By Stephen Dowling
Just imagine you’re a teenage photographer who has started taking pictures in the early 2010s.
Chances are, the camera always at your side is not a digital SLR or even a digital compact, but the phone through which you live your online, connected life. Since the arrival of the first generation of the Apple iPhone in 2007, camera-equipped smartphones have eaten into the compact camera market, sporting ever-more-impressive cameras and sensors. They help breed a new generation of mobile-optimised photo sharing experiences. After all, the camera shutter and the upload-to-social buttons are now only a few clicks away from each other.
The app that has become the dominant way to share photos has already transformed photography; rather than struggling against the relatively humble specs of the first generation of smartphone cameras, it turns them to its advantage. Pics on Instagram are designed to be viewed on the screen, not on giant, high-definition monitors. Instagram takes its cues from toy camera app Hipstamatic, which brings back the experimental 90s vibe of Lomography with filters aping cross-processed slide film, expired colour negatives and bleached, aged Polaroid film. This is no mistake; its founder, Kevin Systrom, is inspired by the look of images he took with a Holga camera while studying photography for a semester in the early 2000s.
Instagram takes this filter-tastic photography playground and marries it to an addictive social app. By 2012, it has been sold to Facebook for a $1bn price tag when it still only has 12 employees. Like YouTube it creates a new breed of performative social star, influencers who grace our phone screens from sun-kissed shores or over plates of photogenic food.
To teenagers, these analogue-approximating filters look new; different. They’re not as crisp or saturated or sharp as the images the phone makers have been expensing so much sweat to achieve. They become an unstoppable photographic trend, 20 years after Lomography brought the aesthetic out of fashion magazines and into consumer photography. Along the way, they seem to revitalise a photographic format many had assumed was on its last legs.
In April 2012, just after Instagram was sold to Facebook for its nine-zero price tag, I wrote a piece for the BBC asking: ‘Has Instagram made everyone’s photos look the same?’. It was at the height of Instagram’s toy camera aesthetic, long before it became the defining platform of the photo-sharing age. It was still a relatively niche site. When the platform was sold to Facebook it had some 30 million users; five years later that number had mushroomed to 700 million.
Many young photographers using Instagram around this time will have cycled through its roster of filters, picked one, and thought little of it. But some were obviously intrigued.
In August 2015, Instagram made a seemingly small change which opened it up to a massive audience of film photographers – it ditched the ‘square format only’ which had been in place since the app was devised. You no longer had to crop into a landscape image – like a frame from a roll of 35mm film, for instance – but could instead show their shots as intended. The amount of film content on the app began to increase.
And it wasn’t just about the pics shot on film; the cameras, in some cases, were even more important. As anyone who has ever considered buying a Contax T2 compact knows, the price of certain film cameras has risen astronomically. Instagram can’t be blamed for this on its own – YouTube has also significantly raised the profile of film in recent years – but it has certainly made some cameras more visible objects of desire. Analogue cameras have become an accessory in a digital age.
The Instagram effect has come nearly two decades after film reached its commercial peak, and a good 15 years since most camera manufacturers stopped making film cameras and pivoted to digital. Its attention has been “a bit of a mixed bag”, says Rob Andrews, who hosts photowalks in London and runs the film photography-focused Instagram account @londoncameraproject, which has nearly 50,000 followers. “Many people are getting attracted to photography and there is a huge number of people able to share their work with a massive audience. On the other hand there have been some puritanical, myopic attitudes like how to rate film or what gear is cool and what’s not.
It’s lovely seeing teenagers in parks or on the street taking photos of each other with classic SLRs or compacts – Rob Andrews
“Also the absolute worst thing about Instagram is the way we consume images. Instagram compresses the images and the linear nature means we can scroll past 12 pictures in a second. What I’ve personally loved the most though is how easy it’s been to meet people with similar interests and get together and shoot as a small or large group.
“I can definitely see much younger crowds shooting film. It’s lovely seeing teenagers in parks or on the street taking photos of each other with classic SLRs or compacts, those with a few extra quid with Leicas. I love the way they want to learn more and experiment with techniques and styles. I have seen specifically an interest in classic silver bodied SLRs like the Canon AE-1, Olympus OM-10 and the Pentax Spotmatic which are all great cameras. I own one of each too! But how cool would it be to see these young people toting a Praktica SLR right? Or a Yashica? Super cheap, tough bodies and M42 mounts and just as capable of creating valid art.”
