Category Archives: Film photography

“Is the [insert older Leica camera model here] still a good camera?”

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The M8. First sold by Leica in 2006. My favorite “obsolete” digital Leica. It’s still worth buying, ten years later.

If you spend any amount of time perusing camera enthusiast forums, you’re going to run across this question, posted at predictable intervals, asking whether a particular digital camera “is still good.” That’s always struck me as an incoherent question born of weak reasoning and ignorance. At base, what does the question mean? The key qualifying word seems to be “still,” as in “does it make sense to be using this camera now, given all the models that have come since?” Characterizing the question that way, it does make some sense. Why should I buy older model X when I can also buy newer model Y that is claimed to be “better” than model X?

Consider the Leica M8 and its present viability versus a current Leica offering, say, a Leica M262. Certainly, you might want to consider the price differential (unless you’re a person of means who isn’t constrained by financial necessities). The M262 is the successor to the Leica M-E, which itself is an M9 minus the frameline preview lever and USB port. The M262, however, is based on the M240 but shares the body shape and weight of the M9 series. It has a 24 Mxp full frame CMOS sensor. It costs about $5000. The M8 is a 10.3 Mpx CCD camera first offered by Leica in 2006. It has the same form factor as subsequent digital M’s (a slightly fatter M6), so if your main reason for wanting a Leica is to impress people, the average guy on the street wouldn’t know the difference. You can pick one up for $1200, used. So the M262 is 4X as expensive as a good, used M8.

By most socially accepted criteria, the M262 is the “better” camera. But is it really? That’s, of course, a question only you can answer. It’s got a larger, higher def sensor, no doubt, one that theoretically allows you the ability to take “better” photos depending on how you define the quality of a photo. It’s also going to set you back $5000 as opposed to the M8, which you can pick up these days for peanuts (relatively speaking from a Leica perspective).

It seems to me that, at this point in the evolution of digital technology, this is a question in search of an argument. Unless we’re talking of a camera from the early digital era, e.g. circa 2001-2005, most serious digital cameras of whatever age meet or exceed the quality produced by traditional 35mm film cameras in terms of resolution and dynamic range. In this sense, as of, let’s say, the Leica M8, they’ve become “good enough.” Does it make sense, then, to buy an M8 when I can buy an M262? More precisely, if I’m a guy who simply wants to say he owns a Leica, what reason would I have to buy the M262 for $5000 when I can purchase my Leica cred by buying a minimally used M8 that’s sat on some guy’s shelf for the last 10 years?

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The physicist Niels Bohr, apparently a wise man of few words, was fond of telling the story of a man who a bought a parrot, only to return it because the parrot wouldn’t talk. The seller of the parrot, upon being asked to take the parrot back, replied: “Oh, forgive me. You wanted a parrot that talks, and I mistakenly sold you a parrot that thinks.” The parrot seller was laboring under what logicians call the ‘false dilemma fallacy,’ where an argument presents a set of two possible categories and assumes the subject of the argument must fall into one or the other category. In Bohr’s parable, the line of reasoning suggests that someone is either silent and thoughtful or talkative and an imbecile, a specious line of reasoning that, interestingly enough, one could argue is amply supported by the denizens of most internet photography forums. [In reality, there exists a third option, that the talkative man might have something intelligent to say, or a fourth, that the quiet man might not]. You get the point.

As to the debate about the worth of a super-ceded camera model, the same realities apply. Framed one way (via the false dilemma fallacy), an M8 today is an unworkable anachronism, hopelessly outdated in the era of live view and 256,000 ISO. This, of course, is to uncritically accept the premise camera manufacturers espouse in their ceaseless efforts to keep you buying cameras – new is the standard below which anything else is “obsolete” and of no continuing value.

Which looks pretty suspect from a critical perspective. If we’re going to discuss “obsolescence” we’ll need to first distinguish between two types:

Planned obsolescence: Planned obsolescence is the designing  and producing of products in order for them to be used up (obsolete) within a specific time period. Products may be designed for obsolescence either through function, like a paper coffee cup or a machine with breakable parts, or through “desirability,” like a consumer grade digicam made for this year’s fashion and then replaced by something totally different next year. Planned obsolescence is also known as “design for the dump.”

Perceived obsolescence: Perceived obsolescence is planned obsolescence that manipulates the “desirability” of a product.  A superceded camera model, say, will continue to be functional, just like it was when new – no better, no worse – yet it is no longer perceived to be appropriate given new “advances” in technology or style, so it is now rendered obsolete by perception, rather than by function.  Perceived obsolescence is all about what is fashionable, and what is fashionable in a consumerist economy must necessarily change from year to year. If capitalism has one driving reality, it’s that new widgets must constantly be produced to replace last year’s widgets and those new widgets must now be ceaselessly proclaimed to “better than ” last year’s widgets. Unspoken, but assumed in consumerist logic is the premise not only that the new widget is “better” but also that the old widget, the one we’ve owned and happily used without complaint, is now unworthy of further use. Of course, from a rational perspective, this is complete bullshit.

