Not only is camera film still hanging on, but for some it's the only choice.
Jessica Rutherford walked into a camera store in New York City, seeking something that people are looking for less and less these days: film.
She was in the middle of a five-day vacation and she had run out of film for her battered Nikon that she inherited from her uncle. Buying 12 roles of film, she said that her sister and mother used digital cameras to capture their adventures in the Big Apple.
“They tease me for using an old film camera,” said Rutherford, from southwestern Iowa, with a sly smile. “But they don’t laugh when they see the pictures. They’re a lot better than theirs.”
Rutherford is part of a small community who holds on to the photographic emulsions of yesteryear. Though digital photographic technology has mostly overtaken film, the old process still has a firm hold on artists, some professionals and many amateurs. To fans of film, the medium still surpasses digital in quality and the intangibles that make photography magical.
They argue that film does a better job of capturing the bright part of an image and the darker sections. If a digital camera records something or someone in the shadows, for example, the sky will often be white or “blown out.” Also, some say, most film cameras will record higher resolution than most digital cameras. The sensor (the electronic part that captures the light) in most digital cameras is smaller than the size of 35mm film. An image taken by a digital point-and-shoot camera blown up to 11 by 14 inches will lose detail; the individual pixels will probably show up due to electronic noise. A print from film will probably show more image detail, though perhaps with some grain depending on the sensitivity of the film.
Jack Dykinga, a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer who specializes in capturing the landscapes of the western United States on film, is one of those who said he needs the high quality that he believes only film can provide. He uses a 4-by-5 large-format camera, so called because it uses a four by five-inch panel of film to capture an image. He is published regularly in National Geographic magazine and Arizona Highways, one of the most popular landscape magazine in the country.
According to Dykinga, magazines that publish landscape images need to have high-quality, large photographs, and only large film is capable of that.
“For now, film provides more detail which you have to have for landscape work, especially if you are going to display it in a magazine or on a gallery wall,” Dykinga said.
Dykinga said he is not sentimental about film.
“For me cameras are just a tool,” said Dykinga. “I use film because it does the job for me. I enjoy using it. There is something special about it.”
Patricia Goo, a 23-year-old amateur from Portland, Ore., loves using film cameras. She owned some old 35mm Olympus cameras but used an old Rolliflex box camera to photograph New York City’s Central Park on a recent spring day.
She loves the smell and feel of a roll of film and the nearly 3D look of the prints she gets from her camera. She loves not knowing exactly what her pictures will look like until she gets them developed.
“Everybody wants instant pictures,” said Goo, hugging her camera to her chest. “There’s just something magical about not knowing what you have. Film goes against the instant gratification society tells us we are supposed to want. There is just something beautiful about waiting to see if you have got something magical.”
Despite what its adherents say are the inherent advantages of film, sales of film have dropped 25 to 30 percent for the last four years. In 2006, 204 million rolls of film were sold, a quarter of what was sold in 1999. The transition to film has led to the demise of names once synonymous with cameras.
Polaroid, formally one of the powerhouse successes of the photography industry, once employed more than 20,000 people making its iconic instant-film cameras in the late 1970s, but has only 150 employees left. The company announced it expects supplies of its film to run out completely by 2009.
Though developments like these strike fear in the hearts of enthusiasts, spokesmen for the two leading film manufacturers, Kodak and Fuji, said they are committed to film production for the foreseeable future. And Kodak still makes Kodachrome, a slide film that once dominated the photography world but which film buffs rarely use anymore.
The decline of film should come as no surprise, said Ken Rockwell, a photographer in La Jolla, Calif., who runs a popular camera review and advice Web site. He said the public is more interested in convenience than quality and that has been true since the beginning of photography.
He traced the conquering of quality by convenience: the Kodak Brownie sold by the millions, eclipsing the huge box cameras of the 19th century; the 35mm camera becoming the industry standard in the mid-20th century over the larger format cameras; and now digital cameras nearly wiping out film.
“A lot of people think of 35mm as a quality film format,” said Rockwell. “Historically it was popularized by photojournalists because it was small and convenient. Now digital cameras, which are so much easier to use, are just the next step in the progression.”
Rockwell predicts that the popularity of cameras in digital phones will surpass stand alone cameras. Most people will not want to carry a camera when they can use their phones to snap a picture.
“Not many people care if the image is lousy. They just want to send picture to their friends,” he said.
Rockwell said digital cameras will eventually surpass film in most ways, but until then many will turn to film to fill artistic and professional roles.
Lynn Harrison is one of those who have contributed to film’s decline.
Harrison is a Los Angeles-based artist who began in film and now has dedicated herself to digital. She grew up using traditional cameras and when she began her training as an artist at university in Long Beach, Ca., she used film. But when many of her friends began using digital cameras and manipulating the images with computer programs like Photoshop, she was hooked. She is now an enthusiastic supporter of digital and uses nothing but digital cameras.
To Harrison, digital cameras are a liberating force in her life. The images are easily transferable from camera to computer to printer, she said, eliminating the hassle of getting film developed. She thinks the convenience of digital far outweighs any of films benefits. She pointed to the abilities of a digital camera to change light sensitivity, equivalent to being able to change film speed with a twist of a dial.
“Film is beautiful and is a warmer medium but digital has so many advantages, it’s just so easy to use and so flexible,” Harrison said.