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Tuesday, 02 December 2008


I'll be happy as soon as they make a digital camera that can take photos without batteries. There's nothing more liberating and enjoyable than taking an old camera out and shooting as much as you'd like without ever having to worry about the battery. I know... batteries in digital cameras today will last well through a full day of shooting, but it's not the same.

Oh, and the comment "the type of ratty photographer who pokes around the edges of things taking pictures of things nobody else notices with crappy old forgotten secondhand cameras, slaving away in the darkroom to get the print just right, and never making a dime for any of it." -- that scared the hell out of me when I read it. I didn't know I wasn't the only one like that.

That's interesting Mike. I'd be curious to know what makes the D700 a 'good' camera for you. I have both a D700 and a D200 and aside from the sensor, both seem pretty much the same to me in actual use. The thing I liked about the D200 (and the same thing I like about the D700) is that it was very easy to transition from the F-stlye film cameras like the F5. I know there is that ineffable quality that's hard to describe--it's that thing that keeps me going back to my old Pentax 67--but I don't really feel any differently for the D700 than earlier Nikons.

Mike, I'm glad Nikon have finally produced a DSLR as good as the F100... Now I'll sit and wait for Pentax to produce a camera as good as the LX, and that includes modularity and size, as well as ease of use.

As for the D700, as great as it is (and it is, especially at the sub $2,500 level it will reach in a few months) it is still too big for my liking while the viewfinder isn't big enough.

Can it be that nobody has produced the perfect DSLR yet? Really guys, what's keeping you? :-D

I have to agree with what you are saying whole heartedly. The last camera that I fell in love with was before the 3 digital cameras that I have owned. After working as an assistant for a Pro in my home town, I thought it was time to buy a 'Pro' body. I had amassed a nice collection of Pentax glass at the time and picked up an MZ-S with the vertical grip. I probably owned the only one in North Dakota. It was a body that was totally different and better than the EOS-1 that I was used to working with 'professionally'. I really wish someone could make a body designed for shooters and not accountants.

But we are still waiting for a small camera that can make pictures of people. My Minox still beats all digital cameras I have seen for this purpose.

My D200 shot many hundreds of exposures on one battery; I very rarely had to change batteries during a day. While it's true that my earlier film cameras could go on shooting with no battery at all (that ended for me in 1987 with an electronic shutter in an OM-4t), I've never found power a problem with my D200. I did buy a second battery right away.

On sequence shooting, my D200 is better than any film camera I've had, in my opinion. It can shoot 5 frames per second, which is more or less twice as fast as anything I owned that shot film, and it could shoot 19 frames at that rate -- more than half a roll, a longer burst than I ever lit off in my film days. People who ran off 36-exposure bursts on film would obviously differ with me on the tradeoffs here. People who invested in the 250 exposure back for their Nikon F and used it probably *really* disagree with me here. But I've never met anyone who actually had and used a 250 exposure back.

My D200 was, in these usability areas, as good or better than any film camera I used.

The other thing to remember is that I'm no longer hauling dozens of rolls of film around with me, worrying about temperature and expiration dates and so forth. Instead I'm hauling 3 8GB CF cards.

I'm not sure my Fuji S2 wasn't a "good camera" to me. It wasn't bad at sequence shooting (I seem to remember 7 frames a 3FPS), in particular it did everything I ever actually did on film and more. The battery situation was complicated (optional lithium primary battery that ran the flash, 4 AAs that ran the rest), but since I was managing AAs for the flash anyway (including back with my film cameras), managing a few more didn't really make life much nastier for me.

I remember liking my M3 a lot, but I gotta say "for the time" about that. I wouldn't trade my current digital gear for it.

"I'm an ex art student; you know, the type of ratty photographer who pokes around the edges of things taking pictures of things nobody else notices with crappy old forgotten secondhand cameras, slaving away in the darkroom to get the print just right, and never making a dime for any of it."

People like you, or like that, are the big losers in the digital revolution (and, subsidiary to that, the people who like their art are also losers). For people making money with their camera, or amateurs like me who shoot a *lot*, digital has often saved us money (at least until we go and do something stupid like buying a D700). Film and processing were expensive. And I've earned a few thousand dollars in actual income with my digital cameras.

But people who shot in a more contemplative style never used that much film, and didn't need super-charged cameras (they just needed the film held flat, and good lenses), and that could be done relatively cheaply. Not any more, not with digital. So the struggling artists, trying to make a living or not, are on the down side of the teeter-totter in the digital revolution I'm afraid. Sorry about that.

Now, back to this "good camera" thing again. I had a pair of OM-4ts between my FM period and my N90 period, and I have to say the N90 was a big improvement as a camera compared to the OM-4. The excursion into Olympus land sounded good to me, but in practice it turned out to not work out very well at all. Basically it was the multi-spot metering the sold me that camera (plus the lack of spot at all in the FM and FM-2), but it turned out not to be nearly as helpful as I had hoped. Did 7 years and 8 weeks in England and various trips to Canada with the OM-4s, but they never really fit me right.