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Perceived obsolescence is now the number one “product” of the advertising that supports the camera industry. While what Nikon and Canon and Sony and Leica currently offer is technologically more advanced than what they were offering in 2006,  its arguable whether new cameras are “better” in any practical sense from what’s been available to us in the past. To automatically infer they are is to confuse the allegedly useful with the necessary, the necessary being the pivot point on which Leica has historically derived its almost cult-like following. Up until the Last decade or so, Leicas had never been about technological superiority; they’ve been about functional and aesthetic simplicity. They’ve been about making the photographic act as streamlined and efficient and simple as possible and the instrument well-built to last, characteristics modern digital camera makers have ignored in their headlong sprint to see who can jam the most features into a camera you’ll use till the next iteration comes along. If you’ve ever stared at the menu options your digital camera offers while the scene you wanted to photograph disappears, or your camera won’t function because of an error code, you’ll understand the difference.

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Josef Koudelka took this with an obsolete old film Leica and some Tri-X. He may not be able to print it much bigger than 11×14, but it’s still better than anything you’ll ever do with your M262.

Framed another way (a third option outside of the either/or dichotomy posited by the false dilemma), the M8 is still the great (but flawed) camera its always been.  Being firmly rooted in the film era, I neither need (nor want) 12800 iso on demand. Long ago I learned how to shoot in low light pushing HP5 to 1600 iso using a fast lens. Ironically, the open-aperture bokeh look so prized by happy-snappers today has its genesis in the constraints of such traditional low light shooting. As for dynamic range, well, that went out the window under such conditions as well. It’s called “the film look”, and it’s an aesthetic now prized by shooters trying to avoid the clinical “perfection” of  digital capture, and the M8, at least in b&w, does it to perfection. Run its files through Silver Efex and you”ve got something approaching scanned film with a fraction of the hassle. And when I’ve got ample light, the M8 delivers remarkable files easily printable to 20×30, not that I’d want to, mind you, as the modern fetish for large prints usually bears out the old adage “if you can’t make em good, make em big.”

in my mind, the argument should be about whether the camera you use gives you the results you want. As for what I want, it’s not sterile perfection, which, as best I can tell from a half-century of looking critically at great photography, is irrelevant to what makes a compelling photograph. What I do want, after a certain level of base technological competence, is that the camera I use get out of my way and allow me to get the picture. In that respect, just like my iiif, M4 or M5, my M8 succeeds briliantly, and I get the added Leica caché, all for the price of a middling consumer grade digicam.

 

 

 

 

The Leica Rep

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By Derek McClure. Mr. McClure is a photographer who shoots weddings, corporate and other portrait type work as needed. To escape from the commercial digitalized product flow that overwhelms his life, he shoots 35mm film with his three Leica’s –  an M7, an M3 and a Barnack iiib. He lives and works in Adelaide, South Australia. You can see his film  images on his instagram feed, @backwater_beat .

 

The glass was millimetres thick, yet it might as well have been made from solid steel. I beheld the items before me, displayed like endangered zoo creatures surrounded by a force field of glass that were designed to tempt even the most stoic of shooters. My breath fogged up the glass as I glared at the elite system that was both within and without of my reach. To the bloated rich, they were just another camera system, to everyone else they represented a kidney or a lung on the black market. The Leica M system.

I sighed and turned away from the glass case, feeling like an intoxicated drunk who had been rebuffed at ordering his last pint. I cradled my own Leica like a new born as I began my usual mantra of why I would always be satisfied with just one Leica.. and the other two that had been shelved prior to my early morning departure.

As I was about to proceed out of the store I found myself face to face with a man in a suit sporting a murse and equipped with red dot on his lapel. The Leica Rep. His visage was that of a person who had been caught in a conversation with their grandmother about a fungal growth on her goitre. The cause of his countenance was an enthusiastic camera noob peppering him with questions about megapixels and Instagram filters.

As I went to step past his eyes widened at the sight of my M7, his demeanour changing suddenly from clammy to rhapsodic as he recognised a fellow luddite. “I love your camera strap!” Apparently I was to buy the drinks and say how often I come to this place. I tightened my grip on my Hardgraft leather and wool camera strap which comfortably grasped onto my chrome Leica M7 and Summicron 50, all of which was set off beautifully by my ebony Artisan Obscura soft release.

The conversation moved rapidly as though we were at Beach Club Café pretending to order a drinks. The mention of Leica’s, lenses and photographic intentions were numerous, and growing at a fantastic rate. The Visco app enthusiast stood awkwardly with a smile plastered on her face like a jilted bride on her wedding day. “I love lamp,” she may have mumbled.

The moment arrived when mutual admiration was trumped by insecurity. The global obstacle of two photographers wrestling to impress the other, but having no real foothold in their ability to astonish the other. The stalemate to which we had found ourselves lead to the situation I should have foreseen.The Leica Rep revealed his Holy Grail. The Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 ASPH.

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All sound within a kilometre radius ceased, birds stopped in mid-air and a little bit of pee may have worked its way down my leg. “I love lamp..” I mumbled. He handed the lens to me with a knowing winners smile. I felt it slowly pulse in my hand like a beating heart newly ripped out from someone’s innards ala Indiana Jones. In my hand was the unattainable, legendary, real, and more than what I could sell one of my children for. I had never had a moment like this one where I wished I could run as fast as Usain Bolt. “How would you like to try it out for a month, we have..” His voice trailed off as I stared at the Noctilux. My heart was beating so loud in my ears that I thought it was about to implode. “Sure, I’d be keen.” I squeaked.

