‘Consistent Quality Photographic Film Will Be Impossible to Make’

The Economist has published an article on photographic film’s “transition from the mass market to the artisanal,” writing that the future is bleak for film as we know it:

Consumers and professionals ditched film first. Then health-care services, which used it for X-rays, shifted to digital scans. The final blow came with the film industry’s switch to digital projection. IHS iSuppli […] estimates filmmakers consumed 2.5m miles […] of film each year for the distribution of prints at its height. That was just a few years ago. By 2012 this plunged by two-thirds. In 2015 it will be next to nothing.

The problem facing the industry isn’t the complete lack of demand among photographers — there will always be people passionate about analog photography — but rather economies of scale:

[Robert] Burley says that after years of talking with the workers, chemists and engineers that ran the plants he foresees a tipping point beyond which consistent quality photographic film will be impossible to make because of the scale necessary to maintain operations. […] Mr Burley showers praise on the Impossible Project. Yet it could only succeed because its product need not be consistent. Compared to standard photographic film, each instant print is messier and unpredictable. It is the exception that proves the rule, he says.

It takes massive operations to produce the consistently high-quality (and cheap) films that professional photographers expect. If you lose scale, quality and consistency go down and price goes up — exactly what we saw when instant film manufacturing passed from Polaroid to The Impossible Project.

Rage, rage against the dying of the dark [The Economist]

Image credit: Impossible Project Polaroid Film I’ve Used by Phillip Pessar

  • fahrertuer

    I think we’ll see a large return of collodion photography in a few years, once demand for film turns so low that processing is too hard to find

  • Samcornwell

    What terrifies me is the basic lack of understanding between the dichotomy of film & digital photography. Essentially I have found that there are two major differences. I’ll use a quote by a well known director to illustrate the first:

    “There’s too much digital information out there not to figure out a fool proof
    way to store it [digital] forever” – George Lucas, 2012.

    The second is a little more abstract and is a theory I like to refer to as ‘Digital Photography is Like Processed Chicken’. Here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote on it a few weeks ago:

    “It comes down to the different ways the two mediums capture light. Celluloid film contains silver halide crystals that has a physical reaction when exposed to light. A digital sensor operates differently. When photons of light are exposed to the sensor, they are converted to electronic charges which are then converted to data to represent the image. Fundamentally the light that was captured on a film camera is caught in the celluloid film, trapped in a time capsule, whereas the light bounced off a digital sensor merely creates a file that represents what the light was doing at the time. When you buy chicken at the supermarket, do you go for the processed, separated, reformed chicken or would you prefer the real thing?”

    What does this have to do with PetaPixel’s story? Well, as Fred Ritchin put it “Digital photography is as far removed from traditional photography as the horse and cart is from the automobile” suggesting that the artform is entirely different and one should not replace the other without due consideration. What will be lost when film photography no longer exists(?), is a question that few have stopped to think about.

    Sorry for the long post.

  • Ken Elliott

    I agree.

  • BelieveInFilm Gordon

    Not that horrible article again. The people at Kodak may be so incompetent that they cannot promote their own film products even when they are trying to sell the division that markets those products but other companies can and do make small runs of film. I hate that I’m commenting on this and increasing your pageviews.

  • Duke Shin

    Save us, Ilford!

  • exkeks

    Ontologically, I don’t understand how the result of a chemical reaction is more “a real thing” than that of a physical measurement.

  • Eziz

    On another note, it’s environmentally friendlier that only the few use film :)

  • Dizono

    This is especialy important when working with polaroids or wet plates. The end result has been in direct relation with the subject. A dageurrotype of Nadar for instance, is the most direct way to look at the long deceased person in the photo as the light first hit the subject first and was then captured on the plate. The light that hit the subject in the 1850’s is still there, on that shiny plate. How special is that? How real is that?

  • Sam Agnew

    I guess this encapsulates my biggest fears as a serious film user. Not that film will go away, because it won’t, but that it degrades to some crap “artistic” standard as promoted by Lomography and Impossible Project. I shoot film for a beauty closely related to reality, not for random “fun” results.


  • Samcornwell

    Not intending to discredit the harmful effects silver halide can have on the environment but here’s a strong argument against that. The digital photograph as of today is essentially not something that is nothing. It requires storage space, with requires computers, which requires industry, which requires the internet which requires super computers, storage farms and so on.

  • bobby

    Yeah and the harmful chemicals that go into digital cameras, their batteries, sensor, etc are much more beneficial to the environment when you eventually toss it in a few years time….

  • junyo

    That’s a bit like saying that a CD is a mere recording, while a phonograph record is literally Maria Callas trapped in my stereo singing to me.

    Film isn’t light, trapped, captured, held or otherwise. Take a roll of film, exposed in visible light, into a darkened room. Hold it up. Can you see anything? If not, you didn’t capture any photons. You recorded their effect on the silver crystals suspended in the emulsion that represents what the light was doing at the time. The pattern and arrangement of those silver crystals is just analog data. And a digital sensor does EXACTLY the same thing, only the recording mechanism is different. The only real valid questions are the recording limits/characteristics of the media and the ease/difficulty of processing of the output.

  • Samcornwell

    Exactly. A magic that will be lost with digital reproduction.

