How Can Analog Photography Be Saved?
I have been investigating if and how analog photography can be saved for 9 months now. These are my results.
Hi. I am Juho from Finland. I have been feeding myself and later my family from the analog camera scene from the age of 15 – that’s for thirteen years now. Last year I wondered if my baby boy would able to shoot film when he was 15, so I set off to investigate if there will be analog photography in 15 years, and if yes, what it will be like.
During the last 9 months I have interviewed over 300 people – everything from CEOs critical to the industry's survival to internet famous analogists like Ian Ruhter and Bellamy from Japan Camera Hunter, all the way to a group of crazy Russian chemists and a 17-year-old teenager in Singapore. My focus was to form a comprehensive global picture of the future of film photography and find out if it can be saved. The truth is there is no short answer to that question.
The situation of the analog photography scene now
Was it just me and my social media bubble that gave me hope, or was there actually hope?
There has been a huge amount of positive news lately in the scene with big media outlets like Time and ABC running stories on the comeback of film and obviously Kodak actually announcing that they are bringing discontinued films back due to the demand increasing over 5% a year.
Adox, Bergger, Cinestill, Ferrania, Foma, JCH and other boutique filmmakers are making lovely new stuff. Different kinds of Kickstarter campaigns are being funded and on another kind of positive note, the huge success of Fujifilm’s Instax series is giving a first touch of analog to a multitude of teens around the world.
However even 9 months ago there were lots of great things happening, but then I had to stop and think – was it just me and my social media bubble that gave me hope, or was there actually hope?
The old empires of the photography industry have fallen
I decided to find out what the photography industry actually thought so I walked into the offices and shops of the guys whose work had serviced the analog community for decades. There I found a completely different attitude – for even the corest of the core companies that bred life into the analog scene for decades – like Noritsu – just laughed at my questions. I went to Photokina 2016 and tried to find big industry names that were ready for the second coming of analog. I found none of the big old players were intrested in servicing the community whose growth I had witnessed online around various hashtags like #believeinfilm, #filmisnotdead and so on.
This hit me hard and at first I was heartbroken. Then I saw the positive side. If there are no old players, the whole industry can rebuild itself again based on passion, not on money as it used to be built. The new era is one that the new digital generation can enjoy and more importantly, can be built by those with a passion for analog. The pioneers of this movement can be seen in the like of Cinestill, Catlabs and Camerafilmphoto, tending to people's informational and film needs in a new digital manner.
Film is available so is everything alright?
So if the availability of film and developing materials is secured by passion driven companies then we have no problem – right? Everyone can just develop their films by themselves or at the local camera club in 15 years. Well here we get to the interesting part. See, if you are reading this and agree with my last statement, then you are what I call a core member of the analog scene.
During my interviews I started to see the global analog scene divided into four groups; the Collectors, the Gearheads, the Artists and the Newcomers.
By default the Collector is a male in his sixties. He has a collection of cameras that he has accumulated during his life. The biggest hoarders couldn’t help themselves when the prices plummeted when digital came by storm and have amassed hundreds or even thousands of cameras. The collector doesn’t actually use his cameras and they gather dust and decay slowly into a state where CLA is needed. More importantly the collector doesn’t use film unless someone asks him to shoot a portrait at the family reunion and he fires his trusty Metz at everyone's faces.
Typically a 34-year-old male engineer, the Gearhead is someone who loves to mount analog stuff on his digital camera. He has used film when he was young and / or dreamed that it would be nice to just shoot film and not worry about Lightroom pixel peeping. He loves the quality of gear almost more than the end result it produces. However he hasn’t ventured back into the analog world in a way where he would consume more than 2-3 rolls of film a year.
Not as strongly defined by age or gender, the Artist is more of a a philosophical group. The Artist believes in film as a concept – an age old analog way to preserve time and emotion through the centuries without the worry of it becoming unreadable data. The Artist uses a lot of film, developers and photographic paper, but camera gear is just a means to an end for them, which usually makes them bad at helping Newcomers get an easy entry into using a camera without automation.
Newcomers are more concerned about having their shots on social media than as prints. They want good quality scans and are willing to send their film to another country if the lab has the right amount of Instagram followers. The Newcomers love Canon AE-1:s with Portra loaded into them. They shoot a lot of film when they find a good working camera and a good lab to service them, as they are still not ready to do developing themselfs - especially for color pictures. The three previous groups may not understand the ways of the Newcomers, but there is a lovely esthetical philosophy in their photography – they just do things differently than the previous generation.
Obviously these four groups are categorical and someone can be 70% of a Gearhead with 20% of an Artist and 10% of a Newcomer. The core of the analog scene seems to be half Gearheads and half Artists at heart – that’s why they tend to have a growing, almost unhealthy desire to shoot large format.
As a side note it is very interesting that different countries seem to be predominantly one of these groups. In Finland we are born more or less to be engineers (I am what they would call artsy in Finland) so we are mostly Gearheads and Collectors. The same applies to Germany and South Korea. In Vietnam the Newcomers seems to make up 90% of the analog community while in Spain there is a very Artist-based community.
The four major problems to solve now that the fight for film has been won
We need to provide the Newcomers the services they need.
In light of recent news I believe that the first fight for film as a format has already been won, and now we are entering the next set of problems. Understanding the four basic user groups of the analog community and their relation to the industry led me to make some conclusions of what would be the biggest problems for the analog scene in the next 15 years. The core of it is that we need to provide the Newcomers the services they need so that the demand for all of the industry's services will be big and continuous for the next 15 years. It's time I introduce the four major problems the analog scene will face.
