Photography in the Age of the Quick and Easy

I recently spent a week at the beach in North Carolina. North Carolina has incredible beaches, as nice as any anywhere. They’re an easy 2 hour drive from my home in Raleigh, although it was the first time I’d been to the beach in a while. I suspect that’s fairly typical. Like most wonderful things easily accessible from one’s home, we rarely take advantage of the proximity, knowing it’s always there if we do decide to visit. For example: Born and raised 15 miles from the Statue of Liberty, I’d never been until a few years ago, when I took our Italian exchange student for a visit. It’s also why I silently discount friends who live in NYC and justify the insane costs of living there by citing the proximity to various cultural opportunities or gourmet bagel places not available to us out in the sticks. [Right…when was the last time you went to MOMA or the Opera or the Whitney? And how much did it cost you in time, money, effort, and all the other petty harassments that come along with it? And who gives a shit about your bagels anyway? I meanwhile, can ride my bicycle out my back door onto beautiful dedicated bike trails to our Museum of Art (free admission), or to the museum on the campus of NC State (free admission), or can walk downtown to the Museum of Natural History (free) or to catch a bite to eat at one of the restaurants run by the chef recently awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Nation, or I can jump in the car and easily access the myriad cultural offerings of Durham and Duke University or Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina, all without constantly feeding 10 dollar toll charges to disembodied arms extended from gas-fumed toll booths, and I can do it all from my beautiful 100-year-old home set amidst 4 glorious ancient Oaks which probably costs me less per month than a shared 8×6 closet with chamber pot in some roach-infested walk-up in a Lower East Side neighborhood where preternaturally thin women with artificially stretched faces carry yoga mats and $12 spiced lattes. But I digress…]

My real point is not to denigrate New Yorkers (although I find them laughingly easy targets) but to tell you about my holiday. I figured I’d use the week as an opportunity to ‘document’ my trip, if for no other reason because I’m running out of things to write for Leicaphilia and none of my readers bother to send me content, preferring to free-load. The plan was this: I’d bring 10 rolls of Fomapan 400 with my M5 with 35mm and F5 with 50mm, and my Sigma DP1 Merrill. I’d take a bunch of pictures, post the best, and see if it made any real difference whether I shot film or digital and if it did if I could articulate the difference and/or could show the difference in my output.

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Unfortunately, I’ve not gotten around to developing the 8 rolls of Fomapan I exposed. Even with an 8 reel tank, it takes time to develop 8 reels, hang them to dry and then bulk scan them and edit them down for a few keepers. You’ve got to be pretty dedicated. Hopefully, I’ll find the time to get to them in the next few days and they won’t get thrown in a bag with 80 or so other rolls still waiting to be developed. It didn’t help that my M5 shutter stuck at 1/500th an 1/100th of a second, which means I didn’t shoot much of anything with it but instead shot 7 rolls with the F5, most of which were close-ups of my dog and wife in various states of repose. I never took either film camera out of doors.

Which left me with my Sigma DP1 Merrill, which proved remarkably useful even at base 100 ISO given the amount of light available. It accompanied me both on the beach, off of it, and indoors. The output is really beautiful, but it’s not really appreciable when viewed on the web, where you’re viewing downsized jpgs. Trust me; the RAW files developed with Sigma’s software are stunning. The problem is the slowness of the RAW software: it took all afternoon to download 121 files, given that the software crashed 4 separate times before I got them all downloaded. And then I had to convert them all to TIFF files so they could be read by Lightroom. That took an hour or so. And then, of course, I had to find the keepers and edit them in Lightroom.

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I also took my iPhone 8, which I take everywhere given it’s my lifeline to the rest of humanity. I hadn’t even thought of using it to take photos, stuck as I am in the out-moded mindset that requires dedicated photographic equipment in order to properly photograph things. But given it was always on me, I ended up taking photographs with it – not the planned kind, just records of spontaneous experiences I wanted to preserve on a whim. Point, shoot and forget, which is pretty much what I did. No convoluted thinking about aperture, or light, or even composition; certainly not film speed or type.

Out of curiosity, the morning we left I took a look at the photos I’d taken with my phone. I plugged a few of the ones that caught my eye into an app I had on the phone that applies “filters” to photos, chose a few random filters and saved the ones I liked. The whole thing, beginning to end, took about 5 minutes. The photo of my brother-in-law that leads off the piece is one, as is the one above and the ones below. All the others – the 2×3 format photos, are from the Sigma.

