The process of digesting big news is now as follows: 1. See the news alert. 2. Immediately begin stressing out. 3. Read the news and absorb many hot takes. 4. Try to process it. 5. Barely catch your breath before the cycle starts again. Such is life, in the era of cascading historical moments.
It might be hyperbole to equate developments in the film community to events like a Coronavirus mutation or the seditious assault on the U.S. Capitol, but the recent discontinuation of Fuji Pro 400H is one of the biggest newsflashes of the last year (at least for photo nerds).
If you missed this news, Fujifilm announced on January 14 that the company would discontinue Pro 400H in both 35mm and 120 formats. They went on to say that based on the then-current demand, Fuji would be able to “allocate” Pro 400H in 120 through the end of this year, but that 35mm would be immediately taking that long dirt nap.
The reason given for the discontinuation was the emlusion’s unique fourth layer that required special raw materials and chemicals that have become too difficult to acquire. The announcement also made clear that this raw material shortage is only affecting Pro 400H and not Fuji’s slide, consumer, and black and white films.
Reactions were quick and the takes quite hot, with one headline going so far as to call the loss of Pro 400H is a “giant step towards the grave” for the film industry. Similarly, when the news rippled through the CP headquarters, a number of us rushed to our film dealers and placed an order for what would be our final procurement of this film stock. After clicking the purchase button on my five-pack of 120 rolls, I started thinking about that headline. Is the loss of Fuji Pro 400H really pushing the film industry towards its demise? Does Fuji Pro 400H really command a place of importance so large that, without it, the film community will crumble?
Nah. The tendency is always to overreact to bad news, in our case, a film being discontinued. I did it myself by buying five rolls when I really haven’t ever shot this film regularly before. So now that the dust has settled on the Pro 400H coffin, here are a few thoughts I still have on the issue.
Fujifilm is not Kodak Alaris.
The laziest way to look at Fuji and Kodak is by treating them as equal competitors. By that measure, Kodak has done a much better job for the film community. In the last few years they have resurrected both P3200 and Ektachrome and have hinted early this year that their 2021 plans include bringing one new film to market and bringing another back from the dead. Buoyed by a successful reemergence from bankruptcy and the revival of the film business, Kodak continues to trend upward.
Viewed through the same prism, Fujifilm would appear to be on a downward trajectory. Pro 400H is just the latest of their films to be discontinued (though it’s worth noting that they have brought back Acros.) While they are the only company to offer a range of slide film, Fuji’s offerings pale in comparison to those from Kodak.
But this is much too narrow a way to view Fuji. In truth, photographic film is a very, very small component of the diversified portfolio of the Japanese conglomerate. For every film Fuji discontinues there have been multiple innovative digital cameras released. I think it’s fair to say that Fuji has been responsible for bringing the most interesting cameras to market for the last few years. Their mirror-less line of cameras trail blazed a path away from the homogeneously designed DSLR of decades past, and they should win some sort of Nobel prize for making quality digital medium format cameras (if not affordable, than at least) attainable.
Fuji knows where the money and growth is, and if you needed any proof of that, you could see it first hand at the last (and now we know, the final) Photokina in 2019. Fujifilm’s “booth” was more the size of a baseball infield and was dominated equally by digital cameras and the Instax division, which was covered with it’s collaboration with Taylor Swift. Noticeably absent was any mention of film produced by the company that takes longer than a minute or two to develop. Fujifilm is a much bigger beast than your typical film manufacturer, with priorities to match.
The share of profits commanded by the sale of film (other than Instax) must be incredibly small for Fuji, while for Kodak it’s nearly a monopoly. Kodak absolutely has a bigger market share and pushes out more new products for film photographers than Fuji, but that’s because they have to. Fuji is much more likely to make decisions like discontinuing a film because they’re less reliant on that film’s success than the folks in Rochester are on theirs.
This move isn’t about sales, and it might not be the final word.
Fuji says that it discontinued Pro 400H because of a lack of the raw materials necessary for its unique “fourth layer.” There was no mention whether the supply chain was being affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. As far as Fuji is saying, Pro 400H isn’t going away from a lack of sales. Companies making this kind of decision usually hide behind corporate speak to mollify the angry mob. So it was vaguely relieving to see a concrete and understandable reason for the decision.
The reasoning behind the move also keeps the door open to speculation whether Fuji could bring back Pro 400H if and when the supply chain issues are resolved. If visions of Acros are dancing across your head, you might be suffering from whiplash. When Fuji announced in 2018 the discontinuation of Acros, it cited a similar lack of “raw materials” as well as declining sales numbers. The corpse was barely cold by the time they brought back Acros II in 2019. Fuji even admitted that public outcry was a motivating factor in the resurrection. Good news, but also bittersweet – notice the higher price tag for the “new and improved” Acros.
So if you’re someone whose world came crashing down when they heard the news about Pro 400H, take heed that badgering Fuji with your complaints may well pay off.
Pro 400 H was never an equal Portra 400 competitor.
The “fear factor” of losing Pro 400H seems to center on the fact that the number of choices for professional-grade 400 speed films has gone from two, down to one.
It certainly hurts more to see a professional grade film be discontinued than say, a consumer film like Agfa Vista (in spite of my own personal feelings.) I would always keep the better quality product over the cheaper one, though I know arguments can be made the other way.
Pro 400H was Fuji’s alternative to Kodak’s Portra 400, but it’s going too far to call them equals. In measurable metrics like sales, and less measurable ones like prestige, Portra 400 has been the unchallenged big cheese for years. There’s no denying that Pro 400H had many devoted fans (especially amongst medium format wedding shooters – talk about a niche within a niche…), or that it’s a great film. We said as much in our article all about it. But the reality is that despite its quality, Pro 400H has never been as ubiquitous as Portra 400. What it has been is an option for someone looking for a cooler color pallet and to save a few dollars over the cost of Portra 400.
The Pro 400H vs. Portra debate has always felt like arguing Coke vs. Pepsi, or even Dr. Pepper vs. Mr. Pibb. I imagine that’s a passionate topic for people drinking Pepsi – one that fans of the Chicago White Sox or Los Angeles Clippers could appreciate – but no one confuses Pepsi as the world’s best-selling cola. They remember it for the commercial where Michael Jackson’s head caught on fire. Thankfully we can say more for Pro 400H.
I don’t mean this to sound like I’m kicking a film when it’s down. I’m not. I didn’t buy five rolls in the wake of the announcement so that I could grift on it down the road, but because I took some pretty decent images with it and I want the chance to do it again someday. But I do think we’re hyping something in death that we never really hyped while it was alive. If you don’t believe me, imagine the situation was reversed and Portra was discontinued. Imagine thinking “Wow, well at least we still have Pro 400H.”
It’s not the same degree of consolation, is it?
It’s really a shame that this film is being discontinued. It’s a shame any time we lose a film. Maybe it comes back one day, maybe not. But we’ll trudge on, and hopefully one day a film will rise to challenge the monolithic hegemony of Kodak Portra. Until then, grab whatever’s left of Pro 400H, while supplies last.
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