There was only a single box of colour camera film displayed on a rack outside Fotografia and Techni, a small photography supply shop on the Greek island of Aegina. On the window behind it, the store advertised in English that it sells film.
But the box was empty. Its inner goods – three rolls of 35mm colour film, now a scarce resource – were being kept securely behind the counter, under the watchful eyes of the shopkeeper, who shrugged at his pitiful supply.
“Where is Fuji?” he said.
Not long ago, the phrase “film is dead” echoed through dark rooms, photography shops, and studios. Within a few months of 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy, and Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion. But as nostalgia crept in a decade later, that grainy film aesthetic became all the more alluring. Today, analogue cameras are now as staple an accessory as a sling bag. The hard part is getting your hands on film.
Owing to renewed demand and supply chain delays, photography equipment suppliers around the world have been struggling to source rolls of 35mm colour film, the most commonly used format for analogue photographers, amateur and professional alike. It’s so bad, said Olga Tsirakidou, who works in the popular photography supply store Geramas Foto in Athens, that photographers are buying disposable cameras to extract the film inside. She’s been told it’s the first time in 40 years that the shop has been short on colour stock. “When film arrives, it’s like there's treasures coming in,” she said.
Staff at the U.K. shop Analogue Wonderland said that over the past 18 months, they’ve received only one or two types of colour film at a time from Kodak, compared to the usual supply of eight, and it’s unpredictable as to what comes in. Many stores are forced to limit purchases to just one or two rolls per person to combat resellers. A single roll of Kodak Colourplus 200, a bestseller for new starters that cost £3.50 in 2018, now goes for twice that in shops, and is being resold for as much as £15.
“The fact is, if Eastman Kodak stopped manufacturing colour film, there would essentially be no colour film.” —Michael Raso
Kodak, which owned half of the world’s market share in the 90s, hiked its film prices in 2020 and 2021, and plans to raise prices by a further 20% in March. The company said that the initial hike went, in part, to investments in production capacity. They also said they’ve hired 350 people since 2021 to help boost production, claiming to have doubled production of 35mm still film in the last few years, but even that’s not meeting demand.
“I don't think that [Kodak] anticipated the keen interest in film photography.” said Michael Raso, host of the Film Photography Project podcast and founder of an online shop of the same name. “But the fact is, if Eastman Kodak stopped manufacturing it, there would essentially be no colour film.”
The film industry has also been rocked by pandemic-induced supply chain delays, compounding the strain on Kodak’s production capacity. Notably, a shortage in the steel used to make the end caps for film canisters slowed production.
Fujifilm also blamed difficulties in procuring resources when it announced it would immediately end the production and sale of colour favourite Fujifilm pro 400H in 2021. The company started discontinuing some of its colour stock as early as 2017, but low availability of remaining stock in recent years has stoked fears that they’ve made an Irish exit from traditional film manufacturing. Sellers say communication from the company is unclear, and they’re not sure which films have been discontinued – for example, Fujifilm Pro 400H still shows as available on Fujifilm’s UK site. The most recent communication from November 2022 announces that the company is low in supply of some 35mm colour stock, but sellers say it hasn’t been available in over a year.
For some photographers, no film simply means no film. Lebanese photographer Jana Khoury usually shoots in black and white, which has remained easier to obtain worldwide than colour. But Lebanon’s economic collapse, paired with the rising price of film, has made any film hard to come by in the country. “There's just two or three places where you can find film,” said Khoury. “I gave up. I decided to stick with digital because it's really difficult to do film.”
Shaking analogue’s unmistakable look isn’t easy, though. Scott Mutasa, a photographer in Zimbabwe, said he’s started to retouch his digital images to emulate film after being unable to find new rolls.
While photographers are struggling to get their hands on classic 35mm colour film, some smaller manufacturers are trying to meet demand by releasing new colour stock of their own. In the past year, indie brands Adox, dubblefilm, and CineStill, as well as small-scale German manufacturer Orwo, have all released new 35mm colour film.
Some are even seeing demand surge. When FlicFilm, a company based in Albert, Canada, started making film two years ago by converting Kodak’s motion picture stock into camera film, it produced about 250 rolls a day. “We’re going to have to ramp up [in 2023] because our anticipated demand is well beyond our current 1,200 [rolls a day],” said founder Dave Marshall said in December. The company has even stepped in to help manufacturers that have been impeded by the steel shortage finish their film, taking their raw film base and converting it into 35mm film cassettes using their locally sourced plastic canisters.
But for photographers who want consistency in their work, the shortage of the classic 35mm filmstock is still a problem.
“I'm a stubborn guy,” said London-based photographer João Barreiros, who shoots exclusively on Kodak Portra 400. “What I like about Portra 400 is that it is exactly how I see the world,” he said.
“What I like about Portra 400 is that it is exactly how I see the world.” —João Barreiros
Barreiros took up photography during the pandemic and now shoots documentary and fashion campaigns for the likes of Vans, ASOS, and National Geographic. He said he has no interest in trying out different films, even after he completely ran out of Portra about six months ago. “I didn’t let it happen more than once,” he said. “This is my job. People come to me for a certain style, so I won't let them down.”
Fortunately, Barreiros has found that as an established photographer with a regular supplier, he gets priority access to stock, which he says is the same for many professionals. “It’s like hunting or Formula 1: analogue photography is a sport for the few selected ones,” he said. Although, he’s not convinced even he is among the selected. With the price of film becoming more inhibiting, Barreiros feels unsure about his future in film, and he’s started experimenting with digital work.
While high prices are making it tougher to survive in the future of analogue, the shortage also speaks to its booming popularity and hope that the industry may rebound. “I think analogue will always have a place within professional photography,” said Barreiros. “It’s not something everyone can do and we fucking love the exclusive don't we?”