There are many reasons to shoot digital. There are many reasons to shoot film, too – beyond the simple ‘I want to’. Though I find that for color work, digital is significantly better than film due to the level of control and accuracy it produces, film remains my medium of choice for monochrome work. The reason has to do with nonlinearity of tonal response, especially in the highlights – film never quite seems to clip under almost all circumstances, and this jives with the way our eyes see the world very nicely indeed. But there are typically two things that stop people from trying film: workflow, and perceived cost.
If your intended final output is digital, then it makes sense to adopt as digital a workflow as possible; if it’s optical prints, then film still makes sense. However, for a given number of keepers – you might well find that film is just as fast; I certainly do. The challenge usually lies in the developing and digitisation processes – in many parts of the world, it’s difficult to find any labs at all that handle E6 and black and white films; let alone good ones. And let’s not even talk about ones that can accommodate requests like pushing and pulling. It’s generally possible to obtain scans – albeit not very good ones – together with the development; resolution tends to be very limited. In fact, the digital files are a byproduct of the printing process – most modern mini lab machines make digital prints, not optical ones. A professional drum scan will be both time consuming and very expensive, but will yield much better output resolution.
I suspect one of the big attractions of digital for most people was not so much the immediacy as the convenience; after all, we had Polaroids years earlier, and they never really supplanted negative or slide films. The digital age brought about the ability to handle all stages of the process independently, from capture to processing and output. The rest of this article is going to examine my workflow from capture to keeper image – for both film and digital, taking into account operating costs over the course of a year. Of course, individuals can and likely will differ. I’m going to compare like with like as much as possible, and ignore the fact that larger film formats are required to compete with smaller digital ones for comparable resolution. Lenses therefore do not enter into to equation as we can use the same on both, providing we buy into a diverse system. Similarly, we will be looking at depreciated/ real-world second hand film camera prices as opposed to new, simply because this is the way most people are going to obtain them.
The lifespan of a digital device is realistically limited to 8-10 years with heavy use; I’ve known of cameras that have failed much earlier than that; however, the majority are replaced or mothballed before they become truly unserviceable. Fortunately, now that we have passed the point of sufficiency, the incremental upgrades to each generation of digital are getting fewer and fewer – there are less reasons to upgrade of switch. People will likely keep their digitals longer as a result.
A D600 or D700 body will cost in the US1.5-1.7k region; I’m ignoring the D800E for now because that camera’s resolving power and general image quality really requires us to compare it with medium format film, which would be unfair. However, the D600/700 would deliver image quality on par with or slightly better than the best of the current film emulsions. This body would depreciate by approximately $400-500 over the course of the year; more if it happens to be a year in which a new camera is released. There are no other operating costs apart from that. My keeper rate with digital is around 2-3%; let’s call it 2.5% to make the math easy. It means I have to shoot 40 frames to get one that passes muster without qualification. If I shoot 500 keepers through the cost of the year – which is moderate – the per-keeper cost is therefore 80 cents to a dollar.
Film, on the other hand, tends to give me keeper rates of 50% on a bad day. It can be as high as 80-90%. Even assuming 50%, at a per-roll cost of $5 for black and white, or $15 for color slide – that’s 28 rolls. Both include processing; DIY if it’s B&W, or lab-based if it’s color. If you buy chemical in bulk and do your development in such a way that you process in batches and fully deplete the chemical (i.e. don’t do one roll, and have to throw it out later because it’s oxidized) then it’s even cheaper. You could take that even further still by bulk loading, but not many films are available in long reels anymore. This works out at $140 for black and white film, or $420 for color slide. You’ll notice that’s cheaper. It isn’t because film is better or digital is worse; it’s just that somehow photographing with a single-use medium with a finite number of shots tends to make you think a lot harder before hitting the shutter. And this of course in turn results in better images.
We haven’t taken into account scanning, and if you get this professionally done, can add significantly to the costs – you of course have to scan the whole roll in order to get your keepers out, and that might add another $300-400 to the bottom line. Less if you are prepared to do it yourself with a flatbed, and even less if you are using my scanning rig and a DSLR. Time taken is quite another matter – flatbed scans might take up to 15min per frame.
You’ll notice I haven’t taken into account depreciation on the film body; that’s because it doesn’t really matter what you use. There is little to none in the current photographic climate. You might even find yourself making some money if you decide to resell the camera later; I feel we are at the very bottom of the pricing cycle for film cameras. Some of the more expensive, top of the line gear from recent years is now both very affordable and will still last you far longer than a digital camera. There’s one final cost: buying the DIY developing hardware (tanks, changing bag, storage bottles, thermometer, measuring jug etc.) – that’s actually pretty cheap, and a full set of kit can be had for about $120. You can of course pay more and gain the ability to do multiple rolls simultaneously.
Of course, the precise economics will depend very much on your individual usage patterns; I have of course drastically oversimplified the whole equation. If you shoot significantly more, or have exceptional shot discipline with your digital work, then it may no longer make sense to consider film as an alternative medium – artistic considerations aside, of course. And it’s difficult to ignore the frequently much higher tactile quality and haptics of the flagship film cameras. Personally, I find the whole experience of shooting film to be quite different – and most enjoyable because it provides me with some differentiation from the digitals I use for work. After all – if you’re spending this much time and money on something, it should be fun, right? MT
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