One of my many, numerous Pet peeves are people who discourage would-be analog photographers by telling them the film is too expensive. They quote $25 rolls of slides, $20 E-6 Developmentand drum scans at $40 per shot, and declare film to be a financial quagmire compared to “free” digital photos.
The fact is that while the film can be dear, it need not be. My 35mm B&W photography costs me less than a quarter per frame, not just for film, but for film, processing, and scanning. And here is the conclusion: I actually spend more than necessary. If I did things differently, I could shoot black and white for less than 14 cents a shot. And while color film is more expensive, it doesn’t need to cost much more than what I currently spend on black and white.
Stick with me through this article and a bit of math, and I’ll walk you through how I do it.
Step One: Save on Film by Rolling Yours
Related – Affordable analog: 10 alternatives to high-priced film cameras
Many popular B&W emulsions are sold in 100 foot bulk rollson which the photographer wraps himself reusable 35mm cassettes. 100 feet gives about eighteen rolls of 36 exposures. A big roll of my favorite movie, Ilford HP5 Plussells for $89.99, which equates to $5 per roll of 36 exposures (about $3 cheaper than the pre-rolled HP5+) or 13.9 cents per photo.
My beloved HP5+ is not the cheapest film on the market. I also like Ilford Kentmere 100. At ~$70.00 for a 100ft roll, it only costs 11 cents per shot. Freestyle Arista EDU the film costs $51.99 per 100-foot roll, or just 8 cents per exposure.
Bulk rolling has benefits beyond cost savings. Chief among them, you’re not stuck with 24 or 36 exposures. When I buy a used camera, I don’t have to burn a whole roll of film to test it; instead, I will prepare a test roll of 5 exposures. For general use, I load around 25 exposures per roll, although this slightly increases my development costs, as you will see in the next section.
What about equipment? you will need film cassettes, which sell for around $1.25 each. They last for years, making their cost per shot virtually negligible. Some photographers use a bulk loader to wind the film onto the cassettes. A loader costs around $50, and if you only keep it for ten years – chances are it will last five times as long – it will add about a third of a cent per frame to your film costs. I don’t use a bulk loader; I simply wrap my film in my black bag.
My Film Costs (Ilford HP5 Plus): 13.9 cents per photo.
Buy color film
Color film for still photography is hard to find in 100-foot rolls; However, you can still save money by buying in quantity. A five-pack can save a few dollars per roll, and if you can find a dealer who will sell you a “brick” of film, you can cut your costs much closer to bulk roll levels.
Step Two: Save on film development by doing it yourself
Related: How to change the seals of an old film camera
I develop all my B&W films myself, and not just because it saves money. I really enjoy the process. If you’ve never done it, don’t be intimidated – black and white development is extremely easy and hard to screw up. Also, it is a huge cost savings compared to lab development.
For those unfamiliar, there are four (approximately) types of chemicals needed (developer, stop bath, fixer, and washing agent) and basic materials. Let’s look at the costs of each.
There are several B&W developer choices; I really like Kodak D-76. It is sold as a $9.99 packet of powder, which mixes with about a gallon of distilled water (about 99 cents). For most of my development I dilute this stock solution 1:1 (so add another gallon of 99 cent distilled water). If I use my single roll developer tank, that’s enough for about 23 rolls of film, which works out to 52 cents per roll. It’s 1.4 cents per frame for 36 exposures, but since I take rolls of 25 exposures, my cost is 2.1 cents per frame.
Granted, I don’t always spend that much. I have a two roller tank which uses about 25% less developer per roller than if I developed two rollers individually in one tank. In addition to D-76, I also use Kodak HC-110, a liquid developer concentrate that costs about 35 cents per roll. And there are cheaper alternatives from Kodak Developers: LegacyPro’s L-76, for example, is identical to the D-76 and sells for $6.99. (As a former resident of Rochester, New York, I use Kodak Developers out of loyalty – or perhaps out of guilt for shooting an Ilford movie.)
I use Kodak Indicator Stop Bath and Ilford Quick Fixer, both sold as concentrates mixed with water. Stop costs 0.9 cents per roll; fixer, 11.2 cents. I use Kodak Photo-Flo 200 as a rinse aid, which adds an additional 3.8 cents per roll. That breaks down to 0.4 cents per frame for 36 exposures or just under 0.7 cents for 25 exposures.