Dynamic range is a problem. Electronic sensors are inherently linear - no shoulder or toe, just a straight relationship betwen light level and charge. That will inevitably make sensors behave like slide film, not like negative film, and it will limit the dynamic range too. You won't see a sensor behaving like a negative film in a long time. And the way to get better dynamic range is to sacrifice resolution/light sensitivity (make each site larger but keep the flux the same), but for a linear device you need to sacrifice a lot more than for a log device to get the same range.

Just a note to quibble with: depending on the film you use, you'll get the same resolution as from digital if you need it. I'm sure you already know this of course, and are really talking about limitations of the whole process, but too often you see people stating that, say, 35mm is limited to 2mp or 4mp or some value when it's the scanner or other part of their workflow they use that is so limited. For instance, they scan at the highest resolution, then at a lower resolution, see that the results are the same and determine it's the film that limits them, when, in reality, it's the scanner hardware that isn't able to make use of its own optical resolution.


As I said somewhere else on T.O.P.: "From my cold dead hands". That is until Leica comes out with its Micro Four Thirds M mount rangefinder. Listening Solms?


I agreed with everything you said until you got to the footnotes. I think an ambitious youngster who can't afford a DSLR should probably get himself a digital point-and-shoot rather than a film camera and a brick of Tri-X. The huge, giant advantage of digital for youngsters (of any age) is not ISO or DR or IQ or USAF, it's the fact that you can shoot and shoot and shoot and it doesn't cost anything, and you can quickly examine your shots at almost any size you want, and toggle between color and black-and-white, even on a cheap computer. If you're interested in images, rather than the tool-aspect of photography (messing with thermometers and enlargers, etc.) a P&S will do just fine until you can afford better. Because you get to *shoot* all the time.

On another website which can be gotten by googling Panasonic G1 there are some comparison photos between a G1 and an inexpensive Canon Rebel, and the Rebel wins hands down (at least at ISO 1600.) There was also another interesting comment -- you apparently get eye-piece distortion with the G1 EVF, which the reviewer warns that you should not confuse with lens distortion. You *see* distortion, but that doesn't mean you're getting it. Hmmm. Seems like there might yet be a few kinks to work out. Maybe a lot of kinks.


Another well-written and much appreciated article, as usual. However, I think it would be useful to specify WHICH format(s) and/or grade(s) of film you are referring to when you state that sensors have surpassed film.

Surely you mean consumer grade 35mm film and possibly, professional grade 35mm film, although I must respectfully disagree with your claims of 35mm digital surpassing film in terms of print size/enlargement.

I've seen 20x24 prints side-by-side, one made from scanned professional grade Kodachrome 35mm (originally shot using a Leica M6), the other from a Nikon D200, and the scanned film blows the doors off the D200.

Maybe the newest generation of 35mm dSLRs fares better? Perhaps there's more to the quality equation than megapixels?

"The huge, giant advantage of digital for youngsters (of any age) is not ISO or DR or IQ or USAF, it's the fact that you can shoot and shoot and shoot and it doesn't cost anything, and you can quickly examine your shots at almost any size you want, and toggle between color and black-and-white, even on a cheap computer."

Ah, but I don't agree. Although people are different and maybe some would be best served as you describe. But I think the experience of valuing each shot because it costs a little money and a little labor is a good thing for learning. And I *know* that not "toggling" between B&W and color but _committing_ to one or the other is good for developing one's vision. All in all I think film is still very valuable as a learning tool, for people who really want to accomplish something significant as a photographer down the line. Just my opinion.

Mike J.

Have been following your discussions of the A900, and now the D700, closely. Great stuff; much appreciated. I'll take your "mere opinions" over the "hard data" of tech geeks any day.

Will you please do the same with the just-released 5D mark 2? I am close to buying one of the three, and your view would weigh significantly in the ultimate decision.

I upgraded from Canon G1 prosumer digicam to Nikon D70/D200/D300 in the last 5 years. My experience is that digital is NOT a good starting tool in learning photography, as I thought it is during this 5 years.

If I started again, I would do what I am doing now - develop black and white film, get a range finder (V if not L especially lens), twinlens (R but T can do) and a 8x10.

I know from my own experience that I learn much more in taking simple pictures in the streets than the times I clicked pass the 100,000 pictures using Nikon DSLR in Galapagos Island, African Safari, ... in the few years.

But I am not sure though F100 is good based on my experience of my wife's Canon SLR. I still think that rangefinder and/or twinlens is better.

As a hobby, it is more to the film and manual camera approach (maximum plus meter) then to let the camera do the 80% of the job. The auto everything is good for taking sport even for children playground one. But for the better film and manual camera approach, there is much more friendly people (who come to pose for you when you do your shoot in 8x10) or talk to you when hold your $400 Rollei T. It is just more enjoyable experience. (Taking rangefinder so far does not have any good people experience but not that back as you hold your D300 to them.)

No to D700 for me still for the moment; just keep the D300 for the children/macro/birdy and move back for others.

