Kodak may still be around today, but it’s a shell of itself. Founded in 1892, it was once the biggest name in the photography industry. Nowadays, however, it is mainly supported by the Hollywood film industry and lends its name to random products (not always for the best). Appearing a little later, in 1934, Fujifilm entered the scene.
While perhaps not as old as Kodak, both have survived similar industry upheavals and the onslaught of digital. How did Fujifilm survive when Kodak didn’t? Well, simply put, Fujifilm has kept up with the times. Kodak, not so much. But here Asianometry with an interesting 25-minute documentary that explains it in more detail.
[Related reading: Zeiss has left the photography industry]
Two movie giants
It’s a fascinating look at the history of the two companies that together dominated the film photography industry. Sure, there were a few other players, like Ilford and Polaroid, but they were relatively small compared to those two. Kodak reached gigantic proportions in the United States, while Fujifilm mainly targeted Japan. Each company made it difficult for the other to encroach on their home turf, but ultimately both players had a massive presence across the globe.
Kodak led the way even in Japan until the 1970s when Fujifilm caught up with the technology. A number of their film stocks were superior to Kodak’s in several respects, which increased their popularity. The two companies competed for the global film market, but Fujifilm had the high end while Kodak appealed more to regular consumers. The fight lasted for decades.
Then digital photography came along and threatened everything both companies had done in their entire existence. Production and sale of photographic film. Fujifilm and Kodak saw it coming. But only one company has truly survived the digital age. A business, while killing almost all of his film business, continues to thrive with digital imaging technology. Yes, that’s right, it’s Fujifilm.
What’s most interesting about the story is that Kodak seems to have started working on digital imaging first. Kodak Engineer Steve Sasson created the first stand-alone digital camera prototype in 1975, long before digital imagery was even a thought in the public consciousness. Even though 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, was not being able to agree on a blueprint for the digital age and remaining too insular, unwilling to branch out. They did a lot of failed digital experiments, none of which could stand up to the film’s unique business model, and they fell behind. Movie sales are gone (except for Hollywood), along with their business.
Diversify or die
Fujifilm, on the other hand, has diversified into several other markets. Fujifilm has developed Digital radiography to replace X-rays in 1983, a process still used today. There is also the digitization of the printing industry, which is accelerating the workflows of newspapers and magazines around the world. The company envisioned a time when the film would no longer be needed and dove straight into other areas in order to prepare. They invested in complementary products like inkjet printers, optical discs (CD-R) and the extremely lucrative pharmaceutical industry. The company now even has a full skincare and makeup division.
Kodak, on the other hand, began selling off the non-photographic parts of its business. Even after filing a number of patents in other areas, they decided they were an imaging company, and that was it. They actually had great success in the early 2000s with a handful of digital cameras, but eventually Kodak realized that Fujifilm had always known that. Digital cameras were not a great business investment. They were never going to produce the kind of comeback the movie did.
After all, the film is a consumable. You buy it, you use it, you buy more. What is the consumable in digital photography? At one point it could have been inkjet printer ink. These days, with almost none of the hundreds of billions of photographs we take every year to be printed, even that is no longer really a thing. Kodak simply couldn’t move with the times in a meaningful and effective way.
But even digital photography itself has been in freefall for several years. The only reason there are still so many camera manufacturers and why new camera releases are coming as quickly as they do is because of video. Not photography.
Fujifilm made all the right choices, and they still seem to do so today for the most part. They have a very loyal following, and while they may not be the front runner in terms of size, they still survive. Thrive, in fact, albeit in multiple industries that don’t involve photography.