Is Shooting Film *Really* More Expensive?

Total Cost: $0.38 – Saint Paul, MN

When people talk about why they don’t shoot film anymore, this is the reason I hear most frequently, in addition to the fact that people don’t want to wait to get their film processed and returned.  They want things now–never mind the fact that there have been one-hour film processing labs for the past two decades–and film just takes too long.  Yes, readers, the Internet age has made an hour too long to wait for one’s pictures.  However, upon perusing many a facebook gallery, I have come to the conclusion that a little more time to think before posting that picture might have been a good idea; perhaps you’d have reconsidered posting it at all.  Does the world really need more evidence of you acting foolishly under the influence?

But, I digress.

As I said, the main thing I hear is that film just costs too much.  You have to buy film, pay to have it processed, and either pay to have it scanned or do it yourself.  You can process film yourself too, but that just makes the whole thing too labor-intensive.  Well, I have come to realize that this is nonsense.  In fact, shooting film might even be cheaper than shooting digital. How can that be, you ask? Read on.

Case in point: like me, you enjoy shooting with a rangefinder. If you want the true digital rangefinder experience, you need a digital Leica (we are going to exclude the nearly decade-old Epson RD-1/s at this point). An M9 will run you about $4,000-$5,000 on the used market right now (November 2012); service for the M8 has just been discontinued, and cracked sensors are becoming the norm now, so let’s also shy away from that particular model. So you get yourself a used Leica M9–and let’s assume you already have a lens, to keep things fair–and you’re ready. A used Leica M6 will cost around $1,000 (if you need a meter, there are lots of Leica choices, however; see here for a great detailed article about the myriad different models) and others will cost even less. Get yourself a used Bessa R3M/A for around $300. Works great, and is full frame and as good as any lens you put on it. Remember, when we’re talking about film cameras, they are all essentially just light-proof boxes for mounting lenses on. Lenses and film are what make the image–the camera is just how you interact with those two things. In the digital realm, the camera is more like a computer and controls most of the image-making.

No film costs, you say? What about memory cards? Get yourself a nice card for $50-100. If you’re shooting Arista Premium (rebranded Tri-X) you can get about 35 rolls of it for $100 (or 17 for $50). That’s 1,260 frames for $100. Process it yourself (a batch of chemicals isn’t that expensive and lasts a while) and scan at home with a scanner for $100, or with your iPhone if you’re really cheap and just uploading to the web. Yes, the scanner is an extra expense, but it’s cheaper than all the software you’ll have to buy for your digital images, and it generally comes with some software for quick touch-ups to your digital files, post-scanning.

A digital SLR will cost you around $600-$1,000 these days? A used film SLR will cost you less than $100. Film costs are the same as above. For $200 you can get yourself a Nikon F100–a great pro-level SLR from the late 1990s–and a load of Arista Premium. What will $200 buy you in the digital world? Exactly: a whole lot of nothing.

Me & My Father, 1983

Oh, and there is another cost. What happens when your computer crashes and you lose your files? What happens when you forget about your digital files in a harddrive somewhere and they become corrupted, or are no longer readable by future media platforms/devices? What does that cost you to have lost all those shots you made on family vacations or of your children growing up? With negatives, as long as they are stored dry and safe, they will last forever (at least, they’ll last longer than you’ll live; the same cannot be said for that DVD you’ve backed your photos up on).

Remember all those crappy digital cameras people were using in the early digital days? The images are pixelated, of crappy resolution, and just generally look terrible. They will always look that way. Film images can always be re-scanned in the future with whatever technology is available and will be as good as the technology at that point allows them to be. Problem solved. The above image of my father is a godo example. I re-scanned it using my scanner that I have now, but when there are better scanners and technology available in the future, I can continually re-scan it if I so choose in order to take advantage of improved resolution or whatever they are offering down the line. The memory is preserved, without being a crummy digital image from a 2MP sensor from the earlier digital days.

Bottom line?

BUY FILM, NOT MEGAPIXELS.

At least, that’s what I’ll continue doing, and I encourage you to do the same. There really are very few reasons not to, and I hope that this rambling post helps to dispel one of the notions people have about shooting film these days. There are valid reasons for shooting digital, but cost isn’t really one of them.

