Film photography has never been less expensive

The other day I read this great post about how to save money on your film photography. There’s no denying that the more film you shoot, the more your costs go up. It makes a person want to economize.


Digital photography is a better deal after you get past the sunk costs for gear. You just have to stick with a camera for the long haul. My everyday camera is a wonderful Canon PowerShot S95, arguably the best point-and-shoot digital camera you could buy when I got it in 2010. I’ve taken about 10,000 photos with it and it still delivers great results after all these years. It cost $400 new, and I’ve added spare batteries and an SD card for, generously, another $100. That works out to about 5 cents a photograph. I shoot more freely with digital so let’s say that half of those images are throwaways. That’s still only a dime a photograph.

The cost of entry can be far lower with film. You can pick up great used bodies for pennies on the original dollar. For example, my semi-pro Nikon N90s SLR body cost just $27 and I picked up a solid 50/1.8 lens for it for $50. It’s a fabulous kit. But because of ongoing costs for film and processing, no matter how many photos I shoot with it I’ll never get down to 10 cents each. Actually, I calculated it using my least expensive film and processing options. 10,000 shots cost 33 cents each, for a total cost of $3,300!

Still, film is a bargain today compared to when film was the only game in town.

I shot film as often as I could afford it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I paid $3 to $6 per roll depending on format. I remember 126 film being the least expensive and 120/620 being the most expensive. Processing and prints at my friendly neighborhood Hook’s Dependable Drugs ran about $7. To cut costs I usually mailed my film to Clark Color Labs, which did the work for about $4.

Total cost was $7 to $13 per roll. Adjusting for inflation from 1980, that’s $21 to $33.

Today I buy 35mm Fujicolor 200 for $2.75 per roll. The camera store downtown will process and scan it for about $8.50. My least expensive option costs just $11.25.

I often shoot black-and-white film in 35mm, and sometimes 120 negative film. I typically pay $5-7 per roll. I mail this film to Old School Photo Lab for processing and scanning, which costs me $17. That’s $22-24 per roll at the high end.

This is still real money, though. I’ve shot 34 rolls of film in the last 12 months. If I use $16 as a rough mean cost per roll, I’ve spent $544. You can buy an entry-level DSLR or a very good point-and-shoot for that kind of money!

By all means, then, trim your costs as much as you can. But if film and processing had been as inexpensive when I was a lad as it is now, I would have taken a lot more pictures!

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14 responses to “Film photography has never been less expensive”

  1. Dan James Avatar

    I wonder how much an impact using digital cameras has had on our perception of the costs, and how much it “should” cost to make a photograph.

    I remember in the late 70s and early 80s my nan took lots of pictures, and she went to a high street camera shop that always gave you a free film when you had the last one developed. I don’t think it could have cost much, as my nan was far from well off, and pretty frugal with most things.

    But perhaps in reality, what I perceived then as her taking lots of photos back then was maybe only one roll of film on a family trip of some kind, and for smaller occasions at home she might have only taken half a dozen shots. So two rolls of film per month might be a realistic guess, let’s say 36exp rolls, so 72 photos.

    Since digital arrived with almost unlimited storage cards, there’s this heightened expectation about how much we should shoot. There is, at least in some ways, more freedom with digital, fewer cost or storage constraints.

    On a typical hour or two photowalk I might take around 50-75 (digital) photos these days. So that was my nan’s month of film photographs in one hit.

    To replicate my shooting rate with film (ignoring other factors like I tended to be more selective when using film), I would be using two rolls of film per walk, and maybe three or four walks per month, so say between six and eight rolls a month. Which at perhaps £5 all in per roll would £30-40 a month, then £360-£480 a year. Which isn’t a vast amount, but of the digital cameras I’ve come to enjoy most, the average outlay I would estimate is just under £100. You can’t really compare this with the film costs in terms of cost, it’s so much cheaper, and hopefully the digital camera will last years with no ongoing costs.

    But this is the problem, and why suddenly we all feel (I’ve done this plenty of times!) the need to calculate and make this film vs digital cost comparison.

    Back when people had only film, they had nothing to compare it with. If you wanted to take pictures, you had to buy the film. There have always degrees of cost within it, some films more expensive than others, pro labs costing more than your high street one hour lab and so on. But there was no avoiding that every film had to be bought, and processed (even if you did it at home there were/are material costs) and this had a cost each time. That was just part of it, like if you have a car you need to buy fuel to make it go.

    If we decide to shoot film, it shouldn’t be on the basis of cost. Shoot film because you enjoy using older mechanical cameras more than digital electronic ones, or you prefer the look of film to digital, or you like how it slows you down, or any other of hundreds of reasons. Then work out how much and how often you can afford to do it, then forget about the costs (especially compared with digital) and just get out and enjoy!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My mom has boxes of square photos from the 126 camera she used throughout my childhood. Yet she says she didn’t shoot very much film because of cost. One roll would sometimes last most of a year. She photographed people and events, and that was it. Just to keep a record. Photography for its own sake was expensive enough for my working-class family as to be out of reach.

      Interestingly, when my parents got a digital camera, they used it in the same way. Perhaps that’s just how they were going to use cameras.

      1. Dan James Avatar

        Yes, good example, that’s just how they grew up using a camera. But for those of us who shot on digital for some years before discovering film, we’d already developed those habits and expectations. So film, when compared with digital, seems very expensive, for the same volume of shooting.

