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The appeal of analogue photography

Tired of digital, film-photo enthusiasts in India are coming together to bring back shooting slowly and with intent

The movement towards rediscovering analogue photography has gained significant traction in India over the last few years
The movement towards rediscovering analogue photography has gained significant traction in India over the last few years (Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

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There aren’t too many like him around, and he knows it. Especially when dealing with a persistent, hopeful customer: “Okay but, ek aur baar try karoge? Ya koi aur hai yahan jisko ek aur baar yeh dikha sakoon? (Try again? Or maybe there’s someone else I can show it to?),” the customer asks, not wanting to give up on the analogue camera that once belonged to his father. The man facing him smiles patiently. The bright white of the tube light overhead bounces off a shiny black badge on his left front pocket. “KIV ENGINEERING. I AM KIV,” it reads.

“Leave it with me, I will check when I have time and call you,” Kiv, aka Kapil Inderjeet Vohra, replies. With this kind of client, half the job consists of offering assurance. The camera in question is, after all, a 30-year-old Pentax K1000, a mechanical, manual focus, single-lens reflex (SLR) camera that uses 35mm film.

There are many such amateur photographers with second-hand or heirloom cameras seeking out Vohra, a 40-something service-person at Chandni Chowk, Delhi. He has been in the trade of repairing cameras for close to two decades, catering to hobbyists as well as professionals with high-end digital gear. With very few stores and workshops taking on SLRs for repair currently, he has become popular with the Capital’s growing community of film-photo enthusiasts.

Bilkul ek leher si aayi hai (it’s like a wave),” Vohra says, referring to the resurgence of analogue photography. Over the last two-three years, he has noticed that while older professionals are bringing in old analogue gear to sell, young people seem to be wanting to buy vintage cameras. Just a few days earlier, someone with a 40-year-old Nikon FM2 came to Vohra, wanting to sell the camera body, its kit lens, and a flash, for Rs. 22,000. “And there are people willing to spend this much—and more—on old non-digital cameras,” he says.

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A search for #filmisnotdead on Instagram reveals close to two million posts worldwide. On Tumblr, another creative blogging platform, there are 929,000 followers for this hashtag, with hundreds of accounts focused on shooting and sharing analogue photographs. On YouTube, tens of thousands subscribe to analogue photography tutorial channels run by the likes of King JVpes, Matt Day and Kyle MacDougall.

This movement towards rediscovering analogue photography, which has gained significant traction in the US and Europe over the last few years, has seen a remarkable surge of interest in India too, especially with young people.

“We have seen a strong increase in film photography in the last three years in APAC (Asia-Pacific),” says Clara Low, business development manager at the Singapore offices of Kodak Alaris, the British company that now partly owns the Kodak brand along with the American Kodak Eastman Company. “For consumer films, (the) interest (is) from a younger demographic, 18-26.... For pro photography, it is more niche and users are typically older, (in) the 30s-40s....While the increase in interest is not as strong as consumer films, (professional) films’ demand has been holding steady in the market for the past few years.”

We were already becoming screen-weary, hopping between digital devices for most activities through the day, before covid-19 hit—the pandemic only exacerbated this exhaustion. So it’s not surprising that a longing for tactility and tangibility during this time coincided with an increased interest in the full analogue shooting experience.

The last two-three years have seen film enthusiasts across the country coming together, more than ever before, on Instagram accounts, Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups to swap and sell devices, and trade tips and tricks. They have sustained a steady conversation and sparked commercial interest in analogue photography, making it easier than it was even a decade ago to understand the charm of analogue shooting. They are making a strong case that it might be interesting, and not cumbersome, to actually spend time framing a shot and having a basic understanding of how light can affect composition, feeling the metallic-but-warm sounds and physical feedback of a shutter snapping as it captures an image, than shooting rather blindly on a digital camera's “automatic” mode.

“There’s a huge resurgence in film photography, and it has come about five years too late to India,” says Varun Gupta, photographer and director of the Chennai Photo Biennale. “I think the challenge here for a long time was that there wasn’t film, or chemicals, available easily. There were no distributors, and the existing ones were winding down.”

In 2015, the Kolkata-based photo lab Eastern Photographics started bringing Ilford black and white film stock to India. In 2017, the Chennai-headquartered Srishti Digilife jumped in to become the official distributor of Ilford in India, adding Kodak’s colour films to their inventory in 2019.

