Your Mileage May Vary:
Or, Why Using a Digicam Got Me Shooting More Film

$Date: 2004/01/10 07:17:45 $

Background Noise:

When I bought my G1, I was looking for a way to eventually supplant my existing 35mm setup. I already had 35mm cameras, a 6x6, strobes, a darkroom, a scanner, and a printer. I wanted to know more about these new digital cameras — especially since in my day job, filmmaking, we were hearing a lot about Panavision's new Sony camera, made for use on the set of Star Wars Episode 2.

I didn't have $100K for a 24fps progressive hi-def camera, but I could afford a mid-range digicam (as many of my colleagues had done, collecting Nikon 990's and Oly 3030's). So I looked for the newest and most capable, and was excited to see a new offering from Canon as an alternative to my first choices — the Olympus E-10 or the Nikon 990. (I was already an adamant fan of Canon — I was a rare convert, having switched from Nikons to Canon in the early 1980's in particular because I liked the capabilities and light weight of the A-1 over my Nikon F's). And the keen little swing-around LCD would let me take more handheld pictures of myself.

The G1 wasn't just purchased to teach me a little about CCDs, it was there to expand my photography. I looked to a G1 as an onramp to a new route where the cameras, film, and chemicals would give way to a purely-digital path from lens to print.

I expected a few potholes. And I found plenty! But I expected that over time my comfort and expertise would lead to smooth operations and the Promised Land of Digital Freedom. Sad to say, I don't think you can get there from here.

I struggled. I tested. Practiced. I carried the camera with me everywhere. Shot time exposures. Studio portraits. Astrophotos. Sports. Macro. Fill flash. Street photography. And once almost every day, I knew that I had seen a shot and missed a shot because the camera was too doggoned slow, or the auto systems had decided they wanted some other picture...

After 9 months and thousands of G1 exposures, I'm shooting a lot more film again. I still use the digital for situations like snapshots and so forth, for shooting color for quick use on the web, and for checking general exposure and lighting ratios (up to a point), but photos I think I'll really want to keep are still being shot on film.

For some details on how I use both the G1 and film cameras together, see here. I've also picked up a G2 — though not the G2 you expected. (2002 Update: we've also acquired another digital Canon, an Elph S330 — a pretty darned sweet digital microcamera)

This is a very subjective situation, of course. I can only speak clearly for myself (maybe not even that). Both digital and film have their advantages — some well-known, some more personal. Here are a few that I've come to live with, comparing Canons to Canons — my experience between the G1 and my old Canon FD-mount SLRs (and a 1951 Canon IIIa rangefinder):

Digital Advantages — G1

Once the gear is paid for, digital is very cheap to operate — measured on a per-frame basis, about 1/5 the cost of shooting B&W 35mm neg, about 1/20th color neg, and far, far less than shooting medium format transparencies. See here for one estimated cost comparison.

Cost can be a tricky thing to estimate, however — all frames may have different production costs, but can we say that all frames have equal value? Of course not...

Instant Feedback
To me, this is the single biggest appeal of digital. Making really fine assessments of image quality is hard without a histogram (the LCD can be deceptively different from the Photoshop "final"), but the quick turnaround for at least a simple image check is very useful (the doom of Polaroid was all but certain once digital appeared... even true-blue film shooters like using a digital for exposure checks).

Instant turnaround also means you can share images with people as you take them — often useful, so long as it doesn't lead to time-wasting during a formal shoot, where the subject expects to break and look at every frame the instant it's been shot — requiring endless cycles of setup-check-setup... in such situations, it's important to let them know up front that they can see the results — after you're done shooting!

For the general consumer, I think this is the real appeal of digital cameras — technofetishism, unrelenting prostration before the Church of the New. If you love gadgets, digicams are one of today's hot gadgets of choice. Why do you think Fuji has Porsche design their consumer cams? Because they are fashion items, as stylish as a Bottega Veneta bag or Miss Sixty jeans.

If there's any doubt in your mind, look at the product cycle. Less than a year.

Quick Route to Computer
The route is quicker and also more direct — it's just pixels to pixels. No scanning, no dust, no loss of registration, etc. Straight to Photoshop (or nearly straight, since Canon still doesn't provide very good TWAIN support for RAW on the Macintosh).

Email, aprés fete party pics, web cams and web work — there's no doubt that fast and simple are by far the best for those applications. Digicams are fabulous for them, if you've managed to get the pictures in the first place.