I gingerly handed the Noctilux back and gave him my card. A brief handshake later and I walked out of the store feeling alive. Colours seemed more vibrant, my senses alive like I had never seen daylight before. I skipped down the street as a trail of Disney creatures followed me. Their joy reflected my own as I broke into song. I twirled around like a giddy school reaching the crescendo of my canticle. I felt incredible. I slept fitfully that night dreaming of bokeh, thousands of Facebook followers and my new job at Magnum.

I never heard from the Leica Rep again.

How I Was Won Over to My Leica

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by Hector Ramos

For the last year or so I’ve visited Leicaphilia almost daily‎ looking for interesting reads on analogue and Leica film cameras. I visit other sites, too like Eric Kim’s, Steve Huff’s and Japan Camera Hunter but I like Leicaphilia the best because it helps me discover and remember why I’ve chosen film and Leicas as my medium.

Growing up in the Philippines in the 1970s, one of my fond memories is my dad’s Kodak Instamatic camera and photo albums. Special occasions were recorded and revisited via photo albums. I grew up in a small town without electricity, TV, phone, refrigerator or cars. My dad’s camera was considered a sign of affluence. From 1992 to 2010, I lived and worked between India; the Bay Area in California; Europe; and Australia, and used photography to keep my sanity, doing it mostly as a hobby and part time to earn some money. I had a collection of Nikon bodies, an FM2 (which I still regret selling) , F801, F4s, F5, F3 and D1x, and several lenses.  The F5 in particular was very impressive for its metering. But I remember one day asking myself: ‘This camera is better than me! I wonder how it gets ‘good’ pictures?’  Thus began my search for a more simplified camera that would allow me to make the pictures instead of having the camera do it for me.

I sold all my Nikon gear and ended up with a brand new black Leica MP and a pair of lenses: the 35mm and 75mm Summil‎ux aspherical lenses, bought from B&H. A friend who delivered them to me said ‘I can’t belive how expensive these are!’…. and I thought to myself ‘Is this all I get for selling so many cameras and lenses? What was I thinking?’ Yet, as I began to use the kit  the build quality, simplicity, and concentration required to use the system gave me a photographic rebirth and the greatest satisfaction to date compared to any camera I’ve ever used. I noticed a change in my photos which were hard to explain. But the most important was the taking of a responsibility that when the picture was great it was because of me. And if it was not to my liking it was also because of my skills as a photographer.

Enter the M8. It was convenient and produced film like qualities. I stopped using the MP and my back-up M6. But interestingly the ‘quality’ of my work dipped and I stopped enjoying my photography so much. For important work, like weddings, I always went back to the MP and M6. And always they gave me greater satisfaction than the M8. I eventually sold the M6 and the M8 together with a 28 summicron and a 135 telyt for an M9 a few years back. I tried hard to love digital. But something never clicked. I couldn’t relate to the digital workflow and digital files. I tried to mimic film but in the end I thought,’why not just use film then?’  The M9 gets used by two of my sons when they visit.

I have since tried an M3 and an M4 and have learned to eye exposure. But my current workhorse is the MP and a 50 summilux.  They always accompany me on my work travels to different countries, usually used to record moments for myself.

I am currently going through two big suitcases full of velvia slide boxes,  and Tri-x and HP5 sleeves from the last 24 years of shooting, trying to organize for printing choice images just like what my dad did. Or maybe for a website. But the images which stand out because of a certain ‘feel’ are the ones unmistakably taken with the Leicas.

 

Gear Excess or Minimalism: What Makes You Happy?

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Lately, in a conscious quest to simplify my life, I’ve found myself thinking:

  • Why exactly do I own what I own?
  • What could I sell and not miss, practically speaking?
  • Do I really need that?
  • What is it costing me to own that?

I have way too much stuff. Cameras and lenses to be exact. It’s a first-world problem, no doubt, a function of an affluence we often don’t recognize because it’s become so common. It starts with the best intentions, but usually ends up where I find myself – with a surfeit of beautiful, shiney, pleasing things I never use. Which is a shame, because the mechanical cameras and lenses I’ve collected – whether they be Leicas or Nikons or something else – deserve to be used.

When I hold onto camera I don’t use, even though just the possessing gives me pleasure, (and this is especially true for the mechanical cameras I tend to buy and collect), it does indeed cost me something, if only in the time spent organizing, contemplating, and/or servicing the camera I’ve accumulated. And it costs the larger gearhead community something too – a camera that could be being used by someone as opposed to sitting on a shelf.

So, I’ve decided to start selling off the things I can’t justify sitting on my shelf. It’s difficult, as I can always find a reason to hold onto something. But usually the reason I find is the same reason I bought it – it’s beautiful/cool/iconic/historic etc and I want it. Good enough reasons, I suppose, but not compelling enough to convince my wife, who is currently in desperate need of a shiney, new, large capacity refrigerator.

With this in mind, I’ve started a new page you can reach from my homepage entitled, simply enough, “For Sale.”  Everything you’ll find there is mine. It all works. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. I’m not selling it for any other reason than I just don’t need it.

I’ll be listing further items as current items sell, so feel free to check back in for other items in the future.

