Uncertainty Surrounds the Future of Kodak Photo Paper and Chemistry
Just about every industry has been touched by some form of supply chain issue in the past few years and photography has been no exception. But black and white film photographers might be taking the brunt of them soon.
Kodak HC-110 is Now Hard to Find
I am a working film photographer and shoot exclusively on hand-processed b&w 35mm film. For about fifteen years, I’ve depended faithfully on Kodak HC-110, a popular film developer formulated by the company back in 1962. Throughout each bump in the road since the rise of digital photography in the early 2000s, Kodak’s bankruptcy in 2012, and related film stock discontinuations, I’ve never had any difficulty buying plenty of HC-110. The chemical was even reformulated in 2019, but transitioning to it was nearly seamless for my particular workflow.
This is why I was shocked a few weeks ago when I started to make my annual purchase of six one-liter bottles and couldn’t find HC-110 for sale at any of my usual, trusted vendors such as Film Photography Project, Freestyle Photo, or Adorama. I noticed that HC-110 was not only on backorder, but the listed price had also increased by more than 50% at some stores since my last purchase in 2022.
B&H Photo had HC-110 in stock but they are located in New York City and do not ship chemicals considered to be hazmats. This barred me from ordering with them unless I drove the four-plus hour trip and was probably the precise reason that they seemed to be the only big retailer with any in stock.
A similar shortage happened last year to another staple product of mine, Kodak Tri-X 35mm film. I needed to order 30 rolls and had to buy what was left from multiple vendors (at higher prices too) in order to cover my upcoming shoots. Being in business, I don’t like to order supplies from anyone I don’t have a relationship with because I then feel the need to test them before use which is not a good use of my time and wastes money.
Kodak Alaris still markets Kodak film though, and the company has been very good about giving warnings ahead of price increases and product changes. So there was never a point where I was completely empty-handed with film, because I was given time to prepare.
But Sino Promise has not been as transparent or communicative with their Kodak-branded chemicals.
Troubling Reports from Vendors and Labs
I reached out to my vendors to find out what was going on and I got some troubling responses. Two told me that HC-110 was on backorder but no expected ship date had been provided. Mike Raso at Film Photography Project told me that he expected the shipment within about three weeks but also nudged me in the direction of his in-house HC-110 clone.
Having exhausted my regulars, I started looking elsewhere but it became clear I was scraping the bottom of an empty barrel.
I found some HC-110 listed as being in stock at Nelson Photo in San Diego, California. I encounter high shipping costs when I order film supplies from California which is why I rarely do so. But for six bottles, it would only cost $17 so I placed the order immediately. And about as quickly as the Paypal went through, I got an email from Nelson.
“Unfortunately, however, this item is currently back-ordered and does not have an estimated date of shipping. Kodak hasn’t specified if they would be making more of this chemical. For that reason and at this time, we will have to refund this to you.”
Of everyone I had spoken to at this point, nobody was willing to say, on the record anyway, that there was any question of if HC-110 would continue to be manufactured. So this was a frightening turning point in my search.
I was not close to running out of HC-110 though, so I figured I’d wait the three weeks before jumping to any conclusions.
Three weeks came and went. Websites continued to show HC-110 as being on backorder and with the doubled pricing.
I phoned a friend close to Kodak Alaris. There’s a limit to what they were able to share but the bottom line for my friend and regular venders is that nobody has been told what is going on and can’t really get that information since Sino Promise is an entirely separate company from Eastman Kodak and Kodak Alaris. So I could only get more off-the-record personal speculations and recommendations. None of which sounded very hopeful.
Accustomed to the responsiveness of Alaris, I reached out to Sino Promise themselves and requested information.
While waiting for a response, I found that of the five US-based locations, the Florida branch of Sino Promise Group was verified to have shut down this past September. And then I became worried about more than just Kodak HC-110.
But I couldn’t find anything concrete on the status of Sino Promise and the future of HC-110, or other Kodak chemical production.
In March 2022, PetaPixel reported on Sino’s financial difficulty and then in April, Inside Imaging in Australia reported a similar blurb.
Last week, someone posted a rather alarming comment on Reddit: “Stock up on your Kodak Chem! Shino Promise Group has shut down”
I used the sources cited by PetaPixel and Inside Imaging as well as others to put substance to their claim but still can’t find any smoking guns. And I don’t want to panic or cause panic.
I spoke again to my friends at Alaris and Film Photography Project. Everyone’s personal views are continuing to worsen but there is little hard evidence available anywhere, just unsettling ambiguity and a continued lack of HC-110.
I still have yet to receive a response from Sino Promise. But a lab repair technician from Canada posted the following image on Facebook.
I reached out to the technician. He stated that the April 13th notice above was given to several Canadian film labs. And a similar communication, dated April 25th, was given to at least one US lab. He shared that version of the notice with me which looked more promising for the United States, anyway.
The technician is now telling me that he is aware of at least 125 labs across Canada, the US, and Australia that have received similar notices from Sino over the past week. One of my preferred vendors said that they did not receive this notice, but apparently Sino has also not responded to their requests for information either.
I have not researched it as extensively as Kodak HC-110 but there does not appear to be any trouble getting any other b&w photo chemicals from any of the major vendors currently.
So it is unclear as to if there is only a problem with Kodak HC-110 or the Kodak chemical division, as owned by Sino Promise, as a whole.
Temporary Shortage or Permanent Discontinuation?