No Chemicals
This was a key factor that initially led me to looking at digital as a way to replace my film-based photography — the ability to avoid darkroom chemicals. There's really only so much silver-laden fixer your hands can absorb before developing allergies or worse. I've already gotten to the point that unless everyone in the house is completely free of colds & flu, the darkroom stays sealed up.

The lack of dust, surge marks, reticulation, reciprocity failure, static discharge marks, and other negative factors of film chemistry are a great boon. They don't come for free — chromatic aberration and CCD noise will see to that — but they do make the process less arduous.

Small Gear
It's striking just how small the average digital camera is, and how light — even the better, bigger prosumer models are little bigger than my tiny Olympus Stylus.

Compared to an F-1 or a Nikon N90, it's night and day — though I wish the G1 had a better shoulder strap, it makes even very light SLRs seem hefty.

This was another big attraction for me, perhaps fueled by Jay Maisel's endorsements of the D1. As Maisel says, you can carry 600 rolls of film in your pocket (or your assistant's pocket, heh).

Two days ago I shot one of my son's AYSO games using the G1+B300. It rained for half the game but I still shot around 180 frames (five rolls, in 35mm terms), without having to reload once (why isn't there a digital Nikonos?). I did switch batteries near the end, but that was still far less troublesome than even a single film reload.

Record Keeping
Having the date and exposure settings coded into each frame as EXIF data is very useful. Film cameras like the non-US Nikon F80n or the top Contax models can write such data into the film roll, but generally film shooters need to depend on ther memory or note pads (Palm users can also use programs like Rich McNeary's Go Pix or (for the Nikon N90s) the "N90 Buddy")
Digital cameras are very quiet. Quieter than any film camera save maybe the mid-1990's Konica Hexars (even quieter than a Leica M6 or most leaf-shutter cameras). This is great for working in a way that doesn't disturb your subject — sadly, at least for the G1, this silence is partly ruined by the white blink of the focus-assist lamp, which incites winces from almost every human subject.

Film Advantages — F-1

If your film gear is already paid for, and you need to buy a digital setup, then digital is more expensive — for the first 15,000 frames or so (see the chart at the bottom). Of course, this comparison also makes the assumption that the digital frames are otherwise the equals of the film frames (and also assumes that you won't need to be buying a replacement digicam every six months).

This kind of cash is trivial if you're charging $4K for wedding coverage — but if you're doing that sort of job with a G1, you'll all be in for a rude awakening after you try printing a $1500 20x30... better off using Kodak's DCX Pro Back on a Hasselblad or the new Mamiya 645 digital (which rewrites the cost equations in a big way)

For another view of the costs and cost benefits associated with digital photography, you might want to look at the article "More FYI on ROI" at Calumet Photo's web site. If you're billing people for your photography time, digital has huge payoffs — but in the Calumet example data, we're talking about $40K+ systems — not $2K systems.

Film cameras have a lot of lens choices available. Even my 1950's Canon rangefinder takes Leica SM lenses, which are in abundant supply. So do top digital cameras and digital backs, but the cost is much higher — especially if, like me, you would need to buy all new glass. Since I have no EOS lenses and only one Nikon-D lens. For those of us with pre-EOS Canon, Topcon, Pentax, Minolta, Leitz, Olympus, Contax... all left in the (expensive) cold.

The lack of quality lenses is particularly painful on the wide end — the G1 provides an adapter that reaches down only to around the equivalent of 28mm, and the results are pretty poor — lots of distortion and poor contrast characteristics. Even without the wide adaptor, the barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom (equivalent to around a 35mm lens) is pretty clear.

For my tastes when shooting 35mm film, staying in close to people and what they're doing, a 35mm lens isn't the wide end — it's a normal lens. For wide I keep a 28mm and 20mm on hand. And none of them distort and bend as badly as the G1's zoom.

For tele, the B-300 provides a better fixed-length solution — the quality is good though it vignettes at zooms less than the maximum, so it can be considered as an alternative to a fixed-length 175mm. It's close to my existing 200mm, and suits me fine.

Changing lenses is a bear on the G1 (I've gotten it down to a minimum by keeping three lens/filter adaptors on hand — one 52mm Kenko for day-to-day normal use, carrying just a Nikon L1bc filter; a 58mm Canon adaptor, permanently attached to Canon's wide-angle lens; and a Lensmate permanently connected to the B-300) — simplicity itself on a film camera. I can change them one-handed, and often do.

Quick Operation When Shooting
This is a huge difference... probably the biggest one of all. The handling of the G1 is so slow, the AF so awkward, the startups so slow, I almost returned the camera the first week. It may look like a rangefinder, but it handles more slowly and awkwardly than any FED-5. The startup. The sputtering LCD. The AF. I could go on.