Marius Constantin who runs the London camera stall Vintage Camera Hut, says he has also seen a rush towards common, reliable cameras. “There are a few models which are very popular now. Probably the most popular camera in my shop is the Olympus Trip 35. Also, the Olympus OM-10 and Canon AE-1.
“This is the effect of Instagram but also the fact that these cameras used to be affordable and very popular in the past and you can find them easily. Olympus sold over 10 million Trips.”
Camera stalls and sites catering to these new crowd aren’t trying to sell them refined Leicas to sit on shelves; these cameras are being bought to be used, and models that were almost ignored 15 years ago are becoming popular. “I deliberately got the same model of camera my dad had when I was born,” says Andrews. “I hoped I’d be able to take pictures as good as him. I got examples of the manual focus cameras I mentioned above because these are the ones to get right? The ones you see on Instagram. But, for a fraction of the price you can get an SLR with auto-focus, auto exposure, auto wind but these aren’t as fashionable… but the silver-bodied manual focus SLRs of the 70s and early 80s do look really sexy.”
There lies at the heart of Instagram a dilemma: the filter. The filters began as a way of masking the less-than-spectacular specs of the pics captured on the phone lens – Holga-esque softness can hide a myriad of low-resolution sins. It transformed phone pics, making them seem like postcards from another time, like Polaroids trapping a moment in slowly fading amber.
Except that with the filters the effect is uniform. It does not change from shot to shot – whether you are taking a picture of your lunch in London, the cracked tiles in a Lisbon streetor a night-time panorama in Las Vegas. The creativity within Instagram’s filters, you can argue, began and ended with the coding that created them, long before they popped up as an option on your phone. As the tech journalist Kate Bevan commented on the story I wrote for the BBC back in 2012: “I don’t think it encourages experimentation – it encourages the use of lazy one-click processing.”
Can you imagine bringing a physical photo album around and making your case about how awesome film is? – Aislinn Chuahiock
The smartphone has brought the spontaneity of photography to everyone but has robbed it of most of its serendipity, the happy accidents that can never be repeated. Rather than hammering another nail into film’s coffin, Instagram has provided a path for new photographers to discover film.
“First it’s not only about exhibiting what ‘film looks like’,” says Aislinn Chuahiock, the co-owner of the camera shop Film Folk in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. “It also has given photographers an efficient platform that communicates what it ‘feels like’. Whether it’s about the aesthetic or process, it’s a very unique stage to express what film actually brings to the table. Can you imagine bringing a physical photo album around and making your case about how awesome film is?”
Instagram may have been the right medium at the right time, showing analogue photography through a digital lens relevant to younger photographers. Facebook never did this the same way – the site’s timelines are so crowded with other posts, adverts and other notifications that it remains a deeply unpleasant experience to browse photos on. Instagram, with its clean, ordered grids and smoothly scrolling stream of photographs, is much more aesthetically pleasing.
Marina Llopis, a Spanish photographer in the UK who runs the Instagram account @Ifwefilm, says: “The popularisation of the world of analogue photography on social media (especially Instagram) has made many young people show curiosity and interest in this medium. Many of them start by exploring this world through cameras inherited or purchased thanks to the guidance of influencers on social media and a large majority end up staying in it and continue their analogue journey.”
Instagram didn’t try and lure in digital photographers with stiff studio-lit portraits and technical charts showing the complicated interplay of aperture and shutter speed, or chemical breakdowns of darkroom chemicals. People shot film just like they shot digital.
London-based camera repairer Pierro Pozella, who runs PPP Repairs, says it was not only the images taken on film that Instagram was selling to its audience, but the cameras themselves. Of course, that’s been a double-edged sword, as certain celeb-friendly Contax T2 and Leica M6 have risen and risen in price.
When a popular photographer posts his film camera the level of requests for that camera rises – Bellamy Hunt
“My first Leica kit seven years ago with several lenses cost me £300, now you’ll be lucky to buy the lens cap alone for that price!” says Pozella. “However, even though prices have jumped up drastically, in some cases the cameras have only really reached the original value of what they were originally sold for when they first came out. There’s many that have been hyped up, but the one benefit of misinformation due to much of the knowledge being lost is that many gems have been missed and left hidden beneath the radar.”
