On November 3, 2021, Kodak announced a film price increase of 9-15% and the film community let out a collective sigh of exhaustion citing a lack of support and commitment to the film community by film manufacturers.
This prompted two, high-profile, attempts at bringing order to the madness. Silver Grain Classics and Nico who, in similar ways explained that 1) when accounted for inflation, current film prices are in line with inflation and 2) there are good reasons for the price increase such as investment in personnel, machinery, environmental reasons, COVID related supply chain issues, etc.
Both of those responses are well thought out, were seemingly well-received, and I agree with both wholeheartedly. The authors should be commended.
Neither of those explanations, however, help mitigate the pain of learning about a 10%, 15%, or 20% price increase. Pain and emotion are not logical. Math and logic don’t change how we feel.
A Math Problem
It’s my view that whilst price increases are unwelcome, the film community may have a math problem rather than a price increase, inflation, or Kodak problem.
I am not a psychologist. I am not a statistician. I am a radiologist and a photographer with no domain experience in either math or psychology. Keep that in mind. I do, however, have decades of experience in running businesses and watching employees, customers, and colleagues unsuccessfully wrestle and fight to understand percentages of small numbers. I think that this is exactly what we are seeing in the film community with the latest price increase. For example, which feels worse:
- I am going to raise your prices by 15%?
- I am going to raise your price by $1.50?
My bet is you picked number 1 because a 15% price increase in anything sounds terrible. The fact of the matter is that #1 and #2 in the above example are exactly the same when it comes to the price increase of film in late 2021. Until now, film cost me $9.99/roll (Portra 400) or less (Proimage 100).
In my experience, people are also poor mathematicians when they extrapolate small numbers into the future. In my estimate, film hobbyists shoot more or less 20 rolls of film per year which brings us to two additional options for your consideration:
- Continue to do your hobby that you love for an additional $3.33 per month OR
- Stop your hobby completely
I bet most film photographers would pick number 1 without thinking about it not realizing that that is all Kodak is really asking us to do with the recent price increase. Hobbies are neither free nor free from inflation. The world is a mess post COVID. Inflation is everywhere.
Real Terms 6% Cost Increase
For many, the cost of your photography hobby is probably only going up 6%. If you send film to a lab where the cost of processing is $15.00/roll to develop and scan, the price of your photography hobby is only going up 6% when you consider the total cost of photographing, developing, and scanning a roll of film.
This is another example where thinking in percentages is misleading. The total cost of a roll for you to send it to a lab to develop is currently $25.00. A price increase of $1.50 over something that costs at least $25.00 is only 6% which, at least to me, doesn’t feel like it is worth the outrage we are seeing online towards Kodak.
The Pain of Anchoring
The previous examples are intended to demonstrate how our thinking about numbers is not always rational and perhaps how reframing the situation can change our outlook.
If you read the book, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman, this should come as no surprise. My arm-chair psychologist summary of the book is that we all have cognitive biases and faults in our decision-making process that cloud our thinking and allow our emotions to get the best of us.
One of the topics discussed in that book is anchoring. Anchoring is a heuristic that describes the subconscious use of irrelevant information, such as the price you are currently paying for film, as a fixed reference point (or anchor) for making subsequent decisions about that price. I contend that anchoring is causing at least some of our pain with this film price increase and we can help mitigate that pain if we understand what is going on.
Anchoring is used in sales all the time. Real estate agents overprice a house when it is put on the market to make you think that it is worth more than it is. Sellers raise the price of an item and then put it on sale so you think you are getting a bargain even when you aren’t. Anchoring is even why prices tend to end in a number 9.
With respect to the film price increase, we are all anchored to the current price we are paying for film. That price is so embedded in our brain that any change from that price makes us feel like we are getting either a bargain or ripped off. A change in price causes an emotion. Prices are not emotion neutral. The pain we feel from a price increase is irrationally painful even if the actual cost of the price increase is insignificant or will enable us to do our hobby for years to come.
The Errors of Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is another of our cognitive deficiencies. In short, we search for evidence to support our thinking. If you shoot film, I will go out on a limb and paint a portrait of someone who is at least a little outside of the mainstream. My bet is that you aren’t entirely keen on Wall Street running the world. Going further, it is likely that you believe that corporate greed is more common than corporate generosity.
If that describes you (it certainly describes me) it is possible that you (like me) lose your mind when you hear that a mega-company is raising prices and assume that price increases are there to stuff the corporate coffers and screw the little guy. I then look for reasons to support my conclusions. For example, silence from the company about why there is an increase leads me to believe that there is no reason other than to screw me. If it weren’t, they would offer us a reason, right? Heck, even if they give a reason, my first, often incorrect assumption is that they are lying.