If I'm carrying a film camera (not counting my little $150 Olympus, also stricken with "extending-lens syndrome"), I can lift the camera and shoot. Period. I can be knocking out shot #3 while the G1 lens is still cranking out of the shell. No amount of prefocus or shutter presets will change that for the G1.

The difference between fluid and jagged handling, more than any other issue, has kept me using 35mm. The 35's get the shot made, directly and without fuss.

Sports action is no less fleeting than simple human expression

I shot four rolls of portraits this morning. I used 85mm and 200mm lenses, mostly wide-open. A person sitting still in a chair can be one of the fastest-moving subjects imaginable, if you're interested in the fleeting micro-moments of their expressions. And focus is critical. I can't have the camera stuttering, freezing, switching display modes without warning, failing to lock focus, focusing on the background. None of it.

I'm 100% confident that when I'm done processing those four rolls that all but perhaps one or two exposures will be spot-on in terms of exposure, focus, and my desired timing. I can't do that with the G1, and I've gotten over being convinced that it's not the camera, it's me. It is the camera.

Hands Know What to Do
The design of film cameras, SLRs and rangefinders alike, is far superior to all but the most-expensive digicams — and very consistent between brands. You can teach a Leica shooter to use an EOS in three minutes, or vice versa.

The advent of digicams, with their tiny optics and lack of a film path, has freed designers to experiment with radically different designs, borrowing from video gear (like the swing-out viewscreen) or coming up with entirely new concepts like the Nikon 950 split body. Unfortunately, designs for cameras in the consumer ranges focus on "cool factor" rather than usability. The G1's "retro" design is all about retro look — not about retro function. The viewfinder is more decorative than functional, and the manual focus is close to unusable in all but the most static situations.

It looks like a regular camera, and almost feels like one when you pick it up — until you start trying to use it, and realize that it's been designed not as a tool but as an object of consumer desire.

Film Choices
I can shoot Agfa ISO 25 pan or High Speed Infrared. Ektachrome 100S and Velvia. TMax 3200 or Sakura. I can buy film at the grocery store. I can get the same film in 35mm and 120. The response curves of these films are known, and published. I can develop them and print them as I see fit.

My shooting before the G1 had gone from primarily color chromes (long ago) to almost exclusively B&W — one thing the G1 did was push me back toward color shooting. This wasn't entirely unwelcome, but you know what? I like black and white. Shooting in color and downsampling isn't really the same, any more than shooting on Kodachrome and printing monochrome is the same as shooting on Tri-X.

Besides, if a new film comes out, I can use it in the cameras I already have. The camera shown here is the G1's great-grandfather, my Canon IIIa — a "Leica clone" from the early 1950's (it accepts Leica thread-mount lenses, though the 50 f/1.8 Serenar mounted on it is a terrific lens in its own right). The IIIa was loaded with TMax 3200 the day I took this picture of it, using my G1 — a film a good four stops faster than the fastest Super-XX available back when the camera was made (or six stops faster than ISO 50, which is my universal setting for G1 use).

Compatability with Existing World Full of Gear
Strobes, rental lenses, etc... digicams seem determined to keep their incompatabilities with the rest of the world. Sometimes, as with the G1's E-TTL, even within their own brands. It's more profitable that way, no doubt — a good excuse for a manufacturer, but a poor one for a consumer.

I'm waiting... the cost of secondhand D1's is hitting about $2K these days. It may not be long before I can pick up a decent digicam that syncs with Novatrons, can fit an OEM or Tokina lens, and can use a bellows for macro...

Useful Viewfinder
The eye to the camera. This seems so natural, yet so few digicams give more than grudging service to this idea. Why is this? I'm mystified.

Camera use can and should be a sensible two-handed operation. As craftsmen in many trades say: "the left hand knows where the right hand is going, and the right hand knows where the left hand has just been." When shooting, the two hands and eye are a coordinated whole — or at least they should be.

How different for the digicam user, forced to hold the camera out at arm's length — his left hand relegated to merely holding the camera (careful not to block that AF light!) or pressing the MF button; the right hand forced to jump between the shutter and the arrow dial; and the eye delayed, trapped between two completely different planes of focus as your eye shifts back and forth between the LCD six inches in front of you (at a painfully small view angle) and the person eight feet in front of you.

At first I thought using the CCD would be like using a waist level finder. Ain't so. It sputters. It freezes. It goes black. It flips and mirrors itself at inexplicable times. And even a camera with a waistlevel finder has the sense to let one hand focus while the other presses the trigger.