“It was not a commercial decision for me,” says R. Vijayakumar, director and group CEO of Srishti Digilife, which he started in 2007. “It's an emotional decision. We wanted to give back to the film community in India,” he says, specifically referring to those who continued shooting analogue despite a transformation in technology over the past two decades. It was also a way to “inculcate the habit” of creativity in young people, he adds, as analogue shooting requires you to be more mindful of what you actually shoot.

It was around the same time, between 2017-19, that communities too began to mushroom, especially online. Gupta calls these spaces—like Film Shooters India on the messaging app Signal, Analogue Resurgence and Project Hybrid Shooters on WhatsApp, and Film Photography India on Facebook, with over 5,500 members —“hotbeds of activity”. Here, members buy and sell film and cameras, organise independent photo walks and workshops, and share and discuss each other’s photographs. Close to 500-600 messages, all focused on analogue photography, are exchanged daily on these chat groups, says Gupta, adding that “the sheer volume of content exchanged on these platforms is a great indicator of a thriving ecosystem”.

Smaller businesses like The Film Lab India, which operate through a Whatsapp Business account, have also made it easier to try analogue. As soon as you open a chat with them, you can see their catalogue, which includes film stock from Lomography and Kono; vintage cameras from Minolta, Yashica and Cosina; and film processing and scanning services. Instagram accounts like The Vintage Collectibles source, repair and check vintage cameras for quality before transacting over Google Pay or other UPI channels.

Brick-and-mortar camera and electronics stores across cities like Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru have also started stocking film again.

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Raghuvir Khare, 29, first tried shooting with a film camera in 2016. Once he started using the Nikkormat FT that he bought at a thrift store in Chandni Chowk’s Kucha Chaudhary camera market, “there was no looking back”, he says.

When Khare moved to Prague for a graduate degree from the Czech Republic the next year, the availability and relatively cheaper prices of film rolls made it easier for him to keep learning and experimenting with film photography. Before returning to Delhi, he stocked up on bulk-bought 35mm film. Whenever he needs a new roll, he cuts and re-spools the film at home, working with a portable darkroom changing bag.

A portrait taken with the Nikkormat FT, with Kodak Gold film.
A portrait taken with the Nikkormat FT, with Kodak Gold film. (Raghuvir Khare)

Over the last year, Khare has also begun using film rolls from the shop at Museo Camera, a museum and gallery dedicated to the photographic arts in Gurugram, Haryana. The space sells Ilford, Ketmere and Kodak stock; the growing popularity of such film means they are often out of stock.

To cash in on this demand, some smaller stores have even been selling expired Fujicolour C200 rolls with new use-by date stickers slapped on. Unlike Kodak and Ilford, Fujifilm doesn't have an official distributor in India; it has also been gradually phasing out its film stock. The results of an expired film roll can appeal to a certain aesthetic sensibility but there’s no guarantee it will develop at all.

The film processing ecosystem overall continues to remain patchy. Till 2021, when she was based in Chennai, Vidhyalakshmi Vijaykumar, 27, would courier rolls to the 50-year-old Prabhu Studios in Bengaluru to get them developed. She has since moved to Bengaluru but says that “even now, many photographers who shoot film in Chennai send their rolls here”.

“Even five years ago, we were barely getting any films for development,” recalls Dinesh Allamaprabhu, a photographer and the son of Allamaprabhu H.N., the founder of Prabhu Studios. Over the last three years, however, their studio has been getting “easily about 800-1,000 rolls a month”, including outstation orders, “even from (non-metro) cities like Nagpur, Kanpur, and some rolls even from north-eastern states like Assam and Mizoram”.

Today you can always find labs or individuals who will process film rolls—be it photographer C.P. Satyajit’s Dark Room or Adyar Photo Lab in Chennai; Rama Color or Siddharth Photographix in Delhi; Zepia Studio or Color Lab in Thiruvananthapuram; Idea Creative in Mumbai; or individuals like Abhinav Karhale in Nanded, Maharashtra. But analogue enthusiasts say operations in terms of an overall network of labs, tends to be haphazard and the quality—of the processing and the digitised scan—inconsistent.

In many labs, it’s usually either an older staff member who takes up the few film rolls they receive, or the store outsources processing. Many a time, labs wait till they have an adequate number of rolls, to process them together and efficiently use the potency and quantity of the chemical stock. Some even use old processing kits if there is no option, compromising the quality of the image.

