Once popular throughout the 20th century, film reached its peak in 2003, immediately falling into a deep decline. Consumers rapidly tossed their old cameras aside to make space for digital SLRs in the 2010s. The decade that passed since has been long enough for many of us to forget about the art, science, and costs of chemical photography.
Rest assured that film is still in production. In fact, film photography is gaining interest yet again. Today it can be developed and scanned in virtually any part of the world. And we’re about to find out how much it will cost.
✪ Note: All of the prices here are listed in US dollars.
✹ Update: In this guide, I refer to the company that produces film for SX-70 cameras, Polaroid Originals — formerly named Impossible Project. It is now rebranded, again, to Polaroid.
Figuring out the true price of a product or service is not as simple as listening to an advice of a salesperson. There are hidden costs, maintenance costs, and costs of obsolescence. To make it even more difficult, there are hundreds of use scenarios for both film and digital cameras.
Here we’ll take a look at about half a dozen of those cases and draw reasonable conclusions from there.
Assuming that a final image is a projected or printed photograph we’ll examine 35mm, medium format, instant film, and large format photography. Each medium will be dissected into a variety of shooting styles; development, storage, and printing methods and projection tools.
I will be adding my perspective from experience living in Chiang Mai (Thailand) and Vancouver (Canada) during the past five years. Additionally, I am enlisting the help of the veteran film photographers Scott Hays and Angela S of Derpinsel.
How much does it cost to try 35mm?
If you’d like to just try shooting 35mm film once, it shouldn’t cost much. Even when taking a safe route, buying only new equipment, a disposable camera (film included) from Lomography, Japan Camera Hunter, Ilford or Fuji will cost less than $20. A point-and-shoot at a charity shop may set you back by just $2.
An avid photographer or someone who doesn’t mind doing a little research and taking a chance could get a fantastic film camera for under $200. Yashica Electro 35 is my recommended manual focus, aperture priority rangefinder someone like that. Yashica MG-1 is a similar tool with a lower price tag and slightly slower lens. Both will yield a nice mix of new and familiar for digital shooter.
Whether it’s an Electro or a plastic disposable, both will be using 35mm film, which is in some ways equivalent to a full-frame digital sensor. The amount of visual data preserved on film is about 20 megapixels, if processed on a good scanner.
The average cost of 35mm film is $11 USD, whereas the cheapest fresh roll will cost about $5.
The cost of developing your film — a required step for getting your images — will depend greatly on where you are located and what you would like to do with your pictures. Most film photographers I know develop and scan film at local labs. The digital images they receive are ready to edit, share, or print.
In Vancouver, where this guide is being written, the develop & scan service averages around $15 for basic resolution (good enough to share online, not suitable for printing). In Thailand, where I spent a few years shooting film, the labs charge roughly half that price: 250฿+ or $8+.
If there are no labs where you live, you can mail yours in. This will cost you in postage fees. The prices for mail-in orders vary and your package cost will too. In my most recent case it was $10USD at Lago Vista Film Lab, plus about $5 for shipping.
➦TOTAL: $35-$250. “Cheapest Possible” is a charity shop purchase with a low-res scan, giving you 36 photos. A “Good” package in the upper range is something like Yashica Electro 35 with the same film. Including taxes, shipping, maybe some accessories, too.
➥ONGOING: $25 per roll of decent film with processing included.
If you have the money and the will to spend them, a new Leica (body only) will be $4795, plus the lens. Sky’s the limit when it comes to historic or collectable cameras. But the average film costs the same: $11 + $15 to develop and scan.
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How much does it cost to try instant?
Instant film’s pricing is much easier to figure out. It’s the price of the camera plus the packaged film frames. The images these cameras produce are the final product and require no additional processing.
Perhaps that’s why Fujifilm Instax is such a popular format. Their (or compatible) cameras are sold around the world for anywhere between $50 and $390. Or used for about $20. Leica sells a really nice looking one for $300.
Instax film comes in three sizes: mini, square, and wide. It ranges in prices between $7 and $15 per pack of 10 exposures. You can get a better price if you buy in bulk or on sale, though it may take time to find the right vendor. Some stores sell Fuji film in bulk at the same price per pack if bought single elsewhere.
