Golden Age of Analog Photography

We are really living in it, a new golden age of analog photography. Sometimes we can’t see something while we’re in it. You can either be in the mountains, or off the mountains looking at them–they’re impossible to see while you’re in them.

But there couldn’t be a better time to be an analog photographer.

Think about it.

Shane Balkowitsch, photographer
  • New companies have popped up offering new film stocks, like Bergger from France (which I’ve used and it’s gorgeous, though it’s often out of stock, demand is that great), Ferrania from Italy, plus Cinestill, and various other creative stocks from the Lomography company.
  • Traditional companies are still making excellent film stocks, like Ilford (HP5+, FP4), Kodak (Portra 400, Tri-x), Fuji (Pro 400H), Kentmere and Fomapan and while some stocks have been discontinued, others have seen resurgences. Even Polaroid film is back after looking like it was heading toward a note in photographic history.
  • There are individuals and companies making alternative processes much more easily available, Pictoriographica in New Hampshire hand-coating dry plates for photographers, Bostwick & Sullivan in New Mexico providing chemicals for wet plate collodion photographers and LundPhotographics providing supplies to both.
  • Cameras that film photographers wished they could afford have become reasonably priced over the past 15 years–think Leica, Hasselblad, Contax, Rolleiflex, Mamiya, Bronica plus large format 4×5 and 8×10–though they are rising as demand continues to be higher than the limited supply available and we’d all be wise to buy our next camera sooner than later.
  • We lost the cheap neighborhood minilab at the drug store and that’s a good thing. The only labs left are ones that have a real interest in analog photography as an art form and do a quality job processing film that is worthy of our efforts shooting film. I would suspect the majority of film shooters in the 1970s-2000s made better negatives than they ever saw printed by the local drug store lab, running their high quality film and priceless photos through the cheapest chemicals that delivered low-quality prints, which ultimately disappointed them and made them want to upgrade their camera but the cameras were never the problem, it was the finishing that lacked. Fortunately for us, those poor labs are all gone.
  • Only serious photographers are using film now. All the soccer moms and dads, all the less-than-serious shooters who waved their camera like people do with their phones today, the poor photographers that demanded little, wanted cheap, and caused the labs to cater to them with low quality photo finishing, they’re gone. They’re all clinging to their iPhone and the latest apps. The only analog ones left are the real photographers who are working to create something meaningful. And when you meet another analog photographer, chances are you’re meeting somebody who’s passionate about their art.
  • We get to make photographs with intention, using our eyes and all our senses to make a photograph deliberately.
  • We can make photographs completely devoid of any need for a computer.
  • We get to make prints that are used for display, decoration and show our art. We are in the photographic world, making photographs, not capturing images with a computer for a loving swipe on another computer.

There are analog photographers using film and alternative processes who are making a name for themselves, their work being displayed in galleries and museums. Think about the portrait of Greta Thunberg at Standing Rock by Shane Balkowitsch (which he discusses on the Frames podcast). That photograph (above) was special because of the process. The photograph is beautiful but it wouldn’t be celebrated if he were just another digital shooter.

Sally Mann, photographer

Think about Sally Mann’s work, would there be much interest if she were working with a Nikon D850? I seriously doubt it. It’s precisely because she chose to photograph her family with an 8×10 camera, because she works today with wet plate and alternative processes and vintage lenses that she’s a force in the art photography world. She’s not looking for DxOMark’s sharpness ratings, but for character in her photos, as we all are.

Mann’s using film and analog processes and lenses that wouldn’t rate high on the KEH condition scale to say something that digital photographers aren’t saying.

So celebrate! You and I have opportunities and possibilities that are extremely beneficial to creating photographic art. We have the tools and the materials to make any kind of analog photograph ever made, from wet plates to tintypes, dry plates to film.

Plus, setting up the 4×5 wood field camera and composing on a ground glass just feels more fun, more special, then putting the latest Canon 5D Mk VII on P and firing off 40 frames every time you press the shutter button, with a long editing job in front of a computer to come.

So, if you’re a film photographer, celebrate this golden era. If not, now’s the perfect time to join us. You’d be most welcome.

And if you think film is too expensive to shoot, the price hasn’t gone up much in price in 40 years.

Adjusted for inflation, Ilford HP5/36 is about a penny more than it was then.

In 1981, the cost of a roll of Ilford HP5 was $1.85, adjusted for inflation that would cost $5.39 and today that same roll sells for $5.40. Film is not expensive, it’s the same price. Digital cameras, software subscriptions, hard drives, cloud storage subscriptions and upgrades are expensive.

Get some film, get out and make some photographs! Then print them. You’re a photographer in the truest sense of the word, one who makes photographs.

