Choosing between film and digital formats

This is part 2 in a series of articles I’m writing on my quest to improve my photography and buy new camera equipment to serve over the next few years.

In the first part of the series, I wrote that I am currently working out how to best achieve the long-standing goals I have for my street and candid photography. I waffled on at some length about how this style of photography first came to be such a key part of my photographic life and showed a couple of examples of what I am trying to achieve. I have set aside a specific budget for new equipment, which I have forbidden myself from spending without a great deal of thought and detailed research in advance.

I am usually a spontaneous purchaser, which accounts for the reason why a couple of shelves at home are given over to a reasonable amount of old cameras. I like to refer to them as “objets” (as in “objet’s d’art”, the French for “works of art”), as several of them were added to my collection more thanks to their aesthetic appeal than any real likelihood that they will be used for photography on a regular basis. The set includes the first cameras I used as a teenager, through a number of 35mm film bodies, to the medium format camera I used in the late 1990s and on to its successors: a Yashicamat twin-lens reflex bought in 2003 and a Mamiya 645 bought in 2010. There are a couple of point-and-shoot film cameras on the shelf, including an Olympus 35 RC; more about them in another post, though.

I held out against digital photography for quite a long time at the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s; not because of a principal disagreement with the technology, but more because when people I knew started using them in the late 1990s, the technical quality of affordable cameras was poor. It was only in 2004, after two instances of poor photographs on film of important occasions, that I decided to buy my first digital SLR: a Nikon D70. I’d already been using Nikon cameras for several years at that point, so it seemed logical to continue using them and take advantage of the high quality lenses I already had.

Gruyères in 2005 with my D70. Photo by Jo.

Buying the 6 megapixel D70 was a leap forward for me. As I wrote previously, darkroom work had never been my strong point. Having bought a (frankly crappy) 1-megapixel camera for snapshots a few years earlier, and getting to know how to use Photoshop as part of my web design work, I found that the ability to work on pictures, save them mid-process, and then return to them later was precisely what I needed. Since then, I’ve spent countless hours honing my image editing skills and have become highly proficient in photo editing; both in Photoshop for detailed work and latterly in Lightroom. Thanks to a Minolta scanner for 35mm film and an inexpensive yet surprisingly excellent Canoscan 8400F for medium format film, which are both still going strong, I’ve also managed to resurrect and restore many previously unprintable images from my vast collection of negatives from between 1986 and 2004.

By a very British approach towards putting money for tax bills aside every month, I usually have a little spare cash in my savings account. When Jo’s camera packed up in May 2008, I decided to hand my D70 on to her and upgrade to the 10 megapixel D80. Since then, the newer, sleeker camera has served me very well and aside from the regular requirement for sensor cleaning – usual for digital cameras with interchangeable lenses and made easier since the end of 2008 by automatic cleaning systems – I am very happy indeed with the results. Many memorable shots have come from the D80 over nearly three years and by my own reckoning, the D80 has helped me shoot over 40,000 frames. Jo’s D60, bought a couple of years ago as a smaller, lightweight SLR, is also doing very well and producing excellent results.

I’m not one of those who rails against other brands; back when I shot on film, I also owned Canon cameras (an AE-1 and an EOS 5, the film equivalent of the current digital 5D Mark II) and they produced great results. I’m very happy with my D80 and with Nikon in general, though. Why, then, am I looking for a new camera?

The answer is simple. Although my D70 and D80 have produced excellent results, there are two reasons why I’m looking for a new camera. Neither D70 nor D80 excel in low light situations, which require a high ISO setting; and both are DX cameras. This means that in comparison to the 35mm cameras of my youth, the smaller digital sensors mean a reduction in effective image quality, which makes the problems with high ISO even worse: to the point where there is so much noise in the image at 1600 ISO, removing it digitally makes the image look terrible. While they look OK at web resolution, viewing them at full size or printing them just doesn’t reach the quality for which I strive.

As part of the long process I’m going through at the moment, I decided to return to the world of film and try out one of my old cameras again. Whilst medium format photography produces great results, the sheer level of cost involved makes it impractical for everyday use: film cost and development work out at around Fr. 1.30 per photo. (A switch to digital medium format is sadly unfeasible, as a “cheap” digital back, to fit a medium format camera, costs upwards of Fr. 15,000.) So: back to the 35mm film cameras of my youth.

I loaded up a Nikon FE with Kodak black and white film a couple of weeks ago and took a series of photos in the Lauterbrunnen valley, to see how my improved photographic skills fared with the older technology. While I’m happy enough with the results, such as the shot below, viewing them at full resolution still shows that the image quality just isn’t up to the technical standards I want to achieve. The narrow range of exposure tolerance – burning out highlights and blocking up shadows – just isn’t good enough and doesn’t come close to the range of tones available in the raw digital negative format files I’ve been taking with my dSLRs over the past few years.

While it was good to be shooting film again, particularly to see the true effects and full area of the 50mm lenses I used and loved in the 1980s and 1990s, film is just not an option for me for the long term. I’ll be sticking with digital cameras for everyday use, but will dust off my medium format film cameras from time to time when I want to slow down and take my time over photography again.

In the next article in this series: now that I’ve decided to stick to digital photography, I explain which cameras are on the list of possible contenders, why I’ll reject some of them, and which camera I’ll end up with for the next couple of years’ photography. I’ll write about the new wave of Micro Four Thirds cameras, more about the range of SLRs with smaller sensors, and about the professional-standard full frame digital SLRs.

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