Monday

I sold all my film gear

I sold all my film cameras last weekend, and it felt good.

The Mamiya M645 system with four lenses, powerwinder and polaroid back? Sold.

The TWO Contax G2 bodies, six lenses (every one they made for it) and two flashes? Sold.

Two Nikon F100's. Sold. An N-90, too. Man, that was one beat-up dinosaur.


Also, about nine Nikon speedlights, leaving me with only eight now. Don't worry, I'll order more.

The camera you see in the picture is one of only three film cameras I saved. That chrome beauty is a Minolta Super A, circa 1951, and it was my first real camera. My dad had owned it for years and finally let me start using it (he still claims ownership, whereas I go by that whole "9/10ths of the law" bit) around 1973. When I finally got the 85mm lens for it, I felt like a real pro, because now I could switch between the 35 and that. I haven't shot a frame with this camera in 30 years, but I'm not getting rid of it.



I kept my old point-and-shoot, mostly because I forgot to bring it, and also I've taken two photos on it that have won awards, so there is some sentimental value. On the flip side, it probably isn't worth $10 bucks on the market these days so I don't really lose much by keeping it in my kitchen drawer.

For my purposes, film has been dead for years now. Believe me, I was a very reluctant convert to digital. I saw the first few generations of even the most expensive digital cameras, bodies that would set you back $15-Grand that you had to carry a backpack full of support gear to use, and they were crap. So I never thought I'd switch.

Finally, though, my clients started "advising" me that it would be in my interest to go digital, or they would perhaps find themselves less interested in hiring me, so I hunkered down and bought my first "work" digital camera in late 2004. Even then I tested it for a couple months before trying it out at a wedding (the bulk of my work) and even THEN only as a backup for the first few times.

But I tell ya, I loved it.

First and foremost was the little window on the back that let me see what I just shot. Man, that option opened up my creative mind ten-fold. See, when I shot a wedding or an event or an assignemnt on film, I'd work an idea and then I'd have to wait hours or days before I saw the negatives to find out if it worked. But now I could see it INSTANTLY. And I could adapt on the fly.

Even better, if I had some sort of problem, like a light not firing, I knew it right away. Not like that weekend where I went out on a boat in the Florida Keys with a bunch of people at night to watch Halley's Comet and then drove from there the next day to a friends wedding where I shot the photo of the brides family that had not been all together in years..

..only to find out two days later that my flash hadn't worked for either shoot and all those irreplaceable, unrepeatable scenes had not been captured on film after all.

Another fact of digital photography that I LOVE: I never get stuck having the wrong kind of film in my camera for a given situation. I can't tell you how many times I would be photographing, say, a wedding in a dark chapel, using TMAX 3200 that I planned on pushing a little past that rating, and just when the bride and groom finish up and run outside in to the bright sunlight I'd find myself with half a roll unshot and desparately stopping down 18 stops while running my shutter speeds up in to the high-thousands. (For those who don't know, TMAX 3200 really is an 800 speed film and you're just pushing it chemically in development when you take it higher than that. It pushed pretty well, especially compared to Tri-X, but it generally looked awfully rough in the finished product. In the newspaper business it was a godsend because when you're printing on toilet paper you don't preserve a lot of detail, but I don't think I produced too many images at that speed that I want to keep up on my wall.)

But I never have that filmspeed problem with digital. Heading in to a dark cavern? Dial that ISO up to 3200 or higher and keep shooting seamlessly. Come back outside on to the beach? Dial it back down while you're walking out. If you know your gear, it takes less than 2 seconds. As good as I got rewinding rolls, popping open the back and threading in a new canister and then firing of the 2-3 frames to clear the leader, I don't think I ever did it that fast. Digital lets me work seamlessly and discreetly (no motor drive rewind motor whining, for instance.)

My digital cameras have made me a better photographer.

I can shoot something, know right away if my exposures and composition are working, try something new, or move on the the next thing if I've got it "in the can" (an old film term, oddly.) You know: chimp it, check it, change it if you need to.

For instance, when I was shooting the photo of the film canisters that closes this essay, I made a discovery about how those little LED lights look if you point them straight in to the lens. So I played around with those for a bit until I got something kinda fun. For a picture shot with two flashlights and two little lights I keep on my carkeys, it works. And it's a picture I never would have gotten to with film, because I wouldn't have seen it until a day or two later, or longer, when I didn't have anything set up anymore on my tabletop.

Throughout this posting, Ken Rockwell has probably been grinding his teeth. He's been on an anti-digital, pro-film rant lately, and that's fine. And I'll cede to him the fact that there are situations where low-speed films do a beautiful job that rivals or beats what the best digital cameras can do. But I can also say confidently there are a lot of situations where digital now leaves film in the dust. Especially in low-light, the professional digital cameras I've used have produced better pictures with less noise than any high-speed film I've ever dunked in developer.

And I will grant to Ken or anyone else that the techniques and the mindset for making successful digital images are a bit different than they are with film. Fortunately, I cut my teeth shooting slide film, so I was always very careful with exposures. That made it easier to understand and account for the potential for blown highlights and other dynamic range issues with digital. But, knowing those, I feel like I have much more flexibility than I did with film.

Did I mention instant gratification? I'm big on that, as all America seems to be. I'm not talking about the little window on the camera. That's great, but what I really mean is the fact that I can see and work with and deliver the images I've shot within just minutes of walking in my front door after an assignment. None of this business of driving to the lab, waiting around an hour, or a day, or 2-3 days, or a week (if it's a LOT of film I've shot.) Just yesterday I drove in to Washington to shoot an assignment. I started shooting a little after noon, was in my car an hour later, got home at 1:45 and had the final product -- toned, edited, captioned, cropped, ready for press -- at 3:45. And in the meantime I watched the Daily Show rerun and had some lunch.



When I sold my gear it was at a photo show, and there were a lot of people who came up and asked me questions about the equipment and about photography in general. As ubiquitous as I think digital is, there are still thousands of people for whom it is still a giant mystery. So I will do what I can in this forum to demystify some of this stuff. There are lots of different variables to keep in mind, and it can seem daunting. But remember how it was when you learned to drive. You have to monitor your speed, watch for other drivers, remember where your feet are, look out your mirrors and pay attention a hundred times a minute and at first it seems impossible. But after doing it for a short time your biggest worry is what song is playing on the radio and how cool you look behind the wheel. It can be that way with photography as well. And when you do it right and do it confidently, it makes you look WAAAY cooler than any old car can.

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