Looking at a roll of film at Prabhu Studios; (in background) various film stocks, including the Kodak Portra, stocked at the store
Looking at a roll of film at Prabhu Studios; (in background) various film stocks, including the Kodak Portra, stocked at the store (Courtesy Prabhu Studios)

So it can take a week to 10 days—or up to a month if the roll is sent to another city—before you can see what you clicked. The experts contrast this to cities in the US, UK and Europe, where the turnaround time at most labs, thanks to adequate demand and supply, is a day.

UK-based Giles Branthwaite, sales and marketing director at Harman Technology, which owns Ilford Photo, details how they have attempted to help. “We continue to introduce new products designed to make film photography easier for the person wanting to try it for the first time. In recent years, this has included...easy to use sachets of the photochemicals, starter kits and recently, a pop-up darkroom for those not able to visit a more established darkroom near their home.” India, he maintains, is an important market for them, with great potential for growth as interest in analogue photography takes hold.

Global logistics hit by covid-19, though, continues to throw a spanner in the work of the passionate and burgeoning analogue community here. Stocks that met demand through the early pandemic months are only being replenished slowly, creating a shortage and driving up costs.

“The pandemic hasn't just presented a logistical challenge in getting inventory into India, it has also thrown up a manufacturing challenge for companies as the raw material costs consistently kept going up. They had no choice but to keep increasing the cost of the product,” says Vijayakumar.

Currently, a roll of film on which you can take 36 pictures starts from Rs. 500 for the more common Kodak ColorPlus 200. Add processing costs, at about Rs. 300-500 per roll, scanning, at another Rs. 500 per roll, courier costs for those whose preferred labs are in another city, and each analogue photograph you take can cost approximately Rs. 30-50. For some who prefer to scan their developed rolls at home and convert the negative image using software like Adobe Lightroom —not very hard to do—the process is slightly cheaper.

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Despite the hurdles, however, analogue shooting has become a peaceful, centering activity for many young people. For one, analogue cameras do not overwhelm you with buttons, modes and on-screen menus. All they require you to know—but know well—are how the basics interact: the light sensitivity (or ISO) of the film you are using, the speed you are setting your camera’s shutter to, and how much of the lens aperture you are opening.

This makes them perfect to cater to the desire among millennials and Gen Z-ers the world over to be more mindful, slow down. “With digital, (shooting) can be done faster than I can think it. But film photography works at the same pace that I work. It works better with the frequency with which I assimilate thoughts,” explains Khare in Delhi.

Gupta says this is “almost like a psychological reversal”. In spite of shooting professionally on digital cameras for over 15 years now, he says he is “fatigued” by his digital images. “I think universally...there is a desire for something tactile, for something that has value.” At the core of this belief is the idea that a digital photograph, whether taken on your phone, a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, does not require you to stop and think before you shoot. Incidentally, mirrorless cameras, one of the developments in digital camera technology, are all modelled to look more or less like 35mm cameras.

Aditya Arya, director of Museo Camera and a commercial and travel photographer for over 35 years, says he has always believed that film photography is about “pre-visualisation and perfection”. The ease of digital technology lets the shooter get too trigger-happy to photograph with thought and intent. “People always say ‘we can fix it in post’,”Arya says, shaking his head, referring to the now common almost-joke with photographers that any mistakes can be set right in post-production—on a computer, on programs like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. For mobile photographers, there are the mobile versions of these apps, in addition to scores of others, like Snapseed or VSCO, which help enhance and beautify photographs—sometimes to unrecognisable degrees.

Veteran photographer Raghu Rai agrees. He says the proliferation of digital technology has encouraged a penchant for shooting endlessly, without valuing and thinking through each shot. “It’s a disease,” he says, and “while even colour film used to exaggerate things a bit, I think that digital—oh, it’s exaggerating everything devastatingly.”

Rai loves shooting on his digital devices, though. Since he switched to digital, sometime in the early aughts, he has never looked back. He says, however, that photographers like him, who have shot analogue for decades before moving to digital, have an edge over digital natives because it has embedded “the rules and spirit of photography” in their practice.

