Film photography is dead, and we’ve killed it. Sort of. There’s no use arguing that analog met its demise in the wake of digital photography, but it wasn’t the digital camera alone that made analog go the way of the dodo.

How did photography come about, anyway?

Much to the name of the primary optical phenomenon behind the workings of a camera, the origins of photography are nowadays shrouded in obscurity*. Judging by the research of Robert Hirsch in his 1999 book ‘Seizing the Light: A History of Photography’, the first ever picture was taken by an Englishman going by the name Thomas Wedgwood in 1800 – a full 39 years before the term ‘photograph’ was actually coined.

But 1839 would provide even more. That year was also when a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre came about with his (at the time) much more famous method of capturing photos, eponymously named the Daguerreotype – which is the ancient relative of what we have today. While I won’t get into more detail, I will say this: over the following decades photography (or whatever you might want to call it) made quite a stir in the minds of European artists and art-goers alike.  

While at first considered a cheap and commercial way of depicting life on a canvas-like format, devoid of the passion painters put into their work, photography soon took off as an alternate means by which people could start recording whatever was around them. As the world realized that photos rendered reality precisely, painters eventually turned to experimenting with shapes, colors, techniques and message, rather than attempting to show reality just as it was discernable to the human eye.

(Fun fact: it’s out of these developments that 19th-century European artists subsequently came about with artistic currents that are nowadays household names: Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism, to name just a few.)

By 1881 an American named Peter Houston had invented the first camera film roll, jump-starting a process that would later develop the entire array of camera rolls we had on store in supermarkets all over the world – at least until digital photography came about.

Digital photography didn’t become a hit for a very long while

We owe our modern digital cameras to a 1975 invention by a man called Steven Sasson. It was he that developed what’s considered the world’s first ever digital camera while working at Kodak – which, of course, is irony at its best.

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(above: Steve Sasson and his invention, the first digital camera.)

But Sasson’s camera was an unpredictable and unwieldy beast. It relied on cassettes as a storage medium and was about the size of a shoe box – with open circuit boards all around its bottom half. He himself stated that, had he known people would flock to this technology in a few decades, he’d have designed it so as to be more appealing to the eye.

While digital was a novelty, it was an expensive one. A few models hit global markets in the 70s and 80s but failed due to cost and performance limitations. Keep in mind that JPEG hadn’t yet been invented, and would only become a standard following 1992. So only in the late 1990s did things start to take off, albeit slowly at first.

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(addendum: sadly enough, CIPA ceased to compile stats on film cameras after 2006, because silver-halide film cameras no longer met their statistical requirements)

Yet by the turn of the millennia, digital overtook film in terms of how much the market was worth. Two years later digital cameras started leading analog with respect to the number of units sold worldwide. Still, these were very early days.

Technical limitations that hit hard on picture quality kept most professional photographers firmly anchored into analog – and this had its own reverberations in the consumer market. Only as things progressed and heavy R&D funds were spewed into this new technology did we see a more firm shift in the tide.

These few years were crucial – and they paid off for companies that went hard on digital, much to the detriment of Kodak and other large companies that made the very wrong decision to hold tight onto their analog business.

Around the year 2003, almost all pros gave up analog, giving rise to a process that crippled the camera-film industry. From 2003 to 2011, Kodak shed 47,000 jobs, 13 manufacturing plants, and 130 processing labs. Digital not only became usable during this time – it became reliable. And in the eyes of the consumer, it became cool.

It was the future. Or so people thought.

You don’t need a camera to take photos

New as they might have been, digital cameras were still very similar in build (at least on the outside) to their outdated predecessors. Cameras were, and still are to this day, units built with one firm goal in mind: to capture visual information. And you couldn’t use them for much of anything else, other than being status symbols.

Sales were steady and people were happy with what cameras offered – especially after digital matched analog in picture quality. Then 2007 came about.

