“You only get one shot”: how film cameras won over a younger generation

Indi Shields first discovered the film in the drawer of her childhood home. “The first film camera I bought was my great-grandfather’s,” she says. “It was so special to hold him and use him the same way he did before. Even though I’ve never met him.

While Shields was already taking analog photographs before the pandemic began, the way she used it changed during the shutdowns. Where once the camera only came out at big events like birthday parties, it found itself taking pictures of “mundane things like my friend watching TV on the couch or the tunnel I’m going through to get to to the train – just because they’re sweet little moments that I want to look back on or remember five or 10 years from now.

It also gave surprises, at a time when there weren’t many. “During lockdown, one joyful thing I had was sending my film in to have it developed. It was something to look forward to when there was nothing else, even though I had no idea what I had photographed because I hadn’t done anything,” she says.

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

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

Specializing in vintage cameras, movie props and film processing, owner Nick Vlahadamis watched youngsters use their lenses to turn back time. “Over the past two years, movie sales have increased 20-fold and processing has quadrupled,” he says.

“We opened in 2013, selling old cameras as ornaments. Over time, more and more people wanted film cameras that worked, so we quickly picked up the dead cause.

“Around 2015, we were developing around a hundred rollers [of film] one week.”

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

It evokes the revival of Kodak, for example. While Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, the movie giant ended 2020 with a cash balance of $196 million — a huge number for a company that regained relevance riding a wave of nostalgia. “There’s something going on globally with cinema,” says Vlahadmis.

Nick Vlahadamis, owner of the Sydney Super8
Sydney Super8 owner Nick Vlahadamis says film sales have increased 20 times over the past two years. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
Customers outside Sydney Super8
Customers outside Sydney Super8 Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Kodak’s figure makes sense given rising movie prop prices. Riana Jayaraj says she bought her used Olympus Stylus point-and-shoot for $30 a few years ago, and today it’s selling online for an average of ten times that price.

For Melbourne-based Jayaraj, her love for filmmaking is more than just a global pandemic trend resurfacing. The 25-year-old fell in love with vintage tech around five years ago, and now she wears her camera to important events. It’s his way of savoring the moment.

“I’ll take it out for [events] like my girlfriend’s wedding. I don’t take it everywhere, but if there is something I will because then I can enjoy the experience.

“It helps me capture little things along the way that I can come back to later, rather than worrying about taking pictures on my phone.”

The lack of instant feedback is significant for Jayaraj. “When you’re taking pictures on your phone, it’s almost like you’re disconnected from what you’re actually doing – when you’re there pressing the camera button, you can kind of manipulate the scene or whatever situation you’re in. you can keep taking it until you’re happy with it.

“With film you only have one shot – you take it and you just hope it’s good. Because you don’t keep taking 50 million because you only have 35 shots going and that it costs money to develop it.

Jayaraj isn’t the only Gen Zer to use film as an antidote to digital fatigue. Since finding the film, she has seen it grow in popularity within her own circle of friends.

“I feel like everyone is using the movies now. Even a few of my friends have Instagrams for their movie photos,” she says.

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

Disposable cameras are also ushered into the new era, as brands like 35mm Co combine primitive technology with a millennial devotion to durability.

The Reloader is a modern reusable version of the disposable camera, the brainchild of Madi Stefanis, a 21-year-old student based in Melbourne. After selling used film cameras online and watching them fly off her digital shelves, she dove into product design.

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

Since the launch of The Reloader, over 11,000 of them have been sold. Stefanis notes that most of her clientele are women and young people (in the 18-34 age bracket).

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

Cinema cameras for sale in Sydney Super8
Cinema cameras for sale at Sydney Super8. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

For Shields, it’s the consolation of “staying present” and an uncertain outcome, which to her “feels like magic” – unlike when she uses 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 cameras are on my fireplace, and that’s the first thing you see when you walk into my room.

“I feel so much more drawn to cinema because it’s so much more exciting,” she says. “There is an element of surprise, ignorance and creativity.”

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