One of the main reasons people have for giving up film is cost; once you’ve crossed over to digital, the days of shelling out for film, development and prints are over. You can shoot as much as you like without – theoretically – spending another penny. If you want your pictures to look like film, you can use Instagram or use film plug-ins on Photoshop.
Quite apart from the fact most digital shooters have to change their camera every few years – not exactly cheap unless they’re going for the very bottom of the compact market – there’s also cost of the computer needed to edit and display the images. A new MacBook laptop buys a fair few rolls of film.
Search for “film cameras” on eBay and you’ll find tens of thousands of cameras up for grabs – from professional-level Canons and Nikons to vintage folding cameras and cheap and cheerful compacts. Medium format cameras and high-end 35mm SLRs that once cost the pros thousands of pounds to buy new can be had for only a few hundred. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Flea markets, garage sales, second-hand shops and camera stores contain millions of old film cameras waiting for a new home. And while the varieties of film available has declined in the last decade since the digital revolution, you can still buy film and develop film very cheaply indeed.
If you’re determined to buy collectible old cameras like Leicas, Contaxs and Nikons, you can spend as much as you would on a vintage sports car. But taking your first steps into film photography needn’t cost much at all.
Case in point; 10 years ago I bought a Zenit E at Greenwich Market in south London. The Zenit E is a no-frills SLR that was made in the Soviet Union in the many millions during the late 1960s and 70s. The camera was widely sold across Europe, including the UK, to raise hard currency for the USSR. This particular camera was inscribed with the logo of the 1980 Moscow Olympics – a very canny capitalist trick to make these Communist cameras more collectible. The price? £4. That’s less than the cost of pint in a London pub and less than I usually spend on lunch each day. I’ve shot a few rolls with it, and some of the results have been fantastic.
I recently spent a November break in Istanbul; it’s a city I try and visit once a year, as much to take photos as to see my friends and further explore this bustling, chaotic city of 18 million people. Istanbul is one of the great cities to practice your skill as a film photographer – anything could be round that next street corner. I brought my Zenit E alongside a bunch of other cameras, buying film locally to supplement the handful of rolls I’d bought with me. The lens was a Helios-44 58mm lens, the lens that usually came as standard with Zenit cameras. This one had come from an old Zenit 12 that was kaput, though the lens was in perfect condition. The camera and lens cost me £10. That’s a camera and a lens in tip-top condition for £14.
One of the cheapest range of black and white films you can buy today comes from Foma in the Czech Republic; in the UK you can pick up a roll of their Fomapan 400 film for as little as £3. In Istanbul it’s even less – 9L a roll, which is about £2.70, and this would go down even more if you bought a handful. The roll of Kodak Ektar colour film bought from London cost me £6 from West End Cameras. After a day’s shooting around Beyoglu and Eminonu, both rolls were developed and scanned for 20L – just over £6 – at an excellent Istanbul lab called Foto Halis. That’s a camera, lens, and two rolls of film bought, developed and scanned for under £30.
Buying and developing film in a place like Istanbul, where the cost of living is lower than London, might have artificially lowered the price this time. But even in London, you can get development and scanning for less than £6, if you don’t mind waiting a couple of days. A quick check around the UK’s labs shows that outside of London you can get dev and scanning outside London for around £5.
If you’ve been thinking of shooting film, make it ones of your New Year’s resolutions. You don’t have to spend a fortune.
* This is a re-edited version of a guest piece I did for Film’s Not Dead. If you’re London-based, do check out their shop and gallery at their shop in Clerkenwell or their stall at Brick Lane Market, and visit their website.