In the digital age, why is film photography gaining popularity?

·Contributor
·14 min read
An ad by The Film Cartel on Instagram.
An ad for a pre-loved Minolta Hi-Matic AF posted by The Film Cartel on Instagram.

I was in the car with my family when a new post by the Film Cartel (@thefilmcartel) appeared on my Instagram feed. It showed a product shot of a vintage-looking camera lying on the grass.

“Minolta Hi-Matic AF”, the post began. “Near mint with 9/10 Cosmetics. All modes working. Focus lock lever working. Flash working. No issues. Uses (2) AA batteries (not included).” And, the most important part of it all: “P5,999” ($118).

I immediately commented “MINE” in the comments section, as what you are supposed to do in a first-come-first-served selling (just like what the Film Cartel does every time they have a new stock). I was contacted by the account handler to confirm if I was buying the item; in just 5 minutes, I have already made the payment and was guaranteed that the camera would be delivered to me the next day to San Fernando, Pampanga, where I was during that time.

Was it a “budol” — or people’s term to describe a sudden impulse to buy something wanted but not necessarily needed online? Probably yes, although I also know that I have long been seeking a new hobby. I have been on a work-from-home set-up since May this year; while my employer has been so kind to me in always making sure that I am doing okay, sometimes the work (just like any other work) still consumes me, especially as I am facing my laptop and being in my tiny room practically the entire day five days a week. I needed to be doing something else.

A photo taken by the author using his first film roll (a Kodak Colorplus 200) with his first film camera (a Minolta Hi-Matic AF).
A photo taken by the author using his first film roll (a Kodak Colorplus 200) with his first film camera (a Minolta Hi-Matic AF).
A photo taken by the author using his first film roll (a Kodak Colorplus 200) with his first film camera (a Minolta Hi-Matic AF).
A photo taken by the author using his first film roll (a Kodak Colorplus 200) with his first film camera (a Minolta Hi-Matic AF).

Wanting and needing to do something else was also what pushed Ron Asuncion to establish the Film Cartel. "I single-handedly manage the shop. I started seeking the most affordable films or the most affordable way to get stacks of films, and then I would resell them," he shared. "It made me survive the pandemic."

The Film Cartel now sells more than just films; it also has film cameras, accessories, and even darkroom materials that may be needed by those who are already setting up their own darkroom.

Asuncion's The Film Cartel, obviously, is not the only shop that sells film cameras in the Philippines. A quick browse on Instagram alone would show you the likes of Film Camera Shop (@filmroll.ph), Film Stop Camera Shop (@filmstopcamerashop), and Route60Film (@route60film.ph), which all post product shots of film cameras in all shapes and sizes.

But most if not all of them are pre-loved as film cameras are no longer being manufactured these days.

"Most of the cameras being sold recently are imported from Japan while some are just deals made in the online marketplace," Asuncion explained of the process. "In my shop, I am spending my days seeking and talking to a lot of dealers and importers, among others. I buy something from them, and then I send these cameras to technicians for repair, and then I resell them to people."

Some Philippines-based film labs and studios that are on Instagram.
Some Philippines-based film camera shops that sell film cameras in all shapes and sizes.

Film camera shops like the Film Cartel are not new. To put it more broadly, film photography as a hobby is not new. Our grandparents and parents are able to show us their very old photos — and that is thanks to the film cameras that they owned back then.

Even film photography in the digital age is not new. Asuncion said that there will always be sources of film cameras that he can buy and resell, which may suggest that the business of film photography is growing because the number of film photography enthusiasts is also rising (I am one of the new additions).

Isn’t it amazing to think how something so manual and so demanding of care and attention like film photography is continuously growing in popularity in the digital age — among the very people who are used to everything quick and instant?

Why is something analog making waves in the digital age?

Manny Inumerable, the owner and curator of Galleria Taal, a camera museum in Taal, Batangas, said that film photography has definitely shifted from being a practical necessity to being an art form.

"They are now very expensive because they are becoming rarer and rarer as years pass by. You do not buy a film camera these days because you need to take pictures — you can simply just use your smartphone or your digital cameras for that purpose,” Inumerable said. “You buy a film camera because of its art."

"And now that film photography is an art form already, the discourses around it change. Now, you have to be very meticulous in shooting using your film camera because every exposure counts, which is entirely different from what you are used to with digital photography," Inumerable added. "There is the processing and developing, and for some, scanning — and these procedures may take days or even weeks for some. The output, then, is now considered an art because it is very different from what you produce using a digital device, which is always very instant."