Hollywood Gets the M3 All Wrong ( errrr…Possibly Right?)

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The above is a still from the new Hollywood “Blockbuster” Kong: Skull Island, the premise of which, apparently, is that King Kong is found running around what appears to be Viet Nam in the 60s/70s wreaking havoc and the people above, among others, are tasked with capturing /wounding /incapacitating /killing him.  The young woman is, apparently, a PJ. She’s shown using a Leica M3 with what looks like a 50mm Elmar (note the indented bevel on the front of the lens) and the close focus attachment for a DR Summicron, which makes absolutely no sense under any imagined scenario. Even were that a DR Summicron, I’d question what a 60’s era PJ in Viet Nam would be doing using macro focusing while on combat assignment in SE Asia.

[Editor’s Note: Within 30 minutes of posting this, I’ve been inundated with smarter, more knowledgeable readers noting that it’s clearly a Summaron 35 3.5 with goggles for the M3. Of course.  One more example of why one shouldn’t drink whiskey and then write things on the internet. In this particular instance, the culprit was a 200ml bottle of Old Malt Cask Unfiltered Single Malt Scotch, bottled at the “preferred Golden Strength of 50% alc. vol” by Blair Athol Distillery, that my wife had just brought me back from Scotland.]

Camera Ergonomics

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By Christopher Moss. Dr. Moss is a family physician in Canada. He has been using film cameras for over forty years as an amateur and still enjoys doing it.

Using a camera in a fluent and efficient fashion is vital if you’re going to get the photograph that suddenly presents itself to you. Camera manufacturers can either help or hinder this, by designing a camera’s controls to be as intuitive and accessible as possible. It would seem to be in their interest to help in this way, but the fact is that it isn’t. How can that be? Well, sadly, only a small subset of photographers are interested in a camera that works with them in this way; most want a camera that will do it all for them, and technology has not yet advanced to a state where this is compatible with taking the best possible photograph in any given situation.

Manufacturers follow the money and make cameras that help the average buyer achieve something most of the time. No camera maker wants a disappointed buyer, so they turn out designs that automate and simplify everything so that an inexperienced user can get something worth posting to their Facebook page. That is as it should be in a capitalist world, and the rest of us really can’t complain if we want camera manufacturers to stay in business and continue to feed our needs. It is true, however, that the automation and simplification has got to the point that a photographer who wants more than a minimal degree of control over a picture has to work against the ergonomics of many modern cameras. This isn’t a new problem, as a few examples will show!

The Pre-Electronic Era

Lots of old cameras tried to make life simpler for not just the amateur, but for the completely ignorant photographer. In the days before any kind of autofocus (beyond the depth of field of a small aperture) or auto-exposure (beyond the latitude inherent in negative films) this didn’t always work so well, but expectations were different too. Remember when a photograph was said have ‘come out well’? And if it didn’t satisfy it was said that ‘it didn’t come out’? There was a kind of black box that an exposed film entered, and it might come out or it might fail to come out, but the workings of the black box were inscrutable. Well, a very little thought tells us that this was a way of excusing a multitude of sins, from inept exposure, failing to hold the camera steady, getting the focus horribly wrong, not taking off the lens cap, all the way through the chain to some error in development and the film ‘being lost’. All happily under the umbrella of ‘it didn’t come out’ which answered any query and was never questioned. My first camera was a Univex AF-4 from the 1930’s that had only one control – the shutter could be set to instant or time. Nothing else at all, which was very convenient for the user, but likely to lead to disappointment when the film came back. Later a Number 2 Kodak Autographic Brownie came along from the mid-1920’s, and it allowed shutter speeds of 1/25 (“Clear”) and 1/50 (“Brilliant”) along with “B” and “T” for those who had confidence in what we now call risk- taking behaviour. Focusing was limited to Portrait, Near View, Average View, Distant View and Clouds/Marine. If you couldn’t quite figure out which to use, you had the ready fall back that the photo didn’t come out, which was probably just as well, all things considered.

ergo2The Univex AF-4: “AF” Does NOT stand for “Auto-Focus”

But not all was so obscure and not every photograph required all fingers and toes be crossed. Miniature photography in the form of the Leica and the Contax cameras during the same era as the models mentioned above had multiple exact shutter speeds, apertures and distances that could be set. The addition of a rangefinder allowed the focusing to be precise, but exposure values were still generally estimated, or at best measured with an extinction meter (my father had a dandy little device that had a wedge of opaque material inside, and he looked through it and tried to read off a scale of numbers. The last number that could be read was entered on a handy slide rule on the outside of the casing and apertures and times could be read off. All this allowed great precision, but wasn’t for the masses of people who wanted to take a snap without being expert in the dark arts of photography. The next stage of affairs for those folk was the invention of the C-22 colour negative film process, which had enough latitude to allow the widespread sale of Instamatic cameras using 126 film. Fifty million cameras were sold between 1963 and 1970, many with no controls beyond a shutter release and a wind-on thumb wheel, and the more sophisticated having two shutter speeds (sunny and cloudy), and two focusing distances (a head and shoulders outline and a mountain). Many of us will remember the dull grainy quality of the prints that came back from these mostly under-exposed films that we took on our holidays. Most of my memories of my early teens have taken on that veiled look as a result – I’m remembering photos of those times! Better latitude came with the C-41 process in 1972, but this was offset by the marketing decision to push 110 size film as a replacement for 126 film. Kodak must take some blame for selling us less film at higher prices and requiring new cameras to be bought. This was probably the lowest point of unskilled consumer photography in history.

