Photography / Features

The Great Film Renaissance Of 2017

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In the wake of the great paradigm shift from analog to digital imaging, most experts proclaimed that film was doomed, that it would decline steadily to the point that silver-halide film would no longer be commercially viable. Countless film shooters switched to digital, often selling their high-end film cameras for pennies on the dollar, and by 2007 you could pick up a Hasselblad 500C/M complete with 80mm Planar lens and 120 film back for less than 450 bucks. As film sales plummeted, many films were discontinued, and the future looked bleak.

Well, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of film have been greatly exaggerated. According to reliable estimates, sales figures for black-and-white film have been increasing by roughly 5% per year over the last few years, and film photography is experiencing a genuine renaissance. Sales (and prices) of new and used analog cameras, as well as processing, scanning, and printing services, have all been on the upswing over the last two years. And while film will never again be the dominant medium, analog photography is likely to continue as a robust niche for the foreseeable future. Good signs for film’s future: About a third of new film shooters are younger than 35, and roughly 60% of film users say they started shooting film in the last five years.

Film portrait; Ilford HP5 Plus; Mamiya C220; 80mm f/2.8; wide open at 1/50 second

Shooting film is attractive for many reasons: it provides a direct connection to the great images of the past; it requires more hands-on involvement and forethought than digital photography; it produces a physical end product (a negative, a print, a transparency) rather than an image file stored on a hard drive or a memory card; and above all, film images have character, that distinctive look and feel that can be simulated, but never quite duplicated, using digital film-emulation apps.

Film portrait; Ilford HP5 Plus; Rolleiflex Automat MX; f/3.5 at 1/50 second

Perhaps the main reason images shot on film have a distinctive look is that they have actual grain—essentially luminance noise due to slight variations in brightness between adjacent silver-halide crystals or clumps. Many photographers find grain more attractive and natural than digital noise, which typically appears as speckles of color or other artifacts due mostly to variations in chroma. Black-and-white films, in particular, can convey the feeling of reality with unmatched authenticity, and can capture portraits and street scenes that have that elusive quality of gravitas—“images made for the ages.” While some color films, notably Kodachrome, have probably disappeared for good, there’s still an impressive array of superb color negative and color transparency films available, each capable of capturing brilliant colors and superb detail with a unique look and color palette.

New Films: Manufacturers Commit to Analog

The return of Ektachrome, a classic E-6-process film stock for cinematography and one of the most popular 35mm slide films ever, is great news for film fans because it’s a clear sign that there’s sufficient demand to justify the huge capital investment required. Kodak’s announcement stated that over the next several months it will be working to “reformulate and manufacture Kodak Ektachrome film for both motion picture and still photography applications,” with initial availability in late 2017. Ektachrome, which had been phased out in 2012, has a distinctive look and is acclaimed for its extremely fine grain, clean colors, pleasing tonality and good contrast. “We are seeing a broad resurgence of excitement about capturing images on film,” said Steven Overman, Kodak’s chief marketing officer and president of the Consumer and Film Division. “Kodak is committed to continuing to manufacture film as an irreplaceable medium for image creators to capture their artistic vision.”

New Ektachrome logo

The Italian Connection in Black-and-White

Ferrania, the venerable Italian film manufacturer established in 1923, and recently revived after closing its doors in 2009, is resurrecting its well-regarded P30 medium speed black-and-white film. The new P30 is currently sold in a “limited edition” through its Ferrania online store. According to the company, the ISO 80 film boasts high silver content and ultra-fine grain structure. The revived company inherited “tons of equipment” from the old company, and has 90 years’ worth of know-how that should serve it well in the future.

