Amid aisles of shelves, tables and bins, there’s a glass case of vintage film cameras toward the back of an Arlington antique mall. Richard Ahn’s internet scouring led him to the shop, and he walked away with his very first film camera: an Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 Deluxe.
Six months later, the University of Texas sophomore owns four film cameras.
Whether it’s picked up at an antique mall, passed down from a relative, or grabbed from the aisle of a grocery store, film cameras of all shapes and sizes have made a comeback.
In the 2010s, the film-focused Kodak filed for bankruptcy as the world turned digital with DSLR cameras and the iPhone. Now in the age of instant photography and social gratification, a wave of young people are captivated by the often imperfect aesthetic and tangible prints of film photos. Social media feeds are flooded with shots from disposable cameras.
Noah Fournier, 30, is the photo lab manager at Precision Camera and Video on West Anderson Lane. Precision develops film onsite and customers can drop off or mail in their negatives. He’s worked there for four years and said the rate of people bringing in film likely doubled in the past two years.
“I think a lot of people, especially younger people, found a joy in shooting film,” he said of the trend. “People now (think there’s) an aesthetic to it.”
It’s about the process
Five years ago, Fournier said, older generations were the ones primarily developing film. Now, film has taken off as a cultural and social form of artistic expression for teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s.
“It probably is a search for nostalgia and just something that’s interesting, a little different,” Fournier said. “When you shoot film, it becomes about the process. You have to wait a period of time before you get your scan or your prints back. There’s a certain level of patience involved in shooting film that I think people enjoy.”
This multi-step process includes buying a roll of film, loading it into the camera, getting the film developed and waiting for the results. Austin film photographer Jenna McElroy, 32, said she loves how tending to her film during shoots lets her slow down and spend more quality time with clients.
“The sound of the shutter is super slow, and you can smell the chemicals when you’re developing it,” McElroy said. “It’s just like a whole tangible experience.”
It’s not cheap, either. Fournier said the prices of film rolls have risen about 20% every year. He used to pay $7 in 2011 for a small roll of Kodak Portra 400. Now, it costs $13. Big-name manufacturers like Fuji have also recently discontinued certain types of film, leaving the few remaining companies like Kodak with more control of the market.
Vintage or used film cameras, on the other hand, are usually less expensive than digital cameras. Fournier recommends finding an old film camera from the 1980s; he said it “will run like a tank.”
At Precision, customers bring in old film from the ‘90s and early 2000s that they’ve found around their house or just never gotten developed.
“They never quite know what’s on there. It’s always a mystery,” Fournier said. “People enjoy seeing those old memories, things that they completely forgot happened.”
One of the shop’s largest film customer bases: wedding photographers. McElroy said it’s not uncommon for her to spend $600 on film alone for a wedding.
When she first started shooting film for weddings in 2014, McElroy said there weren’t many other film photographers in the business. Now, she’s seen the growth of the art through the rising number of inquiries she receives about her work.
“People really resonate with the emotion that film evokes and also just visually, whether they’re aware of it or not, clients and companies are drawn to the colors, the emotion, just the feeling,” McElroy said. “There’s a nostalgia to film that is hard to replicate digitally.”
A disposable aesthetic
Many people are drawn to the light leaks, occasional overexposure from the flash and nostalgic color tones for which film photos are known.
“The colors of the photos are really hard to replicate. … There’s a depth to them that is a little bit lacking in digital,” McElroy said. “There’s a softness and beauty to film. It doesn’t … have to be perfect, and it’s not as sharp.”
Tucked in the purses, totes and backpacks of teenagers across the country, small, one-use disposable cameras are the simplest way to achieve this look. Their less expensive, carefree and vintage approach to taking photos has made them a trendy staple once again. A green and black Fujifilm Quicksnap currently costs about $13 at Walmart.
Whenever Ahn’s friends go on a trip, he said they all grab disposable cameras to bring along the way. His favorite prints are from when they all lived in Los Angeles together over the summer.
“I would remember a film photo over a regular photo,” Ahn said. “It’s a way to appreciate the past and the type of aesthetic and style that they used to take photos with.”
Ahn is a campus ambassador for Dispo, a mobile app developed by famous YouTuber David Dobrik that simulates the experience of using a disposable camera and makes users wait until the next morning to view their photos while they’re being “developed.”
“A lot of people resonated (with) the message because … film is more of an in-the-moment type thing,” Ahn said. “Don’t worry how the photo is going to (turn) out. Just enjoy it.”
For anyone interested in exploring film, McElroy said to not worry about using a certain type of camera but to focus on having fun shooting what makes you happy.
“If grabbing a disposable is the easiest thing, grab a disposable (or) grab a 35-millimeter and then just have fun with it (with) no expectation,” McElroy said. “Literally photograph what you see that inspires you.”