Who still makes “amateur color film” today?

With smart phones and wireless Internet connections being cheap and ubiquitous, billions of human beings have access to an always available camera of very decent quality and can easily share the pictures they shoot via messaging, photo sharing or social networking apps.

I don’t think there is any geography where film photography is still broadly considered an easier to use and cheaper alternative to digital (smartphone and digicam) photography.

Some people may still want their 4×6 prints, they may refuse to deal with smartphone apps or with memory cards at the self service kiosk of a pharmacist, and stick to film for those reasons. But there is no doubt that they form a small minority.

The rest of the film photographers are not necessarily enamored with 4×6 prints and don’t refuse to use PCs. They scan film or have it scanned, and insert the resulting files in a digital workflow. For them, there are roughly three options: premium film, boutique film, and expired stock.

  • premium film is designed to offer the best performance (finest grain, highest dynamic range, most realistic colors, most constant quality), but at twice or three times the price of standard amateur film,
  • boutique film is produced by small outfits, and prioritize special effects (color rendition and image resolution of the sixties, strong color hues, scratches, ….). Prices are all over the map, with some films in the low-cost category, and others being 4 to 5 times more expensive than the standard amateur film.
  • The ultimate bargain chasers are looking for expired film, and enjoy the consequences (unpredictable rendering, bizarre color hues).

Where does it leave the typical “amateur” color negative film like Kodak’s Gold and Fujifilm’s Superia, that casual photographers used to trust for their annual family reunions or for the trip of a lifetime ?

Almost nowhere.

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Venezia – Nikon FE2 –

Firms like Fujifilm, judging by the type of film they dedicate to this usage, perceive people still sticking to a conventional film processing chain and to 4×6 prints as more price than quality sensitive, and reformulated their Fujicolor 200 ISO stock to make it cheaper to manufacture (it’s now sold as the Fujifilm C200).

Brick and mortar stores only seem to carry old inventory about to expire, the low-cost Fujicolor C200 mentioned above, and sometimes Fujifilm’s Superia X-TRA 400. Online retailers like Amazon or Adorama still carry Kodak Gold and Ultramax, but they also tend to put forward cheaper products from the same manufacturer.

How does it translate in the offer of film?

My observations are based on the US market, and on what the three major photo retailers (Amazon, B&H and Adorama) are offering. The situation may be different in other countries – (Kodak is probably better represented in the US than in the rest of the world, but Fujifilm’s catalog is wider in Japan), and here and there there are small specialized distributors also selling products from smaller brands.

  • Kodak

The part of the old Kodak Company which is still in the film business is named Kodak Alaris (Alaris belongs to the pension fund of the British employees of the Yellow Giant, but the products I’ve purchased over here are still manufactured in the USA, and sold under the Kodak name).

Looking at their Web site, it’s obvious that Kodak Alaris wants to sell “professional” (understand “premium”) film (Ektar, Porta, TMax and Tri-X). Amateur color print films (Gold 200, Ultramax 400) are impossible to find in the menu hierarchy of the site, or with the built-in search tool. Google Search still returns the spec sheets of all films currently in the catalog of Kodak Alaris (the list includes includes Gold and Ultramax), and the three major photo retailers of  the US still sell the whole range of Kodak Alaris products.

Amazon and Adorama are also selling Kodak ColorPlus 200 – but there is no spec sheet on Kodak Alaris site,  and it does not seem to be widely available in the US. It’s a budget film – supposedly relying on a simpler/older formula than the Gold 200, and it falls in the same low-cost category as the Fujicolor C200 – you use it if you look for the absolute lowest price (for a Kodak branded product, that is) , or if  you want a rendering similar to the one you could get in the eighties/nineties.

Kodak also has a large range of B&W film (Tmax in 100, 400 and 3200 ISO declinations) as well as the old Tri X. They have announced they will soon manufacture slide film (Ektachrome) again.

