What camera should I get? (Part 1)

Or, a long rant about film cameras that has nothing to do with the title.

No, I’m not soliciting advice.  I really should be thinking about what 5 cameras I should sell, as the shelves are rather full right now.  If forced to do an inventory of the cameras I own, it would be a significant undertaking, and I would not be able to do it from memory. But you really never know when you’re going to want a pre-1975 35mm rangefinder with a 40mm lens and decent portability to document inadvisable moto-adventures ( Canon Canonet GIII QL17, in this case.) Or, say you absolutely need a medium-format rig with interchangeable lenses, no metering, and a cocking mechanism that sounds and feels a lot like a bolt-action rifle… Koni Omega Rapid M to the rescue:

So I suppose I should be more specific… I’m writing about what camera *you* should get. In most cases, the camera you already have is fine.  It just represents a certain state of the art.  At one point in time, it was competitive at a certain price point,  unless it was a Leica or a pro-level SLR, in which case price point was exorbitant and not really part of the equation.  Now, it’s probably not.  That doesn’t mean it’s not still useful, it’s just that you’re probably tired of one or more of its attributes by now.  Newer cameras have been released at a staggering rate in the last 10 years, and each has (usually) been at least an incremental improvement over what came before it.  Except for the Nikon D3000, it is said, but that’s another story for another time.

So, yes, by all means buy a new camera.  I do it frequently.  Well, I mostly buy used, old cameras, but I’m wired that way.  I only buy expensive new cameras when the state of the art has advanced to be a real enough difference for what I do to be worth it.  Thus the progression went:

2000: Canon Rebel EOS 2000 35mm film camera

2003: Canon A-something point-and-shoot

2005: Nikon D70

2008: Nikon D300

In each case the camera offered more convenience, better pictures, or some combination of the two.  I’m currently waiting for the successor to the D700, which will be a full-frame wundercam capable of not only seeing in the dark, but seeing through time and ladies’ clothing.  Hey, I can hope, can’t I?

My brother in law recently gave me his old Sony digital camera rather than throwing it away (Sony DSC-S70, 3.3 MP)  I remember oohing and aahing over it when he got it in 2000 or so.  It was a really nice camera in its day, and he took some great pictures with it.  It probably hasn’t changed in its ability to take good pictures.  The lens looks clean- it’s been well-cared for.  Provided you can get the battery to hold a charge and a memory stick (Sony, wtf were you thinking with a proprietary memory format!?!??  Didn’t you learn from Betamax?), it will take pictures just as well as the day it was new. What’s changed is us, and our expectations.

Using the old Sony, I was suddenly transported back to a time when it was okay for a digital camera to take 5 seconds to wake up.  To make the screen go blank (presumably to save batteries) at odd times.  To take forever to focus and save a picture.   To have a postage-stamp sized screen.  You get the picture, if you’ll forgive the pun.  This was a time when a 512mb card was huge, and 3.3 megapixels was something to crow about.  Cell phones didn’t have cameras, and Flickr, Facebook, and the like didn’t exist.  To author a web page, you had to know HTML, FTP, and a bunch of other arcane things that were not user-friendly.

Cameras have certainly come a long way in the last 10 years, but the thing is, in the whole mad scramble to digital, they got worse before they got better. Contrast the experience with the sony with my recent use of a ~1976 Nikkormat ELW that I inherited through my wife’s family.

The thing I’ve found with the old Nikon is that it works really, really well. It doesn’t do anything you don’t need, and it makes some rather sophisticated things very easy. Mirror lock-up, for instance, is a lever on the side of the body. On my digital cameras, it’s buried in the menus.  There are two modes to worry about:  Aperture Priority and Manual.  They are both accessed on the same dial, which also does a few other things.

The viewfinder is awesome, particularly with the Nikkor Series E 50mm f/1.4 lens I keep on the camera most of the time. It’s bright. It’s easy to tell when you’re in focus, and there aren’t too many things distracting you from seeing your shot. Just a wonderfully simple needle on the left side of the viewfinder, doing double duty as both a shutter speed indicator in Aperture priority mode and as a coupled lightmeter when you are shooting manual.

The camera is quiet and immediate. When you hit that button, sh!t happens… quickly. No racking the focus motor in and out. No blinking little error messages in the viewfinder. It just… goes… click. (Jesus from The Big Lebowski would love it.)

There are some limitations with the camera, though.   Manual focus sucks if things are moving, or if you’re grabbing a quick shot without enough time to compose, focus, think, then shoot. If you have time to focus, then the old Nikon works better.  The shot of the cyclist above was carefully prefocused (I used the line on the road to focus and a higher f-stop to increase depth of field), so yes, it is possible.  But with my D300, I could forget about focusing entirely and let the camera do the thinking for me.

