Is Film Expensive?

It’s a complaint I’ve heard at least a thousand times. “I would love to work with film, but it is so expensive!!” I admit, I’ve said it myself more than once. Though the cost has never made me shy away from film, it certainly does seem very cost prohibitive and I don’t blame anyone for having this attitude regarding analogue photography.

But is working with film really that expensive? I suppose it all depends on how you look at it and what you compare it to. I mean let’s face it, being creative is costly regardless of your medium. I don’t care if you are a digital photographer, film photographer, musician, painter, movie maker, or pottery designer. There is a cost to making art. The only ones who are spared this ugly fact are writers, because last time I checked a ball point pen and some ruled paper can still be had for incredibly cheap. Of course, I’ve never met a writer who practices their craft on such simple materials. In fact, the last time I took a creative writing class it was a requirement each student buy a piece of software designed to help a person brainstorm ideas for a whopping $300. So maybe writers aren’t immune either.

But that is neither here nor there…

A good quality digital camera with manual control options will cost you anywhere in the range of $500 to $3,000. If you are lucky this cost will include a halfway decent lens but more than likely it won’t so figure at least another few hundred dollars to the price of your purchase. But hey, let’s keep this math simple for now and just stick with the low end cost of $500 for a decent Canon digital Rebel with a crappy kit lens. Now let’s flip over to the analogue side of things. Right now as I type this I am looking at a craigslist ad for a Nikon F3 equipped with a 50mm F/1.4 prime lens for $109. This is no slouch of a camera and in no way considered a “budget” model. In fact at one point in time it was considered the gold professional standard of 35mm camera bodies and the accompanied lens will produce results on par with the most expensive lenses available today. So at a price of roughly $100 that would leave me $400 left over to spend on film. Let’s say I buy my film for roughly $4.00 a pop and I can buy 100 rolls right away while still spending the same amount of cash to purchase my digital counterpart!!

Now something else to keep in mind, digital cameras are not built to last. Even top end digital cameras. I’m sorry, but they just simply aren’t. Modern digital cameras are designed for an age when consumer electronics are meant to be used and tossed. Technology advances so rapidly there is just no point in building a product that will last more than a couple of years. So going back to my example of buying a low end digital camera model. At best you are looking at roughly five years of use before it either craps out on you or technology advances to the point where you need to upgrade. I feel like I’m being incredibly generous with this timeline, but they, we’ll run with it for now. The Nikon F3 we bought for one-hundred bucks on the other hand will last your entire lifetime. You will never need to buy another camera body again if you don’t want to. Every five years or so it might be good to get a CLA (clean, lubricate, and adjust) but that is doubtful and can be done for as little $50 when appropriate.

So keeping our dollars equal, that leaves us with roughly a $500 dollar budget for film every five years. Not too shabby.

I fully realize I am making a very simplistic argument here and leaving out a lot of factors. There is the processing cost of film of course and that should not be ignored. However, there are additional costs to digital photography as well. Photo editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom aren’t cheap and require constant upgrades. Digital photography also requires a heftier cost when it comes keeping your computer up-to-date. I still edit my film images regularly on a laptop I bought in the year 2002 but I wouldn’t dare upload a 20MP digital RAW file to it for fear of crashing the entire system. So bottom line, there are ongoing costs to each option.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with me or think I’m full of shit, there are a ton of ways to make working with film more economical. I’m going to list out a few tips that you may want to give a try:

Learn to Develop Your Own Film

I cannot stress this one enough. Learn to develop film at home, both black and white and color negative film. It isn’t hard. It doesn’t take a dedicated darkroom. The equipment to get started is cheap and easy to find. Taking your film to a lab will run you anywhere from $4.00 to $15.00 dollars a roll. Developing at home will cost you between ten cents and perhaps a whole dollar per roll on the higher end. The last time I did the math on the chemistry I choose to use and each roll cost me about twenty two cents. This is easily manageable and doesn’t break the bank for me and if it does for you then you have bigger money problems I can’t help you with. Plus you will have the added benefit of knowing your materials inside and out which will make you a better photographer in the long run anyway.

If it is a time issue that keeps you from developing your own film just know this. It takes me about twenty minutes to process a roll and hang it to dry. Typically I’m watching dumb television shows or listening to podcasts when I’m doing it. I’d venture to guess this is no more or less time consuming than a digital workflow.

Discover and Experiment with Budget Film Stocks

There are a lot of different film stocks out there that are significantly cheaper than the big three (Kodak, Ilford, and Fuji). The quality of these films can vary, but if you are really on a truly tight budget they can be worth checking out. This is especially true if you want to experiment with toy cameras or pinhole photography as ultimate precision isn’t exactly important in these mediums anyway.

I would highly recommend the Artista.Edu line from Freestyle Photographic Supplies (just do a Google search to find it). Arista.Edu is Fomapan film just rebranded by Freestyle and it works every bit as well as the Foma equivalent at about 25% less cost. If you don’t mind generic packaging I see no reason not to buy it.

Some other options include Shanghai films and UltraFine, however I have far less experience with these. It can’t hurt to give them a try though if you find a good deal.

Try Using Alternative Analogue Option to Traditional Film

There are a lot of options when working with analogue mediums that don’t involve a pre-packaged roll of traditional film. If you are interested in pinhole photography or want to work with large format cameras, try making paper negatives. A box of 100 sheets of 5×7 paper can be had for as little as $35 and the results can be incredibly interesting and of high quality. Or perhaps give Ortho Litho film a try (100 sheets for $20). This is a film that is traditionally meant for document duplication but with a little bit of experimentation can yield great continuos tone images. I’ve also had great luck using X-ray film which can be found for pennies per sheet.

Keep in mind, these are all mediums that work on the same principles as regular ol’ black and white film just tailored for a different purpose. All it takes is a little effort and some experimentation to make them work to your own tastes.