This started from a general feeling that was then further triggered by an opinion piece by Grant Scott. His argument is that the costs of analogue are too high, if the important thing is the outcome (the picture).
His premise is that digital photography, with its marginal cost of effectively zero, is the better method for getting results. This is certainly true for speed and convenience. It’s also true in teaching. Digital photography allows for experimentation and provides immediate feedback. Want to know what effect the aperture has? Take five or six shots and compare. Notice how moving things get blurred as the aperture closes down? That’s the relationship between shutter speed and aperture to maintain a consistent exposure. Now you try…
I’m not so sure how the costs of setting up compare. Even now (and I’ll come onto this) a basic film camera looks cheaper than a basic digital one, if you also want some manual control of the camera. The running costs are different though, which was the basis of Grant’s argument. But it’s a complicated argument and Grant has said that he got a lot of critical comment about his opinion piece. The cost per shot of digital is effectively zero. But the digital camera probably cost more than a second-hand film camera. But then the costs of developing, scanning, a computer and so on add to the real cost of using a film camera. All I can say for certain is that the cost per finished picture is higher for analogue, once the set-up costs are discounted (and those may work out around the same for digital and analogue). So Grant’s argument is that using film is a choice based on wanting to use it because you like it, or because it gives you the results that you want and can’t get by other means.
Film feels like it is becoming more expensive though, and it feels this is true even with inflation. Just about the cheapest options right now are Kentmere or Fomapan for black and white. Seeing some colour films selling at £15-18 a roll just means I will be reading about them rather than using them. But there is more to this than how it feels. Ludwig Hagelstein did an analysis of film prices in real terms in Silvergrain Classics. The headline of his analysis is that film isn’t that much more expensive than it used to be, allowing for inflation. However, there was a period when it was perhaps artificially cheap, so it looks expensive when you compare trough to peak. If I look back to when I was doing photographic printing, the price of 100 sheets of Mutltigrade adjusted for inflation would now be £69. The same paper now retails for £63. I’d call that the same relative price, so well done Ilford.
For anyone wanting to track the modern value of historic prices there is also a US equivalent here. You may also be interested to see how Mr Darcy on £10,000 a year could afford to light his cigars with Portra.
You’ve also to think that film is difficult to make. Back when Kodak were king they had enormous throughput and hence economies of scale. If you listen to Robert Shanebrook he talks of a machine applying perhaps ten or twenty separate layers to the film base, with thicknesses of a few microns. In the dark, too. This is very difficult to get right – I used to work in a paper mill and it’s hard enough getting a single layer of paper right. He says that in its heyday, film accounted for 110% of Kodak’s profit, meaning that it supported the other areas such as paper and chemicals. Lose that volume of throughput and you lose the economies of scale. So the price has to go up. There is also the consequences of stopping doing something and losing the ability to restart. Kodak did it when they closed the lines and their people retired. Fuji is doing it now. Polaroid are learning how hard it is to come back when the knowledge and machinery have gone. Nikon had a go at remaking a mechanical camera, to sell a limited number of them for a fortune and probably at a loss. There are also fewer people who can fix cameras and fewer parts to fix them with. And as a resource becomes scarce, the price probably goes up. (Unless you are a government, and believe you can increase the number of skilled people by shouting). It’s also very difficult to make something new when the components are no longer made. Reflex struggled to make or buy a working shutter for their camera, for example.
So the summary is that film, while interesting, is a niche product. The cameras that can shoot it are no longer made and will decline in number (unless someone like Copal steps in and makes shutters again). Film is hard to make and will probably remain as a low-volume product for as long as the cameras keep working. The true cost of film is roughly where it used to be historically: it’s just that the prices look higher due to inflation. Prices for some thngs will rise due to scarcity and competition for them, but that’s how markets work. So I believe the message is that we should enjoy it for what it is or the special results we want, grit our teeth about what feels like a lot of money, and have fun while it lasts.