Mike, even a a non-struggling, non-student, I'd agree on the learning/development potential of film. And the good results from thinking.
Just last week I was taking photos at a party. Was using black and white film with a rangefinder and a digital point and shoot. The digital camera really got in the way of making pictures. Not a good one from the lot. meanwhile, a clear understanding of what I could get from film and a clean, responsive camera returned some decent results.
I'm returning a higher rate of keepers with film, and seem generally happier with the results. A lot of that has to do with the camera - my film cameras don't seem to get between me and my picture in the way that digital seems to sometimes. I think a lot of that has to do with the simplicity of use.

Digital 'lapping' film? Thanks for letting me know.

The F100 was a great camera? Digitals should live up to that? Ugh. I sold a ton of those things and I never warmed up to it. It was simply too big and too low a contrast focusing screen. I won't say it was a shitty finder, but it was bad enough that I never wanted to use one. The OM-4? That's a lot closer to what I would consider a good camera although I always felt like I was going to snap the film lever off whenever I picked one up and I didn't like where the shutter speeds were. I had been telling people for a while that I had no real complaints about the results from DSLRs, but I just didn't like using them. If the current crop are as "good" as an f100, I'll continue to wait for something that works as easily and as well as my benchmarks, the M6, the LX, and my Horseman LE...

Isaac Crawford

Isn't the D700 body pretty much the same as the D300, D200? For that matter, those aren't much better or different than 50D or 40D bodies. Or for that matter, the K20D. I guess maybe the Depth of Field difference is the only thing lacking? But isn't that the sensor's fault?

The 5D and 5DM2 fail by having poor AF and slow shutters.

Everything 4/3 fails for miserable viewfinders, slow lenses, dearth of primes.

And the M8 fails in embarrassingly many ways.

I think if you're prepared to give up a bit, you can still get by on the cheap and you don't need to go down market to p&s digicams. I recently picked up an Oy E-500 with two kit lenses for $400 Cdn, mint. That's (equiv) coverage from 28 mm to 300 mm, for next to no money, really. No, it's not as nice to use as a 2nd hand Pentax MX was, but young art students running around dark alleys today have never heard of the MX, so they don't know what they're missing anyway. It makes you think a bit, to avoid blowing highlights, but that's not a bad thing. It's small and light too.

I agree that toggling between B&W and colour doesn't work, or not for me anyway. In fact, since going digital, I have not really shot B&W. This is nothing other than mental failure on my part, I believe. When I do think about shooting B&W, I imagine myself doing so with my film camera. Weird, eh?

The problem with P&S is, and I went through this, it is hard to learn about photography because so little is under your control:

P&S have nearly infinite DoF
P&S make it hard or impossible to choose a focus point
P&S make learning about aperture nearly impossible
P&S make learning about ISO nearly impossible
P&S can't focus or shoot fast enough (one shot multiple) to learn how to capture moments like you would with film or a DSLR.
P&S can't be used to learn flash photography (and as we all know light is everything)
P&S typically only shoot jpeg, rendering post nearly moot.

About all you can learn is framing and keeping distractions out of the background.

First things first:

Then, the rest.
And with this what I mean [with all the pun intended] is why do we have to stay with the "camera feel of yore days". I just don´t undertand it.

Cameras, as we see them now, were designed to house a film which had to be unwinned and winned. Therefore, they had to have housings for the unexposed part of them and for the exposed part of them.

All the rest was secondary, as a system [secondary meaning that lenses can be reduced to a pinhole, and we could even go ahead without viewfinder]. That is the very reason why, if you see a camera from the top, it has a T shape [all but medium format cameras, but that is for another reason].

There is no other reason nowadays to have that very design, nor functional nor aesthetical, in any way. And it does not have to be grip or gripping surfaces: multiple exposure film based cameras had to feel as awkward to spyglass users as a violin to a flute player.

I don´t want yet another camera. I want a camera which has every reason to be the way it is, and no current digital camera but the very smallest digicams have that right earned. A camera does not have to be a T shaped form any longer. It could perfectly be a tube. A sphere. A tangled mop.

This "as ever" desgin [which is not] is not only not worth it. It is not environmentally friendly [it throws away inmense ammount of materials for its envelope is not volume saving friendly as a canyon, tube or ball shape], it´s not ergonomically sound, it is almost uselees for storage efficiency. Spyglasses are a better form factor to be handheld [and you yourself have a way to check this, as the way you hold one of those cameras with a long lens, where the secondary hand will undoubtely go to the barrel of the lens to stedy your pulse and lack of stability].

So far, as I know, we do buy and think a camera is right for the habit created by film cameras. Not for what they should be. Digital tecnology has freed us from so many chains we do not realize how far all this SHOULD go. The way a SLR, TLR or a rangefinder has to be gripped is the worst way to handheld a device that should be stable.

All of this has nothing to do with fashion. It has to do with coherence,cohesion AND the hability to start fresh. So the M leicas should die as they have no reason to live on as a FORM.

No Pentax, Oly, Zeiss, Canon, Panasonic, Nikon, Sigma and so on should have the right to live on. They are not digital cameras. They are what we think a digital camera should look and feel alike.

