Friday, November 13, 2009

Why we don't shoot film anymore:

It's mostly economics. I got curious the other day about 35mm film. Did a strange thing and finished out a roll on a disposable camera that was way out of date. Expired film gives a particular look to the color, if it remains usable at all. I thought it would be fun. It was fun.

While I was at the Walgreens, I priced a few things. The film itself, if you buy a 4 pack, runs about $9.00 for 96 frames, or $2.25 per 24 exposure roll. Maybe a person could do better with rolls of 36, but this was a casual accounting, not an exhaustive search. I think I have old fuzzy memories of $1.99 per roll film going back about a decade. This is pretty standard print film, generic house brand, probably 400ISO. I didn't see a whole lot of choices there, no slide film, no black and white.

Then there's the developing: looked like about $8.00 including a set of 24 prints. Another $3.00 for a CD. When I got back to the Walgreens with my expired disposable camera, I discovered that for only $5.56 including tax, I could get the thing developed and scanned to a CD with no prints. This was for 1 hour service which they pulled off in well under an hour. Not bad, really, but now you have to figure that each frame is costing about 10 cents for the film, plus a whopping 23 cents to develop the negatives, scan them, and burn it onto a CD, and you still don't have any prints. So, about 33 cents per frame. Yikes. When I think of burning a dollar every three frames--- that hurts.

Now, bear in mind I used to shoot a fair amount of film, and somewhere I have moldy old cardboard boxes full of prints and negatives to prove it. If I think of those boxes full of quarters--- and being the good Scotsman that I am I did the math back in the old days too-- big wet Scottish tears go rolling down my cheeks.

Conversely, there's a 650 dollar digital SLR that you can buy at the Walmart across the street. I think it comes with a fair lens. At that price, and let's say that you get a memory card thrown in, how many frames do you shoot before the camera "pays for itself" in film costs ? Let's see, plus tax it's about $700, so times that by three (33 cents per frame for film; or three frames for a dollar ) 2100 frames. As an arbitrary figure, we'll assume that you're a very casual shooter: in a year that averages 5.75 frames per day, or about 40 per week. If you're a wedding photographer you will quite likely use up your 2100 frames in one or two day-long shoots. Sheryl and I did 1000 frames in just a few hours at the last wedding we shot. It was casual, a lot of down time-- nothing hectic. So that's the point really. Not "which is better, film or digital?" but which is more practical.

A few more things worth noting:
A good photographer can get some great shots with a digital camera costing much less than a low end DSLR. Oh and by the way there are DSLRs today which can be had today for less than $650. The reason I priced film against a DSLR has to do with reliability. Most of these cameras are reliable into the range of a hundred and fifty thousand shutter cycles. Cheaper cameras might not be. Yes, you can get great shots with film too, but that isn't the point that I'm making here. Don' forget, film cameras aren't free either, so you have to add that into the cost of film.

I was surprised to discover that my CD from Walgreens had been scanned at disappointingly low resolution: 1800 X 1215, in other words just under 2.2 megapixels. If I ever do want to make prints, I'll be limited to a 4 x 6 inch at 300 dpi. That's really not right. 35mm film will support much higher res scanning than that. Maybe Walgreens assumes that I'm only going to look at these images on a computer monitor ? If that's the case then it does make sense-- as that is about the maximum size that a standard 72ppi monitor will show you, or for that matter a true 1080p HDTV. But man, why assume that ? Maybe I got the CD so that I only print what I want. Crazy. As far as prints go, Walgreens wants 29 cents each for those from a digital source, CD or otherwise. Hmmm. They offer a good price on an 8 X 10 at $3.00, but now I wouldn't trust them to give me a good quality print. If I talk to them about 300DPI as a standard, are they even going to know what I'm saying ?

Personally, I am convinced that my 12 megapixel camera beats 35mm film. I have read very convincing articles that my DSLR, which is the same size, weight and form factor as a 35mm film SLR is equal to Medium Format film in most respects, and far superior in others ( like ISO and dynamic range ). I don't want to argue about that, because honestly, I'd really like to play with a medium format film camera. I really would. Film still looks different than digital; the colors are different, the tones and shadows are different, the way that the highlights blow out-- different. A lot is made about that-- but I can't remember the last time I lost a shot because I blew highlights, unless I wanted to.

Digital noise looks different than film grain, mainly in the perception that one can see "behind the grain" in film. But mostly in my world, I'm dealing with completely imperceptible "noise", so it just isn't an issue. Also, it's very hard to find medium format film these days, let alone processing. I have little doubt that it will be pricier than 35mm if I do find it. Knowing me, I'll probably go looking now, but it will all be mail order-- so is it worth it ? Probably not. Did you know that polaroid film is already gone ? Discontinued, off the market. It's a shame, because that stuff was a real trip.

I'm protesting though, not because I champion digital, but because I mourn the loss of film. We have prints around the house of family members, long dead now. . . turn of the century black and white photos which will knock your socks off. The clarity is amazing, the smooth continuous tones, it's all there. These are prints from large format cameras: 4 x 5 inch and 8 X 10 inch negatives. It's the right stuff. We never should have let 35mm take over like it did amongst the general public. Easy, yes, relatively small and compact cameras-- absolutely. But damn, did we ever lose something in the process of embracing convenience. I'm somehow annoyed and excited at the same time, that digital is catching up to film, slowly but surely. 35mm is not entirely dead, but dying. Medium format is on the ropes. Large format ? Stands to stick around amongst the specialist die- hards for quite a while yet: but traveling with a large format camera is similar to schlepping around my laser printer in a backpack. I'll probably avoid it if I can.

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