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Monday, 20 November 2017


It depends on the endpoint.

I make black and white 8x10 contact prints on photographic paper for about $8 including film, paper, and all the chemistry. The whole process works perfectly even without electricity. Technically the picture can deliver sharpness, tonal gradation, and grainlessness beyond the discerning power of the human eye. The camera and lens already perform better than I can see so there is no practical obsolescence, no feasible upgrade - ever. And I get something I can sign, annotate, display in an art gallery and store archivally by simple means at negligible cost.

But if the endpoint is a digital screen-looker then things get more expensive. I have to take that nice contact print and scan it, computer process it, and output the digital file to a nice monitor. The apparatus used costs more than the camera and lens and I'm on my fourth upgrade; sigh.

And if the endpoint is just a screen-looker then a telephone will do that for free. Ok, the telephone has to be purchased and kept charged but this successful technology delivers the endpoint that most people want: look-able pictures at no cost, requiring no technical knowledge, and imposing no financial penalty on failure.

I don't doubt that the ultimate endpoint, pictures beamed directly to the mind, no eyes needed, will be even cheaper and more popular.

Irrelevant? As my brother used to say to lookers asking the price of a new Porsche, Alfa or Ferreri, "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it."

The upfront costs of digital have been high, because it's new tech and was evolving so quickly that there was a tendency to update every couple of years. When photography was new tech back in the mid-19th Century, it was also evolving quickly and was also expensive. Now things have settled a bit. Given what I personally print, I don't need anything more than what the Panasonic m4/3 gives me. For practical purposes, I no longer have to upgrade -- from here on out, it's only GAS and damaged cameras that I have to worry about. That wasn't true in the recent past. Between 2002 and 2010, the jumps in digital quality were amazing. As far as ancillary equipment is concerned, I use the same computer I use for work, as I use for photography -- I'm going to have it anyway. Since I rarely print, those costs are also low, and I could drive them lower if I wanted to send the images out to a commercial place. For me, digital is cheaper both in cash and in time spent doing the small stuff.

Film is more expensive for me because it's the one I like, and the one I invest in. I've purchased very high quality film cameras that suit me and will last a lifetime, and run quality film through them. That's good enough for me.

For digital I enjoy using my phone, and that's good enough too. Naturally I have to replace the phones frequently but because they do so much more than just take pictures I don't count that investment as related to photography.

For a rookie who is just learning the ropes, digital is a real bargain. The instant feedback reinforcing what they have just read or imagined is priceless. For a veteran who is only now buying into a mature market, digital is an amazing value. For those of us who have participated in the coming of age of digital, well...we had fun...but I would not call it a bargain.

My switch to film in 2008 entailed a variety of factors, but one major reason centered on my desire for a rangefinder. I couldn't afford the digital variant, so I got a film one. And had I scrounged up enough to get the M8, certainly I would have felt highly compelled to pick up a full frame M9 upon its subsequent release. In any event, digital was cost prohibitive; film wasn't.

Amazing number of responses! It seems like everyone and his brother has a point of view on this one. If you could do a poll on TOP, perhaps a more interesting question would be: If God suddenly appeared and offered to 'un-exist' film, or to 'un-exist' digital which would you select? I think I would choose film to keep, but that's just me.

I shoot both. For an amateur low volume shooter like me who has a case of Chronic "GAS", digital is way more expensive than film. I never got rid of a number of my lovely old film cameras and they still work perfectly. So, no need for further investment there. Also, as I've written here recently, acquiring a very serviceable 35mm film rig costs a pittance now so long as you stay out of the Leica and other collectibles aisle. So, these days film photography is a "pay as you go" affair. I shoot mainly BW and develop it myself. Film and chemicals cost $6/roll or so. Then I scan the few "keepers" on each roll into the digital realm--a hybrid workflow. As I enjoy the craft aspect of this, the time spent doing it is not a problem for me. I'm not cranking out weddings.

I have "upgraded" my digital gear a number of times over the years and each "upgrade" costs a few thousand dollars by the time I'm done. That's the equivalent of shooting and developing many hundreds of rolls of film. As I am never paid for my photography and I shoot a relatively low volume, my investment in digital gear never "pays for itself" as it might if I was a pro. I have moderated my GAS somewhat over the years and now keep my gear for longer before "upgrading" as well as buying some of it used.

Common to both workflows is the need for a computer system. As I need my computer for many non-photographic activities as well, it's a cost I assume. I have also moderated my GAS in that department--I'm still running a 2012 Mac Mini which works fine with the same NEC monitor I bought 5 years ago. However, the printer and scanner are additional expenses that from an economic standpoint I'm sure I would be better off farming out. However, I enjoy the whole process. Ultimately for someone like me, the costs are balanced against the pleasure my avocation brings me, whatever the workflow. I am very lucky in that regard.

