Three tired tropes of analog photography

Three questions regarding film photography bear some quick study and quick disposition.

Is the cost of film actually significant?

Everybody likes to complain about the cost of film. Every time prices make their annual 10% uptick (or as McKinsey types like to say, “uplift”), people complain that this will spell the end of their film use.

Yet they are still around to complain about it the next year.

You might find yourself chasing film that is a dollar less a roll. Today, TMY 135 (well, now 135TMY-2) costs 7.50 a roll for 18 rolls if commercially loaded — or $109 for enough raw film to load 18 cartridges (variable cost 6.05, plus 80 cents roll fixed cost for the first 18 cassettes you do (this is a function of their service life, which is 3 loadings). It is not entirely clear what bulk-loading gets you here – an opportunity for scratched film, the chance to expose a bulk roll while getting into the loader, losing consecutive frame numbers, and ending up with a cassette that is either missing DX codes or pops apart if you drop it. One thing it does not get you is an actual cost advantage, especially after you spend an hour or two cleaning and loading the cassettes for each 100 foot bulk roll.

But, yes, Kodak and now Ilford price bulk film high. So take it down a notch. Say you buy Ultrafine Xtreme (I’ll predict that when/if it comes back in 400, it will be $59 a roll). There, your variable costs drop to $3.33 a roll, for a total cost of $4.13. This is cheaper in dollars, no doubt, to the tune of $67 per 18 rolls of film.

That seems like a lot unless and until you start thinking about the rest of the process. Even if you priced your own labor at the aspirational minimum wage of $15, a day of shooting (call it four rolls of film – which would be optimistic for serious, non-pro photography) would incur:

  • Eight hours of taking pictures ($120)
  • Four rolls of film ($13.32)
  • Chemicals for processing (call it $4)
  • Two hours of processing the negatives ($30)

So in this calculation, which I think you’d agree is a best case, the choice between TMY commercially loaded and Ultrafine Xtreme is $16.68 out of $167.32, or roughly 10%. That assumes you get at least 3 uses from bulk cassettes and does not factor in the cost of a bulk-loader. Actually, it doesn’t factor in the 10 minutes it would take to bulk load the 4 rolls of film. But you get the picture. And if your day of sightseeing only yields one roll of film, you’ve saved maybe 2%.

Let’s move on to the bargain category where film is “almost as good.” Yes, Ultrafine is cheaper, but yes, you have to use more filtration on blue skies, which means that it is not quite as fast for landscape work. On some more primitive cameras, the sprockets sometimes rip out if you overstuff a film cassette. Even as a frequent Ultrafine user, I would comment that TMY is more than 10% better than Ultrafine, quantified however you want: true speed, negative toughness, ability to be pushed, sharpness, or fine grain.

Bulk loading is not the only place people seem to spin off into attempts at cost-savings. There seems to be a lot of pursuit of developing-world-quality film because it’s cheap. It’s great that [fictitious] Nemopan Stasi-Special Ortho 25 is back on the market, but remember, there was a reason Nemopan went out of business. It wasn’t just our hypothetical Nemopan that went out of business. A lot of top-quality companies like Agfa and Fuji also departed film manufacturing, leaving only two clear survivors. Oh yes, two survivors and a bunch of zombified brands trying to revive their glory days selling into command economies.

Is film at all helpful for risk management?

Get too close to APUG (whoops, Photrio), and you’ll get schooled about how digital is so much less archival than film. Just think, if there is that nuclear war, you can still see 35mm transparencies or prints (assuming, of course, they were not incinerated along with their owners). Or if for some reason every one of the ten hard drives you keep as backups failed to work. I would posit that if there were an event that wiped out all electronic devices, looking at vintage photos of any type would be a sixth-tier priority.

The archival superiority of film may or may not be true (having seen my share of faded film from the 1980s – I can’t say that it is), but what is definitely true is that film photography is risky. Every single thing in the film imaging chain involves a risk.

