Colour film is in some kind of a crisis. While 2022 has given us some good news – the release of Adox’s new Color Mission and ORWO’s promised NC 500 film – the lion’s share of colour film is still made by the two surviving giants of colour film photography, Fujifilm and Eastman Kodak.
Whether Fujifilm is still in the colour film game is a source of endless speculation, and not something to delve too far into in this article. What has been apparent over the last few years is that film is a low priority for the Japanese imaging and chemicals company. Even some of their best-loved film – like the wedding photographers’ favourite, Pro 400H – have not survived the culling.
Kodak is king. Since it survived bankruptcy in 2012, Eastman Kodak’s film has been marketed by Kodak Alaris, which has exclusive rights to sell Kodak stills film across the world. In recent years, they’ve bucked the decade-and-a-half-long trend of film discontinuations by bringing films back from the dead – Ektachrome E100 in 2017 – and even bringing out films in formats that didn’t exist before. Kodak Gold 200 120’s surprise unveiling earlier this year has been one of the most positive recent developments.
But this has come amid a wider problem for those shooting colour films: spiralling cost. Resurging interest in film photography in the last five years or so has fuelled demand, and Kodak Alaris has been struggling to keep up with it. On top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic created even more problems. Colour films have been in sporadic supply around the world, and the prices have only been going in one direction: up.
Take this example: Kosmo Foto contacted one leading London film retailer to see how much prices have risen. In 2017, just as the analogue resurgence was starting to gather pace, this shop was selling Kodak Portra 400 35mm for £8 a roll, Kodak Ektar 100 for £7.50 a roll and a roll of 36-frame Kodak ColorPlus 200 for £4. Look at that price again: £4.
In 2022, when you can even find these films for sale, the prices are almost unrecognisable. A five-pack of Kodak Portra 400 is now a few pennies under £100 from one leading UK retailer. Kodak Ektar 100 is hard to find under £13 and the once humble ColorPlus is now priced like a pro film. It’s rarely below £12 a roll now, and that’s when you can find it. I went nine months without seeing a single roll of it in London recently. That same shop, for much of the pandemic, had a sign saying which colour films were in stock in front of the counter because the staff were so heartily sick of saying the same thing dozens of times a day.
For the first time in years, I am seeing diehard film photographers turn their backs on colour film. The current cost-of-living crisis won’t have helped, but the steady drip-drip-drip of rising prices over the course of the pandemic has been building to this point. Some of these photographers will stick with black-and-white, where there are still affordable options. Others seem to be walking away from film altogether.
As somebody running (an admittedly black-and-white only) film brand in 2022, I’m acutely aware of the enormous challenges Eastman Kodak is facing. Their problems, as the biggest and best-known film producer, dwarf my own. Kodak is the first name most people think of when it comes to buying film.
They are still struggling to meet demand, even as logistics and industry return to something like pre-Covid normality. Partly, this is a problem which stems from decision a decade ago. In 2012, Kodak shuttered its giant film production plant in Guadalajara in Mexico after that had been churning out film for 50 years. The Mexican plant had 16 huge spoolers for producing film, and Kodak’s chiefs decided they would never need more than two of them; the rest were scrapped or sold. That estimate didn’t account for the revived interest in film that started a few years alter, and Eastman Kodak has been playing catch-up ever since.
So what does Kodak do? Invent new films? Despite its recent call-out for new blood to join the company, it’s probably fair to say most of these new workers won’t be toiling over Bunsen burners and foaming beakers trying to invent a new colour film. It’s a fiendishly complicated chemical process that requires time and money in large quantities. Toxic chemicals once used in emulsion recipes can no longer be included due to tightening environmental restrictions. Film recipes that were fine 20 or 15 years ago now have to be tweaked. It’s a painstaking and costly undertaking. Instead, these workers are most likely being hired to solve the production bottleneck – getting the film into canisters, and out the factory door.
It’s worth mentioning too – much as many detractors of current film prices refuse to admit it – that we’re at the tail end of a historically cheap era for film. Both Fujifilm and Eastman Kodak didn’t rationalise prices when film sales fell off a cliff in the mid-2000s; film was artificially cheap and little long-term investment was made in production. Eastman Kodak at least has justified the rising prices (passed on to Kodak Alaris) as a way of putting investment back into film production and ensuring film can still be made in years to come.
In the short term, however, is there any answer to this colour film crisis? No solution will be simple, but one might be a lot simpler than the alternatives.
Kodak Alaris has the exclusive right to market Kodak-branded film, but that doesn’t mean there aren’’t Kodak films on the shelves under other names. A recent colour film releases – Kameratori’s Santa Color 100 – is made from Kodak colour aero film. But it is not the only Kodak film flying under false colours.
LOMOgraphy’s budget-minded CN range of colour films have been a favourite of budget-minded film photographers until recently, when just like Kodak and Fujifilm colour films the price climbed steeply. I remember being able to buy a three-pack of LOMOgraphy’s CN100 films a few years ago for £10.50. No wonder LOMOgraphy still has a place in many film photographer’s hearts.
