Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Working Off Yesterday's Technology

Our second eldest daughter has recently developed an interest in photography and video, for which she bought herself a DSLR camera. However, in the process of explaining things like depth of field, focus, f-stop, and ISO, I'd pulled out my old film SLR cameras which I haven't used in 8+ years in order to explain some concepts. She was interested enough that on her Christmas list she included "rolls of film so I can try Dad's old cameras".

The first thing I checked was whether it was possible to get film developed these days. There were two reasons I finally stopped shooting film. One was that when we bought our first iPhones, I finally succumbed to the convenience of always having a camera in my pocket (even if it wasn't nearly as good) and stopped hauling around the Pentax SLR that was older than I was. The other was that as other people started abandoning film, the surviving local photo labs in grocery and drugstores were clearly decreasing in quality. I had several roles of film ruined by poor handling, and between that and the temptation to have the picture RIGHT NOW in order to email or post it, I'd stopped using the film cameras. The answer is that yes, there are still active photo labs in 2019, both a few down in Columbus proper and also pro/enthusiast labs that do lots of business by mail.

Indeed, as I read around, it turns out that there's a mini-resurgence of interest in film photography in the last few years. Like the resurgence in turntable and vinyl records, film photography is no longer turned to by the mass public as the easiest way to get something done, but there is a community of enthusiasts, both amateurs and professionals, who are now using film cameras not because they're the only way to take pictures, but because they offer specific advantages compared to modern technology: the process of taking pictures and waiting for results is different, the grain of the film emulsion provides a different look from the product of a digital light sensor (though there are apps that can modify digital pictures to have similar looks), and medium and large format film formats objectively gather more detail than even the newest standard DSLR sensors.

There's also a combination of nostalgia and cheapness which is attractive to hobbyists. Because most people have moved on to using smartphones and digital cameras to take pictures, there's a huge number of abandoned film cameras around the country. Thus, the price for buying up old film cameras is very low. The ones which are most sought after now are generally not the highly computerized and motorized auto-everything models which were common shortly before digital photography caused the film photography industry to crash. Because of all their electrical systems, those cameras are hard to maintain in a world where there are no longer many camera repair shops servicing film cameras. Also, they provide a shooting experience not that different from a modern digital camera. The only difference is that all that technology was directed towards exposing film to light rather than exposing a digital sensor to light. Instead, the cameras being picked up used and discussed on "analog photography" sites appear to mostly be older, mostly or all-mechanical cameras of the sort that were made from the 1950s through the 1980s. You can pick up a professional quality all-mechanical 35mm or medium format camera for one or two hundred dollars, and not only have a well-made camera with few electrical parts to fail, but also an interesting, vintage-looking conversation piece. With all metal parts and mechanical controls rather than digital ones, one of these cameras could have decades of use left in it if well taken care of.

But of course, this glut of old cameras coming out of closets and drawers and onto eBay and used camera shops is necessarily a temporary phenomenon. While there are now many more old cameras than there are film photographers, if no one is repairing them professionally and no one is manufacturing new ones, the "my camera is broken, I'll buy another" trick won't work forever. And less visibly, the machinery used by film companies and developing labs is also getting increasingly old. This has caused some worried about the future of film photography to ask, even during the resurgence, is film photography really saved?

The economics of this are fascinating to me. Here there's a devoted but small following of a seemingly out of date technology, and the question becomes: Is their interest sustainable past the the point where they use up the left-over technology to which they're attached. Or can the old technology simply be made to last?

I've seen one version of this play out at a distance hearing my mother talk about the enthusiasm which quilters still have for Singer Featherweight sewing machines: a simply, metal construction, portable sewing machine made from the 1930s to the 1950s and still treasured, used, and maintained by a devoted community of fans. There are now aftermarket companies making parts to maintain singers, and repair shops working on them. But no one has come in to manufacture a new featherweight, despite the fact it clearly has a devoted fan base.

Vinyl records (about which I'll admit I know little) have apparently pushed past that threshold, and there are now companies making new records and new record players.

It remains to be seen whether analog photography fans will make this same jump. A recent kickstarter to build a new 35mm SLR camera to appear to the analog photography community did get funded last year. However it's currently delayed in manufacturing it's camera due to difficulties getting some of the parts needed in sufficient quantities from suppliers used to working with digital camera makers or supplying small numbers of parts to repair shops.

Meanwhile, in the even more exclusive space of large format cameras using sheet film rather than roll film, the Intrepid Camera Company in the UK has got off the ground selling new large format cameras.

I don't know how all this will work out. But it's an interesting discovery, and in the meantime, I'll take advantage of it to try shooting some film again.

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