  • You could fat-finger your bulk loading.
  • You could drop a reloadable metal cassette and have the ends pop off.
  • You could get mishandled, spooled down bulk film.
  • You could absentmindedly open the camera midway through a roll of film.
  • Your subject could blink.
  • You could blow the exposure.
  • You could shoot an entire roll at the wrong speed.
  • You could set the wrong ISO on the meter.
  • You could blow it in development. Or your lab could.
  • You could ruin wet negatives.
  • You could even get defective factory-loaded film.

These things have small but real probabilities, and the terrifying range of ways things can go wrong continues to broaden with the passage of time. Everyone who has shot film over more than a couple of years has had at least one of these things happen. By comparison, a much smaller number of people has experienced an SD card failure.

A failure with film – because it stores a latent image until developed later – generally means the loss of a lot of time and often situations that cannot be repeated. It could be a foreign vacation. It could be a client job. It could be your young family. Time only marches in a forward direction, and subjects don’t like to redo whole projects.

Risk is part of life. Risk is definitely part of film photography. That’s fine. We all know that. But there is little that advocates for compounding risks by doing important things with untested cameras, with sketchy old film, etc.

Is film cheaper than digital?

I will confess to having been in the past a big proponent of the argument that film is cheaper than digital. That was true, seventeen years ago, when a 35mm negative could deliver a 24mp (4000dpi) scan and digital cameras like a D2x cost $4,500, cropped lenses to 1.5x and got to 12.4mp. The math went something like this: a digital camera is super-expensive, and processing regular pictures is y dollars a roll. All of that was true if your film camera was a sunk cost, and yes, in 2004 costs, it would take a lot of $3 film plus $12 processing to hit $4,500 (so 300 rolls of film, more than most people who shoot in their entire life).

But as Gen-X Luke Skywalker would say, every single word I just said is wrong (today).

First, in 2021, the idea of “film” as distinct from “digital” is specious. Since the early 2000s, almost every commercial output from color film has been digital. Minilabs have not used optical printing for decades now. Every negative gets scanned to become a print, even ones destined for chemical photo paper. Likewise, the home audience has to convert negatives or transparencies to digital to make them visible to any stranger other than magazine readers, gallery visitors, or slide-show watchers. Actually, getting into a print publication or a gallery almost always requires digitization for submission or curation.

Second, the sunk-cost equation has reversed. The “film is cheaper” argument was last effectively made before 2008, when camera phones started to stand in for point-and-shoot cameras. Today, a camera phone takes better pictures than any Canonet ever did, and those pictures are immediately ready for use on the internet. And nearly everyone in the developed world owns one. The “demise of digital,” as some would trumpet, is really more about the disappearance of lower-end digital cameras as separate appliances. If every phone is a digital camera, production is actually up year after year after year. In this context, entering film photography is the extra-cost exercise, usually starting with a film camera that — due to the magic of attrition — has become really expensive.

Finally, the price-to-performance equation firmly favors digital over 35mm. Labs don’t give away full-resolution scans with photo processing. That means you end up doing it yourself. A high-end 35mm film scanner pulls 4000dpi, or let’s call it 24 megapixels. If it’s a Nikon, you actually get almost that much useful information. A good film scanner costs about $2,000. To that, you can add from 4-8 dollars a roll for film and about an hour of scanning time per roll. A 24mp camera will set you back $400-1,000 these days, no extra cost. Want 42mp – which exceeds what anyone without a Flextight or drum scanner can do? How about $1,300?

You just can’t make the argument that film is “cheaper” with a straight face anymore. Fun, relaxing, and a change of pace – but not economical.

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One response to “Three tired tropes of analog photography”

  1. Howard Sandler says :

    I love film photography, but what you write is all correct. I would even go further and say that I don’t find any film look that I can’t replicate or improve on with digital, although I gave up comparing after a couple of years. I have been a film enthusiast (all formats) since 2010, shot and developed and printed film since the 1970s, and shot digital for money since 2004. I don’t go for the lo-fi Holga look with flaws. I consider light leaks, soft focus, excessive grain and dust spots flaws and try to minimize them. Yes, scanned 4×5 will exceed the resolution I get with the high end digital cameras, but I almost never print larger than 16×20 and if I do, I don’t view the print from close enough to see the difference. I can only conclude that I shoot film because I like the process and I like handling the cameras.

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