Despite film photography now being more and more popular in the digital age, its pros are still clearly evident.

"Film photography teaches you so many disciplines in photography," Inumerable said. "You have to be ultracareful of your aperture, shutter speed, and other settings; your composition and framing; and your lighting because, again, every shot in film photography counts."

Film photography, however, is not for everybody — or at least not for those who need or want more photo opportunities. Because a 35mm film typically has 36 shots only while a 120mm film only has 10 to 15 shots, and because films these days are very expensive, you know you cannot be shooting nonstop unlike with a digital camera.

As film cameras are no longer being mass-produced these days, the remaining working film cameras manufactured in the earlier decades are gaining higher demand, hence being more expensive than they were before.

Film photography teaches you so many disciplines in photography. You have to be ultracareful of your aperture, shutter speed, and other settings; your composition and framing; and your lighting because, again, every shot in film photography counts.Manny Inumerable, owner and curator of Galleria Taal

"The cameras that I bought in the ‘90s or even the early 2000s were quite cheap. That's why I was able to collect film cameras as a hobby that time," Inumerable recalled. "But now, I do not think I can buy or hoard as many as I want anymore because their prices have skyrocketed already."

That is why there is a high demand for film cameras especially for new film hobbyists who want to secure their first unit. "They are virtually playing touch-base; the first person who sees and buys a newly announced film camera for sale, the winner," Inumerable said. "And this is happening not just in the Philippines but also worldwide. Everybody wants their own piece."

I also noticed this back when I was observing the Film Cartel's posts. Every time Asuncion would post a new item for sale, it would not take 24 hours for it to get a "MINE!" That is why when I saw their post about the Minolta Hi-Matic AF, I was quick to comment to mark my territory in it, making sure that other hungry camera seekers will not take my prized find.

A photo taken by the author using his first film roll (a Kodak Colorplus 200) with his first film camera (a Minolta Hi-Matic AF).
A photo taken by the author using his first film roll (a Kodak Colorplus 200) with his first film camera (a Minolta Hi-Matic AF).
A photo taken by the author using his first film roll (a Kodak Colorplus 200) with his first film camera (a Minolta Hi-Matic AF).
A photo taken by the author using his first film roll (a Kodak Colorplus 200) with his first film camera (a Minolta Hi-Matic AF).

Inumerable's Galleria Taal is also a witness to the growing popularity of film photography among the younger generations.

"Most of the visitors who come to Galleria Taal are mostly people in their 20s to 30s — the millennial generation. There are also younger people or those in their teens, too," Inumerable shared. "I am amazed every time they come and I see their sense of wonder and curiosity in my cameras. They would really ask me for stories about an item that caught their attention, so I can really see that they are very serious in this hobby."

There is a growing business in film photography, too

When I had just taken the last exposure of my first film roll (a Kodak Colorplus 200), I found myself asking, “Now, where do I get this developed?” My mom suggested the commercial photo studios in the malls, as we did so back when we were kids.

But when I went there recently, they told me that it would take them one to two months to have it processed and scanned. I just thought that it was too long and, of course, as a newbie, I was very excited to see my first photo roll. I just could not wait that long.

I tried searching on Instagram. If there were film camera shops like the Film Cartel there, surely there would be film labs and studios there, too, right?

True enough, I found the likes of Fotofabrik (@fotofabrik.ff) and Sunny16 Lab (@sunny16lab), both of which have a variety of film services such as processing (the step which makes the film into a negative) and scanning (which digitizes the negative to make digital photo files), among others.

As a newbie in this hobby, one of my first realizations is that this can actually be a very expensive hobby. I do not want to discourage people, of course, but I also want to be truthful. The processing and scanning of my first film roll alone cost me P250 ($5), the delivery of my film roll from Cabuyao, Laguna to the film lab in Quezon City cost me P300 ($6), while the shipping of the negatives from the studio to my house was P200 ($4). I wanted print-outs but that would cost me even more. Not to mention that I also had to buy a proper storage box, films, and accessories, too.

But thankfully, as the hobby is gaining more popularity and demand, newer film labs and studios are mushrooming, too. I was so happy when I learned about One 10 Studio Lab (@one10studiolab), which prides itself in being "a studio and film lab located at the South of the Metro"; their actual lab is in Muntinlupa City while they have drop-off points in Sta. Rosa, Laguna and Sta. Ana, Manila.

