Saturday, December 27, 2014

Control Freak

It began when I saw a picture of the Nikon Df.

Nikon Df, image from Wikipedia.
I announced to my Facebook friends that I was madly in love; that this was how a camera should look; that I wanted one very badly. And it kicked off a discussion that somehow turned to film cameras, and the discussion got me to thinking... It wasn't really the "look" of the camera that grabbed me. After all, I have no real problem with the "look" of my 20D or Rebel XTi. Besides, I generally look through them, rather than at them.

Compared to the AE-1 Program I remember fondly from my commercial picture-taking days, my 20D is an enormously powerful machine, with a range of abilities and adjustments that would have been almost literally unbelievable to Early-'90s Me. And yet...

canon 20d controls
Canon 20D top controls
"Quick! Adjust the aperture manually! Do it now!"

Most of those abilities go unused. The 20D largely spends its time acting as a huge, heavy, program-mode Point-'n'-Shoot with interchangeable lenses. You can "drive stickshift" with the camera if you want, making a whole host of manual control inputs and adjustments, but it's like the clutch pedal's in the glovebox and the shift lever is out on the left front fender somewhere.

Aperture ring on Nikon 43-86mm F/3.5 AI
Aperture ring on Nikon 43-86mm F/3.5 AI
To those who haven't used one, a traditional SLR looks like an enormously fiddly and complicated piece of gear, and yet there are really very few controls, and most of them are easily accessible. Want to adjust the aperture? Turn the aperture control ring on the lens. It's right there under your hand. Further, it's in the same place on pretty much any brand of camera you pick up.

Film speed setting on Canon AE-1 Program
Film speed setting on Canon AE-1 Program
You could buy an entirely new brand of camera and, assuming you knew how to work the previous one, suss out the new one's functions with a minimum of having to consult any manuals. Part of having so few functions is that there's not that much new stuff to figure out on a new camera. It's all right there where you can see it and touch it; nothing to toggle through or hunt down in a submenu.

Shutter speed dial on Leicaflex SL
Shutter speed dial on Leicaflex SL
So it wasn't the old-school looks that intrigued me, but rather a hankering for the simple and accessible controls of yesteryear. I'm not actually in any danger of becoming a hardcore film Luddite (yet) because as it sits, if there were a non-vaporware, workable drop-in digital back for the AE-1 P or R4, I'd be on that thing like white on rice.