iPhone X vs digital camera vs film

Every year, comes September, Apple presents a new iteration of the iPhone, and every year, the iPhone gets better at taking pictures. One year, the iPhone gets better with low light shots, another year with portraits. Last year it started emulating the low depth of field and bokeh you normally get with a few high end lenses. This year, it will be about  studio lighting.  And every year, in the forums dedicated to digital photography (or should I say – to the cult of digital cameras), purists and fanatics develop new arguments to explain that “a photo shot with an iPhone is not the same, it’s looks artificial, you can see the difference”.

iPhone X_photo
The iPhone X launch ceremony – Sept 12th, 2017

Maybe. To the trained eye of a specialist. But for the majority of people, the pictures they get from their phones are much better than what they used to get from a point and shoot camera 10 years ago. Incredibly better than the prints they used to receive when they were shooting film. And now they can share them. Without having to be an expert.

Smartphones ARE the go-to digital camera of billions of people

  • We always have them with us,
  • Taking pictures with them is simple and intuitive
  • With their large, high resolution screens and easy to use interface, they’re a great platform to edit and enhance pictures,
  • The integration with email, messaging and all sorts of social network apps is seamless. And the images are backed up automatically (in a cloud) and made available in cloud based galleries.
  • did I mention selfies?

And they’re getting better every year – integrating better sensors, better lenses, adding optical image stabilization, adding a short tele lens, and using software emulation to let billions of people take pictures which used to require expensive hardware and a solid photographic knowledge (portraits with low depth of field and pleasant blurry backgrounds, studio lighting).

iPhone_7-0187
Clearwater Beach, FL –  Sunset – Shot with an iPhone 7.
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Clearwater Beach, FL. Sunset – Shot with Fuji film X-T1 – which picture do you prefer?

As a result, smartphones are more than good enough for casual family photography or casual travel photography, and many news organizations have equipped their reporters with smartphones. In any case, the pictures will be primarily seen on screens (smartphones, tablets, laptops, TV), and on this type of support, the quality of the images (resolution, contrast, dynamic) is more than adequate.

Of course, smartphones are missing a few things:

  • No viewfinder (an issue when shooting outdoors on a very sunny day or with long tele lenses)
  • No ultra-wide angle lens (can’t emulate that)
  • No medium to long tele lens: the tele objective of an iPhone has a focal length equivalent to 56mm – even with the “digital zoom” (aka cropping) you can’t get beyond the equivalent of a 200mm lens, and with a reduced resolution.
  • No macro lens
  • No fine control of the exposure or the focus (you can put your finger on the screen to indicate where you want the phone to set the exposure or the focus, but that’s still pretty limited)
  • No way to control multiple flash guns or studio lights
  • And of course, they don’t have a 50 Megapixel full frame sensor.
DSCF4835
Peniscola, Spain – Fireworks – Fujifilm X-T1 – Something you can not capture with an iPhone, yet

Where does it leave us?

  • Amateurs, families, people traveling light and all sorts of professionals needing good quality photographs will be happy with a smartphone
  • Soccer moms, enthusiasts, who need a longer reach and more control over the picture will use a bridge camera (such as a Sony RX10, Panasonic FZ1000), a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder or a dSLR.
    Provided they have the skills and have bought a few good lenses (in any case something better than the trans-standard zoom usually coming with the camera) – they may sometimes get better results than with a phone. It’s a bit provocative, but I would argue that a photographer of average abilities using an entry level mirrorless camera – with no electronic viewfinder and no flash shoe, paired with a 18-55 (or 16-50) kit zoom – is probably worse off than the user of a smartphone in most situations.
summer2017-6387
Tour de France 2017 – Fujifilm X-T1. Another one I would not have tried to shoot with an iPhone

What about film?

  • So far, digital photography has been about ease of use, convenience, and speed.
  • Film could not fight in the same category. Film photography requires more technical knowledge, it’s a cumbersome process, and it’s slow. Today, you shoot with film by choice, because you love the old film cameras, because you love having a piece of film in your hands, because you love the technical challenge, because you love the way images taken with film will look.
  • To some extent, conventional digital cameras are following their film predecessors, and have started leaving the mass market. They’re already in a niche, still large, but shrinking. Five or ten years from now, as the smartphones will have kept improving, the niche will be much smaller, inhabited by photographers who love to be in control of the technical characteristics of their images, and refuse to be deprived of that control by a smartphone.
  • Admittedly, film photography is an even smaller niche. But I don’t see it shrinking anymore. As smartphones become better at delivering pictures automatically, as digital cameras become the domain of perfectionists, a minority will look at film photography as the ultimate refuge for spontaneity and authenticity.

