One of the questions I get asked most frequently is ø¢â‚¬Ëœshould I buy a digital camera now, or wait until the prices drop some more?’. There is no short or easy answer to such a question. Instead, one has first to find out in some detail what sort of photography the potential digital camera buyer thinks they want to do. Then you need to know the state of their computer hardware and finally, what sort of budget they have to work with. At every stage you have to be asking yourself if analogue photography could deliver a better cost benefit ratio. Taking someone through this process gives one a real appreciation for the challenges facing the sales staff in Australia’s camera stores.
From the Archive: Don’s Editorial, Photo Review Issue 6 Aug/Sept 2002
A key issue for many buyers is the price difference of analogue and digital consumables. Once you’ve shelled out for the camera, memory card and printer, your printing materials costs are in the range of $3-4 dollars per A4 sheet. If you get four images on such a sheet, you’re looking at per picture costs of $0.75 to $1.00. This figure compares very favourably with the conventional alternative where per print costs are $0.60 to $0.80. However, the comparison isn’t entirely fair.
In order to get prints from film at the aforementioned price, you need to buy and expose an entire roll. If you’re an APS user like our family is, you’re doing well to get a 25 exposure film and finished pictures for $20. We take lots of kid pics and as anyone who has tried child photography knows, your hit-to-miss ratio is very high. If you’re fortunate there will be maybe 10 ø¢â‚¬Ëœkeepers’ in 25 pictures. But all too often, the number of worthwhile shots is closer to half that figure.
You can probably see where this is going. At 10 decent pictures from a $20 roll, your true pershot cost is, of course, $2. And on those rolls where you only manage half a dozen good ones, the real unit cost soars to $4 or more! The beauty of digital photography on the other hand is that you only spend money on consumables when the images are worth it. To have the further benefit of a per-picture cost that’s on a par with film photography is just a bonus.
Does this mean that you should chuck away your film eating camera? No, definitely not. If you’re a happy snapper who uses only a roll or two a month, the amount saved on film will be more than offset by the dollars you have to spend on a digital camera capable of delivering ‘happy snap’ quality. $800 will get you such a digital camera, while a zoom-equipped film eater can be had for closer to $200. The $600 difference will buy you 30 developed rolls of film. If you’re averaging one roll a month, that’s a two and a half-year supply.
And remember, while taking digital pictures is a free activity, printing them isn’t. If you’re printing an average of 10 snapshot size shots per month, your materials cost over two and a half years will be around $225-$300. So, to end up with a camera and 300 worthwhile images after two and a half years will set you back $800 for a conventional camera ($200 for camera + $600 for film) or $1100 for the digital alternative ($800 for camera + $300 for prints). Left out of the digital equation as well are any costs incurred to upgrade your computer, buy more memory for the camera or purchase a photo quality printer.
But if you’re a keen amateur or a “pro-sumer” (a marketing category to describe those of us who spend more than we should on our photo aspirations!), the dollar dimension can rapidly swing digital’s way. Not only do you use 4 or 5 times as much film, you aren’t going to limit your camera budget to $200. A reasonable SLR will set you back $1500 or so and a 30 month supply of film (say a roll a week) could easily run to $2500 or more. That $2500 will get you a 4 megapixel camera. If you’re a pro or semi-pro putting half a dozen rolls of colour transparency film through your camera every couple days, the argument for adding digital to the arsenal looks overwhelming.
In the end, there is much more to the digital versus analogue debate than consumables and hardware costs. Film cannot match the flexibility of digital, and digital, unless you spend a great deal of money first, can’t deliver the peak performance of film. But what really matters is that as a photographer you have the tools you need to capture and express your vision.
Sometimes that involves spending more than an accountant would say you should. So be it, says I!