Is Digital Cheaper Than Film?

What’s one of the most common misconceptions in the photographic industry today?

Digital is cheaper than film

At first glance, it sounds correct.

With a film camera, every time you capture an image, it costs you money. You have to buy the film, you have to develop the film, and you have to print the image on to paper. When we were shooting film, we found it pretty accurate to assume total costs for one image was $1.

But with digital, every time you capture an image it’s essentially free. You place the card into your computer, download it, put it online or a CD/DVD, and usually only print the images you are paid for.

So it seems like digital is cheaper than film. But the problem with that assumption is you are looking at output only. The real cost comes at the front end, or with the cameras and technology itself.

I read a great article over on Digital Work Flow, The State of Business for the Digital Photographer Preparing for 2011. In it states:

Today a basic digital set of two professional SLRs, several lenses, dedicated flashes, laptop, desktop computer, card reader, memory cards, color management and processing software, monitor, printers, storage and back up storage, will cost approximately $20,000 to $80,000 or more.

Comparatively, a basic film system would likely cost under $20,000 and would likely remain current and functional for 10 years or longer.

So here is the comparison:

$20,000/10 years = $2,000/year average cost if you’re shooting film
$50,000/5 years = $10,000/year average cost for digital

And if you’ve been in the industry for a while, you know how quickly you replace your equipment. My daughter received a point and shoot for Christmas that is more powerful than the professional camera we were shooting with 5 years ago.

Total costs need to calculate everything. It’s unrealistic to charge a client a few dollars for a print because it only cost you a dollar or two to print it out. You still have to pay for your equipment, plus other expenses like rent, salary, phone, Internet, marketing, etc. And for your experience as a photographer and as an artist.

The only way to charge what you are truly worth is to educate your potential clients on what it takes to be a professional photographer, and how to tell the difference between you and an amateur trying to make a quick buck. Will they be in business a year from now? Who knows? [We’ve had clients come back to us 8, 10, even 12 years later for prints because they know we are here.]

8 thoughts on “Is Digital Cheaper Than Film?”

  1. Interesting article, with some good ideas to consider. I’ve never really paid much attention to articles about which is cheaper in the past; I do what I do for the love of it (I also only shoot film). But, this article goes beyond most and exposes the real issue “total costs”.

  2. i am sorry, but you have just sound like an ignorant, it’s true that for the best presentation of your shots you need equipment besides your camera, but if you think you are good enough you can do it without it, take your memory card directly to the print shop and get your prints directly.

    The truth it’s that not even the most experienced pro take the best picture everytime, the main advantage of digital technology is the ability to take as many pics as your memory allow you, and reduce the posibility of errors, especially when the pics are for a client, thats a blessing in situations outside an studio where you have to deal with thousands of issues that could potentially ruin your pictures, the hability of having more than one shot of the same moment is just to good to put a price label on it.

    The comparations betwen digital and film are not only unfair but also ignorant, it’s true that a pc or laptop can be expensive, but if you are using a hole computer just to barely edit a picture, you are wasting your money big time, my pc edit my pictures, store my files, calculate my taxes, keeps my clients records, make my publicity, get me new information, teach me new techniques, enterteing me, and a looong list of etcs, exactly how many of those extras can a film camera do?.

    In my experience many flim photos end up being scanned to be improved or edited (or restored), or for storage reasons, so where is the money saving exactly?

    It’s true that an analogic camera is way cheaper than a digital right now, but digital cameras are way more powerful and flexibles than the analogicals ever been, and the semi and pro cameras are built to last more than 10 years, is the lack of maintenance what shorten their life (and the same can be say about analog cameras).

    In a final point, i totally agree with you, the clients should be educated about how much they should pay for a pro job.

  3. The cost of the image is irrelevant though if what is captured is bad! One of the things that I think digital has forced is the desire to be different, to master many techniques and combine those techniques in interesting ways to achieve a result that is complex, different, new and dramatic.

    Now with digital, I think we take even more time over our shots, knowing what we want to achieve at the end, taking many shots in different locations at time to combine together for dramatic effect.

    If you look at the pre-thought, time taken and effort involved in producing a shot of substance these days, with digital, I would weight the cost as much more than film ever was for us and the result equally more valuable.

    This is a fabulous thread though, really made me think about what I value and what the true cost might be!



  4. That’s a little misleading. I owned a laptop, desktop computer, 2 monitors, storage and back up storage long before I was a digital photographer. Granted, some of my computer equipment had to be upgraded for my photo career pigment photo printer, for example), but my expenses for digital photography would not include most of my computer setup.

    I believe the concept is sound, though — I doubt that digital photography is cheaper than film mainly because many or most pros replace cameras every couple years. In the old days, when a new film arrived, we simply bought some. Nowadays, improvements in film are actually improvements in the camera’s sensor, meaning a whole new camera body.

    That said, once I own the equipment, I do appreciate the fact that each photo I take doesn’t cost me any additional money. Taking 1000 shots is as cheap as taking 10. And that makes a huge difference in my photography.

  5. Don’t leave out the expenses on the back end, either. Making prints from digital isn’t exactly inexpensive.

    25 sheets of Ilford 8×10 multigrade fiber base paper cost about $25-. That’s about $1- per sheet, plus the chemicals to develop them in.

    20 sheets of a roughly equivalent inkjet paper like Hannemühle 8.5×11 308g photo rag runs $32- for 20 sheets. That’s $1.60 per sheet, plus the $90- it’s going to cost you to replace the ink cartridges in your Epson 2200 after 12 or 15 pages at highest quality output …

  6. I agree with your comment about the need to calculate the total cost. Photography whether film or digital is about capturing , processing, storing and sharing images. Unfortunately your example does not adequately compare apples to apples. My point is that you have to compare the costs related to capturing the images taking into account the useful life of the camera equipment and the frequency it is replaced.

    You need to compare the cost of processing. With film you ether had to send the film out for processing or invest your time and money in you own darkroom with dedicated equipment. This would be compared with the cost to process images digitally. You also have to take care to only consider the marginal costs. I would have a computer even if I did not use it in my photography. The true cost then is the percent the computer is used for photography. Also do I need a more expensive computer because I am using it to process images.

    Whether film or digital, images have to be stored. The costs of file cabinets, box of slides, prints and negatives has to be compared to the cost of hard drives and backup drives.

    As for sharing of images, you have to calculate the cost to share images with the audiences. In the digital world you can reach more people more quickly that you can when shooting film and publishing in magazines and galleries. The cost person person reached is the value that needs to be compared.

    My last point is difficult to put a value to. Many photographers want to have total control of their images from capture to output. There is a value that must be considered when making the comparison.

    I am not judging digital or film to be the most cost effective. There are trade offs for both. I a just saying that a fair total cost needs to be calculated before making a judgment.

  7. You make an excellent point about the hidden costs of digital and how this should be factored into when costing out our work.

  8. How drunk were you when you wrote this. Your 20 year research is wrong but even if your right let’s just talk about film cost. I can take hundreds of shots once I have the equipment to your 36 roll of film. My prints are now less than 50 cents each for up to 19×13 because I can use bulk ink and paper in 100 foot rolls In my larger printers and bulk ink in my one smaller printer which I use to proof. I just can’t see how film is cheaper. After all film is a four letter word!


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