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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.

NOTE: Since I wrote this last summer, film prices have gone up due to supply chains being stalled by the pandemic, and now a roll is a couple bucks higher, but not prohibitively expensive. B&H has 50 rolls now for $406, but you can still buy it direct from Ilford for $372.

It really is the golden time for making photographs on film. And making actual photographs that will live for generations to come.

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