodak. “Manufacturing a truly new film is very exciting but also quite a job and film prices are still rock bottom not including any surplus for R&D.
“Almost all of the films which were called ‘new’ in the past years were not new. Rather they were rebranded/respooled existing films. Ferrania just released a Prototype-Emulsion as a new film. This is as far as I know the only real ‘new’ film. However it is still in beta-state at the best. It’s a challenge even in black-and-white.
“We are working on new films but I can’t say at this moment when one will be ready.”
Boddecker says that while the film market will continue to grow, no-one is going to be able to build a new film business the size of Kodak or Agfa at their 1990s peak. The days of those film giants are over.
Bellamy Hunt’s Japan Camera Hunter is a site wholly designed to part camera collectors from their money. He’s based in Tokyo, still a Mecca for film photographers, with many shops still catering for an analogue crowd. Unlike many Western countries, Japan has never fallen out of love with film; in 2008, British current affairs magazine Monocle even asked why Japanese teenagers were still flocking to film long after most youngsters had willingly ditched it for digital. Hunt has been sourcing rare or limited-edition film cameras for overseas buyers, and built a hugely popular site celebrating film with a global readership.
But publishing regular stories about films being retired over the last few years made him want to try and reverse the tide, even just a little. “It always seems to be bad news about film. I thought that if I could bring a bit of cheer to the film community it would really boost people’s spirits. Of course, I did want to have a film that was exactly what I look for in a black and white film.”
Japan Camera Hunter Street Pan 400 was first released in 2016; it’s a traffic surveillance film made by Agfa in Belgium, but it was never available in rolls of 35mm before. Hunt funded the testing process, and then took the gamble of making the first batch of film with his money – based on the hunch that film fans would be curious at the concept of a new film enough to try at least a few rolls of it.
“It was not as hard as I thought it would be. Fortunately I have a lot of connections in the industry from doing this job and have been able to rely on some wonderful people who have helped me to make the idea a reality. The hardest part is the waiting for things to be manufactured.”
The demands has taken Hunt somewhat by surprise; the novelty of a new film has been to much resist for many photographers, even if Hunt’s film sells for more than equivalent films thanks to its smaller production runs. “It has been overwhelming. I thought it would take about a year to sell the first batch of 10,000 rolls. They sold out in six months! I have actually been left without any stock now until April when the next batch arrives.”
Hunt’s film shows another possible route for film in the future – a cottage industry where film manufacturers might make more emulsions but in smaller batches; the cost per roll will be higher, much like limited-edition vinyl. (Note: While this piece was being written, Hunt announced the film would also be available in 120 before the end of the year.)
Hunt too says the real boost has been coming from novices trying film for the first time. “I think it has to be the amount of young people that are becoming interested. People from a generation that in many cases have never used or even seen film before as they have grown up with digital devices. The amount of teenage film shooters I am seeing is really heartening.”
David Sax agrees that it’s those younger photographers, putting their first roll through a Lomography camera or their parents’ old film SLR, who are instrumental in bringing film back from its slow decline.
“For some it’s the look, but I think for many of the younger ones, who began with digital and have now embraced film (ex: the whole Instax crowd), it’s more about the process and what that does. They are less obsessed with grain and trying to pit the perfection of film against digital, and more drawn to the limited, and somewhat constrained process that film forces on them, and the surprising challenge and serendipity of the images that produces. That’s what differentiates this newer generation of film shooters from the previous one who never gave up film… they don’t see it as film vs digital, but as a separate and distinct tool for creativity.
“Sales of Impossible Project and Instax cameras are driven by kids buying it and shooting film. They have zero nostalgia for film. My friend’s nine-year-old daughter got an Instax camera for her birthday last year and loves it. She has only known photography as something that happens on an Apple device, and here she is shooting film, because it’s cool, it’s tactile, and it’s fun. That’s the future of photography.”
Film Ferrania’s David Bias says the analogue photography pool is getting both bigger and deeper. “My optimism has only grown as the film resurgence has become stronger and stronger. I’ve seen Fuji take Instax from a niche product mostly within Japan to a top five seller on Amazon during the 2015 holiday season. I’ve seen Kodak go from posting videos of buildings being blown up, to a beautiful rebranding and making two very major analog film announcements at CES 2015 and 2016. I’ve seen many new film products released from smaller producers, and I’ve watched my old friends at Impossible grow to the point of releasing the first entirely new Polaroid-compatible camera in more than a dozen years.
“I’ve also witnessed a strong resurgence in alternative processes, home processing and many other aspects of analogue photography that used to be quite rarified and only accessible to professionals and fine artists.
Bellamy Hunt believes 2017’s raft of announcements is only the beginning. “I think we are going to see more new films coming, I have heard rumours from several sources that there are going to be a few more interesting films before the year is out.”
But that will only be part of the story if film’s resurgence is to continue. There won’t be much point in stocking up on Kodak and Film Ferrania’s new slide films if there isn’t anywhere to process them – which means photographers should be supporting the labs that offer as many services as possible.
And while film fans currently have a glut of film cameras to choose from – some of them costing less than a price of film on eBay or in secondhand stores and car boot sales – eventually there will be another requirement – a new generation of film cameras.
“I think the next step is going to be a really big one. It would require a company to take a leap of faith and produce a new film camera,” says Hunt. “And not just a crappy plastic lens knock-up, but an actual proper camera. I really think there is a market for it. Perhaps not a larger company as they have huge overheads, but a smaller company could really make steps in the market now. There is definitely an opportunity.”