Let’s cut to the chase. There is no better way to spend $250 on ebay on a camera, unless old engravings of Seraphim, pictures of honeycombs, or lotus seed heads frighten you. This is a camera that took a thrashing in early reviews, maybe because reviewers didn’t get past the short learning curve (or never made it to firmware 1306, where the image processing hit its peak.
The Light L16 computational camera was another one of those late 2010s products that ended up being a flash in the pan, in no small part because the insect-like attention span of internet reviewers was insufficient to understand what a genius piece of engineering this is.
Imagine 16 x 15mm diagonal sensors in two focal lengths, a laser, and a high-intensity LED illuminator. Now imagine that this camera does a steroidal version of the iPhone’s Portrait mode, selecting focal lengths to use, building depth maps, and cranking out photos that are 80 megapixels (at 28mm and 69mm fl equivalents), 52mp at peak performance, and minimum 14mp. The camera can crank out a 14mp JPEG from this (using 5 cameras’ data), or you can run it through the Lumen software to get staggeringly large DNG files (n.b., not Bayer DNG files, but it’s not like you would ever need to up-res files this large using Adobe).
The basic hardware is an ARM64 Android 6 device with a bunch of highly specialized imaging equipment added. The dozen-plus cameras are randomly distributed over the face of the unit and tied together with unit-specific calibration information. To dispel one persistent myth, these cameras cannot addressed by generic Android imaging apps like OpenCamera. At least they cannot if you want to focus at distances other than 20cm.
The Light includes a hefty Li-Ion internal battery and 256Gb of internal storage (recall that this listed at $2k in 2017). The camera’s hardware includes GPS, so it is capable of geotagging your photos (yeah!). The GPS function, though, is very hard on the battery, especially with the final release of the firmware. I managed to side-load a couple of navigation apps (Sygic and Here WeGo), and they function as expected (thought GPS ping interval might be too slow for driving).
Ergonomically, the Light is far better than a cell phone – because it has a dedicated shutter button and a place to grip the camera on the right side (left side, you need to be careful with your fingers – but the camera will vibrate if you block one of the lenses). As to the controls, if you can operate a camera on a mobile phone, you can handle it. Focusing can either be by face recognition or arbitrarily touching a subject on the screen.
From a semiotics standpoint, the camera just looks like a big cell phone. It does not actually attract very much attention. In what you trade off in image quality from a full-frame A7rii, you make up for it in not standing out too much.
The flat form factor makes this pocketable (in the back pocket of Levis or a coat pocket). You will want to keep the camera in its soft case (or use at least a rear screen protector) because it’s all glass son both sides.
Battery life is good; it is supposed to go all day; the four units I tested NIB after 5 years of storage all charge and discharge as expected. It really behooves you to actually power down the camera when not in use – otherwise, depending on what features you have enabled (GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth), it may wear itself down gradually.
Note that unlike the Lytro Illum (review almost done on that too!), you might want to actually focus this camera because everything is shot at f/2). Pictures come out with a simulated aperture of f/15.2 – meaning almost everything is as sharp as a tack, but when you dial back the effective aperture, you will see exactly where the camera focused. An Illum, by comparison, lets you refocus arbitrarily with arbitrary aperture settings, but in doing so, it throws away almost 90% of the data it captures.
Image quality is why you came here, right? Rather than retreading subjects seen in other treatments, here are the points I think that others have missed on this camera:
First, this is generating between 52 and 80mp at maximum resolution (28-35mm, 69-75mm), the rest being digital zoom, with attendant resolution loss (150mm is 12mp). This is real mp, not your cellphone binning 3/4 of the data from a 48mp sensor. The purpose of having 52mp is to brutalize images with perspective correction without leaving many clues. Interestingly, there is little variation in quality between center and edge, but then again, since these images are composites of 10 or more smaller images, it makes sense. And it is good pixels. Click on the picture below (no, no distortion correction…) and blow it up to 100% (it is full-resolution). Every brick is sharp, even in the extreme corners.
Second, the color is phenomenal, like the old Kodak 14ns and Leica digital M cameras. Slightly disappointing is that no version of the firmware has the “Baz Luhrmann Elvis Movie” color rendering.
Third, as you can see in the 28mm shot below, apart from the slight camera tilt on my part, there is little if any distortion. This should be expected, since there is a lot of stitching and blending and correcting going on. That compositing is 99.9% invisible – and the 0.1% is when the camera is operating at 80mp – and manifests as things like a mismatched one-pixel-wide line in a limestone block wall (Light probably decided that 35 and 70 are where you are 100% free of any artifacts). That said, anyone’s chances of seeing a 1-pixel-wide artifact on an 80mp image, especially at web size are…. zero.
