Sayin' Goodbye to Digital
30 April 2011
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
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,
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
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
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
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
Underexposed sunsets are easy to do on the Holga, considering it only
has two apertures. I like the vivid saturation that's possible by
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
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
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
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:
Kodak Gold 200
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
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
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
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
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
Kodak Gold 200
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...
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.
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.
Bye, bye, digital. I'm sticking with film.
I hope you enjoyed this article and photo gallery.
Have a good one,
All photos and site contents are Copyright 2010-2013.
All rights reserved.
More From 120 Studio:
Article & Gallery Index
BelOMO Vilia with gallery
Glass Holga with gallery
Film vs. Digital in 2012 2014
Really? You Still Shoot Slides? (with gallery)