As you probably know, I live in a very small town, with limited resources, in the middle of nowhere. When I first moved here, I could get my film processed at quite a few locations, many offering B&W and slide processing in addition to negative and all the regular services. Their prices were the same as anywhere else in the country. I bought a Holga camera, which uses medium format (120) film and I was happy. But as digital technology took over, these services started to slip away. B&W and slide processing were the first to go. Then custom printing. At first this was OK, because most of my 120 film was slide that I had cross-processed in C-41 chemistry. I only shot a few rolls of slide a year on my Yashica TLR, and sending those out wasn’t a big deal. But within months pretty much all formats except for 35mm negative were dropped. There was only one place left in the valley that processed 120 film (and only negative). They had a great processing and scanning package that was about $10 a roll. But then they replaced their bulk scanner with a nicer one thats more labor intensive and dramatically raised their scanning prices. And then their film processor broke. I just called them the other day and it’s still broken. It’s been almost a year.
The only film I can still have processed locally is 35mm negative (boring!) at Albertsons. I asked them about cross-processing and the girl at the counter looked at me like my hair was on fire. Which these days is the typical reaction to just about anyone talking about film.
So I now have to send everything out. Because of shipping costs, I try to send film in chunks, but that means even longer before I can see the images, sometimes months later. I really don’t want to ditch film – the images from my Holga, Yashica TLR and night-time B&W on my Olympus XA just can’t be replicated with digital – but I almost feel forced.
Ken Rockwell has made a great argument that film is still cheap for the high end photographer. If you take a typical high-end digital SLR like the Canon 1Ds or Nikon D3x for thousands of dollars, and compare that to a film shooter with a Canon 1v or Nikon F6, the film shooter will come out ahead. But this assumes that the digital photographer is not buzzing off a hundred shots a minute and is replacing their camera every 2-3 years. It only works for slow and methodical photographers – think nature and landscape. For photographers shooting large format film, there’s no digital equivalent. But I don’t think this argument holds for everyday photographers with point and shoots. Or high volume photography like weddings or news. This is about the only way I can justify my film photography right now. I use my 7D mostly for video and time lapses and I shoot film stills on a Canon EOS A2 (EOS 5). But with the $2 Plastic Bullet app on my iPhone, it’s getting harder and harder to justify the film cost of my Holga, even though the Holga just looks so much better.
Film will only continue going down this slope. Less stock will be produced every year and fewer facilities will be able to process it. It will gradually get more expensive to the point that it will only be a small niche of the really rich or really dedicated.
Homebrewing. When I was working at WYOU, the community TV station in Madison, WI, I interviewed Tom Porter of Lake Louie Brewing.He runs a small brewery in a 1000 square foot barn in Southeast Wisconsin. It’s just big enough to supply tap lines at a few local bars, and sell growlers in a few liquor stores in Madison. Back then he was running at capacity and I’m pretty sure he still is (it’s really good beer!). During the interview, he told me that he first got into homebrewing because he was building his home with his friends’ help and he was going through a lot of beer. So he thought making his own would save him some money. If you’ve ever made your own beer, you know this isn’t entirely true. The initial equipment investment is a few hundred dollars, and the ingredients needed for the batches roughly works out to be the same as if you bought cheap beer. But you can make microbrew-quality beer for the same price as Schlitz, and that’s the draw for many people. Many homebrewers stay at this level and are perfectly happy, but Tom really got into it and wanted to expand and jump into sales. But homebrew systems don’t scale up. Professional brewing equipment is really expensive. Just running a line from the fermenter to the break tank with the proper clamps and valves can cost almost $1000. And that’s just a pipe! So Tom became quick friends with the owner of the local dump and the owner of a welding shop. So he went through scrap metal and made as much of his equipment as he could. He still had to buy the majority of his equipment at retail, but a few of the pieces he was able to do himself. He actually found his mash tun at the dump! Only in Wisconsin…
Music. I’ve been playing music off and on since I was young, mostly guitar and drums. I’ve been in a few bands and right now I’m a member of the Deadlocks as a drummer. A goal many small musicians have is to make their hobby pay its way. If you can justify your purchase of a new $2500 Les Paul Standard by playing a bunch of gigs with it, awesome! Most musicians aren’t in it for the money. But if it’s at least paying for itself, then you’re covered. It’s another reason why I’ve always thought that you’re not a real musician if you don’t play live.
Bring it back a few notches. Trent over at the Simple Dollar addresses this in his post Making Expensive Hobbies More Financially Manageable. Using golf as an example, he talks about the arms race his friends have over their drivers. As a former golfer, I totally get this. He decided the difference between his old driver and his buddy’s new driver was that he would need to use his 3 iron on the next shot instead of a 4 iron. So not that big of a deal in the long run.
The only funny part of Caddyshack 2:
Robert Stack: “You’ve got a driver and a putter, how can you play with just two clubs?”
Randy Quaid: “How many do you need?”
Some ways to bring the costs down. With photography, videography and music, I’ve noticed that equipment costs are on an exponential price spectrum. If you look at a Sony EX3 at $10k, and a Panasonic Varicam 3700 at $40k, would you say that the Varicam is 4 times better? No. Some would say its a bit better, some might say 2x better. Spend the minimum you need to achieve the results you want. Refer to my article What’s On Screen Is The Only Thing That Matters for more on this. Are you good enough to notice or be able to handle the difference? I thought about this when I was looking at electric guitars many years ago. I ended up buying an Epiphone Les Paul instead of a Gibson because as a beginner, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference. I was just learning how to play. There’s a joke in the guitar industry – there’s only 2 kinds of people that own Paul Reed Smith guitars: professional musicians and doctors. Only a real professional guitarist can make a PRS guitar really sing, and only a doctor can afford one. If you’re not playing professionally at a high level, skip the PRS.
