Is Shooting Film a Waste of Money?

I think film is overrated. Let me try to prove it to you. 

Now, before you call me an ignorant millennial, I do want to mention that I started shooting film in high school, continued shooting film in college, and I shot and edited my own film in my grandfather's custom darkroom. I've personally never owned a medium format film camera, but I've assisted multiple photographers who shot with both medium and large format film cameras. I've compared film side by side with digital. 

There's no doubt film has a certain "look," but most photographers continue to spread rumors about film cameras having better resolution and dynamic range. This was true when DSLRs shot 6 MP, but now, digital is better in almost every way. Even if film was higher resolution, most lenses made for film cameras are not nearly as sharp as today's lenses. Don't believe me? A few years ago, I had a meeting with one of the executives of Hasselblad. He explained that all of their lenses has to be completely redesigned to handle the increased resolution. He also pointed out that no matter how sharp a lens is, a roll of film will never lay as flat as a digital sensor, meaning that each shot will be slightly different on film. 

The other strange argument that film shooters use is that they prefer shooting film because they don't have to edit their photos. This means one of two things: they are saying that the "look" of film is all of the editing their photos need, or they are saying that the lab is doing all of the post-processing for them. These arguments are silly to me, because you could easily do a batch effect on all of your digital images to make them have a "look," or you could hire someone to retouch your digital images. 

I do still think there are reasons to shoot film. Lauren Jonas, who is in the above video, has used film to stand out in a saturated wedding photography market. High-end clients are willing to pay a premium for portions of their wedding to be shot on film. In a world where literally everyone owns a digital camera, you might have to do something "different" to stand out. 

Perhaps the best reason to shoot film is simply because you like it. Most luxury items are technically "worse" than their more popular competitors. My buddy's luxury watch can't keep time as accurately as my phone, and he spent over $10k on it. Patrick Hall spent thousands of dollars on vinyl records that literally sound worse than digital files (don't me started on this).

But we're human; sometimes, we like to feel special, and we're willing to pay a premium for it. I'm sure I spend money on tons of things that would be ridiculous to you. I'm not mad at people who shoot film, but let's not pretend that it's better than current digital cameras.

I've been wanting to make a video for years where I try to make digital files look like film and I was always going to use Alien Skin's Exposure software. It's a coincidence that Alien Skin recently started sponsoring our videos and was also willing to sponsor this one. The software is 100% free to try, but you can use the code fstoppers at checkout to save 10% if you decide to buy. 

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104 Comments

EL PIC's picture

Yes .. Volume and Retouching makes Digital Cheaper

Marcus Joyce's picture

As Karl Taylor says. I can get the shot weather it's a camera obscura or a phase one your broke ass can't afford. Totally accurate quote taken from the internet

chris bryant's picture

Whether I get the shot of the wether is often dependent on the weather :-)

Ivan Lantsov's picture

opinion not fact

EL PIC's picture

If you need more try a cost analysis on all the costs of film paper chemicals and whats a staggering cost .. the most expensive re touch and image modification in your life. But if you are smart seek medical help for your mental and financial illness

Retouching and what little that can be done as post process is at stellar prices.
Don’t forget to add cancer medical payments with film process

Perhaps you should take a look at a cost analysis. This time, be sure to include the cost of camera and lenses. Digital cameras and lenses are much, much more expensive than film cameras and lenses.

Also, one doesn't necessarily need to include the cost of paper and paper chemicals. Many, including myself, process and then scan the film. The post processing is all done on a computer just like with digital cameras.

Usman Dawood's picture

Which digital camera compared to what film camera? Full frame camera can be bought very cheaply these days. Second-hand digital full frame cameras and even cameras like the 5D Mark III can be bought very cheaply.

Well, if you are going to look at a used digital, you must look at a used film 35mm. You can pick up a used 35mm for next to nothing or probably get one for free from someone who thinks they are useless now.

Usman Dawood's picture

No, you look at used digital cameras vs used film cameras. You look at brand new Film vs brand new SD cards lol.

Come on man stop moving the goal posts lol.

I'm pretty sure we were saying the same thing. I was just saying that if you are looking at used digital cameras, you have to look at used film cameras. That's why I said you can get them for next to nothing or possibly for free. Nobody's moving the goal post.

Usman Dawood's picture

I don't think I can agree with you on this one but I also think it's perfectly reasonable for us to disagree :).

