Manual: the New York brand democratizing film photography

In an increasingly digital world, Malcolm Dia is on a mission to make analog art accessible to all.
Manual 16x9 hero

In 2000, Kodak announced that 80 billion photos were taken – a new all-time record for film photography. Today, such statistics seem almost twee: Apple says iPhone users took more than 3 trillion photos in the past year. 

Despite the explosion of smartphones and digital photography, film is making a comeback. But the rise in interest has also seen a rise in prices: over the past five years, the average cost of a roll of camera film has increased by more than 50%, according to photography blog Analog.Cafe.

A culture shift

‘The demand has skyrocketed,’ says Malcolm Dia, ‘yet there's almost no stock.’ Five years ago, he was working at men's magazine GQ as a senior designer. Back then, not many people seemed interested in the kinds of upcoming photographers that he was coming across. ‘They didn't care about all these young kids shooting film, major campaigns and magazine covers – really shifting culture through their photography,’ he says. 

He decided to build a business around them, calling it Manual. In 2018, he rented space in a film-processing lab and, a year later, held his first pop-up selling disposable cameras in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Manual went on to work with giant brands like Nike, Adidas and DIOR, as well A24, an art-house entertainment studio. 

Empty shelves

Manual has since become the go-to spot for street photographers looking to load up on film in New York. But its website would frequently sell out of stock. Malcolm didn't want Manual to add to the limited supply and rising costs problem that was blighting the return of film photography, so he decided to look into taking control of the supply chain – a lengthy and expensive process. 

At the end of November 2022, Manual released its first rolls of custom photographic film, the MC400. After a protracted search involving various research trips, Malcolm found a manufacturer in China that he was happy to work with. ‘It's 35mm motion-picture film, where we removed a layer off the top so it can be processed by standard photo-lab processors,’ he explains. ‘It creates this beautiful, movie-like quality.’

In total, it's taken him nearly two years to get the product to market because he wanted to get the little details – such as Manual's signature packaging – just right. User testing saw film sent to 200 people around the world. 

After a few tough years of the business struggling to get hold of photographic film, Manual now has control over its supply chain and, for the first time, Malcolm's confident that the business won't run out of stock again. Having more visibility and input into the supply chain also gives Manual control over the prices it charges, enabling Malcolm to keep things affordable. 

‘We just want to get it into as many people's hands as possible,’ he says. ‘Because film being expensive hurts what we're trying to do as a company – we want to democratize film photography.’

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 50. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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