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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Camera Age / Technology Age

by Paul Butzi

It’s interesting to read the threads and comments on the age of cameras, and I’m very impressed that Oren regularly uses his Eastman No. 2. But the real issue isn’t camera age, it’s technology age. That is, when asking someone “How old is your main camera,” we are skipping part of the real question, which is “How old is the photographic technology you use?”

Until recently, my main camera was either a Linhof Technikardan 45s or a Leica M6. Both of those cameras are pretty old technology. The M6 is a specialized beast, and it would be hard to do the same work with another camera, but the Linhof is just a view camera. I could do the work with pretty much any other field camera, including ones made as much as 80 years ago. But I use modern film and developer—I use Tmax-100, which was reformulated by Kodak not long ago. That means the newest part of that technology chain (even if I’m doing traditional gelatin silver printing instead of my current hybrid digital workflow) is just a few years old.

My point here is that your 50 year old view camera or your 22 year old M6 have gotten many, many technology upgrades. You can put E6 film in them that incorporates the very latest advances in film, and your technology chain will be newer than someone working with a two year old Canon EOS-1ds. In contrast, once you buy a digital camera, you’re locked into the "film" that can be used with it, forever. (the obvious exceptions would be removable digital backs like those for medium format cameras, and things like the Leica DMR).

So don’t tell me how old your camera is. Tell me when the manufacturer last revised the film you use. Because if you’re loading your Leica CL with Fujichrome 64T, your technology chain is newer than my digital Canon EOS-5d by about five months.

Posted by PAUL BUTZI

Featured Comment by Fras: Very good points, but, to a degree, the same arguments can be applied to the digital world with the question "What raw converter are you using?"

In my catalog, I've got Nikon NEF files, Leica RAW files and Konica-Minolta MRW files.

I've used Nikon Capture, Adobe Camera Raw (in Photoshop Elements 3), Rawshooter Essentials and Premium and lately, Adobe Lightroom Beta.

Each new product, or iteration of a product brings new possibilities for all of my images and sometimes subtle, sometimes significant, improvements in the end results.


Blogger DonovanCO said...

Paul: excellent point. I've been actively involved in photography for almost 60 years and I am convinced that the digital revolution is all about convenience and cost avoidance (pay for a camera in 2-3 years of not buying film and not paying for processing, plus no cost of gas for two trips to the hard to find lab). The snapshooter may have a different take on this, however, as they like to pass the camera around showing the pictures they just took (but again, more convenient than a Polaroid).

6:48 PM  
Blogger David A. Goldfarb said...

Many good points here, Paul. Part of the pleasure of using my old cameras (the oldest being an American Optical 11x14" camera, circa 1890, the oldest lens being an even older Voigtlander Petzval from the wetplate era), is seeing what they do with modern films and modern strobes.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Oliver said...

I shoot with a black FM2 (non-'n' version) and an N90s when I need flash or more speed than I am capable of providing manually. So, a 20- and a 10-year-old camera.

Strangely enough, my percentage of keepers really is a lot higher with the FM2. Maybe the traditionalists really are onto something!

However, it must also be said that my current film of choice is Ilford Delta 400, which is not so old after all...

6:59 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

I am very interested in photography's lineage and enjoy opportunities to use cameras of yore. As noted earlier, I own and enjoy an M7 with several lenses. Heck, I'm even a member of the LHSA and enjoy their periodical. I've not attended one of their get-togethers.

I think many of the issues concerning one's perspectives on technology in photography boil down to where one's primary allegiances lie; the means or the ends. I'm primarily an "ends" fellow. All that really matters most to me is the picture. I'm always interested in learning how it was recorded and processed, but this interest is very secondary. Whether the photographer schlepped 40+ lbs. of view camera gear up a mountain to get a shot, or just used a $399 p&s, means nothing to me if the picture is awkwardly composed and uninteresting (to me).

Conversely many photographers, both digital and film but particularly film, seem to be "means" people. They will generally deny it during conversation but it's very clear that they really love the process of photographing more than the photograph. They somehow feel legitimized and strengthened by using cameras that were considered nostalgic when they were born. Its as if they become emotionally ignited by the spirits of all of the people who have used such cameras before them. They may gripe about darkroom time and noxious chemicals but it's part of the process that they love. But as with digital shooters, some take good pictures and others, well...

But whatever aspects of photography you enjoy are just fine with me. Long ago I ceased debating film/digital and really don't want to debate old cameras -vs- new cameras (an even more pointless waste of time). As I said, I'm an "ends" man. Let's grab a beverage and discuss what you produce with whatever you use to produce it. That's what I love.

9:05 PM  
Blogger robertw said...

I don't exactly agree with the proposition here, if I put the newest fuji chrome in my m6 I am still limited by the resolution limits on 35mm film that have not materially changed in 20 years. Kodachrome is very sharp, as is techpan. These is a limit to what you can produce from 35mm that no technology is going to change. And I also don't agree that the digital camera is stuck with the same "film" from the day you buy it-RAW conversion continues to change, noise reduction continues to change, photoshop gives you a wealth of options, and digital capture easily exceeds 35mm and approaches medium format in terms of the prints you can pull from it. I haven't even mentioned the changes in printing technology. So both digital and film benefit from technology upgrades, but film less so, drum scanning and enlarging are pretty static technologies, having reached their limits in terms of what manufacturers are willing to invest in research and development. So my leica benefits less from that new roll of fuji than my canon 10d benefits from newer printing technology or my increasing skills in photoshop as a printer.

11:50 PM  
Blogger CKWork said...

