The common misconception is that film photography has expensive running costs compared to digital photography. That certainly is true to some extent, but if you pay attention to your choices, analog photography doesn’t have to be nearly as pricey as you’d think. I, for example, haven’t never really experienced film photography to be particularly expensive. It’s certainly much cheaper than some of the other hobbies I’ve had in the past. Oh, and just to be clear — I’m writing this mainly from a 35mm shooter’s perspective.
One of film photography’s weakness if of course the running costs, but many analog shooters tend to agree, that it is actually one of it’s strengths at the same time. In a nutshell, each shot feels more valuable, because it has concrete cost as opposed to digital photography that doesn’t involve such price per frame aspect. But you of course know already all about that stuff. It has been talked about over and over again, so let’s move on to some actual money saving tips. If you’re a seasoned analog shooter, this is not going to be anything new, but if you’re just starting out, I might have some good practical tips for you.
Example of an unnecessarily expensive film shooting experience
I got the idea for this article after shooting four rolls of 35mm colour negative film (36 exp), that were lab processed and scanned. I happened to have a gift voucher for the job so I didn’t actually end up paying anything this time around. But just for the heck of it, I counted just how much those four rolls would have cost me in total, if I would’ve paid full price for the entire experience (including the film, developing and scanning). Here’s what I shot…
- One roll of Kodak Ektar 100 (costs 10€ per roll)
- One roll of Kodak Portra 400 (10€)
- One roll of Kodak Pro Image 100 (6€)
- One roll of Lomo Colour 400 (7€)
That’s 32€ for the films. The development and scanning at my local lab for colour negative is 12€ per roll, so having those films professionally developed and scanned costs 48€. In total the costs for those rolls would be 80€. (+ shipping costs, because I had to mail the films.)
I’m usually too broke to have that kind of money for just few rolls of film and I have the feeling I’m not the only one. Paying that kind of money week-in, week-out, is going to be a financial disaster for any shooter and the common misconception is that, film photography is always that expensive. In my case, it was a rare occasion and I’d never ever have the money to shoot film, if it would have to be that expensive by default. If you’re just starting with film photography, the running costs are probably a big concern for you. I’m here to say, that analog photography doesn’t have to be expensive at all. Many newbies, myself included, will pay way too much in the beginning of their film shooting career, before learning how to do it affordably.
Tip #1 — Don’t waste film — be a picky shooter
I’m very picky with my shots, because I’m usually after an “artistic masterpiece” rather than running around aimlessly with the camera. I’d argue that the certain kind of lomographical mentality can potentially become unnecessarily expensive instead of rewarding. Most of those four colour negative rolls that I shot, were mostly pretty random fooling around on a road trip. I like the idea from emphasising the laid back attitude and just having fun, shooting from the hip and going crazy with the camera. At least for me, that doesn’t work so well and I wouldn’t do it very often. If you’re just relying on your luck and shooting reckless hip shots, the success ratio is going to be lower than paying actual attention to what you’re doing. Just by being more careful on what you actually shoot is a sure way to give better value for the money. I’d give up the entire hobby pretty quickly if I’d have to pay 80€ for a handful of pointless hipshots.
Tip #2 — Home developing
I love developing my own negs on a friday night while listening to some music and perhaps enjoying a glass of wine or beer at the same time. There is a lot to be said about home developing, but since we are talking about cost savings here, I’ll just say home processing will become ten times cheaper than any lab processing. Especially if you’re into black and white. Because I don’t shoot much colour, I haven’t invested in a C-41 kit, but if I ever start shooting more colour, I’ll get one for sure.
I use Kodak D-76 developer for my black and white negs. The four litre batch will be good for nearly 30 rolls of film and it costs 17€. Sure, you’ll need stopper and fixer too, but they last even longer (I’m still using the same bottle of stop bath I bought almost two years ago). The developing cost for black and white film is probably less than 1€ per roll. D-76 isn’t even the cheapest option. If you get a bottle of Rodinal, you’ll be counting the costs per roll in pennies.