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Santa Fe (NM) – Car show on the Plaza. Nikon FM – Kodak Ektar 100.
  • Fujifilm

In the US, Fujifilm have significantly reduced their product range (they have retired most of their Superia color print films last year) – leaving us with only the “low cost” C200 sold at Wal-Mart or CVS (available in 24 exposure cartridges only, manufactured following a simplified formula and replacing the more elaborate and now retired Superia 200), and a single Superia reference, the X-TRA 400 ISO (in packs of three 36 Exposure cartridges only). With Kodak having left the amateur market and deserted the brick and mortar stores, Fujifilm is the only major vendor of general purpose “amateur” color negative film.

Fujifilm only offers a single “professional color negative” film, the Pro H 400, aimed at Portrait photographers, and a single Black and White reference, the Neopan Acros. But they still  offer three slide films (Velvia 50, Velvia 100 and Provia 100).

Obviously Fujifilm is more interested in pushing their highly profitable Instax film packs, which are declined in multiple sizes (mini, square, wide), and available in black and white as well as color stock.

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Jules – French Bouledogue – Nikon F3 – Nikkor 135mm f/2.8 AI lens – Fujicolor 400
  • Harman / Ilford

It’s been a very long time since Black and White film was last considered the default choice for the casual “amateur” photographer. And Ilford (now part of the Harman Technology group) does not manufacture or sell color film. But Ilford is worth a mention here:  they have the largest catalog of  Black and White film (classics like the Pan F, the FP4 or the HP5, fine grain products of the Delta series, and products now unique such as the XP2 (a Chromogenic B&W film that can be processed in the same chain as color print film).

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Peniscola (Spain) – Canon T90 – Ilford film.
  • The rest:

Cinestill, Lomography, Revolo, Rollei, fall into the Boutique category. I don’t know much about Boutique film – and now that some of my old favorites are gone (Fuji Reala, Kodak CN400), I tend to stick to Kodak’s Ektar 100, that I use alongside Fujifilm’s Superia 400 and Ilford’s FP4 Plus B&W film.

The costs

I have to admit that I don’t really get this “low cost at all cost” thing: in the US, a 35mm (24  exposures) cartridge sells for anything between $2.75 and $3.50 – with premium film being generally sold in rolls of 36 exposures at prices between $6.75 and $9.90. Worst case, the cost difference between low-cost and premium amounts to $0.20 per exposure.

Processing a single 35mm cartridge will cost approx $8.00 to $10.00, and scanning another $5.00 to $10.00 (postage included). Some processors may advertise cheaper prices, but only scan in low-resolution, or don’t return the negatives (they destroy them), or charge a significant extra fee for the postage or for a higher resolution.  All in all, consider that $17.00/cartridge is the best price an occasional/low volume user can get for a decent service (it’s a scale game, and prices get lower when the volume goes up).

And if you spend that much on processing, why not buy the best film you can get?


Where?

Brick and mortar stores (big box and pharmacists):  not much to chose from, only Fujifilm’s products.

On line: besides the big Three (Adorama, Amazon, Bhphotovideo), there are a few sites specialized in ‘Boutique” film:  Freestyle Photo ; Lomography


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Atlanta – Piedmont Park – Nikon FM – Kodak Ektar 100

 

You press the button, we do the rest

Of the importance of convenience in photography, and how it will drive conventional digital cameras to irrelevance for casual photographers.

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Before they lost everything, Kodak had built an empire on convenience. They had made a process which was seen as extremely complex and cumbersome – taking photographs – into something as simple as pressing a button.

Apple, Google, Facebook, Instagram and a few others have made an activity which was discouragingly complex for billions of people – taking pictures, uploading them to a computer, editing them and sharing them with family, friends or perfect strangers over the Internet – so simple that a 6 year old can do it.  For the casual photographer, there is no better camera than a smartphone.

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Paris-Plage – iPhone 5s – August 2016

How is the obsession with simplicity and convenience going to impact photography as we know it? 

