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 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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Film Photography

Recommended film labs

Shooting film is fun. Figuring out where to get it processed, scanned, and printed is not. I’ve tried a lot of mail-order labs over the years and I’m going to share with you the ones I like best, and why.

I am a frugal hobbyist photographer in the midwestern United States, so I’m looking for basic services, good quality, and low prices within reasonable shipping distance.

I’m also looking for labs that can handle more than just 35mm color negative film. My town’s camera store processes, scans, and prints that stuff for a good price and I use them for it a lot. But sometimes I want to shoot black-and-white film or color slide film, or medium-format (120/620) film. The by-mail labs I choose can handle all of it. Some of these labs can handle obsolete formats like 127, 828, 110, and Disc.

The labs I use all do at least good quality processing and scanning, and all respond very well when something isn’t as you expect. Things do sometimes go wrong.

Unfortunately, with one exception these labs’ basic scans are too small in resolution for anything more than snapshot prints. My strong preference is for a scan of at least 3,000 pixels on the long side, which lets you print comfortably to 11×17. It also lets you crop the scans if you need to without the resulting image being uselessly small.

I’ve tried lots of labs, but these are the ones I keep going back to because I like their service.

Fulltone Photo

Fulltone Photo, of La Grange, KY, processes, scans, and prints 35mm and 120 (and presumably 620) film. Their Web site says they also handle 110 and 126, but their order form disagrees. They handle color and black-and-white negative and color slide films.

Their Web site is at fulltonephoto.com. You print and fill out their order form and mail it in with your film. They provide a postage-paid label for mailing your film to them. After they’ve processed your film, they email you for payment. They take only credit cards.

Fulltone does good work at the lowest price anywhere. Processing and standard scans for color negative film costs $7. Medium format films cost an extra 50 cents; black-and-white films are a dollar more. Slide film costs $14-16 to develop and scan. Shipping is $4.50 for orders under $15 but free otherwise, so it pays to send them many rolls at once.

Standard scans are especially small at 1545×1024 pixels (despite their order form claiming 1818×1228). Fortunately, for an extra $5 you can get scans at a whopping 6774×4492 pixels (again, despite their order form claiming 4535×3035). Even with this upcharge, Fulltone undercuts everyone on price. To my eye, their larger scans look better than their smaller ones, too. When your scans are ready they send you a download link.

Customer service is good — once their scanner whiffed some of my scans and they cheerfully rescanned the negatives. They’re the closest by-mail lab to my central-Indiana home, which cuts shipping time. Fulltone has a lovely Instagram feed here that I enjoy following.

Old School Photo Lab

Old School Photo Lab, of Dover, NH, processes, prints, and scans 35mm, 120/620, 110, 126, 127, 828, APS, and 4×5 sheet films. They handle color and b/w negative and color slide films.

You order and pay through their Web site, oldschoolphotolab.com. Processing a roll of 35mm or 120 color or b/w negative film and getting their standard scans costs $18, including shipping both ways. Color slide film costs just a dollar more. They give discounts if you send several rolls at once. They accept credit cards and PayPal.

What I love most about OSPL is that their standard 35mm JPEG scans are a generous 3072×2048 pixels. I know no other lab that offers standard scans that large. You can order giant scans, at 6774×4492 pixels, for an extra $10 for JPEG or $20 for TIFF. Medium format scan sizes are similar.

The other thing I love about OSPL is that they’ve never let me down — their processing and scans have always met or exceeded my expectations. I can’t say that about any other lab I’ve used. When the film really, really matters, I send it to OSPL.

Unfortunately, over the years OSPL’s prices have crept up so that they’re now the most expensive of this class of labs. You can get good service and quality for less at the other labs I recommend.

When your scans are ready, they email you a link to where you can download them. If you want a CD of the scans, it’s 3 bucks extra and you have to wait longer to get them. I occasionally order 4×6 prints from OSPL and they’re lovely.

OSPL is popular and therefore a little slow — after you mail your film, expect scans in no less than two weeks. The staff responds promptly and cheerfully when you contact them. The lab is active on Twitter and the feed is often a hoot. The same goes for their Instagram feed.

Dwayne’s Photo

Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, KS, is the granddaddy of all by-mail labs. They process, print, and scan 35mm, 120/620, 220, 127, 110, 126, Disc, and APS films. They process color and b/w negative and color slide films.

Their Web site is dwaynesphoto.com.  Ordering from Dwayne’s straight outta the 90s: you have to print out and fill out order forms, the right one for the kind of film you’re sending. When you send them more than one kind of film you have to fill out multiple order forms. Here’s hoping Dwayne’s upgrades to electronic ordering. They take PayPal and credit cards, as well as checks and money orders

Processing and scanning one roll of 35mm or 120 color or b/w negative film costs $10. Slide film costs $13.50-$15 depending on format. Other services’ prices vary. Return shipping costs $5 for the first roll and 50 cents for each additional roll. They don’t offer prepaid mailing labels so have your postage stamps ready.

Their 35mm and 120 scans are a not-bad 2740×1830 pixels at 72 dpi. For an extra $5, you can get scans of negative films at a ginormous 6770×4490 pixels. Scan resolutions vary for other film types and formats.

You can choose to download your scans or have them mailed to you on CD. I go for the downloads and Dwayne’s pretty consistently emails me a link to them within a week of receiving my film. (Slide film takes longer.) I’ve not ordered prints from Dwayne’s.

Dwayne’s can handle any curveball I throw them. Once I broke some film while rewinding in one of my old cameras. I stuck the camera into a dark bag, coiled the film into a black film canister, marked the can “Loose Film Open in Darkroom,” and sent it to Dwayne’s. They processed it without skipping a beat.

Customer service is good if impersonal. Once I sent them a roll of expired Kodak Gold 200 in 620 and they accidentally processed it as black and white. They sent me a note of apology, my black-and-white negatives and scans, and a fresh roll of Ektar, albeit in 120.

Film Rescue International

Sometimes you’ll find some very old, very expired film in a camera. Any of the above labs will process it, but they might not get good images because old film deteriorates.

Send it straight to Film Rescue International, filmrescue.com. They process any film, no matter how old, and use creative darkroom and Photoshop techniques to coax the best possible images from it. They’re expensive and they’re slow, but they do outstanding work.

I used Film Rescue for a roll of Verichrome Pan I found in a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. That film had been in the camera for more than 40 years in unknown conditions, so I was afraid it might have deteriorated badly. They got good, high-contrast images from that film. They lacked “that Verichrome Pan look” but were crisp and clean.

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