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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Old and New, Young and Old

48-year-old Nikon S3 kit owned and used by sbug

I wasn't trying to make any great big point with yesterday's question. Oren and Carl and I and a few others had been having a semi-private discussion about planned obsolescence, and I mentioned a furtive memory of Porsche having once designed a so-called "20-year car" that was over-engineered, understressed, and underpowered and meant to have a normal service lifespan of the eponymous two decades. It never got built, the beancounters having decreed (if my memory serves) that there was no market for such a thing. I mentioned that my first digicam, a five year old, 3-megapixel Olympus I paid $700 for, is broken, un-fixable, and now worth exactly $0.

Oren noted—tongue only partly in cheek—that he doesn't use 5-year cameras or even 20-year cameras, but 100-year cameras. So I asked him which of his cameras in full, frequent use is the oldest. Turns out it's his 6.5x8.5 Eastman No. 2 that dates from 1914-1920—not quite 100 years, but close enough for government work.

The latest technology in 1914

We're in a curious phase right now. At best, we're just barely coming out of the "incunable" era—the crucible years—of digital, during which upgrading has been natural if not downright mandatory because of the march of the technology. (Who uses a digital camera from 1996?) It's possible things have settled down such that people might actually be using cameras 10 years from now that they own today. But, if so, that's a relatively new potentiality. My own "main" camera is a little more than a year old.

Respondants to my question seemed to break down into a main group using digital cameras for very short times and a subgroup using film cameras for considerably longer times. It's tempting to see this as a "advantage" of sorts for film cameras, but of course that's not really fair, because film cameras are a substantially mature technology. Allowing for the accordion-bellows compression of the pace of progress compared to 150 years ago (though it was pretty rapid then too), similar things happened to film in its early days: few photographers were using the same cameras in 1869 that they were using in 1849, I'd venture to say. That's 20 years, not ten, adjusted for inflation. Still, the march of "sensor" technology from Daguerreotype plate to flexible film wasn't exactly slow, considering.

Last night Oren said he spent the evening sanding and drilling a 6" lensboard to mount a Wollensak Verito for his 6.5x8.5 Eastman. An 11 1/2" Verito, which was the focal length intended for use on whole plate. Ca. 1920s, which makes it more or less contemporaneous, too.

Fun stuff. I envy Oren his hobby, as I envy sbug his nearly-half-century-old S3 and people still using Leicas and Rolleicords. There a lot to love left in the old technology. Still, most of us are fledglings these days, and for ample good reason.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

10 Comments:

Blogger Ade said...

I didn't get round to replying to the previous entry, but was going to mention my Nikon EM... However, it made me realise that, despite having about ten cameras, both film and digital, at my disposal, I really like film. I like its look, its latitude, the cameras (almost all better than the equivalent digital model, if such exists at all), heck even its grain. The cost doesn't bother me - it's not zero but it's extremely low for all you get. And yet the one problem, the one deal-breaker in favour of digital with its attendant compromises, is the sheer tedium involved in much of the process of using film.

You know, waiting for the lab to develop it (or doing it yourself, all that agitating and pouring and checking you used the right bottle) and then scanning each sodding frame at optimal quality and going through the usual tweaks in an image editor, or even traditional wet printing with all its chemicals and trays and washers and several metres of workspace. I know some people love the process but not me - I like the results. I like pretty pictures, not chemistry sets (unless they're the subject of the pictures). And while digital processing can be equally time-consuming, at least it only needs a computer and goes at my pace rather than depending partially on either someone else, the rate of a chemical reaction or the speed of a scanner.

So the thing is, if film had that convenience and smooth workflow, the instant gratification factor, I'd never want anything other than my EM. Except for a TLR and a rangefinder and... well, I'd never want anything new and digital anyway.

Of course, all the camera manufacturers would then go bust.

2:23 PM  
Blogger Ade said...

Back again with a further point:

We generally only buy new digital cameras to "regain" features we had on our film cameras. For example, improved speed of operation (switch-on and shutter lag); low light performance (higher ISOs); increased sensor size (wider angle of coverage, less noise); dynamic range (e.g. the new Fuji sensors); resolution (compared to a 5400dpi scan); battery performance; etc. (Not sure where innovations like image stabilisation fit into this; in the film world, it's only available in the lens. Perhaps that face recognition stuff will prove to be a key differentiator for the digital world.) It's quite possible to buy a film camera, even a very old one, that meets all your needs (other than the aforementioned drawbacks of using film); this isn't yet true of digital and probably won't be for some time to come.