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Venice – Fujicolor Superia 400 – Nikon FE2

 

Why shoot film in 2017?

Last week-end, I tried a Nikon N90S that had just been delivered by UPS. The N90S does not feel very different from a conventional Nikon dSLR such as a D90 or a D7200. And instinctively, I started using it the same way I generally use a digital camera. Auto-everything, just compose the picture, press the shutter release, check the picture the LCD, adjust the exposure or the focus, and shoot again. Except that the N90s is a film camera. There was no LCD to check the picture. I won’t know if the camera nailed it until the film comes back from the lab. It could be weeks from now. And I started wondering why I had brought this camera, that wants to be used like a modern dSLR, but does not offer the convenience of digital.

It does not seem logical to shoot film:

– it’s expensive

– film is low ISO only (typically 100 to 800 ISO)

– there is a limited choice of film, and it’s difficult to find

– Film is not flexible – if you’ve loaded your camera with Kodak’s TRI-X, you’ll have 36 contrasty and grainy Black and White pictures. No magic switch or menu option will transform it into an Ektar or a Velvia on the fly.

– it takes days or weeks to get to see your pictures

– and most images are consumed on a smartphone or a computer monitor, or printed on a inkjet or giclee printer. Unless you enlarge your negatives in a dark room and only hang the prints on a wall, the images will have to be digitized at some point. So why go through the pain of using film, if you always end up processing digital images.

Most of the reasons given by the apologists of film are false pretenses:

Holga 120 CFN -Kodak color film.

Google “why shoot film” or check the Web sites of photo labs. You will often find the same reasons for shooting film. Most of them don’t resist  a close examination:

– “Film forces you to be picky because each image shot has a cost” – true, but nothing prevents you from being picky with a digital camera,

– “Film forces you to think and operate with method” – there is no possibility to check the picture immediately after it’s taken and adjust the parameters accordingly – trial and error does not work – you have to think hard and get it right. Again it’s true, but nothing prevents you from operating slowly and deliberately with a digital camera,

– “With a film camera, you’re not tempted to lose time looking  at your images on the LCD, you can focus on the subject and the next opportunity”.  True. But on a digital camera it’s simply a matter of discipline. Most digital cameras can be set not to display the image immediately after it has been shot, and nothing forces you to push the “play” button. (my digital cameras are set NOT to display the image which has been taken – but it came back to bite me a few times – when the images were not correctly exposed, and I only found about it when it was too late).

Venice – Bridge on the Rio de Palazzo o de Canonica – Shot with Nikon FE2. Scanned by a minilab. Jan. 2012

Some are true, but up to a point only…

You read frequently that in spite of all the film simulation modes (in camera or in Lightroom post processing), there is still something unique in the way film looks. Maybe. I’m not denying that some images originally shot on film look different. But I don’t know for sure if it’s the film, or something else. Because unless you use an enlarger and develop your prints in your own dark room, it’s likely that your workflow – and the processing chain of the lab who scan your film roll – are relying on digital technologies at some point. Minilabs and industrial labs have been printing from scans for years (even before consumers switched from film to digital), and that special film look you like so much may just be a product of the scanning software controlling the lab’s Fuji Frontier (or its Noritsu).

“Using film gives you access to cheap full frame and medium format equipment”  – True, you can get the “full frame” 35mm or  the medium format experience for less than $100. But the cost difference is not as high as it used to be (you can get a very  good second hand Full Frame dSLRs for $700), and digital medium format cameras, while still very expensive, will become more accessible when new cameras such as Fujifim’s GFX reach the second hand market and start pushing the price of older cameras downwards.

“Film can be stored for hundreds of years – and digital images are fragile”. True,  CDs and DVD may degrade over time, hard drives fail, and cloud storage only lives as long as the company offering the service stays in business. Digital imaging is based on short lived standards – will electronic devices of Y2050 still read today’s jPEGS, DNG and RAW files, will they mount the drives, the disks, the USB keys we store images on? . All those concerns are valid. Keeping digital images on the long run  will require work (moving images from an obsolete support or from a retiring on-line service to more current media, convert image files from old formats to newer formats). But it’s an archival issue, and archival of film also requires work – a shoebox can only get you so far.

