Is this a Golden Era for Film Photographers?

Ok, right off the bat I’m not saying this is a golden era of film photographers. Certainly the time period when everyone had to shoot film was the golden era of film photographers.

I’m talking about a golden era for film photographers, in that there may not be a better time to be one.

Lets start with becoming a film photographer. The barriers to becoming a film photographer, mainly money, time, and knowledge, have been virtually eradicated. Now there’s a certain amount of prestige associated with shooting film. Film photographers do face challenges, but in many ways this may very well be one of the best times to shoot film.

Film photographer in action
Film photographer in action

The cost of Equipment

In times past you had to buy a camera, which cost money, often a significant amount for an SLR. You had to buy film, shoot my first Fischer Price 110 toy camera in the 1980’s took flashbulbs so you had to pay for every flash. Add to that film and processing and you had to pay for every shot.

These days the cost of equipment has cratered. Obviously much of this is due to a significantly large percentage of the people not using film cameras any more. But there’s more. In the old days you cad to source your equipment locally which could either be expensive or limit your choices. Today robust person to person markets like Ebay, Facebook, Etsy, etc have made finding the gear you want easy and it’s brought the gray market for used gear to the forefront. On top of it, resellers’ asking price is usually double or triple their cost (paying price). eBay (along with paypal) take about 15%. 200-300% vs 15%, that’s a HUGE difference and great for both buyers and sellers.

Lets talk about some specific areas in which the price of equipment has bottomed out.

35mm:
There’s several areas in this category but they’re all waaaay cheaper that decades prior. You can literally buy a point and shoot autofocus camera at a thrift shop for about $5. A canon AE-1 SLR sells for as little as $55 on eBay* or an EOS 650 kit for $20, Spotmatic SLRs are often under $50.

Everything is surprisingly cheap except one thing: exceptional lenses. Virtually any old fast lens is going to be surprisingly expensive. There are two reasons for this. One is that they were comparatively rare, generally meant for the professional market. Secondly, are mirrorless digital SLRs. There are adapters to mount almost any lens to say a Sony mirrorless. Topcon to Sony? you bet! Canon FD to Sony, sure. M39 to Sony? You’d e crazy not to. There are tons of people rediscovering these great old lenses and using them on new digital cameras. It’s a thing. For a lot of systems though you take a small step back, like an FD 50/1.4 instead of the 50/1.2 and you’ll see a huge drop in price. Basically the tippy top dollar stuff still gets top dollar.

Awesome Lenses

Medium Format:
Holy cow, it’s hard to even know where to start here. Back in the early aughts when I was trying to become a professional wedding photographer the first thing you needed was a medium format kit (wide/normal/tele, more than one back) and a medium format back up (could be a cheaper TLR) all of which had to be 6×6 or 6×7 (no 645, no Kievs). Back then, and we’re talking 13-15 years ago, the cheapest you’d find a used kit was around $2000 if you were super lucky. That would be for a Bronica or maybe an old RB67.

Today, that Bronica Kit is less than $400. A Hasselblad kit is under $1.5k, and that’s top of the line! If you want to start experimenting with medium format you can get into a Mamiya 645 kit for $200-300. Literally, used medium format cameras are often 5-10 times cheaper than the were a decade and a half ago.

Bronica SQa Medium Format Film Camera

Large Format:
This area is more hit an miss. It’s been a niche for sometime now. Both 35mm and medium format are more popular formats than 4×5 to 8×10. Yet there are deals to be had. A monorail 4×5 is under $200. While the Graflex Speedgraphic has been holding steady at around $250 for some time now, it’s cousin the Busch Pressman can be found for around $100.

Nice LF field camera

Studio:
In some areas studio equipment has blown wide open. A Novation kit that used to run $600-800 is now $150. If you stay off the beaten path and with older equipment, you’ll reap the most rewards. Just measure that sync voltage and know what you’re camera’s rated for! But a Bowens 400b for under $50!?! Alienbees have always held their value well. Profoto, Hensel, Brocolor, and Speedotron are some name brand that have always been pricey but if you start looking for Calumet, Balcar, Bowens, Novatron and others will yield deals. Then there’s the effect of Chinese imports. A huge Octabox that would have been hundreds of dollars, is now $150! Soft boxes, umbrellas, reflectors, adapter rings, grids, snoots, barn doors, everything is half to a third of what it cost a decade ago.

On the other side of studio equipment is grip gear. Light stands, clamps, background holders, dollies, etc. This stuff used to be expensive. A good light stand, like a matthews or a Bogen cine stand could run you $100 easy. A similar stand made in China is now $30, for a 2 pack, with free shipping! Super clamps by Manfrotto that were $50 a piece you can now find decent Chinese copies for $10-20 and more suspect copies for $5.

