Saturday, October 17, 2015

The true cost of photography

Years ago, before I went digital with my photography, I debated the cost of digital versus film. I'm still not sure the costs work out in favor of film.

With film I used to buy bulk rolls of 100 feet of film and put it into 36 exposure cassettes. It was something that could be done on a rainy day. It was quite fun to do. I suspect I would go through a roll or maybe two a year. Each bulk roll would yield around 25 cassettes of 36-39 exposures.

Currently 100 feet of film is around $70. My film of choice was Ilford HP5+ black and white. As with digital, I printed very few of the photographs I took, storing the negatives in date order in a ring binder. As I processed my own films, the cost was low enough to be negligible and certainly not more than $1 a roll.

There were many skills involved leading to a much more satisfying experience. Skills that just aren't used with digital leading to digital photography being rather a dumbed down version of photography.

Film cameras changed very little over the years though with increasing technology they became increasingly unsatisfying in use. Built in meters ended the skill of estimating exposure based on lighting conditions, built-in automatic exposure made people lazy about their exposures, built-in autofocus took away many of the focussing skills needed. APS film was clearly a step toward digitization. APS film had a magnetic stripe that recorded exposure data.

Along came digital and people have no fear of spoiling a photo because photos now cost nothing per photo. That meant a great explosion in camera sales as those afraid of making mistakes knew they could just keep reshooting until they got it right.

The great explosion of photography came as a great bonus for camera manufacturers as they expanded their factories, doubled, tripled and quadrupled production and profits. Immense money was spent on research and development. New cameras which had been introduced on average every 7 years were now churned out every 18 months. This ensured companies could sell new cameras every year without worrying about a saturated market.

The camera companies agreed amongst each other that to best milk the market, they would dribble out improvements slowly. This would ensure customers would replace their cameras every two years. Needless to say, a lot was spent on marketing and brainwashing the public into believing they needed to "upgrade".

So now we have a situation where $500 - $1000 is spent every 2 years on a new digital camera. Over the fifteen or so years I've been doing digital photography, I have spent (on cameras alone) $2,500 and I got off lightly. Had I upgraded every two years the that figure could well have been $10,000.

Because of the constant upgrading, older digital equipment loses its resale value. I paid $1,200 for a camera that I'd now get maybe $80 for on a good day.

With film, the cameras used to lose resale value far more slowly. As an example, I had a great deal in 1990 when I bought a 10 year old Nikon FM for $300. It was a great little camera and got used right up until I went digital.

In the ten years I used $1,800 of digital SLRs I took 10,000 photographs. Of those, I can certainly assure you many were duplicates or very similar. Some were for GIF animations. In my film days, I doubt I took 2,000 photos. The interesting thing though is that the slower and more deliberately I took photos, the better I liked the results.

I have never taken photographs as an art form. I leave the arty farty stuff to people who fancy themselves as great artists. My photography is stuff that I think looks good and now that I'm not trying to knit rice puddings (selling photography), I just photograph whatever I want. Sometimes I even follow the latest trends!

I suspect the photos on digital were more fun because of their instant view ability. I suspect film photos are better because they're more considered.

But back to cost. Digital costs many of the skills of film because they're not used. Taking 10,000 photos on a film camera would have cost $19,444 in just film. That's a stupid comparison though as film users think before pressing the shutter button.

In 20 years of film cameras I took 2,000 photos. That's around 100 a year or 3 rolls of film a year. Even though there would be years when I'd take no photos and years when I'd use many rolls, it balances out.

Looking at how I do my photography today - I use a cellphone and take between 0 and 10 photos a day. Most are not the kind of photos I'd use film for. Film I used for things I wanted to remember. Digital is just a fun thing.

I have a feeling the true cost of digital is more than monetary. It's is a cumulative de-skilling of the photographer combined with a lessening of the worth of photographs. There was a time when a grainy black and white photo of Machu Picchu meant something. Now a million tourists a year take darned good photos of Machu Picchu on their cellphones.

It's getting very much to the point where one asks whether photography has become like writing. Everybody can read and write. The scribe of old is now history. The photographer is also headed for history.

Does photography now have value other than to the companies that sell overpriced camera gear?

I have a feeling I would be taking fewer photos with film but better photos. I'm with somebody that said some 15 years ago that the digital darkroom was the best thing ever to happen to photography. I see their point of view totally.

What about camera size? Well, since the current DSLRs are oversized enough to resemble something Fischer-Price would make, I can't say that I'm impressed. Digital camera lenses are also larger along the same lines. It is all lighter though. I rather suspect the plastic is thick to compensate for its flimsiness as opposed to the metal originals.

I can honestly say I feel photography has been greatly devalued by digital to the point where spending money on cameras should now be grounds for hoots of derision. Perhaps this is the time for those who are really interested in photography as opposed to the current digital gizmooligy to get into the wonderful old processes using dry collodian etc.

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