The problem with these cognitive biases is that even if we know they are happening, and even though we know they are wrong, we can’t always stop them from affecting your decisions, stop us from ranting on Twitter about how bad Kodak or Fuji are, and we can’t even stop feeling the pain of a price increase. Our outrage is a bug in the machine.
To help prove this point I offer you two scenarios to consider:
- What if Fuji, rather than discontinuing Pro400H, said “We will increase the price by $2.00/roll and keep producing Pro400h.”
- What if Kodak said, “There is going to be a price increase to $13.99 per roll of film but to offset that price, you can buy a 5 pack at $11.49/roll of film. If can agree to that, we will continue to make film for 5 years and we think we can have better distribution and availability.”
Neither of the companies actually said that but I would have to assume that many of us wished they did. Compared to stopping film production or a price increase of 15%, both of those feel like a good deal right. Who wouldn’t want Pro400H back – whatever the price? Who cant pay an extra $1.49 per roll of film? They are both a price increase in sheep’s clothing but they short circuit the emotions we have when we hear about an across the board price increase of X%
The Long Tail of Vitriol and Rebellion
Complaints about Kodak, predictions that film is dead, and worries about a price increase do little to affect Kodak but do, in fact, hurt The Darkroom, Nico’s Photography Show, The Kamerastore, Japan Camera Hunter, Silvergrain Classics, Acme Camera SLC, Negative Supply, Cine Still, The Film Photography Project, Kosmo Foto, pixl-latr, Chroma Camera, Intrepid, and everyone else you know and love that is working hard to build a sustainable business in analog photography. Let me explain.
On August 5, 2020, Kodak was given $765 million USD to produce hydroxychloroquine. Members of the film community joked about it but from my vantage point that was a scarier moment for analog photography than Fujifilm discontinuing a film stock.
Kodak manufactures many things in addition to film. Some stock analysts are predicting a future focus on chemical production. I have no idea if that will happen but it is at least plausible to hypothesize that Kodak has the potential for an opportunity to pivot toward other industries if film becomes too expensive or too much of a pain to produce. The same pivot argument cannot be made for the local camera store or film lab that popped up in your town during the film renaissance.
Kodak is a mega-company with a market cap of $560 million USD. A few rolls of film, or even a few thousand rolls of film, here and there, are rounding errors for Kodak. Conversely, losing a few dozen rolls of film here and there, or even a half dozen new analog photographer clients, could be devastating to a small business.
As an example of how and why painting a doom and gloom picture of analog photography because of a price increase and railing against Kodak hurts small businesses, let’s consider the butterfly effect of 7, hypothetical, young photographers in downtown San Diego who in 2021 were dissuaded from picking up a film camera because they were hearing about doom and gloom about film price increases, worries about the end of film, and encountered a generally negative environment in social medial regarding the future of film photography.
Those 7 young photographers will never buy a camera from my beloved Camera Exposure. They will never have their 20 rolls of film per year developed at The Darkroom. They will never go back to Camera Exposure and get their second, third, and fourth cameras. They certainly won’t go and order a home development kit from Cinestill. Finally, they also won’t buy a Negative Supply, Valoi, or Pixl-latr film carrier to scan their negatives at home. There is also no possible way they will buy a Revini spot meter. Over the course of a few years, those 7 photographers won’t be spending tens of thousands of dollars supporting the analog photography ecosystem. Now, think about what happens if there are 7 photographers, in every city, around the world, every year, who don’t pick up a film camera because they are worried about a price increase or filmpocalypse because of something they read on social media?
The butterfly effect of social media negativity and predictions of doom and gloom have an outsized effect on the long tail of photography (e.g. the small guy) rather than the intended audience of Kodak.
In a way, assuming that Kodak is trying to set themselves up for future profitability and success with the price increase, the main effect of Kodak’s recent price increase is keeping Cinestill, Negative Supply, and your local camera shop in business.
Leica Camera Owner’s Opinions?
Yes, you really do want people who own Leica cameras to complain about the price of film, but not too loudly. There is a meme going around the internet that goes something like “If I hear a Leica owner complain about the price of film, I am going to scream.” This is pretty funny but misguided for a number of reasons that bear consideration.
First, the basis of this meme is that Leica photographers have an unlimited bank account and can pay whatever they want for film. Although some certainly do, my experience at leicalensesfornormalpeople.com is that this is not an entirely accurate portrait of many Leica photographers. There is an entire skate and hipster crowd that is price sensitive and more normal than you think.