Darkroom
For some things eBay is great. For darkroom equipment it’s “meh” at best. Some darkroom stuff is cheap and plentiful like enlarger lenses, but a lot of this stuff is large and can cost just as much to ship. The solution here is to look on Craigslist. Lots of people are selling the darkrooms they haven’t used in a long time. Sometimes these almost turn key darkrooms go for $100 sometimes people don’t quite know what they sell for today and ask crazy prices. For a medium format enlarger with negative carriers, trays, beakers, containers, print washer, tongs, etc, try to stay under $250.

Accessories
All the little things that took big bites out of photographers pockets, from neck straps, to filters, lens hoods, camera splash-proofing, cords, releases, adapters, even flashes are all pretty cheap. A good tripod will still fetch some money, but the quality of the prosumer models has come up quite a bit. With the advent of carbon fiber I’m interested in how long it will be for aluminum tripods to dive in value.

Exceptions:
Here’s where I break your heart. Some of the coolest stuff is still out of reach for mere mortals. Ultra Large Format (bigger than 8×10) and alt processes can often be quite expensive. Ultra Large Format has been an expensive niche probably before I was born and finding equipment to shoot, process, and enlarge/reduce it is expensive. You can probably find some attractively priced projects to rebuild/refurbish but be careful. The rabbit hole is deep. Alt process suffers similarly. It’s a niche, much of the stuff is custom made, difficult to do, time consuming, and expensive, hence why few people do it! Some of it’s just the materials. Platinum printing is expensive because it uses platinum.

Film and paper are a bit of both worlds. If you buy either new, it will cost you and the costs have been going up. $7-ish for a roll of 36 exposure roll of Fuji Neopan Acros for example. That would have been a lot for a iso100, black and white roll even a couple years ago. You can still find ok deals on Arista at freestylephoto.biz. Brands like Fomapan, Kentmere, or Ultrafine are next but Kodak, Fuji, and Ilford are not cheap. The awesome old cheap films like Efke, Shanghai, or Lucky are gone. Still new films are still coming out. Japan Camera hunter just released 400iso black and white Street Pan film. Film Ferrania is coming out with a new E-6 film. The impossible project keeps making new advances and releasing new products. Fuji just released a B&W instax film. There’s still a lot going on in film but I fear we’ll see more discontinuations from the large manufacturers as it becomes more difficult to profit from making huge amounts of film.

boxes of film

You can buy previously owned film on eBay and sometimes score a good deal. Just remember black and white is pretty hardy and keeps well, color less so. Also the Film Photography Project buys large bulks of sometimes expired film and hand rolls it. Sometimes they offer specials that are really good, like under $4/roll.

Paper that you print on is a similar bag. Arista, Foma, and Ultrafine are reasonably priced, everything else is almost shocking. Where I’ve had the best such is buying previously owned paper on eBay. There are great deals, but they’re often in the gray market.

Knowledge

Now let’s dig into the barrier of knowledge. We’re at a point in history where you can learn just about ANYTHING where ever you have a smart phone and a decent internet connection. In fact, at the time of writing this article, Youtube is the 2nd largest search engine after Google. If you want to start in film photography you can pretty quickly watch and learn:

How to load 35mm

How to load Medium Format cameras

How to develop black and white film at home

How to develop color film

How to print black and white photos in a darkroom

Handling and loading large format film

Looking for something more advanced? How about a six part series on Broil printing?

This is just an idea of some of the video learning materials out there for learning film photography. I don’t want to sound like a broken record the the “back in my day…” but seriously this is amazing. Video learning didn’t become big at all until VHS came out and then it was expensive. We’re talking $30+ per tape.

Now you can’t always learn everything all by yourself. Sometimes steps are unclear or confusing, or there are competing methods or products. Sometimes you need to ask someone with experience which way is right for you. Pre-2000-ish this would have been photography teachers, maybe workshops, or photography clubs. Today you have online communities.

This is another Big Deal. You can post a question or ask for reviews, criticism, etc on many of these forums and get responses pretty fast. Also there has been shift in the attitude of many professional photographers. Even as recently as 2003 I remember discussing ‘trade secrets’ of studio photography that instructors purposely didn’t teach. They wanted to hold something back, a secret ingredient if you will. Now people are excited to share everything they know. Some great communities I’ve participated in include:

Flickr – they have groups based around formats, cameras, films, subjects, it’s incredible.
Apug – a large community based on film photography
JPGmag – not specifically film, but they have film contributors
Lomography – THE LoFi film photography headquarters
Film Photography project – Great deals on film and supplies and regular film-centric discussions
Facebook groups such as Traditional Film Photography, Analog Photography, Film Photographers, The Darkroom, and more!
Reddit – there are subreddits like Darkroom, Toy Cameras, Analog Photography, etc.

