Like being in a post-apocalyptic film.
That’s what being an analog photographer sometimes feels like. Just Will Smith, Samantha and me, having miraculously survived the virus, being filled with hope with each new discovery of yet another pocket of survivors somewhere around the world.
Having been re-immersed in analog photography for five years now, I have located numerous survivors around the globe, and am in direct contact with many of them. But I still often wonder: What is the scope of the movement, really? How many people are actively using film? How much film is being produced?
To start finding answers to these questions, I contacted Nicolas Llasera. Nicolas, a lover of all things related to film, started a YouTube channel in 2015, making videos about analog topics and equipment. In 2016 he launched Nico’s Photo News, a weekly news round-up from the analog world, covering products, start-ups, manufacturing, and industry developments. After 236 episodes, Nico has an overview of the business like no one else. Two years ago, Nico and his family moved from Bilbao, Spain to Tampere, Finland to help manage Camera Rescue/Kamerastore there.
“How much film is being made these days?”, I asked him. “There’s no way to know for sure,” he responded. He said he had asked Ilford Photo in the UK a year ago about their annual production of black and white film. “Yes!” I said. “I just contacted Ilford and Foma in the Czech Republic with the same question two weeks ago.” “Well, be prepared to wait a while for a response from both of them,” he said. “I’m still waiting on mine.” The suspicion is that it is not so much a corporate strategy to keep this information secret, but rather that these companies are involved in film production and not used to preparing these kinds of business numbers for public distribution.
Maybe there were other ways of getting a feel for the size of the community. I started looking at circumstantial indicators. In my own browser, I have, over the years, saved some 45 addresses of photography stores worldwide – most with actual store locations – that deal either exclusively or principally in analog products. And I have used the mail order services of many of them. Some are megastores like B&H in New York or Fotoimpex in Berlin that do huge amounts of on-line business. And the stores are to be found not only in North America and Europe, but in Japan, Philippines, South America, Australia, Malta, India, and elsewhere.
Analog enthusiasts do much of their connecting and networking via YouTube and Instagram. I personally am subscribed to some 70 YouTube analog photography channels. Most produce two to three videos a month, some weekly. There are photo expeditions, gear reviews, discussions about technique, philosophy, and approach. The most successful of them have subscriber numbers in the tens of thousands, such as Nico’s Photography Show, 31,000; Nick Carver, 101,000; Kyle MacDougall, 99,500; Steve O’Nions, 32,400; Japan Camera Hunter, 24,100, and there are countless smaller YouTubers with creative and useful material.
On the Instagram side there are also more than you can count. And with impressive follower numbers, as well. Many analog Instagramers have 10, 20, 30,000 followers. The Ilford Photo page has almost a half a million. And the historical greats of pre-digital times are still enormously popular: @anseladams, 200,000, @vivianmaierarchive, 222,000. I discover new analog practitioners on Instagram every day, all doing wonderful work.
Recently I chatted with Lina Bessonova, a very active film photographer living in Florence and near Berlin. She told me to guess which cities in the world had the most of her 44,900 Instagram followers. Much to my surprise, Mexico City was number one! Second was Santiago, Chile – no less surprising – followed by London, New York and Berlin. She has noticed an explosion of growth in film photography in India and South America in the last years. Her husband, Mirko Böddecker, owns Fotoimpex in Berlin and produces the line of Adox film and darkroom products in Germany and Switzerland. He has seen unbroken growth in sales and the demands for film, darkroom materials and lab services for years now. Especially the film manufacturers and the photo labs can hardly keep up with the demand.
The clouds in the post-apocalyptic film I’m trapped in are beginning to part, the far-flung enclaves are coming to light!
Another success story is Kamerastore and Camera Rescue in Tampere, Finland, where Nico is helping guide the young business into the future. In 2017 Juho Leppänen and a couple of his idealistic friends decided to look for long-forgotten film cameras languishing in attics and basements. Their goal at the time was to find 100,000 cameras, repair and clean them, and send them back into re-use. By 2021 they had already reached that goal. In the meantime, they have become one of the largest dealers in used cameras and accessories in the world. They have a team of around 30 people, have begun a school for camera mechanics and train apprentices in their shop. Since 2010 they have helped over 30,000 customers and have some 12,000 items in stock.
Nico said that they have also experienced continuous, steady growth since the beginning. Perhaps there are signs of a slight tapering off, he said, but it’s too early to tell. Europe is experiencing rising costs of living and inflation now, which is taking a toll on consumer spending in general. He thinks the future for film looks good. But it behooves the industry to keep careful watch on the emerging market of younger people, he thinks. While older customers are more interested in the high quality, professional cameras like Hasselblad, Leica, and Rolleiflex and black and white film, younger people are more attracted to color film, point-and-shoot cameras and instant film cameras. Fujifilm’s Instax Instant Film, for example, is the 14th most favorite item on Amazon! And in Amazon’s film category, Instax and Polaroid films have the top six spots of the most popular films sold.
So how many analog photographers are there out there? We are getting closer to an answer.
Ari Jaaksi, another YouTuber who just happens to also live in Tampere, Finland, is an avid film photographer who spent many years as a manager for Nokia, Intel, and other international companies. And he shares his business experience with Nico and colleagues at Kamerastore. He told me that he had been trying to get a rough idea of where the film industry was at the moment, in order to help Kamerastore plan for the future. Here is what we know:
We know that in 1999 Kodak alone was producing some 2 billion rolls of film, but with the advent of digital photography, that fell to 850 million by 2003 and further to around 20 million by 2021.
We know that the total market value of film photography today is between 500 million and 1.2 billion dollars, depending on how you calculate it. In film production, Kodak has revenues of around 200 million dollars, but most of that comes from cinematic film sales. Next comes Ilford Photo with 10 million dollars, Fuji, FOMA, and all the rest.
We know that the film photography market as a whole, as well as the number of consumers and users, has been growing at a rate of around 20% for at least five years.
And we know that more and more new film cameras are entering the market and that the cost of used cameras that were produced from the 1950s through the end of the 1990s have increased markedly over the last five years. Hasselblads from the 1970s and Rolleiflexes from the 1950s even, are costing between one and two thousand dollars, and if they have been professionally serviced, up to $4,000. Six or seven years ago, one could easily find them for $500. And most of these revenues exchange hands from consumer to consumer on Ebay and other auction platforms, and therefore lie in a gray area of the market that is difficult to assess.
From all these rough, ballpark figures, Ari extrapolates that there are probably between five and six million people worldwide who are actively using analog cameras and film. And that number is growing.
What does all of this tell me? That I am definitely not alone in my love of film photography. That the movement can’t be dismissed as an insignificant niche. That digital and analog photographers should stop viewing each other with suspicion or ridicule, but rather as partners in passion.
What attracts so many to this way of photography? The next article will look at this question. In any case, Will Smith would be happy to know that so many of us have survived!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Smith is a professional choral and orchestral conductor and an amateur photographer and linguist. His photographic interests are in analogue medium and large formats. Born and raised in the USA, he has lived as a dual-national in Switzerland for 40 years.
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