Film Photography

Making film photography less expensive

As I’ve said before, film photography has never been less expensive. Great film cameras be had for pennies on the original dollar. Also, film and processing are less expensive, adjusted for inflation, than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet prices are on the rise. Many old cameras have become very popular, and their prices have soared. Kodak, Fujifilm, and Ilford have raised their prices a great deal in the last year or so. And the popular film labs now charge upwards of 20 bucks per roll for developing and scanning!

Fortunately, you can still manage the costs of cameras, film, and processing. You just have to manage your expectations, too. You can still find plenty of good cameras for under 50 bucks when you look beyond the popular choices. You might have to learn the limits of some lower-cost films that are new to you. You’re not going to get white-glove lab service where they remember all of your preferences. But you can have plenty of good fun, and get satisfying images.

Inexpensive cameras

Ah, for the halcyon days when for 50 bucks or less you could buy a hip Canon Canonet QL17 rangefinder, or a classic Pentax K1000 SLR, or an ultra-compact Olympus Stylus, or a smooth Yashica-D TLR.

Boy, are those days ever over. Fortunately, plenty of film-camera bargains remain. You just need to step off the beaten path.

Nikon N90s

Plastic-bodied auto-everything 35mm SLRs are currently the strongest bargain in film photography. They make great starter cameras. My favorites are Nikons, like the N65. Canon, Minolta, and Pentax made “plastic fantastic” SLRs, too. You can buy them for as little as $15 or $20, often with a zoom lens attached. It’s crazy, but even sturdy, well-featured semi-professional bodies like Nikon’s N90/N90s and Canon’s A2/A2e can often be had today for under $50!

If you must have a manual-focus SLR, plenty of cameras fly under that $50 price tag. I’m a big fan of Pentax and recommend the ME, ME Super, or Super Program. With Nikon, look to the Nikkormats, such as the FTn or the EL. With Canon, try the FTb, TLb, or T70. Or choose a solid Minolta SR-T, like the SR-T 101. Plenty of people sell these with a 50mm prime still attached, and I’ve yet to encounter one from any manufacturer that wasn’t very good.

If you simply must have the cachet of a big name like Voigtländer or Zeiss Ikon, look for models without onboard meters and focusing aids (such as rangefinders). Or look instead at Kodak’s Retina cameras, which in my opinion remain undervalued.

Pentax IQZoom 170SL

Point-and-shoot 35mm cameras are extra popular — and expensive — right now, especially those with fine lenses. Plenty of fairly priced cameras remain, however. Pentax’s IQZoom/Espio series has some gems. I’m a big fan of the 170SL. There was a whole series of Olympus Stylus cameras and some of them are still reasonably priced. Try the Zoom 140.

In medium format, you’re incredibly unlikely to find a TLR or rangefinder for chicken feed. Even vintage folding cameras now generally cost $100 or more. But you can have a great deal of fun with a box camera! Kodak and others made them by the bazillions and they go for very little. I’m a big fan of Kodak’s No. 2 Brownie, most of which are more than 100 years old. They do surprisingly good work. An Agfa Clack is another fine choice with more modern ergonomics. I’m stepping a little out of my depth here, but you can buy a brand new Holga for $40! You just have to be ready for the lo-fi look you’ll get.

My friends who love Soviet cameras say they’re the best bargains in film photography. They especially recommend the Fed 2 and the Zorki 4 as Leica clones. Or look for a Zenit 11 SLR, or a Lomo Lubitel 166 TLR. They all have their quirks, and the Soviets were not known for build quality, but well-functioning examples can still be had.

If you worry about getting a dud, check out my tips for inspecting vintage cameras before you buy: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Inexpensive film

There are some truly outstanding films today. Unfortunately, many of them now cost $9, $10, $11 or more per roll.

All is not lost: a number of 35mm films cost about $5, and some even less. The king of inexpensive color negative film is Fujicolor 200, which you can often find for under $4. Kodak ColorPlus is another fine choice — it has a classic Kodak look. You can sometimes snag Kodak Gold 200 or Ultramax 400 in 24 exposure rolls for under $5, as well. Unfortunately, I don’t know a color negative film in 120 that costs less than $5. You’ll sometimes find Kodak Ektar or Kodak Portra 400 for $7 to $8, however.