As we have worked on putting together a report to share my findings, we cannot find concrete evidence that Kodak chemicals are in more than a temporary shortage, so we’ve chosen to not prematurely publish any report that could cause people to draw potentially false conclusions.
Based on the correspondences above though, it appears that Sino Promise Inc., AKA Kodak Professional Imaging Solutions (notice that Sino Promise Inc. has a Rochester, NY address) is going to discontinue selling Kodak chemicals to many labs in Canada. I have no evidence that ALL labs in Canada are affected. And it appears that they will continue selling Kodak chemicals in the US but they are handing software responsibility to another company called ILUVPIX. So this does not appear to be a full discontinuation of Kodak chemistry.
Nor does Sino Promise appear to be fully shutting down their operations or chemical production for Kodak as some rumors are claiming. But they do appear to be reconfiguring in some way and that might be causing a disruption in some areas with some products. For all that we know, Sino might simply be pausing before gearing up.
According to Bizapedia, ILUVPIX LLC has been established in various states for the last several months. Because they are a new company, I wonder if they are an extension of Sino Promise and an attempt by Sino Promise to distance themselves from some parts of the business that they purchased from Kodak Alaris, while still maintaining some control. This is pure speculation on my part.
These developments at Sino piggyback the other elephant-in-the-room that I haven’t mentioned here yet; Kodak Alaris is for sale. But again, let’s reserve our panic and think about this.
In his most recent podcast (at 21:57), Nico Llasera optimistically theorizes that Kodak Rochester may be attempting to take back their business from Kodak Alaris in order to get closer to direct-to-consumer sales and cut down on the bureaucracy.
If this is true, maybe something similar is occurring between Kodak Rochester and Sino Promise? This simplification of Kodak’s supply chain could potentially cause the cost of film products to drop because there would be fewer entities adding their fees along the way.
All this is just speculation of course. And I’m admittedly only a hopeful consumer of Kodak’s products, not a business analyst.
Is Kodak HC-110 the Canary in the Coalmine?
So back to HC-110.
This past Tuesday, fellow wildman James V. Mignogna drove to B&H on my behalf and we bought the last bottles of Kodak HC-110 that appeared to remain in any retail store in the entire United States. This included both recently expired and fresh bottles that are dated through March of 2024 at the latest. This stash will give James and me time to transition to another developer if that becomes necessary.
On the heels of this little adventure, I also cleared out Blue Moon Camera and Machine‘s few remaining bottles of HC-110. They kindly put together a statement that I could share publicly:
“In short, we don’t know what the future holds for Sino Promise or for Kodak chemistry. The core of our analog film photography business, both our ever-busy retail and lab operations, depend on materials that are attainable and reliably manufactured. Over the years, Kodak’s photochemical distribution has become progressively more complicated. We’ve long since switched over or started making our own chemistry. Ilford’s black-and-white chemistry and their distribution remain reliable and competitive. There are a variety of other sources, notably Photographers’ Formulary, that offer home-brew alternatives to some of the most popular Kodak recipes.”
To give you a timeline, March 2024 is the farthest out expiration date for any of the bottles of HC-110 that I was able to purchase over the last few weeks.
I also ordered my annual supply of Kodafix, Hypo, and Stop from B&H which all shipped normally and are in stock where I’d expect them to be at prices I’d also expect.
Is the Kodak HC-110 shortage the canary in the coal mine? After nearly a month of extensive research, I still can’t say.
But try to take it in perspective that historically, manufacturers in the film industry have been supplying us with the same, or virtually the same products under different names and different manufacturer names since the industry began. Agfa Rodinal is one of the oldest developers in existence but when Agfa fell apart in 2004 you could only get clones until ADOX took over. Is it still a clone or the same thing under a different name? The history of this stuff is complicated and riddled with anecdotes.
Over my years of shooting, I’ve seen over and over again that photographers overreact and assume full product discontinuation when all that is happening is a repackage.
Get Familiar with Alternatives
As we wait for fresh HC-110 to ship, however, I say to all my Kodak friends that it may be a good idea to get familiar with similar black and white Ilford chemistry or third-party Kodak clones such as those offered by Film Photography Project, Legacy Pro, and Bellini. And consider Blue Moon’s recommendation of Photographers’ Formulary.
In the case of FPP-110, Mike Raso assures me that his team has resolved the crystallization issue with 2019 Kodak HC-110 and it appears that all the developing times are the same (unlike Ilford’s Ilfotec). Additionally, FPP-110 comes in both normal 1-liter bottles that are closer to the pre-crazy Kodak HC-110 price and small 8oz ones for hobbyists who don’t want to overbuy.
My intention in sharing what information I could find about the current HC-110 shortage is not to jump to any false conclusions, or even to claim more knowledge about the situation than I’ve attempted to piece together from the perspective of a consumer. But rather, I just want to help those of you who also depend on Kodak chemistry and HC-110 in particular, to get in front of what difficulties may, or hopefully may not, be in front of us.
Let’s cross our fingers, stay nimble and keep shooting film.
About the author: Johnny Martyr is an East Coast film photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. After an adventurous 20-year photographic journey, he now shoots exclusively on B&W 35mm film that he painstakingly hand-processes and digitizes. Choosing to work with only a select few clients per annum, Martyr’s uncommonly personalized process ensures unsurpassed quality as well as stylish, natural & timeless imagery that will endure for decades. You can find more of his work on his website, Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram.