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Thread: The hopeful future of film photography

  1. #1

    Join Date
    Dec 2003

    The hopeful future of film photography

    Let me say up-front that this is all speculation-- albeit educated speculation-- and not based on any solid facts, other than history and experience. I am not a prophet (nor the son of a prophet...), but I do think that my prediction is reasonable.
    Let me begin with the computer industry in general. There is a general principle called "Moore's Law" which is widely considered to be accurate (to a point) and should hold for the foreseeable future. It basically says that there is an exponential rate of progress in the speed of transistors to the amount of time that passes-- e.g., that the speed doubles every two years. Anyone who has been watching the progress of chip-speed advancement knows that this has held, ever since Moore postulated it in the mid-60s. I've been simply astonished at the chips available today, and the raw power that they represent; it is not only possible to get a 3.4 Ghz Intel processor today, but they are becoming common as offerings in mid-to-high-end desktop machines.
    That said, I don't know anyone who owns one-- in fact, I don't even know anyone who wants to own one. There are basically two realms of computing that utilize such lightning-fast chipsets: gamers and video editors (and, ironically, the video editors almost exclusively use Apple Macintosh machines, to Intel's chagrin). No one else-- not even hardcore professional photo manipulators-- require this sort of technology, nor will they for another year or even two (at which point, according to Moore's Law, we will have chips twice as fast...). There is simply more speed and power in those high-speed Pentium 4s than the average computing world could ever use.
    As a result, the computer industry is no longer supplying according to demand when it comes to the fastest chips. Instead, they are progressing (because they must, to stay competitive with one another) for the sake of progress. It is useful to know that, when Windows 2010 or Mac OS C requires it, I will have the chipspeed required to run my system at a comfortable pace; however, there is no true stake in the highest-speed chips for guys like me (and most, if not all, of you).
    What does this have to do with photography? I think everything. The most clear and present threat to film photography is the digital photography industry. "Listening" to some of the discussions here, one might think otherwise: it might be inferred that the enemies of traditional film photography (and especially the less mainstream avenues of it, such as Large Format) are the manufacturers, who, with malice aforethought, discontinue our most precious products to spite the buyer and control what sorts of photography we're even able to do. They are simply following their business charters, however, which says that they must turn a profit.
    As digital photography has progressed, it has become (for many) a truly viable alternative to film photography. In fact, at this point, the main things which prohibit the average snapshooter from converting totally are convenience and the too-high costs of ink cartridges. For more serious shooters, issues of convenience are less of a factor than image permanence, but there still remain only a few obstacles from making the jump. Granted, this is obviously less the case for a Medium-Format photographer, as digital equipment gets very costly very quickly, and almost every Large Format photographer is stuck with a hybrid-digital option at best, as few can afford the equipment it takes to go 100% LF digital. However, the threat remains, as the photo industry takes its cues, on average, from the "pro-sumer" who usually shoots a high-end 35mm SLR. And the profits that the industry must produce are found right now in the film-to-digital-conversion market; witness the Nikon D100, etc.
    While the threat to film photography exists, I don't think it will stand the test of time to prevail over film photography. Moore's Law works with digital camera transistors, too, and before very long, the same phenomenon we see now with the processor in the average desktop computer will occur in the digital photography world: namely, that there will be more pixels, more megabytes (or gigabytes), and more resolution than a photographer could ever need, no matter what Epson develops. It is bound to happen, since we are already to the point where most point-and-shoot (or as we used to call them at the camera store, PHD-- "push here, dummy") digitals can print up to 8x10 with little or no difference from a 35mm negative enlargement.
    Why, then, is there hope for film photography? Because when this happens-- when every digital camera can print flawless poster-sized prints-- people will quit buying cameras for their lack of limitations, and will start buying cameras for the sake of photography again. And, just like folks who shoot 35mm film often get around to trying (and liking) larger formats, folks who shoot digital will often get around to trying film photography. Thus, the digital photography "movement" that we are experiencing now, rather than posing a true long-term threat to film photography, will actually be a benefit, a refinement of sorts, to good photography.
    As a result of this, I see the implications for the industry being this: those companies that can and will hold onto their "traditional" lines of equipment and supplies will, in 5-7 years' time, become quite successful, even profitable, in those areas. Those companies which can't, or won't, will regret it, but the absence of their weak commitments to the future of photography will not hurt us in the end.

  2. #2

    The hopeful future of film photography

    Stunning disertation Ed , I hope(and think) you are probably right. Its been my experience in life that humankind is always atracted to next new shiny thing but ends up coming full circle after discovering it didn't cure all ills of their lives or produce instant enlightenment. For those who favor digital please don't get ruffled: all photography is just a tool for self expression wether it is digital, traditional or alt-process and to declare one superior to another is like monnet tell van gogh he's using the wrong brush! Rock On

  3. #3

    Join Date
    Apr 2001
    Culver City

    The hopeful future of film photography

    Should I be investing in an abacus manufacturer?

    It seems your argument, if we return to the computer realm, is that computers will become so powerful and cheap that everyone will suddenly become interested in calculating on an abacus. Abacus production will experience a renaissance.

    I look forward to the rise of "hand calculated" computation!

  4. #4

    Join Date
    Dec 2000
    Tonopah, Nevada, USA

    The hopeful future of film photography

    Scene: 1954, UP Railway Roundhouse somewhere in Wyoming.

    10 reasons why steam locomotives will never be replaced:

    1. 1 steam locy can pull 4 of those diesels backwards.
    2. The workforce knows how to fix steam locy's.
    3. Coal is a lot cheaper.
    4. Everybody likes 'em.
    5. Steam locomotives have more personality.
    6. Deisel locomotives are lifeless cold machines.
    7. There's a million miles of plant in place that's geared for steam.
    8. Deisels are smelly.
    9. The noise they make sucks.
    10. No one would ever want to photograph a Diesel locomotive.

  5. #5

    Join Date
    May 2004
    San Francsico East Bay

    The hopeful future of film photography

    Digital medium is the current "state of the art" for accumulating, storing, retrieving and distributing data. That data can be manipulated into reports, graphics, digital photo images, renderings of sound or music. Digital is quantitative by definition. It takes a leap of faith the accept any qualitative aspects to digital. The basic quality, that makes digital so useful, is the same as its quantitative simplicity - it's binary, bi-polar, either "on" or "off" of a micro switching circuit. The Moore's Law effect on this reality will reach a point of diminishing returns.

    Perhaps, we can learn from history. Let's look at the immediate "market maker" predecessor to digital photography - digital recording and storage - CD's. CD's are a storage medium superior to the vinyl records that they replaced. For the general consumer, the conversion has been complete since the mid- 80's. To the general consumer, recorded music is rimarily "pleasing background noise". I define this as "non-active listening". The music is an adjunct to another activity. This consumer base embraced the clean, clear sound of digital sound. But digital sound is not considered "musical" by many knowledgable, active listeners. Clarity is the overriding benefit. CD's met their need for background music storage. Musicality is not an important characteristic for background listening. This is similar to the marketing hype of digital cameras for the point & shoot crowd.

    There has always been a consumer base of active music listeners. Listening to, and enjoying, recorded music is the primary activity. The enjoyment is definitely the "Art of the Music". Although a significantly smaller consumer base, still a viable market. Generally quality vinyl records played on quality electronics comprise the music playback system - not plastic consumer equipment stacks, (corresponds to consumer cameras)! Fidelity is the overriding benefit of a quality medium and playback system. Fidelity, or truth, to the original artist's performance is the goal. The availability of quality vinyl recordings has NEVER been higher than today. But to the general public vinyl records ceased to exist nearly 20 years ago! The lowest common denominator to the product mix has been eliminated. There are virtually no "consumer grade" vinyl records available new. A new CD costs $18-27. A new, audiophile grade vinyl recording can be purchased for virtually the same price! Similar corollaries can be drawn to practices in the professional recording industry.

    So will history repeat itself with photography? I believe so. We are not the general consumers. Film will, most likely, not be a mass market consumer product in the near future. For those who do commercial work, and especially for mass reproduction - digital, being a superior storage and transfer medium will win! Digital better meets these markets' needs. So how about us!

    When quality and expression are the driving needs, not click 'n' shoot or storage and transfer, film will be a segment of the market's choice. There will be marketeers to meet that need. Will it be Kodak, Agfa or Ilford? Probably not. Columbia, RCA and London no longer produce vinyl records, but niche marketeers have very profitably filled the need! I would postulate that photographers of our ilk greatly outnumber the audiophiles. So we will be a viable niche market.

    The overall cost of producing film is much lower and the overall processes are much simpler than the convolutions of the music recording industry. Look to Efke, Foma, Forte, etc. as our future manufacturers. I am perfectly happy with their products today! Just like the niche marketeers purchased the vinyl record stamping plants, perhaps the same will happen to the Film Big 3's facilities and we will have choices, yet unknown! Efke films are a result of a similar redeployment of equipment.

    I am in agreement with Ed. I am not to worried that I will have to cryo store a vast reserve of B&W film. I am confident that the market will adjust. The consumer film products will vanish in favor of digital imaging. I will be able to buy quality B&W film because, niche marketeers will step in to meet my needs.


    Small Minds...What cannot be cured, must be endured.

  6. #6

    The hopeful future of film photography

    folks who shoot digital will often get around to trying film photography

    Here is the flaw in your reasoning, they will not if there is no film around. Nice try tho..

