The Real Cost of Digital Photography

I have a book by the late Galen Rowell called, “Galen Rowell’s Vision – the Art of Adventure Photography.” It’s a compendium of all the articles he wrote for Outdoor Photographer magazine over his years as a regular contributor. In one article entitled, “Around-the-World F4 Shakedown” he writes about his experiences testing the Nikon F4 against his F3 when the F4 was first released. His article concludes with the lines, “Who knows what the 21st century will bring? I do know that I can’t afford not to be using the emerging technology.”

His words ring home the message that most serious professional photographers understand – that in order to stay on top of business the pro must keep up with the latest technological developments in photography. In the days when film cameras were all there was, keeping up with technology meant testing out new films, buying new cameras when a better model was released, and buying new lenses, filters, strobes and whatever else was necessary to capture better photographs more practically, economically, and conveniently. For someone like Rowell who traveled to remote corners of the world and often climbed up mountains in extreme environments or visited harsh climates, keeping up with cameras and photo accessories was so important that he even designed some of his own gear that was marketed with his name.

The biggest cost in film photography, as digital photographers enjoy pointing out, is the cost of film and processing. “Why don’t you buy a digital camera? You’ll save so much money on film.” For the serious amateur, yes, I agree. Buy a digital camera – a good one – and you won’t need to worry about all the money spent on film and developing. Plus you can reduce storage space at home and lighten the weight in your pack. But for the pro who is serious about keeping up the big time professional field as Rowell was, digital photography is actually not any cheaper. From my standpoint it’s actually a lot more expensive.

In the Winter 2010 issue of Outdoor Photography Canada, photographer Michael Grandmaison writes that he has changed his digital camera three times in two years. When I met him in 2005 shortly after the release of his book of Canadian landscape photographs, he had been using a film camera to capture all his images. That means he is at least on his fourth camera since I met him. In the same period of time, I bought a Tachihara 4×5 field camera to add to my equipment that consists of a now 10-year old Minolta, a Bronica 645 which I bought used in 2003, and a Pentax 6×7 that I bought used back in 1993. Though the medium formats have gone in for adjustment and repairs, they are still as good as they were when I first took them home. The wooden Tachihara should still be operating just as well as ever in 50 years if I take good care of it (though I might not be around to use it then). The message in Grandmaison’s words is that the top professional needs to spend money faster than ever in order to keep up with the latest developments in the rapidly evolving technology of digital photography.

It doesn’t end with buying a new camera every other year though. In the same issue of OP Canada, Mark Degner reviews the LensAlign Pro, a device to help digital users be sure that their lenses are giving them maximum sharpness. “You owe it to yourself to check out a LensAlign Pro if you want to get maximum sharpness out of your cameras and lenses.” The Pro Plus goes for $249 US and the regular LensAlign Pro for $179 US. On the next page is the Spyder3Elite, a monitor calibrator, which is a device that is critical to use “if you want to have consistency in your prints… or you want to share or sell your images… Colour management and monitor calibration are necessary evils of digital photography.” The price for the Spyder3Elite is listed as $349.99.

Those devices aside, one must also consider having a computer. Though it’s been said that one doesn’t need a computer to shoot photographs digitally, it is essential to have one for photo editing, sending photo files to clients via email, managing any bulk work, and preparing your images for home printing. Computers are not as expensive as they used to be but consider that they generally last for about 4 to 5 years under heavy use and you’ll be looking at shelling out for a new model by the time you’re on your third digital camera. I can’t imagine a serious pro making a healthy go of his or her business using a 7-year old computer that is “slow” and running with obsolete software.

Software is another issue where everyone is taking about PhotoShop or LightRoom and how useful these programs are. I remember reading a review of the latest PhotoShop edition back in 2001 or 02. The reviewer praised the new edition for correcting so many of the problems and inconveniences of the older version. Had I laid out the hundreds of dollars for the software back then I would now be working in the Stone Age if I did not upgrade with each new edition.

Storage devices are also a “necessary evil”. Thankfully the prices have really come down on memory and external hard drives and flash cards now can hold much more information than before. That’s a blessing since cameras now can shoot at 12 mega pixels or more. Also, everyone is advised to save their files on external devices because all computers can be expected to crash at the end of their operating lives. It’s not a question of if but when. Not only that but backing up files on another device and storing it in another location is advised too so as to insure one’s files against total loss by fire or flooding. So you’ll need two hard drives for every time you want to save files outside of your computer’s hard drive.

If you have a closet full of slide binders then you’ll also need a reliable scanner which you will have to keep upgrading every few years and most likely you’ll need a printer too.

Add up the cost of all these things along with the regular gadgetry and gear that photography requires and it quickly becomes a hefty investment. Of course, these days there are very few photographers making a living from using film exclusively. Most are using their digital cameras while keeping a trusty film camera at the ready on a shelf in their homes and offices, just in case. But for me who is still using film almost exclusively (save for a compact digital for snapshots), the cost of film is much more manageable than keeping up with the digital and computer development race. I have my camera and accessories, my light table, and a loupe. I need to buy extra binders or slide sheets once a year or so and film use is regulated as I can afford to pay for it. Compared to pros like Michael Grandmaison, I am spending considerably less on photography-related goods each year. On the other hand, compared to pros like Michael Grandmaison, I am earning considerably less from photography each year. We are not even in the same ballpark! Or rather, he is on the field and I’m a little-leaguer watching from the stands.