[Please, edit this out. Yes, apart from architect, I am an industrial designer].

I got to thinking: $8000 for 24mp? You could get a brand new Mamiya 7 for $2500 and a cheap Epson V700 for $500. That will give you quality scans in the 30mp range, and you can take select negatives to a shop and have it scanned at four times the resolution if you even need even more detail. You can't do that with the Nikon. The remaining $5000 will keep you in film and high-res scans for years and years.

Not for people like David Dyer-Bennet above, of course, that actually use the burst capacity of their cameras. But for those of us who don't, it's not at all a clear-cut choice.

And that brings up another issue: where's the digital equivalent of the Mamiya 7 or Fuji g645 series; the Rolleiflex; or Bessa folders or any of the other camera forms? Our tools determine how we work, and right now there is a dearth of variety in the digital realm. If you don't want an AF only pocket cam or a 35mm SLR lookalike, you're out of options.Fine for the majority who do find the eye-level medium-wide SLR to be the best tool for them; not so great for those who've found some other kind of tool to work better for them.

"Note to impecunious but ambitious youngsters who can't afford the digital camera of their dreams: get yourself an F100 off Ebay, a 28/2.8 or 35/2 prime, and a brick or two of Tri-X to get started, and spend a thousand or 2,000 hours shooting with it. You'll be well on your way to mastery and a personal style."

So did your young son go this route??

Oh, sorry he's a musicologist.

However, what do you get a young gentleman
for Christmas these days, that doesn't break the bank. A haircut?

I feel the same about the D700. It really is a digital F100 (minus the DR).

Size certainly is one factor, although I would hesitate to call the D700 compact. It does dwarf my Nikon F and Leica M cameras. But it is relatively compact compared to something like a D3 or 1D series body.

Perhaps it's the ergonomics. I never did get along with that dial on the back of EOS cameras...

What made the biggest difference for me is the ability to use manual focus lenses. Simply being 100% in control of aperture and focus in the traditional manner makes a worlds difference to me. I remember the first few days with the D700. I mounted a Nikkor-H.C 2/50mm (Ai'd) on the D700 and took a walk. The first thing I noticed was that the camera became 'transparent' to me. It worked pretty much the same way my analog cameras did, except of course it uses a sensor instead of film and shoots clean images at 6400asa. Simply being able to scale focus properly, due to the MF lenses having real distance markings, is a minor miracle.

The D700 never feels like I am operating a gadget or computer, but a camera. I never got that feeling from my 5D. I always felt like I was 'operating' the camera instead of making pictures. Like I was fighting the automation to make it do what I wanted to and not what the Canon engineers thought it should do. I had the same problem with my EOS 1-V, but never with an F100. I never felt fully in charge with the EOS cameras and the D700 is the exact opposite.

The only other digital camera I have had a similar experience with is the Leica M8. The M8.2 fixes many of the quirks (frameline accuracy) of the original model, but it's priced beyond all reason, so it's not in the running for me.

i had a much beloved OM-2 which i sold, with some other stuff, to buy my first digital camera off ebay. what i would love to see is a DSLR like the OM-2, or OM-4, or any good film SLR - who needs automatic white balance bracketing or multiple focus modes? i want simplicity, and camera that just takes pictures. all the bells and whistles are just that, and they get in the way of just making good images.

Dear Mike (and Janne),

I have to say you're wrong when you say that digital doesn't have the exposure range of negative film. It has very different curve characteristics, but DDB and I both have not-exceptional cameras that capture at least 11 stops. A really good color negative film will do that (and even a bit better) ; black-and-white negative film has problems unless you do compensating development. In either case, good luck printing those 11 stops on film without jumping through a large number of difficult hoops. And our cameras are by no means the best out there.

It's also true a lot of digital cameras don't have a particularly good dynamic range. But I really think it's time to put to rest the claim that digital flat-out doesn't have the exposure range of film.

What is different is that digital combines the highlight problems of slides with the exposure range of negatives, and that really messes with photographers' heads. Negative films collapse in the shadows; insufficient exposure and there's nothing there. But missing information in the shadows isn't terribly evident to the observer. Slide films collapse in the highlights; overexposure blows them out. Digital fails even less gracefully that way. And that is something we DO notice. So, even more than with slide films, being careful not to overexpose is critical to quality digital photography. But if you learn how to accurately meter to avoid that, you can capture an exposure range in digital that you would have given your eye teeth for to get in the darkroom.

In other words, it ain't your tools, it's your technique. As true today as it was in the film era.

Janne, the observed sharpness of prints made from digital rather than film says that 6-12 megapixels does indeed match up or better 35mm, in practice. It's not about insufficient quality scans, it's about the whole imaging chain from lens to print. Inherent film resolution is irrelevant; you will hardly ever make a 35mm photograph that actually reaches the film resolution limit.

