Film as a mass market phenomenon is dead. And will never come back.
Sales of film have stabilized to a level representing between 1 and 2% of the volumes reached at this peak, in the first years of the 21st century.
- sales of color print film are very low (maybe 0.5% of what they were in Y2000)
- color print film was a product used primarily by consumers on the mass market
- those consumers have defected to digital cameras or smartphones and social networking apps
- mini labs/drugstore labs are all closing. The only option for color film users who don’t dare process and scan film themselves are a few mail to order labs but the whole process is slow and it’s getting increasingly expensive.
- the low sales have generated double death spiral – low volumes translate into higher prices and into a reduced product choice for the customers, which further reduces the sales volumes.
- Fujifilm have said publicly that they believed that at some point the infrastructure supporting film (manufacturing plants, labs) would disappear – their estimate is that it will happen in the next 20 to 25 years.
- B&W film sales are holding much better
- It was not a mass market before the digital revolution – it was and still is targeting enthusiast photographers with some form of artistic ambition.
- Minilabs/drugstores generally refused to touch true Black and White film (films like the Kodak Tri-X or the Ilford HP-5), and their disappearance has no impact on the fanatics of B&W film.
- Compared to color film, B&W film is relatively low tech – easier to produce by small outfits, and far less intimidating to process.
Interestingly, B&W film is still attracting younger users, who had never tried film before: 30% of film shooters are younger than 35, according to a survey from Ilford, and 60% of those younger users have started shooting film less than 10 years ago, when a relative or a friend gave them an old film camera. What is more, 49% of the respondents to Ilford’s survey develop and print their images in a darkroom. (source: http://www.ilfordphoto.com)
- Instant film is experiencing a rebirth. There are many motivations to shoot with instant film cameras – (a good summary by The Wirecutter) but you can add a few to the list: convenience (you can get your color prints without the hassle of sending a 35mm film roll at the other end of the country), and authenticity (the picture will remain as it was when it was ejected from the camera, no crop, no HDR, no filter, no artificial bokeh – the unadulterated reality).
A new life for old gear
Nowadays, almost nobody manufactures film cameras anymore.
Leica probably still makes a few hundreds of film cameras every year, Nikon still has an inventory of new F6 cameras available (and they say they can restart the production lines if needed), and Lomo will be happy to sell you their plastic toy-cameras at a good price – for them. But in the grand scheme of things, the quantities must be negligible because the industry official body stopped counting in 2008.
The film camera market is a used equipment market, where enthusiast photographers rule. The prices on the second hand market are determined by a combination of 3 factors:
- Usability by enthusiast photographers
- Repairability and expected life span
Scarcity: mass market SLR bodies from the film era were produced by the millions. For each model, there are still tens of thousands in good shape, many more than potential takers,
Usability: Enthusiast photographers tend to prefer cameras that will give them plenty of control – semi-automatic exposure and manual focus cameras rule (if they wanted auto-exposure/autofocus cameras, they would also want the convenience of digital). And semi-auto/manual focus cameras that belong technically to families of products that have successfully transitioned into the digital era have a big advantage: the ability to share lenses, flash cobras and other accessories between film and digital bodies. It makes the bag of the photographer lighter, it reduces the overall spend, and it’s the main reason I bought Nikon film cameras after I had bought into the Nikon digital line of products.
Repairability, expected life span and build integrity: cameras made of aluminum and brass, easy to repair and built to withstand the use by professional photographers will fare better than cameras equipped with fragile electronics mother boards and flimsy plastic components.
Basically, an Olympus OM-10 (mass market, orphan system, automatic with plastics construction and electronics of suspect reliability) will be worth $25.00 at best. At the other end of the scale, a Leica M6 or a few Nikon professional models (F3, FM2, FM-3A, F6) will still command prices in the hundreds if not thousands of $.