Film Photography Never Made a Comeback

I take photography as a hobby. I like taking photos of beautiful scenery and intriguing street scenes. I’ve started taking photos around the beginning of the 90s, and I fell in love with photography since. I started with a compact film (analog) camera from Minolta — a Japanese camera manufacturer now merged with Konica, another renowned Japanese camera maker. I took several photos on different subjects: landscape, people, objects, and pets. It was fun taking photos, imagining how everything would work inside the camera to produce a photo. It’s exciting to see how those photos would actually look after developing the film.

Photo by Andrey Konstantinov on Unsplash

Time went by, and the world moved on with new technologies. I switched from my beloved Minolta to an Olympus with automatic date-imprint function and zooming lens; more fun was added to my photography world. Then to a couple of pocket-size compact digital cameras before moving on to a DSLR with an all-angle LCD screen. I’m still taking photos these days, and I’ve been enjoying some monetary benefits from the hobby for a few years. I did not turn out as a professional photographer, which might be why I feel blissful joy in photography. I enjoy creating beautiful and meaningful scenes in my mind and trying to capture them, be it a street full of people, on a mountain so high you can get lost in the clouds, a refreshing seaside, or inside a room with beautiful subjects.

A serene street scene with subtly beautiful color contrasts taken with a Konica C35 EF on Kodak ColorPlus 200 35mm film — © Author

I’ve lost touch with film photography for a while. Until about a year ago, hypnotized by the media trends, I started to regain my fascination with film photography. I rummaged the stash in my childhood home only to find out that the compact film cameras I used to have, albeit in a very ‘good-looking’ condition, were not working anymore. Disappointed, I continued my search on eBay and felt like hitting a (paid) treasure throve. I just discovered a world of a film camera online. There were all kinds of offers on eBay, ranging from cheap single-use film cameras made of paper to near-mint vintage collectible items with seemingly surreal prices.

An ice-cream seller and his cart walking the Bangkok streets taken with a Canon Canonet QL 17 on Fomapan profi line creative black and white film © Author

I decided to treat myself with a fully-functioning 43-year-old compact manual film camera from Konica. It’s an updated version of the “Pikkari.” This camera is older than me and takes beautiful photos. I’ve taken it to places and have had a good time taking many photos with it. I fell in love with film photography for the second time.

As I have a small online business with my digital photography going, I’ve been thinking about doing the same thing with my film photography. I’m aware that many people love film photography as I do, but I still have doubts. The number of photos taken on film peaked around 2000 and then dropped drastically along with the film industry, making way to advanced digital cameras. Of course, film photography is based on outdated technologies. But what’s with the buzz these days?

I started looking at the trends from Google Trends. The initial research shows a steady decline in the interest of the ‘digital camera’ search term over the years since 2004; the earliest Google Trends can reach back.

Web search trend for ‘digital camera’ search term from Google Trends since 2004

Interestingly, there’s no distinct up or downtrend for the ‘film camera’ search term during the same period.

Web search trend for ‘film camera’ search term from Google Trends since 2004

Since 2004, the popularity of the ‘digital camera’ search term has been towering high over that of ‘film camera,’ until recently. The popularity of the two search terms seems to be on the same level from 2018 on.

Web search trends comparison between ‘film camera’ and ‘digital camera’ search terms from Google Trends since 2004

Smartphones are getting better at taking digital photos. They are more convenient to carry around, and, in many cases, are cheaper than most entry-level Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras. So, it’s not surprising to see the overall drop in the popularity of the ‘digital camera’ search term in the online world.

From a narrower time frame starting from 2019, ‘film camera’ and ‘digital camera’ search terms seem to have gained similar popularity on the Internet.

Web search trends comparison between ‘film camera’ and ‘digital camera’ search terms from Google Trends since 2019

Judging by the fact that there has been no distinct trend for ‘film camera’ since 2004, one may conclude that the film camera's popularity has never really gone away. Instead, the seemingly ‘comeback’ seems to be the result of everything else’s looses of popularity.

I also tried to compare a specific category of cameras and found an interesting insight.

Web search trends comparison between ‘SLR camera’ and ‘DSLR camera’ search terms from Google Trends since 2004

Although the number of photos captured on film peaked around 2000, DSLR cameras' online popularity surpassed their analog counterpart only in mid-2012. This was because professional and semi-professional photographers, the majority who used film SLR cameras, had always been harder to part with the ‘perfected’ technology back in the day. Film SLR technology had been matured long before the advent of digital cameras. No professional would risk compromising the quality of their works with unfamiliar technology. The DSLR trend, however, peaked in 2017 and declining ever since. There may be a time in the future when the two trends meet on the same level as we’ve seen before with the more generic ‘digital camera’ and ‘film camera’ search terms.

I would not say that film photography is making a comeback. Instead, it has never really gone away. Of course, the demand will most likely not increase steadily over time, but the trend is not a ‘flat line.’ In some countries such as Thailand, the online interest of ‘film camera’ recently topped ‘digital cameras.’

Web search trends comparison between ‘film camera’ and ‘digital camera’ search terms from Google Trends in 2018 and 2019 in Thailand — the popularity of ‘film camera’ topped ‘digital camera’ in 2019 by a substantial 16%

The saying “film is not dead” rings true, even in 2020.

There have even been new additions to the collectible single-use film cameras as a marketing campaign from popular brands such as KitKat.

‘Mint in Package’ — a collectible single-use film camera from KitKat distributed in Thailand late 2019 — © Author

From a business perspective, many things are revolving around film photography. Those who take up this hobby are buying film cartridges of various sizes (more sizes than only the popular 35mm film), polaroid paper, cameras themselves, lenses, film developing equipment, and chemicals to develop the film. One can try to capitalize on the ‘collectible trend’ by speculating the value of rare film photography items. One can also benefit from consumables, such as film rolls, papers, and chemicals. One can even try to catch on the new technology for film developing and scanning with new equipment, or even with mobile apps, for those purposes.

Photography has always been a pleasure for me. My thought about why film photography is so persistent is that nothing can replace the ‘clicky’ sound of the shutter release actions and the strangely satisfying feeling I get every time I move the film advance lever. Of all the business opportunities mentioned, I can always try to produce film photographs with aesthetic values. And as far as ‘film is not dead’ goes, I hope to keep on contributing to the world of film photography as long as I possibly can. Everyone can also try.

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