17 Comments

  1. Hi there. I enjoyed reading your article, and I shoot film for two reasons mainly. 1. I enjoy it. 2. as you say, you have a permanent, high quality backup in the form of negatives / slides. However, having done the math, I cannot agree that film is cheaper. I shoot with a Nikon D700 and 50mm F/1.4, plus other bits and pieces such as memory cards etc $1500. My film camera is a Leica M2 with 50mm Summicron. also just over $1500. (im talking Aussie dollars).
    Ilford Delta 100 / Fuji Velvia 50 / Kodak Portra 160. $10 to $20 per roll. Develop is $13.50 per roll. I don’t have a scanner. Scanning is an extra $9. Yep that’s what it costs here in Adelaide (and it takes 5 days sometimes, no 1 hour shops here). So in the end, each frame ends up costing me about $1 !! But who cares, I enjoy it anyway…

    Reply

  2. This article at some points seems defensive. I only shoot film and my weapons of choice are a medium format mamiya 645 and a k1000. I can say that once you move to medium format it is harder to find quality scanners with great workflow for under 1200 dollars. The process of learning film photography is made harder by not having quick and affordable access to quality scans. To get my 120 mega scanned it cost me on the low end 10 and I have to wait 2 to 8 days to get them back. The only local shop that processes 120 charges 20 to do 10 scans.

    Think about how important feedback is to a new photographer. Unless you choose 35mm, there are not any great affordable fast scanners or 1hr labs to help you see your photos quickly.

    I have found the cost of quality scans, the time to get them back and the cost of this all the most prohibitive thing about shooting film. If all I wanted to do was shoot 35mm, my life would be so much easier because I could buy a pakon scanner and have a full roll scanned in an hour or less and the scanner would only cost 400.

    The pain of shooting medium format as a newbie on a budget.

    Reply

    1. I agree to an extent. The format of your film does have an impact, but my point was that shooting film isn’t necessarily an expensive pursuit.

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  3. thomaswphotos does make a good point that there is the added cost of time involved in using film–whether you develop it yourself or send it out for developing. However, as you have pointed out in this post, the extra time makes a huge difference in the archival value of the print/negative. There are so many questions about how to retain evidential value when transferring digital files and best practices for doing so. The ease of sharing/publishing digital photographs is convenient today, but what about 50 years from now? Will we be able to browse through our friends/relatives/institutions Facebook pages and Flickr feeds for memories like we do today with photo albums and scrapbooks from earlier eras? I think not. There is something to be said for technological innovation, but there is also something to be admired about technology that continues to remain relevant/important/useful throughout time.

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  4. We are talking about our hobby, right? If you reduce your hobby to only to a cost optimized thing then you should look for something else. The nice thing about film for me is, that it’s some kind of adventure. You don’t know exactly what you get, you can’t see a historgam to optimize your result while shooting. The development is not consistent all the time so this is a bit of an adventure too. The results are very nice most of the time and I enjoy the process of developing. The not so nice thing is that development takes a lot of time. I have to start developing a roll of film in the afternoon so that it dries and can be put in the sleeves the same day. Drying over night is a bad thing because there is a lot of dust on the film after a night in my bathroom. I have three rolls of unprocesses film here that I took five weeks ago. Didn’t find the time on the weekend for development. Don’t have a nearby location for film development and had a lot of bad experiences with mail labs where I got the film back with scratches. Additionally I never was able to get a nice crop out of a film frame. Using the whole frame is good quality, but not a crop. That is much easier with a digital camera. My scarce time does not allow a lot of film handling. Working on digital files is a lot faster. So film is not cheap because my free time is precious.

    Reply

    1. I haven’t reduced my hobby to a cost benefit analysis. In fact, it wasn’t about my hobby at all. Rather, I was arguing against the many people who claim to not shoot film due to cost, which I’m afraid is a bogus argument.

      I send my film out, and have been happy with the results. But results vary from place to place and lab to lab; I have also found that the scans I do myself aren’t of the same quality as those I get from the lab I currently use.

      Reply

    1. That’s surely true. Here in the USA getting things fixed isn’t an issue. While developing is becoming more scarce, it’s not impossible to find. I send my film out to be processed and don’t have to pay all that much to do so.

      Reply

  5. Well, I had my share of crappy labs and frustrating results from lousy commercial prints, back in the 1980´s and I never had the time to develop and print myself…. When digital became a viable alternative I never look behind. I still love my Ricoh 500gx and Nikon FG film cameras but do I feel nostalgic about shooting film? No way!
    But if it works for you, it’s great. Keep it up!

    Reply

    1. To each his own, brother. It’s not nostalgia for me. I love the results and the tonality. I also greatly prefer mechanical cameras.

      Obrigado!

      Reply

      1. He’s an interesting character. He’s a photographer–probably in his early 70s–for the New York Times who covers fashion. He’s the only person who still uses film. There is a documentary about him that came out last year.

  6. I agree! I use 100% film too. I did digital for a couple of years, but was never really happy with it.
    FILM has all the advantages, every single one!
    Great article! Film rules🙂

    Reply

  7. Great article!! Hubby and I shoot nothing but film and know that our prints are archival and will last at least 150 years if not more. I often wonder about those digital files. How long will they last? If you print them out, they fade very quickly. Film Wins as far as we’re concerned.

    Reply

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