Do you have too much equipment already? Do you really need all those guitars? A Les Paul for rock, a Strat for clean and twang, an archtop for jazz, etc. How about a 335 with split coil humbuckers and you get all 3 of these instruments in one. Do you need all those amps and effects units? I’m currently selling all my amps and most of my effects to replace them with a small Roland practice amp. I would use the Roland more anyway because its less cumbersome to hook up and play. I bought all this equipment to use at live gigs that never happened. I need to be realistic with myself and just sell it all since it never gets used.
I’m a huge gear-head, at least in the production realm. I get caught up in bitrates, lens speeds, sensor sensitivity, etc. When I started playing drums again, I didn’t want to fall into the gear trap. It’s part of the reason why I quit many years ago. I ended up buying a used 6 piece Gretsch kit with a complete cymbal package from another member of the band. I put off buying the set for as long as I could because I just didn’t want to deal with more gear, let alone building something myself. I started looking at different ride cymbals and I just got overwhelmed by the options. I realized if the audience can’t hear the difference, then it’s not worth it. Would they notice if I dropped $300 on a new ride? Probably not. But what if I bought a $20 cowbell. Oh yeah, now you’re talking. There’s only a few more pieces I’d like to get for the set, maybe $200 total, and then I will consider it complete. I have no desire to replace the whole thing for a “better” one. See where you can spend your money most effectively.
I’m thinking about getting a road bike and training for a triathlon. I’ve never done anything like that before and I’ve never owned a road bike. Just going into the bike shop is intimidating. Bikes are another huge gear sinkhole. I spoke to my brother who’s done a few triathlons and he told me it just doesn’t matter. He bought his bike for $75 and added some new pedals, shoes, bars and tires and called it good. His bike is a bit heavier than the other riders, but since he’s doing these triathlons for fun and his level of gear isn’t affecting the fun he’s having (or the fitness he’s gaining), theres no reason to spend all that extra cash to get a small percentage performance increase. So ignore all the crap and just focus on what’s important for you.
Make your hobby Pay Its Way. If you’re a photographer, sell your photos. Submit a few to a stock house like iStockPhoto. Join a band and play some gigs. I was visiting a homebrewing friend of mine a few weeks ago and he said that in California, they were looking at passing a law that would make it legal to sell homebrewed beer. Since homebrewing became legal in the 70s, it’s been illegal to sell. You’re only allowed to make enough for personal and family consumption. States make a huge amount of money taxing alcohol. But the spirit of this new law is to allow homebrewers to sell their beer at things like farmer’s markets. That would be really cool and a great way to make homebrewing pay its way. Another option would be to teach your hobby, either on your own or at a community college. For me, I wouldn’t teach drumming or guitar because I still consider myself a novice, but for things like cinematography or editing, I definitely could. Other options are to make training DVDs or publish eBooks. These are 2 things I’m looking into right now. Many of my production contemporaries are doing very well doing these. Read the article on Wise Bread linked below, which has many more ideas. It’s better than me rewriting everything here.
Edit – Ooh, I thought of another one, thanks to Homebrewing friends – own gear as a group/co-op or start a club. Years ago, after I quit homebrewing, I vowed that if I ever got back into it, I would go straight to kegging and skip bottles all together. Washing all those bottles, ugh. That’s what Tom did when he was a homebrewer before starting Lake Louie. But the startup costs for kegging rigs is pretty high compared to bottles, and much of the equipment just sits. This cost is the biggest hurdle to me starting back up again. So some friends of mine back home bought the equipment as a group and shared the costs. If you start a club, or are a member of a club, you could do something similar. Maybe a film processor that many people could use. Bike repair tools and equipment. Cameras, lenses, and accessories like strobes.
Know when to cut it off. With all the articles I found on paying for hobbies, no one addressed this point, but I think you should consider it. This is definitely a hard thing to think about, especially if it’s something you love. But for some people hobbies ebb and flow. Maybe you have too many hobbies and need to cut back. I love Super 8 film. It creates such a great look for things like weddings or other events where there’s a sense of nostalgia. The last thing I shot on Super 8 was a friend’s wedding last summer. Film and processing costs have remained the same for a long time, so that wasn’t an issue. The issue was the transfer to digital. Right now, my telecine is not doing great. I estimate I would need to put about $2k into it to get it to where I would like it as far as stability and focus. This doesn’t include getting a new camera for it, which I really need to do too. It’s also extremely slow to scan the film. Then I have to process it multiple times, do color correction and make other fixes. Compared to sending the film out for a professional transfer, scanning myself is the equivalent of paying myself about $3/hr. That’s just the labor cost and not the equipment or maintenance cost. I just can’t justify that and I’m now looking to sell my telecine equipment. I originally bought it all to learn the process of scanning film, and how to color correct raw film. For that it was a great learning tool, and I can now communicate better with professional colorists and scanners when they’re handling my 16mm and 35mm film. But now that I’ve learned those things, it doesn’t make financial sense to keep the telecine anymore.
So I think I raised more questions than I answered, as I’m struggling with this issue myself. Do you have any suggestions on how to bring the costs of hobbies down? Have you stopped doing any hobbies because they got too expensive?
The Simple Dollar – Making Expensive Hobbies More Financially Manageable
Wise Bread – Make You Hobby Pay Its Way
Get Rich Slowly – Making and Doing: The Value of Productive Hobbies