The PDN PhotoPlus Expo is (according to the organizers) the largest photography expo in North America. For some reason it doesn’t seem as cool, in terms of product announcements and that kind of thing, to the European Photokina show, but whatever–I’m not in Europe. So it stands to reason that this is a good place to find out where we stand as film photographers. The upshot? As many of us fear, we are in the margins at this point.

Neither Canon nor Nikon have made a serious film camera since 2005-ish, so I skipped those booths, which were by far the biggest and most dynamic.

Next up was the minimalist Leica booth, all black with cutouts to showcase cameras. The only film cameras were a couple of M7s in showcases–I was a bit surprised they didn’t have a limited edition LHSA or a la carte MP on hand, but that’s the breaks. They did have a small number of spectacular prints on display.

Fujifilm was the only booth that actually had a film display.

A very small film display. A display that was rather depressing.

They also had a photo booth where a Fujifilm representative would take your photo with an Instax Mini camera. Given that I subject my son to that every day, I had them take my photo.

Kodak was even more depressing. They were giving out single rolls of film at a counter in the booth. I don’t know what all they had, but there was TMAX400 and Ektar 100 (I think) in 35mm, and TX400 and maybe Ektar again in 120. I nabbed a roll of TX400 in 120.

I started the conversation with “so what’s the news on film?” The rep said “We’re still manufacturing it.” I asked if there were any announcements regarding film (understand that they recently announced no more slide film, period) and he just said “we’re still manufacturing it.” His energy was pretty low. I’ve worked trade shows myself, so I know low energy, and he may have just been tired, but…

There was another gentleman in the Kodak booth, Keith B. Canham, who insisted on giving me his card because I took a photo of his camera. Turns out he builds these large format cameras himself.

Film cameras were few and far between. Many of the large format cameras were featured with digital backs. Even the camera above didn’t have a back, though I think Mr. Canham was talking film with his guest.

So seeing this Linhof Technorama was nice, but as you can see it was lost among other things this distributor was carrying, including battery chargers.

The folks at thinkTANK photo make a mean bag. I have their Glass Taxi backpack, and it’s incredibly light, tough, and useful. I don’t use it a lot, as I prefer shoulder bags, but it’s perfect for holding a couple of SLR bodies and plenty of lenses. If you’re looking for a workhorse bag and aren’t a snob for fashion, check them out.

Many of you might know Midwest Photo Exchange from Strobist, as they were (are?) one of the sponsors of that blog. I went through my Strobist phase several years ago and bought a ton of gear from these folks. Great shop. Their suprisingly large booth was set up like a bazaar. People loved being able to buy stuff cash-and-carry at the show.

Of course, Adorama and B&H are the retail 800 pound gorillas in the New York market and nationwide via catalog and ecommerce. B&H had regular shuttle bus service between the expo and their “superstore” three avenues over. I think they were taking orders at the show, as was Adorama. I actually did pick up some Dektol, stop bath, and paper on the way back from the expo (but I didn’t take the shuttle bus).

If there are two weaknesses I struggle with, it’s camera bags and jackets. I’ve never bought a jacket specifically for photography, but if I were to, these Manfrotto jackets are the most bad-ass jackets I’ve ever seen. I think I spent at least 20 minutes trying on and admiring one of their jackets. They have special loops to keep your camera from swinging out away from you when you bend over and elastic bands that go over the shoulder to distribute weight from the large front pockets. For this year, they’ve redesigned the belt so that it doesn’t have a plastic clasp, which could bump into the LCD on your DSLR. While I don’t have that problem (a DSLR), it was a thoughtful upgrade.

These folks are on the top of my list–Freeystyle Photo. They are dedicated to film photography and alternative processes. One of their private label film brands, Arista Premium,  is rebadged Tri-X. It’s the best deal in quality film, period–$2.89USD for a 36-exposure roll (as of this writing). It’s probably 90% of what I shoot.

When I asked about learning more about different papers without buying them all and trying each, their senior VP of merchandising and product development gave me his card and said “call me and I’ll help you figure it out.” Seriously, if you’re in the US and care about keeping film photography alive, throw these guys some business. They’re awesome.

Thank goodness for the PrintFile folks. I’ve known them my whole life, from when my dad first let me in his makeshift darkroom and I saw their logo develop from a contact sheet. I’m very grateful that they’re still making film sleeves and other archival materials in all different formats and sizes.

Domke is one of my favorite brands. Part of the Tiffen group, they make affordable, durable, attractive, and utilitarian bags, locally in Long Island. I have my daily bag which can hold my work laptop as well as notebooks, Leica, cables, pens, iPod, etc.; then I have my smaller version which is good for a couple of cameras and film; my “Hasselblad” bag which is wider and takes a medium format camera, several lenses, and two generous pockets-worth of film (and a nice little pocket for the small screwdriver all Hasselblad owners need at some point). The list goes on–I have at least 5 of them, give or take.

They’re coming out with a line of new bags that have an expanded range of modular options–basically little widgets you can stick to the inside walls of the bags. These lean toward cell phone pockets and memory car holders vs. film compartments and such, but they’re sharp bags. They’re almost a little too sharp. I like the dull look of a Domke bag. It’s super useful and doesn’t draw a bunch of attention to itself.

