Cost of Film v Digital – and what it tells us about the change in shooting styles

I was watching this rather good video on Youtube yesterday by Jamie Byrne Photography, in which he was explaining why he was giving up shooting film and concentrating entirely on digital work. He’s got good (one might say economically unassailable) reasons for so doing and I’m not arguing with him. He has good points and he makes them well. He also stresses that it’s not shooting film he doesn’t like per se, for him it’s just an argument of economics. I’m lucky in that as an amateur I can shoot what I damn well please and if I choose to spend the money on a film shoot then I can. It’s my money and I don’t need to balance a bottom line for it. I’m not going to argue, for one moment, that the future of commercial photography is overwhelmingly digital for both cost and convenience. I’ve seen videos with people arguing that if you look at the ‘real’ cost of both then film is much cheaper than digital; you factor in the cost of cameras, processing software, etc etc. You know what, they’re wrong. Let’s get this out there: digital is cheaper. You can put one image on a memory card, or fill the card and the cost is the same. Heck given that you can reuse the card over and over and each card costs pretty much peanuts for what it is, they’re damn near to free.

But then an idea bubbled up from my subconscious: they way we shoot has changed, and the way people expect us to shoot has changed with it. Digital has changed the way we think about making images, and the way we now think about image making has changed to suit that.

There’s a lovely quote by my personal hero, David Bailey, on photographing Jean Shrimpton:

“She was magic. In a way she was the cheapest model in the world-you only needed to shoot half a roll of film and then you had it.” (quote found here)

Now I’m going to allow this having a degree of Bailey’s famous humour here, but having looked at film of him shooting in the 60s (just watch some of the many films about Bailey on Youtube) it’s clear he’s not taking that many images. He’s spending a lot of time looking and directing but there aren’t a huge number of clicks compared with what you see now where you see the same level of model direction, but taking far more images from which they can select the best. Sometimes they’re even shooting in burst mode. This is what you can do with digital when the individual image costs nothing. You can take lots and just accept a high number of substandard ones along with the good ones. To put it simply the modern digital photographer can afford to be wrong far, far, far more often than their film predecessor could be. To be deliberately, and rhetorically, tongue in cheek as Bailey might be: you can afford to be far more sloppy and careless with digital.

I’ve realised that I have a genuine personal example of this change; our wedding photos. We got married in 1980 and our photographs were taken by Studio Norwich (who may or may not still exist). The album contains 86 images – that’s all we were offered because there are blank pages where we opted to reject a couple. They are slightly rectangular so assuming the wedding photographer’s tool of choice for the time, the Mamiya 645, then they were getting 15 on a roll. Do that maths and this is a bit under 7 rolls. Let’s assume that that they had only a 50% success rate of getting decent photos, which may be worst case, they shot about 15 rolls of film. This may mean they went and did a fairly big wedding and came away with 225 images. Can you imagine a wedding photographer today taking only a couple of hundred shots and giving the client 86 photos back? I randomly searched for a wedding photographer in Norwich today and their super-budget package gives the couple 175 images, with most offering 200 plus.

I reiterate. I’m not knocking the modern way of doing things. If you’re photographing an event which is one of the most important in the lives of your clients and is unrepeatable, then you’d be a pratt not to make sure you’ve got more insurance images then you ever think you’d need. Modern high end cameras record each image onto two separate memory cards just in case. This is brilliant. I knew a wedding photographer once who had to tell a couple that the lab had stuffed up and lost all their photos and he remembered it as the most ghastly experience of his professional career.

The same is true of the commercial fashion photographer. If they’ve paid for a model, and a stylist, and a makeup artist, and a hairdresser, and there is a photo editor wanting a double page spread in some fashion glossy, I can understand they taking advantage of the low cost of digital go make sure they’ve got the shot. I’m going to risk saying that there are no commercial photographers who would put a model, however good, in front of the camera, get them to pose, take half a roll (Bailey shot a Rolliflex, that’s 6 images) and then move on to the next setup. Especially as they’re not going to have seen the images as they shot them.

Did that mean they were more confident, or planned more, or just were in some way ‘better’ in the days of film? I have no idea and I’m not going to speculate, though I suspect not. I suspect that the truth is that if they’d had the low costs they’d have shot more. Mind you I’d welcome the opinion of Bailey on the matter. I’m sure he’d have views, probably very funny ones.

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