The Economics of Shooting With Film

When I first bought my Minolta SRT 303b, it was a novelty and I really didn’t care about the cost of using it. I think I paid 9 Euros for the 2 rolls of color film and I thought that was expensive. Little did I realize that buying film for that price is going to get rarer and rarer. My last roll of Portra 400 was $15 CAD, but I was happy to pay for it. Here is why:

Shooting with film is much like riding a road bicycle. It is not going to get you there faster than a car, but you do it for the exercise and the thrill of being in total control. The bike is powered by you and an extension of your body. You feel the texture of the road, the wind in your face, and your senses in high gear. This is exactly how I feel with a fine manual/mechanical camera in my hands. With enough use, the viewfinder becomes an extension of your eyes, and the lens your portal to another world. In this world, you decide how things should be. You isolate objects and turn them into subjects. You decide what is bright and dark and what is up or down. With a well matched focal length and viewfinder magnification, you frame your world just how you see it.

Let’s talk money. My investment is as follows:

  • $250 for Nikon’s Coolscan ED negative scanner (a total steal compared to eBay prices of $800+)
  • $15 for a roll of Kodak Portra 400, one of the best color films
  • $7 for a roll of Ilford HP5 Plus, a great all around B&W film
  • $8 to develop the color negatives at London Drugs
  • $2 in chemicals to develop the B&W at home
  • Patience: wait for development (~ a day)
  • Time: scanning and editing takes me a whole day for a 36 frame roll

As you can see, my average monetary cost to take 4000 photos is ~$2000. Crazy?!? Maybe, but that’s years of shooting nothing but the best film. In fact, at my current rate of photo taking, that is probably 10+ years of photography (since I shoot more B&W). I know my cameras will be fine – my Nikon F2S is 42 years old now, another 10 is nothing.

In that same time period, 10 to 15 generations of digital cameras would have come and gone, depreciating at an exponential rate. I will give you a good example. A Nikon D90 in 2009 would have been around $1000 with a kit lens. Today, you can buy the same kit for under $300. That 70% drop is something that my mechanical cameras will never experience, in fact, just the opposite as they get more and more rare. Assuming you bought a new digital camera every 3 years, you would be down $1500 by the time you are on year 8, $2500 on year 15. The gap will narrow.

Don’t get me wrong though. I will still buy those depreciating digital camera just like I will still drive a car. All I want to show is that shooting with film is not as expensive as you might think. The experience is more visceral and you learn a lot in the process. One should not be intimidated by the price tag of a roll of film. Don’t forget the results! I have noticed a significant jump in keep ratio with my film photos. I would say I am keeping 1 out of 4 instead of the 1 out of 20 that I usually get with my digital setup. As my karate instructor says:

“Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

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