Your Mileage May Vary:
$Date: 2004/01/10 07:17:45 $
Or, Why Using a Digicam Got Me Shooting More
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
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
- 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
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
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 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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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.