Over the past several years, film photography has been trending again, especially among those aged thirty and under. We take a closer look at this surge in popularity of silver grain over pixels, which has given a boost to a niche economy.
Film photography is dead, long live film photography! In an all-digital age, when smartphones with multiple lenses are as commonplace as stovetops, one would expect analog photography to be a thing of the past, gone and buried, six feet under. And yet, the irreducible is rising back to the surface, carried forward by a new generation.
“Our clients are hooked, like drug addicts!” Philippe Micaelli is a sales associate at Odeon Photo, a Parisian store specializing in photography, which has been in business since the 1930s. From behind his face shield and the Plexiglas installed in front of the cash register, he is relieved to see film photography lovers flock back to the store after lockdown. The shop is located in Boulevard Beaumarchais, a photographer’s mecca.
Generation 2.0 goes gaga over film
Just like in the other ten or so photography stores lining the boulevard, the door never stays shut. First thing to note: most customers are young. Laura, 30, wearing a face mask and clutching a Minolta in her hand, is looking for a lens cap and a strap. The young woman bought her traditional camera a few months ago via a Facebook group: 25 euros, a bargain. “With the digital camera, I was taking too many photos. With film, there is an ‘exceptional’ side to it that I like,” she says.
Film is popular, film is intriguing, film has seduced a whole generation, even though they were born under the reign of digital technologies. How do you explain this craze? “With film, you work on your composition and you only have one ‘shot’. It’s another vision of photography,” explains Julien, 21, who dug out his parents’ camera in the attic. Many others like him are returning to film and abandoning the burst mode to take the time to capture the moment. “With your digital camera, you are not training your eye. You can get the decisive moment by taking dozens of photos, without thinking, without effort. There is no reflection,” Laura adds.
To understand this trend, one need only look to social networks, starting with Instagram. This application based on the publication of photos has struck gold. Filters reproducing Kodak frames, the Super 8 format, film imperfections, etc. are increasingly popular. While the younger generations are discovering these techniques, the older generations take pleasure in revisiting them. Like this family man, who stopped by one of the Boulevard Beaumarchais stores to buy a camera for his daughter “who’s fed up taking pictures with her smartphone. I would like to give her a camera and teach her how to use it, it will take me back to my youth!,” he says with delight.
Fetishism or a true revival?
With its authentic, vintage, aesthetically pleasing bodies, analog photography possesses the same appeal as Polaroid or vinyl. It might not be too far-fetched to talk about fetishism. “Besides performance, many people are looking for a beautiful object,” affirms Philippe Micaelli of Odéon Photo. Many of his clients collect old models, simply for the sake of the aesthetics, without using them. Admittedly, a collection of Hasselblads and Rolleiflexes on the mantlepiece is eye-catching. The idea of an “indestructible” instrument is also a selling point. “I have customers who travel around the world, by bike or on foot. They want a product that can withstand extreme conditions and that can be easily repaired on the go,” adds the salesman.
Among professionals, too, film photography is making a comeback. There are the undying enthusiasts who have never abandoned it, and there those who are going back to it. Baptiste Plichon is a wedding photographer who uses film. Based in Lille, he is also a photography instructor: “Digital technology has standardized the format of wedding photos, whereas in film we can use several processes such as instant photography, medium format like 6x7, or a view camera... Then there is the vintage aspect which is very appealing.”
Using the handle “EMGK Photographie,” he posts popular YouTube videos and has launched a channel that showcases a different film every two months: “In a dematerialized world where people take pictures with their smartphones, stream movies and listen to music on digital platforms, film photography lends precious tangibility to the image.” Between professionals and galleries, that have never given up on film despite the advent of the digital, and amateurs aged 20 to 30, who want to learn how to develop their own images, a truly active community has come together around film photography.
A two-tier market
It might well be a craze, but the sector remains a niche market governed by a very particular economy. “We are dealing with a two-tier market,” explains Baptiste Plichon. On the film end, production has partly survived the digital revolution, in particular thanks to the cinema industry. “In the early 2020, Kodak raised its prices between 5% and 40% on several flagship products, precisely because they are in the process of restructuring factories that went bankrupt about ten years ago. But the market is growing: in 2019, Kodak Alaris sales grew over 200%,” says the photographer.
What about the production of camera bodies and lenses? If films are still produced by emblematic brands such as Ilford or Kodak, companies historically associated with cameras have long since abandoned analog products for digital. “With a stock that is constantly decreasing and a demand that is on the rise, prices are inevitably going up. Even if sixty-year-old industrial production is carried on by several companies, the question of supply some twenty form now years looms large. Firms such as Canon and Nikon would have the means to produce film cameras, but this is not very attractive from a commercial standpoint,” says Baptiste Plichon.
Hopes lies in the underdogs of photography. Some micro-enterprises are trying to produce cameras using 3D printers, such as the “Cameradactyl” project supported by Kickstarter. But no such concept has made a breakthrough. Only Lomography and instant cameras have managed to produce something new. “The problem with creating a new product is that it will inevitably be in direct competition with an extremely prolific second-hand market. A completely overhauled 35mm SLR will cost you on average between 100 and 300 euros. Coming up with an affordable new product is very complicated,” notes Baptiste Plichon.
“The price of a camera can jump 500 euros in a couple days”
As any camera dealer will tell you, the market is volatile. If, like Laura, it is still possible to find a 25-euro deal, the passion for film comes at a cost. You will spend anywhere between 20 and 300 euros on a camera, 3 to 15 euros on a roll of film, and some 20 euros on developing and prints. And prices can rise without warning. “The market follows no precise rules; it has nothing in common with the market for new equipment,” explains Baptiste Plichon. Over the past five years, the cost of a camera has increased on average by 100 euros. In Boulevard Beaumarchais, the Canon AE-1 was selling at around 100 euros in 2015, now it costs 300.
So why are some cameras more popular than others? It’s not just performance. You have to look to influencers, fashion models, and movie stars. “The price of some models is soaring because a celebrity flashed it on the red carpet in Cannes or an influencer has posed with it on Instagram... The price of a camera can jump 500 euros in a couple days in eBay auction,” says the photographer and YouTuber. Celebrities and cameras make a good match: actress Diana Silvers, singer Frank Ocean, Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, and fashion model Gigi Hadid, to name a few, post their photos on social networks. With millions of subscribers, these accounts are real price boosters.
Baptiste Plichon recommends, anyway, that we pay no heed to social network sirens. “The Canon AE-1, for example, is not the best model to start with. There are equivalent or even better cameras, in terms of functionality, available at a much lower price. AE-1 is a model that sold very well when it first came out, so a lot of people will have it in their attic and talk about it on the web. The law of the Internet hikes up prices without any technical reasons,” he warns. One is better off rummaging through one’s parents’ or grandparents’ closets. “Whether you have an Olympus Om10, a Canon AE-1, or a Minolta X-500, what counts is the lenses you use. In the end, the camera is just a black box with buttons to control the light that hits the film.”
At any rate, the film craze has hybridized photographic practices. People willingly combine it with digital technologies. “Today you can buy a prewar 40x50 view camera and work in collodion. You can digitize your gelatin-silver photos using a scanner, and move back and forth between analog and digital. This opens up a host of possibilities,” raves Baptiste Plichon. So, pixels can take it or leave it: film still has a bright future!
By Michaël Naulin