Garden near Charleston, SC. Nikon FM, Nikkor 24mm AF.

What’s left? 

There still are plenty of reasons, good or bad, to shoot film…

– snobism,

– a desire to be  different,

– the refusal to fall for the latest and greatest electronic gimmickry,

– the love of film as a medium,

– the love of old cameras (mechanical devices made of aluminum, steel and brass) – there is no other way to use old cameras than to shoot film,

– love of old lenses,

– a preference for the way you had to work with those old film cameras (because you learned that way and you don’t mind showing your age…)

– the thrill of risking wasting a photoshoot  with cameras that are getting old and unreliable (not for me – I mostly use Nikons…),

– the unpredictability of results with old and inaccurate cameras and expired  film (basically, you let chance and mother nature be creative on your behalf)

– a search for authenticity and simplicity. Digital photography can be overwhelming (so many options, so many filters, so many plug-ins, so many ways to modify or improve the images, in the camera or on a computer, before and after shooting). Film is simpler. You load the film, your arm the shutter, you set the aperture and the shutter speed, you adjust the focus. You compose. You press the shutter release. And you’re done.


Panic in the sky – accidental double exposure on Olympus OM-2000. You would never get this image with a digital camera.

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And what about film?

Film as a mass market phenomenon is dead. And will never come back.
Sales of film have stabilized to a level representing between 1 and 2% of the volumes reached at this peak, in the first years of the 21st century.

  • sales of color print film are very low (maybe 0.5% of what they were in Y2000)
    • color print film was a product used primarily by consumers on the mass market
    • those consumers have defected to digital cameras or smartphones and social networking apps

      Demand for photographic film - 1992 -2010
      Demand for photographic film – 1992 -2011
    • mini labs/drugstore labs are all closing. The only option for color film users who don’t dare process and scan film themselves are a few mail to order labs but the whole process is slow and it’s getting increasingly expensive.
    • the low sales have generated double death spiral – low volumes translate into higher prices and into a reduced product choice for the customers, which further reduces the sales volumes.
    • Fujifilm have said publicly that they believed that at some point the infrastructure supporting film (manufacturing plants, labs) would disappear – their estimate is that it will happen in the next 20 to 25 years.
  • B&W film sales are holding much better
    • It was not a mass market before the digital revolution – it was and still is targeting enthusiast photographers with some form of artistic ambition.
    • Minilabs/drugstores generally refused to touch true Black and White film (films like the Kodak Tri-X or the Ilford HP-5), and their disappearance has no impact on the fanatics of B&W film.
    • Compared to color film, B&W film is relatively low tech – easier to produce by small outfits, and  far less intimidating to process.
BMW Concept Car "Gina" - Dream Cars Exhibit. Atlanta (Kodak CN400)
BMW Concept Car “Gina” – Dream Cars Exhibit. Atlanta (Kodak CN400)

Interestingly, B&W film is still attracting younger users, who had never tried film before: 30% of film shooters are younger than 35, according to a survey from Ilford, and  60% of those younger users have started shooting film less than 10 years ago, when a relative or a friend gave them an old film camera. What is more, 49% of the respondents to Ilford’s survey develop and print their images in a darkroom. (source: http://www.ilfordphoto.com)

  • Instant film is experiencing a rebirth. There are many motivations to shoot with instant film cameras – (a good summary by The Wirecutter)  but you can add a few to the list: convenience (you can get your color prints without the hassle of sending a 35mm film roll at the other end of the country),  and authenticity (the picture will remain as it was when it was ejected from the camera, no crop, no HDR, no filter, no artificial bokeh – the unadulterated reality).
Sales of film cameras - 1965 to 2008
Sales of film cameras – 1965 to 2008

A new life for old gear

Nowadays, almost nobody manufactures film cameras anymore.

Leica probably still makes a few hundreds of film cameras every year, Nikon still has an inventory of new F6 cameras available (and they say they can restart the production lines if needed), and  Lomo will be happy to sell you their plastic toy-cameras at a good price – for them. But in the grand scheme of things, the quantities must be negligible because the industry official body stopped counting in 2008.

