How I Stopped Thinking About The Cost Of Film Photography

Back when I was predominantly shooting film, I was very conscious of the real cost of every frame.

I’m not going to get into the minutiae of the numbers (yet), but even at its cheapest, every photowalk would end up costing me double figures (pounds).

So of course with a tangible cost per shot, it amplifies the pressure to make every one count, or at least be worth keeping, if not a masterpiece.

In time this just grated harder against my primary purpose and pleasure in photography -wandering around the countryside capturing images of things I find beautiful and interesting.

Photography is an escape from me, from many things, and one is thinking too much.

Having that money factor present in my mind, plus even planning when I would next be able to get to the lab to have the film processed, all pulled me away from photography as a pure, simple, mindful, often meditative pleasure, a repeated return to stillness.

Back then, a keeper rate – how many images I ultimately decide to keep, rather than delete – of one in 10, whilst realistic in terms of my abilities, was painful on the cost front again.

A roll of 36 exposure film that might cost even just £5 once processed, works out at 14p a frame – if every one is deemed worth taking in the editing.

Get down to one in 10, or say three photographs out of those 36 exposures, and the cost is £1.67 a frame.

The price of film photography was escalating when I was at the tail end of my involvement in 2017.

Poundland no longer stocked AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 for £1 a roll, and online the cheapest colour negative film worked out about £2.50 per roll, if bought in bulk.

Processing costs were rising, too as supermarket labs were stopping film processing (I used to get four rolls developed and scanned to one CD at Asda for £3 per roll plus £2 for the CD, so a total of £14 for four rolls, or £3.50 per roll) and the nearest alternative was around £6-7 per roll.

And even this 10% keeper rate is perhaps generously optimistic.

I’ve had rolls where only one frame is worth keeping, and once or twice, none at all.

What if the keeper rate is only 1%, one in a hundred? You’d need to shoot three rolls of 36 exposure film to yield one keeper, so you’re then looking at £15 per frame at my old cheapest rate, or more like £25+ per frame at the prices film has escalated to.

Now of course, the final image is not everything in photography, as I’ve often spoken about here, and in fact it’s a distant second for me, compared with two other elements.

First, the experience of getting out in nature and exploring, seeking out those potential images.

And second, the joy of using the camera. This was at its peak with old manual film cameras like the Asahi Spotmatic F or Contax 139 Quartz and a beautiful Takumar lens attached.

But there are very few cameras I don’t enjoy, and my penchant for older digital cameras is strongly driven by this too.

I love working out how those older, simpler cameras work, and trying to coax the best from their limitations of sensor size, MegaPixels, ISO limit and so on.

Nowadays, whilst of course I still strive to make as many beautiful photographs as I can, I’m more than comfortable with a keeper rate of one in a hundred.

Largely because the cost factor has been eliminated, along with all the pressure and inhibitions it imposed.

So I’m free to enjoy those two major benefits of photography – wandering in nature and using old cameras – without restriction, or concerns about cost rattling around in my mind and detracting from the experience.

How about you? What keeper rate are you happy with? Does the cost of each image play a factor in your enjoyment and freedom in photography?

As always, please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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14 thoughts on “How I Stopped Thinking About The Cost Of Film Photography”

  1. Interesting question. I suppose the answer depends somewhat on how one approaches photography. I started doing darkroom printing 4 months after buying my first camera. So, just as you enjoy discovering beauty in your walks, much of the enjoyment I get is from being able to go from film to print. I like experimenting at every stage from composition to print/scan to see what’s possible with film. Since my focus is on the process as much as the photograph, I learn from every frame, so in that sense, they are all keepers.

    1. Thanks Jerome, this is the beauty of photography and the different levels and stages. I know some people love digital processing and the initial capture of the image is almost a necessary chore just to have some raw material to then mould into the final image they desire.

  2. Maybe my approach is too naive but I don’t stress about the results when I’m shooting film. I love the experience of walking and taking photos. I like the excitement of seeing how my photos turned out. I like the unknown. For guaranteed photos I have my digital camera.