Japan Camera Hunter’s Bellamy Hunt says he began noticing the cult of film cameras on Instagram some years back. “It was quite gradual at first but then about three to four years ago it became a torrent. This became apparent when celebrities starting posting their film shots. It is a really beneficial way of seeing how film photography is progressing,” he says.
“I do get a lot of customers looking for a camera based on what they have seen on Instagram, and you can see clear trends. When a popular photographer posts his film camera the level of requests for that camera rises. This is also true of YouTube. It has definitely created demand for specific cameras that tend to be more photogenic. A visually appealing camera will sell itself,” Hunt says.
The artfully shot film cameras on Instagram have an allure, even if Constantin says for some of them it may only be fleeting. “I think most of the people buy these cameras now because it’s cool to have one and also they’re widely available. As soon as they’re using them once or twice, the magic goes for most of them.”
Some of those new converts might not get the bug long-term, but the steady stream of analogue-tagged images on Instagram doesn’t seem to have ebbed during the coronavirus lockdown; the rising price of working film cameras from humble to desirable is a continuing clue the revival has legs.
“I don’t think it’s a fad. Like I personally prefer IG over other photography related platforms,” says Chuahiock. “Because it is engaging, easy, and can also be used as a business tool to promote yourself or your business. Also, IG is being used by people of all ages and cutting across various demographics. It has evolved into a more meaningful tool not just for photography.”
Many of my customers send in very sentimental cameras for repair, making up at least 30% of repairs I now carry out – Pierro Pozella
Some of that new film community, Pozella and Hunt agree, is from photographers who used film in the past and are coming back to it, their interest possibly piqued from what they are seeing on their phones. Often, they are dusting off old cameras in the attic or at the back of the wardrobe and getting them repaired.
“This is one thing I have noticed increasing of over the years, which is great because they’re no longer being thrown away,” says Pozella. “Many of my customers send in very sentimental cameras for repair, making up at least 30% of repairs I now carry out. The main reason for the change is because the awareness around the industry has increased, so it has also allowed for parts of the industry to be revived such as camera repairs.
“With more people having cameras repaired and donating parts, it has enabled more parts to be accessed, making once uneconomical repairs now economical. This has also been aided by young repairers bringing knowledge to the table which would not have been accessible to all repairers 40/50 years ago due to the advancement of technology.”
“The returnees tend to be of an older generation that shot film when they were younger,” says Hunt, whose Tokyo-based business deals in the kind of premium cameras many might not have been able to afford in their younger days. “They are looking for that change of pace for personal projects, and a little bit of nostalgia.”
Llopis believes there is also a form of nostalgia for this golden age of film photography from those far too young to have enjoyed it the first time around. “I believe that feeling of reconnection with our origins or our roots is more present in younger generations,” she says. “Maybe not as ‘let’s leave all technologies behind and go back to farming’, but rather an interest in how things were done in the past and what kind of twist could be added to a traditional way with their perspective/knowledge of the current world.”
Photographic textbooks for decades have been telling people that the best camera to have is the one they have on them. And for most us, our phones – sporting perfectly good cameras – are close to hand.
The adage that film “slows down” a photographer may have some attraction to those burnt out by taking images on a device which is constantly updating them with digital activity even as they take their photographs. A Pentax Spotmatic doesn’t serve up texts while you’re taking a portrait, or warn you you’ve been outbid on an eBay auction when you’re capturing the hustle and bustle of a street market. You’re free to take pictures without any distractions.
It is really exciting getting to see what you shot days or even weeks after shooting the roll – Roxanna Angles
And just as we remember things we write down better than if we type them on a keyboard, the physical acts of using a film camera – taking the film out of its canister, popping the back open, winding on to the first frame – may help us cement the memories around those images.
“I think younger photographers might have remembered their parents using film. It brings a nostalgic vibe that they crave,” says Roxanna Angles, a US school counsellor and co-host of the Negative Positives podcast. “I still crave that. I remember my mom having a beautiful Nikon she would carry with her to any family event. It is also a medium they are discovering is fun. It is really exciting getting to see what you shot days or even weeks after shooting the roll. It brings you back into a moment of time, that photos on your phone just cannot provide.
