Economies of Film
After seeing some online discussions about the price of film rising I thought I’d revisit and follow up on a piece of writing I previously wrote about darkroom prints, and how I go about working out my cost basis in order to price them appropriately.
Unlike that article, the cost of film itself is just that – an expense. Prints are a cost with the back end possibility of a sale, which means a cost breakdown is actually part of a calculation for pricing them. You can factor in the cost of your physical film to the eventual print, or charge a markup if working with a client who has asked you to work with film, but for most people I think film will not be a factor you are making much money back on. That is why finding a way to keep that cost as low as possible makes the most sense for the long term approach to working with the medium. Finding ways to save even 50p per roll works out to hundreds of pounds across long term consistent work.
I think that the idea film was ever cheap is a bit of an illusion, or selective memory. By the time poundland Agfa films were an option development costs had increased to balance out the back end. And even when development was factored into the cost a roll itself could be up to £30/£40. I read an anecdote on a film photography forum of one person who saved for months in order to buy three rolls of Fujifilm Velvia at roughly £38 each (as far as I remember) for a once in a lifetime trip some time in the 1970’s/80’s. When you look at price lists from the 1980’s and adjust for inflation you’ll find that compared with today many rolls are still cheaper than they once were, even taking into account those recent price hikes. Of course, just because overall prices aren’t much more than they’ve been historically the recent context of film being one price and changing to another affects people today. Many film photographers today weren’t around for those historically cheap prices, and we don’t tend to measure specific spending habits across history, only across our own experience.
Professionals photographing on film will charge for the film as an expense, passing that cost along to the client as a bare minimum, and adding a percentage markup for profit on top if they want to. If your photography isn’t paying for itself then it makes sense to treat it as more of a hobby, even if you take it very seriously.
The first consideration with the cost of film photography is the nature of an upfront payment for digital imagery vs an ongoing consumption of film. A running cost can seem like you are spending more, but it may work out as less over time depending on what your ideal digital alternative is. I have a few Nikon SLRs for use in “rough” situations, or occasions where I want a long telephoto, 180mm+. None of these SLRs cost me more than £300; compare this to a secondhand full frame Nikon Digital body which will be around £500-£600 minimum, or a secondhand Nikon Mirrorless, which will be upwards of £1000 (at current prices). This doesn’t take into account lenses, but because early Nikon lenses can be used on F mound DSLRs and adapted onto mirrorless I think they are less important to the discussion on the cost of film, as they hold their value across mediums.
If I am able to use my film SLR in place of a DSLR or Mirrorless camera, then that is a saving of either £300ish, or £1000+ish, which can be easily justified to spend on film to load into that camera. Comparing this with a brand like Leica, and there is still a difference of a few thousand pounds between a secondhand film M and a secondhand digital M. It makes even more sense to work with a film Leica when you assign that “saved” cost of digital to film expenses, a thousand pounds worth of film ought to last the average shooter quite some time!
Once you have made a decision based on whether the upfront cost of gear is worth the longer term savings and allocation of residuals to film, and once you’ve worked with that film and decided to stay with the medium for the long term, the next factors will be about reducing that long haul cost by as much as possible. When you know what kind of work you want to be making bulk purchases make more sense because you can tailor them to your specific needs rather than buying a variety and ending up with inconsistent results. Experiment, but use that experimentation to focus on the results so that you can replicate those in the work when it counts.
Starting to develop your own film will cut down drastically in the expense of third party film labs. I have not used these for anything besides slide film in the last few years, and understand that the price for development of a black and white roll can be around £4+, colour £5+ and slide £8+/roll. This doesn’t factor in scanning, which can more than double those numbers depending on what kind of resolution you are after.
As with the camera there will be an up front cost for developing and scanning equipment, but this pays for itself surprisingly quickly when you balance it against lab costs. For a black and white roll developing and scanning at the lab I use, with standard 8bit jpg deliverables, the cost would be £11.99/roll at time of writing. At this price my basic Paterson development kit and my Plustek 8100 scanner would pay for themselves after only 25 rolls, which is about a months worth of photography for me. If you shoot slower than that then it will be a little longer to absorb those third party lab expense, but after that there isn’t really an ongoing cost outside of electricity for the scanner and chemistry for the development.
Owning a scanner has the added benefit of tailoring your output, as an 8bit jpg would not be enough for me to work with in my publications. For the resolution I am actually scanning in I would be paying around £10/roll for the scans alone!
My development method is something I am constantly tweaking, and have written about in detail here. This semi stand method works well with Rodinal or Ilfotec HC (as seen in Sagar Kharecha’s superb results), and allows your chemistry to last much longer than a standard timing process. I worked out that 33ml of rodinal costs £1, and I use just under 10ml for my usual two reel tank box speed semi-stand development. I use a two bath fix method, which prolongs their life, and I have managed to work with the same diluted litre across the fixing of around 30 rolls before I decide it needs to be replenished. I use a cold water rinse instead of a stop bath, which eliminates the cost of those chemicals altogether.
All considered, every roll I develop costs me roughly 50p.
This leaves the film itself as the major long term expense, and until last year my solution was to buy in large bulk whenever I found a cheap option, and to try and barter for better offers considering the large purchasing size. However even at those discounts my current solution has erased about half of that expense, leaving me at a cost of between £2-£4/roll, and sometimes even less than that when I can find a bargain. At this cost, if I shoot two rolls a day I’m spending the same as a twenty a day smoker on a much healthier habit.
