The Economics of Film vs. Digital

Important note to the reader: This article was written in April, 2010 and is therefore not current. The tabulated prices and flagship cameras have changed, but the basic argument remains valid.


tl;dr Digital isn't cheap compared to film until you've shot a LOT of film.


It’s often been argued — and I’ve conceded the point more than once — that the cost of making digital images is essentially zero, while the cost of buying and developing film is prohibitive. The flood of film shooters to digital over the last several years seems to underline this logic, and it has become received wisdom.

This doesn’t seem to present a problem for most people, not least among them the manufacturers of digital cameras who are making obscene profits from all of this “free” image making. But I am not most people, and I have a deep and urgent need, a need bordering on the pathological, to subvert received wisdom whenever possible.

In this analysis, I compare the total cost of owning a Nikon D3x to owning a Nikon F6. These are the flagship professional digital and film cameras, respectively, in the Nikon stable. Both of them are currently available new, each represents the pinnacle of technological achievement in its medium, they take essentially the same lenses, and are as closely matched in features as one could hope — all in all, a pretty even playing field. Moreover, the D3x’s sensor delivers 24 Megapixels, which is probably the useful limit of what can be extracted from 35 mm film by scanning. So, while analysis does not debate image quality, it’s useful to know that the two cameras are in the same ballpark in terms of resolution. If the resolution discrepancy were large, an economical analysis like the one I present here would have diminished relevance. And before we plunge into the numbers, I should declare upfront that I have a bias for film, which is my primary medium. That being said, I hope you’ll agree that I’ve tried to set the scene as fairly as possible, and trust that I will present the data as objectively as I can. All prices are in US dollars, current as of April, 2010, and taxes have not been included on either side of the ledger.

I’ve chosen Fuji Velvia 50 for the F6 because it’s the professional standard in slide film. Adorama sells Velvia at $34.29 for a 5-pack ($6.86 per roll of 36 exposures). In this analysis, developing and scanning will be done professionally by North Coast Photographic Services. Developing costs $5.50 a roll, and “enhanced” scanning at the time of developing is $8.25 a roll; this produces images measuring 5035 x 3339 pixels, or 16.8 Megapixels — not quite the D3x’s resolution, but indistinguishable from it in reasonably-sized prints. Using these parameters, the total cost of purchase, development and scanning is $20.61 per roll. (The cost of mailing to NCPS, if applicable, has not been included — this could be offset by using a cheaper film.)


Have a latte and call it even!

In this simple analysis, you’d have to buy, shoot, develop, and scan 241 rolls of Velvia before the cost of owning the F6 becomes more expensive than owning the D3x. That’s a lot of shooting, especially at the pace to which film shooters are accustomed: 241 rolls of film at 36 exposures per roll amounts to 8,676 images. Or, if you shoot 1 roll a week, almost 5 years (during which time the D3x will have been superseded by a D4 variant, but the F6 will still be the F6.)

Let’s delve deeper. The process of developing and scanning film typically generates three versions of each image at no extra cost to you: the slide itself, the digital copy on CD that NCPS sends you in the mail, and the copy you make when you import the CD into your workflow. To have two levels of back-up if you shoot digitally comes only at extra expense: to make things even, let’s add to the cost of your D3x the cost of two decent external 1 Tb hard drives. A reasonable option is the LaCie d2 Quadra Hard Disk at $180. That’s equivalent to another 18 rolls of film for free!

Refrain from 3 lattes and call it even!

The film shooter might be tempted to save by scanning himself, but whether or not this makes sense depends upon a cost-benefit analysis of the scanner. You could certainly buy a very good flatbed scanner for much less than the $2,137 it would cost you to have 259 rolls scanned by NCPS, but why bother? The pros will do it more quickly and conveniently for you, and probably better than you could do it yourself. Also, a top-of-the-line dedicated film scanner would cost more than $2K new. Take the Nikon Coolscan 9000 ED, for example, which has an MSRP of $2,800. For argument’s sake, let’s see how the numbers evolve once we add an Epson V700 flatbed to the mix. The V700 is a good trade-off between quality and price. Including it would decrease the total cost per roll from $20.61 to 12.36, but you’d now lose those two built-in back-ups, so the film shooter would have to purchase additional external drives. I’ve also not included the cost of your time, which may be considerable, depending on your occupation!

Have two lattes and call it even!

What the table above is saying is that the price of the D3x is equivalent to the price of the F6 with the purchase, development and scanning of 358 rolls (12,888 exposures) of Velvia 50 built in! Don’t be fooled: digital imaging is far from cheap compared to film, that is, until you’ve shot a lot of film.

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