Economies of film cameras

(Updated on 4/18/2018)

Social media is filled with the unquestioned misconception that film photography is prohibitively expensive. You see it stated in recent writings such as Mason Resnick’s “5 reasons why I am never going back to film.” The perception of digital being more economical than film comes from the fact that shooting digital is largely a fixed cost. The initial purchase of a digital camera accounts for a large portion of its lifetime costs, while shooting film requires an ongoing expenditure for film and processing. But if asked, few people could tell you just how expensive it is to shoot film. So, let’s conduct a little thought experiment. Let’s compare the cost of purchasing and shooting two different types of DSLRs, to the cost of getting an equivalent film camera and shooting/developing film in that camera for the typical lifespan of the respective DSLR.

Let’s consider two cases. At the high end, a lightly used Canon 5DS, with a 24-120 mm zoom lens, costs around $4500 ($2750 for the camera body and $1750 for the zoom lens). The average life span of a camera like the Canon 5DS is between eight to ten years. Let’s assume nine. Let’s add in another $700 to cover expendable costs such as an extra memory card or two, an extra battery, and a sensor cleaning every other year. So, at the high end we are looking at roughly $5200 over a period of nine years. At the low end let’s consider a used crop-sensor DSLR such as a Nikon D7100. Such a camera has an average life span of about seven years. The D7100 plus a kit lens, would run you about $700. Add in an extra $500 for an extra battery, an extra memory card or two, and three sensor cleanings over the life span of the camera and shooting the D7100 would run roughly $1200. We will ignore the cost of things like a computer, software like Lightroom, and an inkjet printer, because you might also want these when shooting film.

The Canon 5DS is a pro-level, full frame, DSLR with a resolution of just over 50 Mega-pixels. Let’s compare the Canon against a Mamiya 645AF. The Mamiya 645AF is a medium format, auto-focus film camera, that produces a 645 sized negative which can be scanned at a resolution of over 50 MP. A Mamiya 645AF can be purchased on EBAY or KEH, along with a couple of lenses, for as little as $650. While other medium format cameras can be had for less, the Mamiya 645AF is the closest in function to a pro-level full frame DSLR, and therefore a more direct comparison. Now, what about the expendables. I shoot about 50-60 rolls of medium format film a year. That averages to about one roll a week. Unless you are a professional who has regular shooting jobs, 50 rolls of film (800 shots with the 645) should be more than sufficient for a year’s worth of shooting. Today, in the USA, 120 roll film can be had for between $4 to $9 a roll. Let’s pick the midpoint of $6.50 per roll. Fifty rolls would cost $325, or about 40 cents a shot. What about development? I’m able to process those 50 rolls, if they are B&W film, for less than $100 of chemistry per year. C-41 color development costs more. I send mine out to a lab, which offers a bulk rate of $10.20 per roll when processing five or more rolls. Let’s say I shoot and develop an additional ten rolls of C-41 color film. The color film and processing would then cost around $167. Total expendables for a year of shooting film, costs me under $500. This number reflects my style of shooting, “your mileage may vary.”

Crunching the numbers, I could buy the Mamiya 645AF and shoot film for just over nine years for the cost of the Canon 5DS. Let me repeat that. For the cost of a top of the line full frame DSLR plus normal operating costs, I could buy a medium format auto-focus camera and shoot brand name film for over nine years. If I cut out the rolls of color film, I could extend that to fourteen years of shooting B&W. Shooting a medium format film camera is therefore comparable in cost to shooting a full frame professional level DSRL. While this can be considered extravagant, it is well within the norm of what many digital shooters spend.

Now what about someone who is shooting on a budget. We have already shown that a used Nikon D7100, plus extras, would run you about $1200 for the seven-year, average life span of the camera. Let’s compare that to the cost of shooting B&W film in a 35mm SLR for that same period. A manual SLR with a couple of lenses can be had for under $250. A 100 ft bulk roll of Arista EDU film runs around $50. A 100 ft roll should give you around eighteen 36-exposure rolls, or about 648 shots. Let’s budget a roll and a half in order to get 972 shots. The chemistry to process those 972 shots would again run you around $100. So, the total cost for a budget shooter’s expendables runs around $175/yr. At $175/year for film and processing, you could shoot film for nearly five and a half years for the cost of the D7100. That is roughly 75% of the life span of the D7100.

Both of these examples show that the cost of shooting film CAN BE roughly the same as buying and maintaining an equivalent DSRL. The key assumption is that you will need to do most of your own film processing. If you send your film to a lab, or mostly shoot color, or shoot significantly more than 1000 images a year, the calculation swings solidly in favor of a digital camera.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think everyone should be shooting film. Digital surpasses film in many instances, such as when shooting active subjects, in low/natural lighting conditions, and under circumstances where you must be certain that “you got the shot.” And shooting film requires additional work, such as loading and processing the film. But I shoot film because I enjoy the process and it is complementary to my style of making photographs. I enjoy working in the darkroom and I prefer making silver gelatin prints in a darkroom over spending more time in front of a computer and struggling with an inkjet printer. Cost isn’t really a factor in my decision to shoot film, as long as it is affordable. But that is me, not you. Your needs and preferences are going to be different, and it is up to you to figure them out. Just stop telling me that it’s too expensive to shoot film, because I’ve shown here that for how I like to shoot, it’s about the same cost as shooting digital.

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