LOMOgraphy, of course, doesn’t have its own film factory and relies on others to make its films for it. Over the years this has included Agfa-Gavaert, Foma Bohemia, InovisCoat – and Eastman Kodak. LOMOgraphy CN100, CN400 and CN800 are believed to be based on the Kodacolor VR emulsions of the mid-1980s. The Kodacolor VR range began in 1982 with the release of VR 100, 200, 400 and 1000 films. Some of the films were tweaked further and released as the VR-G range later in the 1980s, before being rebranded as the Kodacolor Gold films.
If you’ve shot LOMOgraphy’s colour films, you’ll know that they are grainier than the current crop of Kodak colour emulsions; CN100, which I’ve shot a lot of, certainly reminds me of Kodak colour films from when I was a kid; it has a wonderfully warm and nostalgic palette. I love the stuff, though it pains me to pay nearly £40 for a three-pack of it these days. (It is cheaper buying directly from LOMOgraphy’s EU HQ, but that comes with its own customs headaches in post-Brexit Britain, at least.)
So if these films are still being sold in 2022 (and they’re fresh stock) that means Eastman Kodak must still be making them, and they are compliant with current environmental laws.
LOMOgraphy probably has some kind of exclusivity deal for these films, which no doubt stems from a time when film sales were a lot lower and Kodak was happy just to be able to keep the lights on. We’re no longer in that world. Demand has outstripped supply.
So here’s an idea: Lomgraphy’s deal permitting, Kodak Alaris releases their Kodacolor range as a new budget line of Kodak colour films. They are cheap and cheerful and grainier and less exacting than the Ektar and Portra and, yes, even ColorPlus. But they’re also cheaper. (Note: Some eagle-eyed readers have pointed out that ColorPlus itself is a tweaked version of Kodacolor 200.)
Because Eastman Kodak won’t have to spend a king’s ransom on R&D, these films can come in at a much cheaper price point. Here in the UK, how about £8 a roll. That’s half the price of a roll of Portra 160, for instance. The professionals and those with deeper pockets can still stump for the superior pro-level films, but those on a budget will suddenly have a cheaper outlet. Perfect films for taking on a summer holiday, loading in a cheap compact for a festival or a night out with friends, and enjoying the trial, error and happy accidents that come with learning to shoot on film.
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Until last year I was solely shooting film, admittedly the majority of film I shot is black and white film but I do like use colour occasionally. I’ve been quite shocked how not only the price of colour has risen but then to find most if not all the black and white film prices have gone up. A single roll of 36 exposure Kodak Tri-X is now around £12 and a 30 metre bulk roll £170.00. Even my film of choice Fomapan 100 Classic has also near doubled from £35.00 for a 30 metre bulk roll to £58 – 60… Read more »
I was under the impression that the problem is production capacity, something you also mention in your article. I don’t see how producing an old recipe is easier.
When I read the header of the article, the first thing that came to mind is: shares. Kodak (Eastman, Alaris is a private company..) could give out shares to invest in production capacity. (there must be a good reason they don’ t)
I share the concerns expressed around film pricing and the huge increases and shortages will certainly throttle back demand. One thing that I’m doing at the moment is revisiting my 110 cameras. Our chums at Camerahack produce ingenious machines for cutting down film. I’ve already got their 120 to 1 x 127 and 1 x 16mm kit and have a 120 to 4 x 16mm add-on kit on the way. My interest has been primarily because of the limited film range available in 110 cartridges, but it also means that I can get about 100 frames out of a 120… Read more »
This is a great overview, but I’m missing something: What does LOMO get in return for releasing Kodak from their presumed exclusivity deal?
I guess that might be the elephant in the room – they might not have much choice in the matter.
I believe that Kodak’s Colorplus 200 is the same as VR200, the 1980’s emulsion. Also note that 35mm colour neg prices are currently inflated due to the shortage. Based on current trade costs, and with free supply in a competitive market, Colorplus 36 exp would be nearer £7 a roll and Gold £9. However, people are desperate and will pay a lot more (my business does not rip them off). As you say, the problem is lack of ‘confectioning’ machinery to make the 35mm cassettes, not necessarily coating capacity in Rochester. The big question long term is really how much… Read more »
Interesting thoughts Stephen. I would love more colour films to be released, and budget options are what we need most at the moment for people just getting into film. However I would echo sentiments that others have raised regarding Kodak’s ability to actually produce more, let alone bring back an old formulation. They haven’t even been able to keep up with production for the formerly budget-friendly Gold 200 and Ultramax 400, yet they went out of their way to make a big song and dance about Gold being available in 120. They have prioritised the ‘professional’ segment of the market… Read more »
You’re absolutely right!
Because of the prices, I recently switched back to my good old Sony Alpha 900 full-format digital camera.
Thank goodness this camera takes great photos!