Back to the Future — Film Photography in the 21st Century

To many people my age who are passionate about photography, black and white film is photography. Maybe we took a class in high school or at university or had a parent who was also passionate about photography and shared that love with us. We learned the basics of composition, how to develop our negatives, make contact sheets and prints. The darkroom was an almost sacred space full of specialized tools and toxic chemicals. A place where images materialized in the developer tray as if by magic. Above all, it was fun. I miss that experience.

I shot on film solidly until 2006 when I bought my first digital SLR. At the time, my workflow was already mostly digital — small urban apartments don’t lend themselves to darkrooms. I scanned my negatives and made prints with an inkjet printer. It wasn’t as much fun as the wet darkroom, but it worked. 

Over the next five years, I shot more and more with digital cameras, completing the transition when I bought my first Leica, the digital M9. From that point, shooting film became something exceptional. I bought a few final rolls of Kodachrome and was gifted some Agfa Scala. Occasionally I would shoot a roll of Ilford Pan F or Ektachrome, but the film cameras stopped coming with me on trips and the choice of film stock dwindled rapidly. 

By 2013, we had lost all of the Kodak slide films and my favorite black and white film from my university days, Plus-X. Everything by Agfa was discontinued unless it was old stock from the freezers released by Agfa’s successor companies and, later, rebranded stock from other manufacturers. My favorite Fujichrome, Provia 400, was discontinued as well as all of Fuji’s non-professional slide films and most of their black and white films. Due to a terminal failure of their mid-20th century equipment, Fotokemika in Croatia shut down their film coating line and with it the production of their wonderfully vintage Efke products. This is not an exhaustive list. In ten years, photographic film sales declined from almost 1 billion rolls to under 20 million. The market had spoken clearly — digital won. 

Keeping it green | AGFA PHOTO APX100 (New)

Verboten! | AGFA PHOTO APX100 (New)


22 | AGFA PHOTO APX100 (New)

Net | AGFA PHOTO APX100 (New)

But then a curious thing happened. Around 2014, sales of professional photographic film started to increase. Driven by some professionals and a new generation of who had learned photography with digital cameras and were looking for something different, photographers started returning to film.

Today in 2018, we are in the middle of a film renaissance — analogue photography is back. While Fujifilm still seems to be heading for the exits (Except for their instant films.), Kodak has re-released Ektachrome and TMAX 3200. Ilford and Foma still have full line-ups of monochromatic films and chemicals. Several companies like KONO, Lomo and Rollei rebrand films meant for other markets like aerial photography or scientific use. There are even two companies repackaging Kodak Cinema film for 35mm still cameras — Los Angeles based CineStill and Stuttgart, Germany based SilberSalz. 

But the most exciting news is about new film coating projects that are underway. FILM Ferrania is in the midst of rebuilding a film coating factory in Italy. They have had their trials, but they have strong local support and released a small batch of their P30 monochrome film in 2017. They are looking to go into full production in 2019 and also hope to re-introduce color film at some point. Silberra is trying very hard to create a film manufacturing line in Russia. One of the oldest names in photography, ADOX, has been resurrected by Berlin’s Fotoimpex and they are investing in new film coating lines.

This is a lot of activity for a 19th century technology…

I suspect the rebirth of film photography is closely related to the resurgence of vinyl records. Vinyl records have a unique sound most often typified as being “warmer” and having more “presence” than digital playback. There is also great pleasure to be had in handling physical albums. From rifling through a stack of albums, to admiring the cover art, to the ceremonial placing of the LP upon the platter and lowering of the tone arm, the physicality of vinyl records is at least as important as the sound.

As mentioned at the start of this article, film is photography to many people. Film stocks have many unique characteristics — grain, tonal range, color reproduction, sharpness. These qualities can be mimicked but not wholly reproduced with digital tools. It’s no surprise that many filters for Instagram and other digital services try to reproduced the color effects of old film stocks or cross-processing. That “film look” is embedded in our cultural DNA as what a picture should look like. 

Like vinyl, there is a pleasing physicality to working with film. If you develop your own rolls, there is a zen to the process — load, develop, stop, fix, wash, dry, repeat. Then you make a contact sheet. To me, few things in this world are as appealing as a contact sheet. In 2008, Le Petit Palais in Paris hosted a large exhibition of Patrick Demarchelier’s photos. The prints were stunning, but in the basement were case after case of his contact sheets. I spent most of my time there, fascinated by the process on display— you could see a shoot evolve through the sheets and make your own judgement about the final image. I can’t think of how this “looking over the shoulder” would work with digital photography — would we scroll through Lightroom galleries on a web page? Would a photographer take the time to print out faux contact sheets and mark them up? 

The Agony and… | Kodak Portra 400

The Fountainhead | Kodak Portra 400

Pause | Kodak Portra 400

Conversation | Kodak Portra 400

Idyll | Kodak Portra 400

I don’t want to wax too romantic about all things analog — digital has many advantages. Collections of LPs and binders full of negatives take up a lot of space. Playing an LP degrades the disc just a little bit every time. I don’t miss photo chemicals. You can’t press “random” on an LP collection. Digital cameras are excellent teaching tools, allowing students to dive directly into creating images and obtaining feedback much faster than with analog cameras. 

Our world is sometimes a world of absolutes. The rapid pace of technical innovation pushes the new at the expense of the old — for something to thrive, something else must die, right? But markets are funny things. They are fundamentally composed of people and, from time to time, people have strange ideas. Unquestionably, digital capture has taken over the photography business and is here to stay. However, digital was clearly not providing something that many people were interested in. Thus, analog returns, hopefully for good. I’ll be adding more film into my rotation in 2019. Now, where are those extra 3-ring binders I had…

If you would like to explore film photography a bit more, here are some links:

Where to buy film

A&B Digital Lab (Thailand)

Camera Film Photo (HK)

Fotoimpex (Germany)

Freestyle Photographic Supplies (USA)

Silverprint (UK)

Film Manufacturers



FILM Ferrania



Ilford Photo

Kodak Alaris

Rollei Film



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