Tuesday, August 9, 2022

They say it's expensive

If you've been following along you know that I've been interested in exploring film photography, medium format in particular. To get you caught up, the 35mm film that most people are familiar with creates negatives that are about 2.5 cm high and 3.5 cm wide. Medium format is 6cm high, and depending on the camera, can produce negatives in a variety of widths.

To that end, I've been reading reviews about cameras, film, and the related processes. Inevitably, people mention costs, and that's where I'm going to start today. I've ranted about money several times, but the particular jumping off point for today is here, talking about the prices of things.

One of the things that pisses me off in reviews is them saying something is expensive. When iPhone apps were new they were typically only a few dollars, and yet, people complained about them being too expensive. How can an item costing less than a cup of coffee be considered expensive? Plus, expensive is in the eye of the beholder.

So during the reviews they kept saying film was expensive. That my camera in particular was really expensive, because it gets only 8 photos on a roll, and other cameras would get 12 or 15, and typically 35mm film is 36 photos. The roll is essentially the same cost to buy and develop. I just think the per shot basis is a poor way to think about it. After all, while each shot costs about 4 times more, the negative size is about 5.5 times more. If you do everything right, you get a better result. Typically better results are worth more money.

The comparison that really pisses me off is saying that digital is free. Not so! Let's look at this, assuming you've been taking photos with your phone, and admiring those great photos you see photographers taking. You want to get a 'real' camera. You've got an open mind about digital or film, and you don't have a rich relative that can give you a camera system. Although if you ask around, you can probably find a friend of a friend that can give you smoking hot deal on a camera and related gear.

Let's start with the digital photography world outside of mobile phones. Which, as an aside, appears to be a diminishing ecosystem. For most people, for most subjects, in most lighting conditions, mobile phones are the perfect camera. It's always in your pocket or purse. If you hold it still and point it in the right direction, you're likely to get a technically good photo, that is, properly exposed. From there it's the work of a few seconds to share it with your chosen audience, whether it's your best buddy or a million Instagram followers.

Back to the quest for a 'real' camera. There are any number of cameras to buy, used or new, from a few hundred dollars up to many tens of thousands. I blogged a bit about it here. Often a lens will come with it, or you can buy them separately, used or new, and spend very little to tens of thousands of dollars. You'll need to buy a few other odds and ends like SD cards, batteries and charger, and software to edit the images. You might need to get a more capable computer if you're doing a lot of images, or you get a camera that creates big files. Yes, you could buy a camera that costs $60,000 American. Google Phase One XT if you don't believe me. The question you need to answer for yourself is, does that camera produce an image that is more than 10 times better than ordinary enthusiast cameras?

In summary, the digital cost is up front to buy the equipment, however little or much that turns out to be, and then it doesn't matter if you take one photo or a thousand, your cost doesn't change. Budget a couple thousand dollars and you're in the game with lots of choices. If you get Lightroom, there's a monthly subscription cost, but again, it doesn't matter how many photos you run through it. This is all good till you want to buy a better camera, or better lenses. The digital camera world has changed quickly, with better cameras coming out every year. There are many people trying to persuade you that all you need to do to get better photographs is buy this new piece of gear. Do that enough and you are in the new computer market as well. This in fact drove the camera choice for a friend. One camera he looked at would have required the replacement of his entire computer system. He didn't buy that one.

Now lets think about the film world. There are any number of cameras you could buy, many used, and some new. They range in price from a few dozen dollars to many tens of thousands. Generally though, you can pick up a used film camera, even one that was the top of the line for professionals of the day, for much less than a digital camera, and they usually come with really good lenses. There are times when simpler is better. 

It's fair to add that a used camera (digital or film) might be completely non-functional and impossible to repair, which makes it a display item. Budget a few hundred dollars for a film camera, choose carefully, and you're in the game. Some of them might need servicing, which isn't surprising for a device that might be 40 years old. Some are much older and still function perfectly well. Once bought there is typically no need to replace it. (This is quite general, and there are exceptions.)

The only other expense is film, and this is where the expense wailers start. A roll of film is about $10 to $20. Developing is another $10 or so, depending on if you want prints or scans, and cheaper if you do it yourself. Let's just say $25 a roll all up just to keep the math easy, and multiply for however many rolls you want to shoot in a year. A $1000 gets you about 40 rolls, which could be many different kinds of film for different shooting experiences. You might get deals, and like in the digital world, there's ways to not spend as much money for much the same experience. 

So the comparison is really spending the money up front, with periodic expenses for equipment upgrades or replacement, unless you're really good at saying no, versus a smaller expense up front but with an ongoing cost directly related to how much you shoot. Depending on the assumptions you make, the numbers can come out however you want. Whenever you're reading this sort of thing, you want to know what assumptions are being made.

Whats more important than the dollars is the experience. You aren't doing this to save money, or shouldn't be. You're doing it because you enjoy looking for things you enjoy photographing, or you like the process of doing people portraits, or you enjoy the process of setting up complicated photographs, or you like hanging around with other photographers because we're neat people. Many photographers buy one camera over another because of how it feels in their hands as they use it, or some particular feature that it offers. Some are snobs and they want you to know they use a Leica or Hasselblad. 

I suppose I should say that one of my primary assumptions is that you're buying a camera to actually create photos, and not to treat it as a piece of art. Some collectors do that with cameras, especially Leica cameras. Poor things, parked on a shelf to be looked at, rather than being out in the world taking photographs which is what they were designed to do. It annoys me, driving up the price by taking perfectly good items out of circulation. 

