Sayin' Goodbye to Digital
30 April 2011

Digital cameras are being marketed as the only meaningful choice in photography today.  Cheaper, more convenient, more sensible, you name it. 

For a while it seemed everyone had caught the fever.  With all the advertiser-directed "journalism" out there, it was easy to get pulled into the hype.  

"The death of film", they said.

"Farewell," they said.

And then, some of us stopped and said "Wait a minute.  What are you talking about?"

The spirit of the times is one of impatient progress toward some unknown thing.  Having to make two extra mouse clicks can be enough to send someone into a fit.  Where are we going, exactly?   Are we sure we want to go there?

Digital cameras are not necessarily bad.  For some of us, they're just a solution looking for a problem that wasn't really there.  Actually,  I have a better way to put it.  They are someone's solution being sold as everyone's solution. 

If anything, film is seeing an increase in demand as many switch back to it, or at least pick it up as another element in their artistic toolbox.  

I'm mostly in the first category.  Probably 90% of my shots are film, either 35mm or 120.  The only time I pull the digital camera out of mothballs anymore is to photograph something where picture quality isn't that important.  Such as taking a photo of the lawnmower deck in case I forget how the belt goes back on.  Then again, I can do that with a 35mm camera and get it developed at one-hour photo.   Increasingly, if it's not something I need "right this second", that's what I'm doing.  

You might think with an article like this that I'd be writing about the height of film camera technology.  Top-shelf lenses, matrix metering, and all that.  Nope.  I decided to do an article about the more "old school" kinds of cameras. I like their simplicity and their interesting effects.  I already know it's possible to take stunning pictures with an older Nikon or Minolta;  let's see what the really simple cameras can do.  Do the pictures all have to be "stunning"?  No;  in fact they can be rather plain looking.  What I am looking for is some quality that I can't get with a digital camera.   The stunning compositions can come later.

I wanted to show what simple cameras can do, but I also wanted to show that photography doesn't have to be about sharpness, incredible detail, or HDR. 

The name "LOMO" is an abbreviation for an optical factory based in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia.  A similar factory was later built in Minsk, Belarus ("BelOMO").   Products from these factories included the Chaika, Vilia, Lubitel, Agat-18, Smena, and Lomo LC-A.  They are still floating around on the used market.  Lomography reintroduced a version of the LC-A, known as the LC-A+ ;  this was being made in China.  I think they still make it today.

Though I don't yet have an LC-A or LC-A+ for review, I do have a Chaika and a Vilia which I use for everyday photography.  (Update: "had"  a Chaika.  It fell in a giant puddle and got ruined).

The Vilia is such a neat camera that I wish someone would start making it again.  I don't know what it is about this camera that I like so much.  Maybe the functional simplicity.   It has the full set of aperture, shutter speed, and manual focus controls, but nothing excess.   It makes you want to go and take pictures of ordinary things, just for the sake of photography.   That to me is what it's all about.

Fuji Superia 400
BelOMO Vilia

It's nice to know that when I take a picture with one of these, there's not going to be any "digital sky".  There's not going to be half the photo grayed out because of corrupted data.  It's going to be the real deal:  classic photography.

"LOMO" has become synonymous with toy cameras, but the Vilia and others were actually made for everyday use.  Mine still has sand in it from some Eastern European beach.

Like their modern toy counterparts, these cameras are just fine for taking snapshots from the hip.

Ilford HP5 Plus 400
BelOMO Vilia

Today there's a host of plastic toy cameras that carry on the optical tradition of the Vilia, Lomo LC-A, and friends. 

First, the Holga.  It's a nearly all-plastic camera that takes 120 film.  Made in China, the Holga has become very popular around the world.  It takes old-school photos in the LOMO tradition.  The lens is a simple meniscus lens with heavy spherical aberration and vignetting.  Throw in some chromatic aberration, and you're all set. 

Holga pictures tend to be sharp in the center and blurred around the edges.  Often they also have dark corners (vignetting).  These effects give the picture a surreal, dream-like appearance.


Ilford HP5 Plus
Holga 120GN

On thoroughly overcast days, the Holga works well with 400 speed black & white film.  The aperture gets set on "cloudy".   This combination is not going to give as much vignetting.  If you want the effect, try "sunny" setting instead of "cloudy".  If the shot is important to you, take one of each.

I know, someone out there is snickering "Important shots?  And you're taking them with a Holga?"  Just sixty years ago, newspaper photographers were using Speed Graphic cameras and flashbulbs to take important shots.   One shot, that's all they had!  A generation or two before that, the cameras were little more than boxes.  The photographers relied on skill, not gadgetry.  Besides, what you and I consider important might be two different things.   

On sunny days the Holga does well with ASA/ISO 100 film.  I like Kodak Ektar or Fuji Velvia.   Lucky brand black & white film, made in China, is also available in 100 ISO.