My current solution is bulk rolling, hardly an innovation but the most effective cost-cutting measure for film photography I have been able to identify. There are plenty of bulk loading devices available cheap, and they are less daunting to use than they seem. My initial worry was accidental exposure of a full 30.5m length of film, but so far this has not happened, and take only minimal precautions to avoid.
Taking into account all of these different adjustments at each stage of my film process I calculated what it would cost for me to use film for the next fifty years. My average over the last five years of heavy shooting is 200 rolls per year – so for my calculations here let’s be generous and say my average may increase, and allocate 250 rolls per year. That’s 9000 frames, and hopefully one or two half decent photographs! 250 rolls at a bulk loading rate work out to about £750/year. Add to this the upkeep cost, and a CLA/service/repair for my gear once every few years, and it works out at around £40,000 total to continue working the way I work.
That’s not a small amount by any means, that is a deep expense if it were to be paid upfront. For that money you could buy a new Sony Mirrorless flagship camera and lens line-up and have change left over. But how many of us expect to be using a Mirrorless camera bought today fifty years from now? Even if we keep the same lenses across that time it would only take an upgrade every five years or so to eclipse that fifty year film upfront cost estimate. Considering the way professional photographers seem to upgrade their gear at least every other cycle of new releases it doesn’t take long for that film price to seem very reasonable. Even more-so when compared to some luxury digital camera systems which can cost more than that just as a one off purchase.
I think for the average photographer, not shooting professionally, if you think you’ll replace your digital camera more than a handful of times over the next fifty years it would work out cheaper to switch over to film.
For further perspective beyond inflationary and supply chain explanations behind rising costs of film look to the nature of the market itself. Film has surged in popularity, with film camera prices more than doubling in the last few years. I don’t see as many complaints about the rising cost of film cameras, because for those who already own one the value of their investment is going up, even though for newcomers it feels the same as it does for film photographers needing to spend more in film, rather than feeling that the two balance one another out. The value of a film camera and the value of film are directly related – if film truly ever dies then every film camera will instantly become a shelf piece, with no practical function. Lenses maintain their value because they can be adapted to mirrorless cameras, but the film cameras themselves have little to no value without film.
Higher demand for film cameras correlates to higher demand for film – without the realistic capability to increase supply to match that demand. On top of the price of materials, which includes silver, there are factory maintenance/running costs which will increase if production is intensified. The high level of quality control required to produce a product where reliability is essential is an extreme thing that would need to rise alongside any increased manufacturing.
Where you are in relation to manufacturers will also make a difference. Some places around the world are paying the price of the film+transportation+import/export+seller markup, which can all add up to numbers which look ridiculous to anyone living in the same country as where film is produced. I am able to order directly from Ilford, and would suggest if you are able to source directly from the manufacturer to support them directly. Retail shops and scalpers (not saying these two are the same!) will buy in bulk, and then are able to set their own prices. With slow production at times it seems like some stores have a monopoly on all of an available stock at one time!
Recent film shortages actually coincided quite closely with a microchip shortage – but within photography discourse film availability felt far more pressing than microchips, even though the microchip shortage was affecting far more than just photography/cameras. Both are systematic relating to geopolitical events, and there is crossover in the factors behind them, but the way that those situations translate into our experience and opinion of them has a lot of emotion shadowing the nuance.
Of course this is an analysis based on numbers alone, and there is more to consumer decision making than expense. For some digital is what makes sense and fits to their lifestyle and work style and thats absolutely fine; I’m not in a position to tell anyone how they should be doing their photography. The price of something isn’t the same as its value/worth – that can only be determined by the person willing to spend the money. Having said that, if you have already decided to work with film but have only taken initial steps, and are now feeling the sting of increasing costs I would encourage you to consider adding some of those elements I mentioned above – self development, scanning, maybe bulk loading if you photograph a lot. Film really lends itself to an all encompassing, holistic approach, where you are involved at every stage. If your experience of film is loading and unloading it from your camera, with everything else handled by a third party lab then are you really getting the most from that experience? Is that what you want your film experience to be?
Adopting these other practices will not only lower your cost basis for working with film, it will enhance the experience in so many ways. Decide what you want from photography, what it means to you and how involved you want to be at each step, and the answer will emerge from that, even if it’s not the one you were hoping for. It will be different for everyone, but I think if you find any reason at all to be working with film you should embrace it, and take it as far as you can.
My “experience” of film includes loading the roll, exposing it, developing, and then printing and scanning as appropriate. I’m present in every step with a chain of custody and responsibility over my work. I make physical and chemical decisions on the treatment of each roll in the developing tank. I tailor my choice of emulsion to the story I find myself telling. The physical negatives offer unrivalled proof in a digital age, and the physicality throughout lends itself towards an inclination for a physical result: books, zines, prints.
My reason for writing this article, not unlike the one I wrote about pricing prints, is about perspective. The frustration I’m seeing in discourse about price increases in film is a reflection of a much tougher economic situation, with cost of living crisis, recession, and the increasing difficulty amidst this to fund even a cheap hobby. Watching the price of something as essential and simple as a roll of film creep up is absolutely a kick to many people who are already down. Forming opinions on these short term movements can miss the longer term, leading to reflexive reactions without taking into account other context. Inflation will drive all prices upwards, not just for chemicals and silver used in film but electronic chips and the cameras they end up in. I think making a long term decision for your process should include that long term context.
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