Monday, March 06, 2006

Why I persist in using a 1930's film camera

I have sometimes been asked about why I like to use my old cameras instead of upgrading to digital. I recently answered this question to a friend by email but figured, since I spent so much time and thought on the subject, that I might as well post it as a blog entry:

I am no expert on photography, but I do have strong opintions! I have experimented with digital and I can tell you what I have learned. I have decided to stay with film (for my 'serious' work at least) for the time being for several reasons. The first is largely due to my needs; I don't need lots of pictures everyday with minimal turnaround time (ie I'm not a pro or photojournalist), and I do want the highest possible quality, so this means that with my old 1939 rolleiflex that I bought on ebay for £100 (and which, I assure you, will long outlive any digital camera!!) I can get a quality of image equivalent to a £1500 digital SLR kit. the 6x6cm neg is really rich in resolution and the Carl Zeiss lens on the Rolleiflex is one of the best lenses that was ever made. In fact, I like the 'retro' or 'cafe' feel to old fashioned film in an old camera, but this is entirely an artistic choice. Also I like the fact that because I know I only have 12 shots per roll, that I must think very carefully before pushing the shutter button.

Second reason is that the real challenge with digital is not the image taking but in fact the printing process. If you are seeking a final result that is on paper (not just for screen) then it is in fact quite a time-consuming, technical and potentially expensive process to print digital. You need to understand photoshop, CMYK colour balancing, etc to produce a print file (and need to colour calibrate the monitor as well) and then the hard part is printing to a printer that is capable of producing accurate results (typical ink-jet printers will not give you a lot of control). So if you want really nice specimens you will need to take them to a pro lab to print which will cost a lot too. The nice thing about film, especially B&W, is that I can take my negs down to my lab ( and in the space of a few hours, print off several dozen perfectly B&W images (can't beat silver halide) without having to spend hours in front of the monitor (as if I don't do enough of that!) and without needing to know anything about technology apart from how to use an enlarger. Printing with the PC of a digital file is particularly difficult if you do B&W because many printers don't actually have a B&W cartridge, so you don't actually get a pure black but usually a green cast.

To answer your other question, I am now using my Rolleiflex for more or less everything, as I'm in a groove with it! By no means only portraits. If you go to my other 'photoblog' site (, you will see exactly what camera I used for each of the pictures and for the past year or so its been almost exclusively the Rollei. I like it because a) I don't have to worry about changing lenses b) don't need to worry about deciding between portrait and landscape, the neg is big enough so I can always crop later if I want to , but more often than not I like the square format and c) its all self-contained (except for the manual lightmeter) so I can travel for business and take it along without too much bulk. d) its TLR so I most people don't realise I'm taking a picture of them because I'm 'navel gazing' down into the viewfinder from above. So all this means that I can focus on the essence of the moment, undected by the subject, which suits my personal 'street' photography style. But these are entirely my personal preferences and I don't expect them to suit everybody!

In terms of procesing, I don't actually bother developing the chunky 120 size fims myself, I just send them off to a lab and they turn them around in a day or two. It costs about £3 per film, so no big cost.

Having said all this, I still do use my wife's digital camera for snapshots, but I don't have the expectation to do much with them, but then her camera is on the lower end of the spectrum. A good 6 megapixel digital camera will produce nice prints at A4 size or so. I noticed that there is usually a significant delay between pressing the button and the camera actually taking the shot which is not good if you are taking moving action, and also thre can be significant distortion in the lens at various focal lengths. Also it can be hard to manually take control of certain cameras if these features are buried in menus. Of course these factors may not bother you, and can be overcome if you spend enough money (eg a Nikon D100 or D200 is a very nice piece of kit indeed!). I would say it is more or less up to your needs and budget. But the one thing I learned is that just because you go to digital does not by any means guarantee that the images will be 'better'. Certainly if all you like to do is take shots then upload them to the PC, then digital will be much more convenient. But if you like to go the extra mile and produce high-quality prints in larger sizes then there is more of a debate.

Although at first apparently a minor detail, in fact I found that digital presents long-term storage challenge: they are actually notoriously difficult to store in any permament way. In order to actually safeguard the images for posterity (and with a digital camera you can quickly accumulate large numbers of images that can take up a lot of disk space), you can't just leave them sitting on your hard drive, because one day this will fail. Backing up onto CD is good, but even CD's are actually quite unstable media, with an official shelf life of about 50 years (as if we'll have CD players anymore by then anyway!!), but with many failing for no obvious reason long before that. So working on the assumption that the value of the image actually increases with time (today's snapshot is your grandchildren's heirloom), using digital actually results in an inverse effect with the likelihood of your entire collection disappearing within 50 years is very high (most probably 2 years if like most people you never backup your PC!) unless you take a lot of conscious precautions. In contrast with film you have a pretty durable physical record that takes little space and will last indefinitely if stored in the right conditions. So one more to ponder on!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My first camera was a Brownie Hawkeye 120 which I won in a 1950's raffle. This was followed by a purchased compact 120 Ventura made in Germany (American Zone). Then two cameras you know, 120 Yashica Mat (+filters and 2X lens)and Nikon FM with a Nikor 35-135mm lens. All are in my storage cupboard while I use older digitals Pentax M10 and Pan.FZ 7; waiting for the last updated digital to produce a quality print to compare with one from the Yashica or the 35mm Nikon FM. I'm 75 and this update won't happen in my lifetime.

You take very excellent non-digital pictures. Best regards, John Hurst

1:38 am  

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