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Film – the numbers say goodbye

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The rapid decline of film use in photography

Why film use fell off the cliff

Despite regular ‘Film is making a comeback’ articles, its decline is rapid.

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Film use declines faster than ever

DxO FilmPack

Film – not dead yet

A few years ago (2003) I wrote some guidelines for people looking for a camera. In it I confidently expected that whilst digital was the future, film would be round for ‘quite some time’.

In a recent AP report, based on US data, it seems that I was being seriously optimistic.

AP report is no longer available – the version found on NPR has also evaporated. It’s almost like the article had a use-by date [PMA]
There is this PDF from the PMA from 2009

2016: This copy of the NPR article is available via

Based on PMA researarch (U.S. Photo Marketing Association) it seems that film use has declined 95% since the turn of the century, whilst film camera sales (not incl. disposables) have dropped 99.5% from the near 20 million sold in 2000.

In the UK, a couple of major photo supplies outfits  (primarily aimed at the pro and serious amateur) recently said that over the last decade (2000-2010) film sales (and associated dark room equipment) have dropped by 90%

Most of the remaining 10% was for universities/colleges and a small amount going to a few serious amateurs and then a few pro’s still working in film.

When the universities stop teaching film, much of it’s support infrastructure is likely to go all together, as the remaining market (~2% of 2000 levels) is not enough to support the industry. Kodachrome has gone – more will follow.

Should film use still be core to photography courses?

In a recent discussion on a Pro Photographers list, people wondered if film use should still be taught to students looking for a career in photography? (note the career bit!)

Whilst I’d like to see it as an option for people to explore -if they want-, the days of its general use for the business of photography are gone.

Whilst several people essentially suggested that it was ‘too easy’ with digital, I found myself agreeing with the person who pointed out the complaints when people moved from glass plates to the very much cheaper roll film:
“It does make you very lazy using a film with 36 frames rather than a box of glass plates.”

If you want to learn with chemical based systems, I’m minded to think that people should perhaps look at large format.

Canon view camera adapter

I learnt a lot about camera movements with this view camera adapter for my DSLR – Film free

If you want to learn about movements, then a view camera and MF back will help (or my homemade DSLR view camera adapter). However, given the looks of curiosity I get when using Canon tilt/shift lenses, it looks as this isn’t a popular course option.

As to general photography – learn digital, it’s what you’re going to be using if you ever get a real paying job. If I’m hiring someone, I’m not really that impressed if they can tell me the correct dilution of D76 for Tri-X at 20C – actually I’m more interested in their people and communication skills.

Perhaps, because I’ve only ever used digital in my professional work, I just don’t see the relevance of film as a -mainstay- of any course. There will always be some attracted to the craft (and perceived ‘artiness’) of film, so I’d put film into the optional parts of any course.

I don’t agree with the ‘slow it down’ movement either – then again I rarely ever use a tripod for my landscapes (architecture/interiors yes, landscape no)

I’ve long regarded many of the ‘purity of film’ style arguments as indicative more of people’s comfort with the old and familiar, than any real reflection on the capabilities and challenges of the new. I just don’t buy all the ‘taking time’ stuff – if you want to play it like that, send people out with just one 512MB card and insist they use RAW (to fill the card up quickly)

Moving to digital and the ability to experiment, iteratively at minimal cost, and rapidly compare techniques and approaches has worked wonders for both the technical and creative sides of my own photography.

I’d argue that my digital work shows a much deeper understanding and interpretation of light than I ever managed with a purely chemical approach (manipulation in itself). Certainly I’d not have been happy trying to produce the equivalent of a 12 foot long panoramic B/W woodland print that I recently worked on (and printed on our Canon iPF8300, which lives in my old darkroom)

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  • Keith | Jan 16, 2012 at 10:48 am

    That is true – it perhaps should be.. ‘correct, for any specific use’

    Something lost? …or something gained but not appreciated? It is a basic part of our sense of values to ascribe higher importance to something where a lot of effort has gone into it.

    I note the violent reaction of some people after finding out that music or art they had looked at was computer generated
    (only an article intro I’m afraid)

    The chemical processes are often thought harder to perfect, and digital as ‘too easy’ – giving the perception to some that digital isn’t as ‘worthy’

  • Andrea McLaughlin | Jan 16, 2012 at 9:04 am

    There isn’t a “correct” dilution of D-76 for TX at a specific temperature! It doesn’t work like that. Different dilutions (straight, 1:1, 1:2, 1:3) do different things. Just like there’s no “correct” lens for a Nikon camera for outdoor photography.

    Otherwise a fine article. I agree that film will disappear at some point. But then again…I’ve noticed a big resurgence in interest in tintypes. Could be there’s something in the chemical processes that is lost with digital.

  • Keith | Jul 16, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Yes, it has a niche, but the point was that the niche is shrinking faster than many had thought…

    Fun is one thing, but from my own business POV it has no relevance any more. I see little evidence of its use in any profitable photography businesses.

    Oh and what you see as ‘doom and gloom’ I prefer to see as exciting change :-) I see far more negativity and defensiveness coming from some of the later day film evangelists.

    Use whatever works for you – just go out and take more photos :-)

  • Paul Jenkin | Jul 16, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    Sorry guys but despite all the doom, gloom and negativity that some digital evangelists actively promote, film is still here, in volume and will be here for a very long time to come.

    Digital may have stolen the lion’s share of the market by volume but film is a very strong niche, both amateur and professional, and from a purely aesthetic perspective I don’t think there’s anything that can currently better the look of a chemical print from a film negative.

    Oh, and by the way, just in case you think I’m a hardcore film nut, I own and use a Nikon D700, Canon G10, Panasonic Lumix LX3 as well as medium format and 35mm film cameras.

    Why limit yourself to one medium when you can have fun with both??

  • Stefan Ohlsson | Jun 25, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    The link to the AP report isn’t working.

  • Keith | Jun 2, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Indeed – I miss it evert so often, and think of putting some into a camera. Then I think of all the hassles and grab my 1Ds3 and go out and take some photos :-)

  • Lorenzo | Jun 2, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    I don’t miss film at all. Although I sometimes like the “artiness” look of some pictures I don’t see it as necessary and it can be faked quite effectively by software. I haven’t ruined any clothes with foul smelling chemicals and I can use my bathroom without moving half of my stuff. If digital wasn’t as good and useful as it is it would never would have caught up the way it has.

  • Keith | Jun 1, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Yes and I have a case full of Mamiya 645 kit – must get round to using again ;-)

  • John Fanchamps | Jun 1, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Oh dear, I knew I should have sold the EOS 1V whilst there was still film to put in it!

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