By Elias Chavez
Boston University News Service
Congratulations, you just found your family’s old film camera, and the excitement is palpable. Your first thought is that you stumbled upon an analog camera whose worth has gone up exponentially in the decades since its lens has last seen light. A quick google search will tell you that camera in your hands is actually not worth much, but it is a great beginner camera. It’s no matter; it looks like you picked a brand new hobby for free. With a new digital camera setting you back anywhere between $400-$2400, finding this one for free feels like a sign, and a cheap one at that. With dreams of becoming the next Ansel Adams, you load Instagram to scope out your new light competition; surely there can’t be that many people shooting film, right?
As Instagram loads, your big dream gets smaller, as the hashtag #35mm (the standard for film cameras) has 30 million posts under it. With each scroll, you realize that many people have found an analog camera in their garage, attic, yard sale, flea market, etc. A new hashtag catches your eye as you further your research: #StayBrokeShootFilm. Congratulations, you just found a new hole in your wallet.
Though more and more people are reclaiming these lost treasures, their timing is a mixed bag of good and bad news. The good news is that there’s a new market for film. Whether uploading scans to Instagram to gain internet clout, using a third-party app, like hujicam, to re-create the retro film look or selling film photos as NFTs, the 35 millimeter film trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. #DisposableCamera, for instance, has over 500 thousand posts under it. As fashion goes in cycles, so too does technology, evidenced by the once-dead disposable camera once again stocking the shelves of most major retailers.
For places like Hunt’s Photo, a specialty photography store endemic to the Northeast, this resurgence in film photography is great news for business. According to Alex McKenna, the store manager of Hunt’s Photo in Boston on Commonwealth Ave., his location sells more film than even the Hunt’s headquarters store in Melrose by upwards of a couple of thousand dollars. McKenna also noted that “about 80% of our transactions are film-based, and 90% of those transactions are students or younger folks coming in to buy or process film.”
Like a carrot on a stick, the film in Hunt’s is brightly lit and center stage. Standing behind the cash register, the film pulls in customers from the front door all the way to the back, cutting out superfluous browsing, as if to say, “we know why you’re here and this is where you’ll get it.” The shelves housing the film are made of light boxes, and inside of them are equally vibrant cardboard boxes and foil packages with names that sound enticing and antique: Lomography, CineStill, Portra and Ilford. Adjacent to these boxes of film sits the belle of the ball for college students these days: the disposable camera.
Encased in bright combinations of yellow and red or sleek black packaging with pops of color, the variety of disposable cameras available is nothing like the variety available in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and neither is the cost. Currently, on Amazon, the price for a single Kodak Funsaver camera is $23.
“The Kodak Funsaver sells out the most,” said McKenna, “In fact, I think we just sold our last Funsaver 10 minutes ago.”
McKenna’s statement is easy to believe. During one hour, seven different college-age people walked into Hunt’s, six of them for film transactions, only one for a rental. At $23 a disposable camera, and with Kodak’s signature roll of Portra 400 selling for $12 a roll, film is an increasingly lucrative business for camera stores and independent retailers.
The trend extends beyond the Hunt’s locations in Massachusetts, with sales of film and analog cameras indicating a larger trend nationwide. A New York Times article reported that sales of analog cameras have increased from between 42 and 79 percent in the past two years on eBay, according to Dawn Block, eBay’s vice president of hard goods and collectibles. The same article noted that Etsy showed a 76% increase in the search term SLR (single lens reflex), which is another name for a 35mm camera. Though sales information for film is hard to come by, the amount of SLRs being bought within the past five years indicates that film sales are seeing a similar rise.
While photo stores and processing plants serve to make a profit from the rise in film prices, the major impact falls on the consumer.
The price increase of film isn’t necessarily an opportunistic cash grab by major film companies either. McKenna says that the reason film is so expensive is the same reason everybody has been paying more for their groceries: the supply chain. As a result, film prices have been skyrocketing across the industry, and so too are costs for processing.
Film stocks like Kodak, a traditional consumer-grade film stock, have been increasing 20-30% in price, according to McKenna, since the supply chain issue began. Other film stocks, like Fujifilm, have been next to impossible to find.
The reason Fujifilm has been so elusive extends beyond just supply chain issues. Within the past three years, Fujifilm has limited production of film, and in June 2021, it shut down most of its American manufacturing facilities. This move cut 400 employees and reduced manufacturing to just one factory, according to US News and World Report.