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

9 thoughts on “Golden Age of Analog Photography

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  1. I grew up with film (both monochrome and color), had a career exclusively with E-6 film, switched to digital for awhile, switched back to film (because I really missed it), and – finally – switched back once again to digital.

    Why? I found analog to be far more expensive in the long run than digital – and being retired now, I need to watch every penny that I spend. It didn’t matter that I could – and did – process my own film. The issue was that the cost of film doesn’t scale well.

    On a typical road trip, I’d take 30+ rolls of film. My cheapest price for fresh Tri-X is $8.18, so multiply that by 30 and my film cost for just that one trip is $245.40 for 1,080 exposures. If I wanted to shoot chromes, then the cost was roughly triple that. If I shot expired monochrome film stock, I could reduce the cost to roughly $2 or $3 per roll, depending on a variety of factors.

    The constant ongoing cost of consumables was something that didn’t set well with my spouse. Did I mention that I was retired and have to watch my expenses? Digital allows me to put all of the costs upfront, I get many *thousands* of more photos for the same cost as analog, and the total cost of my hobby is spread over a longer time frame.

    Do I miss shooting with my Leica film gear? Yes, very much so. Do I think my photography has suffered? Not at all.

    Photography is what you make of it, not the process by which it’s made.

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    1. Just so long as you’re factoring in the digital costs–cameras, upgrades, software, computer hardware, storage–you know what you can afford. Maybe shoot the Leica just a few rolls for the portraits or scenes that really strike you, have a hand in it if not all the way in. Safe travels!

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  2. Dubious. Every small town had a decent professional lab in it, now I can’t get E-6 or black and white processed within a hundred miles of me. I haven’t found any of the alleged “pro” labs will even process and make a contact proof of your film, they only offer “process and scan”, which means some youngster is dragging your film through a scanner gate and scratching the heck out of it. 50 sheets of black & white 8 X 10 film costs the same as 50 sheets of 8 X 10 Ektachrome did only a few years ago.

    I just priced out processing chemistry, even tho my barely affordable apartment is too small and dusty to process film in, the chemistry is almost 4 times the cost I was paying when I used to have my studio and lab. The “golden era” of film and professional processing services was from the late 1980’s, until about the late 1990’s. When the volume users of film photography (the retail catalog photography houses and the nationwide portrait places) went digital, the clock was ticking on affordable quality film services. The place I was managing in the late 90’s, for retail ad photography, was buying 50 sheet 8X10 Ektachrome boxes for under 300 bucks, and we were shooting newspaper ad fashion on 120 Agfa APX 100 at $1.80 a roll.

    I just finished a management job at an e-commerce studio and went into early retirement. We were paying college photographers over 10K less a year than my photographers were making in the late 90’s. Professional photography and journalism have lost more job positions and pay over the last 20years than almost any other industry!

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    1. I buy a liter of HC110, and it lasts forever. I self-process, so maybe that’s where you could save $$. Yes, the industry isn’t paying, but I wasn’t suggesting they were, just that the price of a roll of film hasn’t gone up, and specifically HP5.

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  3. In order to make the mathematics correct, you have to “deflate” your salary to 40 year old standards as well for comparison. My salary actually was worth more, and bought more, in 1985, than my salary did in 2017 did, the last time I worked full time. When I was mentoring my young photographers at my last job, I always told them to compare as a percentage of salary. My first brand new bottom-of-the-line Toyota, gross price, was 18% of my 23 year old gross salary before taxes in 1977, a similar bottom-of-the line Toyota, gross price, was 65% of my twenty-something photographers gross salaries in 2017! It’s not inflation, it’s “affordability” in your era that counts.

    As far as that goes, when I was in high-school, a roll of 20 exposure Plus-X was 75 cents, and the 36 exposure was a buck-o-five! That was pocket change on paperboy money!

    I always self-processed, and was an in demand black & white printer in the 70’s and 80’s; but like I said, the chemistry is 4 times the cost today, and I don’t have the space.

    I will absolutely back your idea that people who think digital is “cheaper” are crazy. Most digital equipment is disposable, and you’re rebuying a camera every 5 years or less. I bought a Hasselblad system in the mid-70’s that I used professionally, still have and still shoot with. I’m on my third digital camera since the mid-2000’s, and my third computer system, and I’m done. I have my pro sheet film Deardorff that was made in the 50’s, I bought in the 80’s, and is still usable! Digital is far more expensive, and has far more image delivery problems for professionals in a competitive market, than film ever did!

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  4. Hello, thank you for your article. For the last two years I have been using film, developing them and more recently actually printing in the darkroom. I’m also the grateful owner of a Nikon F4s , something I could only have dreamed of years back. Golden age? I think so😊
    Many thanks again
    Andrew

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