On a recent All Through a Lens podcast about the Kodak price increases, there was a hint of despair. Folks were worried about how much things were going to cost in the future and even whether or not film would continue to be produced. Fuji has given us all PTSD.
I think about the future of film often. I’m a bit stuck in my ways now, and I don’t really like shooting digital. I think that’s largely because the one thing I enjoyed shooting in digital isn’t really a thing anymore. Covid has pretty much put the nail in the coffin of concert photography for me. Big shows had gone to “two songs, no flash” years ago and only small venues were any fun to do after that. So many of the places I used to shoot punk bands in are gone, victims of gentrification and Covid. Too small for social distancing, and not financially stable enough to weather a pandemic, they’re mostly empty buildings with fading paint or erased by the new tenants.
Since I want to keep shooting film because I enjoy it more than I ever will anything else, I try to spend money with an eye towards the future when I buy both cameras and film.
With a few notable exceptions, the cameras I shoot with now are mechanical beasts chosen for their ability to create a pleasing image and for their ability to be repaired. Someone will always be able to CLA or repair a Leica M. I don’t ever see demand for that going away. The only thing with a meter in it I have picked up lately is my Bessaflex TM, and I bought that because of its younger electronics. I just sent my Medalist off to have it rebuilt to as-new specs, except for a modification I asked for. I think this is how I will be choosing my new cameras in the future: uncomplicated machines that will last and bring me joy and satisfaction for years.
Which brings me to film. I’ll admit it, I do like Portra. But man, it has gotten expensive. Kodak claims this is to give it funds to make some upgrades to the production facilities, and I hope that is where they are spending it. Producing film is hard. The frustrating arc of Ferrania speaks to this. But if you want to stretch your dollar there are ways to do it.
Kodak’s motion picture films are contractually obligated, and must be produced. Since 2015, Hollywood production companies have entered in to agreements with Kodak to buy minimum amounts of 35mm film and keep a profitable demand for it alive. The most recent renewal of this agreement is good until 2025. There are options for black and white films from Europe, but if you want to save money on color photography, Kodak ECN -2 is a viable option.
Here’s a bit of a dive in to the costs of using ECN-2 films. I don’t math very well, so this is a bit of a generalization. The cost of water is not factored in since that varies wildly. Equipment costs are pretty regular: Lloyds bulk film loader is $50. A small changing bag is around $25. Reloadable plastic film cartridges are $32 for 25, metal are $42 to $43 for 25. Tanks and reels for home development can be as cheap as a Patterson tank with 2 reels for $33 and a sous vide for $99 if you want to do color film. You could spend as much money as you want on a Jobo, or a full automatic processor like a dev.a or a Filmomat. I allowed for 18 36 exposure rolls per 100 foot roll of film. You can get 19, but this allows for an occasional mistake.
All prices from Freestyle Photo, except for the metal cartridges and 100 foot rolls of motion picture film which are from Ultrafine. No shipping included since that varies. I’m going to leave E6 options out of it. I’ve rarely shot slide film, so I never looked at doing it at home, and I’ve never heard anyone use the words “cheap” and “slide film” in the same sentence. I’m also going to leave out expired film options. Pricing is very inconsistent and the results can be as well, so I tend to stay away.
Development Kit Cost:
The QWD ECN-2 Kit is a $50 kit for 15 rolls or $3.33 per roll. The Conspiracy of Cartographers kit is a $21 kit for 15 rolls or $1.40 per roll. These are the most and least expensive kits I have found.
Some kits call for a vinegar stop bath which adds 8 cents roll as worked out below.
Various single 36 shot rolls can be found on eBay and other websites and vary between $8 and $12 per roll.
ECN-2 color is the only fresh Kodak color film available in 100 foot rolls. It can be bought in 1000 foot rolls but that takes a bit of overhead.
Per 100 foot: 5207/250D is $110, 5203/50D is $90, 5213/200T is $108, 5219/500T is $100.