It may take a few years, but digital photography as we know it is going to leave the mass market and become a niche:

  • Smartphones and their cloud ecosystem will only get better at meeting the needs of casual photographers. They will not only take better pictures, but will also offer more functions and even more convenience than today, in a way that will be impossible to match with conventional digital cameras. Imagine the possibilities of combining Presence, Search, Face Recognition, Augmented Reality and Video to make pictures more beautiful, more flattering for the subject, more relevant, easier to share and easier to retrieve for the average user.
  • Conventional digital photography, with its big and heavy cameras and its cumbersome workflow requiring PCs or Macs and Terabytes of storage will not be able to compete on convenience with smartphones. It will leave the mainstream, and will increasingly be the field of people passionate about creating the absolute best pictures. Those photographers will form a small niche – with its forums, its Web galleries, its exhibits, its sub-culture. The situation of digital photographers  will be comparable to what photographers shooting with film experience today. They will form a new minority of enthusiasts.
  • I don’t expect photographers working with digital cameras to abandon their 50 Megapixel sensors and the Terabytes of disk space where they store their RAW or DNG files to go back to film.
  • But you can wonder what newcomers to photography will do. If they have an interest in photography as a craft or as a form of artistic activity, and want to go beyond the pictures that the smartphones of Apple and Google will have prepared for them, will they invest in digital cameras and in the digital workflow, or will they go to film? I don’t know. But I’d like to bet on film.

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Bagpipe Player – London – Jan. 2012 – Nikon F3.

Pictures of Venice on Kodak film processed by Ritz-Camera – Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” revisited?

The last time I used a Kodak film - so far
One of the many canals of Venice. Nikon FE2 – Kodak CN 400 film

I was in Venice during last year’s holiday season – a family reunion of sorts. I did not suspect that it would be the last time that I would have Kodak film processed by Wolf Camera (a local brand of the Ritz Camera empire). Admire the irony. Is there a better subject than Venice to illustrate the decline and fall of the glorious.

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Venice – Nikon FE2 – Fujicolor 400 – Dec. 2011

The weather in Venice was absolutely splendid, except for a few days of rain and fog at the end of our stay. There was so much to shoot that I felt I had no time to lose fiddling with manual (film) cameras, and I shot primarily with digital cameras and with my smartphone. After one week of robotized photography, though, I felt like using a “real” camera again, and loaded my beloved Nikon FE2 with Fuji color film and with Kodak’s chromogenic B&W film, the CN400.

After heading back home, I was immediately absorbed by the daily routine, and forgot about the rolls of film from Venice. A few week-ends ago, I finally cleaned my desk and found the unprocessed film cartridges. The following day, I stopped at a rather large Wolf Camera store which still processed film, and generally did a decent job at scanning the negatives. The day after, I heard on the radio that their parent company, Ritz, was being liquidated. I was a bit concerned for my film.

In the evening I stopped at the store (which had yellow liquidation posters all over its windows). The guys said they had not processed my film yet (by the sad look of it, it was obvious that their film processing machine had some sort of problem) and they promised they would call me when the job was done. Three days later, they had not called. I stopped by again and I was decided to ask them to give me my film cartridges back. To my surprise, the processing machine had been fixed, and my CD was ready.

I was glad to get it, but I was sad for the staff of the store. Those guys were more competent and more helpful than the average of their colleagues working in smaller Wolf stores, and I don’t know what they’re going to do now.

I live in a rather big metro area – 4 million people call it home – but with Wolf going out of business in a matter of days, we’ll be down to one single walk-in, full service camera store for the whole area.

As for Kodak, they announced a few weeks ago that they were planning on selling their consumer film business. It’s likely the buyer will have the right to use the Kodak name – at least for a few transitional years, so there will still be Kodak film on store shelves for a while, even if it will only be very remotely connected to the Yellow Grandfather.

I love Venice. It’s beautiful and weird, a world in itself. The city used to rule the Eastern Mediterranean world but today it has lost all of its influence and most of its inhabitants. It is primarily a tourist destination. But it still lives and keeps on inspiring writers, musicians and all other sorts of artists.

May film photography follow the same tracks.


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Venice – Gondoliers in the sunset. Nikon FE2. Fujicolor 400 film


And now for something completely different. My father in law gave me his old Canon A1 (pristine) as well as battered Canon FT, with an incredible 55mm f:1.2 lens. As strange as it may sound I had never owned – or even used – a Canon SLR before. I’m planning on testing them in the weeks to come. Stay tuned.