Why Film is Not like Vinyl Records - aka Say Goodbye to Kodak

Well now it's actually happened. Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection this morning. The once juggernaut of the industry is now a very sick old man trying to sell it's crown jewel patents to make some cash to stay alive just a little bit longer. It's quite sad really, for Kodak the company, what's left of its employees, and photographers everywhere. No word yet on if and how this will effect film production, but let's all be honest here, film is going away and is not going to make an economical resurgence.

People point to the strength of the vinyl record business as proof that a niche product can re-emerge and thrive, but it's a false comparison. I know a little bit about the record business actually as my father's owned record stores and I myself have a degree in music and its production from Berklee College in Boston. Yes, there are more records sold now than at any time in the last decade. However it's still only few percentage points of total music sold and there is evidence that the trend line has flattened out. This means basically that most of the people who are interested in buying a record player and phono preamp and records have already done so. Don't get me wrong, I think this is super if that's what you're into (personally I'd prefer everything on SACD if I could get it, but that's another story) And it's also great for the small short run record plants around the country that were shuttered up in the 90's. Those pressing machines are very mechanical and virtually indestructible, basically just a hydraulic piston, so I'm not surprised that a little oil and elbow grease brings them back to profitable life. Plus the vinyl blanks (basically just a 1" think slab of vinyl about 6" in diameter) are about as simple as can be.

The same is not true of film which is a very complex manufacturing process. It's chemical, it relies by definition on very strict environmental and procedural controls. Even at its best it can vary greatly from batch to batch of the same stock. All of this means that it's very much a product which thrives on volume production. The more you make, the cheaper you make it and thus the cheaper you can sell it. The prices of all films that I use have gone up a fair amount over the past few years. And that's just the films I can still get unlike the Polaroid 55 and Scala which I can't. When I started out in this field about 10 years ago the film counter at B&H here in NYC was 40 feet long, now it's barely 10. Likewise there were at least 4 rows of darkroom equipment, now it's less than 1 all the way in the back right next to the bathrooms.

And there is one of the big problems. Film is a two step process. There's buying the film and then there's getting it processed. There are still a few pro labs in the city but the prices have gone up and the lead times have grown. Used to be that you could get a roll of E6 medium format slides back in a couple hours, now to do it same day is an extra rush fee. Luckily I've still got a place in my neighborhood that will run my C-41 roll through the machine in 10 minutes for $4. But it used to be $2 only back in 2007 and Connie is giving me a deal because she likes me. Her costs for chemicals have doubled. CVS still has a photo lab, but the quality is crappy and I doubt it will be there in a year anyway. And I live in New York City!, can you imagine what it must be like to get film processed in East Haverton, LA?

How many photographers that want to shoot film are prepared to do all their own processing? Let's be honest, most of these chemicals are pretty noxious. Kodachrome was a 6 step process from what I recall and the constituent chemicals were so nasty, complex, and expensive that Kodak just stopped making them a couple years ago. Mass outrage on the web and in media, but I didn't see any other company come in and offer to buy the patents to make Kodachrome. It's just not profitable, and that's what it all comes down to.  Don't get me wrong, I like film too. I love the look of old 50's Kodachrome especially when it's by Saul Leiter. But I'm just being rational.  I'm sure there will remain a few boutique companies who make batches of film and chemicals for the die-hards. Places like Photographers' Formulary, but it's going to be very very niche.

Also, I think that people's love of records has as much to do with a reaction to the fast paced "everything at your fingertips" nature of the modern world as it does the sound. People like the idea of slowing life down. Listening to one album at a time, having to flip the record after 20 minutes, just like their parents did when they were kids.  The same is true in the wizbang automatic world of modern cameras to be sure, but I don't think all the way back to film is what people are looking for. I think they're the market who is so interested in the recent crop of cameras with physical manual controls and retro styling. All the convenience of digital with the styling of your grandfather's Leica.  Which I'm all for by the way. That new Fuji X Pro 1 while having a terrible name is a pretty sexy piece of kit.  Expensive for what you're getting at around $2400 for a body and lens, but very attractive.  If I had it to do I'd still go for an M9 though. If only it was half the price and still used a thumb lever to cock the shutter. Oh well <sigh>

And finally, film was designed for printing, something that not too many people do very often anymore (Though I think they should). Scanning film yourself is a massively time consuming and frustrating affair, not to mention the post scan dust cleaning and color correction.  Sending them out is easier, but still takes a while and is expensive if you want it done right.

I'm not a big fan of making my digital pictures look like they were taken on film however.  Leave sloppy edges for when you actually shoot film. And don't get me started on the Hipstamatic revolution. Ya, let's take my nice 5MP nearly perfect reproduction of the scene and make it into a 600px grainy, out-of-focus, color shifted mess. Silly if you ask me.  That said, I do add a bit of grain to low ISO photographs from my 5D2. It's like the whole thing is a little too perfect. Requires a little dither to look organic and 'right'. So go out and shoot some film while you still can, because someday soon it's not going to be an viable option.