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Digital photography

Traditional film is still in the picture

April 24, 2007

Taking photos Though more people are switching to digital, a fair number of them are still shooting in film as well, according to experts. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

Canadians reached a milestone in 2006 — for the first time, they printed more photos from digital cameras than from film, according to the Photo Marketing Association of Canada.

"More and more people are switching to digital, yet we find that a fair number of them are still shooting in film as well," says Murray Souter, president and CEO of Black's Photography. "But having said that, film is falling quite dramatically and is probably less than half of what it was even three years ago."

AC Nielsen reported that more than 30 million rolls of film were sold in Canada when the market peaked in 2002. It said only 14.3 million rolls of film were sold nationwide in 2006, plus 5.34 million single-use cameras.

Both Fuji and Kodak, which produce the overwhelming majority of film rolls sold in Canada, say their film sales in this country have dropped at a faster rate than expected, although they would not provide specific annual figures.

But that doesn't mean film is about to disappear.

CBC related link

Your view on film versus digital photography

As quickly as Canadians have embraced digital photography, a recent Ipsos-Reid poll found that 42 per cent of Canadian households are "dual-use," meaning they have both digital and film cameras in their homes.

"In its peak years, people always shot film because digital was expensive and the technology wasn't as user-friendly," said Greg Vance, traditional products marketing manager for Kodak Canada. "But there are still a lot of consumers who really like film because it's easier, inexpensive and they've been doing it for years."

Film holdouts

Digital photography has advantages over traditional film, such as the ability to see a photo immediately after it is snapped, and the fact that hundreds of photos can fit onto a single camera storage card.

However, people still buy film, and analysts say part of the reason is that they know the quality of the print will be high (although it's unlikely most consumers would be able to tell the difference between typical 4-by-6-inch prints produced from negatives or a digital file these days).

The decline of film has been steady, but both retailers and manufacturers say film maintains its popularity among professionals and serious amateurs. At least 90 per cent of pro photographers own and use a digital camera, but more than 60 per cent will also shoot on film, according to Ron Glaz, program director for digital imaging solutions and services at research firm IDC.

Hardware cost is another issue that keeps film in the game, with many film cameras retailing for as low as $30 and "disposables" or single-use cameras selling for less than $10. (Manufacturers refrain from using the term "disposables" because the components are recycled for further use when the cameras are returned for developing.)

"Single-use cameras are declining at a much slower rate than traditional film rolls," Kodak's Vance said.

Kent Hatton, vice-president, strategic brand marketing for Fujifilm Canada, said single-use film cameras continue to do well because, at less than $10 each, they complement more expensive digital cameras. They're also more versatile than many digital cameras, with specialty models available for underwater and panoramic shots.

Painful adjustment

Even though there are film holdouts, the industry is clearly making a rapid transition to digital technology. That means major growing pains for companies used to lots of repeat business from shutterbugs.

"Film had the perfect business model because it would generate three trips to the photo lab," Fujifilm's Hatton said. "One, to buy film, two, to drop it off for processing, and three, to pick up prints."

Today, instead of buying 24-shot rolls of film for around $10 each, digital photographers can buy a single card that will hold thousands of images for around $50. Photo lab customers also used to print entire rolls of film, but now they tend to be much more picky about what they choose to print — and some simply print their shots on home printers.

But the news isn't all bad for suppliers as people go digital and take advantage of the flexibility of the new medium, Hatton said. "Retailers are benefiting from the extra choices consumers have with digital prints by creating photo books, photo blankets and online photo communities to post and share with."

And even though more people are equipping themselves with home photo printers, the retail photo printing business is booming. The commercial cost per print is about the same for digital and film, and insiders say that commercial photo printing is actually on a par with the volumes that were produced by photo labs when film still dominated the market.

The reason? Despite the fact that only an estimated 27 per cent of captured digital photos are printed (compared with almost all shots taken with traditional film), analysts say people shoot five times more images with digital cameras than they did with film.

The future of prints

What's less certain is the long-term outlook for hard-copy prints. People will likely always have a need for something they can stick on the fridge or in an album, but experts are watching to see how factors such as sharing photos on the internet will affect the market — particularly as more devices either have the capability of sending digital photos over networks or storing them for sharing.

"The single-use film market could shrink as well once camera cellphones provide consumers with high-quality images that can be quickly downloaded and shared digitally with friends and family," IDC's Glaz said.

Don't write off film

Prints and negatives are expected to become scarcer as a younger generation grows up in an increasingly digital photo world. But the wild card when trying to predict the future of film photography is the uncertainty around preserving digital images.

Glaz points out that film negatives and traditional prints can last for more than 100 years, while no proven digital alternative matches that. Most printer inks have only been around a few years and have yet to show how they'll withstand the ravages of time. Common recordable CDs and DVDs are not designed to last a century or more, data on memory cards degrades over long periods of time, and backup hard drives are delicate and have mechanical parts that can fail.

"The new photo album of this generation is the hard drive on a laptop," Black's CEO Souter said. "We want people to print because it's a profitable part of our business, but also because the reality is that if the hard drive crashes and it's unrecoverable, those photos are gone forever."

That uncertainty means some may continue to trust their treasured photos to traditional film and prints, keeping at least a small market alive for the foreseeable future.

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