The short answer is yes. With film photography you can go from having zero kit to posting a photo on Instagram for less than a $20. And you definitely can’t say that about digital!
The slightly longer answer is yes, initially. The even longer answer is yes and no, depending on your requirements. And the still longer answer is – should we think of digital and film photography as separate? Or as interchangeable and complimentary?
The world today is all about digital. You don’t need me to tell you that. It is all around us, it is all we see. The internet, TV, email, cell phones, sat nav – all digital. Analog is gone. But it is not dead.
In the photography world there is a strong contingent who never abandoned their film cameras. And there’s an even stronger contingent who are turning away from digital and drawing their attention back to film, realising that it still offers things that digital can’t. And there is an even bigger group who are running digital and analog side by side.
But as this is BudgetProPhoto (and cost is our main concern) – are film cameras a good budget option? In theory, yes. But there are lots and lots of drawbacks, complications and tricky workarounds that you will have to overcome in order to make good use of your film camera. And even after that, it’s possible you won’t be able to run a completely analog-only business.
Set up costs
Having said all that, you can be up and running and taking great photographs with a film camera for less than five dollars… And you can’t say that about a digital camera.
Have a root on Ebay for analog film cameras… I just did it and the first result – $5 for a working camera. That’s it. And a quick search on Amazon for 35mm film stock that will work in that camera – $1.50. So $6.50 and you’re up and running, taking photos. Crazy. You could probably manage it for even less than that. There are so many 35mm cameras from the 80s and 90s knocking about that you will probably be able to pick one up for free, or for pennies at a charity shop.
Film and processing
If you are older than, say, 20, you will remember snapping away on a film camera. You will remember winding the film up when you’d finished, extracting it from the camera and storing it safely until you could drop it in to a shop for processing. You then eagerly awaited your images, not knowing until you received the packet of photos exactly what you had captured on your camera.
The good news is that film processing and photo printing still happens almost everywhere that is used to. I turned my attention away from film photography for a few years between about 1998 and 2008, and was convinced when I picked up my Canon AE-1 that all that would be gone. But it’s not! Here in the UK you can still get 35mm film processed at Asda! And in the US the go-to place for super cheap film processing is still Walmart, although apparently they now send it away and take an age to do it.
So, even though there may not be all that many new analog film cameras being sold (although there are still a few!), the rest of the infrastructure to process, develop and print analog film is basically still in place.
It is also still quite cheap. 35mm film has not yet become so niche that it is expensive. You can pick up a brand new 35mm film for $1.50, and having a roll of film processed and 24 6×4 prints from it will still only set you back about $7.
The Digital World
One of the big considerations when looking into an analog film camera is that the world outside of photography is entirely digital. So, at some stage, somehow, you will have to to convert that analog image to a digital file in order to be able to share it in the same way that everybody else shares their images.
So what about this digital issue? Well, you’re in luck there too. Almost everywhere that offers film processing, will now offer digital scans as an alternative to printing. Or you can use any number of scanners available on the market, some of which do an extraordinary job.
Prices vary, and quality of service varies wildly, but ultra budget film photography, from zero equipment to a high-quality, scanned digital image, could set you back as little as $12 end to end. Which is pretty crazy!
Analog film photography – the advantages
Here are the advantages to shooting analog:
- Potentially infinite quality. Analog film is, of course, not held back by megapixels or digital resolution. It is a physical image, a genuine imprint made on a roll of light-sensitive film. There isn’t a pixel in sight at this stage! If you produce a sharp enough photograph and scan in high resolution, you can create a 100 megapixel digital image from your negative. A 100MP digital camera will set you back something like £20k-£30k.
- This is photography at its finest. It is just you, a roll of film, and an adjustable hole. No batteries to recharge, no SD cards, data storage, computers etc.
- Extraordinary results. The images produced by film cameras have a very distinct look about them, impossible to recreate digitally. Or at least, impossible to recreate perfectly. They look amazing, and can be incredibly atmospheric, artistic and striking.
- Infinite options. Because a film camera is analog you are not restricted in what you can do simply by the options given in the digital menu. A roll of film is a blank page, and you can do whatever you want with it. Similarly that roll of film will only do what you do to it, there will be no weird digital things happening that you can’t explain.
- It is amazing training! Do you want to be a good photographer? Pretty much the best thing you could do for yourself is buy yourself an analog camera, especially one that does not have any auto, or program function. Then you will have no choice but to work out each exposure, do the maths yourself, learn from the inevitable mistakes. It is great training to get away from that digital spray-and-pray mentality. Shooting 120 film in a 6 x 6 camera, you’re only getting 10 frames per film. You will very quickly start thinking much more carefully before pushing the shutter button!
Analog Film Photography – the disadvantages
Brace yourselves, this is going to be a long list:
- It is not digital. Sounds obvious, and we covered it above, but this really is your main stumbling block with analog photography. The fact is that we live in a completely digital world where our phones, computers and all methods of communication including phone calls, Internet and so on, are all digital. So, when you take a spectacular photo on your 35mm camera you won’t be able to do any of the things you are used to doing with your digital photos. You can’t email it, you can’t post it on Instagram, you can’t share on Facebook, you can’t upload it to Snappy Snaps for printing.
- Zero automation. Some of the later film cameras did have some automation, including some autofocus for example. Some have auto-exposure. But if want cheap, then you want manual. Which will be a problem for some people. You’re going to have to do this the hard way!
- Continuous costs. Unlike digital, where your outlay is big but once you have a camera and a computer and an internet connection the world is your oyster, analog film photography will always cost you money. Even if you go down the home-processing route, you will always need to buy film. It’s not a major cost, but it is a cost, and it won’t end.