Electronics

In the meantime the descendants of the Leicas and the Contaxes had continued to evolve, and the development of the single lens reflex from early Exacta and Kowa models had proceeded to the point where very good SLRs were challenging the dominance of the rangefinders. The addition of electronics was the catalyst that almost destroyed the rangefinders, as Japanese SLR manufacturers adopted these improvements and Leica did not. From the mid-1960’s onwards we saw closed-aperture metering, then open-aperture metering, then auto-exposure quickly develop. Powered film wind on came quickly as a development of motor-drives, until it was available in consumer point and shoot cameras. Despite Leica’s early interest in auto-focus, they let others introduce it into the market and from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s it became the norm in SLRs and compact cameras. Notice how the term ‘point and shoot’ has crept in there? This was the first time a camera could be used the way my Univex AF-4 was used in the 1930’s, but with auto-focus and auto-exposure to save the day from the ‘it didn’t come out’ problem. Briefly, cameras of this era became easy, simple and reasonably reliable to use. There weren’t a dozen different exposure modes, and while auto-focus quickly diverged into single and continuous forms, there weren’t dozens of AF points to choose between or activate in groups etc. All that nonsense came along soon enough, but it was still mostly manageable until the next big thing.

 

ergo3A Contax G2, a High-Point of Electronic Film Camera Design

Digital

Once cameras produced digital images there was a huge change in the way cameras were used and controlled. Manufacturers seemed to feel that endless complexity could be introduced and hid it all in so very many menus that could be accessed through arcane combinations of button pushes that required one of those mythical teenagers who could program your VHS recorder in the days when no one else could. Most buyers of digital cameras don’t explore all the menu options and the thick small print manuals that used to be offered before it was decided that all this was more cheaply put on an optical disk or, better yet, available for download online, were hardly welcoming models of simplicity and clarity. The most byzantine set of menus and controls I have met with so far belong to the Olympus OM-D series. Nice, small, light cameras with decent picture quality – but those menus! Having set it up I shall hope I never have to do so again. In use, I have to try out various wheels and buttons to see what they do, or have been user-programmed to do. That’s neither quick nor efficient.

What Would Be Ideal?

There’s not much point in talking about mechanical only cameras here, as the only ones in production are the Leica M-A and large format cameras, which were probably designed in a world where ergonomics had never been invented. But a modern camera with a light-meter and autofocus? Lots of things that can help or hinder there! I believe the ideal camera could be set to allow all the usual controls to be easily accessed with physical dials and buttons if desired, with each allowing for an ‘Auto’ position if the user wanted the camera to take care of it for him. At a minimum, this means an aperture control, preferably as a ring on the lens, but at the very least as a thumb or finger wheel on the camera body. The same applies to shutter settings, but since more users prefer aperture priority over shutter priority, the setting for this can be a traditional dial on the top plate or a thumb or finger wheel as available.

ISO must also be able to be set outside any menu system, and can even be a dial in an awkward place or a menu setting for a film camera where it is set just once per film, or a wheel, dial on a digital camera that is reasonably easy to access, even if this means taking the camera from the eye. At the very least, a dedicated button and instant access menu on the LCD of a digital camera is needed. Things like the parameters used in setting up auto-ISO on digital cameras can be buried in menus, but switching from the lowest native ISO of a sensor (best quality) to the highest necessary for this particular photograph via Auto-ISO have to be available quickly and easily. Finally, exposure modes ought to be easily changed between spot, centre-weighted and matrix with a physical control.

When we consider focusing, a physical control to change between manual focus, single autofocus and continuous autofocus is by far the fastest way of changing between them. Niceties like how to choose which autofocus point to use, which group of autofocus sensors to use and so on can be relegated to the menus, as far as I’m concerned as I tend to set them once and stick with that setting. I suspect I am not alone in using autofocus in a way that would disappoint the clever engineers who made these devices. I want single autofocus on the centre of the viewfinder. I want to focus on the important part of the scene with a button press, hold that focus and recompose and fire.

Anything else at all is rarely used by me. If I were a sports photographer with fast-moving subjects I would have to get into all sorts of continuous tracking autofocus between various groups of focus sensors, but for goodness sake, keep that stuff out of the way of the majority of us who don’t need it! Talking of focus lock with a button press, it is pretty obvious that a half-press of the shutter button is the easiest way to do this. A separate button for exposure lock would be nice, as focusing on the part of the image desired isn’t always the same thing as getting the exposure right after you recompose.

Some Examples of What We Can Do if We Try

I’m not sure how many cameras I have owned or used over the years, and come to that, I’m not even sure how many I own right now. Some things are best left unsaid. But some stand out more than others and I’m going to describe in detail the cameras that I have found to be the easiest to use from the point of view of ergonomic efficiency. Firstly a purely mechanical camera without no electronics at all. All it needs is an aperture ring, a shutter speed dial, a shutter release and means of winding on the film. It doesn’t get much simpler than this, but even here design considerations can make all the difference. Compare my 1963 Leica M2 with my 1971 Hasselblad 500c. Apart from the slightly awkward film loading system (which I actually like more than that in modern Leicas as the take up spool grips the leader so tightly it is easy to rewind the film and leave the leader out), the Leica just works.