The film camera market is a used equipment market, where enthusiast photographers rule. The prices on the second hand market are determined by a combination of 3 factors:

  • Scarcity
  • Usability by enthusiast photographers
  • Repairability and expected life span

Scarcity: mass market SLR bodies from the film era were produced by the millions. For each model, there are still tens of thousands in good shape, many more than potential takers,

Usability: Enthusiast photographers tend to prefer cameras that will give them plenty of control – semi-automatic exposure and manual focus cameras rule (if they wanted auto-exposure/autofocus cameras, they would also want the convenience of digital). And semi-auto/manual focus cameras that belong technically to families of products that have successfully transitioned into the digital era have a big advantage: the ability to share lenses, flash cobras and other accessories between film and digital bodies. It makes the bag of the photographer lighter, it reduces the overall spend, and it’s the main reason I bought Nikon film cameras after I had bought into the Nikon digital line of products.

Repairability, expected life span and build integrity: cameras made of aluminum and brass, easy to repair and built to withstand the use by professional photographers will fare better than cameras equipped with fragile electronics mother boards and flimsy plastic components.

Basically, an Olympus OM-10 (mass market, orphan system, automatic with plastics construction and electronics of suspect reliability) will be worth $25.00 at best. At the other end of the scale, a Leica M6 or a few Nikon professional models (F3, FM2, FM-3A, F6) will still command prices in the hundreds if not thousands of $.

Jules-French Bouledogue-Fujifilm X-T1 - Canon FL 55mm f1/2
Jules-French Bouledogue-Fujifilm X-T1 – Canon FL 55mm f1/2

The Nikon FE2: one of the very best manual focus SLRs ever.


Launched in 1983, the successor of the FE had a relatively short sales career, but a long legacy. It can be argued that the Nikon FM3a, sold from 2001 to 2006, is much more a descendant of the FE2 than of the FM2.

 

Nikon FE2 - Shutter
Nikon FE2 – The titanium blade shutter was the most advanced at the time of the camera’s launch, with a top speed of 1/4000 sec and a flash sync speed of 1/250 sec.


In 1977, a few years after Olympus initiated the compact SLR revolution, Nikon presented the FM. Like the Olympus OM-1, the FM was a compact semi automatic camera with a mechanical shutter, which could be equipped with a motor drive. But contrarily to the OM-1, which still relied on a CdS light metering system and on mercury batteries, the FM used modern gallium photo diodes and silver oxide batteries. It also benefited from a vertical blade metallic shutter, and the exposure metering was relying on 3 LEDs instead of the more conventional match needle arrangement of the OM-1. Solidly built and reliable, the FM was very successful commercially, and the ancestor of a large family of models whose production only stopped in 2006.

Nikon FE2
Nikon FE2

The FE from 1978 is the automatic exposure version of the FM. It looks very similar to the FM, but instead of LEDs, it uses two needles to show the shutter speed selected by the photographer (semi-auto mode) and by the automatic exposure system (aperture priority auto mode). In 1982, the FM became the FM2, receiving a new mechanic shutter with titanium blades, which could reach 1/4000 sec and had a flash synch speed of 1/200 sec.


One year later, the FE2 was launched. Its titanium shutter is an improved and electronic version of the FM2’s, with a X synch speed now reaching to 1/250 sec. The FE2 also benefits from a modern on the film (OTF) flash metering system (that the FM2 never got). The FM/FE range of products was extended the following year with the presentation of the Nikon FA, which added matrix metering (a world premiere), a programmed exposure mode and trade the brass prism cover of the FM/FE models for a polycarbonate one. Both FE2 and FA were discontinued in 1988. The FM2 lived longer, and was ultimately replaced by the FM3a, which merged the mechanical shutter of the FM2 with the electronics of the FE2.


Using the FE2 as an every day camera


Reasonably light and compact, the Nikon FE2 is very solidly built, and very nicely finished. Compared to a previous generation model like the FM, the FE2 has smoother commands. The viewfinder is typical from a pre-high eye point construction – the enlargement factor is high (0.86) for a good focusing precision, but the frame coverage is limited (93%), and the eye point is very short (14mm), which could be an issue for photographers wearing glasses. Even with thin glasses, it’s impossible to see 100% of the image projected on the focusing screen without having to move one’s eye ball right to left and left to right: you only perceive 90% of the focusing screen when you look straight into the viewfinder, which compounded with the rather limited frame coverage, ensures that you’ll have a wide safety margin on both sides of your prints.

 

Nikon FE2 / Olympus OM-1n
Nikon FE2 / Olympus OM-1n – The FE2 is larger, but not significantly.