Really responding to the comments about the upgrade cycle. I think that now, right now, we are seeing the maturation of digital in that you can buy a camera that is sufficient (+++) for little and the pressure to upgrade (for some or many?) has eased off a bit.
I used to work in a camera shop. The common cycle of 2-4 years for pro or semi serious gear was normal and I think over blown in all of our heads. We liked selling gear, but would we ever ask the question of a customer "do you really think this will make you better?". I left the shop when I felt the "excitement" (read frantic upgrade cycle) had mellowed to a point I was not that interested anymore. When I pass the shop window, I am amazed at how little has changed over the last few years.
Is digital more expensive? I guess it can be, but I doubt it needs to be. I know for me it is more productive, more satisfying and cheaper at the moment, now I am away from the shop anyway!
What do I have? 3 OMD EM5's (Mk1) and a Pen F, but only because of the electronic shutter. I feel the question digital users need to ask more when it comes to upgrades is "do you print? If so how big?" If the question is anything but big and fine art, then the answer is likely "you have enough". I print A3+ fine art.

As a young student and amateur photographer I can remember acutely the pangs of guilt when I fired off too many frames, or when I got back my pictures from the 1 hour photo lab and half were out of focus.. but those constraints foreced me to concentrate and take better (and fewer) photographs. I remember scavanging for expired rolls and smiling inwardly when the prints came out just as good. Well, at least with black and white! Then digital came along and changed the equation. Now it was all upfront cost but the liberation of being able to shoot in situations you couldn't imagine shooting before.. high iso's? No problem! spray and pray to get the one decent shot.. no problem! Well.. 73k images in my lightroom archive and I spray and pray a lot less now, and I really have to agressively delete my ingest to just the decent shots... Still, I shoot film and a roll may last a week or a month, and I am more careful with those shots, and... surprise surprise, I get better shots generally, better composed, more focused.. and I don't mean that in a punny way. I've spent $15000 over the last 10 years on digital cameras, and $5000 on film cameras.. The difference is that I still have most of my film cameras, whereas the digital ones have been traded up.. So ultimately the hidden cost of digital is the upfront cost and high turnover of digital bodies. We're reaching a point of maturity though.. and barring the mirrorless revolution I won't really need to upgrade as often. And for film? Well, I'll keep shooting it, just as quietly and slowly as I used to.. Can't do without both. But for my style of shooting, film is definitely cheaper!

Here's an excellent article on another photographer who didn't have to worry about the day to day problems of making a buck from his photos:


I'm not a high volume shooter, but on a per-keeper basis they're about the same. However, my biggest shooting with film has only been about 70 frames in a week, with digital, 6000. With low processing cost, digital encouraged me to experiment & hone technique in a way film never did. So I end up with far more keepers per shoot, even if I have a much lower hit rate.
Of course, with my improved photography came more kit (including film) and thence more types of shooting. That created a positive feedback loop in terms of photo quality, with a proportionate drain on my finances.

Mike, if you ever want to do a Round Two post, you could ask about the costs and longevity of prints. That will stir things up.

For black and white, this used to be a no-brainer: silver gelatin prints from the darkroom were incomparably better than crappy inkjet printing. But as we approach the end of 2017, I don't think that's true anymore. Silver gelatin prints are as beautiful and lasting (if made properly) as they ever were. However, inkjet printing has blossomed and become beautiful and lasting in its own way. (Note I'm not using "giclee", which has a particular meaning in French slang that I don't want to associate with my prints!)

Aardenburg Imaging, which tests for these things, puts a lifespan on monochrome inkjet prints on cotton paper made with carbon inks that is longer than silver gelatin. I mix my own carbon inks, so the cost of ink is negligible and it comes down to the cost of the paper.

Colour is of course a different story. But colour printing in the darkroom was never particularly cheap either.

I glance at the tens of thousands of photos in my multiple Lightroom catalogs and I can't help but conclude that digital is significantly cheaper. As an autodidact, the low-cost of iterations has been revelatory. I've grown much faster as a photographer with digital than I did with film.

Consider the fact that for small money, the film user can always have the very best and newest sensor available, no matter the upgrade (which have been few and far between). No one rich or professional could have a better sensor).
What would be the cost of always having the very best sensor digitally, month by month, over the last 20 years. eeks!

More expensive for whom?

It's fair that comments here look at the photographer's point of view. It's a photography blog, after all.

But let's consider an alternative view. If there is a price to pay for the impact on our environment (a degraded environment leads to all sorts of expensive problems for humans, after all), then which is more expensive for society as a whole, digital or film?

There is no doubt that film brings with it some pretty noxious darkroom chemicals. These were happily discarded down the sink by most photographers who ran darkrooms back in the day. Or let me put it this way: I never met any photographer who didn't discard their chemicals down their sink—at home, at college or at work. That can't have been good.

My feeling is that manufacturers of photographic film, paper and chemicals wouldn't have been too bothered about the environment either, certainly not in the early days. Maybe later, as government regulations were introduced and enforced.

Let's just say that film photography brings with it the problem of chemicals and these weren't always handled in the best way from an environmental perspective. A share of these chemicals ended up in nature and likely didn't do much good.

Digital is a whole other case. I have a suspicion it is worse. A lot worse. The resources required to feed the digital upgrade cycle (not just cameras, but computers, monitors, storage and other peripherals too) must be significant compared with the resources used in the upgrade cycle during the days of film.