1. The developing and scanning machines will have to retire.
Even if everything would stay the same or grow 1-5% a year for the next ten years we have a major problem on our hands with the renewal of the machinery in labs. Fujitsu, Agfa, Kodak and Noritsu, the biggest manufacturers of automated developing machines have already or are about to stop their support services for analog machines. Only the best labs will survive because specialized labs will have good technicians to take care of the machinery, but they will run out of spares in 10-15 years. Scanners will die sooner - as they are already now getting hard to manage and even the newest models of professional volume film scanners run Windows XP.
For a Gearhead, a Collector or an Artist it is all the same. They will take out their Jobo or new Lab-Box and a flatbed scanner and keep going. Hell most of the labs will also do that, but therein lies the problem. When the volume is not sufficient, the prices must go up. A Newcomer will never mature into a core analogist when they have to pay 50 EUR for a film, developing and scanning combo – which is already happening for example in E-6 developing around Europe. To keep the genre accessible for Newcomers we still need to raise the volume of film and concentrate the existing business to the passion driven companies.
2. The big film production lines will have to retire.
Yes, it looks good for Kodak and Fujifilm for now, but one day they will do the FP-100s and say that they just cannot run the old machinery any more and demand for the product cannot justify for the new machine to be as big. At the same time all the grannies loading their occasional film compact have left this earth and as a grand total this means that there will be no Fujifilm C200, Superia 400, Kodak Color Plus or anything in color that you can get for under 4€ a roll. As with developing machines, the core won’t care, but the entering masses will.
3. The cameras will retire, if they are not serviced.
Almost every single film user I have talked to in the interview process has told me that they know this one service guy left in their area, and that he is a Collector era guy. In five to ten years most of them will have retired and whole countries might be without a proper service to send their gear into.
Well can’t we just 3d print cameras or ask the Chinese factories to pop out remade cameras? Well we can, but playing with plastic Holgas won’t amuse a Newcomer for a lifetime. Not when the option is shooting digital virtual reality memories easily on a phone. They will want proper mechanical cameras and they can’t cost too much.
4. The already available cameras are not actually available.
Most of the cameras a Newcomer would want to use, are in the ownership of the Collectors. The Collectors are not selling their gear online and if they are, not every Newcomer will want to risk having to CLA the camera by their own means after a deal with a Collector on craigslist. The cameras have to start moving and finding new loving homes. And no, even though there is way more cameras going around in the US, Japan and Europe than there are users, the reality is that analog seems to grow faster in countries like Russia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey and China - and they do not have old stock laying around in cupboards and flea-markets.
Is there a solution that will save analog photography?
In Finland we have this mentality, that we don’t moan publicly about shit without actually trying to fix it. It is a very core Finnish thing. Hence I wouldn’t be writing this without having a solution. So how do we fix this?
Well problems 1 and 2, retiring heavy machinery are fixed by increasing the demand. The demand can be increased by fixing problems 3 and 4 that are restricting the flow of Newcomers into the genre. To fix 3-4 I have a plan that can be summed up in one sentence: ”Save Analog Cameras”
Both 3 and 4 are fixed by connecting the Newcomers with either already existing or just emerging companies in a new way. Existing companies have the connections to get the cameras from Collectors and repair them for use, but not all of them speak the language of the Newcomer generation. For this translation to become reality I have started a start-up called Cameraventures.com.
To save analog photography, we need to save the cameras.
But wait. Aren’t startups all about monetization and high risk of failure? Well some tech startups might be, but there are a lot of startups aiming for effect, not money. We are one of them. We aim to save the part of analog photography we know how to save - the cameras. And when it comes to the risk of failure it would be a lot bigger, if I hadn’t already done this once.
You’ve done it already? Well yes, but only in the small scale of Finland where I have built up a platform called Kameratori.com where all the analog camera shops do their business. We have a local film distributor, we provide the best and most modern developing services in the country and we even have our own team of technicians with four Gearheads learning from two Collectors.
Working together globally is the key
However Finland is only very small, and to reclaim enough analog cameras to keep global demand high, I need your help. Cameraventures.com aims to do what has happened in Finland globally and to do that I need to map the passionate analog houses of the world so they can work together. I need you to tell me what is the local shop that really cares for the analog scene?
What do I do with the info then? Well our team will double check it, structure it and release it online for the whole worldwide community to enjoy and use. Our team will try to make the best possible online visualization (map, chart, app etc) of the top content creators, developing houses, camera stores, film distributors, accessory manufacturers and service centers to be browsed by the community. With the help of some friends around the world (this has been released in five different localized contexts/languages so far), our small team from Finland can map the first trully global maps of the reborn analog photography world.
This will make the resources for Newcomers easily findable and linkable for the core members. At the same time the growth potential of the industry focuses on the most passionate and professional service providers - giving them more space to develop the scene, something that has partly already happened for example within the instant film side of analog photography with Impossible Project.
United the passionate small businesses around the globe just maybe, could find the fixes for problems 3 and 4, so that I could still do this in 15 years - and more importantly, so that my son could shoot his first own rolls of film in 15 years.
If you want to help to create a global map to save analog cameras, please go to cameraventures.com/help and fill in the form. It is the first step to #saveanalogcameras.