The war cry from film shooters is that film is expensive. Some even say it is more expensive than digital. We investigate to find out if this is true.
TGIFriday: Shooting film is very expensive! Or is it really?
Today, almost all photographs are taken with digital cameras. These can be of varying cost and quality, ranging from the camera in your smart phone (which take excellent photographs), to digital cameras – single lens mirrorless cameras in either full frame or medium format.
But increasingly, many younger photographers are taking up film as a medium. Many are just tired of the digital world we live in, and are attracted by the slower, analogue world which film photography offers. And also, rather than an image that exist as a file of numbers, there is a tactile, physical film of the images captured.
Cost of the gear
Let us start our investigation by looking at the cost of acquiring the gear for photography.
Cost of a digital camera can vary. We have covered this subject from several angles. Here is a summary of our recommendation –
- Full Frame digital camera Sony A7 RV: Sony A7R V ILCE-7RM5 body only priced at SGD 5,749. The 24-70 zoom, SEL2470GM2 is priced at SGD 3,028 and the 90mm Macro prime SEL90M28G is priced at SGD 1,614. 2 pieces of Scandisc 256GB Extreme PRO SDXC UHS-II Memory Card SGD 304. Total of SGD 10,695.
- Medium format digital camera Fujifilm GFX 50S II: GFX 50S II body retails for SGD 5,999 with the GF GF32-64mm f/4.0 R LM WR at SGD 3,639. GF 120mm f/4 Macro R LM OIS WR SGD 4,199. WCEX 45 + WCEX 18 extension tubes SGD 536 x 2 SGD 1,072. 2 pieces of Scandisc 256GB Extreme PRO SDXC UHS-II Memory Card SGD 304. For such a heavy camera, you will need a tripod: Gitzo GT2545T Series 2 Traveler Kit SGD 1,138. Total of SGD 16,351.
Large format digital backs which mount on large format cameras exist, these have not been commercially available for quite a long time. Earlier attempts at 4×5 large scanning sensors are by the likes of BetterLight. These are excellent backs, but work on a scanning principle, and not suitable when there is any motion of the subject. Also these are currently no longer in production, though the company still exists and is still able to maintain the backs. These backs use outdated technology like SCSI output interfaces, and it is increasingly difficult to find computers which support these devices. Back in the day, the BetterLight Super 10K-HS had a retail price of USD 23k, and still considerably less expensive than a Phase One IQ4 150 digital back today (retail about SGD 65k).
Could we have bought second hand digital cameras? Well, perhaps. But digital camera technology is advancing at such a pace, that anything more than 2 years old is already obsolete. But will they still be able to take good photographs? The answer is yes. But as electronics go, the design lifespan of most of modern digital cameras is conservatively about 5 years, when components will start to experience a high failure rate.
We cannot really buy film new film cameras anymore. Though Leica offers three variants of the M film cameras, viz the M6, MP and M-A. These film cameras are rangefinders and not suitable for our use case of a mix of general purpose photography plus watch photography. There is talk by Pentax who has announced that they are putting up a project to produce a new 35mm film single lens camera, but we probably will not see an actual commercial release for a few more years. In the large format arena, there are still several manufacturers of film cameras, as this genre has no digital competition.
The used market is quite difficult to navigate, and prices vary significantly depending on the condition, as these cameras are often several decades old. However, unlike digital cameras, the film cameras can be fully mechanical. And these are the ones which we have selected. They are fully mechanical (yes! like mechanical watches!) and like mechanical watches, have an indefinite lifespan. Quite unlike their digital counterparts, which are tech products.
We pick three which we are familiar with:
- Full frame film camera Nikon F2A: Approx USD 500 for a minty body. I have an even less expensive Nikkormat FT2 in my collection which is still used regularly. This is a fully mechanical film camera body. Add a multi-purpose zoom lens – the Nikkor 35-70 mm f/3.5 is about USD 90 for a mint condition. And for watch closeups, the Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 about USD 250. In my 35mm setup, I have a Nikkor 50mm f/2.8 and a Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 Macro lens. Total USD 840 / SGD 1,150.