OK, fair points, but if you are going to include film in the technology equation, then I think it is fair to include post processing software (or in-camera firmware).

Pics I took with my original D30 3 years ago can benefit significantly from using the latest in RAW processing software. No question that the final image is better.

One nice thing about digital is that sometimes a technology upgrade can be applied retrospectively - sadly you can't apply a new film emulsion to shots you took years ago.

4:18 AM  
Blogger RobertoC said...

One of the key point is obsolescence. What I read here is that old cameras age less because they can accomodate for technology advances in the film. The same is true, to some exent, for DSLR vith respect to all-in-one cameras (e.g. Canon S3 IS), as you can simply replace the body, keeping lenses, flash units etc.
So, to me, the question is whether the DSLR environment is stable enough so that I can buy an elaborate (and expensive) set of lenses and accessories, and be prepared to replace from time to time just the body ("the film technology"). Not sure about that.

4:56 AM  
Blogger rdr said...

Just a comment on the Eos 1ds age. Some have argued (Michael Reichman comes to my mind, but I'm sure there are others) that one of the advantages of shooting raw is that you will benefit from developments in raw conversion technology. So if your conversion software is up to date, you could be shooting with a 1ds and still be using photographic technology that is just a few months old.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Photoburner said...

Come now, slapping a coat of 'super high tech car wax' on your '57 Chevy does not make it more advanced than a 2005 model.

And using a high tech film does not confer all the advances in camera technology seen in the last 50 years.


7:24 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I think everyone is missing the main point: traditional photography has had over 100 years to evolve, and it was not until the advent of digital that its plateau was reached.

Digital photography is in its infancy, and everyone is impatient that those corresponding 100 years have not been compressed into 10 or 15 years. Moore's Law and all that.

I still use my Fuji S602, and I have a Fuji F10. The only difference is the F10's greater latitude, or dynamic range. But the S602 still produces excellent images. At ISO 800/1600, its 1 mp files can be res'ed up, and printed up to 8x10, which is what the majority of us print 98% of the time.

From 'A film camera is like a mortgage, with payments for life.'

10:52 AM  
Blogger bjorke said...

Why is this "the real question"?

Color me stupid but I thought the main elements of a photograph were light, lens, clicking finger and a place in the world to shoot from. That technology continues to evolve very slowly, and digital is just a bump.

I have no idea what film stocks or cameras Gene Smith or Julia Cameron or LaChappelle or Sarah Moon used for their best pictures. I'm sure SOMEONE who reads this does, but does it genuinely add anything to their appreciation of the pictures?

1:55 PM  
Blogger LostBryan said...

Perhaps the better question is "how old/new is the vision, topic, or technique?" If a shooter has just learned a new interview technique, or finally arranged their life to allow them to be outside at sunrise, those things will often swamp changing camera technology.

8:12 PM  
Blogger megaperls said...

I don't get the point of this post. Don't become so absorbed in the technical aspects. Have you put the same amount of effort into thinking about your pictures lately? Then we may see, as I have phrased it before, the "revolution in content". So far it is just technology.

When the camera became handheld, a new visual language was defined almost immediately. I cannot see any sign of this since the dawn of digital.

12:46 AM  
Blogger ENS said...

This thread is getting the point about digital "upgrades" a bit wrong.

While it is true that RAW converters improve and will continue to, the fact that they get better has nothing to do with the fact that the sensor in the digital camera remains the same, and thus never improves. So, with digital, we can improve how we interpret the original image but we can do nothing to the original capture itself; you will need a new sensor for this.

Film can (and does) benefit from both a "sensor" upgrade and a process upgrade. As new films come on the market the "sensor" has been improved and can be used in the same "old" camera -- with digital, this is impossible (excluding backs). Furthermore, improved chemicals and processing methods can make the "RAW converters" for film better as well.

That said, digitial is making bigger and better strides because it is a newer technology and is not close to being tapped out yet. However, the argument that RAW conversion allows digital imaging to experience improvements in the sensor is unfounded. The sensor is exactly the same, it is the process that has been improved.

I think we MAY find a day where digital cameras will be made with interchangeable backs. Makes sense doesn't it. If the camera body is great, does not need improvement, etc, etc, why not just replace the sensor ("film") as it improves. I understand the difficulty in the technological underpinnings of this, but once all these megapixel wars are over, and standards settle, this may become a reality.

Am I a film pundit? No, I shoot all digital with a Canon 20D and now a Fujifilm F30, but I didn't like the argument, I am paraphrasing, that RAW converters allow digital cameras sensors to change. Not true, this is just on the processing end, not on the original capture.

But why should we care about all of this technical speak. Film is what it is, digital capture is what it is. Use what you want, what you like, and use it beacuse you like the results.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Paul Butzi said...

I don't get the point of this post. Don't become so absorbed in the technical aspects.

Why? Have you some evidence that contemplating technical aspects is harmful in some way?

Have you put the same amount of effort into thinking about your pictures lately? Then we may see, as I have phrased it before, the "revolution in content". So far it is just technology.

Actually, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about my pictures - far more than I spend thinking about technical aspects of the world of photography. It's rather stupid to think that my postings here constitute the entirety of my thinking on photography, let alone that they are actually representative.

It's just that, in point of fact, thoughts on technology have a fairly broad audience, whilst thoughts along the lines of "Well, the photographs I got when I stopped at that little turnout on Carnation Farm Road last Saturday are all crapola, but if I stopped by on a clear morning about one hour after sunrise, I might get stuff which was pretty good" have a relatively limited audience.

3:38 PM  

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