Amidst the discussions a few weeks back of film and digital photographic practices, it occurred to me that it's much harder for me to get numbers today on the kinds of photographs photographers are making than it used to be.
In the film era, having friends and informants at the Big Three in filmmaking was entirely sufficient. Those companies accounted for over 90% of all photographs being made, and they could readily tell me what percentage of photographs were slides, B&W negatives, color negatives, 35mm, 8x10, you name it.
Understand that they were not always inclined to do so. Mostly I do not have detailed information. But I had a few data points and I could be confident of their accuracy. That's more than I can say now.
For example, between 1980 and 2000 almost every photograph made was on color negative film. In the early 1980s, Kodak told me that 90% of its still film sales were for a single emulsion in a single size: Kodacolor II, 35mm. This was shortly before the huge explosion in film varieties brought on by novel silver halide structures such as T-grain and new chemical tricks like DIR couplers. The market then fragmented into many subcategories. In the early 1980s, each film manufacturer made only a few emulsions of each subtype of film, and so it was possible for one single film to completely dominate a company's sales.
Altogether, all kinds and all formats, color negative photography accounted for perhaps 97–98% of photography during a 20-year span. That's pretty astonishing. I didn't get clarification on whether "film sales" meant dollar volumes, number of rolls, or number of photographs. Doesn't much matter. No matter how you parse it, the evidence is overwhelming that everything besides small format color negative had to be counted in the single-digit percentages. All the slide film in use? One percent. Give or take. All the black-and-white film in use? Ditto.
That says nothing about either the commercial or aesthetic import of the photographs made on those materials. That turns out to be important.
As I mentioned in a previous comment, the medium format film market collapsed well before the rest of the film business. The bulk of medium format film went into portraiture, with the second most popular use being weddings. Thirty-five millimeter had seriously eroded the medium-format wedding market by the end of the '90s. The major portrait makers jumped onto the digital bandwagon in the 1990s, because they could make effective use of the ultra-expensive cameras of the era. Were it not for the prestige of medium format it simply would have disappeared from the marketplace. Much for the same reasons that, based on market considerations, Kodachrome should have disappeared 15 years ago—there were an insignificant number of Kodachrome users in the total scheme of things. Fortunately, for the lovers of those particular media, those were users that the film and camera manufacturers courted assiduously. But, again, that wasn't about the sales numbers.
Today, it's much harder to make assertive statements about what kind of photographs photographers are making or would like to make in the future. Digital photography doesn't leave tracks in the snow. Once the camera and memory card makers have sold their wares, there's no way to easily track what photographers are doing with them. One can try to apply guesswork and intuition to the problem, but I'll wager that most of you readers were surprised by the film statistics I just ran out. Reality is not obligated to conform to intuition, no matter how well educated that intution may be.
Even Mike's TOP polls are not particularly helpful. In the best of those, maybe 10% of the readership responds, a phenomenal response rate but no indicator of whether or not it's representative of the silent 90% majority. It's especially difficult to extrapolate from that when you're concerned with the important minorities: those still using film, those working in black-and-white, etc. Even in this abnormal assemblage, those percentages will be small enough that separating them out from the noise is tricky and assuring that your polling is representative even trickier. Sociologists long time ago worked out ways to ensure the accuracy of self-reporting polls, but it's not easy.
With the 40-fold shrinkage in the film business, it would be most interesting to learn if the aforedescribed pattern of film usage has changed much. Is it still 95+ percent color negative, with all subcategories equally diminished in absolute number? Or has the very flavor of the use changed? Are film photographers now the cream skimmed off the top of the milk...or the sedimentary dregs at the bottom of the wine bottle? Or do they distribute themselves pretty much as they always did but in fractional numbers of old? I'd love to know.
Unfortunately my inside contacts in the film manufacturers have long moved on and I haven't bothered to cultivate new ones. If any of you have real insider information on how the film market currently breaks down, and wouldn't mind discussing that in public, please write.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears on TOP on Wednesdays.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Tom Kwas: "Interesting to note, and I've posted this before, in the mid-1970s, our studio Kodak TSR was trying to get us to shoot 8x10 and 4x5 color neg, because we were 'just lucky' Kodak still made transparency and could pull production any day. Of course, the pre-press and separation houses didn't like it and everything they separated from it looked flat, soft (as in film sharpness), and soft (as in color reproduction); plus, they had to make too many color decisions, whereas with transparency, they just had to match the film (which they had trouble doing anyway).
"...We never seriously considered it, but it's notable that Kodak was already acknowledging back then that they made far more color neg than transparency and it seemed that they were trying to set the stage for reducing production of certain lines. Guess they were just asking for Fuji to come in and hand them their hats by pushing their color transparency, and at the time, a far more stable emulsion that didn't have to be tested batch to batch either....
"Sorry to hear that 120 is practically a ghost town. When I look back on years of shooting, if I had to keep one film format that I've done the best work with overall, it would be 120. While I think 4x5 has the best overage usage by discipline (you can use it for product/people/architecture), the 120 format certainly excels when it comes to getting the right look, feeling, and expression in portraiture combined with having the best film size for quality while getting those expressions.
"After I got into photo management, I thought I could do everything I wanted to do from an 'artistic' standpoint by just shooting 8x10 film. Arguably it could do everything from portraiture to architecture, and I could actually ditch the darkroom and do everything with a few trays, a printing frame, and an overhead light. Trying to take pictures quickly 'on-the-fly' outdoors, cured me of that thinking pronto.
"What I've realized, is that their are two levels of hell for film users: will my preferred film format and preferred films still be made (and for how long)? ...And, will the ancillary services associated with film shooting be available to me in my town? ...Or, at a reasonable rate/time? I live in a city of a million in the metro area, and I can't even get same day E-6 processing done on a professional level, much less the old 90 minute 'usual.'
"What will be the last standing film format? Or at least, the last film format with the most options?"