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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.