Color negative film: a niche, luxury item?

Film shooters pretty much everywhere have found it increasingly difficult to find color film available for purchase, both in stores and online. When they do find it, they find prices have jumped significantly.

I often buy film from Freestyle Photo. This was the situation there recently – Out of Stock, Out of Stock, Out of Stock. This is typical of all online film retailers.

I’ve checked around. B&H, Adorama, Freestyle Photo, the Film Photography Store, even Analogue Wonderland in the UK — everyone has low or no stock of most common color negative films. What films they do have are available at surprisingly elevated prices compared to the same time last year. Check out the screen grab I made from Freestyle Photo recently, above. Workaday Fujicolor 200 costs $7.49 for a single roll! A three-pack of the film is a slightly better value at $18.99, which works out to $6.33 per roll. Not long ago this film cost about 3 bucks a roll everywhere.

This shortage affects both consumer color films like Fujicolor 200 and Kodak Ultramax 400, as well as “professional” color films like Kodak Portra 400 and Kodak Ektar 100.

I don’t pretend to understand all of the factors that have led us here. I do know that Fujifilm has discontinued film after film over the last 5-7 years, and when the pandemic hit they stopped rollfilm production altogether. It’s not clear when or whether they will restart production. They may have even started selling Kodak film inside their familiar green boxes. All of this might have depleted stocks of Kodak color negative films faster than Kodak anticipated, resulting in shortages. Kodak itself might be streamlining its offerings; recently, they stopped offering their popular Ultramax 400 color negative film in 24-exposure rolls, leaving only 36-exposure rolls on the market.

When I returned to film photography in 2006, it seemed certain that film was on borrowed time. Digital was king, and only a small number of diehards still shot film. We expected that film stocks would be discontinued one by one over the years. We foresaw our wonderful cameras one day becoming doorstops because films were no longer available to load into them.

Then in about 2015, to our surprise, young people discovered film. They started buying old cameras, driving up their prices. We all hoped that this would mean that film would live on.

This renewed interest in film has secured film’s future, at least for a while longer. But it hasn’t been enough to elevate film back into the mainstream. Demand is not driving production anywhere near pre-digital levels. Film manufacturers are responding to the demand as it is.

Moreover, Fujifilm is making money in so many ways that film is no more than a sideline for them. Rollfilm, anyway; instant Instax film is insanely profitable for them. It’s no wonder that they have discontinued films left and right for years now.

Kodak, as Kodak Alaris, is not so diversified. Film is all they do. But Kodak Alaris may finally be rationalizing its film offerings to meet demand.

I fear that the days of inexpensive color negative film have come to an end. Could color negative film now be a niche, luxury item?

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47 responses to “Color negative film: a niche, luxury item?”

  1. J P Avatar

    It would be interesting to hear from someone in that business. I suspect that you have been benefitting from the inertia created by long-ago investment in plants and equipment. At some point, equipment wears out or other opportunities require more manufacturing space, changing the economics.

    I wonder if anyone has ever devised a still camera based on the old Technicolor process that would expose 3 negatives through filters on black and white film then add color via dyes. Probably not as the process would make color film manufacturing look like child’s play in comparison.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think there are a number of factors, and some unique to some manufacturers.

      I won’t be surprised if we end up with a reduced, but steady, production of color films, with prices high enough to support the low volume.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    From a professional standpoint, the only people using color negative film in the glory days of film were portrait photographers and wedding photographers. Sure amateurs shot millions of rolls of color negative per year, but primarily, like my mother, could keep a roll of 24 exposure in the camera all year and get photographs of every event. Of course, volume users always kept professional film costs low. That pricing wiped out by digital, and not even digital, but cell phone cameras.

    I suspect the current cost of film is based on a number of things. 1. cost and shipping of chemistry to manufacture film. 2. Volume sold. 3. “Boutique” pricing, i.e. charging what they can get vs. actual cost with a decent mark-up. 4. Break downs and up-keep of manufacturing equipment. 5. Costs for transportation of film to retail outlets. 6. Lack of local processing outlets pushes more people into digital. 7. Within the last 7 years, digital output has really become more “film like” in look (us pros talk about this all the time).

