Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Luddites Unite

I've been researching mid-range digital SLR cameras for about a year now, and more recently started tracking interesting models on eBay to see if I could pluck out a bargain. On the day I noticed that Cousin J bought an incredibly kick-ass 2008 Nikon D300, I instead won an auction for a 15-year-old lens for a Minolta X-700, my old manual film camera. That's right -- no digital, no auto-focus, no motor drive -- basically just a heavy metal box for film that you mount lenses to. The lenses don't even zoom.

So yes, I'm a Luddite, and I'm cheap...but there's a source of happiness hidden in the madness. Shooting with that old Minolta this week was pure joy, and the last couple of rolls of film I put through it yielded wonderful results. Those old glass and steel lenses let in a lot of light and don't mess up what you see with your eyes. They feel good in your hands, solid and vintage and old school.

But I think there's something else going on here, and it has more to do with time. It's great to see your digital photos immediately, deciding what to keep or delete on the spot. Almost everything about this old stuff is slow -- winding the camera between shots, turning the ring back and forth to focus, adjusting the exposure settings one at a time, and then waiting to fill up the film before finally getting it developed. It slows me down in a good way. Like slow food vs fast food. I ride my bike over to Eric's Photo in town instead of speeding digital uploads to Future Shop. Deferred gratification is out of style, of course, but I'm rediscovering the pleasures of anticipation. I'll get a new camera eventually, but I hope it doesn't make me forget.

Unfortunate Update: This week Eric's Photo Lab officially stopped developing film. Seriously. Methinks this backwards hobby of mine may get harder and harder to pursue. In other news, the lens I got on eBay has "lens fungus", which may or may not affect the images. I also got a brand new one that was a lot more expensive, so I may just keep that one instead...it's a super sweet 135mm f/2.8 and weighs a ton.

Update 2: The guy I bought the lens from gave me a full refund and let me keep it. After developing photos taken with it, it appears that the cracks/lines/fungus/whatever don't affect the pictures at this point. So, good news on that one.


Jason said...

I think this is awesome!

I have no doubt that you will get a digital camera one day, but I think if you can continue to use the old film one at the same time you'll have the best of both worlds.

Angelo said...

There's something disheartening about spending hours organizing hundreds and hundreds of digital photos on your hard drive as well.

We still use our SLR regularly, although the digital has replaced it as the go-to camera.

Jeremy said...

J, I know the latest dslr would mostly give me the best of both -- solid build, great fast lenses, big/bright viewfinder -- without the nostalgic elements that are hard to quantify, plus a whole set of crucial features (auto-focus!) and flexibility (instant review!) that are impossible to duplicate with film.

What I'll do now is keep using my digital for the everyday stuff and treat the film camera as an occasional artistic pursuit or hobby, giving me a few of the benefits of a great dslr without the nasty upfront costs.

And I'll still keep my eye on eBay. I've been eyeing lightly used specimens of the previous generation prosumer dslrs mostly: Canon 30D, 40D, or Nikon D200, with the possibility of going down a notch on the body (XTi or D80) if it meant getting a setup with better lens(es)...whatever I can get for around $1200.

Jeremy said...

You're right, Angelo. I shudder to think how much time I spend doing just that, resizing and tweaking and uploading and archiving and commenting and...oh man. I do mostly enjoy it, but the time costs are considerable.

You've got a top-notch film SLR there too, which is really in another stratosphere compared to my old clunker, but the same philosophy applies -- a little more care in composing a picture, the anticipation of filling the roll and the thrill of seeing the whole package at once.

Kaili said...

I think that's cool. I think it's awesome to learn on a film camera, so play with it, and to understand what a camera actually does, rather then this digital world we are emersed in. I took a class back in the day on developing black and white, that was fun too!
Good to bring the balance back on how ungrateful this society truly is for what surrounds us.

Jeremy said...

Thanks for the note, Kaili. I think you're right about learning on the old SLRs -- it's a lot easier to understand the settings when they're not buried in digital menus and multi-function buttons. That said, I've been using these things for over a decade and never really learned all the fine nuances; just figured out what I needed to do to make it work.

Learning to develop would be super cool. We did some way back in junior high industrial arts classes, but unfortunately we mostly messed around and didn't take advantage of a neat opportunity.

And good point about thankfulness. That was certainly a point in favour if resurrecting the old Minolta -- I already own it. Why not be thankful for what it has to offer?

Michelle said...

Jeremy, you are so right. The joy of anticipation is lost in this generation. Everything is instant. I loved this post. Some days I wish this world would stop spinning so darn fast. You reminded me that my world doesn't have to. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I still use my "old" Pentax ME Super when I want to do photography and use my inexpensive Canon A410 when I need to take photos of the restorations I am working on and will need references later on. You are right in feeling that you "learn" a lot more from these old SLR as far as composing photos etc. I am afraid it will become increasingly difficult to buy films in the not too distant future and no doubt that the compactness and instnat result of a digital camera has benefits as well.
Much like a new car versus the ones I am restoring, no radio, no seatbelts, no airbags, no side window, no automatic choke, no power seat, actually the only thing that it has that is remotely similar to what they are bringing back nowadays is a start button, but these cars have character.

Jeremy said...

Thanks, Michelle. I think one area that still has that real love of anticipation for most people is travel -- people book trips months in advance and look forward to them, talk about their plans, figure out the details, buy special things to prepare. I'm trying to think of other examples...

Jeremy said...

Hey Uncle Jean, that's a sweet old Pentax -- same era for sure. I wonder when film will become hard to find. There must already be an entire generation of photographers in their 20s who have never used film and would never see the point.

I like your car analogy. These old cameras really do have more character. They're less convenient and have their quirks, but there's just something neat about them.

tfoxfan said...


I love this post. Luddites.

I make a point to snap a roll of 35mm a month of IF. Every time I get the film back, I'm thrilled. And, get reprints too... for the grandparents. The results are sooo worth waiting for. Sure, it's annoying to pay for crap, out-of-focus shots, but really, it's no problem.

Long before I caved to the digital, I made a committment that if I liked what I was looking at, I'd just snap. No choosiness in the snaps, just enjoy the moment. Now moving from digital to the occasional roll of real film, I still do that. Maybe that's why the results are good, I'm just letting 'er rip. I dunno. If I'm going on a trip, I'm taking the lovely SLR along with the xray bags, tripod, films, crystals and batteries. I love the feeling of that big reliable body in my hands. And the sound... nothing as satisfying. And, no delay... the snap is exactly what you saw!

I could go on...
Yay, you. Have fun with the Minolta and enjoy those magic moments. Hey, when I really want to have fun, I play with my Dad's Rollei. That always gives fantastic results.

Jeremy said...

Thanks for this note, Esther. It's neat to have some of this in common.

I think you're wise to just let 'er rip and not second-guess the costs of "wasted" photos. Although I'm not so cheap that I would regularly choose to reject a shot that might not be perfect, I was thinking of how recklessly I shoot with digital, firing off 20 frames in a couple of minutes, or of some odd-ball subject that may or may not be photo worthy. With film, the ratio of opportunities to shots taken is much lower.

One difference in our situations is that you've likely got a bigger quality/convenience gap between your film and digital cameras, simply because your film camera is high-end, advanced stuff. Our digital is actually pretty decent (although no dSLR by any stretch), and the old Minolta is a challenging beast. I bet your success ratio with your Canon is much higher, mostly because of excellent auto-focus.