So, tell me again, what exactly was the point of the film cameras…or the Sigma for that matter?

23 thoughts on “Photography in the Age of the Quick and Easy

  1. Rob Campbell

    ” I figured I’d use the week as an opportunity to ‘document’ my trip, if for no other reason because I’m running out of things to write for Leicaphilia and none of my readers bother to send me content, preferring to free-load.”

    There’s a problem: unless one owns a Leica, it feels somehow wrong to put visitor pictures onto the site. Obviously, I know you also use digital brands that are not Leica, but it’s your site, which is pychologically different. Widening the site to too many readers’ pictures may well end up undermining it somewhat. I think just giving a link to something that you yourself like may suffice?

    Maybe one good reason for not using a cellphone in place of a normal camera is control of your DOF. I may be mistaken, but afaik, none allows that yet. I have been in a shallow DOF mode for quite a while, now, and apart from everything else, that wouldn’t work out well with a cellphone.

    Film, unfortunately, requires at least a contact sheet. For all my years with film, reading small negs for anything other than processing info. was hopeless. Contact sheets would certainly inform as to which negs to scan, but it hardly seems worth the effort anymore.

    I sniggered at your mention of not bothering to visit places near you: Glasgow, where we lived in Scotland, was only about forty miles from Edinburgh (probably hasn’t got much closer, unless you count moving edges) but I think I have only set foot in the capital four times at most. Menorca, an island very close to Mallorca where I have lived since ’81, I have never visited and probably never will, despite being able to see it, on clear days, from a low hill. Just does nothing for my curiosity. I would far rather spend time in Rome, were it not so expensive and car-unfriendly.

    All that said, I think the main attraction of Leicaphilia is in the writing you provide, in the thinking you provoke. You do it very well indeed, far better than anywhere else I have paused awhile. It comes with being well-read, having had a great education and all of that combined with a love for photography, which is pretty unique on the web. What’s not to like?

    Rob

    Reply
  2. Ron Himebaugh

    The “point of a film camera” is that it is fun (for some). Not everyone, or very many, but some. You can fish with a fly rod or a troll line; one is efficient, the other is fun. Same thing.

    Reply
  3. Gavin

    There is no point…if what you want is a simulacrum of a photograph. Yes, an iPhone and a filter can make something that is difficult to distinguish from an actual photograph. But it isn’t one, and really you know it, which is why you asked ‘ what is the point of film cameras’. The point of using a film camera is the same as the point of playing a piano, rather than putting on a recording of a piano. It is something you do in the real world, it is the practice of a techne, it is the continuance of a tradition, it is a meaningful activity where you engage with materials with a view to an end. Digital imaging is just putting on a CD and passively consuming someone else’ work which is in the algorithms. There is too much of that in modern life. We use film cameras to step outside the relentless effort to digitise and de-materialise things.
    To support this point I could quote Plato, Aristotle, Heidegger in an argumentum ab auctoritorate…. but you know all this already. Anamnesis.

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  4. 32BT

    Those five readers that actually visit your blog, are already familiar with each other’s opinions and aesthetic sensibilities and preferences. It wouldn’t contribute all that much…

    If you’re really short on material, just ask Rob to contribute a series on Brexit. Not sure though if you’ll be able to squeeze in actual photography related content once he’s fired up.

    😉 <——

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  5. Christopher McCallum

    Tim, I’d have to agree with Rob. It’s largely about your beautiful writing and tempered erudition that draws many to the site. Looking back, some of the contributing work has been thoughtful and well put together, but it is the take you have and the philosophical overlaps that makes your writing voice, in relation to authentic photography, rather unique. Notwithstanding, many of us share your opinions on the digital age and all that has been lost as digital fauxtography moves beyond hyper reality, raises further questions around morals, ethics and the human condition – and fundamentally leaves many of us disheartened and bemused.

    Chris

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Thank you for the kind words, Christopher. I think what keeps me doing this is knowing there are a few people out there who are sympatico with how I think and the issues I find interesting. It’s also given me a forum to show my photographs, which is really nice. I much prefer the work that comes with writing the blog than having to pimp my work to the “gatekeepers”, most of whom are either 1)profoundly ignorant, 2) herd-like in their interests and 3) intellectually clueless. Just the thought of them vetting my work or ideas infuriates me. The nerve!