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My left hand controls the aperture ring and focusing tab on the lens, while my right index finger turns the shutter dial, presses the shutter release at which point my right thumb can wind on the next frame. The only pause comes when I have to meter the light and reset the aperture and shutter controls. When I had an M7 and an MP even this obstacle was removed. The Hasselblad is also far easier to use than a present day compact if you want to do anything other than auto-everything. But, it has to be said, it’s not as simple as the Leica. While the controls are different, focusing, shooting and winding on are just as simple. It’s the lenses with their coupled aperture and shutter speed controls that complicate things.

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Hasselblads are not designed for those who want to estimate an exposure, the use of the EV ring on the lens pretty much requires the use of a meter, and once it’s set, the coupled aperture/shutter rings can be turned together to allow some decisions about a suitable combination. Hasselblads have their quirks, and everyone sooner or later makes the mistake of changing the lens with the shutter uncocked (you cannot reattach that lens until the shutter has been cocked by careful use of a strong screwdriver), and who doesn’t forget to remove the darkslide at least once per session? Generally, though, they work pretty smoothly, and are simple enough, like the M2, that it’s hard to mess up from a control point of view.

Next, let’s look at something far more complex—a camera from that brief era when auto-exposure and autofocus had yet to be combined with the menus of a digital camera. I’m going to spend more time on this as there is far more to describe, and far more to get right or wrong! The Pentax 645n was a medium format film camera made between 1997 and 2001. It has no rear LCD and thus no menus, so everything that can be changed must be changed with a physical control. It is a large, rather heavy, boxy camera as might be expected from trying to have a medium format camera with a powered wind on and all the batteries needed to drive it (especially as this was made before lithium ion batteries were in common usage). Despite it’s weight and size, it stands out from the crowd in ease and speed of use, simply because the designers thought carefully, and also, I have to say, because they didn’t have the option of hiding settings deep in nested menus!) Let’s go through the available controls:

1. Focusing. The camera can be used with autofocus or manual focus. In a moment of inspiration, all the lenses for this camera (except for the small standard 75mm/f2.8) had their focusing rings made so they could be pushed forwards, revealing the words “Auto Focus” on the lens barrel, or pulled back, covering those words and switching into manual focus mode. So by simply grabbing the focusing ring, pulling back and twisting you have manual focus. Push forwards and a half-press of the shutter button gives you autofocus again. Very nice indeed! On the back of the camera body are two sliding switches, one that selects either ‘Servo’ (which you might call Continuous these days) or ‘Single’ autofocus, and the other which selects either a single or three AF sensors. Autofocusing is triggered with a half-press of the shutter release, and holding the shutter button in this position locks the focus. Easy!

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2. Exposure. There are traditional aperture and shutter controls with a ring on the lens barrel for aperture and a dial on the top plate for shutter speed. Both have an ‘A’ position in which the setting becomes dependent on the setting of the other control. So if the Shutter speed dial is set to ‘A’ you can manually set the aperture and the shutter speed will be automatically set ie aperture priority exposure. Alternatively, the aperture ring can be set to ‘A’ and the shutter speed dial can be manually set, resulting in an automatic aperture selection ie shutter priority exposure. If both controls are set to ‘A’ the camera enters a Program mode, and uses combinations of aperture and shutter speed that it’s designers think best. This cannot be shifted to other combinations, but to be honest if you want to do that you ought to be using one of the priority auto-exposure modes anyway. There is a ‘Memory Lock’ button under the right thumb which can lock exposure for twenty seconds after a single press, or if the shutter button is half-pressed during those twenty seconds the locked exposure will remain in effect until the shutter is finally released. I simply hold it down as long as I want the exposure locked, and release it if I want to re-measure exposure as this is simpler and easier. Three metering modes are available, and a dial under the shutter dial has three positions for Spot, Centre-
weighted and Six-segment (these days: matrix) metering. The other control related to exposure is a dial on the top plate at the left which controls exposure compensation in 1/3 stops from -3 to +3 stops.

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3. ISO. There is a small LCD on the top plate, and this is used in combination with a switch under the exposure compensation dial to set ISO. If the switch is held in the position marked ISO (it is spring loaded and will return to normal as soon as you release it), then ISO may be changed with the up and down buttons on the top plate, the ISO showing in the LCD as you do so. This is the least convenient of the controls, but for a film camera it doesn’t matter as this is set when a film is loaded and not changed until the next film, if a different speed.

4. Drive mode. Around the shutter release is a collar with settings for single, multiple and timer. Pretty obvious.

5. Other controls. Only three more – a power switch which has three positions: Off, On (with sound confirmation of focus) and On with no sound. Secondly there is a multiple exposure switch which lets the shutter cock without the film winding on, and finally a depth of field preview lever to close down the aperture. The only remaining button is the lens release.

For all the fact that this is a large and heavy camera, it is easier to use than most as the controls are easily visible and accessible. It’s a shame that it’s descendants, the Pentax 645D and 645Z have many of these functions accessible only via menus, as there really isn’t any reason other than expense not to have dedicated controls for the important and frequently changed items in addition to a menu system for selecting just whose face gets recognised and sepia toned to what degree! The digital Leica M cameras pretty much get this right, with physical controls for the important stuff, or at least a dedicated button to take you straight to the right menu (eg for ISO). And so far, it has only been Leica that has been eccentric enough to make a digital M with no menus, the M-D, which will appeal strongly to users of film cameras, given that it allows all the same controls that a film M has, and a lot fewer options that would normally be set on a digital camera. There will probably be little opportunity for other manufacturers to show their skills in designing cameras that can be used easily without relying on automatic functions, as the marketplace dictates cameras that can do more than their competitors, not less, and at the same time they have to be idiot-proof. Of the three modern cameras I have (Nikon D810, Nikon F6 and Olympus OM-D E-M5), all have been set up the way I like them and I never touch the menus any more as it took a very long time to get everything just so. It means I can use them as I want to, changing apertures and shutter speeds as I go (though I really don’t like control wheels over traditional controls) and not worrying about stuff I won’t miss. I guess I am trying to use them with the same basic controls that I can use on the M2 and the 500c, and even on the 645n I rarely change the autofocus or metering settings. So it’s possible to use a modern camera the way you used a film camera, but the lack of standardisation across brands still means that when you go back and forth between them there can be confusion about which control wheel does what. I think it’s worthwhile to try to do this, as it saves the confusion of too many choices, speeds up the use of the camera so that you can concentrate on getting the shot, and allows the satisfaction that comes from feeling that you made the photograph, not the camera.

Film Photography’s Alleged Comeback

Feiniger 1952
By Temoor Iqbal, reprinted from EuropeanCEO, under the Byline “Film Photography Makes a Stunning Comeback”. [Editor’s Note: Not sure “stunning” is the correct word, although it’s gratifying to see the larger culture notice the continued relevance of analogue photography for many of the same reasons having been discussed at length on Leicaphilia.]

In the early 2000s, the world of photography changed forever. Though digital cameras had been widespread since the mid-1990s, the technology did not produce sufficiently high-quality results for professional and serious amateur photographers.

Around 2003, however, this changed, and vast swathes of professionals made the jump from analogue to digital, decimating an entire industry in the process. “Companies went from processing in the region of 5,000 rolls of film per day to 20 percent of that in a six-month period; as you can imagine, there were many casualties”, said Professor Steve Macleod, Director of Metro Imaging, a professional photography lab.

For a decade after this crash, sales of camera film steadily dropped as digital camera technology continued to improve. However, all was not lost for the analogue world. According to Kodak Alaris, a spinoff of legendary film manufacturer Kodak, sales of Kodak Professional film grew more than five percent worldwide between 2013 and 2015. Of course, this figure is not even close to reaching the dizzy heights of yesteryear, when film was the only tool available to photographers, but that might not even matter. Indeed, it seems the future role of analogue photography is not to challenge the dominance of digital, but to rest alongside it in a particular niche.

Legends of the past
Perhaps the best-known film producer in the world, Kodak is still operating in the aforementioned form of Kodak Alaris. What’s more, the company is continuing to innovate, with new films such as Kodak Portra designed specifically to be scanned, reflecting the preference of many modern film users to have scans rather than prints as an end product.

Kodak’s one-time rival, Fujifilm, is also still producing camera film, but focuses primarily on its Instax line of instant camera paper. This reflects one of the many unexpected trends in analogue photography; sales of Instax cameras have risen steadily since 2013, and are expected to hit five million units this year. This pattern is firmly being fuelled by a young demographic – typically those born and raised in the digital age, for whom a printed photograph is something of a novelty.

UK-based Ilford Photo, another of the few major players to survive the crash, confirmed this trend last year, after a survey found that 30 percent of film users were under 35 years old, and 60 percent had only started using film in the last five years. Such is the enthusiasm among this small but dedicated group that newer companies have even managed to find success in analogue photography – Lomography, born from a bizarre collective of photographers obsessed with low-fi Russian cameras, has also seen film sales rise steadily throughout this decade, with products such as Purple XR (a film that warps the colour spectrum) squarely aimed at the youth demographic.

Creative control
The question that these findings inevitably raises is – why? Why shoot film, when digital cameras are so advanced? In a sense, this line of enquiry is born of a misunderstanding. For many, there is an impression that film is an expensive medium compared to digital, which is ‘free’ in a sense, once the initial equipment has been purchased. “This is a myth. The cost of shooting analogue is immediate and physical: you have to buy film, you have to pay to have it processed and scanned. With these criteria, digital appears less expensive and many wonder why anyone would choose to shoot film. However, people fail to build into their costing how long it takes to edit digital photos. If they were to cost out how long it takes to edit and prepare digital files for production, it would be equivalent or near to the cost of shooting analogue; they balance out in the end”, said Macleod.

Similarly, there is often a lack of understanding of the experience of shooting film; the vast majority of digital camera users nowadays have never actually tried shooting with an analogue camera, just as most music listeners have never handled, played and fully listened to a vinyl record. There is a simplicity to the pared-down experience that can be of genuine creative benefit. “Necessity is the mother of invention; there is no point staring at the back of a film camera after taking a shot – that time and energy is already going into the next one. Not knowing immediately what has been captured is a creative advantage”, said Walter Rothwell, a professional photographer who regularly uses analogue cameras for his work.