Again, there are more savings to be had. Some people use water instead of stopping the bath (but for less than a penny a roll, I think it’s worth splurging on). I change my stop and fixer every 25 rolls, but they could probably last longer – there’s an easy test for fixer (put down a piece of unexposed film and how long it takes to clean it up), and Kodak’s stop bath changes color when it’s done (hence “Indicator” in its name). As for developers, there are cheaper alternatives from brands like LegacyPro and Arista.edu.
I was lucky to have my development tanks, coils and thermometer given to me. This meant that I only had to buy one dark bag/movie diaper bag (a light-tight bag with armholes, used to transfer the film from the cassette to the developing tank), measuring cups and bottles for the mixed chemicals. (I buy brown bottles of hydrogen peroxide and empty them.) In all, I spent less than $40, but if you’re starting from scratch, you could spend over $150. Most of this equipment will last forever, but if you only get ten years out of it, and like me, shoot about 35 reels a year, it will average out to about 2 cents per frame. (For me, the costs are half a penny per photo.)
My development costs (D-76, single-roll tank, 25 exposures): 3.3 cents per photo.
DIY development for color film
Color film development was once so cheap and widely available that doing it yourself was not considered profitable. Today you can buy C-41 Developer Kits (Color Negative) which contain all the necessary chemicals in one box. Color is a little trickier to develop than black and white – temperature control is paramount – but not much more difficult. The equipment is the same as B&W, plus something to keep the chemicals warm. Many DIYers use a sous vide immersion cooker, which costs around $75.
CineStill sells a one liter C-41 kit which costs $27.99 and processes 8 rolls: $3.50 per roll (much cheaper than commercial development!) or 9.7 cents per image. Arista EDU makes a one-gallon kit that develops 32 rolls; at $79.99, it breaks down to $2.50 per roll or about 7 cents per image. (Color processing chemicals, once opened, have a short shelf life, which should be kept in mind when choosing quantities.)
Filming slides? There are also development kits for processing E-6. An eight-roll kit of Arista EDU costs around $5.50 per roll, while a 32-roll kit brings costs down to $3.59 per roll.
Step Three: Save on Scanning with Your Own Scanner
I scan all my films with an Epson V550 flatbed scanner (which has since been replaced by the Epson V600). Some photographers buy third-party scanning programs, but I’ve been happy with Epson’s software, which works well for black-and-white, color negatives, and color slides. Obviously the Epson can’t compare to a drum scanner, but I’m very happy with the results I’m getting – I think they’re good for editing and share photos online.
I paid $195 for my V550. If I only print five years of it—I hope more!—and if I print 35 rolls a year, my scanning costs are about $1.11 per roll. At 25 exposures per, that’s 4.4 cents per scan. Of course, if I keep the Epson on longer, or shoot more film, it lowers my cost per shot even more.
My scan fees: 4.6 cents per photo.
Add up my costs and how I could save more
If I take a bulk loaded roll of 25 exposures of Ilford HP5 Plus (13.9 cents per frame), develop with D-76 (3.3 cents) and scan with my Epson (4.4 cents), I’m at 21.6 cents per image. I buy my supplies locally, so I have to add 9.5% for sales tax. Grand total: 23.7 cents per frame, or $5.93 to film, develop and scan a roll of 25 exposures of B&W film.
Yet I could spend a lot less. If I shot Kentmere 100, loaded each cassette with 36 exposures, developed with LegacyPro L-76 in my two-roll tank, and kept my scanner for ten years, my costs would drop to $4.91 per roll, or just 13.6 cents per picture. To put that into perspective, for the price of a new Nikon Z7 kitI could shoot, develop and digitize a reel of film per week for twelve years-and I still have some money left to buy a decent 35mm camera.
The color is more expensive, but not too much. With bulk buying and home processing and scanning, it’s easy to get color negative film for up to $10 per roll (27.8 cents per shot) or less. Even the cost of expensive slide films can be significantly reduced.
So the next time you hear someone bashing a movie for being prohibitively expensive, please help me out by clearing it up. In fact, you might want to ask them how often they replace their digital rigs and how much it costs, then explain how much money they could save by filming.