This business decision by Fujifilm would explain why McKenna has only seen ten rolls of Fujifilm in his store in the past ten months. Even if you can find a roll of Fujifilm on a shelf these days, with Fujifilm’s announcement of an increase in its film prices by up to 60% in April 2022, you may not be able to afford it.
For people like Holly Worthington, a photography teacher with Walnut Hill School For The Arts since 1996, the increase in film prices is not only impacting her, but her students as well.
“I love working with color film with the students, but I might not be able to do it anymore,” Worthington said.
According to Worthington, color film was already expensive at $7 a roll a few years ago, but the price kept increasing. First it increased to $11-$12 a roll, and this year color film was going for up to $20 a roll.
“I just got it for one class and it just breaks my heart because I want them to see that [color] film,” Worthington said, “It’s so special.”
The rising price of film isn’t the only thing that is providing a barrier to teaching students film photography. As the trend grows in popularity, more and more people are on the lookout for cameras to expand their collection, with some photographers boasting six to seven film cameras as part of their personal repertoire.
For Worthington, this means an increase not only in the price of film, but an increase in the price for cameras as well. Whereas camera companies are still investing in digital cameras and new mirrorless cameras, most companies stopped production of new film cameras a long time ago. As a result, the well of functional and affordable cameras for students and casual photographers is drying up. According to Worthington, even student-grade cameras have recently gone up to as much as $500, but “they never were worth that much,” said Worthington.
People are drawn in by the mechanically and aesthetically pleasing aspects of these cameras, but they weren’t built for longevity. As the years go on, shutters stop shutting, flashes don’t flash and, though film is seeing a rise in popularity, repair shops are few and far between. For instance, the closest repair shop in Massachusetts, according to employees at Hunt’s, is in New Hampshire.
“I had over 30 cameras for students, and they’re just not lasting,” Worthington said. “Vivitar was one of the last ones to make an affordable student camera, which is what my fleet has been for a long time. And they’re just not holding up anymore.”
With film prices on the rise and a continually diminishing supply of analog cameras, now seems like the perfect time to not get into film photography. Yet, the majority of people getting into the trend, as McKenna noted, seem to be young and broke. Worthington has even noticed growing interest in disposable cameras among her students, and postulates that the increase in the price of analog cameras may in fact be what is driving students towards disposable cameras. But even the price for those is on the rise. So why keep shooting film?
Even with the price of film increasing, the number of film sales and processing doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, it’s the opposite. According to business statistics from Hunt’s Photo on Commonwealth Ave., the store has seen a 30% increase in film sales between 2019 and 2021 and a 20% increase in film processing during the same time period. These statistics are specific to the Boston location of Hunts Photo’s, but McKenna believes that this is most likely a trend throughout the whole industry.
This might be because Bostonians don’t really have many other options for buying and processing film, according to Nancy Chen, the manager of Hunt’s Photo in Cambridge.
“We’re seeing an increase in film processing and most people buy and process their film with us,” Chen said. “They almost don’t really have any other option.”
Chen was unable to provide specific information about film purchases and processing but did comment that most transactions in her store are students purchasing disposable cameras or rolls of film.
Similarly to Hunt’s in Boston, most transactions in the store during our interview were film-based. One customer came in looking for a specific roll of film for his camera but was unsure how to find it. This prompted a discussion between the customer, the employees of the store and myself about the best rolls of film to use and the merits of each one. The customer, Sam Mironko, 22, noted that oftentimes, speaking about film was more confusing than learning how to shoot with it.
The options for film are confusing. What are the merits of using Portra 400 and Portra 200? Is Cinestill better than Lomography, and which speed works best outdoors? Will people judge a photographer for using Ektar or Kodak Gold? Most importantly, what do any of these words mean?
All of these are brands of film, some expensive and some cheap, some with big grain, little grain and some in between. The “speed” of the film is how sensitive it is to light and is often represented in the form of numbers from 200 all the way to 3200: the lower the number the more sensitive to light, and vice versa. So, Portra 400 for instance, will perform better in lower light than Portra 200. For Mironko, this is all knowledge he’s trying to learn, but the film and the practice of taking photos is for the memories.
“For me, it was more about the memory aspect of it, and the simplicity in it,” Mironko said, “Because the pictures were just for memories. So as soon as I figured out what film worked to my liking, I didn’t really look any further.”
The film that works best for Mironko is whatever Amazon recommended. Mironko, a full-time employee at HubSpot and a part-time sports photographer, first took a film camera abroad with him in 2018 and has been using film for fun ever since. In a time of instant gratification, film does something people aren’t used to doing anymore: it makes us wait.
