Is 35mm film really that expensive?

Camera and Beer Photography

Is 35mm film really that expensive?

I have been shooting and developing 35mm film for over five years now. When I first started out with film I saw it as something of a side project to digital photography – I took digital on holiday, serious photography projects and the like, then I had my film camera (my first was Ricoh KR-10) for fun film escapades. It was like this for two reasons – I thought film was expensive, and I was less confident in getting the results I wanted with film.

A lot has changed in five years though, especially around my confidence with film. This has meant that my digital camera has not been out of its case recently for anything other than to take pictures of other parts of my digital kit to list on ebay. It didn’t even come on my last holiday with me, passed over for my trusty Pentax P30. In fact, the digital camera is getting so little use that I am fairly sure its headed for ebay along with everything else.

So how did I get past that other doubt about film? Is it really as expensive as everyone thinks it is?

‘Expensive’ is pretty subjective, so here we’ll be measuring the cost of shooting film against the one thing that is universally agreed upon as ‘how much?!’ expensive’ – A pint of beer in London. Apparently, the average pint in the capital costs £4.20 – we all know this average is bought down purely by Weatherspoons and boozers that no normal human would want to set foot in, so I am going to go with what I expect to pay for a pint at any self-respecting London pub, a round £5.

I am going to look at my own process, from shooting a roll of film to having a physical print in my hand. There are other ways to do pretty much every stage of this process, but I think I have honed pretty much the cheapest.

So, with our yard-stick in place, let’s start looking at the cost. There are five things you’ll need to buy before you start – non-consumables if you will. These are a camera, a lens, a film developing tank, a changing bag and a film scanner. We’re basically going to ignore all of these here, because everyone that complains that film is expensive is shooting with a digital camera, and you can pick up everything on that list for significantly less than a vaguely good digital camera (probably about £200 for everything unless you are going all out on a Leica or something). The good thing about this is that the camera and lens you’ll be picking up for next to nothing at the second-hand camera store is likely to be, optically, significantly better than anything but a high end DSLR, and in some cases (like my Canon EOS 5, it might use the same lenses anyway).

So we’re ready to shoot some film. The film I use the most is Kentmere 400 because I can’t tell the difference between this and Ilford films, and this costs me £3.70 for a roll of 36, or close to 10p a photo.

When we’re done we head home, crack open our film canister in our changing bag, roll it into our film developing tank, and pour in our developer. There are heaps of different developers out there, but I rarely stray away from tried and tested Rodinol. Now Rodinol costs about £12 a bottle, and its single use. Sounds expensive right? Well, its mixed into a solution with water before use, and to develop a single film, you’ll probably not be using more than about (I use just over) 10 millilitres (obviously this depends on the size of your developing tank). So out of one 500ml bottle of Rodinol you’ll get about 50 rolls of film, that’s 1800 pictures – in financial terms, less than a penny a picture, or 24 pence a roll.

The next phase of the process is a stop bath, which I don’t use, because it costs money and it is much cheaper to use water – but I should note here that I am essentially assuming water is free. It isn’t, but even if you are shooting digital you probably have to drink some water at some point right?

Next up, fixer. The same as Rodinol, fixer is mixed into a solution before you use it. It costs about £10 a bottle, and you can mix up perhaps four or five solutions per bottle (we’ll say four to keep the math simple) depending on the size of your developing tank. Unlike Rodinol though, fixer can be used more than once, and I will usually wait until I have a few films to develop before I mix up a batch. So again, to keep the math simple we’ll assume I run four films through the fixer, we’re looking at 62 pence per roll of film, or close to two pence a picture.

Now you are pretty much done – you might want to rinse your film in some wetting agent, but a litre bottle of that makes up 201 litres of solution, so it will basically last you forever. Because we don’t want to get into the math of adding on fractions of a penny I am adding it to the start-up costs and forgetting about it.

Negatives are dry and we have got them scanned into the computer. We are at the same point as we would be with a digital camera and we have spent around £4.50 on our roll, or 12 pence a picture. Yes, we have spent more than the zero pounds that shooting with a digital camera costs, but we have still spent less than the price of a pint.

We also have our negatives, something physical for all of our effort. However, I stipulated at the start that we’d be looking at the cost of 35mm from taking the shot right through to having the picture, as a physical print, in our hand. You have two options here:

The first option, and this is what I do with most of my photos, is to scan the negatives and get them printed. The service I use charges 9 pence (though there are often offers that make it much less than this) for a 6” by 4” print. Obviously, because I have digitised my negatives, this would be exactly the same regardless of whether you used a film or digital camera – there is no cost benefit to digital over film here.

Where film starts to work out cheaper though is when you are looking at larger prints. You’ll use the same chemicals (and almost the same process) that you used to develop your film to make a print in the dark-room. Yes, you’ll pay for paper, but on a per-print basis this is significantly cheaper than buying larger prints of digital photos. For example, 25 sheets of 8” by 10” paper will set you back about £17 – 68 pence per sheet, whereas to get a digital print of the same size will cost you £1.25. The difference of 57 pence is more than enough to cover our 12 pence per photo cost of developing, and the same again to make up all the chemistry you’d need to develop paper prints (even assuming we’ll be making up more to fill up trays).

There you have it – shooting a roll of film costs less than a pint, and, in the very specific case of wanting an 8” by 10” print its cheaper than digital. On top of this you have all of the benefits of 35mm, here I am talking about top notch equipment that costs next to nothing, full frame, archival storage of your work, beautiful pictures etc. etc. but that is beside the point – just remember, every time you hit the shutter on your 35mm camera you are spending about 12 pence, about the equivalent of taking a sip of beer.

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