Hand rolled cost per 36 shot roll: 5207=$6.12, 5203=$5, 5213=$6, 5219=$5.56
Double X/5222 B&W:
Black and white film is a bit more accessible, since it has no remjet and doesn’t use any special chemicals. Kodak Double X 5222 is $100 for 100’ which works out to $5.56 a 36 shot roll.
For comparison, Tmax 100 and Tri-X 400 are $145 for 100 feet which works out to $8.06 a roll. Tmax 400 is $152 per 100 foot roll which is $8.45 for 36 shots. Off the shelf 36 exposure rolls are as follows: Tmax 100 $8.89, Tri-X 400 is $10.99 and Tmax 400 $9.49. I realize 5222 is not a T grain emulsion, but those are the stocks from Kodak I had to compare. I have exposed 5222 between 100 and 400 with good results, but many folks push it further. Arista.edu Ultra, Foma, Kentmere and Rollei films are cheaper. Ilford stocks are generally comparable in price. I’m going to keep it a Kodak Cinema stock only for this exercise, but there are cheaper options out there.
I use HC-110 which is $35 per liter. Using dilution B (1 to 31) works out to $1.10 per 3 rolls in Patterson tanks or 37 cents a roll. Dilution H would be half as much. HC-110 has several official and unofficial dilutions, but I almost always go with B. It’s given me dependable, desirable results.
Plain old white vinegar at Target is 1.99 for 64 ounces, 6 oz in stop or 8 cents a roll for stop bath. You can just use water instead.
Ilford Rapid Fix is $14 per bottle. Mixing it 1 to 4 for film development works out to $2.69 per liter, which can handle 15 rolls. That’s a cost of 18 cents per roll.
Development cost in my world is 63 cents per roll excluding Photoflo. I use it since the water here is very hard, but it is optional. I’m not including the cost of Photoflo since it’s supposed to be diluted 1 to 200 and it takes forever to use a bottle up. Even using a higher concentration than recommended, I’ve been working on the same bottle since 2009 and I don’t remember what I paid for it.
For Jobo developing, cost is much less as they use less chemicals, in addition to that smooth smooth grain from constant agitation and the consistent results over time.
C-41 for comparison:
Unicolor kits are good for 15 rolls: $27 kit is $1.80/roll. There is no 100 foot roll option for fresh color negative, so per roll/pro pack prices are all you have.
None of this helps the medium and large format folks. There is 120 availability of Kodak 5222 from Cinestill. I have seen some hand rolled ECN-2 120 from a shop in the UK available on eBay, but I don’t have any experience with them. It looks like it might be IMAX film hand spooled with a backing. Large format? Well, outside of maybe getting Kodak to do something during their special order days I think you’re probably out of luck.
Would I like more options for medium and large format? Absolutely. If you think its expensive shooting Portra in 35mm, look at what it costs in large format. Film cost alone for Portra 400 means every time you trip the shutter on a 4×5 you spend almost $7, and on an 8×10 you spend almost $28. Which means my 4×5 will probably never be fed anything other than black and white film from Bohemia. I’d love to try some color, but I don’t make that kind of money.
Developing ECN-2 can be a pain. Hand rolling 35mm is kind of boring, I always watch YouTube while I do it. You have to slap an 85 or an 85b filter on when you shoot tungsten film outside or you have to color correct in Lightroom. There’s always the chance you’ll screw something up when you develop your own. But it’s hard to argue with the cost savings. Hand rolled Vision 3 500T developed, cut and sleeved at home comes out to slightly less than $9 all in. Kodak Ultramax 400 costs about the same for just the roll, no developing. Getting a 3 pack can knock it down to close if you develop at home. But Portra? Forget it. You can’t get close to that price point.
I hope that Kodak keeps knocking out everything they are making right now. I think if they start cutting they’ll still keep the motion picture films around. They’re contractually obligated to. The color look is different since ECN-2 is a flatter emulsion designed to be color graded, but I find it growing on me. I think I’ll keep experimenting with it, and keep investing in a future for film that doesn’t kill my wallet while I’m doing it.
All ECN-2 shots developed in the QWD kit, with bleach bypass. That started accidentally, but I like it so I kept doing it.