Philosophy & Reflections

Film Photography Shows Why Private Property and Capitalist Markets Work Well – By Frank H. Wu

January 12, 2019

If anyone had doubts about it, the comparison of digital photography and film photography presents a compelling argument for the norms of private property and the capitalist marketplace. Simply put, because I incur negligible incremental cost taking an additional digital photo but significant real cost taking each film photo, I am careless about the former and careful about the latter. A price is only a proxy for value. But it serves its function.

I paid approximately the same for my digital camera (body only), already obsolete, as I did for my film camera (with two lenses), long since discontinued. You could argue that producing images by the two means is fiscally similar, depending on how much use you expect from each kit. Amortizing the equipment offsets the cost of film and developing; the digital costs are fixed if you resist the acquisition of more glass, except for replacement memory cards. So you can run a straightforward calculation to determine the tipping point when the next roll will put the aggregate cost of film over that of digital. The more you shoot in digital, the less each picture; the more you shoot on film, the opposite. Since the original expenditures are easily forgotten, while each order of Ilford HP5 and each cartridge dropped off at the lab for processing is a reminder of another charge for this hobby, film appears expensive if not extravagant. Hardcopy prints add more (though digital can be rendered materially too).

That is not necessarily “a bad thing” to be vernacular. It imposes self discipline. I think nothing of burst shooting in digital, or the manual equivalent of taking a dozen snapshots that are virtually identical. I carry an extra battery, and in RAW I can approach the limits of file space. I hesitate before pressing the shutter button again on film, unless I am sure I botched the framing or exposure or the autofocus misfired. Even at my most prolific, I do not reload more than once in a session.

The behavior is a direct result of utilitarian forces even if not consciously analyzed. If the universe imposed a penalty for every discarded digital file or made film free, I am sure all of us would adapt to the new incentive scheme. Adam Smith was right. The invisible hand is at work.

The lesson to be learned about life is that we, or at least I, do not appreciate as much what I have been given as what I have had to bargain for. I earn my film photos. I have to be able to afford it. That means repeatedly. Each and every satisfying click and whirr is a few pennies, which must be in the pocket. I am automatically averse to waste.

That also is why health insurance plans require co-pays. Even a modest fee alters choices. Likewise, event planners charge a nominal amount to join the fun. An RSVP with no nonrefundable deposit is painless to walk away from. Someone who owns property will invest in it and maintain it. Somebody who does not have that stake or inherited it without exertion might or might not.

The outcome is obvious to me. My film photos are better. I don’t mean objectively. I mean personally. The digital photos are sharper, if that is the desired effect. They span a wider range of lighting conditions and other circumstances such as inclement weather. The film photos are composed more thoughtfully, and it shows. The proportion of keepers is a magnitude more. I like the analog me. To be contemplative is ethically preferable to treating everything as a commodity. Digital is disposable. It suggests misleadingly that our lives are as well.

Over Christmas, for example, I shot more than 1000 photos on digital, and I uploaded maybe a quarter of the total to social media. I’m known among the friends of my nieces and nephews for the big head pictures from family vacations. But I shot only a roll on film. I tried a new medium format camera, film — I composed two frames, manually focused, and await, nervously, the developed negatives. I like my digital photos as a finished product. But I derived pleasure from the film photos as a creative process.

Photography is not intrinsically ideological. Yet observing how photographers respond to the reality that the art involves cost offers insights into human nature. No doubt greater sacrifice would provoke greater consideration. Perhaps it also is the source of inspiration.

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  • Reply
    Michael Kay
    January 12, 2019 at 10:46 am

    There is of course no reason at all why we can’t apply the same care and attention to our digital images as the ones we take on film. We only need to pretend we can only take 36 images when we go out and pretend that they each cost money. Taking time and care over our image production is our choice not to make. We don’t have to snap away and then go home with far too many similar photographs!

    I shoot film and digital. I like film cameras more, but digital cameras produce better images. Because they are easier to use, more people get better results. It can be whatever we make it. I’d add that film can produce much better image quality then the images we often see shown on this blog (and others like it), as far too many people have cameras that aren’t set up properly, or they don’t focus properly, or they don’t obtain good quality scans – all of which are possible with more care and attention.

    Finally, we don’t have to change our digital cameras every 2 years to have the latest thing. They have already exceeded the point of sufficiency.

  • Reply
    George Appletree
    January 12, 2019 at 3:53 pm

    If cameras couldn’t have been developed without industrial revolution (read Walter Benjamin) and digital cameras without Bill Gates (read computer development), then what about Confucius: the path is the target (probably there’s a better translation to that statement).
    Yes, there was also Steve Jobs but my point is that enjoying taking photos is a good thing, even in the case you’re communist. And you can do it either with digital or film in the same manner.

  • Reply
    Andrew Bearman
    January 12, 2019 at 6:54 pm

    With all due respect…poppycock. You’re just rationalizing your love of film.