    1. Thanks Luciana. I do seem to have this dichotomy within me, in that I also love the experience of wandering about exploring with a camera, with no expectation of the outcome. But then with film I was disappointed to have few keepers, and felt it was a waste of money. I could have had (and have had) the same experience if there was no film loaded in the camera, for no cost!

  3. My goal is to develop one 12-exposure roll of black and white film every week. Because I bulk load and develop my own film, and have settled on inexpensive materials, my final cost for a developed roll of film is about $2.10. My cost per image is not a concern.

    Regarding keepers, I keep all of my negatives along with a proof print of the entire roll of scans. I typically print two or three frames of the roll immediately but often go back weeks, months, or years and print older images because they are now of interest to me or others. A recent example was a conversation with a neighbor about my having lived in a building designed by Mies Van Der Rohe that led to my printing some pictures I took of the building lobby in 1968.

    1. Doug, I know the way to much cheaper film photography is bulk rolling, self developing and scanning, like you do. But I’m just not that invested in film to be bothered – nor do I have the space or facilities to set it up.

      I’ve said before, your organisation and filing system is incredible, I love anything like this!

  4. I think the real joy in any avocation comes from finding your own path. And there can be vicarious pleasure in seeing how others follow their chosen paths. I enjoy reading about your approach to evaluating cameras, and about your photowalks. I am envious of people who live in such a photogenic environment.

    1. I think there are two main reasons we like to read about other photographers. 1. To find others that are doing what we’re doing and take inspiration! 2. To find others who aren’t doing what we’re doing and take inspiration!

  5. So you stopped worrying about the cost of film photography by quitting film photography. I expected to read that but thought maybe I was wrong…. 🙂
    The beauty of – in my case – not having a blog is that I have no expectation of output.
    I’ve gone on periods where for days and even weeks, I’d go out on photowalks and I wouldn’t have a single keeper. Not one picture I’d be happy with. Then at other times I’d go out and in a single walk I’d get 30-40 pictures that I thought were pretty good.
    So I never have, and probably never will, have a “keeper rate” calculation.
    It’s one of those things that add pressure to your shooting, and honestly, that is probably the one activity I do where I can run away from daily pressures. So I have the expectation that nothing will come out of it and anything that I am happy with, I am really happy with.

    1. Yes you read that right!

      I may not be seeing this completely clearly, but I don’t think having a blog changed my expectation of keeper rate. Of course it’s good to have photos I want to share, but my archives fill in any gaps in current shooting.

      I think it’s a great approach to have very low or zero expectations with the photographs you make, then everything good is a bonus!

  6. I enjoyed reading your comments! I have a photoblog and I find it encourages my photography. If I bodge things up, I remember its not my job, so no one will shout at me (when I was an assistant – people did!). Regarding cost, I just try to slow down and not over-repeat things, particularly with big neg cameras. On the other end of the scale, have you tried half-frame? Really like colour in half-frame. All the best, J

    1. Hi James, thanks for your comments.

      Yes I have tried a little half frame, with an Olympus PEN EE-S. Very cute and charming little camera, and I loved the whole idea of half frame giving you twice the value from a roll of film. Fun to play with double and triple images too.

      The main issue I came up against at the time was scanning. I didn’t want to scan myself (tried that, hated it, took ages, never got results I liked) and leaving it to the lab meant they usually scanned two images at a time in one image, and often not the two (or three!) I had planned to have side by side, if that makes sense. eg if I had shot six frames and frames 3 and 4 were meant to be side by side, they would scan 2 and 3, then 4 and 5. Or I wanted 3, 4 and 5 and they scanned 2 and 3 as a pair and 3 and 5 as a pair.

      And if I forgot about these double and triple images and just shot single images, I still ended up having to manually crop each half of the scan of two images, to make them individual. Again, just extra work and complications I didn’t enjoy.

      That said, I would still recommend any 35mm photographer try an Olympus PEN and shoot a few rolls half frame!

      1. Yes, scanning is a hassle with half-frame and Aperture (where I used) moan and moan. I suspect if you did it two at a time with a DSLR on a light box it would be just about bearable.

      2. Scanning was such a chore, I can’t see I’d ever go back to it. Just the opposite end of what I enjoy most about photography – being out in the countryside and fresh air with a camera I love using.

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