The Billingham bag is aspirational for many of us, but it’s become synonymous with Leica in my head, perhaps because of the Tamarkin shop and their fondness of the Billingham brand. It’s almost a little too fancy for my taste, with its lightly styled leather straps and perfectly complementary colors. But under the “look” is an amazing bag, wrapped in materials sourced specifically for the purpose of keeping water out and not wearing out. You wear out a Billingham, you trade it in for a new one at no cost. The pieces of fabric have hidden codes so the factory can figure out why and how your bag malfunctioned. Many sizes, many purposes. The larger ones supposedly make great overnight bags. Touch one, open it up, and you’ll understand that some serious folks designed a serious bag. While they had great prices for the show and I was sorely tempted, I couldn’t justify the purchase. If I had been able to buy something at the show it would have been that Manfrotto jacket  anyway.

I’m so over this post-bankruptcy empty shell of a brand they call Polaroid. There they were with their odd mix of mirror telephoto lenses, digital printers, and all kinds of other random accessories that would have had Edwin Land scratching his head were he still around. The teeth gritting came when I saw the display I photographed above: A frame, enclosing the iconic Polaroid frame, enclosing ads for a digital printer and an instant camera that’s actually manufactured by Fujifilm (thank you Fujifilm). Sorry Polaroid, I think it’s time you gave up your claim to that frame. You don’t make any film that uses it any more. That’s all in Fujifilm and Impossible Project’s hands.

Do you know You should. They’re (as they say) the world’s largest used camera dealer. They sell new, too. They have excellent prices on used gear, and their grading is conservative to a fault. I routinely by “bargain” grade gear from them that many eBay sellers (and some local retailers) would grade as EXC++ or NM. They have a great selection of film cameras and accessories, from point-and-shoots all the way up to large format. Hasselblad extension tubes, body caps for vintage Canon rangefinders, you name it, it’s passed through there. Next time you’re looking for that odd accessory, want to finally pick up that rare lens, or are just dying to get your hands on a pre-war Leica, give them a shot.

I shot most of these photographs with a Leica M4 and Cosina-Voigtlander 21mm Color-Skopar. The film is Arista Premium 400, aka Tri-X. The color photos were taken with a Ricoh GR Digital III.

The Skopar is a fun lens to use. It’s very compact and easy to focus. It is rangefinder-coupled, but it’s depth of field is very generous, so it’s blast for street photography. I use the excellent Voigtlander 21/25 optical finder with it, a solid, metal finder that’s easy to use.

I shot the film at an exposure index of 1000 to compensate for the lens’s f4 maximum aperture and the incredibly awful light of the Javits Center (where the expo was staged). It’s also the speed at which I expose Tri-X for Diafine, which is an easy workflow. I had intended to post this on Friday night (I took them on Friday), but life got in the way of that. I was in the mindset of “can I shoot a show, write about it, and post it all in one day?” I could have if it were my job, I suppose.

So what is the state of film photography these days? I’m heartened by the folks who are dedicated to the gear–the Keith Canhams and KEHs of the world, and by those who focus on film photography–the folks at Freestyle Photo especially. Kudos of course to Ilford, FOTOIMPEX, Fujifilm, Kodak and everyone else who’s actually still manufacturing film. But it’s just going to get more expensive and film will be more of a boutique item, with fewer choices. What are there, 5 transparency film (slide) options now, all from Fujifilm? No Ektachrome, no Kodachrome. No Plus-X. No Tri-X Pro 320. No Neopan 1600. No Technical Pan. Fotokemika is not repairing their repairable manufacturing equipment because they realize they can’t make back the money. The volume and willingness to pay higher prices simply isn’t there, especially for their silver-rich emulsions. So Efke (and some Adox films which are rebranded Efke) won’t be around in the immediate future–paper too.

And what about the darkroom? This is anecdotal, but I wait longer and longer for certain chemicals to reappear on Calumet’s shelves. My pal at B&H in the darkroom department reassures me that Diafine won’t disappear any year soon, but it only takes a slight shift in demand, or a manufacturing issue, for things to change. Adox caught the ball with Adonal replacing Rodinal, but that won’t always be the case. How much of Kodak’s chemistry will disappear?

In my opinion, those of us with a bit of money and access to the internet (or who live in New York or other major metro areas) will still be able to shoot film comfortably. Someone’s still manufacturing it. Companies like Freestyle are doing good volume (I think) with their own chemical lines that replicate classic and contemporary developers like D-76/ID-11 and XTOL.

Given the need, we could all mix our own darkroom chemicals. We may lose the convenience, but the science doesn’t change. Who knows? In 20 years’ time we may be coating our own plates and breathing in the same fumes that our forebears did in the late 19th century. It might not be a niche option anymore but a necessity.

For now, quit hoarding, shoot all your film, and buy some more. That’s the best way you can voice your desire to support film photography. I like how Silk soy milk puts it on their carton: “Shake Well & Buy Often.”