    The price of film is not analogous to healthcare co-pays. Photo gear purchase decisions are not the same as paying for medicine or hip replacements. Are you less likely to take your meds if they are free?
    The argument that film process costs are similar to digital no longer holds true (thank you, market forces). Like Michael Kay mentions, you can now buy older, much less expensive digital cameras that exceed film’s resolution. Many phones today can.
    Not everyone who owns property maintains it. People don’t always act in their best economic interests. (See also: GAS and my closet full of film cameras)

    Nothing wrong with loving the slow careful process of film-making art. But rationalizing its costs as supporting the “norms of private property and the capitalist marketplace”? Do you really need economic incentives to be less careless with your digital photography? Pay more attention to how you work. Apply the slow-go methods of your film work to your digital. You can do that without spending a dime.

    • Reply
      Terry B
      January 13, 2019 at 1:33 pm

      I’m inclined to agree. To assert that my photographic efforts will be better rewarded were I to return to film photography because I’m counting the pennies of each image, from film to processing, is a nonsense. Admittedly, there isn’t an additional “capture penalty” for each additional image I take with my digital camera, but this is one of the beauties of digital capture. I can experiment with different exposure settings or camera position, but this in no way devalues the effort taken for each image.
      When it comes down to it, the only meaningful comment I read about the film v digital debate, is when photographers freely admit they use whichever takes their fancy for the subject matter in hand. The two platforms are different, and we should embrace these differences.

  • Reply
    January 12, 2019 at 11:48 pm

    Meh… how about the non quantifiable cost of missing a good photograph, because one could not review what was shot? Or because you had a slow film and happen to see a good shot at night? Sure, if you consider all your photos to be equally valuable, then we can talk about per photo cost. However, I have a bunch of bad photos and a bunch of good photos, and it wasn`t the medium used that determined their “artistic” quality, or value.

  • Reply
    January 12, 2019 at 11:51 pm

    Have to say I agree with the other comments, it’s easy to be slow and thoughtful with a digital camera too, and whoah I don’t think deleting images once you’ve imported them or whatever is that difficult, just hold down shift, select most of them (in my case) and hit a key….AND they’re gone. There’s a lot to be said for not chimping too, if you don’t review your shots when your taking them it helps I think.

  • Reply
    Mark Kronquist
    January 13, 2019 at 3:40 am

    How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How Bill Gates (did he have ANYTHING to do with the Apple QuickTake 100?) come into the picture (sorry for the pun). If you buy thriftily and print B&W yourself, your cost to create a (black and white) film image is a few cents…what does Pro Photo/Blue Moon/Freestyle/Citizen’s et al have in their clearance bin for film, papers and chemistry? Mix your own developer and save…bulk load etc etc etc…back when camera stores were dying by the dozen I stocked freezers full of film and paper and will continue to draw from these stocks for many decades to come. When Kodak still honored processing mailers (2010) my cost of DP/DP Scan to CD was two stamps per roll…
    Studio closing? What’s in their freezer? Experiment! Enjoy and shoot

  • Reply
    January 13, 2019 at 4:38 am

    Frank, there are some thoughtful comments above. But I, for one, agree with you. Once you own a digital camera and lens, the incremental cost of taking more pictures is almost nil, so yes, people get sloppy and spray and pray. It does not cost them anything. As several comments above pointed out, you can be deliberate with a digital camera and carefully compose and plan each frame (“the slow-go methods of your film work”). But realistically, how many digital users do that? Come on.

    As for me, I prefer the way my black and white film pictures look for the type of scenes I photograph (old architecture, urban decay, abandoned factories). I use both Fuji digital and various film cameras (of different formats), but the film ones give me more reward, and I prefer the output. The cost is not really a factor as I am not taking hundreds or thousands of photographs. But still, I am more careful and try to make each film frame count. For me, it is more fun and I prefer the end result.

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    January 13, 2019 at 9:17 am

    I agree with Andrew, there’s no reason why shooting digitally should be any less careful than with film. The people who say that shooting with film makes them slow down and think are talking nonsense. It’s just a hackneyed phrase trotted out by hipsters who were probably going about it in the wrong way to begin with.

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    January 13, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    Shooting in a slow, deliberate manner with digital equipment is akin to eating just one potato chip or one M&M.

    • Reply
      January 14, 2019 at 5:52 pm

      😀 so true!

  • Reply
    January 14, 2019 at 2:06 pm

    So Frank Wu’s style is for Frank Wu, my style is for me. Your style is for you. Hey, who knew……. I’m not using the word ‘poppycock’, but I think this post is using a lot of words to say what ONE person thinks about THEIR OWN style. Your mileage may vary. May? Of course your mileage WILL vary. Your style, your choice of vehicle, your purpose, your destination, your route.

  • Reply
    Arthur Fangou
    January 18, 2019 at 8:41 pm

    All this article tells me is that Frank is a lawyer, incredibly anal about everything & a real tightarse to boot. Hah!
    Chill out & live a little mate…you can’t take those cameras with you when you leave this world.

  • Reply
    June 23, 2020 at 6:10 am

    what a load of ****. I would write a more elaborate reply, but it is not worth it.

    This is so absurd that it is not even wrong

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