Ferrania P30 Alpha 35mm 36 exposure

Ilford: The Emperor of Black-and-White

Ilford, the iconic English film manufacturer, recently enlarged its distribution and processing facilities in the U.S., and launched Localdarkroom.com, a website that helps photographers find a darkroom in which they can work. Ilford’s portfolio of nine different black and-white films ranges from ultra-fine-grain ISO 50 Pan F in 35mm and 120 rolls to ultra-high-speed Delta 3200, also in 35mm and 120 sizes. The extensive line includes XP2 Super, a sharp, fast, fine grain, ISO 400, C-41 process black-and-white film offered in 35mm and 120 rolls, and SFX, a standard process ISO 200 film with extended red sensitivity to 740nm. Offered in 35mm and 120 roll film sizes, SFX gives an infrared appearance for creative effects when used with a red filter.

Ilford SFX 35mm

Ilford also supplies HP5 Plus, Delta 100, FP4, and Ortho Copy Plus in popular sheet film sizes ranging from 4 x 5" through 12 x 20", depending on the film stock.

Lomography LomoChrome Purple XR 100-400 Color Negative Film

Lomography, the disruptive film photography movement dedicated to using unpretentious box cameras like the Diana, and low-tech Russian 35s, has given us a film in keeping with its offbeat brand image. Rendering colors reminiscent of infrared film, Lomochrome Purple XR 100-400 is a unique negative film designed to produce false colors with an overall purple hue. This nominally ISO 400-speed film responds well to overexposure by up to 2 stops to control the amount of color shifting within the scene. Beyond the surreal color effects, it is also claimed to deliver high saturation, fine grain, and impressive sharpness. It may be a little weird, but Lomochrome Purple XR is processed in standard C-41 chemistry.

Lomography LomoChrome Purple XR 100-400

Other Choices for Film Fanatics

Cruising the comprehensive film listings on the B&H website turned up a surprising number of alternatives beyond the “Big Three”—Kodak, Fujifilm, and Ilford. Agfa still offers AgfaPhoto Vista Plus color negative film in ISO 400 and ISO 200 versions, and AgfaPhoto APX 100 Professional black-and-white (ISO 100), all in 35mm, 36-exposure rolls. Arista EDU Ultra 100 and 200 is also available in a choice of sheet sizes including 2.25 x 3.25", 4 x 5", 5 x 7", and 8 x 10".

Arista EDU Ultra black-and-white panchromatic is available in ISO 100, 200 and 400 speeds in 120 rolls and 35mm 24- and 36-exposure rolls. Adox offers an intriguing range of color negative and black-and-white films, including Adox Color Implosion ISO 100 “experimental color negative film with a large grain structure” in 35mm, Adox CMS 20 II ultra-fine grain ISO 20 film in 120 and 35mm rolls, and Adox CHS 100 II ISO 100, an orthochromatic color film with a “classic grain structure” in 35mm, 36-exposure rolls.

Also check out Foma’s Fomapan, and Bergger Panchro 400 in 4 x 5 sheets. For the growing ranks of instant picture film fans there’s Impossible Color Film for Type 600 Polaroid and Spectra cameras (easy to find used) an of course Fujifilm Instax films for their very successful line of Instax instant picture cameras.

Film-portrait; Ilford HP5 Plus pushed 1 stop; Mamiya C220; 80mm f/2.8; wide open 1/25 second

Prepaid Film Processing Mailers: You Send It in, They Do the Rest!

Film mailers are a convenient cost-effective solution for film shooters that have been around since the early days of Kodachrome, in the late 1930s, and now they’re regaining their popularity. Here are some examples of what’s available.

Ilford prepaid 35mm and 120 Film Developing Mailers are a convenient way to get a roll of film developed and scanned. You simply purchase this pre-paid mailer at B&H, send one roll of black-and-white 35mm or 120 film to Ilford, and they do the rest. They process the film in Ilford chemicals and scan the images to a CD in low res. Pay extra and you can upgrade to medium and large scans, and order silver gelatin prints. Return postage is included. Ilford can also develop black-and-white 35mm and 120 film made by any manufacturer, each processed with “a unique development time to obtain optimum contrast and density.”

Fujifilm offers mailers for E-6 for processing one roll of 120 or 35mm color transparency film at B&H, and A&I Processing of Hollywood, California supplies a wide range of prepaid processing mailers for C-41 color negative films with proof prints and CDs. Kodak doesn’t currently offer any prepaid processing mailers, but that may change when the company re-introduces Ektachrome later this year.