For followers of this school of thought, there is a silver lining, despite the stock and processing hurdles. While new analogue SLRs aren't easily available any more—Nikon discontinued the F6, its last SLR camera, in 2020 and only Leica still produces two models, costing upwards of Rs. 3 lakh—sturdy, pre-used analogue cameras are affordable and easily available. Devices that were immensely popular in India in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s have found their way back into the hands of those in online analogue communities, and to offline, unorganised flea markets, in a big way. A basic Yashica is available for Rs. 2,000-3,000; a manual Nikon F series or an Olympus OM 10 for Rs. 8,000-10,000. Depending on who is selling, in what working condition, and the power of the haggler, prices can be lower.

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This gives vocal members of the analogue community hope. If it was the older labs and photographers who tried to step in pre-covid and help by acquiring distributorships, now young analogue enthusiasts are moving in. Indie photo labs, for example, have begun buying branded film in bulk, cutting and re-spooling it into smaller cannisters and rebranding it as their own. This helps cut film and processing costs. And since companies like Kodak or Ilford allow for a reseller market, this has become an imaginative way, in India and abroad, to bring down costs and diversify image results.

For the hurdles in getting affordable film had begun taking a toll. “We have noticed how (people) who got into film enthusiastically over the last few years have recently started giving up now because they can’t afford (film) any more,” says Yash Yeri, 26, a Mumbai-based photographer and co-owner of Zhenwei Film Lab. Yeri and his business partner, Aditya Tawte, 25, started selling a line of repackaged and rebranded black and white film stock a couple of months ago under the Zhenwei label. Their three varieties are made from re-spooled Ilford stock: Yuma, with 50 ISO; Sin City, with 1000 ISO for nighttime; and one called You-Name-It, a professional T-Grain film, 320 ISO.

A portrait of Vidhyalakshmi Vijaykumar; of Sarbajoy Paul working in his darkroom; and a couple rolls from Zhenwei Film Lab
A portrait of Vidhyalakshmi Vijaykumar; of Sarbajoy Paul working in his darkroom; and a couple rolls from Zhenwei Film Lab (Credit: Akshaya Vaidyanathan, Santanu Paul; Courtesy: Zhenwei Film Labs)

In Kolkata, Sarbajoy Paul, 28, too has a line of rebranded film. His stock differs from Zhenwei’s in that Paul buys Kodak film stock that is used to shoot cinema, or motion picture, in bulk and adapts that for use in still photography. Inspired by the Kolkata-based movie industry, Paul’s line of film is called Tollygrunge, and has three variants: Noir is black and white; Colour is for daylight; while Neon is a tungsten balanced film meant for night shots. Between March-July 2021, at the peak of his business, he “was moving roughly 300-400 rolls a month”. Then, his scanner broke and he had to get a new one; he is now trying to regain momentum.

Many of these boutique labs have come up with custom in-house processing methods for their rolls, becoming end-to-end solution providers for what becomes a captive market: You buy film rolls from such a lab because at Rs. 350-400 a pop, they are less than half the price of a common Kodak 200; you also take it back to them to process, since only they know how to develop their roll in a way that achieves the results expected. Yet processing and scanning together cost Rs. 300-600, half of what older, mainstream labs will charge.

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In spite of such efforts being spearheaded by those under 40, Srishti Digilife’s Vijayakumar believes that “youngsters lack patience” to keep up an interest in analogue, and that “despite the growth we have seen over the last three-four years, there's a decline we are expecting will happen over the next five years”. He estimates that 80% of the community is actually between the ages of 45-70.

In the meantime, however, this impatient younger lot continues to drum up noise around analogue photography. Globally, demand has gone up for Fujifilm’s Instax cameras, which result in Polaroid-style pictures that develop right in front of their expectant eyes. The devices achieved screaming levels of popularity, with Fujifilm even collaborating with global pop icon Taylor Swift, now 32, to launch a special edition in 2018. According to a report by the German broadcaster DW (Deutsche Welle), Fujifilm only sold under half a million Instax units worldwide in 2010; in 2020, this jumped to a staggering 10 million units.

The appeal lies largely in the soothing tones, artsy light leaks, and texture-lending grain that film results in. Many try to mimic these results in digital photographs too, through the indiscriminate use of filters on editing apps. In the premium version of the popular app VSCO, there are filters that achieve the exact tonal qualities of various specific Kodak, Ilford, Fuji and Agfa Vista films.

“Whilst there are many people who remember film photography from the first time round, the growth we are seeing now is being driven by 18- to 35-year-olds who are learning about film photography for the first time,” confirms Branthwaite. “Often this is from being taught the basics...in a photography class, and increasingly the interest it sparks continues. We are also delighted to see the increasing interest from mainstream retailers, a further sign of the resurgence moving into the general public’s mindset.”

