Nikon FE2 - Film Camera Simplicity - Digital Camera Aesthetics

You may have noticed that after a period of relative inactivity with posts coming once a week or every ten days, new material is now appearing much quicker. That is down almost entirely to me using film again. And I have to say I wish I'd done this sooner, as it is liberating and much more in tune with how I like to create images. For some time now I've been becoming more and more dissatisfied with digital photography. Not the results as I can now get some pretty spectacular images in terms of IQ, but the ways of working that digital cameras seem to lock me into. OK you might say, digital CAN be simple and yes that is true under certain circumstances, but overall there is a level of complication via menus and on body knobs, dials and switches that film cameras just don't have. 

Nikon FE2 MD-12 Battery Grip Voigtlander Nokton 58mm f/1.4 SL-II N

The three film cameras I now have - Leica R5, Leica M7 and my 'new' Nikon FE2  (see above) all work on the basis of the photographic 'holy trinity' i.e.  Focus, Aperture, Shutter Speed and provide very little else. All have some electronics and aperture-priority automation but that's it. And while film loading and removing  can create some difficulties, there really isn't an awful lot to master, in terms of the technical. Plus it is such a pleasure to work with uncluttered viewfinders again. I find myself much more concentrated on the image. My film cameras do require setting up ISO before use and apertures are set manually as is focus. However all three cameras have really excellent focusing systems, rangefinder for the M7 and split focusing circles on the other two. And using them recently has made me think about what happened when digital cameras were originally designed.

Because my predominant feeling using these 'analogue' cameras is why on earth didn't manufacturers of digital cameras just adapt what was around? How did we get those clunky DSLR's and ugly, uncomfortable mirrorless cameras? In a previous article I somewhat light heartedly put this as one reason to explain the attraction of film - 

  • Film cameras are way cooler

It may have seemed somewhat tongue in cheek, but for me it's true. Not only cooler looking but a lot nicer to use. With some notable exceptions - The Olympus Pens, Panasonic GX7, Leica T and the Leica M's, to me most digital cameras are plug ugly. Even the retro designed Fuij's need grips added on to them to make them comfortable to hold. And as for the Panasonic G's and Sony A7's, that plasticky 'bridge camera pretend SLR' look is to me neither aesthetically pleasing or ergonomically useful. Plus when you add in all the on body clutter I think you have one of the reasons that camera sales have fallen. When you compare the modern sleek lines of current smartphones, with their superb screens, I think most digital camera design seems second rate by comparison. And many can be more suitably described as gadgets rather than cameras. 

With film cameras you have to use an optical viewfinder, you have to have learnt something about ISO, exposure and focus and you have to trust yourself to get the result. I also wrote this in that previous article-

  • Any idiot can get an image from a digital camera, you actually have to learn something to get an image from film
  • All the best photographers shoot (shot) on film
  • Film photography is nearly 200 years old and still going strong

Again you might think that this is gratuitously flippant, but when you compare the innovative and creative photographers of the past with the current cliched dross that is all over the photographic internet, you might wonder what all the supposed 'advantages' of digital cameras contribute. For me complication is the enemy of creativity, passion and commitment in the arts. When I listen to Robert Johnson the hairs on the back of my neck tingle, when I hear prog rock I just wonder why they all bothered to create this noise. I'd rather listen to a piano than a synthesiser and technology for it's own sake seems an unfortunate consequence of the modern world.

And that is what I think digital cameras have become. Yes, smartphones have a lot of tech. inside them, but thankfully it's mostly not accessible. My iPhone has great stabilisation, superbly accurate exposure and lots of built in image 'enhancement' and automation but thankfully this is all hidden away. The picture process is however simplicity itself, compose > take the picture. And if you set up a film camera in the right way it is again simple, Compose > Focus > Press the shutter. OK you might say you, you CAN do that with digital, but in that case what is all the other stuff for? 

Now I've used a lot of digital cameras, but for virtually every image I've taken I've ignored around 90% of what those cameras have 'offered' me. I turn off the IBIS, I've never ever used face detected or multi-point AF for example. For me it's still about focus, aperture and shutter speed. Because once you have those three mastered, I believe there is little else you need. And in all the years leading up to digital, no one else needed anything else either. Cartier-Bresson didn't need this camera complication, neither did Ansel Adams, or Lee Miller or Robert Mapplethorpe or any of the other great photographic talents that are still relevant today. And I suspect that the great photographic talents of the future won't need it either. 

So I'm actually not surprised that there is a revival in interest about shooting on film with film cameras. For almost every artistic endeavour it seems necessary to have a 'back to basics' clear out from time to time and maybe, just maybe, we are about to see it in photography. In some ways smartphones are achieving that already, but for others who want something beyond the snapshot without the complexities of digital there is not a lot of choice, other than to raid the past and start browsing through ebay.

If nothing else going back to using film cameras would mean that there would probably be a lot less to argue about and I will state once again that the film sites and forums I've been visiting lately do seem to see the hostility, partisanship and downright ignorance of the digital photography internet as the nonsense that it is and have nothing to do with it. And for me film photography is, as it always was, more about art than science, more about craftsmanship than technology and a field of artistic endeavour that is focused on the end result rather than the means of creating it. And when I wrote 'Digital is for wimps' I'm talking about an over reliance on and almost worship of technology, the seeming reluctance to develop as an artist as opposed to the distractions of what that technology might 'offer' and to be more akin to a camera operator rather than a photographer. Using film for me strips away all the artifice and it's pretty clear that the camera is going to contribute very little to the images I'm going to create other than let the right amount of light register on the film emulsion. 

And maybe that is why film cameras are 'cool'. Because they demonstrate that their owners are actually attempting to create something using their knowledge, their experience and above all their vision of the world around us, from somebody who has a point of view. Too often for my tastes, the photographic internet is all about process and analysis of that process rather than what is really important, the results of that process. And if you want to see thee BBC TV programmes that illustrate much of what I'm writing about this try these links:-