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The Cost of Shooting Film and a Side Order of French Fries.

Tim Gilbert

I was chatting with a friend last week and the cost of shooting film came up. Now, he has been shooting large format for decades and commented that it's a lot more expensive today than when he started.

But is it? Obviously, we pay more for a box of film now, but we pay more for everything.

So I decided to spend a few minutes and research the price of sheet film from days gone by. Should be easy; after all, you can find anything on the Internet.

I chose to start in the '70s, since that's when I started processing my own film. Obviously, no one was advertising online back then, so I had to rely on scanned copies of old photo magazines.

Turns out it was more complicated than I expected. Finding those scanned copies of old photo magazines online isn't so easy. (You can find every edition of Playboy ever published but only a splattering of Modern Photography. Can't say I'm surprised.)  I finally found a great collection of scanned photo magazines on Flickr:  (Be careful following that link, it's easy to get distracted.)

This is where things got interesting. Well, interesting to me anyway, you can skip down to Back On Topic if you want, because I'm going to digress.

Based on a cursory examination of the advertisements, one could see how the photography world had shifted over the years.

In the early years (1920s/30s), you'd see mainly manufacturer's ads. These included Kodak, of course, but also manufacturers of cameras, darkroom equipment etc.

During the 1940s/50s, things really got distorted. Film prices plummeted right after the war. Why? The US government was selling off warehouses full of new, refrigerated film for pennies on the dollar as surplus. (In fact, this is how Freestyle Photo got their start.)

By the 1960s, with the economy returning to normal, you see large distributors placing ads. You'd still see ads from manufacturers (mainly camera makers trying to out shine each other) but most of the copy space is from stores selling anything and everything a photographer could want.

35 mm had taken over the market by the '70s. Other items seem to be listed only to fill up blank space on the page. Maybe I'm cynical, but it was really difficult to find any sheet film prices.

By the 1980s film had become a commodity and it was a race to the bottom (price-wise). But that's a topic for another blog post...

Interestingly, finding film prices for 2010 was the biggest challenge, film had all but disappeared from the ads.


Back On Topic 

Anyway, after hours of research (yeah, I got distracted), I finally had what I consider to be plausible prices for the years 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2020. (Note: this is just an informal study based on limited information. I've included a list of disclaimers regarding my methodology at the end of the post.)

Now standard practice would be to convert the film cost from the historic price to "today's dollars". Boring and predictable; two traits that I despise. Besides, I wanted a more practical understanding of what has happened.

So I decided to adapt the "Big Mac Index" for my own purposes. Don't laugh, it's really a thing. (For decades, economists have used the price of a Big Mac to compare currencies:

So here's the graph comparing the average price of a sheet of 4x5, black and white film to the price of a Big Mac.

"So what?" you're probably asking. Big surprise, prices went up. But which went up faster? Do we need to calculate rates of change, percentages etc? Fortunately, no.

All we really care about is the FPB ratio (Film Per Burger).

Simply put, this is how many sheets of film you could buy for the cost of one Big Mac. Here's that chart:

The chart shows that back in 1970, you could have bought about 4.5 sheets of film ($0.11/each) for the cost of a Big Mac ($0.49). While this has fluctuated over the years, we're basically back to where we started!

I freely admit that this isn't the most rigorous of research papers, so please, read the disclaimers below and don't inundate me with trivial refinements.  After all, it's not intended as a PhD dissertation in economics.

But if it was, my summary would be this: the cost of shooting sheet film is within a few French fries of what it used to be.


The disclaimers I promised you:

1. The price of a Big Mac varies across the country. (It's more expensive in NYC than in Erie, CO.) And finding the historic price of a burger isn't as straightforward as you'd expect. Again, limited data but close enough for our purposes. I used an average of what I could find for the chart.
2. Clearly, the price of film varies based on brand but also geographic location etc. (However, from what I could tell, most film prices were closer to each other years ago.)   Again, I have limited data and had to make my own estimates. For today's price, I'm using FomaPan 100.
3. I only used "traditional" films in my calculations. After all, T grain films weren't around when the Big Mac was introduced in 1969. Clearly, including them would significantly shift the numbers but that didn't seem fair. If you want to include modern high-end films, we probably need to include the steak sandwiches of 1970s in the analysis.
4. Not all ads in the magazines were scanned, so my data points are not exhaustive and I probably missed some.
5. The exact brand of film in the ads was sometimes vague.
6.  I'm sure someone with the original copies could sift through and find a more academically sound answer but frankly, I'm not that dedicated.
7. Eating out, especially fast food, is much more common today than it was 50 years ago. This might impact the validity of using the Big Mac Index for historic price comparisons but I'll let some PhD candidate sort that out.

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