      Reply
  6. Stephen J

    An entertaining set of images Tim.

    One thing that digital cameras do not do, is make any difference as to whether one can compose an interesting frame or not… You clearly can.

    I think that one of the reasons that we edit our pictures is that they never look quite like what we saw in our minds eye (imagination) at point of click. Of course the degree to which one alters a frame must depend how bothered one is about a particular moment.

    Winogrand said it when he mused that he took photographs to see what something would look like, photographed. The thing is, it rarely looks like what one expects, I suspect that he knew what he had done, so just didn’t get around to developing something that had nothing of interest to him.

    Well now, you can take whole objects out of a scene, seamlessly… But why would you? The idea is to please yourself first, and cheating is never that satisfying.

    I hope you enjoyed your break, some of my favourite memories come from close to where you are, and once I have emerged from my Micawber period, I will be coming back. For instance I was almost certainly the first person to fly a two stringed kite on Savannah Beach. Everyone and his mother now have Flexi-foil type devices, but I used to be surrounded by Americans that had never seen anything like it as it skimmed across the sea less than ten feet from the surface.

    Then there was the time when I was sitting around a big table in a stilted beach house on Hilton Head discussing what sort of work I could do without a green card. Someone said, how about bar work? At which point, I stood up and sent every glass and bottle crashing and spilling to the chorus of… “or perhaps not!”

    Oh and those twenty minute rain storms, that seemed to occur every afternoon, the freshness in the air for a good half an hour before the old current bun got its act together again.

    Yes your south-east definitely beats New York, it also beats my south-east, which is mainly composed of permadrizzle, no twenty minute rainstorms for us.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Stephen: thanks as always for your input. You need to make it back to Savannah some day. It’s changed tremendously – for the better, actually. It’s an incredibly beautiful town with easy access to beautiful beaches and the Gulah Islands.

      Reply
  7. Keith Laban

    Regardless of camera choice, quick-‘n-easy often works. Subject seen, click, done, keeper. No angst or laboured over-thinking getting in the way.

    Could be that Quick ‘n Easy even works when replying to forum threads.

    😉

    Reply
  8. Dan Castelli

    Damnit, Rob took my fishing analogy! Look, I’d rather eat at a roadside stand rather than a Mickey D’s or any fast food joint. But, there are times when that can’t be avoided. Ya gotta eat and shake the dew off your bladder. It happens. So, snap away with your phone/camera. The world as we know it won’t end because you reached for your phone rather than your M5.

    Black & White photography is about process. I enjoy the process. I control the creation of my thought into a finished image. I trip the shutter, process the film & make the prints. If it works or fails I am to blame. Not some coding glitch in my ‘device.’ I use a Leica because my first photo teacher’s and mentors, as well as the photographers/people whom I admired during my formative years of photography used Leica’s. So, I’m like a baby duck – that was imprinted upon my brain at an early age. Quack.

    iPhones and the digital workflow does not give me the same satisfaction as the film workflow. Since I’m now 68, there is little time for major changes in how I work. Film works for me.
    You can check it out: flickr.com/photos/dcastelli9574

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  9. Nick

    “So, tell me again, what exactly was the point of the film cameras…or the Sigma for that matter?”

    Esay: To keep private what should stay private and to share your pictures with whoever YOU choose the way YOU want. Trust me: This is priceless.

    Call me paranoid… Well, between Ed Snowden and the US authorities, I know who is the most insane by far.

    Choisis to camp, camarade!

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  10. Aaron Alfano

    Hello. I have been enjoying your blog for a long time and wanted to respond to your recent post asking what is the point of film and digital cameras given everyone has a “good enough” smartphone camera in their pocket. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’m looking at the cost of having the dozen or so rolls of film my daughter and I have shot in the last few months.

    By way of background, I shoot mostly manual focus film SLRs and I have recently introduced my daughter (who is seven) to film photography with a Canon point-and-shoot. I have a couple of Nikon DSLRs and a decent collection of (cheap) DX autofocus lenses for them, but I seldom shoot with them anymore. I find my iPhone Xr handles most of my digital photography needs quite nicely. Like you, I use Hipstamatic and a few other apps but I almost never do any heavy editing on my iPhone images.