That year saw the launch of the first iPhone, and the birth of the smartphone market as we know it today, combining the desirability behind owning something techy, the utility of a lot of different gadgets rolled into one unit, and (usually) a lower price tag than things like full-blown photo cameras.

People saw it as the next generation in telecommunications technology – something which it most certainly was – but the reality of the matter is that the iPhone brought about two major adages that were only later felt for what they were worth: a relatively good camera, and (albeit a bit later) an App Store. The model exploded, everybody started emulating what Apple was doing.

It’s true that phones had already been incorporating digital cameras for some years by 2007, but the ability to easily install custom applications that had user connectivity as a primary goal had only come about. As soon as the greater public started picking up on the possibilities given by mobile, the market scaled up exponentially.

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Google followed with its own line of mobile OS and its own online store. Microsoft gave the market a jab, and hundreds of other mobile phone producers worldwide made the shift from producing legacy phones to smartphones, in no small part due to the expansion of social networks like Facebook and Instagram that drove the demand sky high.

In 2007 alone, the cellphone market sold more units than the camera market by more than twenty million. The momentum digital cameras had gained lasted for only a few more months – while that of smartphones has only grown since. In 2015 alone almost one and a half billion phones were sold, a number which dwarfs the all-time greatest figure for digital camera sales set in 2010.

Everybody’s a photographer now

In the days of analog and digital, just taking pictures was a nifty enough activity. Photographer Ken Rockwell hit the nail on the head with this when he wrote that it’s the artist and not the medium which defines quality in photos: “Neither (analog, nor digital) is better on an absolute basis. The debate only exists when people presume erroneously that someone else’s needs mirror their own”.

But photography has since gone through a paradigm shift. It’s gone social – photos must be fast to process and instantly shareable. Bandwidth enlargement all over the planet, the further development of social networking websites (that either revolve around photography or make great use of it), and the furthering of picture rendering quality have made smartphones the single ‘camera’ most people actually need to carry around.

Add to the overall picture of the market how smartphone camera accessories have started becoming a thing in themselves, and you’ll soon see where the photography industry is headed.

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The average person takes about 150 pictures every month with their smartphone – and he or she also likes to carry a lot of them around. About 630 photos can be found on the phone of a normal individual nowadays, and they’re kept there for months on end, something hard to do on a digital unit and practically impossible on an analog camera.

In all fairness, given how digital started creeping at the film market by facilitating use and freedom of movement within the camera ecosystem, it should come as no surprise that the further increased usability of cell phones practically destroyed the digital camera market.

You see, where things like TVs and laptops first took off in developed countries and then spilled over as the tech became cheaper, not the same can be said for digital point-and-shoot cameras.

As the head of consumer electronics of Euromonitor, Wee Teck Loo (nominative determinism at its finest; you can’t make this stuff up) said: “Consumers in emerging markets aren’t buying digital cameras at all. For the price of an entry level camera at $150-200, consumers are able to buy a mid-range smartphone that provides many more features.” And he’s right.

In 2010 phones captured 40% of all photos taken worldwide, with digital cameras leading at 60%. In only five years the market had seesawed: an estimated 75% of photos worldwide were taken with smartphones and only 20% with cameras, with the remaining gap being filled by tablets.

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Nowadays rather than targeting people that want to get into photography, camera companies have taken to attracting people that want more out of their pictures than what their phones can offer – a risky gamble, seeing how the difference cameras and smartphone photos are becoming ever more blurred.

“The smartphone is the first step into the topic of photography, then people want to upgrade, the potential is there.” says GfK analyst Heribert Tippenhauer. “It’s kind of life insurance for the camera industry to always protect this superiority in terms of picture quality.”

The market’s inability to act on nostalgia

Advocates of film keep coming back to the uniqueness of the experience given by analog, and to supposed superior results. There’s certainly more effort involved, effort which needs to be dosed out intelligently and rigorously, so much that it can be argued that analog photography is (nowadays at least) necessarily an art if it’s to be done the right way.

