February 9, 2012 AT 1:30 pm

Kodak Dumps Digital, Sticks With Film

Interesting news from the British Journal of Photography:

Kodak has announced that, as part of its “ongoing strategic review,” it will stop producing digital cameras, pocket video cameras and digital picture frames, but will continue to invest in its film division

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled about this announcement. After their declaration of bankruptcy, there was some serious concern among film users that film products would be first on the chopping block. For many of the years that film photography existed, Kodak was the big dog. It was all things to all photographers, and provided a huge variety of reliable products to all segments of the photographic market. However, when consumer digital photography came along, Kodak floundered as it tried to remain “all things to all photographers”, and ended up being nothing to anybody.

The fundamental problem was (and is) that digital photography is much less about taking pictures than it is about consumer electronics, which is something Kodak knew nothing about. As a result, they ended up outsourcing their cameras and electronics, and lacked a focused, core line of high-quality professional products around which a user base could form. But all that’s in the past now, and hopefully they’re setting much more realistic goals for themselves.

Now, I’m certain that this post is going to provoke at least one response along the lines of “film is dead” — and in a way it is, but there are lots of people (including yours truly) who still use and love it. I don’t use it for my professional work, because the turnover and workflow are just too slow for that kind of thing, but I still use it in my personal work. And so do a lot of other people — it’s still incredibly popular for fine art work.

When people hear that I still shoot film, they feel compelled to lecture me about all the benefits of digital: it’s faster / you have instant feedback / you can share it easily. All of those are true, but also true are my counterarguments: I want to work slow / I don’t want instant feedback — I know my camera well enough to know if it’s going to work / I’m not ready to share it yet.

Often, I end up comparing the film vs. digital debate to the difference between oil paint and acrylics. Acrylics have many advantages over oils: they mix easier, clean up easier, dry faster and they are cheaper. But there are things you can do with oils that you can’t do with acrylics: namely, you can’t spend a week retouching a painting while it’s still wet, you can mix many more pigments with oil, and finally nothing else has the depth and richness of an oil painting. Likewise, nothing else looks like a silver print from film. A well-made silver print on high-quality fiber paper (with maybe a touch of selenium toning) is a rich and stunning thing to behold. On top of all that, the process of developing and printing film photographs is one of the most enjoyable experiences I can think of, and I never want it to go away.

So, I’m hoping this announcement means that Kodak will turn it’s attention to the only loyal market it really has: film photographers who love Kodak film and chemicals (I’m a Plus-X/X-Tol man myself), and reaffirm its dedication to making these great products.

Also, bring back HIE! :)


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11 Comments

  1. Knowing that Kodak killed their film camera business some years ago, I checked the referenced article, then fond the Kodak press release.
    http://www.kodak.com/ek/US/en/Kodak_Focuses_Consumer_Business_On_More_Profitable_Growth_Opportunities.htm
    The only mention of film is in the last sentence.
    they are continuing
    “The traditional film capture and photographic paper business, which continues to provide high-quality and innovative products and solutions to consumers, photographers, retailers, photofinishers and professional labs.”
    This is after talking up kiosks, inkjet printers, apps, web, accessories and batteries.
    Pretty much all I get from it is that they are dropping “digital cameras, pocket video cameras and digital picture frames”

  2. I’m kinda disappointed at this – I love my Kodak V530 for macro shots. Great photo quality, and it’s the only compact camera I’ve used that has the flash sufficiently far away from the lens so that the lens doesn’t cast a shadow when up close.

    Hence the great macro shots.

    Of course, the fact that I’ve never needed another one doesn’t work in their favour, revenue-wise.

  3. I still don’t think point and shoot digital cameras are as good as regular cameras with SLR. Digital SLR is still expensive for us.

    There are some old photographs that use chemicals and they could last for a hundred years or more but these photographs from kiosks may not last as long.

    It is also hard to guess if jpeg or other photo formats are still going to be here in 20 or 30 years from now and whether we will still be able to print out our pictures.

    We still have our Poloroid camera with the magic developing film and someone still makes the film at a price.

    But I’m disappointed with Kodak for not foreseeing this coming because we bought a digital camera to save money ever since I took 18 rolls of film to Hawaii on our honeymoon.

  4. @KScharf: This isn’t about cameras. You can still get some very nice film cameras, both new and used (though I’m not sure why anyone would buy new one now, with so much excellent used gear going for next to nothing).

    Kodak (and several others) already make the device you’re suggesting — it’s called a digital C-printer. Those big machines you see at every drug store and Costco are examples of this kind of machine. They can print from film or digital sources and can also be adapted to print on transparent media (i.e. slides), though not all labs are equipped for that. They use the same silver+dye based color process (RA-4) that you’d use in a color darkroom.

