Are photographic films dead? Well, yes and no!

No one can doubt the success of digital cameras – it was an overnight revolution. Technology has moved so quickly recently that film processing just couldn’t keep pace with the changes and flexibility that digital cameras offered: Instant viewing, no film processing costs and an almost endless amount of photos on the same card – film just didn’t stand a chance.

Instant viewing was an enormous shift for most photographers. Suddenly the feeling of giving birth to your most creative and artistic photos took on a new level. Gone were the days of waiting patiently for the lab to develop your photos to see if they had worked – now they were instantly available. Fantastic! No more “I wish I had” and more “let’s try that again”. That was up until most photographers realised that the magic of waiting for the right moment, skill with lighting and the general professionalism that made a difference between your next recommendation or not was suddenly eroded by the ease of use that digital offered – now everyone who owned a digital camera stood a good chance of getting some fairly decent results….  A lot of photographers went to the wall because of this.

These days the art of photography has gone. The scatter gun approach of taking as many photos as possible knowing full well that Camera Raw and Photoshop are your best pals have completely killed it off. This mass photo taking desire has permanently shifted the way in which we take photos today and while some may argue that it has allowed those less able to take great pictures others argue that it has ruined photography.

Cost has also been a major driving factor with photography. In the previous century we happily paid for film processing and developing. It was part of the excitement waiting for your holiday pictures to be processed and developed: An instant replay of your holiday after you had come back to drab Britain with its awful weather always lifted your spirits and was worth it. Not forgetting to hand your photos around to work colleagues and family members to show how cosmopolitan you had become, even if you did wear socks with your sandals on the beach!

Films had to be processed if you wanted to see what was on them. No processing - no pictures and the “keeping up with the Jones’s” meant everyone wanted to do it. Digital changed this completely – now you could email a picture of you and your family to everyone while you were still on holiday! How cool was that – “missing you” as you rub it in by sipping a margarita on the beach looking smug and tanned at the same time knowing full well it would irritate those who received it. Fantastic!

Suddenly this new freedom spread like wild fire – why are you still using film when you could be using digital? Get yourself a new digital camera…. And another, and another, and another. See, what people forgot was just like the computer industry digital camera manufacturers had already figured this out and realised quite quickly that they would soon be out of pocket if they released a perfect digital camera on the market straight away. So they milked the market for everything that it had and just like sheep we all forgot about the costs of the cameras and remembered the savings that we were making by not using “expensive” labs to process the film. Camera after camera with more megapixels and features soon easily eclipsed film processing and developing costs, but it was worth it – wasn’t it? Easily viewable on computer – “No Wait – where’s the photos of the wedding?”, or “why won’t my computer start up?”, Hmmmm, then you have to add in the cost of the camera cards, photo editing software and digital photo frames. Not so cheap now!

Not long after the digital revolution camera phones started to make an appearance. After all how often did you wish you had a camera but were unable to capture the moment because you didn’t have your camera with you? Now you too could take a photo with a mobile communication device and rejoice that you managed to take a truly awful, blurry image that was jpeged to hell with abysmal colours. Now your photo collection started to resemble a poor digital television reception but that was okay as it was “free”, except you had to pay through the nose to obtain the “must have” phone that you could show off to your mates in the pub. Shame that the quality of the photos were so bad that you would be better off deleting them rather than try and pretend that they were any where near the quality of a 6” x 4” photo from even the cheapest of film processor labs…. And now you realise that your memories have been ruined by inferior technology.

Next we even had the ability to print our own photos. Yes, you too can have the ability to print mediocre photos from your own inkjet printer with paper that is easily marked and has printer lines running through it, and the ink is more expensive than champagne per millilitre! Despite this millions fell for it. The idea that a fifty quid printer was going to somehow match the quality of a hundred thousand pound minilab didn’t seem to put people off…. (Yes they really did cost that!)

Soon we learned that the value of photography had fallen through the basement and had entered bargain bucket status. Many professional companies struggled to keep up with the changing markets - I should know I worked for a pro lab in Edinburgh which went bust. We dropped our prices, offered more value but ultimately the end result was people no longer cared about quality and just wanted quantity. We refused to compromise on quality and the end result was the company no longer trades. I’m not sad though. There are millions of high quality 6” x 4” prints that we did that will be around long after I’m dead. I don’t think you could say the same for your digital photos!

It wasn’t just us, though. I know of at least seven other labs in Edinburgh that went pear shaped with exactly the same problems. The problems didn’t stop there either. Ilford got itself in trouble and had to restructure, as did Agfa and now even the mighty Kodak has fallen. We were a Fuji lab and thankfully at the time this is being written they are still pushing for high quality prints – long may this continue.

So is film dead? Definitely not. There is a hard core of amateur photographers out there who will never give up on film. Film to them is an art form as it requires skill to take a great photo. They know that the average person will never match their ability if they are given a film camera and they love to show off their ability. They realise that long after people have thrown out their broken photo printers and realised that having your photos professionally printed really will outlive modern technology that respect for the industry will return in time.

It is also difficult to ignore a century of film processing and printing – just how can you compare one hundred years of film processing and printing against ten years of digital? What do you do with all those films and prints? I mean are you supposed to ignore your life prior to digital printing? Don’t you long to see your films and slides again? Well this is where film processing takes an odd turn – people actually love to reminisce and if that means finding a way to convert these older film formats into a modern digital age then that is what they are going to do.

Scanning slides, negatives and photographs allows you to view them with the exact same convenience that you would get from using a digital camera. These days the technology has come on a long way and the quality you can get from scanning a decent film is just as good as digital photography. In fact there is a lot of film out there, so in many respects film processing is dead but processed films are far from dead and will be around for many years to come.