At sundown I still like 100 film in the Holga, even though it's way underexposed.  Here's why:

A Product of REM Sleep

Fuji Velvia 100
Holga 120GN

Underexposed sunsets are easy to do on the Holga, considering it only has two apertures.  I like the vivid saturation that's possible by doing this. 

I think I used the "sunny" setting here.  I've read that's f/20 on the Holga, but the manual says f/11, and I'm pretty sure it is f/11.  f/20 with 100 film is going to come out about two stops too dark.  f/11 should be just about right, but at sundown the light changes so fast that you can easily require a wider aperture within a short time. 

Underexposure is a no-no in traditional slide film photography, but if you want something that looks like it walked out of a night of chocolate-induced dreams, go for it.

Here's one that was also "sunny" aperture, I'm pretty sure.  Underexposed, surreal. 

It was a Cold Day in Insufficient Light
Velvia 100
Holga 120GN

Next up is the Diana F+, a remake of the original "Diana" plastic cameras that came out of Hong Kong in the 1960's.    It looks and functions pretty much just like the original Diana.

Like the Holga, it actually has few parts that aren't plastic.  (Maybe the springs and levers.)  And like the Holga, it has a simple meniscus lens made of plastic. 

The Diana F+ does well with 400 speed film.  That's because its "sunny" setting is f/16, I'm pretty sure.  I believe the shutter speed is about 1/100th of a second.

It has three apertures:  "sunny" (f/16), "partly cloudy" (f/11), and "cloudy" (f/8).  I can't remember which I used for this one, but probably "cloudy" because the horses were in the shadow of a building:

One Horse Says to Another

Fuji Pro 400H
Diana F+

The Diana F+ yields some surprisingly good images for having a plastic meniscus lens.  Like the Holga, they blur toward the edges, but they don't have as much of a "black corners" effect.  If you can keep your subjects centered so they don't blur and distort, the Diana and the Holga represent a cheap, easy way to get into medium format photography. 

I don't care what anyone says:  plastic lens or no, if you're shooting 120 film, you're into medium format.  Besides, after you get a taste of the Holga, it won't be long before you're scoping out Yashicas, Rolleis, and Bronicas.   These are TLR (Twin-Lens Reflex) cameras that have two lenses.  (Actually the Bronica is an SLR with a waist-level finder.)

If you like toy-camera effects, one TLR that's really cool is the Lubitel 166; you can get the Russian ones used through this link.  The pictures have that vignetted look that's common to the LOMO style cameras. The optics are definitely a step above your typical Holga.   The Lubitel 166+ by Lomography is a modern remake of the Russian camera. It has a flash hotshoe and is better-made than the older Lubitels.   (One of these days I'll get around to a full review.)

I'm sure the digicam companies and their marketing guys would like for us all to buy "medium format digital" cameras instead.  I don't see that as viable.  It's not that they don't have the resolution.  If their fancy gadget can't even deal with bright sunlight on the side of someone's face, then I don't care how many megapixels it has.   Hey, marketing guy:  Camera vs. Log!

120 rollfilm, now that's the real deal.   Don't get between me and my supply!

Oh, and I like 35mm film just fine, too.  I think I already mentioned the Diana Mini (full article here).   This one takes square pictures with 35mm film.   Two apertures (f/11, f/8), one shutter speed (about 100th of a second).  Almost entirely plastic.   If you get the focus just right, once again it can be surprising just how well the simple plastic lens really works.

The Mini has a "bulb" setting for night shots.  You can get a lot of amused stares by walking around town at night with this tiny plastic camera on a big tripod.  Or, just walking around with this tiny plastic camera.  Ask me how I know.

Hey, I don't care, as long as it allows me to take pictures like this:

Moon House

Kodak Gold 200
Diana Mini

I almost always use 100 or 200 film in the Mini.  I think for the next shot I used "cloudy" aperture;  the sun wasn't direct by this time of day.

It's Always Time for a Barbecue

Fuji Superia 100
Diana Mini

The Mini got a bad review on one Holga website, but I have found that if you take care of it, it works just fine.  Just know its limitations.  If the film doesn't want to advance any farther, don't keep turning the knob.  Only once out of many rolls did I ever have to go into a totally dark room and get the film back on track again.  My Mini sees a pretty fair amount of use, and it's still going strong.  (You can order one through this link.)

Fuji Superia 100
Diana Mini

Back in the day, photographers knew how to take acceptable pictures with no light meter, no through-the-lens viewfinder, no automatic helps, no digital preview.  Although the older cameras had some precision parts, they were relatively simple.

Today, electronic gadgets are so complex that when something goes wrong, it's hard to know even what caused it.   At the price point of your typical consumer digital camera, it's cheaper to throw it away than to fix it. 