  • Matt

    The magic of capturing photos at a photo site are just as magical as photons converting photosensitive molecules. IMO more “magical”. In no way is any type of film a closer representation or link to the subject. That is all under the control of the photographer to create that link to the subject.

    I do not understand why people are so demonizing towards new science. It always occurs; painter’s hated photographers who were not artists in their view. I’m even sure there were haters of the
    wheel. Since it is new it cannot have a soul and cannot be magical, and therefore less of whatever. Give me a break. The “Soul” is from the artist, not the medium.

  • Matt

    Sure, digital photography is not free from pollution. But, you are a little off base. Digital photography does not require the internet or disk farms. Social media needs those things. And, we can push manufactures to be less polluting and find less toxic alternatives for certain parts. Something which cannot be done for film, the chemicals needed are toxic and many do not have alternatives.

    Don’t fool yourself, per user the toxicity of film is huge in comparison. I tried to
    do darkroom stuff a long time ago and I was always afraid of the chemicals and how to dispose of them. It was pretty much why I never did much in the
    darkroom, way to toxic for me and my conscious.

    get me wrong, if you want to use film I’m not going to criticize you. Have fun and make some good art. .

  • Samcornwell

    I am as much an advocate for digital photography as I am for traditional chemical techniques. The loss of chemical processing may have implications over a long period of time which none of us have considered with regards to archival, in terms of both the physical and the metaphysical.

  • Trev

    What a load of old bull. The major film manufactures like Fuji and Ilford/Harman are still producing large quantities of film to a high standard.Kodak film is in flux ,who knows what’s happening there? Polariod went because professional photographers stopped using the 5×4 and 10×8 instant print versions because their clients demanded digital files ‘now’ and wouldn’t wait for scans from the negatives or transparencies. Scans from medium or large format film were always better and cheaper to produce than the available digital files until quite recently with fx cameras . But who can afford a medium format digital camera without having to mortgage the house ! I know because I have worked in professional photo labs for the last 30 years

  • MD

    Technically, film is digital too. Any given silver crystal can only be “on” or “off”; it’s just the clustering of these crystals that give the effect of “analog” gradations over the entirety of the frame. Film was dithering before it was cool.

    In any case, I completely agree. I love film as much as anyone. All of my personal work is black and white 4×5 or color 120, but I have a hard time swallowing any sort of high-minded self-congratulation. I use film because it’s fun, not because it makes me a “truer” photographer.

  • MD

    I wish I could look forward to that with a sense of eagerness, but such an eventuality just brings to mind visions of those post-apocalyptic movies where people are driving around in home-rigged dune buggies. Not because it’s what they really wanted, but because it’s all they could get their hands on.

    Collodion is great if it’s an artistic choice, but the idea that it’s the ONLY choice is a bit underwhelming.

  • kodiak xyza

    « When you buy chicken at the supermarket, do you go for the processed, separated, reformed chicken or would you prefer the real thing? »

    for my part, the processed chicken defines film! (to a great extent, at least in the recording process.) I like to state the obvious, which is:
    « there is no film in digital ».
    by this I mean, those measurements by digital of discrete photons of one, or three, or all colours are baked into the predisposed reaction of the film: Velvia, Astia, Provia, Ektachrome… whatever. in the case of B&W film, there is no way to undo the process from B&W to colour.

    what this means is that digital offers something that film does not: to make your own “film.” the confusion may stem from the lack of education/knowledge that the vast number of “photographers” have about digital, which is to resort to presets. though I think this is because digital poses a problem that was solved by film: you get the preset look already in film. that is, you can expose as suggested for the film type, and you are done. the person obeys the divinity of film and printing.

    Ansel Adams was a great proponent of film as a recorder (“the score”) and printing (“the performance”), and digital creates a new divider for the processing to be “the performance” because printing is rarely done, and the monitor mimics a “perfect” printing medium. this “performance” of digital is relegated these days to presets, or the ridiculous notion of “straight out of the camera.” so in some sense, at least of the internets, the “performance” in digital is that of the film *and* printing combined.

    there is the element of analog photography, and its many forms, which will affect the score *and* the performance… and that may be what is lost in the “straight to digital” photography that we see on the internet — which is not the entire world of photography, just the loudest. that may be realm for consideration of the point in the last paragraph, vis-à-vis Mr. Ritchin’s point. more importantly, digital discards (e.g., HDR) the impression developed over 100+ years of how we are impacted by a printed photograph’s language: sepia/platinum, grain, vignetting, black and white, no-detail-shadows, blurriness, etc.

    there are people thinking about these things, but they are drowned in the euphoria of ready-made answers, and the internets exuberance with these stars, and blogging mostly about these people and the sexiest sites.

    sorry for the long reply… or may be not.

  • kodiak xyza

    more to the point: if one follows Oscar Wilde’s notion of the portrait being of the painter, not the sitter, then capturing the “negative” (in film or digital) should remain in the photographer’s mind/intuition while doing anything he has to do to the photo in whatever medium.

    unless, of course, a photographer is still one that “snaps and applies presets” faithful to the equipment.

  • Eziz

    Well obviously, but let’s say you buy one digital camera and shoot X amount of photos vs. same amount in film. In the long, I’d assume you end up using more resources. What I’m arguing is as a consumer product it is less efficient.

  • Eziz

    I code for living so it would be safe to say that I’m not completely oblivious of technology :)