Sadly, however, it seems that unless you are a fine art photographer making good money off your film photography, working in digital has become a “necessary evil” for any commercial photographer – be it wedding, outdoor, or studio photography – and keeping up with the latest gear is a virtual necessity. You have to spend money to make money, and now you have to spend even more.

The next time someone says to me that digital photography is cheaper I’ll reply with, “Unless you’re a full-time amateur, it really isn’t.”

9 responses to “The Real Cost of Digital Photography

  1. Very good points. When I bought my first digital camera, I remember reading somewhere that you should expect obsolescence in the camera body after about 3 years, so what you save on film and development costs, you spend on upgrading hardware.

    On balance (for me, anyway), I still find the advantages of digital to outweigh the disadvantages. Being able to shoot 500 photos on a single card, being able to adjust the ISO however I want, in-camera review… I’m not sure I could do what I do if those options were not available.

    BTW, do you still have Shiomi in your sights this month?

    • For speed and convenience (light weight with only one camera and no film) I totally would like to go with a good digital camera sometimes, at least when large format photography is not of paramount importance. The points you mention above are all excellent. But again, until I have an extra 500,000 yen or more kicking around for a camera and lenses (and more money for eventual computer upgrading), I will have to continue making my way with film.

      Oh, and in response to your question about what you would do without all the conveniences of digital cameras, I suspect you would still take photos anyway, as people did for a very long time before they had all those conveniences. My friends and I used to make plans and meet before there were cell phones, and people enjoyed photography before there were digital cameras. Photography just got more convenient.

      Yes, I am still looking at Shiomi. The question will be whether I can afford to take a day off work to make it a three-day trip and what day that will be.

  2. While much of what you say is true, particularly about the useful life of film cameras, I find I’m so much more productive with digital, allowing me to get more work done in less time. I REALLY don’t miss three or four trips to the lab every shoot day. Digital has also given me more billable options, including raw file processing, retouching and file preparation for client output. No film. No Polaroid. No scanning. It’s all great, even though I do shoot film for personal projects and drum scan them in house.

    • Well, I have to say that I can certainly see the benefits of digital and I am sure that once I start with it, it will be hard to go back. Certainly I can appreciate being able to shoot freely and experiment, as I used to do back in the days when I had money for film and wasn’t supporting a family. I don’t shoot all I would like to because I can’t afford to. Getting a digital SLR would give me more freedom to shoot and exercise my creativity.

      The thing that deterred me at first was the rapid advances in the technology. There was no way I could afford to keep up. Now I feel the quality of digital is excellent and a good camera could continue to produce excellent results for years to come, I expect. But again, the cost is what holds me back. Until I can afford to upgrade my four-year old laptop computer and buy a decent camera with new lenses, I simply cannot consider making the switch. The cost of film is minimal in comparison, and the time spent going to the lab is less than what I would spend sitting at the computer every night after being away from home for 12 hours or more.

      Perhaps one day I will get there. I don’t believe that I shouldn’t.

  3. You bring up a lot of good points. I happen to have a keen interest in computers, so I would have a nice one regardless, but there is no way in hell I would have ever thought about buying things like monitor calibrators or monitors capable of displaying the full Adobe RGB gamut. I cringe when I add up the total cost for digital, luckily the computer can be used for so much more than photography.

    I will say that after purchasing an IPS monitor recently and a Spyder 3 Pro, I can easily say one could easily get by without ever needing to spend the money for those luxuries and you would only suffer a bit more trial and error for prints. The Lens Align is truly one of the biggest scams in all of photography IMO. A cheap yardstick, a triangle, and some small pieces of wood is all it would take to replicate it, but even that seems unnecessary since you can usually spot front or back focus during regular shooting with a fast aperture lens. Just my thoughts on cutting down on excess costs.

    • Thanks for your input, Clint. Yes, of course, a computer does have many other uses and I use mine mostly for writing and saving my CDs so I can make mixed disks for driving. So, I too would have one regardless (hoping mine doesn’t crash soon!).

      As for the comments about the other gear, I am glad you think it’s possible to get by without some of them. When someone writes that having this stuff is absolutely essential I wonder what they are getting paid to write that. If I can get by with just the camera and a computer that will make things a little more realistically affordable for me. Almost.

      I appreciate your comments. Thanks for reading!

  4. Mmm, the argument for using fully written-down (ie old) gear appeals to me, as a way of keeping a lid on costs. But what really keeps me with film (specifically, colour slide film) is the colour and the look. Sometimes – although not always – this is not reproducible with digital, especially when it comes to landscapes. (Though digital often works well with snow scenes.) Ideally, one takes both types of cameras on a hike , a film camera for the meditative landscapes and a digital camera for the action….

    • You know, PH, I just read yesterday the words of yet another pro raving about the benefits of digital photography and what a pain it was to use film. But when I was in Utah, I found a gorgeous landscape calendar by one David Pettit who uses the same 4×5 model I use, and I visited the gallery of another landscape artist whose stunning and awesome works were captured with a Wistia on Velvia. I felt a little vindicated knowing that these incredibly talented individuals did not think film was an archaic pest that was best left in the dusty annals of photographic history along side glass plates.

  5. I’ve always been a fan of Galen. His writing in Mountain Gazette back in the 70’s was as poetic as his photos. I wish someone would publish them.

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