It's true that with meticulous technique you can do amazing things on film. But Mike demonstrated many years ago that with meticulous technique, 35mm photographs could be mistaken for 4 x 5 photographs in overall quality. That doesn't mean anyone could do that routinely or that it obviated the advantages of large format. Hero experiments are not typical of everyday reality.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I was never much of a film person. I've had a bunch of cameras over the last few years, and the only one I became really good friends with was the Canon EOS-20D. With a fast prime lens, aperture priority mode, and readiness to change ISO, I've found myself to be pretty much ready for anything, and the camera doesn't get in my way. Now, if only that viewfinder were a bit brighter ...

To Timothy G and other naysayers:
The link below will take you back in time, to the dawn of the 21st century when digital photography was brand-new to most of us. Michael Reichmann of the Luminous Landscape concluded that prints up to 10"x13" from his Canon DSLR lapped comparable ones taken with Provia 100F slide film:

The camera? The Canon D30 (not the newer 30D), 3.2 megapixels. The conclusion: "While I expected that the D30 would account itself well I never anticipated that it would actually produce an image that in most ways is superior to film. I'm drawn to the unavoidable conclusion that the Canon D30, when shooting in RAW mode, is able to produce comparable images to Provia 100F scanned on a high-end scanner."

Five years later Mr. Reichmann attempted to explain his earlier "digital is better than film" theory, concluding "Curious isn't it, that at this level film is binary and digital is analog?". If that doesn't make sense to you, you can study up on vortex shedding:

The firestorm that Mr. Reichmann started in 2000 (yes, fire-retardant attire was actually required for safety reasons in some online forums) persists to this day, with no apparent end in sight. I'm not taking a stand either way, but I am keeping my Nomex blanket within arm's reach.

My benchmark for the "perfect" camera was the Leica M6, which I owned and used for 7 years. The M8 was a classic example of a good body design in need of a good "film" - the sensor is cropped, poor at high ISO and requiring IR cut filters just to get good colors is just plain silly. In so many ways, the user experience of the M8 is so radically different from its film counterparts (taking into account its reliability!)

i'm still waiting for that "perfect" M9.....

On the SLR side, like I've mentioned in another post relating to one of your D700 article, I, too, find the D700 the digital equivalent of the F100, and one of the reasons why I switched from a Canon 5D to the Nikon camp - Canon is just NOT releasing a digital EOS 1v (without grip!), a film camera which I loved.

The image quality of the D700 is really not that far off from the 5D I've been using - and in reality, both are *only* 12 megapixels. BUT, the D700 is just so much nicer to operate, much better built and more rugged. I'm just waiting for Nikon to release more updated primes - AF versions of 28 f2 and 35 f1.4 will make me very happy!

i often used my cameras in manual mode, and like what an earlier poster said, using an AIS lens, or even simply using the aperture ring on the AF-D lenses, manual focusing, turning off LCD review, you can make the D700 FEEL like a all manual camera / Leica. Just remember to charge the batteries every night to complete the illusion :)

I've tried the A900 in the stores prior to buying the D700 - the finder is stupendous, really amazing, but the controls feel too "digital", for lack of a better word. I'm constantly reminded I'm operating a digital camera as compared to the D700.

This is a good time to be a photographer - I feel spoilt by all the choices we have today!

Dear Janne,

In, 2003 Michael Reichmann and I went out photographing together. We discovered we liked photographing similar subjects so we decided to do a comparison. He was using a 22 megapixel digital back on his Contax 645; I was using a Fujica GA645 loaded with Fuji Reala Professional 120. That's the best color negative film that's ever been produced in 120 format (sadly long out of production) and I had already tested the Fuji and determined it was one of the very sharpest medium format cameras I've ever seen. It's still my favorite "pocket" film camera. (I have big pockets)

He provided digital prints. I made chromogenic prints directly from the negatives and digital prints from scans I made on my professional-quality scanner (pixel pitch -- 4800 PPI; real measured resolution -- 4000+ PPI; dynamic range more than sufficient to capture the entire density range of the color negative). I compared both 8 x 10 and 11 x 14 prints.

The digital and film photographs didn't look at all the same. Big surprise. But they looked equally good! There was no obvious difference in sharpness or in grain/noise (wouldn't expect that with 120 Reala, of course). Color rendition was better in the digital; gradation was better in the film. Which you'd prefer would depend on what was most important to you. But the important thing is that the results were entirely comparable and there'd be no objective aesthetic reason for choosing one medium over the other.

Of course, my equipment cost 1/30 of what his did! And for me that was the most important factor. And even today, most digital cameras are too pricey for me. But when it comes to quality, 24 megapixels is going to match the compact medium format cameras you (and I) like, no problem! And something like the Sony isn't $8,000, it's $3,000.

I'm not saying you, personally, shouldn't continue to use film. I've still got all my Pentax 67 gear. I am saying that it's really hard to come up with a universal argument that one medium is better or more suitable for a photographer than the other. Honestly, it's a lot like the people who used to vehemently argue that negatives were flat-out better than slides or vice versa. That's not a winnable argument.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Curtis,

Michael was right that grain clumping is very important to the edge quality in films; there are lots of human factors experiments dating back to the 70s that indicate a clean and smooth edge give you a subjective advantage of about a factor of two over a clumpy, noisy edge, in terms of how people perceive sharpness and detail.