Rothwell is not alone is this view, as more and more professional photographers are choosing film for similar reasons. This is particularly apparent in the world of fashion, as photographers seek to take back control of a creative process that is falling ever further into the hands of editors. “In the era of Avedon and Irving Penn, it was the photographers who were leading what the fashion should be. Today it is the fashion editor. It is the editor who is immersed in fashion, so it is the editor’s point of view that is valid…the photographer becomes just the tool to express that point of view”, said art director Fabien Baron, in an interview with Business of Fashion.

Je ne sais quoi
Of course, high-minded ideals about creative control and specific minutiae of costs are primarily professional issues. What inspires the everyday film photographer is something quite different, which is difficult to define, but easy to see.

“Film has a quality that is unique; a beauty and tonal warmth that digital cannot match. Like the vinyl versus MP3 debate, there is something inherently different about a physical process compared to a virtual one”, said Rothwell. While digital camera manufacturers have made photography a question of megapixels, a growing number of people understand that quality cannot be expressed in figures. Ken Rockwell, a prominent advocate of film photography, expressed this point well, writing: “Non-artists misguidedly waste their time comparing meaningless specs like resolution and bit depth, when they really should just stand back and look at the images.”

As well as the choice of medium, such considerations also influence the choice of camera for many photographers. Lomography’s Diana camera has extremely limited controls, uses a deliberately low-sharpness lens, and purposefully allows light to leak through the body and onto the film, and yet it is astonishingly popular, as the final images have a unique, dreamlike quality that simply cannot be recreated with any amount of computer processing.

For related reasons, the Hasselblad Xpan, a panoramic film camera, is one of Rothwell’s favourites for personal work. “The Xpan was a unique moment of madness from a large manufacturer; a comparatively small panoramic camera that shoots across two frames, producing very high quality negatives. Around 10 years ago, I noticed that I was ‘seeing’ panoramic photos, so I got the camera to answer a yen.” Rothwell’s panoramic street photography has earned him international acclaim, and while it would certainly be possible to use the panoramic mode on a digital camera or phone to replicate the effect, there is something about the lack of choice that lends his shots a unique feel. To stitch together a panorama from digital images with would not give the same results in terms of artistic impression, though the scene may be the same.

Self reliance
The most common process when shooting film is the same now as it was before the digital age. A roll of film is shot, rolled up, and taken or posted to a lab for development. The lab will then return prints and/or scans of the images, as well as the original negatives or slides for storage.

However, in this modern world of increased automation, there is a growing trend for manual processes. This has caused a minor boom in home developing, with many amateur photographers processing their own film and even attempting to make prints. Such has been the level of interest in recent years that, in 2014, Ilford launched Localdarkroom.com, a website designed to help photographers find a darkroom that they can work in, as most people lack the appropriate space or resources to do more than basic processing at home.

It is tempting to put this down to a desire to reduce costs, film photography being perceived as an expensive pursuit, but the reality is very different. “If you are developing and printing to save money, you’re barking up the wrong tree. There is no getting around it, film and paper are expensive, then there are the chemicals, negative and print storage costs, enlarging and processing equipment, the list goes on”, said Rothwell. People are keen to do things with their hands, not for reasons of quality or cost, but for the sake of it, and perhaps to satisfy a deeper instinct to produce physical work.

This desire for the physical extends to storage too. True, photographic prints have not seen their popularity rise in parallel with the rebirth of film, but having an exposed negative as a permanent record of a photo is something that speaks to people, especially as our understanding of the limitations of digital data storage increases. “I read an interesting quote recently: ‘nothing digital is truly archival, as it does not survive by accident’. We are taking unprecedented numbers of photos nowadays, but the vast majority are destined to remain as computer code, languishing on hard drives”, said Rothwell.

For the ages
Herein lies the problem – digital files do not last on their own. File types come and go – even the ubiquitous JPEG format may not be readable by standard hardware in 20 or 30 years – so constant, active conversion is required to ensure the survival of an archive. Properly stored negatives, however, can last almost indefinitely, with no particular action required. They are tangible records that can be passed down through generations.

In 2007, Chicago-based amateur historian John Maloof purchased a box of negatives from the 1960s for $400. They turned out to be the work of the now-revered documentary photographer Vivien Maier. Maloof now owns some 150,000 of Maier’s negatives, many of which have been successfully scanned, and he has been largely responsible for her posthumous fame. Could this have happened with a hard drive of JPEGs? The technology isn’t old enough to say for sure, but there’s cause for doubt.

Ultimately, this is not to say that everyone should immediately discard their digital cameras and switch to film, but rather that film still has a very real and serious place in the world of photography. As a specific tool in the photographer’s arsenal, alongside digital, film photography can continue to survive and thrive, offering something of an antidote to the mentality of snapping each and every passing moment. As Macleod noted: “The way people shoot has changed. Film has become a more considered approach; something people invest time in creating.”

The rebirth, however, is still just that – manufacturers need to continue to respond to the market and innovate as much as they can in order to make it a safe, reliably profitable industry once more. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but for now, film is most definitely alive and well.