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Film Fades Out

Photonics Spectra
Mar 2006
Hank Hogan

For old-fashioned photography buffs and those who use film for work and play, January didn’t mark a beginning — it signaled an end. Midway through the month, Nikon Corp., the Tokyo-based camera maker, announced that it was all but abandoning the film-camera business. A week later, Konica Minolta Holdings, a Tokyo-based film manufacturer and among the world’s largest, said that it would withdraw from the film business by March 31, 2007.

With questions swirling about the future, Fuji Photo Film Co. Ltd. of Tokyo issued a statement that it would continue its film photography business. When contacted, David Lanzillo, spokesman for Eastman Kodak Co. of Rochester, N.Y., said that his company will produce film as long as there is demand for it. “Kodak is not exiting the film business. We love film,” he said.

Despite such assurances, the consensus is that film eventually will disappear because of increasingly capable digital imaging and economic forces. Chris Chute, a senior analyst with the technology market research firm IDC of Framingham, Mass., said that the worldwide film photography market peaked at 80 million to 90 million prints a year in the late 1990s. By 2005, that number had dwindled to just over 40 million. He said it has been dropping 20 to 30 percent a year.

As a result, single-use film cameras, along with specialized film and paper, face a future of steeply increasing prices as the economic underpinnings of the industry disappear. Because of manufacturing efficiency, film is relatively inexpensive, Chute noted. As quantities dwindle, that advantage will recede. “It requires manufacturing volume to keep product costs low,” he said.

Industrial and research end users also are making the transition from film to digital format. Although film has offered a wider dynamic range and greater imaging density than digital imaging, these advantages have been effectively eliminated by the introduction of relatively inexpensive sensor chips, which are large enough to approach 35-mm and other film formats.

Digital developments have yet to overcome some old habits, noted Richard Brown, who is executive director at MVA Scientific Consultants, a Duluth, Ga., light and electron microscopy particle analysis firm. “Using light microscopy, there are still a number of people that prefer film,” Brown said. Nonetheless, he reported that the company packed away its darkroom last year. MVA Scientific has a few customers who still insist on film for documentation, but that is a small and decreasing number. Brown himself now uses an 8-megapixel digital camera in his work.

InfoTrends, a market research and consulting firm on digital imaging in Weymouth, Mass., has analyzed the professional photography market. Professional photographers are likely to be among the last to switch to digital formats because of the special requirements of their craft. InfoTrends reported that nearly two-thirds of them use film cameras for some shots. That number is projected to drop to less than half by the end of the decade, however, when it is estimated that 90 percent of professional photographs will be taken with digital cameras.

Jeff Hayes, group director of InfoTrends, predicts that the fine art and nature segments of the market will continue to use film, for reasons that aren’t amenable to the march of technology.
“They’re more artists, if you will. They really enjoy the film-based photographic process,” he said.

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