The other thing is cost. Every time you press the shutter, chemistry happens in a film camera. You get one frame closer to having to stop and reload the film. You don’t have 300+ frames before your memory card is full, and you have to pay to see what you shot on a film camera. This can add up, though it takes a lot of film developing before you’ve spent more money than digital. Still, psychologically, the variable costs of film do change your habits. Nobody (at least that I know) burns through half a roll of nearly identical compositions to see which one might turn out right.  My average film cost for C-41 (color) developed and scanned is about 40 cents a shot.  Talk about a few hundred shots, and you’re still talking small money.  Talk about tens of thousands, and you can see digital has a clear advantage.

Henri-Cartier Bresson once said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” I’m well above that number now (and still creating bad images), but I doubt I’d be even close if I was shooting film.
When you don’t have to worry about a resource, such as film, then you are free to be more creative. Hold the camera out of the car window, hose it around, go nuts. Figure out how to hold it so you get a self-portrait holding your son without messing up the framing… it doesn’t cost anything except hard drive space, and that can be recycled easily. Digital teaches you more about photography in a short amount of time because it’s free.  Just be careful not to upload everything you shoot.

The other thing you get with digital is immediate feedback. You can see the results of your work right then and there, with a histogram overlaid so you can measure if you’re too bright or too dark. This is invaluable for dialing in a complicated flash arrangement, or arranging a still life, or getting the framing just right. Most people don’t take detailed notes when they take a film photograph, so you lose the ability to remember what you did and what you were trying to do by the time you see your prints. With digital, you can envision, execute, and evaluate all in the same minute. That’s a sound recipe for learning.

Film can teach you different lessons, though. I remember when I got back into film and went out shooting. I was almost paralyzed with the feeling that this would Go On My Permanent Record. These negatives would end up in a box, and one day my grandkids would see them. [never mind that more people see my Flickr photos than will ever bother to pull out my negatives for inspection] It just feels as if you are creating something for posterity when you shoot film. As a result, you slow down a little. You slow down a lot more when you are using a manual camera. Focus? Exposure? Did you set the film speed dial correctly the last time you loaded the camera? Did you load it correctly?  Many more things can go wrong because you don’t have a little computer riding herd and keeping you from making mistakes. The more the camera does for you, the less you think about what you are doing, and the more removed from learning about the craft of capturing light you become.  Film slowed me down.  It made me think.  It made me concentrate more on seeing the composition.  I treated each exposure as a more valuable thing than just the arrangement of electrons on a silicon wafer.

Today, I shoot both.  It’s a crapshoot as to which bag I’ll grab when I’m on my way out the door, but I always make sure to have a camera with me, usually within arm’s reach.  You just never know when the perfect opportunity will present itself.  I violated this rule the other day, and missed a great shot.  The camera was in the back of the car because my wife was in the passenger seat.  We were stopped at a red light, there was a beautiful woman sitting on a bench, with an amazingly photogenic Boxer on a leash (dog, not pugilist), who was staring at a little girl eating an ice cream cone on the next bench over.  It was perfect, and I missed it.

The point of this long-winded attempt at explication is this:

A newer camera will probably have more features than an older one.  Whether those features matter is entirely a personal matter.  Be aware that there are many many marketing and product managers employed in the world whose sole source of income is managing to convince large numbers of people that they need more features and more megapixels in their cameras.  (What??  You don’t have face recognition, 18 megapixels, a magnesium alloy body fully weathersealed against nature, and a 25x superzoom?  You’ll never get a decent photo again unless you upgrade now!!!)

A newer camera will probably be capable of better picture quality than an older one (unless you are comparing film to digital, where film usually wins, especially for cameras normal* people can afford)

A newer camera  will usually be capable of shooting at higher ISOs than an older camera.  This makes it possible to pretty much see in the dark, and is one of the primary reasons to upgrade.  Megapixels don’t really matter, but decent image quality at high ISO does.  If you’re typical, you will faced with dodgy light far more often than you will be faced with the need to blow up an image into a poster-sized print.  Most people don’t clue into this until they have had to deal with blurry photos (from slow shutter speeds) or lots of noise from a camera with poor high ISO performance.

But a newer camera won’t make you a better photographer.  It won’t make your subjects more interesting, your framing more aesthetically pleasing, or your timing better.  You will still own the bulk of the responsibility for taking a good photograph.  You’re the one with the eyes and the brain.

*Normal: those not obsessed with cameras and photography.