Needless to say, the constraints of shooting with film make the person taking photos act on behaviors that are foreign to those which choose digital. Analog requires process control so that results be alright in one go, rather than cluster-shooting (quite literally) in the hopes that out of the myriad taken there’ll be some frames worth keeping. While that might seem off-putting, for the avid photographer it might as well act as some sort of catharsis.

And it seems there are a lot of people that hold this opinion. Recent market trends have shown a slow growth of analog photography.

Following its appearance in 2013, Kodak Alaris (yes, the Kodak stands for the original Kodak company) found that sales of professional film grew worldwide about 5% by 2015. Fujifilm has also seen growth since 2013, thankfully for them – since they have been kept alive in large part due to their Instax line of instant camera paper.

But film sales are less that 1% of what they were at their peak. Products like the Kodak Gold 200 which were once as common as cigarette lighters are now niche products. That niche falls into two distinct customer segments: people that didn’t want to give up analog or people that are taking to analog as a novelty.

Yet most of us wouldn’t even consider downgrading to analog nowadays. The primary reason behind this almost always seem to be material: film costs money, processing costs some more, and if you want to make use of your prints in the modern age you have to get it transferred to digital format in such a way that you retain the finesse behind the picture that made you choose analogue in the first place. Added up, it’s just faster and cheaper to use digital, right?

Not necessarily, says Steve Macleod, director of a pro photo lab called Metro Imaging: “People fail to build into their costing how long it takes to edit digital photos. If they were to cost out how long it takes to edit and prepare digital files for production, it would be equivalent or near to the cost of shooting analog; they balance out in the end.”

But most people aren’t professionals and don’t require the preparation Macleod is referring to. Most of us just want to snap at something without the explicit pretense that the results be artistic or noteworthy. Moreover, it isn’t the material cost that’s necessarily keeping people away from film – it’s the lack of demand, since so many of us don’t even need a camera anymore. Even for the most avid of film advocates, the reality that they must face up to is that in the market system some of their favorite gear or supplies might just become extinct.

Still, not too many tears should be shed over the disappearance of analog. In fact, we should be thankful that digital came about. Consumers and professionals alike abandoned film just as soon as digital became sufficiently good and affordable.

But digital made for some massive strides in healthcare, taking us from X-rays to digital scans, and giving us things unimaginable in the analog era. Things like sheet cameras that can be wrapped around objects, ultrafast electron cameras that show us what atomic nuclei in molecules are doing within millionths of a billionth of a second, and even a camera-in-a-pill that you swallow and that can help doctors diagnose and evaluate diseases.

Digital really has changed our lives; it’s made them easier, and not just in terms of how simple it is for us to share selfies. Digital has made our lives safer.

So what will happen to film from now on? Quoting Audrey Jonckheer of Kodak Alaris – “a business has to provide a product as long as it’s profitable.” Given this, Kodak say that they will “continue to provide film to the market as long as there’s sufficient profitable demand.”

So much for the arts.


Feel like you have anything to add to this? You can find me here.


* that was a pun; here’s what camera obscura means.

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5 thoughts on “Digital cameras killed film, but smartphones buried them both

  1. Many people are coming back mostly to B&W analog photography. They rediscover or discorver it. To me, no digital can compete with B&W on film. I sold most of my film camera collection to young people less than 30 years old. That says something. Digital is very pratical and easy (in auto mode, of course). But many, young people mostly, are less interested in the virtual image, its homogeneous cold look and lack of surprise. Analog is tangible, physical, surprising and challenging. In 100 years, the negatives will be still printable.

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    1. Yup, I hold the same opinion. But it’s just that the number of younger people that are taking to analog is outnumbered hugely by people that choose to invest in digital – and both population segments are then outnumbered immensely by disengaged individuals that aren’t that interested in photography, and would much rather buy a good smartphone with their money.

      Given such evolutions (that stand to contradict industry reports from only two or three years ago, that stated things like the point-and-shoot market going up) I believe it’s a fair, albeit regrettable, thing to say that smartphones are killing off other means of taking photos.

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