The Movie Waffler Dead Format Month - 35mm | The Movie Waffler


Dead Format Month - 35mm

Photography enthusiast John Saltwell looks back fondly on a format which, after over a century in existence, is now becoming little more than a nostalgic memory.

I bought my first Single Lens Reflex camera back in 1976, when I had just started work. Beer was 31p per pint and digital SLRs weren't even discussed on "Tomorrow's World". The only medium then was, of course, film, and in my early days as an amateur photographer, I experimented with a few different makes and types. For colour prints it was usually Kodacolour 100 negative film. At 100 ASA (equivalent to 100 ISO) this was a "medium speed" film, which meant it was reasonably sensitive to light, but not too grainy. You could also buy 400 ASA "fast" films, but would keep them for occasions when you knew you would be shooting in poor light, as the look could be grainy even on small prints, and the colours might also seem washed out. Some photographers preferred Fuji or Agfa brand films to Kodak but, although they were cheaper, they also tended to be grainier and had more idiosyncratic colour quality.
I flirted with black and white photography in my university years. The Students' Union had a "Fotosoc" with its own darkroom and I learned how to develop and print in black and white, although never to a very high standard. Ilford was the preferred brand for monochrome film with its FP4 (standard speed) and HP5 (fast) versions. Of course, monochrome photography is a separate art form from colour, and there are still enthusiasts who swear by it and will labour meticulously over their prints from film, burning and dodging areas of the image for maximum quality and detail.
I developed a fondness for slide film. Of course, if you shot slides, you couldn't pass them round in the pub, but they usually worked out cheaper - Kodachrome 64 included developing by Kodak labs. It was also a better way to explore the different colour qualities of different films, as "reversal" films (as slide films were known) were more consistent in this respect. Kodachrome 64 was a particular favourite, as its slight magenta bias was great for portraits - it tended to give Caucasian skins a nice healthy pinkness! The cost of film was a significant factor to people like me. I seem to recall that a 36 exposure Kodachrome was around £5 in the late 1970s - a lot of money in those days (when my weekly take home pay was no more than £40). Negative film was only around half of that price, but developing and printing could also be expensive, particularly if you wanted large prints or better quality than the bog standard.
Incidentally, the main authority on film and photography in the early days was Amateur Photographer (AP) magazine. This was a weekly publication that had been going since 1884 and seems to have always been the most reliable source of information on things photographic. Happily, it has survived to this day by moving with the times.
My first digital camera was an Agfa ePhoto 307 bought in 1998. This was discounted from £300 to £150, which meant it had already been superseded when I bought it, and boasted an impressive VGA resolution (0.3 megapixels, or around one twentieth of the resolution of some of the cheapest digicams around now). It was able to take a whole 36 “hi res” images using its internal (non-expandable) memory. I don’t think I ever shot more than a couple of hundred photos with this, as the quality was disappointing even for 640 x 480 images.
Digital cameras were still no threat to 35mm film, as the difference in quality was vast. What was available as a “bridge” was Kodak PhotoCD. You could have your film developed, printed and, at the same time, scanned as high resolution images (maximum 3072 x 2048 from 35mm film, which is around 6mp - corresponding to some of the lower spec digicams now). This was expensive in the 1990s and was generally considered a “luxury” service for people heavily into computers.
However, the march of technology was now speeding up. By November 2007, AP was reporting “Poor demand forces Kodak to dump some films”. In Summer 2009 AP announced “ to discontinue production of its iconic Kodachrome 64 film”  - a sad day for film photographers. The film had been in production since 1935 but the move was inevitable, as it by then accounted for only 1% of Kodak’s total film sales. In January 2012, Kodak itself collapsed. Ilford was another company that had already gone to the receivers, although the brand name still exists.
Sadly, many of the problems of photographic companies can be put down to the rise of digital imaging and not just the recession. Clearly there’s still a market for new and innovative cameras and paper, and photo retailers have been free to move into areas like printer and ink sales. However, despite the fact that film is still used by enthusiasts and “geek” photographers, for most retailers it sells so few units that it’s just not worth stocking. Combine this with the effects of the recession and you have more failures like that of the Jacobs chain of photographic shops, which went into administration in June 2012.
For amateur cinematographers, 8mm and Super8 films were long ago superseded by VHS, then digital video on MiniDV, then solid-state storage, mainly in the form of SD cards. 35mm film was, for a long time, the medium of the professional cinematographer, but even that is now being superseded by digital video, with companies such as AMC Theatres spearheading a drive towards “all digital” cinemas.
Many enthusiast still photographers would still hotly dispute that 35mm film is any more a “dead format” than (say) the vinyl audio disc. However, for most people, if it’s not dead then it is at least moribund.
Are we losing anything here? Well, that’s a question we could debate forever. As with all of the other “analogue” formats, there are many people who will tell you that there’s a coldness and a sterility to digital formats - that 35mm film had a warmth that digital can never match. What do you think?

For more from John, check out his blog here

John Saltwell