In a wider world, nearly every review of every product mentions the price, and they almost always say it's too much. What do people expect? Nothing is free. Why do people think everything should be cheaper? Maybe things should be more expensive, and then they might value it more. I've seen functional huge LED TV's thrown out because there was a bigger one available, and the owner couldn't be bothered finding a buyer. They would rather throw it out, than resell it and thus 'lose money.' (Yes, I know, that makes no sense.) Or when new things are so cheap, the actual process of selling seems onerous, and the price difference between new and used is small so why not buy new.

Some things, it's impossible to know what the actual price is. Seats on an airplane for a particular flight, for example. I suppose you could come up with a theoretical number, assuming a specific model of airplane flying between two specific cities, on a particular date where you know what the weather will be, with no delays, every seat occupied by a person taking some average amount of luggage, and any number of other variables spelled out, any of which could change by flight time, and even during the flight itself. Then consider there are thousands of flights a day. It's no wonder computers keep track of it all, and the algorithms drive price changes almost minute by minute. In fact, the entire aviation industry as it existed before COVID was a model of human ingenuity, taking the dream of flight and turning it into a giant interlocking bus schedule. It's entirely possible that every single person in an airplane seat paid a different price for what is essentially the same experience.

Value can be a difficult thing to quantify. Consider artwork like statues, paintings, photographs, books. It's the work of a moment for any of us to look at an image of Mona Lisa. For a few dollars we can buy a copy to frame and put on our wall. I've seen a copy of Mona Lisa in a museum showing of Da Vinci's work, though I'm not sure if it was a known forgery or an authorized copy. There is a difference between that and a printed copy of a photograph, and it was worth the price of admission. I don't know what value is placed on the copy I saw. Then there is the original, which is beyond price. 

But how much did it actually cost Da Vinci to create the work, in terms of materials? How much above that did he get paid? How much did the various owners along the way get paid when the painting changed hands? I'll bet Da Vinci comes out on the short end of all that.

Think about an ordinary book on the shelf in a book store. There are fewer book stores in Calgary than there used to be, and most of them are a copy of one another. I try to buy my books at the only independent I know of off-hand (Hello Owl's Nest!). I know of only one used book store (Hello Fair's Fair!) but there might be more and me unaware of them. The writer of that book is almost certainly the one to come out on the short end of the stick when it comes to getting paid. Between the costs of printing, distribution, editing, artwork, advertising, and who knows what else all, the writer is just about the last one to get paid, and they get the smallest cut. And yet, they are the one most essential to the creation of the book. 

Is a book expensive? I have lots of books on a shelf downstairs that cost me about $2 or less. That was back in the 70's of course, when I was earning, well, I don't remember, but it probably wasn't much above minimum wage. I didn't do the calculations then, but I'm guessing the book cost me half an hour's work or so. Now paperback prices are all over the place, but the most recent book I bought was $23 plus tax. Wait, is there GST on books? I don't even know anymore. I had to find the receipt, and yes there is. Now that I'm retired and technically don't have an income (accountant fantasies aside) the book cost me more than my annual income, which is nonsense of course. As for my last working income, the book was a fraction of an hour, probably less compared to back when I was in high school. Of course, there's inflation mess things up.

I like reading the price signs in old movies. Entire meals costing what we consider small change. Some people remember those sort of prices and think that's the 'natural' price, but forget what incomes were then. I remember my dad buying a new car and wincing about the cost because it was $6000. (And keep in mind he was an airline pilot in the glamour days of aviation.) I recall paying about that much for a new car in the late 70's. Compared to cars now, both of them were inefficient deathtraps. 

And now, in a world trying to put the supply chains back together in a COVID world, we have new considerations driving expenses. We're used to a world where a few taps on a computer triggers a chain of events all around the world, resulting in some thing being delivered to your door. Or being able to put together a sequence of airplane flights, rental cars, accommodation, and event tickets for a vacation that might be months out. There is a whole new level of uncertainty there now. Rental cars are hard to find, and brutally expensive. Linda checked that out for her recent trip to Ontario, and found that the car and gas would be more than the flight, which itself was more expensive than expected. That was a bit of an eek experience. We drove to Chilliwack rather than deal with the uncertainties of flying and renting a car. Unfortunately, that doesn't work to visit Nova Scotia.

Everything is more expensive now, partly because transportation is uncertain. Partly because many businesses are understaffed. Which leads to the next bit of ranty.

I have zero sympathy for a business owner who says people don't want to work. What that means is that you are a shitty employer and people don't want to work for you. Either you don't pay enough, or working conditions suck, or the other people you employ are horrible. Lots of people have discovered during COVID that they don't need as much money to live as they thought, and that there are activities other than work that are important. To tempt these people back into the workforce to keep your shitty version of the rigged game going, you need to put those innovation skills you tout as why you're rich, and be better. Pay better. Make the job more interesting. Whatever.

Our world of exclusively focussing on the dollar cost of goods and services have driven the apparent dollar cost to below what it actually costs. Things break down. People stop playing the rigged game. We need to face up to the fact that things will cost more. Services will cost more. Suck it up. Prioritize. Accept that businesses that can't make the cut will go out of business. Think about the ones you want to stay in business, and put your money there.

From 2016, some light trails of people zooming off to spend money.

Of the Day




Still waiting for moonrise.

Green Fools Clown Wedding.


Film (GW690 Kodak Gold 200) Looking to see how the begonia turned out. It can often be difficult on digital, and I'm quite pleased with it here.

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