You have lots of $5-and-under choices in black and white:

  • Foma’s Fomapan films, in ISO 100, 200, and 400. These are often rebranded: Kosmo Foto, Arista EDU, Holga. Available in 35mm and 120.
  • Kentmere films, in ISO 100 and 400. These are made by the same people who make Ilford films. 35mm only.
  • Ultrafine Xtreme, in ISO 100 and 400. These are the biggest black-and-white bargains I’ve ever found. 35mm and 120.

I’ve heard reports of iffy quality control in especially the Foma films, but I’ve not had any trouble with them. But in challenging lighting conditions these bargain films sometimes return blown-out highlights or blocked-up shadows where Kodak and Ilford films perform well.

But Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 Plus and FP4 Plus only cost about $7 a roll. Sometimes you can find Kodak T-Max at this price. That’s just a couple extra bucks for those times you want that extra latitude.

I based all of these prices on what is listed today at B&H and the Film Photography Store. You can buy film online at lots of places; here are the places I recommend.

I know some of you are poised to comment: Buy film in bulk and load your own 35mm cartridges! After you buy a bulk loader, yes, this can cut the cost per roll. But bulk-loaded cartridges don’t have DX coding, which eliminates a lot of cameras. Also, cameras that wind automatically have been known to pull the film end right out of the cartridge. This is why I’ve shied away. But bulk loading might work for you, and can slash film costs.

Inexpensive processing

I really miss taking my film to the drug store or to Costco and getting serviceable developing and scans for as little as $6! But even when I was doing this, I knew these services were nearing their end. There just wasn’t enough business to sustain them.

Mail-in developing is where it’s at, and where it’s been at for at least a decade now. There’s been an explosion of small labs! But most of them are expensive. Many of the well-known labs have nudged their prices high.

All is not yet lost. Here are two less-expensive labs that I use.

Fulltone Photo: They charge $7 to process and scan 35mm color negative film, $7.50 for 120 color negative, $8 for 35mm b/w, and $8.50 for 120 b/w. If you spend $15 or more, they waive their $4.50 return shipping charge.

Dwayne’s Photo: This well-known lab charges $9 to process and scan 35mm or 120 color negative film, and $11 for 120 or 35mm black-and-white film. Shipping is $5 for the first roll and 50 cents for each additional roll.

Persistent Googling might turn up other inexpensive labs. If you know of any, let me know in the comments!

Developing your own film can dramatically cut costs. But first, you must buy a bunch of developing equipment and a film scanner. If you buy everything new, you’re laying out no less than $250. Each roll costs you time, especially in scanning, and there’s a learning curve to get consistently good results. But if you shoot a ton of film, after a long while you will break even and then start to save money this way.


There you have it: my best tips for saving money in film photography. If you have more of your own, share them in the comments!

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Last updated on 23 September 2020 by Jim Grey

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43 thoughts on “Making film photography less expensive

  1. And don’t forget: Think twice before pressing the shutter button. Frankly, that goes for digital photography as well. Except in the case of digital it’s wasted time at the computer instead of wasted money.

  2. Re: inexpensive (not cheap) cameras: let me put in a plug for the Kodak Signet 35. Capable of superb images (with enough light), with a very useful and sharp (especially at >f/5.6) 44mm f/3.5 lens. It’s widely available, and mechanically very simple – – – anybody who can put a new screw in their eyeglasses can clean/fix/calibrate these things, and the directions on how to do so (with lots of pictures) are readily available online. Check out Mike Eckman’s assessment for the big picture. Plus they have a really cool post-ArtDeco form-follows-function aesthetic.