Fourth, the L16 runs at much, much higher ISOs than a cell phone, more like a camera with a 1″ or APS-C sensor. Above is ISO 2400. If you have ever seen EXIF data from an iPhone, you see low ISOs and very long shutter speeds (tied to the miniscule focal length of lenses). This is due to the physics of sensors – your cell phone has tiny pixels that can’t capture many photons – hence the shutter needs to be open a lot longer.
Fifth, forget everything you think you know about apertures. The L16 returns a simulated aperture of f/15.2, which is really different groups of cameras focused at different distances, computed and focus-stacked into massive depth of field. The reality is that all the cameras are shooting at f/2 (they are all 28mm or 70mm FOV). You don’t get diffraction from this “very small” aperture because it is not really very small, but you do get tons of depth of field even in low light. The tradeoff is that depending on the subject-background separation, you may not be able to reduce depth of field completely in post (it depends on a lot of things: subject/object distance, difference to the next furthest thing in the frame, complexity of the focused subject). I would guess that in most situations where you would use an L16, you would take the deep depth of field and run with it.
Finally, in its highest-performance use case, it’s still partially beholden to sensor size. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it just means that Light pictures just come off a little grittier than a Leica full-frame at higher ISOs. This is not so much the case at other focal lengths (like, say, 150mm), where there is more averaging.
It is crucial that you have a platform to run the Lumen image conversion software. This does not run on either of the most recent MacOSes (11 or 12); however, it runs fine on Windows 10 and 11. I use it in Windows 11 on a Parallels VM on a Mac Studio Ultra and export the DNGs to a folder that gets picked up by Lightroom.
One thing to bear in mind is that the Lumen software is not great at simultaneous exports of files from several L16s. It can import them fine, but the way exports work, if files from two cameras have the same native filename (L100006, for example), the second one to export overwrites the first one. So think in batches. Or export from one camera at a time,.
The software is not particularly fast when run on a VM (it takes a couple of seconds to export each file); if you are a particularly heavy user, consider a dedicated machine. You know, like the one you already have to run your Flextight, Pakon scanner, etc.
Firmware (guide for the soft-minded)
The firmware on Light cameras is difficult to upgrade these days because the update server is offline. So you are likely going to be stuck with the camera features you have on day one.
Unless you are prone to serious self-doubt and OCD freakouts, 18.104.22.168 is the latest firmware that actually impacts the on-image performance of the camera. Since I have used cameras from 22.214.171.124 to 126.96.36.199, here is the marginal value of each additional feature:
- Priority modes: We added Shutter priority and ISO priority modes to give you easier access and more control when shooting on the go. –> You won’t use this.
- AWB presets: Choose from five different white-balance presets when composing your scene. All options—from Incandescent to Fluorescent to Daylight to Cloudy (and Auto)—are viewable in real time on the L16’s touchscreen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
- On-camera editing: Now you can adjust color, contrast, tint and more as soon as you snap your photo. Bonus: These basic edits will even carry over to Lumen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
- Histogram: Curious whether you’ve captured the right exposure? With the L16’s new histogram feature, you’ll know as soon as you open the photo in gallery. –> You won’t use this.
- Metadata: Find your photo’s EXIF data much easier in gallery mode. –> You won’t use this.
- On-camera rating: Pick your favorites on the go. The camera’s 5-star rating system will now carry over to Lumen. –> I would highly recommend editing only on a computer.
- Pocket assist: The L16 can now detect once you’ve stored it away in your jacket. It will automatically turn on standby mode to save your battery. –> Causes camera to freak out.
- Image-quality indicators: We added a couple new icons in gallery mode to show you when you’re viewing a preview versus a higher quality, processed image. –> Not actually useful.
- Low-light assist: When you’re shooting at a higher ISO in auto mode, your L16 will now utilize image stacking to capture significantly more detail and much less noise. –> Doesn’t seem to do anything.
- Tripod assist: The L16 now has a sixth sense. When the camera detects stability and stillness in auto mode, it will lengthen the exposure time and lower ISO to improve image quality. –> Not helpful; can lead to slow shutter speeds on handheld shots.
- Basic editing tools: We added the ability to crop and rotate your images on camera. All of your edits will save automatically and transfer to Lumen when you import. –> Helpful if you get bored; otherwise a gimmick.
