Photo Thoughts

Lublin, 2012-08-26

I am old enough to be first acquainted with film cameras. I am fortunate enough to have a father that always had a shelf full of some very old, some quite contemporary hardware. I am unlucky enough of not having a PC capable of editing high-res images until 2007.

Back in around 2003-2004 when I started doing photography with my brother, my father rented a cubicle across the street to run a dark room there. We used all kinds of cameras, from Praktica SLRs through 6x9cm range-finder Moskva 5 to self-made 13x18cm ultra-wide-angle pinhole cameras.


I actually did some digital photography commercially, around 2007-2008. I was a photographer at weddings. We had a Nikon F5 (film), a Pentacon Six (for black & white extras) and some (sometimes our own, sometimes borrowed) digital camera. Film was our main medium, the digital was used as an extra. I hated doing weddings. It was boring to the guts: a repetitive, physical work, both on spot and when editing. It was the main factor that drew me off from photography for several years. (That, a degree to pursue and the fact that my own camera broke.)

When I finally decided to start again, I bought the camera I always wanted and it was obviously one that you feed with film: the Pentax MX. Doing digital actually didn’t occur to me as an option at that point.

It’s a solid, small, cute camera with well-thought user interface and some other thingies that earned it a semi-professional badge in 1970’s. But one main feature of it is a lack of any features non-essential to taking pictures. It manages to hold a lens, advance the film, start the shutter and measure the ambient light. And only for the latter some electrical power is required.

One thing that’s keeping me sceptical about digital cameras is that they’re still early in their evolution. Once you buy one, it’s already old because somewhere in Nikon’s or Canon’s labs there is a prototype that will make it obsolete on a precisely picked schedule. Almost everything is continuously changing: from sensor technology and sizes to memory card formats. Things are getting obviously better but to leverage those advantages you need to buy a new camera. It’s not clear when to start investing in one or another system because they’re not stable. (Like the ongoing transformation from miniature to “full-frame” sensors.)

On the other hand, there’s this unfortunate possibility that producers will hold on to those intermediate systems for several years to long because, well, people actually did invested in them.

Film cameras had a really long run starting back in 19th century and advancing well through out the 20th century. What’s really remarkable is that some technology actually changed very little, for example the lenses: some of the designs made in 1930’s (like the Zeiss Planar T* from 1935, which itself is a version of a 1896 construction) are still sold in new packages. Also now ubiquitous 135 film cassette format comes from 1934. The 120 film packaging, still in use in medium-format cameras, is from 1901. That means essentially that you can get a 100 years old camera and start shooting.

In my own very personal opinion—for the essential stuff—hardware got perfect around 1970’s (when most of the classic designs came out like the Olympus OM and the Canon A1). After that it was all about interface, programs (WTF) and auto-focus.

What was still in development even in the 1990’s is the chemical technology behind film and processing and reproducing it for print. But that’s no biggy, you could buy camera in the 1930’s and still leverage from this advances, you’d just buy a new roll of film. Try doing that with a digital camera… (Actually, in very expensive, medium-format cameras it’s possible to change sensors, but it’s the kind of new-car-expensive and they are quite bulky and fragile at the same time.)

The other sign of the digital photography being still in it’s formative years is that current professional-grade cameras are really just the same old SLRs with film replaced by a digital sensor. Because you can use signal from that sensor to take a picture and preview it live at the same time, having that rotating mirror inside the camera makes little sense. Especially, when this camera can also shoot movies and the live preview on the LCD screen is so daunting, for some users most of the time this mirror will be up. Presence of a mirror also takes space. Without it the lens could be closer to the sensor resulting in smaller lenses with the same focal length and speed (like in Leica M system) or open a way for lenses with wider viewing angles.

I applaud for what have been happening lately: lens-interchangeable cameras without mirrors nor range finders. It looks like the right way to do a digital camera in spite of the coollessness of not being a SLR device. Just make it “full-frame” (so we can reuse all those superb lenses made in the past in their holy wholly), allow to change some parts on the fly (like the sensor or the processor) and we have the perfect system, that is both past- and future-proof.

For now I will remain on the film side of things while actively observing what’s happening in the digital space. I also plan that one day I’ll reinstate the dark room to experience the magic of seeing pictures coming to live (as in Frankenstein) a thousand times again.