      • There are those out there that are beyond fixing—-I bought 2 on eBay awhile back for $20 (responsibly labelled as non-working), to get a spare body clip for the 35 I’ve had since my Dad handed it down to me in the 60s. I was able to restore one to working condition albeit still haven’t attacked a bit of lens fungus. The other is just too worn out. For the beginner it’s probably best to buy one that already takes good pictures! Looking at eBay just now, it looks like $40 is the going BIN eBay price for likely ready shooters, although one can spend a lot more if desired. And I saw one for $20 that could be a candidate for some lucky soul.

  3. Crabby Umbo says:

    I own a few K-1000’s, I understand about them being the camera many photo-school people started on, but I’ve always thought they were too “vibrationy” and clunky, compared to the old Spotmatic. That said, I did get one of mine in the near past for 20 bucks with lens at a church resale shop in a small Wisconsin town, so they’re still out there. If you don’t care about a working meter (because of the battery selection), I can’t recommend enough a screw mount Pentax! I literally have had people give me perfectly working bodies, and I even have two single coated, but sharp, Pentax lenses (a 28mm and a 35mm), that were also given to me outright! According to my Pentax pals, if I want that Spotmatic feel in a “K” body, the KM is the way to go, but it’s usually too expensive!

    I would suggest anyone looking for a film 35mm to consider almost anything in working condition if it’s cheap enough (and isn’t dependent on electronics, like the AE-1 Canon, that could go ‘south’ any second after you buy it!), and comes with a lens. Sometimes bodies are out there cheap, but then it’s confusing to find the lenses going for ridiculous high amounts.

    I highly recommend Canon FTb’s, and TLb’s; but someone gave me a Canon FT, which is a “stop-down” meter body, and uses an FL lens (and will NOT mount FD lenses); and those lenses are weirdly expensive, more so than similar FD lenses! A vintage Canon repair guy also said he wouldn’t work on that body, or the TL, because you’d think the difference between bodies was “open metering” vs. “stop down” metering, but bodies like the FTb, and TLb, were stronger, and simpler than the previous FT and TL, and way easier to work on! Buyer beware,,,

    I also saw a mint condition screw mount Pentax Spotmatic 500 recently for $49.95! A steal I almost bought myself!

    • Actually, I’ve found the KM to be *less* expensive than the K1000 just because the kids don’t know about the KM!

      There are lots of reliable and not-reliable old cameras out there. It would be useful to collect the wisdom of film shooters into a post about recommended and not recommended cameras.

  4. tbm3fan says:

    I’ll also mention a couple of SLRs that are overlooked by many unlike their TLR brethren and that is Yashica. I can say now because I acquired what I want for my collection. There is the mechanical FR and FR1 using the C/Y mount plus the typical 6V battery. The FR2 is all automatic only so no interest by me. Then there is the FX-D Quartz which is an electric shutter so you need those two SR44 batteries. Next the FX-3 preferably built in Japan before China. Earlier TL Super and Electro models tend to be larger like many other 2nd tier manufacturers who used the M42 mount.

    An upgrade from the FX-D is the Contax 139 Quartz which just arrived in my office a few minutes ago. You’ll see crazy prices on these cameras but I got all the Yashicas for less than $40. I don’t care what any seller says as these are not desired cameras at all and there are very few Yashica collectors. The Contax can really get crazy because of the name but again sellers can take their overpriced cameras to their grave with them. Got my working body for $50 on eBay because I was patient. I can now use any Zeiss or Yashica ML lens on these cameras and have five ML lenses already for cheap. Patience!

  5. Lots of good thoughts and info here! Here’s a few comments:
    -I do like the Pentax IQZoom/Espio series, there’s good ones in there for not a lot of cash. I had the 170SL and now have the 928. It seems that the early-mid 90’s “bulbous brick” ones have more features and easier controls than the late 90’s and early aughts ones did, which prioritized slimness.
    -I’ve found Kodak ColorPlus 200 for as cheap as $4.50 per roll from Blue Moon Camera here in Portland. However, it seems like EVERYONE is out of ColorPlus 200 at the moment.
    -I get my film processed at Citizens Photo here in Portland. Develop and scans (2000×3000) cost me $10.50 for color, $14 for black and white.

    • I just don’t enjoy those blobby cameras — too big, too plasticky. But to each his own!