- Tutorials: We updated the L16’s onboarding tutorial to help you get up to speed faster. –> This camera isn’t that hard to use; these popups are annoying.
- Key focal length: We made it easier to zoom to 75mm, which provides the best edge-to-edge resolution. –> It might be a touch easier, but this was actually enabled in 188.8.131.52.
- Usability: A few of our basic camera modes got a facelift. It should be easier to see which mode you’re shooting in. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.
- Home screen: We made a few tweaks to the L16’s home screen experience, making it easier to access settings, software updates, and the feedback app. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.
- On-device depth editing: We added the ability to adjust depth effect on your L16. You can now change the effective aperture from f/15 to f/2 and add that beautiful background blur. You can also change the focal point using your L16’s touch screen. –> A little gimmicky.
- Video recording (beta): Your L16 can now record single-camera video at 1080p and 30fps. The video is based on using either the 28mm camera or the 70mm camera, allowing you to zoom all of the way from 28mm to 150mm. –> Your iPhone is better for video.
- Editing presets: Customize and create presets to easily edit your images in your style – all on your L16. Presets include color and geometric edits. Any changes will carry over to Lumen and be applied to the full (up to 52MP) resolution. –> Much less punishing to edit on Lumen
- Power save mode: Maximize your L16 battery life with new Power save mode in the Android menu. The advanced settings even let you customize which functionality is turned off –> Almost makes up for the fact that this firmware is more punishing on battery life.
- Capture experience: We updated the capture screen to include resolution (approximate megapixels) and handshake warning for low-light. –> Somewhat helpful for people who can’t remember that 35 and 75 are the best, 28 is good too, and 150 is the worst. Also, what can you do with a handshake warning?
- Lumen deletion: Now you can delete images in the L16 gallery directly from Lumen while your camera is plugged in. –> Helpful if you shoot 1,200 images between trips to the host software.
- Android third-party apps: We added options to allow you to install your favorite Android third-party apps. Please note that the L16 does not have access to the Google Play store. In order to download these apps, you must do so by downloading them from a third-party Android app store. –> Ok. There is probably a use case for this (see my note on nav software), but it’s not obvious. You can download installers from apkmirror.com and install them. You need software that runs on Android 5.0 plus; not everything will install on this machine, and no camera apps work.
The L16 is misunderstood, under-appreciated, but also a little bit tricky. It is a good substitute for a mobile phone camera, and if you can trade some grain for a lot of flawless, a good substitute for a Sony A7rii if you use fairly normal-length lenses. The software is not the easiest, but the reality is that once files are in DNG, you’ll be doing everything in Lightroom anyway.
It is terrible to find yourself beset by Heliopan and B+W filters that keep coming loose but don’t have slotted retaining rings so you can get a grip. At best you have rattling glass. At worst, a ring screwed in from the back can let the glass hit the front surface of some lenses or jam your Hexar AF’s focusing system.
Here is a quick trick: take a popped (and clean) “punch ball” balloon (the type children have with the rubber band attached to the top), lay it it over the retaining ring you want to turn, and push your fingers to the edges (so you are pressing laterally on the retaining ring through the balloon.
Now rotate the retaining ring (with your fingers) clockwise (locking ring facing up) – or turn the filter mount counter-clockwise (the lens glass and retaining ring should always rotate in the same direction). After you get a feel for it, the ring will screw in and secure the glass.
For extra never-come-unscrewed-again-ness, add a tiny drop or two of Loctite® Purple to the threads of the retaining ring (you have to take it all the way out before you do this). Make sure that you get all the thread locker off the glass before it dries and be sure that ring is screwed down tightly.
By the way, this trick can also work with retaining rings that are slotted, as well as lens beauty rings. Be aware, however, that for high-value optics, you want to be very, very careful in touching the glass with rubber that could be contaminated with grit.
er·go·nom·ics | \ ˌər-gə-ˈnä-miks: an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely (Merriam-Webster, 2021).
In the industrial setting, ergonomics is a matter of avoiding unnecessary fatigue, injuries, and discomfort. It is intended to promote both safety and efficiency. Ergonomics was first invented in 1949, after Barnack before the Leica M camera. There does not seem to be any suggestion that any camera made before about 1970 cared much about this science. Certainly, the Leica M camera – and most other small cameras – ignored this important principle of design.
Did you know that having an opposable thumb is not necessary to grip a camera the way Leica intended? It should not be a surprise that primates and even lower animals like raccoons have the right types of hands to grab cameras. Because small cameras are not actually designed for human hands. Let’s discuss small (6×9 and smaller) camera ergonomics in six rubrics.