    A couple of additional points. If you are really serious about film, you’d be shooting transparency film (also wildly expensive now). The “kids” I know that are getting interested in film, are getting wildly interested in shooting transparency film. Having an “in camera” original that looks fantastic on a light box, and gives you something to color match when scanning, seems to them to be a win-win. Color negative? Who knows what it’s supposed to look like, you’re guessing. Some of this migration to transparency could be reason for reduced color neg sales. BTW, the only color neg ever to approach the color, sharpness, contrast, etc. of transparency was Ektar 100.

    I’ve been saying for years that the film manufacturers are “eating their own seed corn” by offering so many permutations of films to basically a finite group of people. They are cutting a smaller pie into tinier pieces! One good asa 50, 100, and 400 speed film form a manufacturer should be enough to assuage the current users.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wonder who shot the “professional” color negative films then. It’s not like you could ever buy them at the drug store.

      There’s something about new films, even limited-edition films, for many photographers. I’m not among them. I want a handful of reliable films that I keep returning to.

    2. tbm3fan Avatar

      You are right about what I would use in film. A 50, 100-125, and 400 such as Panatomic-X, A Plus-X type, and Tri-X which I shot all through the 70s and 80s. The only color I used through almost three decades was Kodachrome 64 and would use hands down today if it were available. I much prefer transparencies than negatives in color.

  3. Jerome Avatar

    Jim, I agree. Color is becoming a luxury. Ektar and Portra prices are becoming outrageous. UltraMax and Kodak Gold are up 30-40%. Include shipping and processing costs, and the cost per roll is crazy. Glad I started developing color at home.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I ought to find some data about what film and processing cost over time, and compare to current prices. That would be interesting.

  4. matt Avatar

    It’s not just the film costs; the last roll of color film I had processed at my local store cost a buck or so more than the previous one did. I haven’t got too into shooting color film since I started shooting film again, but factoring development costs into the price of the roll makes me wince.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Processing costs have gone through the roof. My favorite lab now charges more than $20 for developing and scanning. It’s hard to take.

      1. matt Avatar

        Indeed. I scan my own, but my lab charges around the same (it’s ~7.50 for only processing now, as of the last roll I took to them).

        I have a pack of the CineStill c41 developing chemistry I bought last time they became available; but I have so few rolls of color film I didn’t want to mix it up and have it sitting.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I don’t love developing and scanning. So my compromise is to dev/scan my B/W but send out my color. I mostly used Fulltone Photo for color, as their prices are reasonable.

  5. Olli Thomson Avatar

    I imagine most of these companies closed down production lines a long time ago and what is still in production is coming in small batches off old lines. The cost of setting up production – refurbishing existing equipment or manufacturing new equipment, setting up new contracts for materials for manufacturing, sourcing chemicals (including alternatives to chemicals no longer available or no longer safe) – is far too great even for an expanding but still niche market.

    Perhaps the best we can hope for is that existing companies with an interest in film could pool their resources, knowledge and finances to create a new company dedicated to film.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wonder if the future is this: Fuji gets out of film, except for Instax. Kodak shrinks down to a handful of color emulsions, which they produce in large batches every few years, sell off until they’re gone, and then repeat. A few small manufacturers figure out color film and make some. But all charge north of $10, maybe even north of $15 a roll, because of cost and what the market will bear.

  6. Marc Beebe Avatar

    Why I don’t shoot film: roll of B&W mail ordered in here is the best part of $20, never mind processing. Digital is as near to ‘free’ as you can get. That’s the main reason film is all but gone. The ever-increasing prices of everything have been a factor, and no doubt the pandemic price-gouging will be the end of it for mainstream manufacturers. It’s getting too expensive to live around here, much less have a hobby. I don’t know how people manage.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s fair. If color film is $15 a roll or more I’ll shoot it seldom, and just use my digital cameras when I want color images.

  7. Steve Rosenblum Avatar
    Steve Rosenblum

    The answer to your question is “Yes’. I long ago bifurcated my photography into using film for BW and digital for color. I actually think that long ago digital became the better tool for capturing and printing color images. BW film and processing is still affordable, especially if you stock up on film when you find a good price and develop yourself. The huge variety of results depending upon the film/developer combination used still gives a reason to shoot BW film, also the pleasure in using older film cameras. But to spend $30 or more per roll of color film for the film, processing, and scanning definitely makes it a luxury item for most people.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Good point – probably in the last 10 years or so, digital cameras have started to deliver wonderful color images right out of the camera.

