Carrying a film camera around in the 21st century, the most common question people ask me is: Can you still buy film for that?
Kodak’s recent announcement of bankruptcy is a sad moment in American corporate history. The company will not receive the kind of support the automotive industry was given, but along with companies like Levis, Coca-Cola and Ford, Kodak has been an ambassador for the United States for over 100 years.
From the beginning, Kodak’s innovation was to make photography easier. The famed Brownie was the first camera aimed at anyone. Later, they pioneered various film formats that made loading the camera simple - the Disc, the Instamatic.
Market Street, San Francisco, 1997 - taken with a Kodak DC40
Kodak was one of the first companies to sell digital cameras. I used a borrowed Kodak DC40 in 1996-7. It was an ugly camera that took .38 megapixel photos. It stored only 24 photos and had no display for playback. The lack of LCD was perhaps the only good feature; you couldn’t chimp your photos and there was no bad on-screen UI (which has plagued digital cameras ever since).
Look at this camera. But this was an era when Apple also had ugly products. Kodak built Apple’s first digital camera, the Quicktake. The Apple version of the camera was only slightly nicer-looking, but produced the same quality photos.
handful of wet rocks, 1997 - taken with a Kodak DC40
Across one hundred years, there are similarities between Kodak and Apple. Turning contraptions into companions, both companies democratized technology that had been large and complicated. Kodak’s tagline from the 1800s “You press the button, we do the rest,” could easily be Apple’s starting with the first iPod.
Kodak Pocket Instamatic 10
If Kodak was too early to the digital photography revolution, they were in a much stronger place than Apple was in 1997. Apple had not reached its nadir, while Kodak was at their financial peak. They were strong enough to successfully transition to digital. Apple discontinued the Quicktake camera after Steve Jobs returned in 1997.
As Steve Jobs killed mediocre Apple products and introduced great ones, Kodak released generation after generation of uninspiring cameras. Following the razor/razor blades business model, it’s been this way for decades. The proprietary format cameras were crap and millions of Instamatics and Discs now inhabit landfills. The current Kodak cameras feature Schneider-Kreuznach lenses. One of the great lens makers of the 20th century, you’ll find Schneider-Kreuznach glass in classic Rolleiflex cameras. And Kodak’s $70 point and shoot digital camera.
There hasn’t been a Kodak camera released in the last 20 years I’ve had a sliver of desire for, even though they use Schneider glass and made the sensor that powers the Leica M9 (they sold the sensor business in November). While Fujifilm has also released many landfill-friendly digital cameras, they released the x100, a digital camera that looks great and has innovative technology. Sadly and absurdly, the Kodak cameras I see most often in San Francisco are single-use/disposable film cameras, which are inexplicably popular.
Apple and Kodak are currently in the midst of a patent-related lawsuit. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up one morning with the news that Apple had settled the lawsuit by simply buying Kodak; that Jony Ive has wiped clean their roster of mediocre cameras and was throwing some talented young underlings in charge of designing one great camera. On that day you will also be able shoot pigs out of the sky and sliced bacon will land at your feet.
But, can you still get film?
The answer is yes. Kodak film is wonderful and reliable, it is their great product. I use it almost every day. Yes, the selection has narrowed recently, but if you shoot color Portra 400 is all you need, Tri-X defines black and white film. And it should be around for a while longer, as film is still profitable. Because a film camera doesn’t have to be your primary camera, this is the best time to shoot film.
Andy Warhol’s “no amount of money can get you a better Coke" quote about American egalitarism applies to the iPhone and Kodak film. Kodachrome was the best color film, William Eggleston knew it, your grandmother knew it, Steve McCurry knew it, the anonymous genius whose slides you discovered at a yard sale knew it.
There are perhaps a billion fully-functioning film cameras out there waiting to be purchased for 10 or 25 dollars. Your parents probably have a few in their closet. Will the film camera replace your digital camera or iphone? No. Will you get pleasure and become a slightly better photographer by learning how it works? Definitely. Everyone should shoot a handful of film a year.
Here’s where to start:
-Buy a used camera. One of the best places is keh.com. They have a return policy that lets you test it out, their prices are reasonable.
-Buy Kodak film. It’s easy to find, every major photography retailer online carries it, such as B&H, Adorama. Freestyle is a store with a heavy focus on film photography.
-Use Flickr. It’s still the best photography sharing site. You can see examples of photos from every camera, and use the groups to discuss how to use your new camera.