Film Facts from Behind the Counter

Bill Moretz, owner of Pro Camera, in Charlottesville, Virginia, says that film processing and scanning services in his medium-sized photo specialty store are up by roughly 25% over last year—mighty impressive. Bill, a camera repairman extraordinaire who specializes in fixing and restoring old film cameras, says his analog camera repair business is also booming, “These folks are using these cameras to make pictures, and they’re buying lots of film.” Roger Christian, president of University Camera, in Iowa City, Iowa, expressed similar sentiments. “We’ve offered on-site film developing, printing, and scanning services forever, and it provided a steady revenue stream. But processing and the sale of film and darkroom supplies is definitely picking up. Many of my young University of Iowa customers are passionate about shooting film.”

Film Cameras Are Up-Market!

Nikon F6, last of the pro caliber 35mm SLR breed

Finally, if you want to prove that the popularity of used film cameras is now at an all-time post-digital-revolution high, just look at current prices for some classic high-end film cameras: Rolleiflex twin-lens reflexes are now fetching $300 and up for functional examples from the ’50s and selling in the $1,000-$2,500 range for pristine 3.5Fs and 2.8Fs. At the B&H Used Department, a clean Hasselblad 500C/M in black with 80mm f/2.8 Planar lens and 120 film back, and a Nikon F6, the company’s last great 35mm SLR, recently listed for $1,399.95 each—a darn good deal. If you’re thinking of acquiring a used, high-performance film camera on a more limited budget, don’t be deterred—there are still plenty of great buys out there. 

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If you want to be creative, nothing beats a roll or two of Black & White film developed in the kitchen sink. 

If they brought back Kodachrome, THAT would be something to celebrate. Ektachrome, though? BFD. Or my old favorite, Scotch 1000. Never been able to reproduce that grain.

Gotta say I don't miss cibachromes too much. Modern prints are better, despite whatever issues of durability. There's no comparison present to past if you're talking about compositing, which I know is now considered treason among purists.

Honestly, the bigger issue in photography is not film or digital, it's how to stand out among an entire planet who now have in their hyper convenient phones quality approaching that of a good scanned slide of the past (of course, no telephoto capability to speak of). Even that's not the issue. The real issue is the value of still photography is zero. Huffington Post wants submissions for free. So does every other news outlet.

If you're young, learn how to paint and sculpt well. You can learn photography on the side. Photography is to art what DJing is to music. It can have great moments, but unique ones are harder to come by, and even when you have great images, the most profitable thing you can do with them is build a big instagram following and sell some prints here and there. That's it besides an in-company gig shooting for a defense corporation, or sports network (hope you like the subject matter). I see selfies on Instagram that are perfectly saleable images, and why not? People don't need to hire photographers to get great pictures of themselves. Sure, they'll hire one at a wedding, along with a videographer and drone, but otherwise, no family needs to hire a portrait photographer.

I guess it's not profitable for a photo retailer to speak reality to a new generation that wants to buy the photo gear and imagine a career, but all I gotta say is good luck, kids.

I have never understood why there is all this argument between digital vs film.  The whole idea is to get the images that are best in your eyes and suits the purpose you have for it.  I use both digital and film.  Both processes have strenghts and weeknesses.  I don't care to give up either.  I do not think either is going to replace the other at this point.  Although for a while it looked like film might go away.  Thankfully that did not happen.  I tried for several years to go all digital.  What stopped me was that I never got rid of several of my favorite film cameras.  I would run a roll to two through one of them and when I got back the results there were always a few "magic" ones in the scans, prints, or slides.  Over the last 5-6 years I have used both film 35mm and moderate priced Nikon DSLRs, plus high end smartphones, and a Sony compact or two.  At the end of the year when I am gathering my best landscape images most of my favorites are film.  But my action, kid, pets, sports shots tend to be mostly digital.  

