Teen hipsters discover joys of analog photography

Urban teens are leaving CCD and CMOS sensors behind in favor of a technology their grandparents would have found familiar: analog film photography.

Amanda Golden
Amanda Golden is a CNET intern who lives in San Francisco and plans to study international relations when she enters college in the fall.
Amanda Golden
5 min read
Urban hipster Carolyn LaHorgue, 17, with her grandfather's analog camera in San Francisco
Urban hipster Carolyn LaHorgue, 17, with her grandfather's analog camera in San Francisco James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Carolyn LaHorgue might seem like the type of teenager who would embrace digital technology. She designed her own Web site, is a Facebook aficionado, and is planning to study media and communications at New York University this fall.

Yet the 17-year-old, who lives just north of San Francisco, totes around an artifact right out of the 19th century: an analog camera that uses actual film. "It represents the individualist lifestyle," LaHorgue says.

LaHorgue is not alone. Teenagers are leading a kind of backward transition, leaving digital devices behind, at least temporarily, for technology their grandparents pioneered.

Classic film cameras, such as Holga, Diana, Minolta, and Nikon, are being chosen over smaller-than-your-fist digital point-and-shoots on the theory that it's cool to struggle with manual aperture settings. Or it's rebellious to scope out the best lighting for a shot.

A popular clothing chain among teenagers, Urban Outfitters, has picked up on the trend and now offers more than 60 product combinations relating to cameras, which are overwhelmingly film-based.

"Everyone has a fascination with the past," says Alana Shaw, 18, of San Francisco, who has been accepted at Bard College, adding that her peers "are reverting back to more vintage technologies as a way to express their personal taste."

Film cameras live on among urban hipsters (photos)

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"Digital photography allows for no mistakes by the camera," Shaw says. "The picture is flawless, and you are the only one to blame for its apparent ugliness. But with film, you never really know what's going to happen. It's a surprise every time you develop and print your film. Sometimes there can be weird color granulations, random light splotches or double exposures."

Though the trend has been building for several years, it's now hitting its stride. While total sales of film cameras lag behind their digital counterparts, something odd is happening that would have recently been seen as inconceivable: digital camera sales are decreasing, and sales of analog cameras are increasing.

The Photo Marketing Association's most recent report (PDF) on U.S. camera sales from September 2010 says digital camera sales dropped 2 percent between the summer of 2009 and 2010, perhaps because the market was becoming saturated. Analog camera sales increased from 30 percent to 40 percent during that time, the PMA calculates, with much of the increase coming from instant camera purchases.

A popular iPhone app called Instagram mimics old-school film "flaws" but with the ease of digital. Another iPhone app does the same for videos, making them look like vintage home movies. There's even an International Juried Plastic Camera Show--analog, of course--now in its fourth year.

Ed Lee, group director for InfoTrends, a market research firm for the digital imaging industry, suggests that one reason for increased film usage among teens "is that digital cameras have been in the mainstream market for over 10 years now and that there are many teenagers today that have grown up without shooting a roll of film. As a result, film is a novelty to them, and thus part of the appeal."

San Francisco-area businesses have detected similar trends. Judy Hurwitz, who has owned Marin Filmworks in San Rafael, Calif. with her husband Leon since 1995, says the re-adoption of analog is noticeable.

Her business, she said, has "seen a slight uptick in the use of film recently." The reasons: more black-and-white film use by high school and college students and a trend toward higher-resolution, higher-quality medium format film.

"We have also seen an increase in the number of people using medium format film, also called 120 film, in the very popular Holga or Diana cameras," Hurwitz says. "These cameras are inexpensive, plastic bodies with plastic lenses that produce a sightly out of focus image. They are very popular with young artists and photographers who are looking for a more artistic image."

And, of course, it hasn't taken marketers long to pitch analog cameras to proto-hipsters.

"Disposable, Polaroid, and smaller film cameras are being marketed to the youth," says Stevie Sorenson, 17, a junior in high school in Marin County. "While disposables and lower quality film cameras are being marketed (to us), higher-end film cameras still appeal to more advanced photographers."

"I'm seeing more and more disposable and 'carry around' film cameras in use through Facebook and other sites," she says. "It's an increasing trend I've noticed, and at the same time I'm noticing higher quality film prints disappear due to the difficulty of developing, printing, etc. While it gets easier and easier for lower quality film to be processed (at CVS and Costco), it is getting increasingly harder to find space and materials for printing with film."

Ian Tuttle, a professional photographer based in the Bay Area, prefers to use toy film cameras over digital ones.

"I like film and especially toy cameras because of the flaws," Tuttle says. "It isn't perfect--I shoot a lot of expired film as well as very slow-speed film which I process in ways that make it behave abnormally. This accentuates the flaws. The plastic lenses on toy cameras lend their own distortions. What I'm after is a more organic capture of the world."

"I suppose the cool factor is one of the slants in marketing," he says. "An international company is currently trying to monopolize the toy camera market, but photographers are at heart artists, and artists are at heart rebellious against the mainstream. I know toy camera enthusiasts who actively hate this big company."

Will Patterson, 19, a freshman at Stanford University who studied photography throughout high school, doubts this influence will continue. "I don't see this process of digitization stopping any time soon," he says. "And as digital technology improves even further, I think there will be less reason for people to need to shoot film because image quality will more closely resemble that of film."

Whether the trend of rediscovering film will continue is up to the teenage generation.

"It's just getting too expensive and time consuming," Shaw, the 18-year old San Francisco resident, says. "But if you have a passion for it, there is no reason to stop. I think that the variety and unusualness that film provides will keep it popular in the years to come--at least I hope so. Film is really something special."