The Polaroid square format is still in production. It is now sold under the name Polaroid Originals. Depending on the type of camera you are using, it can be bought for $17-$19. Or $180 for a pro-grade 8x10. Regular film comes with 8 exposures; pro — 10.
➦TOTAL: $30-$200. “Cheapest Possible” would be a used Instax Mini 9 plus a pack of film. Your next upgrade will be Instax Square or Polaroid Originals — for a new camera with larger frames.
➥ONGOING: $7-20 per pack of instant film.
How much does it cost to try large format film?
✪ Note: in this section I am quoting (with permission) Scott Hays. Scott has been shooting film for over four decades; his work speaks to his talent and experience:
I think that the initial cost of film, like anything else is the biggest expense. With large format, a 4x5 can run you from $300 - $2000. The cameras themselves are pretty standard. Some have more bells and whistles but for starters any of them will fit the need.
Very seldom will you come across a 4x5 with a lens attached. Now: you can find some models that have a fixed lens and those are perfect for getting started. However, a decent lens for a 4x5 will usually start at about $300 and go up from there.
After you purchase the camera you have a couple of options for developing. You can send your negatives to a lab or develop them at home. To have one sheet of black and white film or even color developed at a lab you can be looking around $4-$6 per negative. You will usually have the option of having them scanned or just have the negatives returned to you.
However, developing your own black and white negatives at home is not that expensive of a process. The chemicals required to develop, say, four black and white negatives are going to come in at less than $1. I have never figured out the exact amount, but it is not that expensive. Color will be a little more but I don’t process my own at this point.
Before you get started in developing your own negatives you will be buying bulk chemicals. For a bottle each of developer, stop bath, and fixer you may have an additional purchase of around $45 +/-. Depending on the chemicals you use, you can get upwards of 100 black and white negatives developed for that price. You then need to decide if you are going to develop in a tank or in a tray. Again, this is a personal choice but you can pay as little as $30 for a set of new trays up to $100 for a tank style.
Starting out there is no real reason to go with the top of the line film. With that being said, you can get a box of 25 negatives for as low as $30. A higher quality film may run you as much as $50 for a box of 25 negatives, Staying with a more inexpensive film does give you the sense of being able to experiment without “wasting” a huge amount of film and dollars.
Shop around as the cost of film really does vary. Sometimes the more “local” shops (online or brick and mortar) may be more expensive yet you are helping “one of us” to keep the business alive. Don’t get overly concerned with experimenting with all types of films. This will drive your cost up. Get comfortable with the process first then try to find a couple of films that are going to suit your style.
Some of the other things you are going to need will be a cable release, light meter, a solid tripod, film cassettes and I am sure I am leaving a lot out. A cable release is not that expensive. You can find them from about $5 on up. A film cassette is a real crap shoot. Again, try to find some that are used to start with. You can often find a set of decent 5 cassettes for as low as $25.
Your tripod needs to be something that can hold up in the wind and other elements. You are not normally going to get a shutter speed any faster than about 1/125 of a second. With that you will often be shooting wide open or close to it. Before you purchase one ask to take it outside and put it up in the wind. A lot of tripods although light weight; you will see that the legs are vibrating. Stay away from those. The tripod brand and style is a personal choice. However, I have found most of the solid tripods are going to start out around $150 or more.
One of the things you will ultimately need that I didn’t mention is a Loupe. These are used for fine focusing your shot once you have the basic focusing is completed. These come in a variety of styles and again can cost from $25 on up.
If you are confident that large format shooting is your next step in photography, go ahead and save your money for a good quality light meter. A lot of people will use their DSLR or 35mm as their light meter to begin with. They will work to a certain extent but the actual light meter itself is designed for that purpose. A light meter is going to start around $150 and go as high as $600 or so.
➦TOTAL: $1000+. Large format photography isn’t likely to be suited for film novices. Still, it’s a lot more affordable than a current digital equivalent.
How much does a year of film cost?
The dynamic of film photography is not the same as of digital. Many cameras lack automatic controls. Film isn’t free and and you can only carry so much. Because of those limitations I found that I take about ten times fewer photos on 35mm film than with a digital camera. My instant photographs happen even less often.
As far as I can tell, this seems to be the trend for most photographers. For this reason it’s unwise to make your cost calculations based on 1:1 comparison of film to digital frames.