    I think the reason that I like using my old manual cameras so much is that I feel like I am doing the photographing. Manual focusing and exposure settings give the photographer complete control and complete responsibility for the image. And at the end of the process, you have a physical negative and/or print in your hands. Conversely, using a phone or digital camera to create 1s and 0s just feels like playing a video game about photography. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I enjoy the digital process as well, and I can certainly make good-looking images with those tools. I just don’t find the process anywhere near as satisfying because I feel like the phone or digicam is making a lot of decisions about the image over which I have no control or minimal control. I’d equate the difference to driving a sports car with a manual transmission—say, a Porsche 356 for a Leica-specific analogy—with driving a Tesla on autopilot.

    Just my thoughts. Let me know what you think.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      “I think the reason that I like using my old manual cameras so much is that I feel like I am doing the photographing. Manual focusing and exposure settings give the photographer complete control and complete responsibility for the image. And at the end of the process, you have a physical negative and/or print in your hands.”

      All of that, of course, is something that digital does not deprive you of doing and enjoying, other than having a negative; I never held any rhapsodical emotions over a negative, but I did feel smug, now and then, about a print. Wall a good digital one behind glass, and you really can’t tell whether it comes from a dish or a printer. Having a great negative is about as hopeless as having a great 35mm Kodachrome in your hands: unless you take either into another dimension you have pretty much nothing to see. Yes, negatives, if handled carefully, endure. Files?

      Getting a good print from either digital or film is not always a walk in the park; if you have it, skill always counts, as does the feeling if, some time later, you still like what you have produced.

      ” I just don’t find the process anywhere near as satisfying because I feel like the phone or digicam is making a lot of decisions about the image over which I have no control or minimal control. I’d equate the difference to driving a sports car with a manual transmission—say, a Porsche 356 for a Leica-specific analogy—with driving a Tesla on autopilot.”

      The satisfying difference that is missing, for me, in digital photography is this: making a wet print by hand. It’s the only step that I found wonderful, whereas processing film, drying it away from the dangers of dust and, later, still spending time spotting prints was one huge pain in the ass, Especially if you had to do a multiple print run from a single negative.

      I had a sports car once, for a short period, but other than the ego buzz… Normally, we drive on public roads, not on race tracks. The idea is usually to get ourselves safely from point A to point B without drama or trauma to self or to others. Which makes sense; the best sports car in the world, in the hands of an idiot, is still just a car. Until it’s a wreck.

      😉

      Reply
  11. Leicaphila Post author

    Aaron: nice to see you here. You, apparently, are my 7th reader. Your thoughts are eminently reasonable and reflect what most of us here think. My question, of course, was ultimately rhetorical. I know exactly why I still love shooting film. The problem, as I tried to articulate it in this post, is that it’s so damn easy to just succumb to the quick and easy iPhone and think that you’ll get to the film camera some other time.

    Reply
  12. Lee Rust

    It goes way beyond cameras. The “Leica” in Leicaphilia does attract certain types of people to first visit and take a look, but it’s the breadth and depth of thought expressed so well in words and photos that keeps us coming back. The relatively small number of folks in your fan base might suggest a parallel topic: “Deep thinking in the age of the Quick and Easy”.

    Reply
  13. william

    I just got back from a week in Paris. Within five minutes of being there, I got yelled at for using my Leica inthe street. I had heard that this might happen. My girlfriend was not happy, and since this was a vacation, I put my cameras away so that we could simply flaneurs and not photographers. Except for my iPhone. Nobody seemed to care when I took photographs with that. And I did exactly what you did–applied a myriad of filters. The images of my vacation are fun and people like looking at them. An old man with a camera, they say, is a dangerous thing. I guess an old man with an iPhone is something else. C’est la Vie.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      That was my experience in Paris as well. Frankly, when it comes to photography, the French are idiots. Pull out a camera on a public street and they act like you’re attempting to knife them. They’re all under the impression that it’s “illegal” to take photos out of doors….which it isn’t. It isn’t even “illegal” to take photos of people on the street. What is illegal is to subsequently publish those photos without the subject’s permission.

      But, pull out a phone and shoot all you want. No problem.

      Why they don’t see the incongruity of this is beyond me.

      Reply

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