- Medium format film camera Mamiya RB67 ProSD: Approximately USD 600 with the Sekor C 90mm F3.8 standard lens. The RB67 is a large studio type SLR, and is fully mechanical. Mamiya Sekor Macro C 140mm f/4.5 about USD 150, and will need a set of extension tubes. The RB67 Auto Extension Tube Ring No.1 45mm No2. 82mm Set costs about USD 70. Total 820. Mamiya RB zooms are very large and heavy, and not recommended for general use. For such a heavy camera, you will need a tripod: Gitzo GT2545T Series 2 Traveler Kit SGD 1,138 new. Total SGD 1,958. In my medium format setup, I have the Mamiya RB67 ProSD with Sekor C 50mm f/3.5 wide angle lens and the Sekor C 140mm f/4.5 Macro lens with no extension tubes…yet.
- Large format film monorail camera Sinar P2 4×5: Approximately USD 800. I have the Sinar X which is primarily a P2 with some minor operational differences. Nikkor W 180mm f/5.6 standard lens, about USD 300, Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5 wide angle lens, approx USD 400. I also own both of these lenses. Gitzo GT3533LS tripod SGD 1,417. Luland 3D large format head USD 368. I have an older Gitzo 3541 carbon fibre tripod with a Photoclam Cube 3D head. 5 pieces Fidelity Elite 4×5 film holder SGD 90. Total SGD 3,375.
For film cameras, in addition to the gear listed above, we also recommend a film changing bag SGD 25 from Etone. This is not an essential item for 135 and 120 for film loading, but essential for DIY development (all formats) and for large format loading and development. Also, for the large format system a dark focussing cloth like the one from Etone for SGD 50 is also required. We also recommended a film storage filing ring binder, costing about SGD 35 with acid free storage sleeves retailing at SGD 50 for a pack of 50 sheets. Each sheet hold either 1 roll of 135 or 120 or 4 sheets of 4×5.
While a tripod is recommended for all the camera systems, both digital and film, it is an absolute essential piece of gear for medium format and large format film cameras. In the digital arena, modern digital cameras like the Sony and the Fujifilm GFX 50S II feature an InBodyImageStabilisation (IBIS) system, which allows us to get away without a tripod for almost all use cases. For the Large format camera, due to the weight of the camera, the tripod is not only required, but also larger.
Cost of film
Current costs of film is rising very fast, with the two giants Kodak and Fujifilm revising prices almost quarterly, and others like Ilford and the like also following suit. However, many films are still available in many formats and formulations. Each formulation may have completely different characteristics from the other, and film photographers either tend to stick to one or two film stock for consistency, or continuously experiment with different film stock. To simplify our comparison, we focus on one B&W film stock and one Colour film stock. For now, we leave out E6 Colour Reversal (slide) film and other more exotic stocks like x-ray films.
Black and White film: Ilford HP5+ is one of the standards in the business. It currently retails for SGD 85 for a 5 roll pack in 135 format, SGD 84 in a 5 roll pack in 120 rollfilm medium format and SGD 138 for a box of 25 sheets in 4×5 large format. This works out to about SGD 17 a roll of either 135 or 120, and SGD 5.50 for a sheet of 4×5. My go to for BW is the HP5+ for 135 and 120 and for 4×5 format, I use the cheaper Shanghai GP3, which retails for about SGD60 for a box of 25.
Colour film is rather more limited, and currently only available from Kodak. Kodak Portra 400 retails for SGD 123 and SGD 105 for a 5 pack roll in 135 format and 120 rollfilm medium format respectively. A 10 sheet box of 4×5 Portra 400 retails for a SGD 148. This works out to SGD 25 for a roll of 135, SGD 21 for a roll of 120 and SGD 14.80 for a single sheet of 4×5. I typically shoot either Cinestill 800, Kodak Gold or Portra for 135 and 120 format. For 4×5 colour work, I prefer the Fujichrome Provia, which is an E6 Colour Reversal film.
Develop and scan by the lab
The local lab that I use is Analogue Film Lab, who charges a flat rate of SGD 12 a roll/a sheet of film regardless of stock, and another SGD 18 for a scan. So for each roll of 135 or 120 or each sheet of 4×5, this comes to SGD 30.
DIY development and scan
For my own personal experience, I prefer to develop my own black and white film. Self developing BW works out to rather considerable savings. BW chemicals have very long shelf lives and small amounts can be mixed up into working solutions.
Colour and slide film DIY development is possible at home, but is much more complex, requiring multiple chemicals and precise temperature control and a well ventilated room due to poisonous fumes. Also, the chemicals have short shelf lives and minimum purchase volumes tend to be so large that it is not practical to use up all the chemicals on an amateur shoot volume.