Jason Avery did a survey on Twitter, asking “How many rolls of film do you shoot a year?” The results averaged at around 70. I’m closer to 40 and my wife is at around four.
The best way to understand your costs is to assume a minimum investment (see “How much does it cost to try...” above) then start slow and watch your receipts.
➦TOTAL: $60-$3000. On the cheap side, it’s three to five rolls (yielding 100-200 photos) per year. The big spender/pro shooter may use over 100 rolls (3,600+ photos) of premium film.
Ways to save money on film.
A good amount of money can be saved if things are bought in bulk and done at home. Researching retailers and learning about the film market will help you avoid getting ripped off.
When I lived in Thailand I was spoiled by cheap, high quality services at many local labs. But Vancouver dwelling comes with higher rent and wages to pay so the prices go up.
I bought a quality film scanner for $500 which is saving me $5-$20 on every roll. It will return its value in less than a year and save me over 30% of costs afterwards. It can, however, take an hour per roll for scanning, adjusting, and archiving, which is a presumed expense of about $11, assuming you’re paying yourself minimum wage in USA or Canada.
Scott is saving about half of his large format film costs by developing at home.
Angela was kind enough to give me her and her husband’s perspective on home development. In her case, there is no difference in cost for medium format or 35mm for processing. C-41 colour film development costs about the same as at the lab, around $4-$5: “It’s almost as if I pay the ‘premium’ price for the convenience of it [being developed at home].”
For the black and white film, home developing ends up to be around $1-$2 per roll. It can be practically free if you use Caffenol, which is a mix of household products.
Bulk loading can save you 50% off the film stock for some film. However, a process which involves hand-winding a 100-foot reel into 35mm canisters can be tedious, time consuming, and error-prone. Adrian describes a few drawbacks of this method on his blog.
If you spend time at flea markets, online and offline, you can find loads of cheap bulk packaged and/or expired film at a fraction of the price. Here, bulk packaging means simply a pack of multiple rolls — all ready to shoot.
All of the methods above require some initial financial investment, continuous effort, and time.
➦TOTAL SAVINGS: Up To 70% OFF. Depending on the amount of time you’ve got on your hands, your equipment, and skill level.
Unfortunately, these savings aren’t applicable to instant film. It is also not advisable to buy expired Polaroid frames as they tend to degrade a lot faster than 35mm.
Other ways to get images.
Not all film needs to be scanned.
Slide film can be projected after being mounted or displayed as-is if it’s a large or medium format exposure. This service is still available in some cities.
Prints can be made via purely analogue method. No scanning required. In Vancouver these types of prints cost about 5% more than that of digital inkjet type for comparable quality. With the right tools, this can be done at home. However, this is an entirely new world of costs and technology for both film and digital cameras.
Film vs digital: which one costs more?
It really depends.
The prices for outdated digital cameras are quite low, but even more so for the film cameras. To be productive, digital cameras require a computer, external disk space and/or cloud storage solution. The software is another expense. Though to be fair, all of the same tools may be desired to process film scans.
The strongest case in favour of film as a cheaper option is medium and large format photography. At this time, this technology is mostly unaffordable via digital format. Even if you do end up shooting with no regard for your wallet, it’ll take a decade to compound your expenses towards something like $33000 Hasselblad H6D.
Mileage may vary for professional photographers and studios required to take thousands of images on daily basis.
As for 35mm film, it’s up for debate. I may think that my three hundred dollar camera can produce 20 megapixel images or better with the right film. At 40 rolls (1,500 images) per year, assuming I scan them at home, the bill comes up to $560 ($6 for development + $8 average 35mm roll price, each). In sensor size and megapixels, the set up is comparable to something like $1800 Nikon D750 or $6000 Canon EOS-1D X Mark II.
For 35mm vis digital, the cost comparison is clear as mud. The prices fluctuate wildly with a plethora of unknowns. Besides, sensor size and available megapixels is a poor measure of value.
➦TOTAL: Digital photography costs decidedly more for medium and large format. 35mm film can not be reliably compared to digital cameras.
Photography isn’t free or cheap. Thankfully, there is a lot that could be done to make film affordable. Should you like to learn more about this format, check out A Beginner’s Guide to Film Photography — the most extensive read of the sort on the internet.