In hindsight, the puzzle is why we once kept buying new film cameras given that, say, the Nikon F6 has only the most incremental improvements over the F5 by comparison with digital models of the same eras.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Max said...

This post is very true in all its length. Some of us also have to admit besides loving old stuff we don't have the money to buy what we would like to have from the digital world (especially if you live in a country which has a weak currency and buying gear means a lot more working hours against those of people living in economically stronger countries, just a simple market fact).
But there is also a very sweet twist in all this. I started using old medium format cameras just for fun, and probably ten years ago the only thing I could do with a velvia transparency shot with my 6x9 Bessa was contemplating how gorgeous it looked on a light table (unless I was into really technical lab knowledge and artisan methods to get what I wanted out of it).
These days, I can get a good drum scan and process the image on photoshop and produce prints of incredible quality, and most of all, closer to the look I wanted than ever before. We all can use anything of any vintage and get the results on paper without any kind of loss, or much better than the initial hard outcome, without being champions of wet lab tecnology.
Old (and cheap) gear now produces the best results it ever has. That's a thing to be highly thankful for, I believe.

5:25 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I have been a film/darkroom nut for over 50 years. I bought a digital camera 3 years ago and decided to get back into film. Somehow the digital process doesn't satisfy me. I have been buying cameras and at present am using a Zeiss Ikon Nettar (120-6x7) and a Canon F1 to shoot B&W film. I am in process of setting up a darkroom in my apartment ( one bedroom). Should be interesting. I think the F1 is arguably the best 35mm camera ever built. I like the simplicity and it still has the ability to accomodate accessories to extend it's usefulness. Perhaps if my Canon D300 were built along the same lines, I would enjoy it. Perhaps a Canon F1 with a digital back?? That would be the best of both worlds, rapid change from film to digi and back. A couple of magazines ala the 250 back and use umpteen different kinds of film, but just a straight manual camera, just as the old F1 is. I could dig that.

Well, I can dream, right?

Until then, I'll stay with the tried and true. As you said, I doubt my D300 will be around in 10 years, let alone 70 or 100. I sure won't "update" to a newer digital.

Michael

5:49 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Ade, to me, the darkroom process is integral to the whole of photography. I really enjoy doing it, it still seems like magic to me. During the mid to late 1970s I worked with a theater and dance photographer in NYC and ended doing all his processing, including his display and for sale prints as well as photos for his books, etc. There is nothing like watching an image appear in a tray of developer and knowing that "this is it!!" The end all and be all of the camera, film experience. I thought nothing of working for hours to get just the right look on the print and then to make copies while all the process is still fresh. When I display a photo I processed from exposure to print, I get more satisfaction than I ever have with digital. JUst isn't the same.

As you said, the cost of film cameras is very low for the quality of photography you get and lots less noise unless you want it to be there. Scan a negative into a computer??? That is pure heresy. ;-)

LOL
MIchael :-)

5:58 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

Man, that Nikon S3 is gorgeous!

I want that, only digital.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Michael,
Somebody once said to me that one out of ten photographers did their own darkroom work and, of those, only one out of ten enjoyed it. Guess that makes us less than one in a million but sorta rare all the same. (s)

--Mike

6:13 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

"In hindsight, the puzzle is why we once kept buying new film cameras given that, say, the Nikon F6 has only the most incremental improvements over the F5 by comparison with digital models of the same eras."

Very true. But also very recent. The jump from the F4 to the F5 was well worth it.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Carsten Bockermann said...

Respondants to my question seemed to break down into a main group using digital cameras for very short times and a subgroup using film cameras for considerably longer times. It's tempting to see this as a "advantage" of sorts for film cameras, but of course that's not really fair, because film cameras are a substantially mature technology.

Another reason why it's not really fair is that even old film cameras could exploit the newer and better films, so the entire system got upgraded constantly.

5:34 AM  
Blogger sbug said...

"Another reason why it's not really fair is that even old film cameras could exploit the newer and better films, so the entire system got upgraded constantly."

Every 36 frames my friend. :)

9:25 AM  

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