1. How do you hold this?
Even before ergonomics had a name, small camera design went off the rails when small cameras were invented in 1914. Oskar Barnack – who being born in 1879 undoubtedly had shorter fingers than 21st-century camera users – designed the Ur-Leica with slippery round ends encased in a textured surface. This leicapithicus wetlzarensis was designed around a focal-plane shutter that did not cap and an arrangement that required a separate viewfinder. It was light, compact (65mm top to bottom), and for its weight and intended function, workable. Because you had to put the lens cap on between shots, it was not a speed demon; you were going to take the camera down from your eye to reset for the next shot costing a king’s ransom on rare double-frames of 35mm movie film. You could almost call it the mini 4×5 of its day.
There is a trope about the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle ultimately tracking back to the width of a Roman horse’s haunches. Whether or not that is true is a much more difficult question than tracing our conception of how a “small” camera should appear. The Platonic form of a camera is, after all, a Leica M3, which for dimensional purposes is a taller and heavier Ur-Leica, matching dimensions to the single millimeters. The Leica inspired many also-rans from Europe and Japan, some of which turned out to be better, but all of them have the same formula: small squarish body, lever wind, viewfinder on the left. Most fixed-lens rangefinders were actually smaller than the Leica; once you substitute a leaf shutter in the lens for a focal-plane type, the body can be even tinier.
What’s wrong with this design? If the correct method of holding it it requires a paragraph-long written description, it is not a tool that is ergonomic. Leica’s own user manuals illustrate the poor hand-fit in pictures, but the written camera-holding instructions call into question whether it is the human who is being forced to conform to a tool.
Look at a Leica III or Leica M manual. Actually, look at a bunch of them. Needless to say, the right way to hold a Leica has evolved since the days of Barnack. The first suggested M grip, which tracked how the III was supposed to be grasped, completely disengaged your left hand from the focusing ring, meaning you would never be able to refocus and re-shoot quickly. The III series has you cupping the bottom corners of the camera in the fleshy parts of your palms. At least one version of the M3 manual says nothing about how to hold the camera; the more detailed one has the corner-to-palms technique again. If you look at other brands’ camera manuals from the 1940s to the 1980s, you will see a dizzying array of hand-cramping contortions.
The right hand position has stayed mostly the same. What you are supposed to do with your left has changed over time. Here is the end point of Leica’s evolution of descriptions with the M7 and M8/M9 (the M8 is shown; the M9 has the same description with the little Ikea Man holding the camera):
“As a practical accessory, we recommend the Mx hand grip which allows you to hold the Leica M[x] extremely steadily and to carry it with one hand/while keeping your hands free.” This begs the question – why can’t you hold an M extremely steadily without another $400 doodad? And how was it a hands-free device for the M[x]?
The record – at least as expressed in successive generations of Leica manuals – reflects a variety of “right” ways to hold a camera, then “suggested” ways (M6), then “correct” (M7/M8/M9) and with the M240 and onward, no guidance. The M240, in fact, moves the discussion of the optional M hand grip to the “accessories” section at the end. I guess given the number of Leica owners with postgraduate degrees, it’s part of the 400-level course you were supposed to take before you started at this school.
What you are even supposed to do with your right thumb seems to be a matter of interpretation, some manuals showing it, some not. The M6 manual references resting your thumb on the lever “in the standoff” position. The M240 and M10 have a nub on which to rest your thumb. The M10-D has an ersatz M2/M3 focusing lever/thumbrest whose position does not quite match an original lever kicked out. The new $300 Leica thumb-rest looks puts your thumb in the same position as the M10-D. As noted at the beginning of this article, the user of one of these cameras does not need an opposable thumb. This camera might require a totally different type of hand.
Hint: if you have long fingers, a good one-handed grip on an M240 is to put your index finger on the trigger, your middle finger on the function button, and your ring finger on the front of the camera. The camera can sit on your curled little finger (imagine a C parallel to the bottom of the camera). Your thumb rests vertically against the grip nub/control wheel. See? You can control everything, and your ring finger is still available to accidentally press the lens release.
They say if you injure your leg and then limp enough, you don’t notice it any more. This is probably the only reason that Leicas (or similarly-configured rangefinders) are thought to be “ergonomic” – it’s just the way it’s been for 100 years. Were “ever ready” cases really useful for protection – or were they makeshift “fat grips” around ill-shaped cameras?
