Goodbye (Mostly) to Film

Back to Film (by StarbuckGuy)

No stranger to film, I’ve continued to use film cameras alongside my digital cameras for several years. Since 2002, specifically, when I purchased a Canon G2 digicam — a purchase that changed my views of photography as profoundly as Galileo’s telescope altered mankind’s view of the heavens. There has never been as fundamental shift in the technology of photography since the invention of the craft. Even so, I didn’t entirely abandon the old ways.

Digital, for all its convenience and WOW! factor, has some drawbacks. Its ability to record images with a large dynamic range is limited compared to C-41 films, and not even close to the range B&W film can capture. Until very recently even DSLR’s suffered from excessive noise at higher ISO settings. This is still a serious problem for small-sensor digicams. Films have a grain structure that gets more pronounced in higher-ISO films, but grain is aesthetically prettier than digital noise.

These are known facts endlessly debated on Internet forums so I’ll not pursue them here except to say I love digital photography despite its costs and its problems. And I continued to love film, despite its inefficiencies, lack of convenience, and the often annoying physicalness of the medium. But my love of film has been waning.

The main factor pulling me back from film is my health. Cardiac problems have left me with less stamina and energy. This, in turn, limits the amount of time I have to devote to photography if I want to balance out photography with my other interests.

Less time to spend means more of that time gets spent on digital. There’s a big difference between going for a photo walk, coming home and transferring the results directly into my computer than in coming home and popping a roll or two of film into a drawer until I have time to develop it, scan it, or take it to a store to be developed and scanned, then getting it into my computer.

Another factor drawing me away from film is that since 2002 digital cameras have improved dramatically, with great improvements still to come. When faced with choosing a B&W or colour film for my Nikon F3HP, then deciding which ISO film is best for the day, or simply grabbing my Nikon D300 that can shoot colour and B&W, automatically set a good white balance and even automatically change ISO values based on ambient lighting, there’s not much incentive to take the F3HP.

When I do take the F3HP it’s simply because I enjoy using classic film camera bodies. I grew up with them, love their heft and feel, and enjoy their comfortable old-school aesthetic. The shots I get with B&W film can, at times, be better than the B&W’s I can get with digital. But not better 100% of the time and not better by a quantum leap. Increasingly B&W film is only marginally better than digital B&W and is often inferior.

Part of the reason for this is the improved sensor technology in today’s digital SLR’s. My D300 at ISO 1600 is smoother, with better resolution, than any ISO 1600 film I’ve tried. There is no 35mm ISO 400 film I’ve tried that produces images as clean as the ISO 400 images from my D300, and my D300 is not even state of the art when it comes to sensors.

Another key factor is that six years of Photoshop experience and learning have taught me how to make very good B&W images. Good enough to please me at least, and I’m the one paying my bills.

You can no doubt see where this is headed. The bottom line is that I’ve now shifted to digital for 90% or more of my picture taking. My film cameras have become little more than nostalgia toys to play with the odd time I want a change of pace from digital.

So with a considerable amount of psychic pain I’ve decided to sell most of my film gear, including my wonderful Bessa R3A rangefinder and lenses. As much as I admire them, they no longer serve a meaningful purpose in my work.

I won’t, however, sell all of it. I’ll probably keep my Nikon EM, Nikon FM2n, and a set of lightweight E series prime lenses. And a Minolta Autocord TLR. I started photography with a TLR and want to keep one around to use occasionally to revisit my roots. Hopefully the rest of my gear will go to younger, or at least fitter, photographers who will enjoy it as much as I once did.

Phew! I’m glad to have finally got that off my chest. Now I’ll grab one of my digital cameras and head out for a pleasant photo walk. See ya later!

A Fallen Photographer Confronts Simplicity

Window Crank

Simplicity.  An alluring concept — easy to grasp, easy to understand, yet as difficult to achieve as your ideal waist size, an undeviating heart-friendly diet, or world peace. If Thoreau thought simplicity difficult to achieve in the 19th century when he took to the woods in a log cabin at Walden Pond, how can any of us achieve simplicity while being bombarded by one hundred trillion cell phone emissions per minute? Besides, after two years of chopping wood, snorting nature, and filling several notebooks with philosophical scrivenings, Thoreau chucked it and moved back to town.

When I was young, with a mind as pliable as potter’s clay, I thought Thoreau was onto something. Doesn’t everyone wish life were a little simpler? Simple as in less complex, not simple as in the mindedness of the Republican election platform.

Take photography for instance. Why do enthusiastic photographers acquire so much gear? The other day I went on a photo walk with just my Canon S3 IS digicam, a lightweight point-and-shoot with a lens range equivalent to 36-432mm — what is sometimes referred to as a superzoom model, as opposed to all the other models which the manufacturers assure us are all super, at least until they are replaced by newer, superer ones.

In addition to its zoom versatility, the S3 has good macro capabilities, and a surprisingly good movie mode that, I must confess, I usually forget is there. I’ll not be providing competition to Michael Moore any time soon. The S3 is a comfortable camera, so I ask myself why do I bother with bulkier, heavier SLR and DSLR cameras with their various lenses when I could shoot 90% or more of my images with the S3?

The lure of this logic, with its overtones of monogamous virtue, has caused me, twice, to sell off DSLR cameras in a quest for simplicity. I essentially divorced two nice DSLRs: a Canon 300D Digital Rebel and then a Pentax *istD2. My newly-resolved relationship with a single, worthy P&S digicam lasted for perhaps six months, but in the end it was doomed to failure because while the lure of simplicity pulls me one way, I must confess to a problem that pulls me in another: lust for lenses. For me the online KEH used camera and lens store in Atlanta is a camera porn site to which I may be as addicted as David Duchovny is to the human variety.

Not only do I fancy lenses, I often fancy the older ones, as perhaps befits my age. I won’t state my age, but if you guessed 63 you’d be exactly close.

So, we come to the nub of it: lust leads to complexity. You acquire lenses, then you need a new body. Soon you have so many lenses it’s no longer possible to maintain a discrete relationship with each one. Your lens drawer becomes a sultan’s harem of complexity.

Perhaps Sarah Palin would counsel abstinence, but when you’re already pregnant with an expanding lens collection, it’s a little late, though I agree it would be morally reprehensible to suddenly abort. If I’d had lens education early enough I might have taken precautions, but as it is I’m a fallen photographer.

So, at last I face the varnished truth: I am a photographer with lens issues. For me simplicity is no more attainable than is a profound appreciation and understanding of punctuated equilibrium by George W. We all have our limitations.

Thus, after a lifetime of longing for simplicity, I bid adieu to Henry David Thoreau and his clever Walden memes. There is more than one kind of addiction, and an addiction to the idea of simplicity leads not to the promised land, but to the sorrow of yet another unobtainable dream (YAUD, in geek terminology). Besides, my cell phone is chirping, and I have to take this call.