Let me start with a disclaimer, I can often argue for the sake of arguing, mostly because I like a good debate but often also because I find the engagement sparks new ideas.
Is Film really a Growth Market?
With that said, I want to talk about what many are hailing as a mighty film revival in photography. It is an interesting argument, and I cannot deny that something is up. I also cannot comment on global trends with great personal experience as my time is largely spent in Nigeria and South Africa, with my first trip to the USA only completed in April. (It was just a week though).
The facts from where I am standing though is that unlike markets such as the US and UK, (where a niche can still be a sizeable addressable market for a brand) there are no film processing labs re-opening or many more camera stores stocking film than there are camera stores seemingly closing down.
Now you can point to articles like the one from Time which quoted industry players as saying that film is seeing 5% year on year growth, but they also said that the market bottomed out at less than 2% of it highest high of 2003. (Find the Time Article here).
From such a low base, a little resurgence or market forces correcting a demand that maybe knee jerked a little can present what looks like a healthy growth. The real question should be, is it sustainable.
Retro for the Sake of Retro
One could argue that what we are seeing in the film industry is similar to what music is seeing with Vinyl. Part of this comeback is born out of the groups of (insert whatever categorization you wish, Millennials, counterculture etc) that scavenge charity stores and discover retired technology that amazes them and costs nothing.
As with economics, a growing demand with limited supply pushes up prices. Old industries see a “revival” that promises margins well beyond what they would have enjoyed while charity stores were littered with their old products and they relaunch products that drive prices up further. At some point, demand will level out as prices become out of reach for many and the market should find an equilibrium so long as the industry does not push supply beyond the point of demand plateau.
Today a Vinyl record costs a fortune next to a CD which struggles to sell. Shops have record players or turn tables of all kinds and despite all the talk of raw sound quality and uncompressed audio, we are not putting turn tables in cars or trying to take them on our morning run. Practical products meet the needs of the masses and that is most often where businesses seek their ROI.
There is the argument that each photo is a piece of art and it is kind of a counter culture to Instagram. There are other factors that could be pushing an increased interest in film, though I fear without full industry investment – which is highly unlikely – film will plateau and in a few years questions will be asked in C-level executive boardrooms about long term business growth.
Benefits of Film
There are some benefits to film from a workflow perspective that is good to consider. Some of these benefits to my mind are:
- No image processing in Lightroom for hours
- Unique quality to different films that digital still struggles to replicate
- People are less likely to steal your negatives and sometimes even your film camera
- More disciplined shooting style given the limited number of photos per roll and the cost of each fire of the shutter.
The truth is that while there is growing interest in film and film camera prices on the used market are reaching old highs, this could be short lived without a full industry investment for long term profitability and sustainable growth.
What are your thoughts?