As much as things like the Argus “Brick” are lambasted for their funny shapes and palm-poking corners, something that fills the hand is not all bad. Ask anyone who shoots Olympic pistol. But you can also ask Nikon and Canon, who figured out in the late 1980s that a fat right grip is advantageous, even if your winding motor is so small it fits inside the takeup spool. In fact, Leica uses that “fat grip” design on most of its non-M digital cameras.
3. The pocketability conceit*
“But wait, the Leica [or insert camera name here] is pocketable.”
Baloney. This might be true of a tiny minority of camera/lens combinations, or 1980s-style pleated trousers, but Leicas generally have not been “pocketable” since the advent of the long aspherical lenses if not since the M3. And grip-ability does not necessarily change the dimensions that would make something “pocketable.” Is a Hexar AF less pocketable with its front grip ridge than a Leica M3 with its flat front? Hardly. Even among other manufacturers of M-mount cameras, the ergonomics have been better, whether it is a palm swell on the back door, a grip ridge on the front of the right grip, or even something like a rubber covering. I suspect it is more Leica’s user base than the company that drives the need to keep things the same. Witness the fate of the CL and the M5.
Interestingly, what encouraged (and maybe forced) small cameras to become more ergonomic was the incorporation of batteries and motors into the right side of the camera, something that came in with cameras like the Konica FS-1, Canon T-50, and Nikon F4. Even in non-motorized SLR cameras, grip nubs began appearing on the right front of the camera (as on the Nikon FA). When you think about putting coreless motors and electronics largely on one side of the camera, and motor-driven shutters in the middle, the mechanisms in the bottom become considerably less complicated (open a manual-wind, mechanical SLR’s bottom plate to see the assemblage of shutter-cocking levers, pinions, and gears). And by a weird twist of fate, the lithium cells best-suited to powering cameras (like the 2CR5) had a chonk factor that made them better candidates for placement in a fat grip.
This brings us to a cruel irony: point-and-shoot cameras in the late 1970s and 1980s frequently had better ergonomics than what we would call “prosumer” cameras today. In fact, many of them have better ergonomics than the Leica, long-vaunted as the enthusiast’s camera. And I write that as a Leica user.
On the other end of the “small” camera spectrum are the ultracompact 35mm cameras (Rollei 35, Contax T*, Nikon 35ti, etc.). In a sense, you can cut them some slack because their major purpose is to be pocketable most of the time – at the expense of handling and durability. These were designed to fit in a sport coat at the racquets club or the horse track, to be shot for fifty or so exposures, forgotten by the owner, sold at his estate sale, rediscovered by some internet influencer, and then driven to stratospheric resale prices that hold up until someone discovers one of the following things: (1) despite often brilliant optics, they are miserable to use; (2) they are not as durable as once thought. Weight versus size is also a factor in ergonomics – and many of these cameras are lightweight and despite their shortcomings, not impossible to use.
*Ok, I only wrote this heading because the Pocketability Conceit either sounds like an old-series Star Trek episode name or a Robert Ludlum novel title.
4. O Camcorder, where art thou?
My maternal grandfather, being a doctor, retired at age 55 – assuming that like most men of his generation, he would be dead at 60. This did not come to pass (he was “retired” for 25 more years…), and after a couple of years of golf got bored and moved into TV production at his local station. Being an early adopter of almost every technology that existed, he would get the latest and greatest video equipment every year. This meant at every Christmas, he would open the trunk of his Lincoln Continental and among other gifts, pull out last year’s latest and greatest video equipment and leave it to the good offices of my parents.
One thing that was always striking about video cameras (and later camcorders) – especially by contrast to still cameras – was the amount of effort put into making them comfortable to use. This was important because the early cameras were really heavy. Pistol grips and shoulder rests for the “camera” were de rigueur when the “recorder” part was a huge heavy hard square silver purse, and even when recording decks merged with cameras in the mid-1980s, the emphasis was on one-hand control operation and anything that made it easier to hold a unit steady for a prolonged period. Zoom controls have always been able to be operated by the same hand that “presses the button.”
The “camcorder” design ethos bled over into consumer “bridge” cameras – the ones designed to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot and full-blown SLR. The Canon Photura, Ricoh Mirai, and Yashica Samurai – variously 35mm SLR and viewfinder AF cameras – acquired camcorder-like morphology, particularly pistol grips that were either parallel to the lens or adjustable. They did not experience some Chicxulub-level event; rather, they just didn’t catch on. In retrospect, it is not terribly surprising; they were expensive, didn’t look like “cameras,” and tended to be bulkier than their blocky cousins.