  2. Joshua Fast Avatar
    Joshua Fast

    Processing costs can be minimized by processing at home. With an Epson scanner and a Patterson tank you can minimize the developing costs. 5L of Xtol or a gallon of D76 will set you back less than 10$ and will do 50 rolls or more depending on the dilution you develop with. A lot of people find the idea of developing daunting but there really isn’t much too it. Temperature and agitation is what it comes down to. C41 and slide film are easily developed at home too, they just require higher temps. BW film is normally developed at 68*, c41 at 102* and E6 at 105*. I throw my chems in the fridge to cool them down and a hot water bath to warm them up depending on my requirements. It’s also very common to use a sous vide cooker to control the water bath temps accurately. The C41 kit instructions will tell you no more than 8 rolls for your 22$ investment. I’ve found that the unicolor kit will stretch indefinitely. I got to roll 70-80 before i noticed any color shifts. So i normally throw it away after 50 rolls.

    C41 = 22$ / 50 = .41 per roll
    BW = 10$ / 50 = .20 per roll

    I typically shoot 3-4 rolls a week between family events and testing cameras. I would quickly go broke if i was paying for commercial development.

    For black and white i highly suggest getting into bulk rolling. You can buy a 100′ roll of hp5 for $70, fp4 for $60 or kentmere 400 for $45. A daylight roller will set you back 10-30$ and you can re-use old cartridges if you buy a leader retriever ($10). 100′ of film will roll 18 36 exp or 28 24exp rolls. I tend to feel like 24 is too few and 36 is too many so bulk rolling gives me the flexibility to roll my own 30 exp rolls. Assuming your going ultra budget and pick up some kentmere (which pushes great to 1600 btw)

    $45 / 18 = $2.50 for a 36exp roll
    $45 / 28 = $1.60 for a 24exp roll

    So if you are shooting and processing yourself, total cost per roll is less than 2-3$ a roll.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I keep saying that I’ll get around to processing my own someday. But can I just say that I don’t much enjoy it? And I enjoy scanning even less, largely because it takes so much time? I like to pay somebody else to do these things.

      But yes, you’re 100% right: you can save a basket full of money doing it all yourself. That may drive me to it one day.

  3. TBM3FAN Avatar

    Costs for me are not a great hindrance. Film being a minor cost because of so much of it in a spare freezer after years of good eBay buys. I develop B&W myself but have done that for 50 years. I scan my own but can also still use my Beseler 23CIII which is where I have a lot of enjoyment. I’m stunned at the refurbished cost of one of these now.

    Funny thing about my digital cameras. I may have several hundred film cameras but only three digital. A Nikon Cool Pix to hook up to my office slit lamp. A Canon G9 bought used and it is quite nice. Last a Maxxum 7D which is also a very nice camera. Despite 16GB cards I shoot the last two like I shoot film cameras. I shoot judiciously just like I do with film. With the 7D I still look over my settings and make changes or switch from P to A or M. Seems my old film camera traits are hard to kill off.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I tend to shoot my digitals a little more like film too. I sure like my digitals when I go on the road – I can shoot 400 shots in a day that way. That would be a lot of film to process and scan!

  4. analogphotobug Avatar

    I like the Old School Lab’s bulk discount. So I always send at least 4-5 rolls at a time. When I retire, I’ll just shoot B&W and do my own developing.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I like to send them multiple rolls at once too. Sometimes I just don’t want to wait until I have that many! Like yesterday, I sent them a single roll of T-Max 400.

  5. James Thorpe Avatar

    Thanks for the detailed post, Jim.

    I use Old School for my ECN processing, but I’ve yet to find a lab who can beat The Darkroom’s prices for all else. Their base prices include scans. And they are super speedy, with great customer service.

    BTW, Travis Mortz did a great YouTube video breaking down film vs. digital prices.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks James. The Darkroom is great in every way except their base scan sizes are too small for me. That’s the reason I don’t use them more often!

  6. Sam Avatar

    Timely post! A lot of good points! I just got back a couple rolls from The Darkroom, one of today’s popular online film developers. The cost of development for two rolls of 35mm Kodak Gold cost me about $36 with them returning me negatives and “enhanced scans.” I said to myself shooting color film is not going to cut it for me at these prices! I could’ve saved a little more if I didn’t take the enhanced scans which I think are $4 extra for each.

    Sad part is that in their best days, CVS scans would cost far lower but now they don’t return your negatives which is horrible for film shooters. The best way for me to keep film prices low is to shoot b&w and self develop it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The Darkroom and Old School Photo Lab have increased their prices slowly but steadily over the last couple years. It’s challenging now for me to justify sending a lot of film their way. I drive the 30 minutes to the camera store downtown because two rolls of C41 processed and scanned (to about The Darkroom’s enhanced scan size) is about $17.

      CVS processing/scanning wasn’t the highest quality but it was cheap and fast, and for most camera-test activity it was just fine. What I really miss is Costco — very nice processing and great scans in an hour for about $4.50.

      1. Sam Avatar

        I totally agree that CVS scanning wasn’t of the highest quality and it was often a crap shoot! And I forgot about Costco, not just the cheap development but the big beautiful prints.

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