I know, sorry about the title. :-) But people seemed eager to discuss this point, which arose in the comments to Friday's post and took off from there:
—For you, would you say digital is more expensive than film, or vice-versa?
(I'll give my own answer in the comments.)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
[Ed. note: The following two comments came in one right after the other.]
Ken Bennett: "I was spending several thousand dollars a month on film and processing. My first digital cameras—a pair of Canon D30s in early 2001—were totally paid off in a couple of months. A pair of 1D bodies the following year (at $5,500 each) were similarly paid off within the year. It's more complicated now, since clients think digital is 'free' and don't want to pay for any associated costs. Freelancers and studio photogs and others running their own businesses have to face that. But for me, a staffer at a small university, the reality is that digital is far less expensive than shooting film."
Benjamin Marks: "OMG. Digital is so much more expensive than film, it is not even funny. Factor of five or seven. This is because film hardware was a durable good. Still is. Ten- to fifteen-year upgrade cycle and the pro level gear still worked a (human) generation later. Digital is the opposite. It is a fashion/consumer good. Obsolete after three to five years. And your upgraded camera can require an entire computer hardware/software upgrade downstream. Ugh. I love what I can do with digital, but I hate the technological cul-de-sac."
Geoff Wittig: "It depends on how you shoot, and on your tolerance for sitting out the upgrade cycle. If you shoot thousands of frames a week, you might come out even or possibly ahead with digital capture. Not for me, though. Back when I shot K-64 and Provia, I was painfully aware that every click of the shutter cost about 75¢ between film and processing, even if the resulting images were garbage. There was a powerful financial incentive toward accurate exposure, and shooting hundreds of frames 'just to be sure' was an expensive luxury. On the other hand, you could shoot equally excellent images with a battered used K-1000 or a brand-new F4, and getting a 'new sensor' was as simple as using better film. I shoot digital with the same exposure discipline I used with slide film, so 50–100 frames is a lot for a day's work. Hence for me digital has been much more expensive per frame, once I add in the cost of camera bodies, even skipping several upgrade cycles. It gets more complicated if you add image quality (okay, resolution, tonal smoothness and color accuracy to be specific) into the equation. To get the excellent print quality at large sizes I can now achieve with digital capture, at a minimum I would have needed 6x7 medium format or (more likely) 4x5 large format film, and both cost and inconvenience would explode."
psu (partial comment): "Like most of the 'big questions' that are endlessly debated on the hobby forums there is no single context-free answer here."
[Ed. note: This is a tiny excerpt from psu's lengthy and thoughtful comment. For the full text of any "partial comment," please see the full Comments section.]
Tex Andrews (partial comment): "Hmm...well, in capital investment digital has been far more expensive. One reason for that has been upgrading, from 3.2 MP to 5 to 8 to 10.1 to 24 to 36 and then 50. In between also adding in several cameras for specific functions, and now one as a backup. And then there are all the lenses. So, that's been a lot of money since 2001, even though over half of the cameras were bought as refurbs or at the end of the production cycle, so at deep discounts. But that's also a bit of an anomaly of the age. People coming into it now don't have to do that as most of us have had to this past almost two decades."
Mike replies: Very good point. I've watched more and more people get off the upgrade treadmill as the years have gone by and the products have matured.
Tobias Key: "I think it's worth noting that film is cheaper to get into, and you only have to spend money when you want to shoot. Digital requires you to spend all your money upfront, often quite a considerable initial investment for pro level gear. So although film might not be cheaper in absolute terms, the cost might be more manageable if your income is unreliable. I think this might be why film cameras have found popularity among younger photographers. The best pro film cameras hold or slightly increase in value so are essentially free or even a modest investment. So you can always get that part of your cash back too."
Dennis: "I can't tell you whether I'm spending more (on an annual basis) now than I did when shooting film (I don't have a good sense, never mind inflation). But I can tell you that I'm shooting a lot more photos for my money."
Andrew Lamb: "This is a trick question. Both of 'em are expensive. Film processing isn't cheap and the constant upgrading of digital cameras or changing of systems (and we all do it) is similarly costly."
Lance Evingson: "Digital is far cheaper, thank goodness! Garry Winogrand once quipped that to do street photography in color one needed to meet three conditions. One of them was to be independently wealthy...."
Mike replies: And many photographers we now consider famous names were independently wealthy, including Cartier-Bresson. Others willingly accepted poverty so they could do what they loved, or broke themselves self-funding outsized projects.
Rodger P Kingston (partial comment): "I think digital is significantly less expensive, due to the elimination of the costs of film and processing alone."
AlanH: "I guess it depends on the parameters; for example, I'm still using film cameras I bought in the '70s and '80s, but not a single digital camera I bought before about 2014. I'm still using analog enlargers bought nearly 40 years ago, but not a single desktop printer purchased in recent years. Therefore, if I were to lump all the digital cameras, specific accessories for those cameras, printers, software and upgrades over the years into one bucket I've spent quite a bit more on digital than ever spent on film-related stuff."
