Kodak was once one of the biggest names in photography. For decades, it stood head and shoulders above not only its competitors but every other brand in the photography industry. Their film was used by everybody, from seasoned professionals to those shooting family snapshots.
Then digital came, and Kodak seemed to just sort of disappear from our collective consciousness. Kodak literally invented the digital camera. So, what went wrong? Let’s find out, as James Warner of Snappiness tells the story.
Kodak seemed to be everywhere in the 80s. Fujifilm started to gain some ground in the 90s, at least as I remember it in the UK at the time. Kodak had already invented the digital camera 25 years before the turn of the century when digital started to take off.
So, what happened? How did the company that had so much influence over the photography industry completely fail on photography’s future?
Well, the popular myth is that Kodak was too busy being a dinosaur, clinging onto the past – film, its primary money maker – pretending that digital was just a fad and film would make its triumphant return! A gamble that Kodak would lose.
But this doesn’t appear to be completely accurate. The way James tells it, part of Kodak’s problem was its reliance on film. It didn’t want to give up what was, at the time, still a very good earner – that was increasing in popularity.
But Kodak didn’t ignore digital. It actually started producing cameras in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Well, they produced Kodak electronics Frankensteined into a Nikon SLR. The frame size was smaller than film and the resolution was terrible, but the speed of delivery made them ideal for news photographers.
In fact, it embraced it with its in-store digital printing kiosks. You’ve definitely seen them sitting in some high street department store. Just walk up, slot in your memory card or USB stick, tap on a touchscreen interface for a few minutes, and it spits out your prints. Kodak also makes money on paper and chemicals.
But Kodak’s venture into higher-end cameras, kicking off with the Kodak DCS14n (the world’s second full-frame DSLR), proved to be less successful than hoped. A camera plagued with issues – I knew a couple of DCS14n owners back then who complained about a lot – didn’t land Kodak the prestige it had hoped to bring into the digital age.
The failure of the DCS14n ended Kodak’s dabble into the high-end, causing the company to shift to consumers. But what looked to be the future of consumer digital photography was short-lived by the influx of smartphones with built-in cameras that were much more convenient and, eventually, at least as good quality.
Then, social media came and people no longer print their photos. They share them in their feeds.
Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, although the Kodak brand is still around today. And, funnily enough, their business seems to be increasing. Film’s becoming popular again.