Depth of field preview? Don't get me started.

Durability of Gear
Okay, I admit it, I haven't broken my G1 yet. But others have, and I have had some accidents — fingers on the lens as it slid out, unthreaded lens caps disappearing while walking down the street. My IIIa is fifty years old, thirdhand, and taking great pictures regularly even today — often daily.

More importantly, 35mm and 120 themselves are durable formats. You can buy a roll of the latest high-speed Kodacolor at the local Safeway and put it into an 1940's Contax without a whiff of anxiety about the compatability between them (silly old Leica... hadn't they heard of Elmo Calkins and his "style engineering," the Big Idea of planned obsolescence?).

Will JPEGs on CD be readable in 50 years by anyone but scholars? I have a number of big tapes full of computer images from the mid 1980's. They are probably just fine, but I haven't been able to find anyone using reel-to-reel computer tapes since before 1990.

Sure, you can convert to some other format at some point in the future. Or pay someone to do it. Or print everything. Or have a stack of forlorn unreadable CDs in a shoebox at grandma's house.

When Mac OSX appeared, connecting the G1 to the Mac would crash the Mac. The later version 10.1 solved some of these OS problems, but it does give me pause — even if my digital camera works perfectly five years from now, will my new 2006-model computer still be able to communicate with the camera?

Fewer Batteries Running Out
Batteries are better than ever, but still an Achilles' Heel. To be fair, digicams rarely run out of film — they just die.

A great thing about a film camera is this: I can leave a film camera set to "On" for six hours (or six months) and never have to wait for it to warm up. See, lift, shoot.

Quality of Image
Hard to quantify, but real in most cases. The G1 can make a dandy 8x10, but it's not as good as a film 8x10. Even a low-end scanner like my Minolta Scan Dual II, results in a 3800x2600 file — almost 10 MegaPixels at 16-bit depth. And not just a difference in resolution. Resolution is an easy thing to measure, but resolution isn't what makes a photo great.

The color reproduction, while good by the standards of consumer digicams, it awfully narrow, as we've shown here on botzilla. The "shoulder" of the exposure is frightfully short — for zone shooters, the range isn't Zone V-VI-VII-VIII-IX-X, it's just V-VI-IX-X (and that's being generous — usually you can forget the top highlight zones). You see it in daylight. You see it in direct flash. It's not pretty (part of what gives it "that electronic look," I suppose).

At least for me, quality of image comes from the ability to get the image desired by the photographer. You can't expect a 35mm to deliver a 4x5 negative, but you can expect to be limited more by your vision and skill than by the camera. If you aim in the middle, an automated digital is fine. But if you aim a little higher than your reach, and want to capture more of the subjective beauty of your own visual experience, then image quality is far more than the number of horizontal pixels. And that means a camera that you can control to create the image you desire — not a camera that forces its own design hubris and inadequacies onto you.

The G1 can take some good images. I like to think I've made some using it. But the ratio of shots fired to shots worth keeping is far, far higher than with my film cameras. There's a personal lesson in that.

Faster Motors
5fps is faster than 1.7fps — and with a lot more control. I can shoot a whole roll at that speed. I don't do it often, but I've done it from time to time.

So there it is. And here's a pass at the numbers:


Costs per-frame for various media, with the cost of purchasing a digital setup factored-in.
The vertical lines indicate 100 36-exposure rolls (or 300 12-exposure rolls).
As a reference, consider that the typical "National Geographic"
assignment uses between 200 and 400 rolls.

This comparison assumes that:
• All frames are of equal quality (silly, I know)
• B&W costs are based on bulk-rolled Delta 400 w/traditional proofs
(cheaper if I or shoot Tri-X — or if I scan the negs
rather than contact-printing)
• Color neg costs are based on Fuji Super 200 w/one set of prints
(again much cheaper if just the negs are scanned —
close to the cost of scanned B&W)
• MF costs are based on Ektachrome 100S
• Digital frames need to be stored on CD-R
• G1 costs include camera, wide lens, B-300 tele, 550EX, ST-E2,
camera batteries, Microdrive and Lexar card
• More general printing costs are considered equivalent —
anything can be printed digitally
for about the same price, regardless
of the image's source
• Digital costs even less if you sell
all of your film camera equipment,
if you're ready for a long leap...
just don't expect your digital gear to hold its value

©2001 Kevin Bjorke
$Id: g1film.html,v 1.25 2004/01/10 07:17:45 bjorke Exp bjorke $

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