Film has to be sent in, processed, scanned and shipped back to us before we get to see what our photos look like. Sometimes it’s the week after the trip and others it’s a few months later; each roll of film serves as a time capsule.
“After months of being away, I got back and sent those rolls in to get developed,” Mironko said, “And getting those all back at once made me reflect on the trip from the beginning to the end, and now I just made it a part of my routine.”
For some people, it’s capturing memories and the beauty of delayed gratification. However, for others, it’s less about the process of taking photos on film and more so about nailing the look of film to put it online.
“I’ve noticed a trend, with, like, the film look,” Mironko said. “Even with the Huji app, and other apps that replicate film. People will edit digital images to kind of have a film feel to them, add grain and add light leaks and add filters, stuff like that.”
The app HujiCam seems to be the most popular among film replicate apps. Playing on the brand “FujiCam,” Fujifilm’s brand of disposable cameras, Hujicam is an app for people who want to replicate using a film camera but don’t want to pay the $23. The app will keep photos stored inside until the user has taken 12, 24, or 36 shots as you would with a real disposable camera. Once those exposures have been taken, the app will slap a filter on them, and voila! You can now convince everybody you have a film camera and upload these photos to Instagram, an app that already has filters to replicate film.
The attraction to film photography seems to lie less in the physical aspect of having prints to put into a photo album and more so to emulate the feeling of family photos digitally.
“Most people don’t even know what negatives are,” said McKenna. “And fewer of them are actually getting prints. They just want scans so they can have them on their phone or on Instagram.”
With photo albums at everybody’s fingertips, film has found a way to merge with digital and live on the internet. But the possibilities far exceed Twitter and Instagram.
For most of us, NFT, is a set of three letters that, by this point, we know have something to do with digital art but are mostly a mystery. But, for photographers, it’s one of the newest ways to make money on your personal photography projects. And, in a strange twist of events, film photos are very popular as Non-Fungible Tokens.
Upon loading the website foundation.app, you’ll find an animated gif version of Sisyphus. But instead of rolling a boulder up the hill, it’s his big grotesque head, shaded in pale reds, yellows and greens. Sisyphus is also wearing cartoon jeans and loafers. This gif is an NFT titled “The Depths of Hades” and it’s selling for .15ETH (Etherium, an online currency) or $455.40. Foundation.app is a website to browse and buy NFTs and The Depths of Hades is one of many for sale.
Go a little deeper on foundation.app and you’ll come across a collection of photos called “Montana Daydreams,” a series of 35mm photos taken in Whitefish and Glacier National Park in Montana. The collection of six photos sells for .25 etherium, which translates to roughly $758.87.
The concept is difficult to wrap your brain around. For those of us whose eyes glaze over when we hear NFT the basic concept is this: Photographers used to, and still do, shoot film, process it, and sell the physical print as art. Now, the pipeline is still the same except for the final step where they scan their negatives to a computer, edit the photo and sell a digital copy as a one-of-a-kind NFT (despite the physical negative existing in the photographer’s collection).
Alex Kittoe, the photographer behind Montana Daydreams, has sold his fair share of photo collections on foundation.app and is a big supporter of the NFT space and digitizing film photos.
“We’re living in a digital world; that’s just a fact,” said Kittoe. “Everybody who shoots film is putting their work out there on some sort of digital platform.”
The NFT space is controversial amongst the photographic community. Discussions abound on Twitter and Reddit about whether selling film as a digital commodity ruins the integrity of the practice.
Despite the controversy surrounding selling photos as NFTs, one thing is for certain: it helps the photographer get paid. And getting paid means the ability to buy more film to continue your practice. While using film burns through money for the hobbyist or casual Instagrammer, it may be the ticket to making more money for the NFT photographers.
“Something that I’m able to use to justify it [film prices] is that I make money shooting on film, right?” Kittoe said. “And when I shoot film for clients, they cover the film and the development cost. So that’s huge. When I’m selling prints of film photos and selling NFTs of film photos, a lot of that money is just going back into photography.”
For photographers like Kittoe, the increase in film price is bothersome but not a hindrance. In fact, with the desire for film photos so heavy in the digital space, it might be a worthwhile investment. But, not everybody is selling their film photos online as NFTs.
With factory closures, supply chain shortages and a growing increase in demand, film isn’t going down in price. And the trendy aesthetic of disposable cameras and film photography seems just as stagnant. So, if you want to have photos that will sell well or look good on the timeline, you may have to #StayBrokeShootFilm for a little bit longer.