To self develop, we need the following:
- Daylight developing tank: For 35mm and 120, I recommend a Patterson tank SGD 54. For 4×5 sheet film, I recommend the Stearman Press ST-445 USD 96 (SGD 130). I own and use both of these daylight tanks.
- Developer. Many developers are possible, ranging from commercial formulations to DIY chemicals. I use Ilford Ilfotech HC which costs SGD 130 for 1 liter. At the 1+15 one use dilution, this makes 16 litres of working solution. To develop 1 batch of film, we need 500ml of working solution. Each batch is 5 rolls of either 135/120 film. Each roll of 135/120 is equivalent to 4 sheets of 4×5, as the actual film surface area are almost the same (about 1 sheet of A4). This works out to SGD 0.81 per roll / per 4 sheets.
- I use just water as the stop bath.
- We need a fixer. I use the Ilford Rapid Fixer. SGD 80 for 1 liter. At 1+9 dilution, this makes 10 liters. Fixers can be used for as many batches as needed. It is expired by time, for my purposes, I use one mix of 500ml for one batch, so this works out to a total of 20 batches. Or about SGD 0.80 per roll / per 4 sheets.
So for a roll of 135 or 120 film, the cost of development is SGD 1.61. And for a sheet of 4×5, this is about SGD 0.40. Quite economical compared to a commercial lab at SGD 12 a roll or a sheet.
Scanning is done by an Epson V770 Scanner which is about USD 400 (SGD 550) used for a mint condition set. It has a usable lifespan of 10 years. I use my DSLR for scanning (tutorial soon!).
The mathematics of economy
Comparing formats like to like, we have the following acquisition costs:
- Full Frame. Digital is SGD 9,545 more expensive than 35mm film camera system.
- Medium Format. Digital is SGD 14,393 more expensive than medium format film camera system.
- Digital medium format is still SGD 13,156 more expensive than a large format film camera system.
We assume that in the digital world, there is zero incremental cost per photograph taken. In the film world, the incremental cost for each photograph taken is sum of the cost of film, development and scanning. We can derive the following:
- The price differential of about SGD 9.5k can contribute to about 202 rolls of BW, 172 rolls of colour in the full frame format. For an average amateur photographer, shooting 2 rolls a month, this is will last anything from 7 years to 8.4 years for digital to break even with film. This is typically less than the lifespan of a digital camera, which lasts approximately 5 years before being obsolete.
- This same differential of about SGD 14.4k in medium format can pay for about 306 rolls of BW, 282 rolls of colour film. Keeping to an average of 2 rolls a month, this will last anywhere from 11 to 12 years. And even compared to large format the differential of SGD 13k pays for 366 sheets of BW and 266 sheets of colour. It is trivial to calculate that even at 4 sheets a month, which is quite a lot for a large format amateur photographer, that’s 5.5 to 7.6 years.
Thus if we take a 5 year total cost of ownership, we see the following:
- 35mm digital system will cost SGD 10,695 and the film system will cost SGD 4,770 shooting BW and SGD 5,018 for colour. A middle ground is probably the likely case with a mix of colour and BW.
- Medium format digital system will cost SGD 16,351 vs the film system at SGD 4,779 in BW and SGD 5,018 for colour.
- And for the large format 4×5 shooter, the 5 year TCO is SGD 5,505 in BW and SGD 6,303 in colour.
- If we do this over a 10 year ownership period, the film camera gear becomes a one time sunken cost, but digital camera systems, especially the body will need at least one renewal.
For the film system, we can add SGD 550 for a scanner. As we are buying it used, we can consider half of the scanner’s 10 year lifespan is already spent when we bought it. The remaining 5 year lifespan is enough for the 5 year TCO analysis.
So there you have it. Film shooters, don’t whine. Yes, the price of film has risen considerably over the years, and continue to rise at an alarming rate. As is the cost of developing and scanning film. But considered over a 5 year total cost of ownership, shooting film, especially for the amateur photographer is still much less expensive than going digital. The scenario quickly turns around for the professional photographer. Not only does he shoot much more, often by a factor of 10X, but the turnaround time for digital work is much shorter to meet the competitive demands of today’s modern world.
Do you shoot film? If you do, please tell us what gear you use, and how many rolls, sheets of film you shoot a month or a year.