They opened their doors just this month, probably reflecting the continuously growing business of film photography in the Philippines.

“Since our opening, we have noticed that there are people who have rolls that have not been processed yet and they are just looking for the right studio to send them to,” Queenie Yason, who is ½ of the two-man team behind the studio (the other being Nico Cunanan), said. “It goes to show that while digital is still the main choice in terms of use, analog surely still has a place in the society; it has its charm that digital photography does not capture.”

Some Philippines-based film labs and studios that are on Instagram.
Some Philippines-based film labs and studios that provide a variety of services such as processing, scanning, and printing, among others.

I asked Yason why she thinks a film photography business is good to have, especially at a time like now where many businesses are slowing, if not yet ultimately dying, and where everything is digital-leaning already.

"Living in the digital age has given us accessibility, ease, and unlimited storage for photos and videos. We started losing the thrill, skill, and art of taking photos without knowing what would come out. The ‘waiting period’ we go through, shooting the roll, and waiting for the finished product to come out is an entirely different experience," she said.

"Modern digital photography boasts some of the fastest, sharpest, and most accurate image capture options you can have," Yason added. "Film photography, meanwhile, will share images that are full of character, unique, and have a certain warmth exuded by the dust, leaks, and developing marks that add character to the photos."

I sent my second and latest roll to their Sta. Rosa drop-off site, which only cost me P100 ($2). I inquired about how much it would cost me if I wanted to avail their rush service, and I was surprised that they answered just P100 — and that I could have my scans the next day!

A photo taken by the author using what turned out to be a broken film (a Kodak Ultramax 400).
A photo taken by the author using what turned out to be a broken film (a Kodak Ultramax 400).
A photo taken by the author using what turned out to be a broken film (a Kodak Ultramax 400).
A photo taken by the author using what turned out to be a broken film (a Kodak Ultramax 400).

My excitement, however, was turned into some sort of anxiety when Yason messaged me that my film seemed to have been exposed to heat either before or while it was on my camera, which ultimately affected my photos. I then remembered that I bought that particular film (a Kodak Ultramax 400) at a mall-based commercial photo studio; it was the only stock left and it was stored in a hot-looking glass storage cabinet. As there were not a lot of film shops near where I live, I bought it anyway.

Yason and I had an hour of discussion about what my photos might look like after their processing, given the poor condition of my film. I think that is what makes the community of film photographers and hobbyists amazing: people are not only showing their photos to others but are also trading information, tips, and advice that would help especially the greenhorns to learn more about this hobby. So, as a newbie, I realized that there can be hobbyists like Yason and Asuncion who can guide me in this very exciting hobby.

When Yason sent me the scans the next day, I honestly thought that the photos still looked cool. They are not perfect, yes, but they did not look so bad either; it just looked like they had that expired film look.

“Each roll is developed in our lab with strict procedures to ensure the best outcome for each process. We take pride in our work that each roll is treated with the utmost care,” Yason told me. “While we work to provide our customers a fast return of their images, we take no shortcuts and use fresh chemistry. All reels are dried in a humidity-controlled room.”

A photo taken by the author using what turned out to be a broken film (a Kodak Ultramax 400).
A photo taken by the author using what turned out to be a broken film (a Kodak Ultramax 400).
A photo taken by the author using what turned out to be a broken film (a Kodak Ultramax 400).
A photo taken by the author using what turned out to be a broken film (a Kodak Ultramax 400).

Film photography does its job to me as a hobby. It gives me something else to be excited about. The joy of having a new reason to go out (while observing safety measures, of course) with my camera to take random photographs — may that be through casual photo walks in our subdivision or in events like my father’s 60th birthday or an intimate family reunion — is honestly a new feeling to me, especially now that we are still in a pandemic.

I was also able to reconnect with my friends through film photography, too. When I posted on Instagram some of my first photos, I got messages from friends who are apparently into film photography as well. They gave me tips and advice and also invited me for a photo walk. I also got messages from other people who also want to start in the hobby and are asking me about some resources they can look into before they buy a camera.

Indeed, film photography creates a community. It encourages connections and discourses that you probably would not have otherwise. I am pretty new to this hobby but I can say already that it has been very fun so far. And isn’t that the point of having a hobby?

Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. He covers societies, cultures, and gender.

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