The history of photography spans almost two centuries (1826-2018). Digital photography has been around for fewer than 50 of those years. Yet, with an almost unnoticed announcement last week, the multinational Canon Inc. said it would no longer sell any film cameras. Film is now no longer part of the company’s future.
The news brief was issued on May 31, 2018:
“Thank you very much for your continued patronage of Canon products. By the way, we are finally deciding to end sales for the film single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera Eos-1v.”
The EOS line of cameras includes professional models, which now will only be available as DSLRs (digital SLRs) that record on memory cards and drives, not 35mm film.
The move isn’t really surprising. Earlier this year, Konica Minolta abandoned its film cameras, and Nikon has gone all digital with the exception of two models still using film—a low-end manual F6 and a fully loaded F6 camera body for $2,500. These manufacturers, along with Canon, in the past have served a consumer spectrum from novice to professionals.
Canon stopped manufacturing the film version of the EOS-1v 10 years ago, and last week they were just announcing the exhaustion of their stock on hand. The EOS line of film cameras were first released in 2000.
Along with the abandonment of film cameras, the familiar photo processing booths that used to sit in the middle of parking lots are gone, and what’s left of mail-in processing services is endangered.
IS FILM DEAD?
The demise of photographic film, or, more exactly, the slow decline of the technology that created a unique art form with centuries of recognizable masterpieces has been underway for decades now. As a means of recording history, the medium rivals that other human invention for recall, writing. Yet its disappearance calls to mind Mark Twain’s story about boiling a frog. Drop it in a pot of cold water to start, and only turn up the heat in small increments. The idea was that the change happens so gradually that the frog will have little idea of what’s really happening. Something like that has been happening with film.
Last year, Olivier Laurent, editor of the TIME LightBox photo website, quoted numbers measuring the decline provided by Manny Almeida, president of Fujifilm’s imaging division. “The film market peaked in 2003 with 960 million rolls of film, today it roughly represents 2% of that.” The shift has been dramatic.
HISTORY: EVENTS AND TRENDS
Moments that crystallize complex events are more easily noticed and remembered, so here are three critical markers in the history of film.
This is the first surviving photographic image (above) attributed to Joseph Niépce in either 1826 or 1827. The grainy image presents an exterior view through a window. Using a camera obscura the exposure time was a number of days in bright sunlight. Niépce’s claim to be first was assured when he perfected a method for “fixing” the negative image when other attempts blackened or faded. Historians note that photography, or what the inventor called “heliography” (writing with the sun), was born with this modest image.
Kodak Box Model 1 (1889-1895), George Eastman House
In 1888, George Eastman launched perhaps the most important camera in the history of consumer photography. It was a simple box camera loaded with film, a generous 100 exposures, and the purchase price included the camera, the film, development, and prints. You just sent the camera back to Eastman when the end-of-film message appeared in a little back window. The earliest model had a wire that you would pull to expose the film, which was later replaced by a button and shutter. The motto for the camera that began the photographic enterprise later known as Eastman Kodak was, “You press the button—we do the rest.”
Camera sensor chip. Photo: sciencestockphotos.com
In 1969, the CCD (charge-coupled device), a semiconductor circuit, was developed at AT&T Bell Labs. The device would later win a Nobel Prize in Physics for George E. Smith and Willard Boyle (2009) and radically change the course of photography.
From the beginning, photography has depended on the interaction of light and silver salts coated in emulsions on glass, film, and paper. The entire process is photochemical. The silver particles in the negatives, prints, or slides are exposed to light either in the camera or darkroom enlarger and then are subjected to multiple chemical baths to develop and fix the negatives, prints, or transparencies. It’s not alchemy. Over the years, countless school and home darkrooms offered both ends of the creative process, taking and developing, to anyone willing to work with the time and temperature limits of the process.
With digital cameras, the light through the lens doesn’t tarnish grains of silver. Rather the light is shifted to electrical flows that are managed by circuits and software instructions in the camera, and later in the laptop or desktop into which the storage cards are inserted for reading and editing. You don’t need to worry about exposing the memory cards to light, but strong magnetic fields could damage their contents. Chemistry has been replaced by electrons.
The numerous advantages of digital over film explain the fairly rapid replacement of film, but the process also raises some serious questions about what will be lost when film disappears. There are professionals today who refuse to convert. These include portrait photographers who insist that digital results can’t match the look and depth that film produces and landscape and nature photographers who will continue to shoot fewer but much more studied shots on film. As computerized photography continues to improve, perhaps these questions will be answered. For now, though, film appears to be on a path leading to extinction.