Second, I think we should all hope that everyone will complain about the price of film but maybe not as loudly as we have seen in recent days. Think about it, if all of the Leica photographers and enough other people are willing to pay $20, $30, or $40 per roll of film, and there are enough of them, that will become the new price and nobody wants that. A little bit of pushback on the film price or using a little less film is probably the best path forward.
Calling for a strike, mayhem, film embargo, or going on the socials and castigating the film companies for raising prices doesn’t do anyone any good. Going too far with the rhetoric, selling your film camera, and buying Fuji GFX (which seems to be a trend), will speed and not prevent the filmpocalypse.
An abrupt decrease in how much film is used would signal that the film market is fickle and maybe too price-sensitive to support investment moving forward.
Film isn’t Insulin!
Kodak currently has a monopoly on film. For all intents and purposes that is a fact in 2021.
The response of the internet to that fact, however, is misguided. The internet assumes that Kodak can do whatever it wants because they are a monopoly and Kodak will raise prices forever because they are an unrestrained monopoly.
The problem with that thinking is that film is not insulin. If you are diabetic and you don’t get insulin – you will die. For a diabetic, it makes sense to pay whatever the drug company wants because money in the bank doesn’t help you if you suffering from complications related to diabetes.
If, on the other hand, you don’t get film because it is unavailable or too expensive, you just shoot digital or don’t make photographs at all. Nobody ever died because film was too expensive. Nobody goes bankrupt because of a film hobby. Film prices cant just keep going up indefinitely because people will just stop shooting film.
Neither you nor I know what the real price of film is or should be but you can expect Kodak to test the upper limit of what price the market can bear. Any fear that film prices will go up forever, however, ignores the self-correcting market effects that govern prices. If prices get too high, people stop shooting film and prices come down. If they go up and stay up, someone else will get in the game and then competition will bring prices down.
Even if you believe that corporations are run by greedy, narcissistic, power-hungry, men with a penchant to spend too much time in a locker room wound up on cocaine and HGH while they massage their low self-esteem and screw the little guy for sport, with a luxury item like film, HGH driven greed doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Film prices won’t go up forever.
While film prices are busy not rising to infinity you are encouraged to avoid reflexively attributing rising film prices to greed. Having been wrongfully accused of corporate greed in the past, and watching it happen to colleagues, I can assure you that in at least some cases, greed is often mistaken for incompetence and miscommunication. Neither you nor I have enough information to accurately assess how or why film prices are going to do what they will do in the next few years. We can only choose whether or not we purchase film moving forward.
The End of the World…?
Predictions about the world ending almost never come true. In an email exchange with Hamish about the current situation, I pondered whether I am old or stupid. I feel that I am getting old because “They” have been predicting the world will end since at least 1987 which is the first time I remember being told, “this time it is different.”
“They” said it about the stock market in 1997, 2008, and 2019/2020. They have been saying it about the housing market since I purchased my first home in 2003. In my residency in 1997, I was told that x-ray film (which is essentially the same as black and white film) would be gone before the end of my residency because silver and other chemicals would be too hard to come by; and I chose the wrong profession. They said Russia was going to take over and then Rocky 4 happened. Now they are saying it about China. They told me that Ski areas would fold by now because of global warming and I was an idiot to buy a snowboard in 1999.
None of these examples are directly related to film but they prove the point that even though it always feels like the world will end, and you can always find someone to reinforce your fear that the world will end, the world just keeps on not ending.
I feel old because I now have enough years behind me such that my first assumption is that nothing changes and the world won’t end. A few decades ago I would panic but now I know that in most cases we get the time horizons wrong. Change happens but it is almost never as fast as we want or expect.
At the same time, I feel stupid because maybe I am the only rube in the room not worrying as much as I should. Maybe this time it really is different.
Whether I am old or stupid or both, I know with absolute certainty that neither you, me, nor the guy or girl giving a dissertation on social media about how the end of film is near, how we are about to run out of silver, or that this time is different for any reason really knows what they are talking about. Social media is a good amplifier of ideas. It doesn’t mean that those ideas are valid.
The Bottom Line
If this discussion about how our faulty thinking clouds our emotions, how the film price increase isn’t as bad as it sounds, and how we all might be having a communication problem rather than a real-world problem, please do complain about the film increase but consider turning down the volume. Maybe shoot a few rolls fewer but don’t stop shooting. Above all, don’t encourage young photographers to avoid analog because that will only hurt the small businesses that support our hobby.
A quick closing statement
This article was written by me, Matt Wright, with a little support from Hamish who agrees wholeheartedly with the contents above. If you would like to read more from me, please feel free to check out my website Leica Lenses for Normal People. You can also find me on Instagram: leicalensesfornormalpeople and themattwphoto