Tip #3 — Buy a second hand scanner
Once you buy a second hand Epson V330 scanner for 50€, you don’t ever have to spend your buck on scanning either. As far as I know, the V330 is the cheapest and crappiest Epson there is, but take a look at my portfolio — you could never tell by looking at the image quality. People blame scanners way too much on their crappy image quality. Whenever I have image quality issues, the problem lies always somewhere else than the scanner. Assuming you have a good negative to begin with, even the cheapest Epsons will give you more than good image quality. Take my word for it.
Tip #4 — Shoot black and white
Black and white film tends to be cheaper than colour negative film. What you like to shoot, of course is a personal preference. I know plenty of people who are not into B/W at all. But if you’re on the fence, I’d give my vote for black and white. For me personally, it is synonymous with film photography. I can happily pay somewhere between 7—8€ for a good black and white film. For that money I can get a roll of Kodak Tri-x or T-max, which is as good as it get’s for me. Ilford films tends to be a bit cheaper even, but just as superior in quality. If you’re really on a budget, there’s always for example Fomapan films, that are something like 4€ per roll.
There are equally cheap colour negative films (Fuji C200 is something like 3€ per roll), but bearing in mind that B/W developing is generally cheaper, no matter how you look at it, the total cost is going to be more affordable with black and white.
Tip #5 — Think about how you acquire your films (and cameras)
When I buy film from the store, it’ll usually cost me about 20€ per month. That’ll get me few rolls of any high quality black and white film. Whenever I can, how ever, I try to source film from other ways as well.
Because film photography is sort of a ”thing of the past”, there are a huge amount of cameras and other gear in flea markets and second hand stores. Whenever I spot an old camera, I’ll usually buy it, if it’s cheap. Typically I play with it for a while and then return it to circulation. Especially the point-and-shoot markets are pretty hot at the moment and you can get anything between 30—200€ when selling a working point-and-shoot camera. Last year I bought an Olympus Mju II for 5€ from a flea market. I used it for a month before deciding that it wasn’t my thing. A fellow film shooter gave me happily 160€ for it, which I was happy to spend on food, gasoline and few rolls of film.
That is of course just one example, but there are, none the less, a lot things revolving around second hand market in film photography. Buying your film gear and supplies is a very different experience than walking into a modern camera store to buy a DSLR. I’ve managed to finance my own film shooting with film shooting, which is a pretty awesome thing. I also trade gear for film in Facebook groups and do all sorts of cool swaps. For some, it may be a bit of a hassle, but I like it, because I know acquiring more film, doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to the camera shop. It may instead mean giving up one camera and giving it to someone who actually needs one, and getting few rolls of film in return. Sometimes it feels more like swapping stickers or hockey cards with fellow kids on recess.
Then there’s of course bulk loading and buying stuff from eBay etc. That I’ve not tried yet myself, but I’m very tempted to start rolling my own film on recyclable canisters, which would be slightly cheaper (and more eco friendly) than buying 36 exposure rolls from the store.
Tip #6 — Special developing discounts
Film processing isn’t perhaps know for it’s special discounts in this day and age, but something interesting caught my eye just recently. My favourite lab at Kamerastore announced an unlimited developing for the duration of 100 days for the price of 100€. So basically by paying up 100€ you could send them all the film you want during 100 days. I really hope special offers like these will get more common!
I really hope these tips helps you in saving some money on your film photography! I’m sure I forgot to mention something critical, but in that case, I’ll write a part too as well, at some point.
And as a final comparison, I’d like count how much I typically pay for a similar amount of home developed black and white film, as opposed to those four rolls of professionally developed colour negative films, that I mentioned in the beginning of the article. During the past months, I’ve not actually bought any film with my own money. I’ve got plenty of so called free film from trades and swaps. This is of course a lucky situation and will not probably last forever. But none the less, given that self developing black and white film on Kodak D-76 costs about 1€ per roll, the total cost four rolls is 4€. Even I can afford that! After I run out of my so called free film and have to buy some more, four rolls is going to cost me in total of 34€ including developing and scanning. That’s still almost 50€ cheaper than paying the so called full price at a professional lab.