Kodak may still be around today, but it’s a shell of its former self. Founded in 1892, it was once the biggest name in the photography industry. These days, though, it’s mostly propped up by the Hollywood film industry and licensing its name to random products (not always for the better). Popping up slightly later, in 1934, Fujifilm came onto the scene.
While it might not be quite as old as Kodak, both survived similar upheavals in the industry and the onslaught of digital. How did Fujifilm survive when Kodak didn’t? Well, in simple terms, Fujifilm adapted with the times. Kodak, not so much. But here’s Asianometry with an interesting 25-minute documentary that explains it in more detail.
[Related reading: Zeiss has left the photography industry]
Two film giants
It’s a fascinating look at the history of the two companies that, between them, dominated the film photography industry. Sure, there were a few other players, like Ilford and Polaroid, but they were relatively small compared to these two. Kodak grew to mammoth proportions in the USA, while Fujifilm primarily targeted Japan. Each company made it difficult for the other to encroach on their native territories, but ultimately, both players had a massive foothold throughout the world.
Kodak led the way even in Japan until the 1970s when Fujifilm had caught up with the technology. A number of their film stocks were superior to those from Kodak in a number of ways, boosting their popularity. The two companies went head to head for the world’s film market, but Fujifilm had the higher end while Kodak appealed more to regular consumers. The fight went on for several decades.
Then, digital photography came along and threatened everything that both companies had been doing throughout their whole existence. Making and selling photography film. Both Fujifilm and Kodak saw this coming. But only one company really survived into the digital era. A company, while killing off almost its entire film business, still thrives with digital imaging technology. Yes, that’s right, it’s Fujifilm.
What’s most interesting about the story is that Kodak seemed to start working on digital imaging first. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson created the first self-contained digital camera prototype in 1975, long before digital imaging was even a thought in the public consciousness. Even if you could create digital images, computers hadn’t yet evolved to the point where the masses could work with them.
Their downfall, as Asianometry describes it, was not being able to settle on a plan for a digital era and staying too insular, unwilling to diversify. They did a lot of failed digital experiments, none of which could stand up to the unique business model of film, and they fell behind. Film sales disappeared (except for Hollywood), and so did their business.
Diversify or die
Fujifilm, on the other hand, diversified in multiple other markets. Fujifilm developed Digital Radiography to replace X-Rays in 1983, a process which is still in use today. There’s also the digitisation of the printing industry, speeding up the workflows of newspapers and magazines all over the world. The company envisioned a time when film would no longer be required and dived right into other areas in order to prepare. They invested in complementary products like inkjet printers, optical discs (CD-Rs), and the extremely lucrative pharmaceutical industry. The company now even has an entire skincare and makeup division.
Kodak, on the other hand, started selling off the non-photographic portions of their business. Even after filing a number of patents in other fields, they decided that they were an imaging business, and that was that. They actually had great success in the early 2000s with a handful of digital cameras, but eventually, Kodak realised that Fujifilm had known all along. Digital cameras weren’t a great business investment. They were never going to produce the kind of return that film did.
After all, film is a consumable. You buy it, you use it, you buy more. What’s the consumable when it comes to digital photography? At one time, that might have been inkjet printer ink. These days, with almost none of the hundreds of billions of photographs we shoot annually being printed, even that isn’t much of a thing anymore. Kodak simply couldn’t change with the times in a meaningful and effective way.
But even digital photography itself has been in freefall for the past several years. The only reason there are still as many camera companies as there are and why new camera releases come as rapidly as they do is because of video. Not photography.
Fujifilm has been making all the right moves, and they still seem to be today for the most part. They have a very loyal following, and while they might not be leading the field in terms of size, they’re still surviving. Thriving, in fact, albeit in multiple industries that don’t involve photography.