Saturday, September 18, 2010

Digital or film?

There's an interesting discussion of digital photography versus film photography over on Boing Boing focused on a commercial targeted at older people who may be averse to new technology. Frankly, I don't care if the Vivitar commercial is real or merely a clever satire. But the comments are revealing. I'm willing to bet that many of the commenters have little experience with film since the balance of opinion seems to come down on the side of digital photos.

I'm not going to discuss the pros and cons of each technology. If you're interested in that sort of thing please go read that long string of comments. But it did make me wonder why I'm so fascinated with old film cameras. I use both digital and film processes, but it seems I use them for different things.

I almost always have a digital point-and-shoot in my pocket. Actually, today I have two: an Olympus FE-320 that does excellent macro shots, and a Canon A590IS that does burst photos and will save in RAW format. Both are 8 megapixel cameras.

I carried a Yashica MG-1 today in addition to those two digital cameras. The MG-1 is a simplified version of the Electro series with a 45mm f2.8 lens rather than the f1.7. I'm running the first roll of film through it since I cleaned the rangefinder and installed new seals. I'll know more in a few days.

One appealing aspect of digital photography is the instant gratification and instant feedback that can hasten the learning process. If you understand the three way balance between aperture, shutter speed, and film speed, you're going to have little difficulty using either digital or film cameras. There's no contest when it comes to size and weight. That Olympus FE-320 is smaller than a pack of cigarettes while the Yashica Electro is Godzilla by comparison.

So what's the appeal of a heavy, bulky 35mm rangefinder that's over 30 years old - ancient technology by today's standards? First, let's talk about focus. The autofocus in my little point and shoot is usually good, but in low light it's not always accurate, and given the small size of the screen, it's sometimes difficult to determine if a shot was in focus. The Yashica, on the other hand, makes focus easy, even in low light or with my glasses. I rarely have out of focus shots with it unless I'm hurried.

One other aspect of an old, apparently obsolete camera is that people don't take it seriously. (That's beside the fact that I often wear those loud Hawaiian shirts that make me look like a tourist!) People aren't as wary of old 'amateur' cameras where they may be more guarded when a big DSLR is pointed in their direction. That's equally true of tiny point and shoot cameras too, but I expect that will change as more mirrorless digital cameras come into the market.

I have film processed in the mini-lab at our local Drug Warehouse. They give me both prints and a CD with scanned copies of my photos. The jpegs are roughly 5 megs apiece. I think that would be equivalent to a sensor of 10 or 12 megapixels, but that's a guess. Still, I couldn't find an electronic camera equivalent to that for the same price as one of the Yashicas.

Finally, I just enjoy tinkering with these old cameras. Cleaning and repairing them is as fascinating as using them, but then I've always been fascinated by shiny mechanical objects. I enjoy reading and learning about them too. The ultimate test, though, is always the photos they produce. I'd like to become a better photographer, and I expect that will be a longer, more difficult task regardless of the choice of equipment.

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