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.
2017-05-Tampa-6131
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.

FH000011
Venice – Fujicolor Superia 400 – Nikon FE2

 

Old lenses on new gear – manual focus lenses on mirrorless cameras

One of the most remarkable changes brought by the advent of mirrorless camera systems (micro 4/3rds, Fujifilm X and to an even larger extent Sony E and FE) is the ability to mount and effectively use almost any old lens designed originally for a 35mm camera system.

With SLR and dSLR camera systems, it was pointless to try and mount lenses designed for another system, and very often, lenses from a

Two mount adapters: Canon FD to Fuji X, and Nikon F to Fuji X. Those Fotasy adapters are not fancy but they're cheap and they do the job.
Two mount adapters: Canon FD to Fuji X, and Nikon F to Fuji X. Those Fotasy adapters are not fancy but they’re cheap and they do the job.

previous generation of the same camera system:

  • SLRs and dSLRs have optical viewfinders – the photographer needs all the light he/she can get for focusing and composing the picture, and the cameras are therefore designed to work at full aperture with aperture pre-selection – which used to require rods and springs and cams, and since the Canon EOS mount opened the way, now requires electronics. There is no simple way to emulate the pre-selection mechanism of one SLR system  with a lens designed for another one.
  • There are also physical limitations:
    • The adaptor designed as the interface between a lens of System A and a camera body of System B is more or less a cylinder with the female part of the mount of System A at one end, and the male part of System B at the other end. Such an adapter would necessarily have a depth of 5 to 15mm, which adds to the flange distance. Unfortunately, all cameras derived from 35mm SLR systems have a very similar flange distance (from 42mm for the Canon FL/FD mount up to 46.5mm for the Nikon F), and there is not enough room for an adapter (the adapted lens would sit too far from the camera’s film plane, and would not focus to infinite).

Mirrorless camera systems don’t have such limitations:

Canon FD to Fuji X (left) and Nikon F to Fuji X (right).
Canon FD to Fuji X (left) and Nikon F to Fuji X (right). The Nikon mount range distance is a bit higher than the FD’s. Therefore the adapter is thicker.
  • They have electronic viewfinders – and offer a clear and bright view of the subject even stopped down at f/16. If fact, most of the mirrorless cameras operate at stopped down aperture even with their native lenses.
  • The flange distance of mirrorless systems is much shorter (17 to 20mm for the most common systems), which leaves plenty of room (almost 30mm ) for the adaptor if you want to mount a lens designed for a SLR or DSLR system.
  • Thanks to their electronic viewfinders, mirrorless systems have multiple ways to assist the operator trying to focus manually (magnifier, zebra, focus peaking).

The use of CAD and CNC is now widespread and it’s easy and cheap to manufacture mechanical mount adapters: users of each of the big mirrorless camera systems have access to adapters for :

  • Most pre-AF era mounts for 35mm systems: (39mm and 42mm, Canon FL/FD, Konica, Nikon F, Minolta MD, Olympus OM, Leica M and R, Topcon, …)
  • Stranger or more exotic mounts (C mount, Holga, medium format cameras)
Canon FD to Fuji X adapter, and Canon FL 55mm
Fuji film X-T1, Canon FD to Fuji X adapter (Fotasy), and Canon FL 55mm. The X-T1 is a pleasure to use even with old lenses.

Even if it’s physically possible, mounting recent AF/all electronics lenses is generally pointless – not only you can’t set the aperture for lack of an aperture ring, but you can’t focus the lens because modern lenses are devoid of any mechanical connection between the focusing ring and the focusing mechanism of the lens. Unless a third party vendor develops an adapter which embarks the complex software required to translate the communication protocols of a lens of Brand A into something the body of Brand B will understand.

As far as I know, it has only been attempted with some level of success between a few lenses with a Canon or Sigma mount and a few Sony bodies (the A7R II or the A6300).

Therefore, the best candidates are lenses from the manual focus era (up to 1985), and the Nikon and Pentax autofocus lenses designed before Year 2000 – they all still have aperture rings.

Even if it is possible, mounting an old manual focus lens on a mirrorless body is not necessarily the best thing to do:

  • in spite of all the focus assistance mechanisms, it’s much slower to get the focus with an adapted vintage lens than with the native autofocus lens – adapted lenses are not a good fit for mobile subjects, unless you adopt old school focusing techniques (pre-focus, wait for subject to be at right distance, and shoot)
  • Older lenses were designed for 35mm film cameras, and are unnecessarily large and heavy when mounted on M4/3rd and APS-C cameras
  • Lots of older lenses were not that good in their heyday, and become really bad if mounted on a camera with a high resolution sensor. It’s true in particular for zooms and to a lesser extent for wide angle lenses.

As a conclusion, why mount old lens on a modern mirrorless body?

  • Because you can (of course)

    Leica Summicron C (40mm f/2) mounted on Sony NEX 3 with Metabones adapter. It worked pretty well.
    Leica Summicron C (40mm f/2) mounted on a Sony NEX 3 with Metabones adapter. The Nex 3 was surprisingly easy to use with a manual lens. The Metabones adapter is really stiff, and it’s one step above the Fotasy in terms of quality. Not sure it’s worth the price, though.
  • If you already have the lens… Considering adapters sell for $20.00, it’s tempting to buy one to use your old lenses, as a stop gap until you buy a modern equivalent in the mirrorless system, or even permanently
    • All macro lenses are a very good fit because macro photography does not require to focus fast, and old macro lenses are still up to the task, when compared to their modern equivalents
  • If you want to experience really exceptional glass
    • Canon FD Aspherical or “L” lenses (50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2) for instance, or some of the gems that Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax and others have produced in the past…
  • If the modern equivalent does not exist…
    • a 55mm f/1.2 lens – it doesn’t exist for the Sony E/FE mount
    • a teleobjective with Defocus Control – only Nikon has them
    • a tilt and shift lens (only Canon and Nikon have them)
  • or exists but is crazy expensive
    • can an amateur afford the new Sony 85 f/1.4 FE GM?

As a result, old lenses of good reputation hold their value extremely well. Some of the  Canon and Nikon lenses I mentioned above sell for more than $700.00 on eBay.

Jules - Fujifilm X-T1 - Canon FL 55mm f/1.2
Jules – Fujifilm X-T1 – Canon FL 55mm f/1.2