      I wonder how long it will be before they do good enough b/w work. I’m not familiar with the universe of digital cameras but none of the ones I’ve owned have offered the look and versatility of the b/w films I shoot.

      1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

        I think if you used one of the Leica Monochrome cameras or a Sigma with a Foveon sensor, you could do really interesting B&W work. But to me, it seems lame to be simulating the “look” of black and white film with digital. If you like that aesthetic, USE black and white film.

        I have DxO Filmpack on my Mac, but seldom use it. About 7 years ago, after reprocessing some RAW files, it dawned on me that the simulation of various film stocks was fakery. I had reduced my use of film for a few years when digital seems like the great new wonder, but returned to using it almost exclusively. But I agree that digital does color very well now.

  8. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    I have some Color Plus in the fridge and I think when that is gone, I will concentrate on black and white for a while and see what happens with prices on color films. I am sure the supply chain disruptions have something to do with this too, but who knows.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I have enough color film to get me through the next 6-12 months at the rate I shoot it. I hope this shortage works its way out in that time. I test cameras with cheap color films like Fujicolor 200 and don’t particularly want to change that. But if poor availability persists, or prices at $10/roll for what had been inexpensive film, I’ll have to change my game. I’m hoping not to have to do that.

  9. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    I believe I also read somewhere that once these film production lines start running, it is best to keep them running from a maintenance and operational standpoint. Getting this equipment back up and running after a shutdown takes time and money.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It makes sense. This might be the big problem for Kodak and Fuji, in that their production lines are probably still built for pre-digital volume.

  10. adventurepdx Avatar

    I bought up a bit of color film last year at any opportunity I could get. The iffy supply chain motivated me to do so, so I have a decent stock for now. And my local lab pricing hasn’t changed yet, so there is that.

    Is color film a luxury now? I don’t know. Yes, it is more expensive, and I am definitely not happy to that. But to those outside of the film community, film itself sounds like a luxury, or at least conspicuous consumption–why pay for a photograph, when nearly anyone can do it for “free”? And while I wish I still could pay $5 for a roll of ColorPlus, I probably will still buy it at $10 as right now I can afford it.

    But I’m going to stick with it. Getting back into film has been fun for me and enriched my life in a way that I didn’t know before. Digital doesn’t appeal to me at the moment–besides iPhone shots I don’t think I’ll be buying a digital camera anytime soon.

    And while I get posts like this, I’m getting a bit crunchy about about all this doom and gloom. If the new color prices make you decide that you’ll shoot color less or not at all, fine. We all have different priorities and have to decide where to spend our cash. But this pandemic that we are still not out of has altered our world in many ways, some of which we might not realize just yet. I’m trying to keep strong, adapt, roll with the punches.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Good point, if you’re used to shooting digital, film seems like a luxury at any price. Cost of film is what led me to buy my first digital camera in 2006. I was doing these road trips, documenting the old roads, and the film costs were killing me.

      1. adventurepdx Avatar

        I also wonder how much of the reaction to the price increase is in relation to how long you’ve been shooting film (again.) I’ve been back in it for just two years, so I don’t have the memory of Fujicolor C200 being three bucks a roll for forever. (The fact that film prices stayed consistent, and consistently inexpensive, for so long is interesting in itself.) And I haven’t seen much of a reaction from the younger (millennial) #shootfilmstaybroke to the increases–I’ve seen it mostly from people who are older and have more of a history with film.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          That is a really good insight.

          Some years ago I wrote an essay about how film photography had never been less expensive. It’s not true anymore!

          1. adventurepdx Avatar

            Yeah, I think the era of “film has never been less expensive” is over. It’s not just film, camera prices have gone up as more folks have gotten into/back into it and the supply of cameras is finite (for now). But is it “expensive” expensive? I don’t feel that way, not yet, at least compared to new non-smartphone digital cameras. (That “new” OM-1 is listed (body-only) at B&H for $2200.

    2. Jerome Avatar

      I’ve mirrored your survival tactics. When Kodak announced impending price hikes, I started searching for places to buy film at decent prices and started buying a little at a time to stock up. There are mom and pop stores around that still had old prices until a few months ago.

      When I got into film in 2019, UltraMax was 13.00 for a three pack. Last fall, when I saw it at a little less than 16.00, I bought what I could find.