Rob Davis's picture

I could buy a used Nikon D610 (body only) for about $600. For the same price I could get a Rolleiflex 3.5 Xenotar standard focal length. For even less I could get a Mamiya RB67 plus a few lenses. I could also for much less get a Fuji 6x9 which also has a gorgeous standard lens.

So for less than a five year old body-only DSLR, I can my choice of some iconic film cameras with incredible optics. These can all be purchased used from reputable dealers. Both Blue Moon in Portland and KEH offer 6 month warranties.

That Nikon D610 probably needs another battery and SD cards too. So tack on another $50-100 there. Then if you want a good standard lens to match the film options I mentioned, you’re looking at another $300-500 for a 50mm lens with comparable image quality.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes sir...exactly. I bought the Fuji GX680 with finder, back and 115mm lens for less than 600. Also bought a Nikon F5 for only 220. Already have plenty of lenses. Hasselblad 500CM as well...only 125 for the body and 115 for 80mm lens. But this was years ago. I see prices have gone up, but still cheaper than comparable digital. I buy most always from KEH.

Patrick Hall's picture

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/352116-USA/Nikon_1799_F6_35mm_SLR...

State of he art Nikon film camera is about the same price as a refurbished Nikon D850 right now.

Maybe so, but here's one of the great things about film. Unless you need ulta-fast focus or frame rate, you can use a 50 year old camera and get the same results as using a state of the art camera. Regardless of the camera you use, the "sensor" (film) quality is the same. Not true with a digital camera.

Don't get me wrong. I use a digital camera 98% of the time. Digital has fantastic quality and a multitude of other benefits. My argument with the author is with him saying that film is not as good as digital and that it is a luxury item. Depending on the film and your workflow, film isn't expensive, especially if you are using a $50 camera vs a $1000 camera.

Wayne Cunningham's picture

I haven't heard the argument that film photos don't need to be edited, and the question of resolution also isn't an argument I've heard much from experienced film photographers. The greatest argument for film, and one that isn't sufficiently discussed in this article, is the 'look'. I just love the look of the photos I get from my Hasselblad 500CM; it's so easy to get beautiful portraits. I find that digital photos tend to have a homogenous crispness, while there is more variation in film, dependent on camera, lens, and type of film.

I'm always willing to listen to a good argument, and I know that digital is essential for most professional work. But most film photographers I know enjoy the process of taking photos with film and developing them. It isn't necessarily about quality, which is a dubious concept.

And, frankly, the article lost me by suggesting that digital music sounds objectively better than vinyl.

Film photos need to "edited".
I thought I was a good printer until I hired a really good printer for a project.
She would take hours making just a couple prints. Dodging, burning, bleaching, using hot developer. Doing different variations with different grades of paper. It wasn't easy and the smell of fixer still makes me a little nauseous.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Exactly sir. We were waiting for you to mention all this. There's a quality to film that just can't be found in digital. I shoot both but mostly film and have found that digital strives to make photos look "perfect." It does seem to have a real feel to it. I've taken photos with both and the slides look just as I saw them. I could tell the digitals were...well, digital. It's not a bad thing but I just want the photo to look like how it is seen. Of course filters or editing can/should be made to make them pop to your eyes but that can also be done by slapping the photos on a quality downloaded disc and go for it on the computer. Now we can have both medias. Shooting with the Leica R8 I also have that luxury.

Patrick Hall's picture

Lee and I had the amazing opportunity to listen to a massive vinyl collection against a bunch of lossless Apple digital files. The sound system was about $25,000 and he had everything from old jazz records to pop, rap, 80s rock. We synced the songs up and he a/b’ed them with 3 of us having our eyes closed. Each one of us thought a different source was the digital instead of the vinyl. We did about 10 songs, some of them like Thriller I knew like the back of my hand. We were all less than 50% correct when picking them out. The only time we could tell was on old jazz albums where the vinyl was a bit poppy.

Sometimes the vinyl would be a bit warmer and the digital would be clearer. Sometimes the vinyl would be brighter and the digital would have more bass. But the overall consensus was that vinyl never sounded “better” and rarely could we pick out the difference. That evening clearly made me believe that the arguement of vinyl being the superior format was bogus. It’s not. But that being said, last year I bought about $3000 worth of vinyl and still love the process of pulling a random album out and playing it on my stereo.

