Cost of digital vs film

Very often when I’m out and about shooting with my film cameras, passers by of all ages will come up to me and ask about my cameras. I’m always happy to talk about them and those that ask are always fascinated by the gear I’m using – especially by my large format of panoramic cameras. Occasionally, I get the knowalls with the kit bag, tripod and DSLRs sneak up behind me and hang around to watch what I’m doing before plucking up the courage to come and tell me that “film is dead” and “digital is free”.  My usual (tongue in cheek) retort is that if I had a pound for every photographer that said that, I’d be able to afford an expensive digital camera like they have hanging round their necks.

Whilst the majority see the funny side of my retort, the fact remains that film isn’t dead and digital isn’t free – far from it in fact. You see, I shoot digital too and my receipts over the past 10 years show a completely different story. Digital is eyewateringly more expensive than shooting film, and here’s why…

There are some daft posts online and claims made by some websites that the cost of film is going through the roof and it’s much more costly than digital photography, but these untruths have been busted many times by many others as well as myself.

On the contrary, it’s vert easy to disprove the “digital is free” myth and I can back this up with my own experience. I shoot several film cameras consisting of; three 35mm film cameras, 3 medium format cameras (2 Hasselblads and a Bronica ETRSi), a panoramic camera and two large format cameras. Each of these cameras I have owned for between 10-30 years so they have more than paid for themselves. None of them need any batteries, if they get wet they dry out and keep working and they all produce outstanding results.

My only cost now is developing and printing my film.

Contrary to some reports, film can be bought very cheaply. You can pick up colour film for £1 a roll in many stores or you can buy expired film from the auction site. Fresh film can be had for between £3-5 a roll and if you buy in bulk you can get the cost down further. Plenty people are still selling cheap film online too.

Developing film, it has to be said is expensive  if you send it to a lab, but it’s the the labs are ripping photographers off. Colour development is the most tricky to do, but it’s nowhere near as difficult as some would have you believe. Developing colour slide and print film is s standardised process using c41 and e6 chemicals, and you don’t need any fancy equipment. I got by for years using the kitchen sink, a theremometer and a plastic tank and my results were the equal of any lab. For processing black and white, nobody in their right ever sent their film off to a lab because you never knew what chemicals they would use. B&W development is ridiculously easy to do in terms of the actuall process and temperature is kept at 20C. Granted, there are a million and one ways to develop B&W film, but that’s not a disadvantage, that’s all part of the fun.

Film is obvioulsy a consumable and requires additional consumables in the form of chemicals but it’s still very cheap to do.

Lets take the example of my cost of owning a digital 35mm camera vs my 35mm film camera on a cost per photo basis.

35mm film roll of colur negative film = £1
5 litre kit of c41 chemicals (develops 110 films) – £40
£40 / 110 rolls of film = £0.36 per roll or £0.01 per photo

This is how much it costs me because my cameras are long bought and paid for. I don’t need to print these out in the darkroom because I can scan them and either upload them to the internet or print them out on my inkjet.

If you were a novice looking to set this up, then the costs are still minimal. Presuming you have a computer, then this is all you need below.

Inital setup – devloper tank and reel – £5
Theremometer – £5
Scanner – £39
Total – £49

But what of the costs of digital cameras? Well, in the 10+ years or so that I’ve been shooting digital it is as follows.

6x DSLRs at between £2-3000. These have either been upgraded, wore out or developed electronic faults. Electronic goods, no matter how expensive or water proof are not built to withstand certain conditions or last as long as any film camera. Take the shutters for example. The average lifetime of a digital camera’s shutter is around 100,000 shots. (The same can be said of a film camera.)

Let’s compare my Hasselblad 500cm with my Canon 5d Mark 2. for example. My Hasselblad is 20 years old, been serviced twiceand still works like  Swiss watch. My Canon 5D Mark 2 wore out after 3 years.

You see, digital camera users are prone to taking hundreds of shots on each and every outing. In fact it is not uncommon for many photographers to take 500 shots on an outing. Compare this then to a film shooter who may take on average 10-12 shots. If the shutters have the same life expectancy, then it is easy to see why a digital camera may fail after 3-4 years when a film camera will fail after 50-years. Some film cameras last even longer such as my Linhof – it’s a camera I own that was made in 1926, and it’s still going strong. As for the quality – well, let’s just say it’s equivalent in resolution to something like 200mp at 4000dpi scan. Compare that to a Phase One IQ80 which costs around £60 grand it puts it into perspective.

Lenses at £500-2500 each, but lenses should last a lifetime. It’s when there is electronics such as autofocus when the lifetime of the lens is less. More electronics and moving parts means more things to fail and more expensive to repair.

Computer costs are obviously expensive and an average laptop needs to be replaced every 3 years. Hard drives need replaced, software needs upgraded etc. Consumables are required in the form of batteries, memory cards etc.

Consider then the following example of a DSLR and the cost per photo.

DSLR – £2000
Lens – £1000
Batteries – 2x £90
Memory cards – 5 x £30
Computer – £1000
Software – £500
Total setup – £4830

Now, let’s say we can capture 100,000 photos using the above.

£4830 /100000 = £0.05 per image

But…the equipment lasts on average 3 years, which in my case is 1/10th the time I’ve owned my 35mm film camera. So, for my digital equipment to last as long as my film equipment which is 30 years, my digital expense then becomes 10 times more, which is:

£0.05 x 10 = £0.50 per photo

This means that my digital cameras and equipment are 50x more expensive per photo than my colour film photos.

Still think digital is free?

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