      My biggest shock has been Lomo Color 400. I bought it at 15.00 for a three pack in 2019. Now, it’s 28.00 + 7.00 shipping—when you can find it. No more Lomo for me!

      Oddly, the cost of 120 format is not going up as fast.

      1. adventurepdx Avatar

        Looks like the price of Lomo 800 is still holding for now–listed at $11.75 at Blue Moon.

        1. Jerome Avatar

          That is 11.75 per roll; the 3-pk set is 34.00. That is only a few cents less per roll than Portra 400. When I bought the 800 in a 3pk three years ago is was something like 17.99 for the set.

          1. adventurepdx Avatar

            Where are you finding Portra 400 in 35 for “a few cents more” than $11.75? B&H and Freestyle have the five packs for a hair under $65, bringing the per-roll cost to about $13. Neither is in stock, so that price could go up when they are back. Blue Moon has a roll for $14.25 (also not available). Lomography 800 is definitely cheaper than Portra 800, which is a more apples-to-apples comparison.

            As for prices of film from three years ago, well, that’s three years ago.

  11. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    BTW, for JP, there were many tri-plate color cameras before the invention of color film! Most were used to shoot black and white separation negatives to be used to make three color plates for commercial printing, like the Sunday roto section of a newspaper.

    I remember seeing a picture of Roy Rogers, shot with a camera that held three 4X5 black and white films, and the camera was box-like, with the incoming image from the single lens, passing through semi-silvered mirrors with red, green, and blue filters over them, along with neutral density coatings to ensure that the image to each film was the correct exposure. It took a hell of a lot of light to use, but you could get three red, green, and blue, black and white films for use in making printing plates for the 4 color printing process.

    Funny you should mention Technicolor too. It’s only recently that the digital process has been able to even approximate the “look” of Technicolor reds! I started watching the recent show: Around the World in 80 Days, on my local PBS station, and was stunned at the quality of the “reds”, and the images in general. They looked like perfect Technicolor. It took about 30 minutes for me to find out on the “nets” that they were using a 6K Sony Venice Camera, with a selection of Sigma FF movie lenses, f/1.5. It was also amazing to see something out of Sigma for professional movie people that looked that good, at fraction of the cost of buying Zeiss. I think a 5 lens kit is around $16,000, when the same for Zeiss might be well over 50K!

  12. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    To be fair Kodak flagged this issue over a year ago, saying they were having to raise prices to invest in new production capacity. COVID and supply chain issues around the world, along with inflation finally following money printing as it always seems to do would lead us in this direction even without the substantial growth in the numbers of photographers using film. It will stabilise in time I am sure :) I have been making sure my fridge is always well stocked!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I hope their statements were straight honesty, rather than corporate-speak.

  13. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    I wish Kodak still made the Gold 100 from about 20 years ago. As I scan older negatives, the Gold 100 usually scans perfectly and looks great. The color tone and contrast is fine and the grain is unobtrusive. There were at least 5 generations, and all seemed to work for me. I am less satisfied with the contemporary Ektar 100.

    1. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      Kodachromeguy, I have to say “ditto”. As a pro, of course, it was all Ektachrome sheet and roll film for what I was doing, but if I needed prints for a scrapbook or some other use, I really liked Gold 100. It had more “snap” than any of the professional color neg films, which were mostly formulated to be “soft” for portraiture. It was the closest thing you could get to transparency, but a touch softer and warmer than Ektar 100. My pro shop stocked it in 120,and a lot of us used it, including wedding guys who seemed to like it for their dinner time candids. A really nice all around film.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I loved Kodak Gold 100!

  14. Rich Avatar

    I Have plenty of film in stock 440 WEST SIDE AVE. JERSEY CITY N.J.201 332 2219

  15. P Avatar

    In my opinion it’s pretty obvious what the two root causes are of the now totally out-of-control film prices (which extends beyond just color negative film — B&W and E-6 are also included):

    (1) Greed on the part of certain film manufacturers, namely Kodak and Fujifilm, who saw a gullible subset of the film community (mostly younger people, along with those who are independently wealthy and/or retired and well-off, as well as some pros) made up of individuals who have zero quantitative reasoning skills and no concept of the value/worth of things, and the manufacturers exploited it (like corporations always do).

