“Solving real issues for real photography”

Lloyd Chambers writes:

Something strange happened on my recent trip: I did not see any mis-focused images from the Sony A7R II. I mean, none.

Try doing that with a Nikon D810 or Canon 5DS R with an autofocus lens — I have and never come close, as past autofocus assessments show. And it’s hopeless to focus a lens manually using the optical viewfinder in a DSLR — the focusing screen is designed for autofocus and can’t show more than about f/2.8 – f/4 equivalent — massive slop — and it is a different optical path almost never the same distance as the sensor (inherent error even with perfect eyes). So one has to resort to magnified Live View using a loupe — clumsy at best compared to an EVF, though it’s perfectly reasonable on a tripod. The omission of an EVF option with the Nikon D810 and Canon 5DS R is so at odds with usage realities that it begs credulity.

[…]

The DSLR is looking like not just a dinosaur, but a lame dinosaur, given these advances. How long will CaNikon watch Sony advance without responding? The optical viewfinder is great for some things, but I say get rid of it — it is a huge liability for most things. Mirrorless is now the leading technology on the market, solving real issues for real photography.

Marco Arment comments:

This matches my experience so far as well. Beyond the clear technical image-quality advantages over any other camera I’ve ever used, what makes the A7R II so revolutionary to me is that my “hit” or “keeper” rate is far higher than with any other camera.

With the combination of fast phase-detect autofocus across the majority of the sensor, subject tracking, face- and eye-detection, an image-stabilized sensor, auto-ISO with programmable minimum shutter speed, very low noise at high ISOs, and incredible dynamic range, I’m finally breaking my long-held habit of taking three or five nearly identical photos at each opportunity to ensure that one of them is sharp and usable.

When I read evaluations like these, I realise how different and distant they are from my way of thinking photography and approaching its workflows. I’m also reminded of how I dislike digital photography in general. I could never use a camera like the Sony A7R II, because it would feel as if my only part in taking a photo were limited to pointing and shooting. It would feel as if the camera were the sole responsible for taking my photos, and I were just an actuator, if you know what I mean.

I’m still largely a film photo enthusiast. I have a small collection of film cameras — point-and-shoots, rangefinders, SLRs — and my more ‘pro’ gear is all analogue, and almost all manual focus. I have nothing against using a camera essentially like a point-and-shoot device: there are occasions where I need to take a photo quickly and unobtrusively (e.g. street photography), and a point-and-shoot or a rangefinder is the best tool for this purpose. And in case I really have to be quick and also want to share a capture on the fly, I always have with me the best digital and connected point-and-shoot device — my iPhone.

But the photography I enjoy the most is what I call the equivalent of ‘slow food’ — when I go for a photo-walk carrying a couple of film cameras with me, some of my ‘pro’ equipment, and hunt for interesting subjects and scenes to capture, taking my time to compose the photo, to consider the lighting conditions and set the camera accordingly, and to finally take the shot; a shot I cannot see and check right away but that’s okay — I’m not a professional photographer but I know enough to expect that the photo I took will come out as intended (unless an unexpected problem occurs with the camera or the film). But most importantly, this way of photographing gives me a more active role in the process. I haven’t come to the point that I also develop my photos — the final step remains in the hands of the photo lab, for now — but it still gives me more satisfaction than getting a DSLR or mirrorless camera and shooting dozens of photos on auto-pilot.

Watchmen
I took this photo with a Canon T70, a manual focus film SLR camera from 1984, in manual mode, using a 200 ISO Kodak Gold film. This 30-year-old camera doesn’t have “phase-detect autofocus across the majority of the sensor, subject tracking, face- and eye-detection, an image-stabilized sensor, auto-ISO with programmable minimum shutter speed,” etc. etc., but I’ve taken some nice images with it, even in difficult lighting conditions (photos like this one and this one are trickier than it seems to get right). And this photo above turned out exactly how I wanted it with regard to focus and exposure. There has been no post-processing of any kind.

 

There are aspects of analogue photography that today sound very much cumbersome to people who have only known digital cameras, such as the lack of instant gratification of seeing right away the photo you just took, or the limits imposed by using film rolls with just 12 or 24 or 36 exposures, or the fact that the whole process has become increasingly more expensive than a digital workflow. At the same time, when I read Chambers’ considerations about how hard focussing a lens manually is when using the optical viewfinder in a DSLR, or how Mirrorless is now the leading technology on the market, solving real issues for real photography, I can’t help but shake my head a little. I look into the big, bright viewfinders of some of my film SLRs, like the Canon T90 (1986), the Canon A-1 (1978), the Pentax ME (1977), the Minolta SR-T 101 (1966) or the Nikon F90X (1994), and focussing is a joy. These are all manual focus cameras except for the Nikon F90X, so of course focussing is optimal, but using manual focus Nikkor lenses (even very old ones) isn’t problematic on the F90X.

When I use my film cameras, I can’t help but think that the whole film shooting experience — despite handling sophisticated SLRs like the Canon T90 or the Nikon F90X — is simpler, less encumbered by technology (it’s there, but it kind of remains in the background, not in your face), and overall more satisfying, as are the results.

Since with digital photography the camera is also responsible for the work that in traditional photography is carried out by the film, the debate around digital cameras has got much more similar to the debate surrounding lots of other tech gadgets. Not that it didn’t or doesn’t happen among film photographers. A lot of them love to talk gear ad nauseam, too. But given that digital cameras today pack even more technology inside than older film cameras, discussions in certain forums get so permeated by tech specs comparisons and hair-splitting digressions on sensor technology as to reach a level of abstraction that, in my opinion, ends up having very little to do with photography.

On my most recent trip, I took my Nikon F90X to shoot some test rolls (I acquired it in July). I didn’t see any mis-focused images either. And I mean none. This film SLR from 1994 has only one autofocus sensor, and the results just blew me away. Not an autofocus error, no matter the lighting conditions or the subject.

I don’t want to turn this into yet another film versus digital debate, but really, when I return to Chambers’ statement and think about mirrorless technology “solving real issues for real photography”, I keep wondering: digital photography has given people more convenience and more affordable workflows, no doubt, but how many issues has it actually introduced in the process? How much feature creep? How many complications in camera design and user interface? How many problems that film cameras either never had or have solved already?

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!