      I wonder what the story is with ColorPlus supply.

      Roberts Camera in downtown Indy processes and scans 35mm C41 for $10, and the scans are 3130×2075 @72 dpi. I’m not using them much these days because I’m never downtown thanks to COVID.

      • I’d prefer the sleekness of the later IQZooms, but the features on the blobby ones have won me over. Also, I didn’t like the tiny buttons on the I70SL, but the 928 has nice sized function buttons, all grouped around the LCD display at the top.

        As for film, I think pandemic has definitely put a crimp in the supply chain. It looks like A LOT of the less expensive color stocks are also out at a lot of places, especially Fuji. I’ve heard that it’s been difficult to get the Fuji films.

        • I was lucky to get some short-dated Fuji Superia X-tra 400 recently from B&H at like $3 a roll. I’m set with color film for a while!

  6. Andy Umbo says:

    BTW, I know you mentioned on here that 120 twin lens cameras are getting hard to get a deal on, which I have to agree, but back when I was managing and mentoring more “kids”, I used to tell them that they could buy a Yashica 120 (or my favorite, the Minolta Autocord), or one of the vastly available (at the time) late 50’s, early 60’s Japanese twin-lens cameras; a two roll 120 tank, a simple tripod, and a simple light meter, and they could spend literally the rest of their lives exploring all aspects of that camera and black & white film.

    One look at what Avedon, Irving Penn, and Bert Stern were doing with the Rollei 120 twin-lens; and you’d have a life-time of study cut out for you! They didn’t seem to care how close they got to someone’s face with the standard 75mm/80mm lens, kind of the old “use what you got” attitude!

    My feeling was that the Minolta Autocord had a pretty nice quality lens, and in the 90’s, I was getting them for 90-100 bucks a pop in very nice condition (I had 5 at one time, and wish I had more than the one I have now). Seems like the local wedding guys fixated on that brand for the Hasselblad back-ups!

      • Andy Umbo says:

        Yikes! Just took a walk through eBay and Minolta Autocords are going for
        $200-$400 +! Guess I talked them up too much over the last 20 years! From now on, I’m taking the advice of JoeSRC, and keeping my big mouth shut!

  7. tbm3fan says:

    If one wanted a buttery smooth and quiet film advance the 139Q would be the camera. There is no sense that gears are involved as you hear and feel nothing.

  8. I love geeking out discussing different camera models but find that I can’t really justify it or publicly recommending specific models to anyone because all people will do is go to ebay and buy the hell out of them. So if they hear that the K1000 is the ultimate camera for beginners, let them go drive the price sky-high, they deserve to pay a high price for being lazy.

    Instead of recommending a model of camera that hasn’t *quite* been discovered yet and is still “cheap,” I would say: ask your relatives if they still have a film camera or two lying around! Grandparents, aunt/uncles/parents, friends at church, just get the word out. Once people know you’re the “camera guy,” people will come out of the woodwork to give you stuff. I’m willing to bet that all those people, with a little legwork, could acquire a nice camera (or three) for free. Telling them to buy any particular model will just help that model become sought-after and expensive.

    • tbm3fan says:

      I debated that myself although Yashica is not a sought after camera by any means. However, on another forum, we were discussing cameras just like this here. I had a recommendation for one there, which was a more widely known manufacturer, but an under the radar camera. I didn’t name that camera then and some were not happy about that. Didn’t want to start another lemming march to the sea.

    • I’m not sure I have so much influence that if I name a camera there will be a run on it.

      But you make a super solid point about just asking friends and relatives for their cast off gear. Now that you mention it, more than half of my current collection came to me for free from people just happy their old gear was going to a good home.

      • The tip about looking for cameras from friends/relatives/etc is solid. But I don’t really see the issue of recommending specific cameras for beginners. People like turning to others for advice, especially if they are just getting (back) into film photography. You can tell people to “do research” but if they don’t have a point of reference to start from, they may end up with a spinning head.