    (2) Utter foolishness on the part of certain people within the film community (the aforementioned gullible subset), who not only allowed the aforementioned greed to go unchecked by continuing to buy these manufacturers’ products at unacceptable price points but in fact praised the manufacturers for exploiting the community (ripping us off) and voluntarily became their unpaid marketing lackeys by writing all kinds of inane “opinion” pieces (realistically, they were doing nothing but regurgitating the corporate marketing propaganda) to convince everyone left within the community that this price gouging was not just acceptable, but wonderful, and we all needed to support these companies no matter what they charged. Sadly, a lot of their audience bought it. These people within the community — which is almost all that’s left now since their actions have driven the vast majority of everyone else out of the community due to the inability to afford to shoot film in any worthwhile quantity anymore — gave permission to the film manufacturers to exploit/screw us and, well, that’s exactly what’s happened.

    This wasn’t at all difficult to predict and it’s precisely what I told people would occur, because it’s what always occurs when consumers are gullible/clueless and when corporations are greedy, which, this day and age, seems to be nearly universal, on both fronts.

    There was absolutely no reason for the film community to end up here, but here we are…

    This, of course, is all my opinion, but I’d argue anyone willing to quit making excuses for these corporations and believing every bit of marketing propaganda that’s spewed at them, who actually sits down and looks at things objectively, will likely come to the same conclusion. Much (most) of what the manufacturers have been spouting off the past few years in order to justify this exploitation not only doesn’t make any rational sense, it actually directly contradicts a whole lot of what they’ve said in the past, not to mention basic economic principles. But I won’t get into all the contradictions, inconsistencies, and logical fallacies here, as I’ve discussed much of it several times in the past.

    Like many others, I certainly cannot afford the cost of film now, not even remotely, so once my current stash of film (thankfully, I still have a decent amount) is expended I will likely have to say goodbye to my one-and-only true hobby, a hobby which I love dearly. At this point the only way I see this not being the case is if the manufacturers get real, stop screwing over their customers, and start selling their products at fair prices again. If this is true for me, it’s true for countless others, too. And, indeed, tons of people have already been forced out and had to leave what they love behind.

    Everyone acts like the film community has never been healthier, but truthfully, based on what I see, the community is in a very sad state. For the reasons discussed above, it’s lost most of the types of people who once made it great (i.e. everyday Joes dedicated to film as an art) and is now primarily comprised of people who are actively ruining what remains of it (arguably, they already have), and the really sad thing is they don’t even realize it.

    That’s my two cents.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was wondering when you’d chime in on this! :-)

    2. Kodachromeguy Avatar

      Oh oh, change the brand name to AT&T, Delta, Leica, Chevrolet, ExxonMobil, Rolex, Apple, or whatever, and you see rants like this all over the internet. Yes, the greedy manufactures are out to screw us consumers, to specifically destroy my hobby….

    3. P Avatar

      Jim — I figured you were waiting. I didn’t want to let you down. ;-)

      Kodachromeguy — As per usual, it’s as if you read nothing I wrote.

  16. kevinallan Avatar

    I’m working my way through two bulk rolls of Kodak Vision cine film, which I bought fairly cheaply. Of course removing the remjet as part of home processing is an extra work step. When that’s gone, I may well use only B&W film and use digital for colour work.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I haven’t taken the plunge yet to develop my own color film. I am not sure whether I will.

  17. Khürt L Williams Avatar

    It’s winter in New Jersey. It’s all grey skies, leafless trees, and dirty snow on the ground. I’ve exposed three rolls on black and white film ($10/roll) since January. I sent them off ($15 shopping) for developing only ($8/roll). I’ll scan them myself. With return shipping, the cost exceeds the cost of a new high-speed SD card.

    I think I’ll scale back to exposing just one roll per month. To reduce shipping costs, I’ll wait until I have three rolls before sending them off for development. As for colour, I’m saving a few rolls of Kodak Pro Image 100. It’s inexpensive but recently primarily unavailable. I’ve got a few rolls of Portra 160 and Ektar 100, but they cost so much to buy I’m saving them. For what? I don’t know.

    I agree with some of the comments. In 2022, film photography is becoming financially inaccessible. I agree that some film photography fanatics advocate that film photographers sacrifice financially to keep the film industry afloat. I think that’s lunacy.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I used to save expensive film for special occasions, too, but now I just shoot whatever’s on hand if it fits what I’m going out to do. It’s freeing.

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