There are probably considerably more more. Bottom line is that there is tons of support in this endeavor. Also many of these can be outlets for your work as well. If there’s some I missed that you particularly like that include specifically film photography, please leave some details and a link in the comments!film photography pros and cons

Another area related to learning and knowledge in film photography is books. Specifically Amazon has a treasure trove of previously owned books on film photography that are nearly free +shipping. This is just the tip of the iceberg for $0.01 books you can get on the subject of film photography (hint: look under used & new):

The Darkroom Handbook

Black and White Photography A Basic Manual

Beyond Basic Photography – A Technical Manual

Pro Techniques of People Photography

Master Lighting Guide for Portrait Photographers

Light Science and Magic – An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

The Print – Contact Printing and Enlarging by Ansel Adams

Camera and Lens – The Creative Approach by Ansel Adams

Michael Langford – 35mm Handbook

Practical glamour photography

Secrets of Lighting on Location

Some of these are classics (like anything by Ansel Adams), others not so much. There are MANY, many more. It may take some looking but there are truly some gems available for next to nothing. Shipping is typically $3.99 (at the time of this writing) so for $4 per book, you can build a seriously awesome film photography library quickly!

Time:

For sure all that learning can be done on your time, when you’re able and ready to do it. The time I’m talking about is the time spent behind the camera, pushing the shutter button.

See when film was the only option was expensive to get good at photography. If you were shooting black and white and processing yourself maybe $3-5/roll of 36, not including equipment. It takes roughly an hour to process the film and maybe 15-20 minutes to contact print it. It took a LONG time to get good at shooting.

Today a great thing for film photography is digital photography. Wait, what!? Seriously. You can pick up a cheap digital SLR for a couple hundred and shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot with it, learning and developing a style. Then when you want to shoot “for real” you break out the film. You can cheaply learn and burn on digital and take the concepts you cultivate over to film.

Don’t get me wrong, I try to carry a film camera with me as much as possible. Many time’s it’s come in handy. There are just some things I wouldn’t shoot on film. Items for an eBay auction or to put on craig’s list for example. Plenty of snapshots that I take are digital only. However, those snaps help inform my film photography. They develop my eye, my style, my framing, etc. You can grow as a photographer faster with digital, but you can use that experience with film.

Also you can use digital as a “polaroid.” Polaroid mad film and cameras that printed the image out immediately. There was only one positive made from that shot (excepting Type 55). Professional photographers would use that polaroid test shot to calibrate their exposure to a film. Today you can use you dSLR to help determine exposure. This is especially helpful if you’re using studio lights!

Prestige:

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a certain amount of clout that comes with being a film photographer. So much so it’s often used by professional photographers, at least in the advertising. Pick up an American Photo or Rangefinder and there’s a decent chance you’ll see a portrait of a photographer holding a film camera. Her are just two examples I’ve found with the details obscured. I don’t want it to seem like I’m calling anyone out in particular if they’re not actually a film photographer! More to the point that they’re using a public perception that film photographers have an edge.

This one amuses me a bit because it states participants need to bring their own SLR even though the pictured instructor is holding a twin (not single!) lens camera:

pro with a film camera
pro with a film camera

This shot of a wedding photographer was actually used to sell digital printing services. I don’t think the company even offered film services. (please excuse the iPhone ‘scan’).

pro with a film camera
pro with a film camera

Here’s another one I saw in a bike magazine for a photo contest. Seriously, if you’re shooting the cover with a large format camera and magnesium flash for nothing more than ‘exposure’ you’re more dedicated than I!

film camera biker mag contest

Basically if you actually show up some where with a film camera, people know (rightly or wrongly) that you’re serious. Clout, prestige, mad props, respect, what ever you want to call it, there’s a certain amount given to film photographers for being just that.

The Challenge

Very recently the challenge was the idea of keeping the medium alive. Film stocks were being discontinued, papers discontinued, manufacturers shutting doors. That’s still happening a little, but it seems there’s a turnaround. Kodak has said so, Ilford has retooled for sustainability in the new market, and people are picking up film in record numbers.

Today the biggest challenge for a film photographer is in making film photography into something more than a hobby. Truly that can be said for any photographer. Even people who’ve been doing this for 20 years say it’s like pulling teeth to sell a print. I concur. I only sell a couple hundred dollars in prints a year. It’s tough. This is true for a lot of artists like musicians or even those making videos and movies. It’s just become more difficult to get consumers to pay for media and chances are we’re all guilty of it.

As a photographer, you can’t just publish a book, get a rep and be set. There’s only a handful of people making a living at it. You have to work at least as hard at building an audience as you do on your photography. Building that audience, competing for those eyeballs, is a complicated and a long term strategy. There is no more “If you build it they will come.” You can’t “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” The time of those slogans has past. You have to self promote, self promote, self promote!

Conclusion

So there it is all laid out. If you’ve always wanted a really nice camera, learn how to use it, and master the art and craft of film photography, then there may be no better time than the present to take the plunge. The barriers have never been lower though the same could be said for the worldly rewards.

Agree? Disagree? Thoughts? Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments. As always, if you like feel free to share it using the buttons below!

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