Roll ‘Em!

7 06 2011

In marketing just as in nature, it is a sad fact of life that some members of this great big family with whom we share Planet Earth, some will become extinct. Sometimes it is because of predation (human and non-human). In some cases it is changing environment and eco-system. And in both cases, it is probably the inability to adapt.

Like the makers of photographic film. Honesty, when was the last time you used a roll of film?

Believe it or not, film is still being sold. I saw some just yesterday at the San Diego Zoo. Those 4000 cute animals are all just begging to be photographed. But I, like most other folks, shot with reckless abandon (197 keepers for me) with our sleek, fast DSLRs, deleting the bad and keeping the good. Despite this, analysts predict that 20 million rolls of film will be sold this year, along with 31 million single-use cameras (yecch!).

But this is a mere drop in the darkroom bucket. In 1999, a peak of 800 million rolls of film were sold.

I was an early-mover to digital, having made the switch in late 1996. I haven’t looked back since. Heck, in the last year alone I have shot over 10,000 images. I store everything at an online photo site for next to nothing, and only make prints (I really like the canvas prints these days) occasionally.

Today, only a few photographic purists and Luddites continue to use film. Yes, a serious photog can coax things out of a scene using film in ways that many digital cameras cannot compare. But once you get over the $1000 price point, most DSLRs will outperform any film camera.

The argument to not go digital is often the same one voiced by audiophiles when comparing vinyl to CDs. There can be some quality degradation, but you have to have a pro’s ear (or eye in this case) to detect it. The rest of us will never even notice. And just as with CDs, storing digital images is a snap (just make sure you keep backups).

Of course, companies like Kodak and Fuji have been left wondering what happened. The market for film has dropped to only 2.5% of what it was a mere 12 years ago. Soon we will see rolls of film in technology museums…alongside floppy disks, cathode-ray tube TVs, and VCRs. How did we ever manage to live with all those clunky devices anyway?

The burden for any company facing extinction is to quickly and decisively reinvent itself. That’s no small task, and a quick drive through Kodak’s home of Rochester NY will reveal the corporate ghost town. Kodak is a mere shadow of its former self. I give them credit for trying, though, because they have managed to survive with photo printing kiosks and mass-market digital cameras. They have also been very clever to venture into medical imaging systems (I noticed this the last time I went to the endodontist…but I would rather forget that visit, to be honest).

As for me, I am glad I made the switch when I did. With a camera roll numbering well into the tens of thousands of images (not counting the 3000 on my iPhone), it would have cost me a fortune to buy film and pay for processing and printing. Instead, I pay $60 each year for unlimited online storage, and occasionally have to buy a memory card.

Film now resides on the cul-de-sac of quaint old technologies…a nice place to visit, but a dead-end with no apparent path to the future. My kids had absolutely no idea what I was talking about when I showed them a roll yesterday. They shrugged and gave the eye-roll that only tweens and early teens can give. “Sheesh, you really are old, Dad. Now ‘scuse me while I post this pic to Facebook.”

Dr “F-Stop” Gerlich

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