Fujifilm has pinned its looming colour negative and slide film price increase on falling demand, but speak to the photo print service providors who are still in the film processing game, and the opposite is true.
Local labs and retailers told PhotoCounter this week that demand for film processing, scanning, and other products is increasing – and a nice little earner at that!
While photo labs have been dropping off the face of earth since the early 2000s, those left standing are now being presented with fresh opportunities. But they have to beat the drum.
Phil Gresham, co-owner of Fotofast in Brisbane, told PhotoCounter that thanks to advertising his film processing services, rolls are rolling in from around the country.
‘We are the only ones left in business in south-east Queensland doing film – or at least we are the only one with online visibility. Film comes in from all around the country,’ he said, and noted separately in a comment following a recent story in ProCounter: ‘Film sales and processing are increasing. From Millennials to Baby Boomers they are picking up film cameras again or for the first time. Now we have to stock film chemistry, tanks, etc – a first for us, but the demand is there.’
Likewise, Alan Logue, owner of Hutt Street Photos in Adelaide, found success required doing more putting a notice in the storefront window. He regularly pitches digitising services on a local ‘golden oldies’ local radio station. Over the holiday period he spent a lot of his time scanning old film and video into digital formats.
‘Our advertising covers video to DVD, old 8mm/16mm to DVD, slides and negs to DVD and photos to DVD. It’s been growing steadily due to the fact that we continue to advertise the scanning/conversion services we offer,’ he said.
‘Our business is growing from advertising – we have been consistently advertising on radio now for over five years. I write and read the ads so quite a lot of customers are quite surprised to meet “Alan from Hutt Street Photos”!
‘Whilst it’s a local station, it does get out to many country areas and that is where we get literally boxes and boxes of videos and movie films arriving in the mail.’ – Some as far as the Northern Territory, Alan said from his Adelaide home, where four machines were working overtime to transfer 68 MiniDV tapes to DVD.
And processing (and scanning to digital) proves to be a profitable niche. As profitable as it was in the ’80’s and ’90s. Once the equipment required for processing and scanning film has been paid for, the only real cost is the staff’s hourly rate.
‘We scan the negs and slides on our Noritsu 3202; the prints on a Kodak rapid print scanner; and the videos are dubbed in-store using a bank of three dubbing machines which are usually running eight hours a day. Plus I have four more units at home for the overflow work,’ said Alan.
Carly Michael, manager of the Imaging Department at Michaels iconic store in Melbourne, said that processing offers ‘a reasonable return’, but the sale of film products presents a few challenges.
‘Film manufacturers are regularly discontinuing lines of film and increasing the wholesale costings – both locally and internationally,’ she told PhotoCounter. ‘That, combined with a competitive marketplace – including many people purchasing overseas or from competitors who grey-import – makes competing on price, while maintaining profit margins, challenging.’
The Fujifilm price rise for negative and slide film (and discontinuance of quite a few SKUs) is the second in a matter of months. Back in October it pushed prices up by 20 percent and some time this month they will increase by roughly another 10 percent.
Compounding this, distributors generally don’t stock the full range of film, which indeed sends some retailers – or worse, their potential customers – to places like B&H for products which are difficult to source locally.
Access to hard-to-get film products is particularly critical as its not all about 35mm these days. From Holgas to Hasselblads, larger formats are popular.
‘Medium format is definitely stronger than others,’ said Paul Atkins whose Adelaide-based business, Atkins Photo Lab recently expanded its scope to embrace consumers as well as professional photographers. ‘We see a lot of 6×4.5, 6×6 and 6×7.’
‘We wish that Kodak would keep up the supplies of the Pro range of film, the enthusiasts love it,’ said Phil Gresham. ‘I know that some labs buy in from B&H, but we prefer to buy local. We are getting our very first stock of black and white film processing chemistry from CR Kennedy and Independent Photo Supplies after constant requests.’
Colour negative remains more popular to both buy and process compared to slide film, according to Paul Atkins.
‘Colour negative and B&W have and are still seeing a significant growth,’ he noted.
At Atkins, film processing is via a less automated dip-and-dunk process, so volume is critical to making the business work: ‘It takes a certain amount of set up time, and is built for volume, so with high fixed-cost-to-variable ratio, we make more the more we process.’
Digital scans trump prints
Based on the response from retailers, film processing and scanning customers are more interested in the digital files than analog prints. Few actually request prints at Fotofast until Phil presents his by-now well-rehearsed ‘Digital Dark Age’ spiel.
At Michaels, Carly said she found bundle packages an ideal device to encourage customers to order prints.
‘Most customers request scans with their shots – in fact, more than prints. We offer a bundle package where the customer receives a discount for ordering prints as well as scans,’ she said. ‘We feel it is important to encourage our customers to print their photos so that they have a physical copy, thereby reducing the chances that the files will disappear into their hard drives.
‘We offer our customers the option to have their files burnt to CD, however, many people do not have CD/DVD drives in their computers any more, so we also offer ‘e-mail transfers’, where we send a link to the customer from which they can then download their files. We can also provide the files on USB.’
Having these options is particularly useful for the Gen-Y hipster types who, while loving all things retro, are in fact grounded in a digital world. Photo specialists need to do a bit of hand-holding to get the ball rolling.
‘This is the challenge for new-comers. The shooters are after a specific look, and it takes investment in equipment and skill to get their look, and there is a lot of initial liaising with the client.
‘There is an interest in the roots of photography, and a desire to simplify amongst enthusiasts,’ he observed.
‘Professionals are after a unique selling proposition, which film delivers. I think there are opportunities for running workshops on film, and supporting or forming groups to work on film shooting together.
‘We, the oldies,’ (Paul must be well into his forties!) ‘judge film as something we buried years ago. To many, it is a new and exciting opportunity to fall in love with photography again.’
Carly Michael noted much interest in film photography has been driven by photo editing and filter apps like Instagram, Hipstamatic and VSCOcam. Users of these apps edit their digital photos with filters to emulate the film aesthetic. But these filters and effects have encouraged some to start shooting film, and they become ‘enchanted by its magical allure’.
So despite Fujifilm’s claims of falling film sales, all of the photo labs we spoke to, catering for different customer groups and from different parts of Australia, are optimistic about the future of film-based photography, and have enjoyed a spike in business over the last two to three years. But the take-out from each has been that it’s a part of the photo business that only responds to promotion.
‘Letting locals know you are processing film is a big challenge,’ Paul Atkins concluded. ‘Many are happily sending film overseas for processing, and just getting scans back, whilst the lab destroys the negatives…which horrifies me!
‘Sending to the USA and Spain (the most common destinations) is crazy, and costs the sender more than necessary, plus consider the risk! Surely we can get that work back with the Aussie dollar being as it is?’
– Will Shipton