There is something to be said for how easy it is to care for collections of photos in a physical format.  Either printed phtoos kept in books, slides that you project, of books that are made from digital files and then printed.  I like all three of these methods.  I get prints made when I develope my film rolls and put them in books.  Plus I have made a few georgous books using the digital process.  You then just store them on a booksheft.  No hard drives, on line, or computer storage needed.  I have thousands of photos stored on all three of these places, but I wonder how archival any of this is.  Or, will anyone care about these digital files when I am gone.  On the other hand I have many many prints from my family from 100 years ago.  For that matter I have about 100 78 records from my grandfather from almost 100 years ago.  

Long live choices.  Use what works the best and makes you happy.  

Bob 

All valid points. Though I own a Sony A7RII, my best published fine art work has always been and still is with film, though I haven't messed with small format film cameras like the mentioned F6 in about 30 years, I do occasionally get the urge to break out my old F2.

Strobel

I have started shooting film again.  B&W film is timeless and all these programs for converting digital images from color to B&W just don't cut it.

This is all very good news. I went from 35mm film, to digital and 6 years ago picked up a Toyo 45AII when another photographer went all digital. I still shoot digital for some things, but I really like the whole process of shooting film, and especially with a large format camera. That involvement you mention is what keeps me coming back. Digital feels so much more steril and disconnected.

Now if Fujifilm will follow suit and reintroduce my beloved Astia 100F everything would again be right with the world.

 I have never stop shooting black and white film,35mm all 120. I own SLR,6x7,4x5  and a Polaroid cameras. Photographers  are finding out  something that I knew years ago that in the long run it's much cheaper to shoot film and that also includes developing and printing your own .I believe there's only one or two  place places in St. Louis Missouri  where 

you can take and have  black-and-white film develop are you can do like some of us do ,go back to junior college   take a course photography,They have all the chemicals  and equipment that you would ever need if you do not have your own.

This is really great news for photographers.  I just hope the processing chemicals and papers, etc. are at least close to as affordable as they were (considering inflation of course) when we were all shooting film.  My darkroom has been in mothballs and I would love to get it fired up again and get back into the "soup!"

The other great advantage of film, not often recognised in the commenst, is its archiving ability. One hundred years on and film can still be scanned. Try that with all the digital storage systems that have come and gone in short order. I like both film and digital and they can be used together to understand the likely result and provide lots of flexibility.

No discussion of Kodak Tri-X???  Still available at B&H and widely used.  Thanks for the article.

I kick myself now because a few years ago I had a Golden opportunity to pick up Mamiya gear for a song and I passed it up!!!

All hype. How long did it take for most of us to master processing and printing B&W? How many of us ever got into printing color negs, much less Cibachrome? How much did we spend on Jobo processors, color heads, enlarging lenses, easels, temp control units etc. Ever had to align an Omega enlarger? How big could you enlarge 35mm film -- pixel peeping scanned Tri-X -- what a grainy mess. Scanning film... how long before only an Imacon will do? What does your local EPA have to say about dumping color chemistry down the drain ... and  the water bills -- or risk inadequate fixer removal? As for longevity, take a look at your (great) grandparents negs -- scratched, moldy, stained from poor processing. That TIF file from 1994 that you copied from a 512K CF card to a floppy and then to a CD-R and then to an SSD hasn't picked up one spec of dust, gotten bent or lost it's magenta layer. Sure, digital storage can fail -- but so can film -- ask anyone who put their faith in Ektachrome. The only film cameras that haven't been made obsolete are 4x5 and larger due to the cost of 100MP digital backs and the limitations of T/S lenses. If photographers can't get stunning results from 24MP+ digital cameras, film won't help. There's a reason why 'everyone's  a photographer' these days --- film is hard... digital is easy.

Yes, film is hard. But that's what separates the real photographers from the multiude of pretenders who fill up memory cards with forgettable images. There is more than ample room for both analoge and digital approaches and let's not forget that the chemistry used in film processing could not begin to compare with the toxic e-waste junk now filling the landfills.

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