Digital photography is liberating. We are not limited to 36 frames on a roll. It doesn’t cost anything to shoot an image, so shoot anything you see. Wait, is that true? Is digital photography really free? What is the cost of digital imaging?
The film days
Ah, the good old days, right? Not really. Almost everything about digital imaging is better. For 35mm cameras, which is what I will discuss, film came in rolls containing up to 36 frames. Yes, I know there were some weird specials, but let’s ignore those. A roll cost several dollars and processing it cost about as many more dollars. It seems like my metric was that it cost $.50 per frame. And that was in the 1980’s. In todays dollars that might be $1-2 per frame. After you finished a roll it took several days before it was processed so you could see what you got. Horrible. Primitive. Intolerable by todays standards.
Even a medium size memory card might hold hundreds of raw images and thousands of jpgs. The equivalent of that in the film days would be a large, heavy, expensive bag of film.
And when you were traveling with the film, you had to take it out to be x-rayed at the airport. If you were shooting “high speed” film, say 800 ISO or more, you had to put them in lead lined bags or try to get the agents to hand inspect them to prevent fogging by the x-ray machines.
Of course, when you go on a trip you have to carry all that bulky, heavy film back home. You usually did not want the expense of mailing them and the risk of them being lost in the mail.
What a pain. And I won’t even mention the cost and problems of a darkroom.
Digital solves the problems
Along comes digital imaging. The cost of shooting comes rapidly down and the quality of the images comes rapidly up. Very soon digital is clearly better than film. On Amazon today professional grade 64GByte SDHC cards are $12. That is unbelievable! A card like that will hold hundreds, maybe a thousand raw images. Say 1000, that makes the cost per image $0.012. And then you load them into the computer and erase and reuse the card. So the actual cost per image in virtually zero.
All is rainbows and unicorns. What can be bad about that?
Does digital imaging really cost?
Yes. A lot!
For one thing, for professionals, sensors now generate huge files and we need large, fast memory to capture them in camera. My current camera uses XQD memory cards. They are very fast, but a 120 GByte card costs $200 – on sale. That is steep, but not the problem.
Then there is the infrastructure problem on my computer. Loading all this data on the computer takes up a lot of disk space. My main storage is currently a fast 20TByte RAID disk. Since I am a fanatic about backup (see “Yes, You Need to Backup“), the relevant data is backed up every day to another 12 TByte RAID disk. It is also backed up to yet another 12 TByte RAID disk. In addition, hourly Time Machine backups rotate to 2 other external disks. And then there is offsite backup… All of this gets expensive and requires a fair bit of maintenance. I’m drowning in data!
But that is still not the biggest cost.
Time is money
The true cost of digital imaging is time. Time to load, file, tag, grade, and process. It is easy to get completely buried in a backlog of images to process.
I’m mostly an outdoor photographer. Let’s say a productive day of shooting might bring back 400 images. That is about 20-30 GBytes of image data. Those have to be loaded in to the computer – I use Lightroom for all my image management. They have to be tagged by location and keywords added to assist in filing and locating. Then there is the difficult process of grading to filter out the best. My process involves at least 6 passes of review. Then there is processing of the best images. Since I am a fine art photographer, the images may be extensively processed, partly in Lightroom and partly in Photoshop.
At this point, maybe I have selected 20 images from the day’s shoot as my “keepers”. Doesn’t seem bad, but the true cost of this is several days of difficult computer work, maybe even a week, to handle 1 day of shooting. And it is quite possible that 1 or more of the images may require an extra week of Photoshop processing to get to my standard. I have been over a year behind in processing at times.
So, the main cost of digital imaging is the time to process them. If you are just culling through to find a few jpegs to post to Instagram, no big deal. But if you are doing fine art professionally, you can quickly get buried in computer work. It is a cost to count carefully.
Let me know what you think and what topics you would like me to write about. I welcome your input.