But he's dead wrong in this "film grain is binary" business, and so is everyone else who parrots that.

Film grains (or dye clouds) are not binary; they are discrete, but they are analog. Individual grains vary in size depending on the amount of exposure (and development) they see. If you want to think of it in digital terms, think of it as variable-dot-size stochastic printing.

There are films that are binary in nature; they are called litho films. In those films a grain either develops fully or it doesn't develop at all. That produces a very, very, very high contrast image. But in ordinary pictorial films? The size of the grains varies widely.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I once owned two Olympus M bodies and a solid collection of lenses. I split these up and gave them away to my nieces one Christmas, seduced by big Canon bodies and bazooka L lenses. Now, of course, my nieces use their handy digicams, blissfully unaware of how truly wretched is the quality of the images but pleased to be able to have a hundred or so nearly indistinguishable pictures of the baby to share around online. For myself, after years of shooting digital, I am again experimenting with film, and would that I had those lovely little cameras once again.


I shoot both film and digital, so I think that hardly makes me a "naysayer". Further, I have found that combining analog capture with digital scanning and printing produces beautiful results, at a fraction of the cost and without the current limitations of digital capture.

If 40% of professional photographers still choose film for some of their projects,maybe they know something the others don't?

That said, digital is still in its infancy, and although it has made some great early strides, there is plenty of room for continued growth. Sure, we might be getting closer to 35mm, but what of the other formats?

It's only just now we are starting to see medium format digital sensors that truly cover the entire 645 frame, for a price.

Makes you wonder what we'll see in the next 10 years.

Mike, you went and mentioned the G1, so I'm obliged to offer my own two (or three) farthings. I also fit the mold of art-skulking, obsessive-enthusiast, amateur-for-life.

I've had many film cameras - Nikon F2, F3, FM2; Konica T3; Minolta Hi-matic; Canonets; Kowa 66; Mamiya Press and the Polaroid version; Konica Hexar; others. Thanks to friends I've handled or used Hasselblad; Leica; Rolleiflex; Horseman; EOS; Minox. I almost bought a F100 in 2002; opted instead for a Olympus C5050z, deciding I didn't want the trouble of packing dozens of rolls of film around on an upcoming three-month trip to SE Asia. That was my conversion to digital. I will never miss chemicals or running out of film although who can argue against the beauty of silver-halide, cibachrome, dye-transfer, etc.

It might have been the instant gratification, but I liked that little camera; plus it had a killer lens (f1.8!). Yes, the VF was crap but the flip-up LCD was great for candid travel shots. Its physical shape didn't really owe anything to 35mm cameras - it was more like a miniature medium-format. I sold it to a friend when I bought an Olympus E1: another camera that strayed noticably from 35mm film designs.

Say what you like about four-thirds and noise, yada-yada, the E1 is a picture-taking machine and about as well-built a camera as has ever been made. I wish my old Nikons had felt as nice to the hand. Regrettably, 5mp just ain't gonna cut it in 2008, so I've been casting around for the latest and greatest. Albeit on a limited budget.

The plan is for two systems: a small one for travel and something larger, say fullframe, for landscape, etc. I'm hoping an A900 w. 24-70 Zeiss can be gotten for under 4 G's in a year's time. For now, for working in the bush, for some foreign travel next spring, I just purchased the Lumix G1.

Here's my point: after one day I'm not that impressed. Not talking about IQ, that should be fine; but as a camera separate from its sensor (today's topic), I'm disappointed. It's shaped more or less traditionally but it fails to take advantage of its possibilities. Why the VF hump, why EVF at all? Why not a good quality RF glass window in the upper corner? Keep the LCD, but why not just a simple flip-up a la Sony A350 for a more compact experience? If you're handling the lens with your left hand, you risk blocking the the focus beam. The shutter is rather noisy.

As I said, it's been one day. I walked around the neighborhood shooting with vague irritation. It's not love at first click. In time, no doubt, I'll learn the camera better, perhaps come to enjoy it.

The G1 seems to be the best compact on the market right now, (I chose it over the Canon G10 and the Sigma DP1) but the DMD camera (ht to MJ) that's a joy to use and a pleasure to handle eludes us still.

I can understand your feelings about the design of the D700. It is, essentially, a D200 on steroids, and I found the D200 to be a digital camera that goes quite a ways towards getting out of the way.
Of course, a DSLR, with menus, etc. can never really "get out of the way" like a film slr camera.
When i held/looked over a D700, I could immediately see it was like my D200, but with more advanced inards.
As time has passed, the D200 has come to be generally considered that point where (apart from the sensor) the DLSR body appoximated the classic Nikon film bodies.

BTW: You buying that D700 :) ?

I've owned three cameras in my whole life, all three in the last five years; K-M A200, Panasonic LX2, and a Pentax K20D. Never shot film; have no least beginning of an idea how to shoot film.

