Thursday, February 18, 2021

Counterintuitively Intuitive

Fountain pens, automatic watches, tube amps, revolvers, mechanical cameras...

There's a certain fascination with this bygone tech. I've gone on before about how I love the mechanical nature of the Leica III. If all you want to do is wind it up and click the shutter, that alone is enjoyable. Assuming, however, that you want to use it to actually make photographs, the process is a little more involved. Just getting the film into the camera with an old Barnack Leica can be an adventure for the uninitiated. (Get a trimming guide. You'll thank me later.)

It's possible to get the entirely mechanical camera experience with a lot less fussiness. Take the Nikon FM2n for instance...

Absolutely mechanical. The only thing the battery does is function the built-in light meter.

The thing is, what are you doing with the camera? What is the function you are trying to perform? If it's just to wind the lever and listen to the click-clack of the shutter and mirror, again, you don't even need to put film in this one either. You can twist knobs and wind levers and spin aperture & focus rings sitting at a desk without any film in sight, like an extremely elaborate fidget spinner.

While it is possible, with good software and a bit of skill, to emulate the look of all manner of film stock in digital photography, the simplest and easiest way I've found to get that "film look" is to just go ahead and shoot on film.

And if the end result, an image on film, is what the user is trying to achieve, then deliberately seeking out cameras that make it harder to achieve that result is...well, maybe it's kinda counterproductive?

These days when I look at "film cameras for beginners" lists, I see recommendations like the Nikon FM2, Olympus OM-1, or Pentax K1000.

These cameras are all-manual. Unless someone has a grasp of the exposure triangle...shutter speed, aperture, ISO (light sensitivity of the film/sensor)...they are going to be burning film trying to learn it.

Hey, you know what one of the cool things about digital cameras is? You can take practically an unlimited number of photographs and see the results instantly for free. Right then. No waiting for developing film to see what came out and how the different settings affected the image. If you want to learn how to shoot in manual mode, and you're doing it with film instead of a digital camera, you're taking swimming lessons with lead bricks in your pocket. 

There's no virtue in suffering; don't needlessly complicate things for yourself. Buy an older, cheaper DSLR and play with manual mode on it before buying a film camera.

But suppose you've played around with an old DSLR and want to use a film camera now? Hey, did you know that there are film cameras that have the same control layout as that DSLR and will even use the same lenses?

And the best part is that these cameras are currently as cheap as dammit.

That EOS Elan II there? That was Canon's "advanced hobbyist/prosumer" camera from the middle of '95 and into the first year of the current millennium. Its controls will be familiar to any Canon DSLR user. It is loaded with features, the film loading and transport is entirely automated, it's got three autofocus points, and when it debuted in 1995 it went for almost a thousand bucks (great big 1995 dollars, not tiny 2021 dollars) without a lens. Now they're all over eBay for $35-$75. 

Why? Hipsters want dials and this thing feels too modern. Hey, do you want to spin dials or take pictures? You can buy two or three of these for the going rate on a Canon AE-1 Program, and if you went back to 1995 and told someone in a camera store that in the 21st Century, tattooed people in skinny jeans and weird facial hair would pay three times the price of an Elan II for an AE-1, they'd have laughed in your face.

And then there's the Nikon N80...

Nosing around eBay, these are going for fifty to a hundred bucks, generally, which is barely enough to put an FM2 or F3 on layaway. Yet this is Nikon's last prosumer film body; it served as the basis for early DSLRs and you could still walk into a camera shop and buy a brand new N80 in the first year of the Obama administration. It's an amazingly capable camera and yet people are out there spending twice the money for Pentax K1000's.

"Oh, Tamara!" you say, "The K1000 was a common learner camera for schools back in the day of film!" Yeah, and my driver's ed program in high school used Chevy Cavaliers and Celebrities. Do you think they did that because Hertz-tier Chevrolets were amazeballs automobiles? Or because they were cheap?

You can pick up a D200 or D300 and an N80 for next to nothing and pick up a lens that works on both. Learn all about f-stops and ISO on the digital body where you'll get instant feedback and then swap the lens over to the N80...remember, the controls will be the same...and use what you learned.

So, yeah, these late autofocus film bodies are absolutely the most amazing deals in film photography right now because so many people are using film cameras to Be Retro rather than using film cameras to Take Photos that the market is driving up the prices on technically inferior cameras.

But, hey, I'm just some random blog writer, so don't take my word for it. Instead, listen to this genuine camera dude:
"The Minolta Maxxum 5 (and all other mid-level AF SLRs from its era) has a specification sheet that would literally melt the brain of any hypothetical time-traveling camera designer who finished his career in 1955 and died one day later. He’d blink at the Maxxum’s spec sheet with bulging eyes and a sweaty lip, wonder how focus can be automatic, scream when he sees multiple metering modes, and puke when automatic exposure bracketing is explained to him. He’d probably instantaneously die if he heard the electronic automated burst mode of a Nikon F90 (4.3 FPS). And then his ghost would desperately wail that “the camera must cost $10,000!” More on cost later. 
“James,” you might say to me if we were on a first name basis, “I don’t believe you. How can a dorky mid-level autofocus SLR from the 1990s or 2000s be so much better than the legendary Leica M3 or the Nikon F3, or the Mamiya 7, or whatever other stylish camera everyone’s currently screaming at me to buy?” 
Let me convince you. Those cameras that everyone wants you to buy aren’t as good as they say they are. They’re heavy, lacking in light meters or auto-exposure modes, or bracketing, or exposure compensation, or multiple exposure modes, or spot-metering or matrix metering or auto anything. These popular camera can’t do one tenth of the things that mid-level cameras from the time between 1995 and 2004 can do. In fact, the only thing that a Leica M3 does better than a Maxxum 5 is look good. The Leica has timeless style. The Maxxum 5 looks like it belongs to a dad at Disneyland who’s wearing a fanny pack and speed-walking shoes for entirely practical reasons."

Go and read the whole thing, if you need further convincing. But he ain't lying.