Nearly everyone has a digital camera or at least a phone with a camera these days, but that doesn’t mean that film photography is completely a thing of the past.
Independent photo labs like Phoenix Photo Lab and Tempe Camera, as well as a few large companies, such as Walgreens and Costco, still offer film processing in the Phoenix area, and some local photographers prefer film photography over digital.
“[My friend] let me use her camera one day and I just fell in love with it over digital – I don’t know why,” local photographer Sheldon Chambers said. “It brought back that little kid memory of looking at film and at the rolls, and I hadn’t done that since.”
Though major imaging company Kodak has seen a decline in its assets in the last decade – from $9.18 million in 2008 to $2.56 million in 2014 – film photography still has a measurable user base, and local film processors say business is doing just fine despite the prevalence of digital photography.
“We see a great number of young hobbyists purchasing film in both the 35mm format and the 120 format,” said David Hunsaker, sales manager at Tempe Camera. “They cite that they want to experience film while they can.”
Digital photography dominates the market for several reasons. Digital cameras can be expensive, but after the original purchase, the only additional cost is an occasional memory card that is able to store thousands of photos. Film photography requires the purchase of the camera, rolls of film that take from 12 to 36 photos, processing and scanning.
“You can know almost nothing about photography and still take a perfect picture,” Briana Noonan from Tempe Camera said. “Not only are you able to take a picture, you’re able to view it right afterwards. And film doesn’t give you that opportunity.”
In the past, all Walgreens and Costco locations offered one-hour film processing, but many locations are shifting away from in-store same-day processing. A number of stores ship the customer’s film negatives off to a processing center and the customer can pick them up from their local location a few days later.
Dieter Schaefer, owner of Phoenix Photo Lab, said independent film processors, including his lab, could be benefitting from large chain processors shifting away from convenient one-hour processing.
“We pride ourselves in sitting down with individuals and talking to them and making sure that the print that they are expecting us to print comes out that way,” Schaefer said. “It’s a matter of managing expectations. And expectations translate into color, into size, and into clarity when it comes to a picture.
Many photographers prefer shooting film because of the quality of the photos it produces, and Schaefer believes only local film processors provide the photos the attention they need to be top quality. Because of the higher cost and effort that film photography requires, nearly all who shoot film do so as an art form rather than as a way to take snapshots of everyday events.
“With film there is only a limited amount of wiggle room because film costs add up quickly,” local photographer Ryan Willis said. “The results have a totally different feel that you can’t get with any digital camera.”
The results have a totally different feel that you can’t get with any digital camera.
Although local photo labs such as Phoenix Photo Lab charge more for their services than stores like Walgreens do, the process that goes into developing the photos is different and more personalized at local labs.
“With respect to reproducing images, we serve a clientele that is probably a little bit more demanding,” Schaefer said. “They don’t want to go to the big stores, and they are really focused on quality as opposed to the price.”
Phoenix Photo Lab values the interaction between the artist and the photo lab as a vital part of the service. Schaefer believes that that interaction is something a customer cannot get via the internet or telephone or with an employee of a large company who follows the same procedure for every order.
“The quality you get is not really that good because those folks just shove the film cartridges into the machine and whatever comes out comes out,” Schaefer said of photos developed by large companies.
Schaefer said his lab processes an average of 10 to 15 rolls of film per week. Though this is obviously a lower number than what labs would have processed in the pre-digital age, there has not been a significant decline since Phoenix Photo Lab opened its doors in August 2012.
“We don’t view film as something that’s a dying breed of anything,” Noonan said. “Film has become sort of a hip, fashionable thing, which is why it’s not going away.”
Film sales to students in art photography classes have declined at Tempe Camera by about 20 percent as digital programs have risen; the lab sold 1,852 rolls of Kodak Tri-X 135-36 film in 2014 and only 1,429 rolls this year. However, film sales for professionals shooting weddings has increased by over 100 percent in the last two years. For example, Fuji 400 120 film sales increased from 840 rolls in 2014 to 1,901 in 2015, Hunsaker said.
“Much like the resurgence of vinyl records, film has increased by 100 percent to 300 percent in the last two to three years. Though film prices have increased by the manufacturers, the sales of film have not diminished,” Hunsaker said about Tempe Camera.
Much like the resurgence of vinyl records, film has increased by 100 percent to 300 percent in the last two to three years.
Chambers, who takes his film to both Phoenix Photo Lab and Tempe Camera, is trying to share his appreciation of film photography with others in Phoenix. Chambers became interested in film after a friend suggested he try it, so he is trying to do the same for his friends and fellow photographers.
“I just like that old school look to it, and I feel like you have more of a purpose when you shoot film because there’s so many processes and steps to get that stuff done,” Chambers said.
Although it does not appear that film is going to make a comeback as the primary means of photography, local photo labs said that film photography is far from a dead art.
“Film is like the ultimate, it’s like gold,” Noonan said. “A digital camera can only do so much.”
Photos by Mallory Prater