Digital vs. Film Photography – A Brief Cost Comparison
Written by: Tiffany Joyce
Sometimes it’s fun to try to justify decisions you’ve made and things you’ve done. This is one of those. I hope it hits home with some of you.
A woman that works in my office loves nature and nature photography. Because of our common interest she and I talk about photography from time to time. What’s a little different about her approach to photography is that she shoots with film exclusively and doesn’t own a DSLR. She wants to buy a DSLR but doesn’t think she can afford it right now.
This got me to thinking about the costs of photography and I decided to write this article comparing the costs between film and digital photography. It isn’t intended to cover every cost but just enough to provide a comparison.
To go digital the first big expense she would have to face is the cost of the DSLR camera and new lenses. While it’s a significant capital outlay, it’s a crossover cost and similar for either format so I didn’t include this cost in the comparison.
When you take a photo it is stored someplace, either on the light sensitive film or on a memory storage device and a comparison of film and memory seemed like a good place to start. My camera, a Canon 7D, uses Compact Flash and when shooting in RAW my 16GB Sandisk Extreme 60 MB/s UDMA card will store 640 25MB images. I can fill the card, download the images and format the card to use it again. If I do this three times I will have 1,920 images and will still have the card to use again. Depending on where you purchase the card, the cost is roughly $92. At 1,920 images that figures out to be just under $0.05 per image and each time I use the card again, the per-image cost goes down.
My co-worker uses Ektar 100 36 exposure 35mm color film. The cost per roll is 4.49 and processing (not including printing) is about $6.50, depending on where you have it processed. That is $0.305 per image and is a fixed cost whether you take 1 roll or 1,000 rolls. Fifty-four rolls of film would produce 1,944 images with a total cost of approximately $594.00. Last year I took about 6,000 images and if I were using film I would have spent close to $2,000 on film and processing for the same number of images. Depending on how many images she takes in a year, it wouldn’t take her very long to pay for a new DSLR with what she would be saving on film.
I gave her this information and she quickly pointed out that she would have to buy all that special software like Photoshop. That’s true to a point. Once I’ve taken the photos with my DSLR I can download the images to my computer using the software that was included with my camera when I purchased it. I can’t do anything with it but I have the image. This is the same as the film image you have after processing except with film you have a negative. If I want to make any modifications to the image it requires some sort of photo manipulation software. I could use Corel, iPhoto or some other economic photo manipulation software. I could, but I don’t.
The cost of the software isn’t inexpensive but there isn’t much I can’t do with an image. I have the following programs that can be purchased on Amazon at the indicated cost:
Photoshop CS5 – $689
Lightroom 3 – $244
Nik Software Complete Collection – $500
All this comes to a shocking total of $1,432.71 and I still want to get Photomatix for HDR work. Fortunately, because of discounts and special offers I didn’t pay that much for the software but it was still a big number.
The obvious argument is you can have a lot of photos printed for $1,500 and the cost of all this expensive software makes digital photography at least as expensive as film.
I think this argument is incorrect for a couple of reasons. First, the software cost is a one time cost (not counting upgrades) and with every image the per-image cost is reduced. With the cost of film and developing the cost of printing is the same for every image printed and the per-image cost isn’t affected. Second, if you just have the images printed and no other processing done with the images you still have a straight out of camera (SOOC) image which isn’t any different than you would have if you printed one of your digital images on your desktop ink jet printer without any software manipulation.
I view all this software the same as I would a darkroom if I was still involved with film photography. Determining the cost of a darkroom isn’t as easy as adding the price of software but the largest single expenditure is easy to find. If I built a darkroom I would want the Beseler 23CIII-XL Dichroic (Color) Enlarger. A new one at B&H Photo costs $1,224.95. Then you would have to buy all the trays, tanks, reels, clips, tongs, etc., none of which are expensive but when you add them all together it would be a few hundred dollars. There are less expensive enlargers on the market, especially if black & white is all you want to do, and you can find used enlargers for less than the cost of a new one. However, if you want the same capability in a dark room as you have with digital processing you kind of have to go all out.
You also have to have a dark room and most houses don’t come equipped with them. I know that some people set up temporarily in a bathroom or a closet but I can think of two major problems with that approach. I don’t want to set up and take down every time I want to develop photos and my wife would veto any attempt to use a closet or a bathroom and I don’t blame her. That means you would have to figure in the cost of building a dark room as well.
My conclusion is that as expensive as digital photography can be and as heart palpitating as the cost of some equipment and software is, in the end it’s still less expensive than film photography approached at the same level. Now I feel so much better about the money I’m spending on this wonderful endeavor called photography.
As a footnote, for those looking to shoot holes in my logic, I didn’t include the cost of a computer because I’ve had home computers for longer than digital photography has been widely available.
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