‘You have only one shot’: how film cameras managed to win over a younger generation

lndi Shields first discovered film in the drawer of her childhood home. “The first movie camera I picked up was my great-grandfather’s,” she says. “It felt so special to hold it and use it the same way as before. Even though I never met him.”

While Shields was already busy analog photos before the pandemic started, the way she used it during lockdowns changed. Where once the camera would only pop up at big events like birthday parties, she found herself looking away at “everyday things like my boyfriend watching TV on the couch or the tunnel I walk through to get to the train – just because this sweet little Moments that I want to look back on or remember in five or ten years.”

That also resulted in surprises, at a time when there were not many available yet. “During the lockdown, one of the fun things I had was sending my film away to have it developed. That was something to look forward to if nothing else, even though I had no idea what I had taken pictures of because I hadn’t done anything,” she says.

Indi Shields in Newtown, Sydney
Recent film photography enthusiast Indi Shields in Newtown, Sydney. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

With lockdown life behind her, Shields has become a regular at Sydney Super8, one of the mainstays of modern photographic film in the city.

Owner Nick Vlahadamis, who specializes in vintage cameras, film accessories and film processing, has watched young people use their lenses to turn back time. “Over the past two years, movie sales have increased twentyfold and processing has quadrupled,” he says.

“We opened in 2013 and sold old cameras as ornaments. As time went on, more people wanted film cameras that worked, so we quickly tackled the dead end.

“By 2015 we developed about 100 rolls [of film] a week.”

While Vlahadamis is adamant that film isn’t as popular as it was in the 90s, he says the trend isn’t going away anytime soon.

He points to the revival of Kodak, as an example. While Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, the movie giant closed 2020 with a cash balance of $196 million — a huge sum for a company that has clawed its way back to relevance by experiencing a wave of nostalgia. “There is something wrong with film worldwide,” says Vlahadmis.

Sydney Super8 owner Nick Vlahadamis
Nick Vlahadamis, owner of Sydney Super8, says film sales have increased twentyfold in the past two years. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
Customers outside Sydney Super8
Customers outside Sydney Super8 Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The Kodak figure makes sense in light of rising prices for movie paraphernalia. Riana Jayaraj says she bought her second-hand Olympus Stylus point-and-shoot for $30 a few years ago, and today it sells online for an average of ten times that price.

For Melbourne-based Jayaraj, her love of film is more than just a revival of a global pandemic trend. The 25-year-old fell for vintage technology some five years ago and now she carries her camera to important events. It’s her way of enjoying the moment.

“I Do It Away For” [events] like my girlfriend’s wedding. I don’t take it everywhere with me, but if there is something I will, because then I can enjoy the experience.

“It helps me to capture little things along the way that I can look back on later, instead of worrying about taking pictures with my phone.”

The lack of direct feedback is important to Jayaraj. “When you’re taking pictures with your phone, it’s almost like you’re disconnected from what you’re doing — if you’re standing there and hammering that camera button, you can see the scene or the situation you’re in… you can keep repeating it until you are satisfied with it.”

“With film you only have one chance: you take it and you just hope it’s good. Because you don’t keep taking 50 million of it, because you only have 35 shots on the reel and it costs money to develop it.”

Jayaraj isn’t the only Gen Z member to use film as an antidote to digital fatigue. Since she found film, she has seen it grow in popularity in her own circle of friendships.

“I feel like everyone is using film now. Even some of my friends have Instagram for their movie photos,” she says.

Vlahadamis explains a film camera to a customer
Vlahadamis explains a film camera to a customer. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
Chris Tiffany, co-owner of Sydney Super8
Chris Tiffany, co-owner of Sydney Super8. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Disposable cameras are also ushering in the new era, as brands like 35mm Co combine the primitive technology with the millennial commitment to sustainability.

The Reloader is a modern reusable take on the disposable film camera, the creation of Madi Stefanis, a 21-year-old Melbourne student. After selling second-hand film cameras online and watching them fly off her digital shelves, she delved into product design.

“I wanted to launch a product that would suit all ages and skill levels and reduce the need for single-use film cameras,” she said.

Since the launch of The Reloader, more than 11,000 have been sold. Stefanis notes that the bulk of her customer base are women and young people (in the age range of 18 to 34 years).

But why flip through physical copies of grainy memories when we can capture the moment with a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens?

Film cameras for sale at Sydney Super8
Film cameras for sale at Sydney Super8. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

For Shields, it’s the consolation in “staying present” and an uncertain outcome, which to her “feels like magic” — unlike when she’s using her phone.

“I actually have no idea where my digital camera is, it’s probably under my bed covered in dust and mold. But my movie cameras are on my mantelpiece, and they’re the first thing you see when you walk into my bedroom.”

“I’m so much more attracted to film because it’s so much more exciting,” she says. “There’s an element of surprise, and ignorance and creativity.”

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