Also no very good grasp of what constitutes art in photographic terms; it's quite possible that I've used up all the art neurons on language subjects.

So, especially in the case of the K20D, the camera is way smarter than me; I have been learning by figuring out what I can change, and how that affects the picture.

It may be the case that I will eventually wind up with a picture-outcome computer in my head, and get fashed arguing with the one in the camera. But right now, I haven't got one, and I expect that there will be quite a number of actually capable photographers -- in which company I should be loathe to include myself -- coming along who haven't got one that works for film, or maybe not at all in the sense that the folks who started with film have got a mental picture-outcome computer.

Well, if somebody made a digital camera that was, essentially identical to an OM-1 with a digital sensor instead of film, I'd be in love.

Doesn't even need an LCD on the back, just a viewfinder, an exposure meter needle with a simple + and -, and the aperture and shutter speed right where they are.

With ISO speed up the top, and most photographers using RAW these days, how many other settings on your typical Digital SLR these days do you _really_ need to screw with? And I'm not talking 'full auto' fandangled bastardry, beyond the first exposure, just about everything is changeable in raw processing, lossless.

I love my E410 for being so small, but it's no OM-1.

This is why I am looking forward to Olympus' first micro 4/3 camera so much. While EVF/Live View makes me suspicious, I think the conveniance of a camera that just comes to hand like the OM-1 does (based on the mockups Olympus have shown us), and stays out of the way when not in use, will more than make up for electronic viewfinders.

Ctein, thanks for the comments.

First, of course my comment about the Mamyia as an alternative to the Nikon was partly in jest; they're different media and not interchangeable of course. But I did have one semi-serious purpose with it, and that was to highlight just how out of whack the price for that Nikon really is and that there's compact (well, relatively) cameras out there capable of images in the same quality range as that Nikon for quite a lot less money.

As for film resolution and dynamic range: what you're saying about considering the whole chain is true of course. But that goes for digital no less than film: if your goal is printing you need the same heroic measures to make use of the full range of a good sensor as you'd need for film. In my case I don't print, so to a good first approximation what I get out of the scanner or my memory card is the appropriate point of comparison for me; after that images from either source is processed the same.

And just as many other factors determine the actual resolution you get out of a piece of film, so is it for digital: You may have an 20mp sensor, but if you have a bit of motion blur (no tripod - no sturdy tripod); or shoot away from your lens' sweet spot, or with less than a very sharp lens; or your subject is moving or any of a number of factors, then what you end up with is not 20mp worth of information anymore.

And that's more or less my point: the usable resolution you end up with either film or digital is about the same for the same format.

With that said, I don't shoot MF film because of resolution or dynamic range - though it is really nice to stop worrying about exposure and blown out highlights. I use it in part because it scans easily (the end result for me is digital as I mentioned above); I use it because I get a very nice "monochrome film" look automatically, without extensive postprocessing; and I use it in part because I like looking at a large negative; but I mostly use it because I plain enjoy using the kind of cameras that happen to take 120-format film.

Film and digital. Oil and watercolors. Novel and short story. Guitar and ukulele. Just use whichever strikes your fancy at the time.

Happening to be a former musicologist AND a F100 shooter for the last several years I think that the next best thing for the young girl looking to start shooting is the Nikon D90. The body is almost affordable, it shoots quickly, and it feels almost the same as my F100. I wish they would have put the better autofocus on it, and it doesn't even really focus at all in live view. But, in general it is the first digital camera that I have been able to convince myself to purchase and it has been great so far.


Dear Janne,

We are in complete accord on these matters. In fact, I have made the watercolor/oil analogy many times to photographers who keep insisting that their way is the only right and true way.

I would mention in passing that it is a heck of a lot easier extracting the full exposure range digitally (whether starting from film or digital) than it ever was in the darkroom. Going from film, the scanner kind of does that for me automatically. What I do with it in Photoshop is my problem. Similarly, with my digital files, my ACR defaults are set up to extract the full tonal range of the files automatically. Again, what I do with it is my problem.

And, indeed, it is an artistic problem: fully capturing and using a long exposure range is avoiding flat, dull prints. Whether for display on screen or on paper, you still end up limited by the usable density range of your media of choice, and trying to compress too long a real-world tonal scale into that medium without it just looking like you printed on too-low contrast paper is a real challenge!

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Hey, we phtographers are soooo desperate gearheads!
Remembering the days I shot slides and B&W negs, I'm soooo glad to have the colors of the formers (and much more in my prints, thanks to the processing abilities I got now on a computer) and the DR of the latter (not to be achieved the same way, but I'm glad Ctein agrees with me on that DR point).

With my already goodol'300D (DRebel), I really don't miss anything my goodol'EF-M had, except may be the slide projector. Bursts of 38 exposures? That wasn't quite affordable for the student I was.

Which bring me to the point : Mike, what exactly did you miss camera-wise in prior avatars of the D700/A900, that you get in these?