Jim in Denver: "Unquestionably film [is more expensive]. It's borderline ridiculous to even ask. The wholesale destruction of the entire photo processing industry is because the money required to pay for that was removed from the mix. Many local camera stores gone because they survived on processing. Digital became dominant in such a short time because it was cheaper. When I was more involved in the industry it was apparent that professionals making a decent living were spending the value of all their camera gear on film/processing about every three months."
Jeremy Stein: "One of my favorite sayings is: 'After the first 10 or 15 thousand dollars, digital pictures are free!'"
Allan Ostling: "For me, the distinction between digital and film applies only to the recording process, and the subsequent storage of the image for posterity. I currently shoot mostly film; after digitizing the negatives I make prints on my Epson P400, just as I would do if I had the image on an SD card. My theory is that after I am gone any SD cards in my estate would be chucked. Film negatives, each roll with an inkjet-printed contact sheet stored in a ring binder, have a better chance of surviving. This is especially true of my documentary photos of 1970s New Zealand, and the updates which I record after return visits to my ex-pat city of Wellington."
Bill Pearce: "Film is like an easy installment plan. Take photos, pay a bit. unfortunately more inconvenient with the lack of pro labs that offer quick reliable service, but still.... Digital is the same as the homeless people at the foot of freeway ramps. Digital's hand is always out, day after day (new camera, new software, oops now need a new computer) and you don't know what side is up (is that guy really homeless? If so by chance, by choice? Is this new camera really that big an improvement over my last one? Is this latest software update necessary?) and don't even begin to go into workflow. Digital makes people shoot waaaaaaay too many frames; film encourages one to think before pushing the button. Digital allows people who have enough money to run to best buy and get a fancy DSLR and immediately call themselves pros, thus killing a good business for those of us who have devoted much of their lives to learning about our craft and practicing it. All in all, I was happier with a 500CM and a 12-exposure back."
TDE: "I am just a hobbyist, but I specifically remember fretting about costs often when I was shooting film: 'Should I get cheaper film or the more expensive one I like better? Oh, my God, I shot eight rolls of film, how am I going to pay for that? I wish I could find a cheaper place than X for developing.' I haven't had any of those concerns since digital."
David Miller: "The price is identical. They cost the amount of money that I have available and wish to spend on photography. Admittedly I'm spending more money on (digital) photography currently because I have more money available for discretionary spending than I did in my (film) days as a starving student and then not-much-better-fed actor and luthier. Life is pretty good. Now if only my eyesight weren't failing…(ironic grin)."
Jamie Pillers: "About 10 years ago I was paying about $2,000 a year for color film and processing. Since then, I'd estimate that I've spent something similar to that buying, selling, and buying each new iteration of digital camera gear. As far as processing goes, I'm going to assume that the costs of my digital post processing is similar to the money I spent on darkroom stuff.
"However, these issues didn't matter at all in my decision to leave film for digital. About the time digital gear arrived on the scene, I started a new family. It was clear then that I was going to have zero time to lock myself away in the darkroom for hours/days at a time. It was just a coincidence that these two things happened at the same time, but I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have continued with photography if digital hadn't come along at just the right time. :-) "
Heinz Danzberger: "Photography, the ultimate 'I need another gadget' world, always needing another lens, another camera, a backup system...photography is the most expensive! What was the question again!? Busy scouting Black Friday deals...."
Paul: "They are both bloody expensive if you shoot a heck of a lot."
Jon Porter: "Digital is only cheaper than film if you don't churn your gear or print. I do both, big time. In the 10 years I've been shooting digital I've purchased one or two new cameras and several lenses per year, most costing more than I ever spent on a film camera. And my yearly spending on ink cartridges and inkjet paper is astronomically more than I ever spent on darkroom chemistry and photo paper. Even factoring the cost of film, I'm still spending more per year than when I only shot film. But photography is just a hobby, so I don't mind spending more for the convenience of digital."
Richard Man (partial comment): "It's a non-question. Ultimately, which platform gives you the images you want to capture?"
Mark L: "People may not realize that back in the day film and processing was a great profit add-on for many professionals. I always added 25% on those costs and clients always paid without question. Now, try getting them to pay for Photoshop time.... Now that I'm semi-retired I've given up on digital except for a small outfit I use for stock photography for which the free ongoing cost is ideal, but for all personal work it's film all the way and a wet darkroom, which incidentally I recently worked out cost a quarter of what my new digital darkroom cost—but I did have a spare room in the new house (kids gone). I use everything from 35mm to 5x4 and my film and self-processing costs come to bugger all compared to the pleasure it gives me, whereas digital gives me no pleasure at all, so it must cost me too much!"
James (partial comment): "I've spent $15,000 over the last 10 years on digital cameras, and $5,000 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!"
Jim Richardson: "Just getting the picture taken is just the beginning of the cost equation. You then have to consider what it will cost to get that picture into a usable form. For me the cost of scanning slides proved to be the deciding factor that makes digital capture the winner. Beyond a core group of images taken on slide film I simply can no longer afford the cost and time of scanning so that the pictures can be put to economic use. It doesn't pay out. So thousands of images are sitting in file cabinets that will likely never be used again."
[Jim is a National Geographic photographer. —Ed.]