- Every frame costs. We’re banging on about cost because we are a budget photography blog, and therefore it’s important here. As you are paying for film, and probably paying for processing, there is a cost associated with every single frame you take. And if you are really on a tight budget then you will feel that! Plus it means you can’t really rattle off loads of images like you would on a digital camera, so it kind of puts you at a big disadvantage for things like sport photography.
- It’s cumbersome. The cameras aren’t heavy, nor is the film, but the process is. You will have to load a film, take a photo, wind the film on, take another photo etc. And when the roll is done you will have to unload it and load another one. And that takes a couple of minutes, even when you’re really practiced.
- It’s slow. You’re loading, you’re winding, you’re taking a little longer with composing… and then when you’re all done you’re either processing yourself or sending the films away. Then you’re printing, digitizing, scanning etc etc. New digital cameras, especially photo cameras, can bypass literally everything and upload direct to Instagram. Snap, upload. Literally a few seconds between photo and publish. You ain’t gettin that with film!
- It’s fiddly. Even when you are experienced with the whole process, it’s never going to be point and shoot. Every stage of it is fiddly and takes concentration.
- Zero immediate feedback. You take your photos, you send them off. And, while you wait, you take more photos. And it’s not until you get the first photos back that you realize you’ve been making mistakes all along. There’s no screen on the back of the camera, you don’t know what the photo looks like until you get it processed and printed. From that point of view it’s harder to learn and improve.
- You can make big mistakes. The biggest of which is messing up handling of the film. This is less of a problem with 35mm, but with 120 (medium format) you can quite easily accidentally expose the whole roll. You can do it with 35mm too if you really aren’t careful – few early cameras had any safety mechanism to stop you opening the back of the camera while there’s a film in there. And if you do open it then that’s all your photos GONE. Gone forever. Ruined.
- You can’t take lots of photos. For all the reasons stated – cost of film, cost of processing, time consuming process etc. you can’t take lots and lots of photos. And this can be an issue. At Havelock when we’re doing a commercial social media shoot we are prioritizing bulk. We aim to deliver sometimes upwards of 400 photos from a single shoot. During those shoots we can take 2,000 images across two cameras. 2k images would be 56 film rolls @36 exposures each. To get all those processed and digitized you’re looking at $600 or more. Suddenly all your profit is looooong gone!
- Negatives are vulnerable. There is an absolute ton of software available these days to digitally remove scratches and dust from film scans. Which is great. But it tells you something – negatives are vulnerable. They’re vulnerable to mishandling, they’re vulnerable to dust. They’re also vulnerable to ageing. Negatives degrade with time, especially if not stored properly. Technically digital is not free of this problem, but for analog it’s a really big issue.
- You have to rely on others. The moment you send a film away for processing it is in someone else’s hands. And you are not in control of the quality of the work done to it. And we have definitely had some rolls of film processed badly. Not necessarily problems with the actual processing, but definitely in the handling. We’ve had rolls of film back from professional outfits covered in scratches and watermarks. Not all processing labs are created equal. And you have no control over this, apart from learning the hard way which ones to trust.
- Film is fragile. A continuation of the above… once that film is scratched, it is scratched FOREVER. That’s it. The information contained in the tiny line of negative is gone for good. You’re never getting it back. So for all it’s incredible analog detail, those details are so easy to lose.
- Old cameras are hit and miss. This applies to any second-hand photography gear, but the older the camera, the bigger the potential problems. And because analog photography is physical, the problems tend to be physical. We have a 1950s Agfa Isolette II – a folding 120 medium format film camera – and the bellows are shot. The bellows are the concertina element that extends outwards, and if you get a pinhole break in the material then light is getting into that hole and your images are doomed. Having said, I also have an earlier model Agfa Isolette, and it’s fine… but it is hit and miss.
I feel like I could go on forever.
Don’t let this list of problems put you off. The fact is that digital photography is SO easy that it lacks that magic. Because you don’t have to work hard to get clean, crisp images, it’s just no fun any more! It’s time to challenge yourself with something really difficult.
If you have never tried film photography, then do it now. Go out and spend $10 and get yourself shooting on film. You’ll get a few good results and you’ll be so happy with them!
And this is the really big message here – shooting film WILL IMPROVE YOUR DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY. It just will. There is no real argument about this. You can’t spend days, weeks, concentrating on composition and exposure and fail to get better at photography.
Just the process of learning how to use your analog film camera will give you a vastly improved understanding of how your digital camera works. Because things haven’t really moved on all that much. The principles remain the same today as they were when photography really kicked off back in the 1880s and 1890s.
The Original Question
Going right back to the top – is analog film a good budget alternative to digital? If you only have $20 to spend and you want to get started in photography, then the answer is definitely yes. It’s a way in. And there is no way in to digital for $20. That’s just a fact.
Can you run a photography business on analog film only? Probably not. Can you charge for analog photography? Hell yes. Especially if you have clients who are predominantly interested in style. I know of at least one wedding photographer operating here in the UK, in our home town of Bristol actually, who is analog only! And he’s doing great business. Because what analog lacks in ease of use and speed, it absolutely claws back in distinctiveness and style.
I don’t think I would advise anyone to prioritize a film-only commercial photography business, I think you would be limiting your client list from day one, and you really can’t afford to be doing that on day one! But it is a way in.
Should I have an analog film photography camera?
Absolutely, the answer is yes. Go do it today. Search for a 35mm or medium format camera on ebay and pick up a bargain for less than $20. Start learning the hard way, and then start creating some spectacular analog images. You will love it!
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