As someone who shoots both I find myself shooting less and less digital. My gravitation towards film has nothing to do with resolution. Film has a certain look and I don't care if you have Alien Skin, VSCO, or any of the "film" presets out there. It's just an interpretation of a digital file to make it look like something else. Ultimately both have their advantages and drawbacks, but I don't think anyone is going to be convinced that you might as well shoot digital and edit it to look like film if you want the true film look. And for someone who wants something to look like film, why not just actually shoot it? Your upfront costs for digital are higher and your back end costs for film are higher. Just a cost tradeoff in my opinion. Film or digital is just a preference and one isn't better than the other, but they are definitely not the same from an aesthetics point for anyone who knows what they are looking at.

Patrick Hall's picture

Yeah but for many wedding photographers, they own both systems. They have the digital gear and the film gear. It’s like the biggest waste of money for their business. They’ve spent more on their gear than anyone I know shooting just digital.

Greg Wilson's picture

RNI does it really well. Their film simulations are profiled to the individual cameras and in reality even the experienced film photographers fail the blind tests and can't tell the real film from the RNI simulation without pixel peeping.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Film is not expensive and it's definitely not a luxury item. It can even be argued that it's a lot cheaper in a lot of situations.
Also, call me back when there's a digital TLR on the market. Or a camera with a curved digital sensor. ;)

I certainly don't get that "luxury" feeling when I'm bulk rolling my HP5 and developing it in my kitchen sink. I do get personal, creative satisfaction though.

John Ellingson's picture

I've been taking photos for over 65 of my 77 years. I've had a commercial (advertising) studio and commercial darkroom. I've been in Ansel Adams darkroom back in the day and he in mine. I've shot a lot of film from large format to 35. I got one of the first Nikon D1s and wore it out. The thing that I'd never give up with digital are all of the post processing capabilities that never existed with film. There really is no equivalent in film for Lightroom and Photoshop or Topaz or any of the many other wonderful plug-ins. Last weekend I shot a polo match. I shot over 3800 frames at high frame rates with three different cameras. I never could do the with film - -at least not without twice as many cameras and at least two assistants reloading the cameras. The darkroom for the film would have been a nightmare as would have been the review of all those images. Digital is a lot more than the camera and the lens. Post production does things that simply are not possible with film.

Today, I think film is more in the realm of "art" photography. I don't think any film shooter would try to cover a polo match with, say, an old EOS 1V at 10fps. That would be a little crazy. But hauling out a 4x5 for landscapes and printing in the darkroom? That's going to produce something that really isn't possible with digital (at least not the affordable digital).

John Ellingson's picture

You may have a point about "affordable" digital. I did haul that 4x5 out to shoot landscapes. There is nothing that I could produce with that 4x5 that I can't do with digital. On the other hand I have three Nikons (and I'm supported by NPS if there is another one I need that I don't have), I have a host of Sigma and some Nikon lenses. I process on an iMac Pro and I drive three large monitors. I am supported by Topaz software and have all of their plug-ins (and I absolutely love them). On a whim I weighed my kit that I took to shoot polo -- 53 lbs without the two tripods with gimbal heads and the monopod!
However, I would have shot well over 100 rolls of 35mm film and the cost would have been pretty high where after I buy the card the digital exposures are free. I also would have had to pay a couple of assistants for a couple of hours. I figure I have about $35K of equipment listed on my insurance policy.
When I was shooting film I had about a half dozen Nikon F and a bunch of lenses, two Hasselblads with multiple lenses and backs and a 4x5 (An Arca Swiss at Ansel's recommendation). Then I had enlargers for each of the formats, and a dry and wet darkroom, with paper safes and print dryers (Two dryers - one drum dryer and on simply a frame for air drying. Of course the lights and timers, etc. Then there were the fans and filters to keep dust out of the darkroom. Consumables like film and paper along with the chemicals. Film may have been more expensive than digital!
I still have a fifty year old tripod that has served both film and digital!

Brandon Ericksen's picture

Yeah a lot of the Old school “used it for decades” photography professionals I know would have to be dragged kicking and screaming to go back to film, they simply won’t touch it.
As for landscapes there are many stitching programs (PTGUI for instance) that render a larger resolution format moot.
@ John Ellingston WOW! I’m sure you have some stories to tell!

Scott Basile's picture

For a lot of us it's also about the process. We can debate image quality all day long, but making shit by hand is just fun.

Patrick Hall's picture

This is the one argument I can agree with!

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