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What is the future of 35mm slide film?

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Category: Soapbox

The future of slide film? - It was once the popular choice for amateur and enthusiast photographers alike, but now it is feared that the days of slide film could be numbered.

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It is the huge success of digital photography that has led to fears that traditional methods could begin to die out. These fears have intensified following announcements from both Dixons and Kodak that they are to stop selling 35mm cameras. The BBC have also begun mourning the 'demise' of the 35mm camera, even going so far as to run an obituary for the format on its website! These announcements have raised questions about what the future of film photography will look like if 35mm cameras continue to decline. Is it really possible that the popularity of digital photography could bring about the death of slide film? Heather Turner looks for some answers.

But before we attempt to predict the future for slide film, let's take a quick look into its past. The first slide film was launched by Kodak, who in 1935 introduced the Kodachrome ISO 10 slide film. Since then, numerous other slide films have been introduced through various manufacturers, although the Kodachrome range remained one of the most popular. It wasn't until 1990 that Kodachrome found its first serious competition, following Fuji's launch of Velvia, a 17 layer slide film. Velvia quickly became a hugely popular slide film, and its sharpness and vivid colour reproduction soon helped to make it the film of choice for both professional and enthusiast photographers.

Throughout its history, slide film has been known as the method which offers the best quality pictures for serious photographers, and it was rare to find a photography enthusiast who worked solely with print film. Slide film offers photographers sharp images and clear, bright colours, perfect for capturing vivid scenery and landscapes, and other subjects such as wildlife and sports photography.

However, since the introduction of the first digital cameras in 1990, photography has become a much broader market. The advancement in digital technologies is now providing more and more people with the capabilities to take good quality pictures, and to enhance shots post-capture using digital software. Though this wider interest in photography is generally a good thing, it does mean that good photography is no longer the sole territory of the talented enthusiasts and professional photographers. Therefore the manufacturers of photographic products now have to produce products which reflect the wider range of skills and abilities now using photographic equipment.

This is an area where digital photography comes into its own, and has an advantage over the area of traditional photography. Beginners at photography and people looking to develop their skills are attracted by the way in which digital photography allows you to enhance images post-capture, a feature that is not possible using traditional methods. This combined with the instantaneous results available with digital cameras is especially useful to the novice photographer, often allowing skills to develop much faster. Some people believe that digital photography makes us all better photographers. But is this really the case, and if so, just how much longer can slide film survive?

Many camera clubs throughout the UK have already begun to feel the effects of digital, noting that they are now struggling to gain significant numbers of entries in slide competitions. Robert Turner is Competition Secretary for the Worksop and District Photographic Society. A member of the club for 25 years, and himself a keen slide photographer, Robert has observed a significant change in the use of slide film during recent years. He said: "There are definitely less people entering slides in competitions than there used to be. Until recently, slide has always been one of our most popular competitions, whereas people submitting prints were in the minority."

He added: "These days most people are using digital cameras and making their own prints on their computers at home. Consequently, while entries into slide competitions have gone into decline, entries into the print section are now increasing."

It's not just camera clubs that are feeling the effects of the revolution in digital cameras. Both Kodak and Fujifilm have recently announced the discontinuance of two popular slide films. Kodak have discontinued Kodachrome 25, while Fujifilm have begun phasing out Velvia 50 - to be replaced by the previously only available in Japan Velvia 100. However Fujifilm deny that the reason that Velvia 50 will no longer be produced is a result of any market force, but is simply due to problems getting the emulsion which is needed to produce the film. Jenny Hodge, of Fujifilm, explained: "Some of the ingredients used in Velvia 50 are no longer available, and so that is why the film is being phased out. We still have enough stocks of Velvia 50 to last probably up until the end of the year." Fuji Velvia 100

David BellFujifilm believe that while there has undoubtedly been an increase in people using digital cameras there is no reason to suggest that slide film is a dying format. David Bell is Marketing Manager for Fujifilm Consumer Film Products. He said: "There is no clear evidence to suggest that there has been a fall in sales of slide film. While enthusiasts are playing with digital cameras they are also continuing to use slide film on occasions, or for certain types of photography."

Fujifilm's Jenny Hodge agreed that slide and digital photography was not necessarily an either/or situation, saying: "A lot of digital SLRs have hit the market, but we are finding that people are still using slide film a lot, often in conjunction with digital."