“I think that when people have 24 or 36 frames they have a more tangible connection to each image,” says Andrews. “It’s less disposable and therefore each frame, even some of the rubbish ones have more emotional content in them.” But he stops short of saying the film shots are more ‘authentic’. “I think if authenticity was paramount there wouldn’t be so much augmentation or filters added to scans before being uploaded to IG.”
Digital photography has been as democratic an artform as an advance in photography before it – just as revolutionary as the Kodak Box Brownie or the first Leica rangefinder. Smartphones and pocket-sized digital cameras have turned everyone into a photographer, and Instagram has created a global platform for anyone with a camera and an internet connection. Only a fraction of those young photographers may then want to explore other ways of taking photographs, but it still an enormous number of new recruits coming to film, year after year.
In the early 2000s, when film photography was at its commercial peak, enormous amounts of R&D resources were spent making films as sharp and true-to-life as possible; film brands tended to stress modernity in their packaging rather than harking back to their heritage. Now, those seeking pin-sharp, colour photos have digital to rely on. In some ways, digital’s domination has been a blessing – film no longer has to strive to be the sharpest, most realistic way to capture a scene.
“I believe that analogue photography is carving a permanent spot for itself that lands somewhere between the art and photography realm,” Angles says. “There is something magical that film photography has now that it never had before… it has released the desire for crispy perfection, because you have that with digital, and now analogue nurtures the wide palette of colours, tones and an array of fortunate mistakes.
“I think Instagram had a huge part in making the film aesthetic desirable. The dreamy filters creating light leaks, vignetting and even cross-processed film were sparking a desire to embrace the mistakes of nostalgic film. Both Instagram and the resurgence of film photography seemed to fuel a new era. The hybrid film shooter.
Llopis adds the mystery around film and the thousands of weird and wonderful camera designs may also be a further attraction – film photography’s decades of history are a very deep rabbit hole to go down, and cameras 50 or even 100 years old are still perfectly useable today. “There is so much to learn and so much to try from both cameras and films that it is impossible (at least for me) to have the feeling of knowing everything. That’s precisely what makes analogue photography so fascinating, it never ceases to amaze you.”
This new long-term interest has also helped focus on the longevity of the industry – Pierro Pozella
The new cadre of younger film photographers are already making changes. Few of them have space for a darkroom; Ars-Imago’s daylight Lab-Box looks like exactly the kind of product for a younger photographer who wants to start developing at home. The launch of several new digitial hotshoe meters in the last 12 months – such as those by Reveni Labs and Hedeco – has made generations of previously meterless cameras more useable. There’s no collector cringe at using a piece of 3D-printed tech with a classic rangefinder.
“It is creating a new long-term interest in cameras in a positive way,” says Pozella. “By this I mean that people are investing in one or two cameras, using them for everything, as they should; old cameras need to be used like old cars! They are then having them repaired when they break down rather than throwing them away and replacing them. This new long-term interest has also helped focus on the longevity of the industry. For example, producing small light meters for older cameras once restricted by their design, the development of new home film processing tanks and chemistry allowing people to develop black and white as well as colour at home, and generally making the act of analogue photography more self-sustainable.”
Instagram’s effect on global culture in the last decade has been as contentious as it has been complete. “It’s strange to remember, now, that when it started out Instagram wasn’t a beauty contest. Its appeal was to a newly visually sophisticated audience – the kind of people who loved how the right filter made a yellow raincoat pop against a city street,” wrote Jess Cartner-Morley in a piece for The Guardian earlier this month. What began as a photosharing app became something much bigger and more unwieldy, a social experience creating a new online economy alongside anxiety and visions of the perfect lifestyle.
But it’s worth considering that among the selfies, the swimming pools and the soy lattes, Instagram might just have helped create an entire new audience for film. It most certainly won’t be the same again.
Follow on Instagram:
Rob Andrews: @londoncameraproject
Roxanna Angles: @Roxannalog
Aislinn Chuahiock: @aisslinn
Marius Constantin: @vintagecamerahut
Bellamy Hunt: @japancamerahunter
Kosmo Foto: @kosmofoto
Marina Llopis: @ifwefilm
Pierro Pozella: @pppcameras
Did you discover film via Instagram, or has it reawakened a love for analogue photography? Leave a comment below.