Author’s note : For a more technical look at the properties of Fuji C200, please refer to our film profile on AgfaPhoto Vista 200, AgfaPhoto’s discontinued rebrand of this film stock.
Cheap consumer-grade film might bring new shooters into the fold, but the CP crew and I have spoken to industry insiders, and some of these people say that cheap film may actually be harmful to the health of the film photo industry due to a market that’s still quite small (despite a recent uptick in popularity) and the harsh realities of economies of scale. So, is cheap consumer-grade film anything special, or should it die?
A tough question, and one that I recently wrestled with as I packed to visit my home country of the Philippines for the first time in seventeen years. I was trying to decide which film to pack. Normally, to ensure I got stellar photos of this rare opportunity, I’d have gone to the photo store and dropped a whole bunch of cash on some professional-grade stock, Fuji Provia or Kodak Portra. But a recent Christmas gift suggested otherwise. It was a five pack of consumer-grade Fuji C200 sent from fellow CP staffer Dustin. Problem solved?
I wasn’t so sure. Conventional wisdom would dictate that I leave the C200 at home for casual shooting and trust the bigger names for the truly important moments.
But that begs the question – why bother shooting second-rate consumer grade film at any time? Why waste my money on cheap film? I could get lots of shots, but those shots wouldn’t be nearly as clean, or characterful, or interesting as if I’d made them on higher-cost film, right?
After waffling for a few minutes, I made up my mind. I’d bring C200, and only C200, as my film of choice for the trip. The decision made, I was still uneasy.
There’s nothing special about C200 that makes it especially suited for a trip like the one I’d planned. It’s an entirely nondescript, unglamorous film that simply does the job it’s required to do – render images on film. I could extend that description to most other consumer-grade films; Kodak Gold 200 and Ultramax 400, Superia in all of its forms, and whatever rebranded film masquerades as Lomo films. All of these films are just as unglamorous as Fuji C200, possibly even more so. When compared to other popular, better looking, and widely available professional-grade color negative films like Kodak Portra and Ektar, these films seem like an unnecessary step down. So why trust them with anything important? The answer’s just a little more complicated than one might guess.
The quick answer is that these films give shooters lots of exposures for not a lot of cash. They often come in four-packs of twenty four (or if we’re lucky, thirty six) exposures for ten or fifteen United States dollars, making these films perfect for casual and novice shooters, as well as, say, traveling casual photophiles.
I could leave the article there, but stopping now wouldn’t explain exactly why it felt so important to shoot Fuji C200. I’d be ignoring the alarming situation at hand.
We’ve published stories on the site all too frequently lately concerning the fact that these consumer films are disappearing at an alarming rate. This trend has me feeling that it’s important right now for us to shoot them and recognize their contribution to the community.
The discontinuation of consumer films like Fuji Superia 200, 800, and more, as well as AgfaPhoto Vista 200 (a rebranded Fuji C200) shows that the industry (or at least Fujifilm) is moving away from consumer film. On one hand, the moves make some sense. The public just doesn’t consume as much film as they did twenty years ago. The days of monthly drug store film runs and Sunday afternoon print pickups are over, replaced by phone cameras and Instagram. With the evaporation of a mass market in film and the economies of scale that made this segment of the industry sustainable (and at one time highly lucrative), it makes sense that film producers would begin (or continue) abandoning mass market films.
But in the twilight between the heyday of consumer film and its transition into the abyss, enthusiasts stepped in to try and keep these films alive. Novice shooters in particular flocked towards these consumer films because of their low price and ubiquity. Many a new film shooter cut their teeth on those film stocks, myself included, and through them found a beautiful, rewarding, and relatively inexpensive way to make stunning images comparable to the best provided by expensive digital cameras.
Off the backs of those enthusiasts and new converts, film has experienced a resurgence that kept some of these manufacturers alive, and reintroduced film photography as a more meaningful alternative to digital photography. But now that the transition from a mass-market industry to enthusiast industry is all but complete, manufacturers like Fujifilm are deciding to abandon the consumer base that helped revive them in the first place.
While it makes sense now, the move will most certainly have a negative long-term effect on the entire film community. As Jeb so eloquently put it in his piece on AgfaPhoto Vista 200’s discontinuation, “When a film that helps bring people into film photography goes away, the teetering tent threatens to fold.” And the tent is not only beginning to fold, but is completely collapsing, especially for the average everyday film shooter. The absence of these films would make it that much harder for new and less moneyed shooters to experience film photography for themselves.
But what does all this have to do with me shooting Fuji C200 on vacation? To make a long story short, I was once one of those new and less moneyed shooters. Consumer film was all I shot for years. Even though by many standards those films weren’t technically impressive, they gave me the opportunity to practice and appreciate the craft. And more often than not, those films would give me images that would inspire me to keep film alive in my own way. By choosing C200, I wanted to see if consumer films could still do that for me, even as an experienced shooter. What I ended up finding was a lot more valuable.
Simply put, trusting in a consumer film like C200 is to go back to those early days and to remind ourselves of why we enjoy film photography in the first place. It’s to go back to a time when the particulars of acutance, reciprocity failure, and exposure latitude didn’t matter as much as simply capturing that decisive moment on the timeless and beautiful medium of film. In other words, it’s like coming back to our roots.
So when I actually did go back to my roots in the Philippines, Fuji C200 was the perfect fit. Technically, it provided a huge amount of exposures to play with and exhibited that classic, slightly off color, family photo album look of cheap film. On a more intangible level, it helped relieve the pressure of making a technically sound photo, imbued my shooting with a more carefree sensibility, and let me enjoy my trip that much more. And when that trip turned into a surprise trip to Japan, the low-pressure, high-volume nature of cheap consumer film meant that I could loosen up and shoot away at nearly everything.
And when I returned to the States and received the scans, I was floored. That willingness to explore encouraged by consumer film combined with the unexpected quality of the film itself resulted in some of my best and most personally fulfilling work to date.
Could professional-grade film have made even better results? It’s hard to say. On a technical level, probably. Some of the skin tones in my C200 photos are just a tiny bit off and the less-than sharpness leaves something to be desired. But then again, color accuracy and biting sharpness isn’t the point of consumer film. The point was to have fun shooting, to capture moments on film, and hopefully get inspired to create even more great images. Technically imperfect though it was, Fuji C200 did a perfect job, and I’d recommend it to any shooter, especially those on a budget.
That being said, I dread the day that I can’t recommend C200 or any other consumer film because they’ve all been discontinued, and it looks that’ll happen sooner rather than later. It would be a slap in the face to those who kept film alive through its toughest days, and it would shoot the entire industry in the foot by turning off thousands of prospective new shooters. It would be a tragedy, plain and simple.
But until that happens, I won’t hesitate to shoot more consumer film to keep myself grounded and remember where I came from. I just hope the film photography industry has the presence of mind to do that too.