The determination of the exposure is very conventional for a camera of its generation, with a center weighted measurement provided by two silicon photodiodes. In automatic mode, a needle indicates the speed selected by the exposure system of the camera on a large scale at the left of the viewfinder. The photographer has multiple ways to override the automatism: he can memorize the exposure (pushing the self timer lever towards the lens), apply a correction factor on the film speed selector (from -2 up to +2EV), or switch to semi-auto mode. In this case, a second needle – larger and transparent – appears in the viewfinder, showing the shutter speed selected by the photographer. In a very simple matching needle arrangement, the photographer just has to align the meter needle with shutter speed needle. The shutter speed knob is much smoother than on the FM (in the FE2 the shutter is controlled electronically), and surprisingly the camera is more pleasant to use in semi-auto mode than the FM. No wonder that Nikon derived the exposure control system of the FM3a from the FE2’s and not from FM’s.


 

Nikon FE2 with MF-12 back
A very clean Nikon FE2 with the MF-12 data back – All the commands are grouped on the top plate – with the exception of the depth of field preview and the exposure lock levers, located at the right of the lens mount. A very simple and efficient layout.


Conclusion


Powered by two easy to find LR44 silver oxyde batteries, the camera also operates without battery at a speed of 1/250sec. Compatible with any AI, AIs and AF lenses, it’s still perfectly usable today.


Less rugged than its FM and FM2 cousins (it has an electronic shutter and a potentially more fragile match needle metering system), it is more pleasant to use and can respond efficiently to a larger variety of photography opportunities. Like the FA and the FM3a, but unlike the FM2, the FE2 benefits from a modern through the lens (on the film or OTF) flash metering system, compatible with the flash units currently sold by Nikon.

 

Nikon FE2 with MF-12 back
Nikon FE2 with the MF-12 back. The MF-12 back was designed for the FM/FE cameras, which did not have internal synchronization contacts for a data back inside the film chamber. Hence the need for an external synchronization cord. The FE2 could also use the MF-16 data back, which did not need the external sync cord.


Its automatic exposure system is very easy to override, and does not get in the way. The matching needle system in the viewfinder is very informative, easier to read in the sun light than the LEDs of the FG, and than the small LCD display of the FA.


With the F3, the FE2 is probably the most usable Nikon camera of the early eighties.


How much for a Nikon FE2?


The Nikon FE2 is a very good automatic exposure film camera, and its reputation has obviously an impact on its price. Specialized retailers like KEH sell it between $130 (Bargain) and $270 (Top Condition). As usual, prices are a bit lower on eBay, but the FE2 does not seem to sell for less than $100, with peaks up to $180 for very nice items.


There are few alternatives to the FE2: the more recent FM3a is much more expensive (typically from $400 up to $700) and the FE, with its modest shutter and no OTF flash metering, is far more primitive and more difficult to recommend.



More about the FE2


Photography in Malaysia


Tree trunk
Tree trunk – Along the Nickajack Creek – Smyrna, GA (Nikon FE2, Nikon 50mm lens, Kodak CN400 film.

The APS Film Format

Harbor of Porsall, Britany (France). Minolta Vectis S1
Harbor of Porsall, Britany (France). Minolta Vectis S1
135 (24x36) and APS format cartridges
135 (24×36) and APS format cartridges. The APS cartridge is more “intelligent” than the conventional 135 film container. An icon at the bottom of the cartridge shows the status of the film (new, partially exposed, totally exposed, processed) and a magnetic strip at the back of the film records the camera’s setup and the user’s preferences, in particular the form factor of each print (APS-C, H or P)


In 1991, Kodak, Fuji, Canon, Minolta and Nikon started working on a new film format, designed to address all of the supposed shortcomings of the 135 (24x36mm) format and bring a new lease of life to film before its replacement by digital technologies.


The development of the new format took longer than expected. The APS film format was officially launched in 1996, but the industry tried to force higher prices on consumers and botched the commercial launch.


Digital cameras became viable earlier than when everybody had anticipated, and as early as 1998, the camera manufacturers had come to the conclusion that the APS format was a lost cause.

 

The most emblematic APS camera, the Canon Elph (known as the Canon Ixus in Europe) was superseded by the first Digital Elph in Year 2000. In 2002, all the cameras manufacturers had reverted to 24x36mm or gone digital, and APS was dead.

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