As one of the “O.G.” film photojournalists in Cypress, Texas area, I want to bring a little bit of perspective to the history of photography.
Unlike VHS tapes, decades old film negatives are still viable quality-wise today. But as you will see, digital photography is a much better option than film today.
I think the last roll of film I bought was in 2004, maybe 2005. With a good modern negative scanner and today’s advanced software, you can make that look like it was shot on a modern mirrorless camera.
In a recent conversation I dropped this gem, which led me to authoring this piece: “Back in the film days, I calculated a frame of film cost roughly $1 per image for just getting a 4×6 done (cost of film + processing + printing). By sourcing the most viable film to do the job (which resulted in buying Kodak’s PRO film in bulk – we called them “bricks”), and only needing processed negatives, I got that down to 58¢ per image … I’m surprised that number is coming to me so easily. It was a lot of math about 22 years ago!”
I used to work in a one-hour photo lab back in the day, as well. I’d run my film when the tank’s chemicals were just in the right balance and temperatures (even the type of soft vs hard water has a big difference!).
I grabbed this 2022 data from B&H and my pro lab, Miller’s, for the processing.
When we talk about dynamic range, so just like different camera sensors react differently, each film stock handles that and even handles colors differently!
My favorite was Kodak Portra ISO 800 and Fuji’s ISO 1600.
Looking at B&H, they currently don’t sell the big bricks of Portra, just 5-roll boxes of 36 frames (180 frames), and that’s only of ISO 160 and 400. Ugh.
I would call my local camera store (they closed over a decade ago as most camera stores relied on film sales and were generally speaking the best photo labs we could get) and pre-ordered the big bricks for me to pick up a couple weeks later.
Unfortunately, Fuji is only selling up to ISO 400 films today.
I had clients purchase that at 2-foot by 3-foot poster size.
This large print has so much detail that people in the stands can identify themselves.
Here’s one on display at a restaurant:
Here’s the 2022 costs for just the film.
Portra 800 (36 frames): $16.95 ($0.48 per frame)
Portra 400 (180 frames): $64.67 ($0.36 per frame)
Now you need processing. You might be able to get this cheaper at a local 1-hour lab. But here’s the insider knowledge: The processing machines require volume for the chemicals to be right! I worked at one of the busiest labs in the Houston area 22 years ago.
Just how we use color checker cards today, your actual color balance on the negatives is affected by the quality of the processing (think chemical balance, temperatures, hard vs soft water, etc.). A machine not having enough volume is going to be having major issues keeping those tolerances tight.
I’m going to use Miller’s for my example here: For a roll or 24- or 36-exposures they charge a flat $8. Also, they have a minimum order of $15 (so you need to do two rolls of film).
36 frames: $0.22 per frame
24 frames: $0.33 per frame
Since we’re buying 36-shot rolls, we’ll use the appropriate pricing (still $8 per roll).
Film + processing:
Portra 800 (36 frames): $24.95 ($0.70 per frame)
Portra 400 (180 frames): $104.67 ($0.59 per frame)
Now, let’s say your camera takes up the roll incorrectly and only gives you 35 shots … your costs are actually per roll, so your costs are slightly more per image. Or if you arbitrarily shoot less than 36 images, then you’re costing yourself the same $25 per roll.
Now, if Miller’s is going to scan your negatives, that’s another $20.50. If they burn a DVD for you, it’s another $5.
Suddenly, that single roll of ISO 800 is $50.45.
Oh, we’ve not even touched on shipping.
Firstly, I’m going to drop the bomb on all of this: The post office was known for X-raying virtually every package shipped.
Film and X-rays don’t mix. At all.
You just spent all this money on film, shooting the film, and now have to ship it to a lab.
Thanks for nefarious actors using the post office as a weapon, the USPS started randomly X-raying packages. And those systems have evolved a lot over time. So after you’ve done all that investment and work, you have to risk the post office destroying all your images.
We had special mailers that were lined with lead or something like that, but imagine a postal inspector opening the package, finding a roll of film they’ve never seen before, and then sending it through the X-ray machine by itself …
This debacle was best illustrated by National Geographic and their last roll of Kodachrome slide film. I remember reading about this as they were doing it – they had to make arrangements to get that single roll around the world without it being scanned by postal inspectors. But it was National Geographic, so they could make things like that happen.
Kodachrome was ISO 25, and ISO 64, and had the best color at the time. (You also couldn’t do 1-hour processing, as slide film isn’t negative film. So slide film was ONLY available with offsite processing.)
Now, we also haven’t touched on the camera itself!
We are aware that all cameras have only so many shutter actuations.
My Canon R6 has about 300,000 pictures that shutter should be on-point.
But the average for most cameras was 100,000 photos.
A $2,500 Canon R6 costs $0.025 (two and a half pennies) per image if it lasts 100,000.
At 300,000 frames, that’s $0.0083 (just less than a penny) per image.
That caveat is that you’re paying all that up front. With film, a high-end camera was about $800 for a Canon 3. But you’d end up paying for it on the back end as you buy film.
My personal film camera shot a blazing 2.5 frames per second. When you look at that price, you now realize why we’d use foresight to get our images! In just two seconds, you could “spend” $3.50!
Now, imagine the top-end cameras shooting 8 or even 10 frames per second! In less than four seconds, you just burned through $25!!!
As a sports photographer, I was one of the handful of guys investing with shooting color film. Most shot B&W film for the massive cost savings.
Looking at B&H, Kodak Tri-X ISO 400 film is $10.49 for a roll of 36.
Now, you could also get film in giant bulk rolls and then you’d have to literally roll your own. LOL.
Now Creighton, why are you talking about an ISO 400 film when you were just bashing color ISO 400?
Just how we can use the dynamic range of our sensors, B&W doesn’t have to balance the color spectrum (chemical balance, temperature, time in chemical bath, hard vs soft water), and you can “cook” the film to achieve different effect ISOs.
I’m so old school that I often say “grain” instead of “noise.”
As a photojournalist, we’d often need faster film than the normal 100, 200, 400, or even 800. We’re talking the big balling, shot calling ISO 3200. You could get a proper gray card exposure at most football stadiums with ISO 3200 and f/2.8 lenses, but that dynamic range was pushed to the extreme and anything in shadow would drop off very fast. We had to plan around the stadium lights’ placement to get good exposures for good images. Using flash was a necessity back then, and it wasn’t a problem until you got into the urban stadiums.
That Kodak Tri-X 400 could be cooked to ISO 3200 in the proper hands! You couldn’t send the film out for processing to do this.
Now, that meant that you’d have to have the equipment to process that film. That’s a small investment but it pays for itself really fast.
Generally speaking, only the big daily newspapers would shoot color film at sporting events – and they routinely worked in venues such as the Astrodome, Cowboy Stadium, etc. When they’d send a photographer to a remote high school, that photographer would likely have Tri-X in their camera.
Speaking of ISO 3200 …
In the 1990s, there was one company – Konica – making ISO 3200 color film. It was about $30 per roll. Using an inflation calculator, that’s $52.22 per roll! It is about the equivalent in quality to racking your DSLR / mirrorless camera to the absolute highest ISO your model has. Now, imagine it about one stop worse. Some cameras couldn’t even read the barcode to automatically set the ISO!
I think my entire career only used 3 or 4 rolls of that film.
Nowadays, I routinely start shooting events at ISO 5,000 and 10,000 in certain environments. But that quickly leads to another conversation regarding post-production processes.