And then there is the huge need for energy (electricity) to charge and power all these devices. The increased energy costs associated with the growth of digital most be astronomical. That in turn means higher emissions, both in terms of heat and emissions to generate the electricity in the first place. There is an environmental impact, though some will say there is none and all is well. But, let's for a moment assume that increased human energy production and consumption do have a negative environmental impact, then we'll have to foot the bill at some point. Digital photography has racked up a share of that bill. Likely quite small in the scheme of things, but a share nevertheless.

And we are buying more cameras and more electronic devices to view them on. Phones and tablets do double duty in that regard. I can't be certain, but I don't think it's unreasonable to say more resources are going into the production of digital cameras of all types simply because so many of us are buying them (repeatedly).

This is a very long and entirely unscientific way of saying that, in terms of the environmental bill for society, I think digital may well be a lot more expensive than film.

Someone will correct me.

In economic terms, film has a lower fixed cost (the camera) and higher variable cost (the film) than digital. If one takes a lot of pictures, digital is cheaper and film is more expensive. If you take a small number of pictures, the opposite is true.

I take a lot of pictures (occasionally I get one or two good ones) so digital is cheaper. If I was a better photographer I wouldn't need to take so many so film might be cheaper if less convenient.

There is an automotive analogue to this. Should I own a car or use Uber. Total usage (miles per year or trips per year) will determine which is financially advantageous.

In both cases, it's hard to put a price on convenience or pride of ownership.

[ADDENDUM] Mike: I love the juxtaposition of Ken Bennet's comment and mine above because it illustrates what a broad net "photography" as a term casts. It does make a difference, of course, whether you are in the business of photography and thinking of your cost as a "per image" number (total dollars divided by total number of images) or an amateur (amo, amas, amat etc.) thinking, "how much does it cost me to participate?" or "how much does it cost to realize my aesthetic?"

If I thought to calculate the answer on a per image basis, the answer is surely "digital is cheaper" because of the size of the denominator in that equation. Right? Huge number of images. I probably take as many pictures per year now as I did from my Photography Year 1 until I stopped, for all intents and purposes, shooting film.

But in terms of dollars spent (and these were discretionary dollars, so I am not claiming to be a victim here, just a sometimes-bewildered participant), the answer goes the other way. Participating in an electronic technology as it is finding its feet is a very expensive consumer proposition. My first digicam was a Sony Mavica something-or-other that I purchased in about 1997. It was just the first of many attempts to find my comfort zone on the digital learning curve. That was four desktop computers, three laptops, five versions of Photoshop, six versions of Lightroom, three film scanners, four printers, and approximately twenty hard drives ago. And ink for those printers which is worth more than gold by weight.

The pace of my acquisition has slowed with the incremental increases in image quality over the last five years. But I think many of us are all now _used_ to, accustomed to, habituated to, annual gear purchases for which $1,000 is the new unit. Well, I should speak for myself alone. Feels like about a three unit year . . . ;)

It also seems to depend on the country you live in. I have been bitten by the film bug lately, but my, is it expensive! Here in Italy, a 36 frames roll of Tri-X costs 8 euros to buy, around 20 euros to develop and scan in low res (think 1350x 900 pixels, essentially proofs), and 3-4 euros *per frame* if you want a scan of just moderate resolution (say 3700x2470)!

I love the character that seem to come out naturally from film, where almost always the picture is just right as it is. Perhaps it’s the right combination of some kind of poetry of imperfection and unpredictability vs the lure/curse of the infinite possibilities of manipulation in post-processing. In the latter case, pursuing “your own” vision often paradoxically produces outcomes that are just copies of the latest aesthetic trends, while in the former case you give up most of that control and often you are graced by something you didn’t expect.

That said, I just wonder for how long I’ll be willing to shoulder such costs. I am still unreasonably hoping for a moderate inversion of the tide, where analog processing is not anymore a luxury fancy.

I'm conflicted on this one. I'm about to retire so have been thinking about this issue quite a bit. Looking back, digital has been more expensive for the reasons others have mentioned. I survived the parabolic ramp-up of technology over the last 20 years or so but it hasn't been cheap. Looking forward however, I think the cameras, computers, software, etc. I have will last a while so film seems more expensive and I've already thought about cutting back.

Cost per final output is pretty much the same. The difference is that with film, I'm getting the picture with one or two shots, but with digital it's one or two hundred shots. My annual spend is about the same regardless of technology. I spend as much money as my wife says I can spend.

Digital was definitely cheaper when I needed a new camera in 2000 for a 6 month trip to Europe with my (then) 10yo keen photographer twin sons. That camera paid for itself during the trip and I used it for another couple of years after.

Since then? Yeah, I reckon still cheaper but as someone already mentioned you need to ensure you sit out upgrade cycles as much as possible - which is getting much easier as sensors have improved.

Mind you, I've spent a lot more on gear in the almost 2 decades since I went digital than in the 2 decades before that. But that's been mostly because I went a bit crazy on nice lenses which I couldn't afford earlier :-D I can't blame that on digital!

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