This sentiment is echoed by Jennie Wild at Kodak. Kodak's recent decision to stop selling 35mm cameras in Europe and the U.S prompted further fears over the future of slide film, but Jennie is quick to downplay fears that Kodak are to abandon the film market. She said: "The 35mm cameras that we were selling were generally for snapshooters, not slide film users. Slide film users typically tend to be advanced amateurs and professional photographers who own or shoot very high-end SLRs."

Jennie pointed out that Vivitar will continue to sell Kodak branded 35mm cameras in the U.S and throughout most EEC countries. Commenting on Kodak's decision to stop selling the cameras, Jennie said: "Kodak stopped selling 35mm cameras direct in Europe and the U.S in order to concentrate resources on growth opportunities. Kodak continue to sell 35mm cameras directly in areas where this is a growth product, such as Eastern Europe and parts of Asia."

Though some people may not have abandoned film photography just yet, choosing instead to split their loyalties between both digital and traditional methods for the time being, this is not enough for film photography to remain the growth product for manufacturers that it once was. It is an unfortunate fact that, though many manufacturers state that their film products are still selling well, sales of slide film have declined in recent times and the market that now exists for film photography is much smaller than in previous years.

GFK logoAccording to figures from GFK, during the period of July 2004 until June 2005 colour slide film sold 875,000 units, and was responsible for making up just two per-cent of the overall market. During this period four million digital cameras were sold. This figure reflects sales of digital cameras alone, and does not account for sales of all the digital accessories and software packages that are now available. Commenting on the low percentage of slide film sales, GFK's Anthony Norman said: "Slide film is a very small part of the market now. In fact, sales of slide film now reflect only a tiny proportion of the overall market for photographic products."

The area of slide and digital photography seems to attract much conflicting opinion, as much from those in the photographic industry as from the enthusiasts arguing the merits of digital vs. film amongst themselves. Peter Brandon is Operations Director at WPS Media, who are responsible for Fujifilm Professional. He states that slide film is the one area of photography where digital photography is not having too much of an impact. He said: "The market for digital cameras has increased dramatically, but slide film is standing up well against it. Slide is one of the few areas where the popularity of digital photography is not having an adverse effect, mainly due to the fact that fans of slide film tend to be loyal to the format."

Peter states that Fujifilm Professional are extremely confident that the market for slide film will continue to prosper. So much so, in fact, that they even plan to introduce new films. This follows the success of the launch of the Velvia 100. "It was only released this year, but already the Velvia 100 has become a really good seller" says Peter.

Likewise Kodak are also confident that the market for slide film will remain strong, even as digital photography becomes more and more ingrained. Kodak's Jennie Wild said: "We believe that many advanced amateur and professional photographers will continue to use film SLRs, as well as digital. As a result, we expect to continue to manufacture a wide range of Colour Reversal slide films for the foreseeable future."

The future of slide film is difficult to predict. Though slide film tends to have a loyal fan base, digital converts are becoming more and more enamoured with their new method. Of course, there are reasons why people tend to prefer one or the other, each method having its own advantages and disadvantages. Robert Turner, of the Worksop and District Photographic Society, believes that one disadvantage of slide film is that is easily damaged. He said: "Many times slides come back from processing with scratches or dust on them, and if you cannot get it off or crop it successfully then it ruins the whole image. That is where the advantage of digital would be - you can easily remove areas that detract from the effect of an image."

Kodak's Jennie Wild observed that some people may prefer the look of film, especially when doing work which requires enlarging or printing. A common complaint is also that images produced on a digital camera, and then enhanced, look too 'clean'. Enhancements can sometimes make an image look too perfect and it loses any distinguishing characteristics.

At the moment digital photography does appear to be pulling ahead in the popularity stakes but there is still a significant band of enthusiast film users continuing to fly the flag for slide film. Worksop and District Photographic Society's Robert Turner believes slide film will still be around for a long time to come. He said: “I can't see slide film dying out completely, or at least not until the very distant future. There are still too many people who enjoy shooting with slide film, and some manufacturers are introducing film cameras which they will have to provide accessories for for another 20 years yet.”

In conclusion he added: “I think that eventually it will become a specialist area of photography, a niche market. But as long as manufacturers keep producing slide film there will always be people out there who will want to buy it.”

Only time will tell whether digital photography will really bring about the total demise of slide film. Until then let's just enjoy having the freedom to choose how we want to take our photographs. All anyone really wants is the ability to take the best photographs possible and the more ways to achieve this the better.


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