Thanks for the comments on newbies putting in hours with a film camera to learn a style and build mastery. I always read your blog to see what's new and to read about cameras and photography. I wish I could take pictures like Sam Abell, but I won't get there just reading about it! What I really need is to get over my fear of carrying an old film camera around and taking bad pictures. Instead, I keep reading about Nikon f100's and Olympus OM-4T's and even though they look like great tools, they won't take good pictures for me. In fact, after reading this post, rather than grabbing my Canon ftbn and putting in some time practicing, I went looking to see what the price of an f100 is on ebay and what cool lenses Cosina makes in Nikon mount. (The Topcon 58mm f1.4 ... cool! As if I even know what photos from the original Topcon look like). Damn you lack of self-confidence!

I don't know if there are other newbies like me who read your blog all the time, but please keep up the reminders on learning to get better (photography pointers like that are good life pointers too). My photography and life can always use a good kick in the backside. I love your writing. Thanks!

oh, boy, don't get me started, I LOVED my ftbn - what a great thread, thanks Mike for kicking this one off

My first photo mentor instructed me that while my new spotmatic II (1969) was a great camera, if I REALLY wanted to learn photography, I needed a 4X5. the reason was not the format but the expense. He said that at $10/shot you think a lot more before you press the shutter.
While I agree, I have to admit that my work improved exponentially when I went to digital and could upload my shots daily to evaluate them. The cost of D76 and dektol with related consumables forced me to hold off until I had a batch to run.
The learning benefit of digital is its immediacy. No question that understanding light and the concept is served well in the wet darkroom.


I will chime in and say that MY work improved when digital came in--the ability to get immediate feedback is invaluable. Nonetheless, I feel lucky that I lived the first part of my life in the film era, and learned the old methods first. I'm sure it's in no way "mandatory" to do so, but I sure enjoyed it.

Mike J.

Interesting information.

I will hopefully start studying photography next January and after months of reading and indecision, I bought an F100 from Adorama a couple of days ago.

Now I am more than impatient waiting for its arrival :)

"All in all I think film is still very valuable as a learning tool, for people who really want to accomplish something significant as a photographer down the line."

I wonder if this is because it's the way you learned, and you have a hard time seeing where else the info you're talking about could be gleaned from. One example - maybe converting all files to B&W, then examining why they work or don't work is just as valuable to some people as shooting B&W film. Maybe shooting B&W film would frustrate some people to the point where they wouldn't want to be photographers at all. Different learning types for different people makes it hard to say that every young photographer needs to shoot film. (By the way, I've never shot film. Well, OK, I did have a Kodak 110 P&S when I was 12.)

"Everything 4/3 fails for ... slow lenses, dearth of primes."

Well the speed of the 4/3 zooms is actually on the fast side. But they certainly don't have many fast primes. Especially not affordable ones.

Silly ol' me, after 35 years of film cameras, I jumped on the Panasonic L1 almost 2 years ago. Since then I put a Katz Eye split image focusing screen and a Nikon Adapter on it. Now I slap on a Nikkor (48mm) 24mm/f2 AIS manual lens and I just shoot away. Oh for my stealth shots, I always have my Nikkor 50mm/f1.4 non AI(S)lens for my 100mm tele. I almost forgot my Leica 14-50 2.8/3.5 zoom. kinda forgot film.

Since when is "transition" a verb? ("The thing I liked about the D200 (and the same thing I like about the D700) is that it was very easy to transition from the F-stlye film cameras like the F5." Mark Meyer). What is happening to the language over there? Use the proper word — think before you commit your opinions to paper.

You still using Webster's second like I am? [g]

"To transition" is perfectly widespread as an instransitive verb. I'm having trouble finding any complete dictionary online that *doesn't* define it in its verb form.

Anyone have access to the OED? I'd be curious if it does or doesn't define the verb form.

Mike J.

Harry: "What made the biggest difference for me is the ability to use manual focus lenses."

That is confusing me. I used manual focus lenses extensively on my Fuji S2, and somewhat less extensively on my Nikon D200. On the D200 they metered, on the S2 they did not. There's nothing new about using manual focus lenses on a DSLR!

(I didn't have even the auxiliary meter for my M3, back when, so in some ways the S2 was more like my Leica experience than the D200 or D700 are :-))

Comparing to the D200 -- I find the D700 *more* complicated, *more* a gadget. I don't mind that, and some of it will probably go away (I've had the D700 for a month, the D200 for a few years).

I really need to set up the D200 and D700 with lenses giving the same field of view and compare the viewfinders. Haven't done that yet, and I'm intending to sell the D200 so I need to do it soon. I don't notice a big difference in the viewfinders. However, I seem to be able to focus manually much better on the D700, so maybe my eyes are taking advantage of benefits I don't consciously notice.

Here's why I like the D700 better than the D200: I've never used a D200.

So I can't compare. When I say the D700/A900 are the best digital cameras I've used yet, that really means what it says...it should not be mistaken to mean the D700/A900 are the best digital cameras yet compared to every other camera made previously. I see and use a pretty fair number of cameras, but not all of them by any means.

Carry on,

Mike J.

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