That's another reason I'm glad I made the switch back to film.

I was taking 35mm pictures recently when a lady stopped me and asked if I knew what was wrong with her Nikon DSLR.  Would it need service?  Maybe.  It wasn't responding to any of the setting changes I tried.  Unable to fix it, I went back to taking pictures with my late 1980's SLR.  She went back to not taking pictures, at least until someone else could figure out the camera.  I felt kind of bad, especially knowing she probably dropped $2,000 on the thing.   I dropped all of about $90 on mine with a lens;  still working without a hitch two decades later.

Come to think of it, someone else I know bought a nice new DSLR, only to have it start to malfunction very shortly after.   Warranty service, sure, but during those six or eight weeks, you gots no camera.   Maybe they figure you'll have an extra digital back, like "everyone else" does.  That's only, what, like another 800 bucks?  

Even when the digital camera is working, there's always a good chance the memory card will go bad and eat every single picture on the card.   That's why I like having negatives or slides.  Let me tell you a quick story.

I had a roll of Fuji Velvia 100 in a camera that got left where it shouldn't.  It was literally hot to the touch.  The film in the camera was sweltering for hours in the car.  The camera was almost hot enough to warp the plastic.  It already had a lot of pictures on it, which are even more sensitive than undeveloped film.  I thought they were toast.

I got the film developed, and it looked fine!  If there was any loss of color, which I didn't notice, it could easily be corrected at scan time.    I have seen memory cards go bad from a lot less.

Speaking of scans, today's flatbed scanners are inexpensive and yield good results.  The Epson V500 is surprisingly good... great, in fact, for what it is, especially if you get Vuescan for it.  (Update:  if you want the absolute best scan quality at an affordable price, read this.)  And, you can always come back at some future time and re-scan if they come out with better software or equipment.

Kodak Gold 200

Obviously, not everyone is going to "get" the virtues of old-style cameras.   I'm not suggesting the average consumer is going to pick up a 35mm and discard the cellphone (some might).    They're using a different tool for a different purpose.  They just want to get their point across.  "Hey, I saw something cool today" - in ten seconds they have it emailed to a friend.  It doesn't have to win an art show, it just has to convey a picture.  Cellphone cams are okay for that. 

I have no illusions about that segment of the market. Film cameras are for a subset of the photography market that's interested in achieving a certain look, or learning the art, or having archival originals... or any of the other good reasons to use them. 

I've found my reasons, that's for sure. 

As far as I'm concerned, why would I choose this...

Digital camera

When I can have this...

35mm slide film

Earlier, I was talking about cell phones.  If the digital camera companies thought they could sell the pros a cell phone as their primary tool, they'd probably do it.  A cell phone, by the way, is extra useful to these companies because its apps can gather info about you (usually without your knowledge).  With that info they can build detailed profiles to sell you more digital gadgets in increasingly invasive ways.  They can make a fortune selling that info to anybody they like.  Sure, they can also use the data for undisclosed "other purposes" involving undisclosed third parties, but we won't talk about that.  Nothin' to see here, move along now.  You wake up one day, the future is here, and it looks like Minority Report.  

As camera phones take over, even the DSLR aficionados are going to find themselves marketed right into a niche of their own.  Welcome to the club.  Maybe we'll all crowd around the campfire and talk about the "good old days" when smart phones hadn't taken over yet.

Or maybe we'll talk ruefully about the days before Skynet became self-aware. 

Or... maybe we'll just be wondering how to eat, because only those with sub-dermal chips will be able to buy food.  The end of that road ain't good.   I'm not saying we should unplug from the 'net altogether (obviously), nor am I saying advertising is bad (it isn't).  I'm just saying that some uses of technology cross a line.  It's sort of like telemarketers bothering you on cellphones whenever they want... only worse.

Even if you're one who only believes in what they can see right this second, consider this.  In one day I scanned and uploaded more photos to the Internet than any of my "camera phone"-owning friends have probably done in a month.  When I scan a 35mm image and load it into a cell phone, it looks a lot better to me than the pics that were taken with the cell phone.   The newer phones have pretty good cameras in them, but they still have the serious limitations of digital (including this one).

Either way, I want a camera that makes slides or negatives.  I want a camera that doesn't try to guess the correct settings.  I want a camera that's simple, not because it has a million features that simulate simplicity, but because it is literally, mechanically, simply... simple

120 film
Velvia 100

Bye, bye, digital.  I'm sticking with film. 

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120 color negative film

120 color slide film

35mm color neg film

35mm slide film


I hope you enjoyed this article and photo gallery.

Have a good one,

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BelOMO Vilia with gallery

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Film vs. Digital in 2012 2014

Really?  You Still Shoot Slides?  (with gallery)