    Also, I second the request for Kodachrome but I fear it will never happen, because the K-14 process is _extremely_ involved and expensive.

    @ChuckZ: Kiosk photos probably won’t last 20 years, but the assumption with kiosk photos is that they can be reproduced again later (using the digital source), and so they don’t really have to.

    As for JPEG — JPEG has already lasted far longer than it had any right too; it was never designed to be used for what it’s being used for, but the nice thing about it is that it’s simple, and easily converted to another format.

  5. adafruit_support

    Having spent significant parts of my life in a studio or a darkroom, it is rather sad to see the “Great Yellow Father” reduced to a shadow of its former self. They had active research in digital imaging back when they still owned the consumer photo market. But their real focus was always on the consumable (film, paper & chemistry) side of the business.

  6. I have to be honest this wasn’t a real shocker. After film died, they died. It is, on the other hand, rather sad that Mr. Eastman’s great company is finally finished but all will pass as they say.

  7. Film may sort of be kinda dead on the consumer level, but it’s still strong in terms of professional photography, especially for companies that create catalogs or like to have strong visual documentation of their work, like in fashion.

    I remember reading that 120 film is the equivalent of like 140 megapixels. Just based on how the chemistry works, there’s no shortage of the ability to create a clear photo.

    Yet to get 120 film is only marginally more expensive than 35mm but to get a 120 size digital sensor is like $20,000.

    TL;DR: Consumer film use is dead but large format is still relevant and not really going away anytime soon.

  8. @Insurance: actually, it was a big shock to those who followed Kodak through the years. Kodak had been doing research into digital imaging since the 1960’s, and was sponsoring research programs in that area at RIT for quite some time. Kodak also introduced one of the first full-frame 35mm digital cameras, the 14n and in the early 2000’s their professional DSLRs were highly sought after by photojournalists because of their ability to shoot low-noise at high-speed. But they lost focus, and failed to anticipate what consumers wanted, so they ended up losing marketshare.

    @Renee: You are correct that the effective resolution of 120 is about 140MP. However, you cannot actually get a digital back with a 6x6cm photosensor. The largest back commonly available is about 6×4.5, so 120 still wins there. :) As for me, I love my 6×9 back on my large format camera — all the convenience of rollfilm with 4×5 control.

  9. adafruit_support

    @johngineer: Not really such a shock to me. I was at RIT in the 70’s and saw some cutting edge research on the digital front. They did have some impressive high-end DSLR offerings in the early days too. But that was mostly just research. At the corporate level, they never really embraced digital as part of their core business.

    Through the 80’s I saw a bunch of R&D projects at the Park aimed at converting digital computer data into silver images. The rationale was that film was their business. Although such products might conceivably drive film sales if they offered any benefits over commonly available electronic storage media, they obviously did not. In fact, they were all slower, more cumbersome and more expensive. Not surprisingly, none of those products ever made it to market.

    Meanwhile, the formidable consumer marketing engine that brought us infinite iterations of Instamatics and Magicubes, just sat back and waited for consumer digital photography to run them over.

  10. As a former fine-art printer I have as much nostalgia for “film photography” as the next person — but the fact is that professional and consumer film business is nowhere near big enough to sustain Kodak as a company, and has nothing to do with what they talk about when they refer to “film” in their financials and media releases. It’s just a sideline, more of a “corporate hobby.”

    Instead, when Kodak talks “film” they mean two things: film products for the motion-picture industry, and repro films for the graphic arts/offset printing industry. Both of those are still big markets, but they’re never going to get any bigger and inevitably will shrink:

    — The motion picture industry is moving toward digital distribution, driven largely by shipping costs and the need for speed;

    — The graphic arts industry is being forced away from film because of the vast amount of water the process consumes, and the fact that nobody has figured out a good way to dispose of industrial quantities of the pollutants it generates.

    So no, they’re never going to bring back Kodachrome! And in any case, most of the claimed benefits of film photography are just hype: for example, yeah, maybe 120 rollfilm is “140mp-equivalent” if you’re making a traditional b&w print to hang on a gallery wall (although I suspect most printers would admit that the craft and rarity aspects of it are just as important to them.)

    But if you need to move it into the digital domain, you’ll need to scan it, and most of that hypothetical resolution disappears; sure, you can scan a 120 neg to yield a 140-megapixel file, but most of the information will be used to image dust, scratches, and grain structure.

  11. There’s beauty in the fact you can drop a wad of prints and the negatives in your drawer and they’ll be there long after two failed iPad backups and restores.

    As my boss just found out, an iPad’s just a giant cell phone waiting to be lost or lose its contents at a whim. So you go onto the Apple support forums and the first thing you get told is make backups often. Well, he did, and the restore didn’t. Oops!

    His Nikon still works and he’s still got those few he took of his granddaughter.

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