        I understand that recommending a camera can increase the price on eBay. The big issue here is that we have a finite supply of vintage cameras and increasing demand. As long as people are getting into/back into film photography, the prices are just going to keep increasing. You’d figure that the existing camera companies would see that there’s a burgeoning market for film again, but they aren’t doing anything besides disposables and high-end stuff like a Nikon F6 or Leica. There are start-ups with Kickstarters but most of what I’ve seen there doesn’t excite me. Some basic SLRs and fixed lens rangefinders/viewfinders would be cool, but I’m not holding my breath.

  9. Darts and Letters says:

    I’ll end up rereading this a few times, there’s so much helpful insight (really good links to some of your past reviews and commentary). It’s a very accessible essay for someone who has been stuck in neutral trying to figure out how to get rolling with film photography. I’ve had my dad’s old Minolta SR-T 101 for years, he bought it in Japan while he was in the army. I’ve still got to tutor myself a little more on the camera itself but your insights about processing and film types are the most helpful, to be honest. I’ve gradually by osmosis absorbed some knowledge about that from hanging out on your site but it’s still daunting for an old dog. You’ve laid out a really nice path here and I’m looking forward to doing more of my own research. Thanks agains for this, Jim. Have a good the rest of your weekend!
    -Jason

  10. I can plan on being into a roll of 35mm film for about $30 after I factor in the roll, developing and optical prints. Scanning, of course, would make it a little more bearable, but I do my own scans at home.

      • I’ve been getting prints, but after scans and picking out the ones I want. So a 36 exposure roll yields anywhere from 5 to 20 prints. And it seems like getting prints done by one of those big labs/printers is more economical than getting them done by my local shop, who’ll want 40 cents a print if I get them with development, more if it’s later. I still support my local lab with the develop and scan and am happy to know that I still have the option of getting full prints there if I want. But for now, I’ll go elsewhere.

  11. CJS says:

    Interesting comment about Fomapan. There seems to be plenty of praise for its exposure latitude, but a roll of 200 I just got back does, indeed, have plenty of blown highlights and blocked-up shadows in ordinary daylight scenes with mixed light and shade. I recall having better results from their 100 and 400.

    • Other commenters here keep telling me that Foma 200 is best shot at EI 125 or 100. I’ve started to do that and have gotten much better results when I develop the stuff myself.

      I used to send that film off to my favorite lab, which used Clayton F-76 — and they always made it look primo. It’s possible that they adjusted the dev time for shooting at box speed.

      • Yeah, from what I’ve found Fomapan looks best when you set the meter to a lower ISO. I typically meter my Fomapan 400 at 200 or 320 and like the results. I’ve been running Fomapan 200 at box speed and have been pleased with the results. I should try it at 100/125. I did make the mistake of metering Fomapan 200 at 320, and it definitely was not as good.

  12. Jim, nice overview—wish I had it 18 months ago; it would have saved me a lot fo time.

    One important factor to consider when developing at home is scanning difficulty. Fuji color film is curly as is Kodak Tri-x. Both are a pain to scan at home. For B&W film I have switched to Ultrafine 100 and HP5+, they produce great results and are easy to scan.

    In terms of cameras, there are a lot of good options. For those who wish to investigate Minolta gear, I have created a buying guide and list of repair shops that service Minolta gear.

    https://earthsunfilm.com/collecting-minolta-for-newbies/

    https://earthsunfilm.com/repair-services/

    Again, great post!

  13. Yikes, misspelled my own name! My only experience with a rangefinder was my father-in-law’s Leica. He let me take it when my wife and I went for our honeymoon. I didn’t like using it, and have never tried another rangefinder since.

  14. tbm3fan says:

    As a post script to in expensive cameras I just had a complete kit arrive in my office. Not Minolta, my all time favorite, as I have every one worth collecting. No this was the cousin of my Contax 139Q. The camera, with a Contax winder, a 50mm f1.7, 28mm f2.8, 135 f2.8, Series I 28-90mm zoom, 80-200mm zoom, all with 1A filters, Minolta auto 32 flash, manual all in a camera bag for $25. Shipping $11 so all that gear for $36. Granted I took a chance on the battery powered SLR yet the bargains are out there.

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