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Trapped in a bubble?

As if the figures for my past forty years of film costings for traditional photography were not bad enough (well, not that bad because digital has only been a reality for me for a quarter of them), I’ve tossed some more numbers around… this time taking the other necessary consumables into account.

Apart from my film costs – which I convinced myself were actual savings through using bulk-loaded stock – I should really have added the outlay costs of producing the necessary visuals… the contact sheets.

Without contacts I don’t know what’s on my negatives… I can’t read grey tones in reverse. So in addition to my film costs I should have added the costs of the chemistry and the contact printing paper… and that would have been before I’d even made a test or finished print for personal appraisal or sending to an editor… nor taking the cost of my time into account. The thought of these additional “locked in” numbers started to worry me even before I’d calculated them!

Monochrome processing

Going back to 2007 when I originally wrote this article, to process the 8,000 monochrome films I’d then exposed, assuming a best case scenario of four films per tank of chemistry, I’d made 2,000 processing runs (at least… perhaps 3,000 runs if the real facts were known). Using an economical developer such as Agfa Rodinal at £7.50 for a 500ml bottle and diluting it 1:50 with water, meant using 20mls per processing run, or 80 bottles of developer which, at the time, came to £600. Later I bought cheap purified water for all my processing, but as I had used filtered tap water for the first 25 years I’ll ignore that factor. I’m going to add 50% to the developer cost because many times I used a stronger concentration – or more expensive developers such as PMK Pyro – and then double the cost to account for the necessary stop-bath and fix chemistry. The result so far… £1,800 for processing (or US$3,600 at May 2007 rates).

All 8,000 black-and-white films needed contacting so I could see what was on them, and at a 30-year average of £20 per box of 100 sheets for a black-and-white multigrade resin-coated paper such as that from UK photo-chain Jessops (good stuff… was probably manufactured by Ilford), and factorig-in 12.5% wastage through poor exposure, incorrect processing, white-light fogging or whatever mistakes I made which really do add up… I bought 90 boxes of paper at a cost of another £1,800.

My monochrome throughput, including film stocks, added up fast at the checkout and I calculate it came to £16,000 or more… minimum!

Colour transparency  processing

And to process my 2,000 transparency films shot during that same period would have used, again at a reasonably prudent rate of four films in a tank and four runs per kit – which equates to sixteen films from 1,200 mls of juice – or around one hundred and twenty five 1,200 ml E-6 processing kits. I used to buy Paterson’s Chrome-Six kits at a discounted price of around £18 each between ten and fifteen years ago. The price now (2007) is around £25 and was probably half that 30 years ago, so an average of £18 seems reasonable for this calculation.

Therefore 125 kits at £18 each tots up to £2,250 before mounting the transparencies in plastic slide holders at £3 per box of 100… or an additional £2,000 for the mounts… but the maths get worse!

Hidden storage costs

Then there’s the cost of storing something like 24,000 35mm colour transparencies… I estimate from the numbers of slides in my last office that I’d retained an average of ten images per film shot. Clear suspension-hung filing sheets holding 24 mounted slides each used to cost around £1 each, and I have 1,000 of them for which I’ve apparently paid £1,000 (much to my horror). The £95 cost of the 4-drawer filing cabinet almost seems to be an incidental at this stage.

All added together the 2,000 rolls of colour transparency film, the E-6 processing, the mounting and eventual storage comes to just under £12,000.

Add the monochrome processing and printing to the colour transparency film costs and it comes to something approaching £28,000… near enough to £30k over a thirty year period, or around £1,000 per annum. Averaged out this figure doesn’t sound too much to get worried about… but, in reality I became much more careful with my photographic output as the costs increased… and in doing so started to lose a certain amount of photographic pleasure. And, I hadn’t begun to calculate the cost of making enlarged prints!

As is often pointed out by experienced (or, more accurately, knowledgeable) photographers who’ve made the transition from traditional to digital – the underlying advantage of digital is that you can shoot much more, edit on the fly and delete at will… and the more you shoot and delete the more you can learn… and the more you shoot the better you can become (remember Gary Player’s quip, “The more I practice the luckier I get!”.

None of these calculations took into account my darkroom hardware costs such as £2,000 for just one of my seven darkroom building conversions over the years, around £5,000 for a state-of-the-art Durst Laborator 1200 Multigraph enlarger… but as there was no buoyant sellers’ market for used darkroom equipment (there is for astute buyers though!) no matter how good the specification, I decided to keep what I had to enjoy printing from the archive of negatives I’d taken dating from the days my now grown-up and married children were born.

Conclusions

As to the future… are the economics and ease-of-use with my Nikon D300 connected to a MacBook Pro? I have to come to terms with the fact that by saving £1,000 a year (a conservative minimum) on film and basic processing I have increased my photo output digitally by two, three, five, or tenfold even… at which point digital sounds very exciting to “old traditional” me.

The trouble is… digital formats and storage change too irregularly… my digital files so carefully stored and backed-up on tapes, Zip drives, floppy disks and Syquests not so many years ago (OK, during the last decade of the last century) are all unreadable to me now… whereas I can still look at the prints I made 40 years ago and reach, in an instant, for the archival negatives which are in perfect condition and capable of making identical prints at the click of a light switch and a dip in a tray. Maybe as a digital worker I’m trapped in a bubble!

Image & text 2007-2012 Ed Buziak.

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