    I like better the comment a member of APUG made, which is we should trust in the laws of supply and demand. If there is a demand for film, someone, somewhere will try to fill that gap and supply it. Someone will work on creating a coating machine for "amateurs" one that will perhaps not do 1 meter wide by 600 meters long film, but maybe 50 cm wide by 2 meters long. Chemists like me and others who love photography will work at making home made emulsions better, and will most likely post these results on the internet. Emulsion making will become an "open source" and not a trade secret. Like the abacus mentioned above, it will become a niche industry, but it will survive.

    I have to say this coment made me feel better, I dont know if film as we have it now will survive, but I do think this guy made a good point and film will survive as long as some people want it.

  7. #7

    The hopeful future of film photography

    I think B&W film will survive as long as somebody wants it. But I don't think color transparency film will. Simple fact is that only Fuji and Kodak have the technology to produce films like Velvia 100F. Coating one layer of emulsion is one thing, but complexity goes up like the number of layers squared.

    On the other hand, I don't see a digital technology that will replace the quality of 4x5 color. While pixel density can grow, physics doesn't stretch with it. The largest single capture chips are 36mm x 48mm. Assuming the pixel density of the Olympus E300, about 188 pixels/mm you are going to be diffraction limited by about f/11. With that density you will be able to make about a 30x40" print at 200 dpi. While not quite up to 4x5 quality, I think people will settle for that quality, and large format COLOR sheet film will slowly fade away.

  8. #8

    Join Date
    Dec 2001
    San Joaquin Valley, California

    The hopeful future of film photography

    FWIF, I think Jim Galli's response is an accurate assessment of the future of LF---Diesels haul the frieght, but Steam is still with us and thrives in the tourist industry. People will pay a premium for a ticket on a steam railroad that essentially goes nowhere while Amtrak goes begging for riders and subsidies Consider that a v8 'dorff is a lot cheaper to operate and maintain than a Baldwin or Shay locomotive and the future looks downright rosey!
    I steal time at 1/125th of a second, so I don't consider my photography to be Fine Art as much as it is petty larceny.
    I'm not OCD. I'm CDO which is alphabetically correct.

  9. #9

    The hopeful future of film photography

    Moore's law has not held true for making bigger chips. Faster, higher yield, more; yes, bigger no. For digital to compete with film you need to be able to make bigger chips economically and I am not aware that anyone knows how to do that.

    With memory chips you can just mask out areas that are flawed for what ever reason and use it anyway. With photographic sensors, if a small area doesn't work the whole chip is junk. (This is espcially true because some flaws can take out a whole row as most CCDs do a "read" by shifting information down a row like people in a theater moving toward the isle one seat at a time.)

    Beyond that the other limitation is pixel size. Moore's law works because the gains are developmental or scaleable. With pixels we know how to make them smaller and can, they just don't work. 3 microns is about as small as the current technology is going to get us. Even at that the dynamic range suffers. No one can say that we won't have 1-micron pixels tomorrow that have the dynamic range of what 9-micron pixels have today, but for that to happen someone has to invent something. I.E. Revolutionary engineering, not evolutionary engineering. That could happen tomorrow or never.

    As for the demise of color film, that would seem to be quite unlikely as every time I go to the drug or photo store there is a line of people there to pick up their prints. Many if not most of which are from digital cameras and all of which are printed on traditional silver based color photo paper.

    As long as there is a huge market for color paper I can't see that it is going to be a big problem to coat transparent backing and make film.

  10. #10

    The hopeful future of film photography

    I'd like to agree with Neal's post above. If anything, he's being too optimistic about future improvements. First, realize that even if the resolution of CCD's has improved rapidly over the past couple of decades, the resolving ability of lenses hasn't. Resolving the 1 micron pixel size that Neal mentions would require a lens that could resolve 1000 lpmm. As we all know, it's hard enough to find a lens that can resolve 100 lpm. It looks as if (functionally, at least) 9 microns is probably as good as CCD's are going to get. As an aside (and without taking sides) I'd like to point out that the locomotive and abacus analogies are inappropriate. The primary uses of locomotives and calculators (generically) are practical, they are not generally used as recreational tools; as a result, in deciding whether to use steam vs diesel or a digital calculator vs an abacus, efficiency is paramount. That is, few people using calculators express concern about the "process" of calculating. Cameras, on the other hand, are primarily a recreational tool. Where this is not the case and efficiency is paramount (e.g., newspaper photojournalism, high-volume portrait studios), digital has already supplanted film. I don't know what exactly this tells us about film photography, but there is still hope. I also agree with John's post. If I had to take a train to get somewhere, I'd probably take the diesel. But if I just wanted to ride on a train, I'd rather ride the steam train. Likewise, though photography largely made commercial portrait painters obsolete, many people still pay much more for a poorly painted portrait than they would for a good photographic portrait.

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