If we look at it carefully, the film revival was a logical step. After the return of vinyl LPs and more recently audio cassettes, film photography had to rise from the grave as well.
For a disruptive technology, digital photography was a long slow process. By the turn of the millennium, digital cameras were available to consumers. They were, however, slow, clunky and low resolution.
Film reigned supreme in 2000 but some 5 years later, it was a fading memory. Camera stores were closing, the number of one-hour processing labs declined steeply and virtually every manufacturer had stopped making film cameras. The writing was on the wall. Except it wasn’t.
The Film Revival
Perhaps it’s a misnomer to call it the film revival. Film never truly went away. Deep into the digital era, commercial, landscape and architectural photographers would still shoot film. Its quality was significantly higher than digital equivalents. It wasn't until the second decade of the millennium that the high-end market embraced the digital world.
It was perhaps the availability of high-end film cameras that inspired enthusiast and digital-only photographers to dabble in film. There was a saturation of second-hand professional film cameras available. Hasselblad, Mamiya, Nikon F4 could be purchased for less than the price of a budget DSLR.
The film manufacturers were slowly winding down their mass production but there was still plenty of film to be bought. Also, shooting film was a great photography teacher. So what happened to the big film revival?
Big Bang or Damp Squib?
Google “photography film revival”. You will see thousands of articles dating back a decade all exposing the upcoming return of celluloid. Heck, we have even written a few here on Light Stalking. If all these article were to be believed, photographers would be flocking back to film. The film manufacturers were re-tooling production lines and film was the new digital. These were the perfect conditions for the film revival!
The problem was the assumption that many digital photographers, those who have never used film or were not even old enough to remember film, would embrace film wholeheartedly.
The truth is that whilst many did try it, most did not want to do it full-time. Many returned to digital and some kept shooting film as a once or twice a year treat. Film based photography did not and probably will not make a return to the mainstream. So why is that?
Expectations vs Reality
If you have shot with any digital camera made in the last decade, the results were most likely outstanding. The resolution, dynamic range and clarity of digital images have far surpassed what can be achieved with 35mm film.
Photographers from an all-digital background that decide to try film are likely to be sorely disappointed. If digital photography has a steep learning curve, film photography is a sheer cliff face.
Photographic film, especially transparency film, has very little exposure latitude. Even negative film will not play well with under or overexposure. Couple that with the more limited exposure meters in older cameras and there is a good chance that you will not nail the exposure.
Of course, another factor is that you will not know you didn't nail the exposure for up to a week. Perhaps even longer.
If you were shooting color, there is only a small chance that you could process the films yourself. Unless you live in a major city, you will probably not be able to walk into a local camera store and get your negatives or transparencies processed in an hour. That wait can have a sobering effect on your enthusiasm. Even more sobering when you get the results back and realize that only 2-3 of the 36 shots are keepers.
Buying and Developing Film Yourself
If you decided to go “all in” when it comes to film photography, just buying a camera wouldn't be enough. You would have to purchase darkroom equipment, darkroom chemicals and of course photographic paper. In fact, you might even need two cameras to enable you to change ISO easily.
Sourcing the equipment for a darkroom is not tricky, there is plenty of it available on eBay. However, finding the right darkroom equipment for your own needs could be problematic. While the simple accessories like trays and drums are still made, there are very few new enlargers available, so you would have to buy secondhand. Because of this, finding spare parts such as enlarger bulbs and lenses can be challenging.
Finally, a film based darkroom takes a lot of space. You need two distinct areas, wet and dry, and of course you need a perfect blackout. Very few people have the possibility to turn an entire room into film processing space and because of this darkrooms tend to be Heath Robinson “pop up” affairs. Again, this can be a sobering proposition for anyone seriously interested in the film revival.
Assuming you have had your films developed, what do you do with them now? The obvious answer is print them! However, according to a recent survey by Ilford, many photographers prefer to digitize their analog images and share them online.
Anyone who has ever digitized a film strip using a scanner knows what a tedious and unrewarding process this can be. You can often scan up to just four shots at a time, each one taking a significant chunk of time. You have to fight dust and hairs on your film but they keep showing up once you have completed the scan despite the rigorous cleaning regime and sterile environment.
After having spent a significant amount of time learning about analog cameras, film and darkroom equipment, and then shooting pictures and scanning them, you end up with a digital image that is of lower quality than the one taken with your smart phone! There is little wonder that the film revival is being somewhat overstated.
The point of this article is not to deter people from shooting film but to expose them to the harsh realities of what going analog involves. It’s very easy to get sucked into the belief that the film revival is a major and growing movement when in reality it’s not. It’s a niche and is likely to remain a niche. However, shooting film can be incredibly rewarding if you are prepared to learn it properly and manage your expectations.
To learn more about the film revival and analog photography, check out the links below.