Over the last few years, some wedding parties of millennials in India have also offered point-and-shoot disposable film cameras (Ilford and Fujifilm are popular) to guests—they could shoot pictures through the events and leave the cameras behind so that the rolls could be developed later for add-on albums. In Kolkata, Paul, whose commercial projects include wedding shoots, says the photographers he has worked with would also offer to shoot an album entirely on 35mm as an add-on premium package for clients. Matt Parry, marketing communications manager at Harman Technology, points out that in 2019, Ilford even featured leading Indian wedding photographer Ankita Asthana capturing a wedding on their black and white film.

Some young fashion photographers, too, have been exercising their artistic discretion to shoot parts of their commercial assignments on film. Ashish Sahoo, 33, analogue photographer and founder member of Maze Collective, a Delhi-based collaborative space for photographers, cites Sarang Sena, a photographer in his mid-30s, as an example. In July last year, Sena, who has a 17-year career across editorial and commercial work, had posted outtakes from a shoot for the designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil on his Instagram account—all these pictures were shot on a medium format camera, which uses a 120mm film roll.

With hobbyists and amateur film photographers, however, it is the 35mm film and camera that is popular. This is the crowd that participates in the film processing workshops Sahoo runs at Maze. “Very few professional photographers come in—it’s all kinds of other people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who want to learn. It’s about a kind of intimacy with the image they are making from scratch—understanding the basics and shooting, and then watching it appear in front of their eyes” as they learn to also work with the chemicals and develop an image, he adds. This is in line with what others, such as Arya at Museo Camera and art and photo-focused studio spaces like Kanike Studio in Bengaluru, which run such workshops, have noticed.

A portrait shot with the Pentax 67, a medium format camera, with Ilford HP5 film
A portrait shot with the Pentax 67, a medium format camera, with Ilford HP5 film (Ashish Sahoo)

Longer-duration workshops, which take on interested students and practitioners, are also being organised. In August 2021, the not-for-profit MurthyNayak Foundation funded The Analogue Approach Project—a Delhi-based initiative, set up in 2020—to select image-makers every month to spend time under the guidance of photographer Srinivas Kuruganti. These “Darkroom Workshops” ran till the end of January, with practitioners studying and refining their analogue photo, printing and processing skills. Kuruganti hopes to hold more such workshops.

Over the last two decades, the proliferation of DSLRs helped to make learning photography more accessible, simply by virtue of giving the shooter immediate feedback. With film, the time between shooting and seeing the photo had made the craft that much tougher, and the learning curve steeper. Now, however, having been through point-and-shoots and DSLRs, a lot of those born into, or those who grew up at the cusp of, a digital-first world are seeing the inclusion of analogue formats in their practice as a way to shoot better.

“Film has helped me grow as an artist,” says Bengaluru-based Vijaykumar. “With digital, it’s easy to get trapped shooting one frame a bunch of times,” but with film, you know that you have only 36 exposures on one roll, and you become intentional and careful, to (use them well and) shoot variety,” she says. “Once I saw the output of my first roll, I was stunned…film has helped me see better, it helped me look for things.”

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The current moment is really a make-or-break one for the fledgling analogue film photography community in India. Regardless of age, those shooting film agree that this isn’t a fight for film to replace digital—that’s just not practically possible, nor is it necessary or desired. The idea, instead, is to have a stronger and more stable ecosystem of film shooting.

The lobby for film internationally is a strong one— Hollywood directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino had made movie studios agree to sign contracts with Kodak in 2015. According to reports, these were renewed as recently as 2020, ensuring a continued supply, to a certain degree, of both cinema and still-photo stocks.

In India, with the increased interest and activities—in learning, shooting, processing and innovating—members of the analogue community are trying to stay the course and not lose steam in streamlining, and perhaps scaling, their operations. Eventually, the goal is to force film and camera companies the world over to take note of this interest and need.

“There are reasons for (such) experimentation and effort that have to do with the sociopolitical moment that we live in,” says Rahaab Allana, curator and publisher at the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts. “It’s not just about art and craft at the end of the day, it’s about how we are experiencing the world around us, what we see happening, and how we would like to change that,” he says. After all, art—given that it offers different ways of looking at the world, quite literally so with photography—is a motivator for change.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    25.02.2022 | 04:00 PM IST
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