In an ironic twist, the replacement for camcorders was an atavism. But it was also a reversion to something else. When DSLRs, particularly Canons, became popular for video, they retained their DSLR shape – which was in turn based on a film camera shape dictated by a 35mm frame and the necessary film drive. This spawned an industry of workarounds – cages, grips, handles, and all kinds of other accessories that serve as indictments of functional design. Sony’s selection of a “quasi SLR” design for the A7 series is baffling; the a6x00 series is both more comfortable and (lacking a silly fake pentaprism bulge) true-to-function (as is the new A7C), especially when misused for video.
5. Left eye, right eye, leave me alone
About 25-30% of the human race is left-eye dominant, being made up of about 1/3 left-handers and 2/3 people who are right-handed but use their left eye for tasks involving critical focus or alignment. Eye dominance cannot be changed; this is a matter of hard-wiring from an early age. It is not a matter of visual acuity; it is a how efficiently one eye communicates with the brain.
For people who are left-eyed, cameras with left-side viewfinders automatically cause ergonomic problems with the use of top-mounted winding levers and cutesy “thumb grips.” On most such cameras, winding the camera requires you to move your eye from the viewfinder so you do not poke yourself in the right eye with a winding lever. This is disruptive. The Retina IIc and IIIc, as well as the Canon VI-T avoided this by moving the winding actuator to the bottom – and the Konica IIIA and IIIM avoided this by moving the winder to the front. Although the original Leicavit trigger winder was designed to speed up the knob-wind of the III series, the Leicavit M:
…allows experienced photographers to shoot up to two frames per second without taking the camera from their eye
The only reason you would need a bottom trigger winder to take two frames per second without taking the camera from your eye… is that you are left-eyed. This is likely the same reason that people tolerated Leica’s relatively sluggish motor winders.
Perhaps the most befuddling thing about left-viewfinder cameras is why users are in manuals are shown with both eyes open (left eye just hanging out there; right jammed against the viewfinder glass). For a right-eyed person, this means that your mind will be trying to reconcile a reduced viewfinder picture with an unaided non-dominant eye while supporting the camera against half your face. Consider also that the center point between your two eyes is now even further from the lens axis. If anything, the left eye should be closed.
If you look through the viewfinder with your left eye, conversely, you can jam the camera in a 3-point brace between your nose and eyebrows and block your other eye with the camera body. And it is here that people of Neanderthal ancestry have a secret weapon: brow ridges.
Blessed are those, I guess, who are left-eyed and have access to left-viewfinder cameras without winding levers. For they shall inherit the stable hand-hold.
SLRs are more egalitarian: with their center viewfinders, they exist to oppress everyone. And we shall know their users by the leatherette and film-minder-window patterns impressed into their noses.
6. TLR/MF/UC – WTF?
There is only one reasonably ergonomic twin-lens reflex: the Minolta Autocord, which allows you to hold the camera and focus without shifting your left-hand grip — and to fire and advance with your right hand. This is a massive improvement over the Rolleiflex’s insatiable need for constant hand-shifts (or having three hands if you use the pistol grip). Even in the Rollei’s end-state – the 2.8GX with its huge focusing knob – the operation is barely comfortable. The persistence of TLRs after the war is a strange thing. Germany always wanted to make medium-format SLRs, and a twin-lens was a way of approximating that before the mechanical engineering caught up. But the TLR, especially when used at waist-level, causes strange camera-to-subject angles for humans and is not the easiest thing to focus (at least Rolleis are not – an Autocord ground glass is slightly easier). Rollei stopped developing twin-lens cameras in the early 1960s, eliminated serial production of the F in 1976, and moved on to its own SLRs. Note that the user of the Rollei in the diagram below is not wearing a tie. This is an important safety tip. Neckties had a tendency to get ingested by the Automat’s film-detection roller, leading to asphyxiations. That is why seasoned Rollei shooters only wore ascots or bowties.
But more seriously, medium format has always struggled with how its cameras should be configured, starting with the Brownie that kicked off the 120 format. Some are boxes (like Hasselblads), some are oversized 35mm cameras (Fuji 6×9, Pentax 6×7). The earlier Pentax can be fitted with a bulky, heavy, and still somehow uncomfortable wooden grip. The 67ii finally got the message about having something of a right-side grip.
Other medium format cameras are standardized around Graflex-style film backs that were designed just after the war and make what would otherwise be slim cameras extra thicc. If a Horseman SW612 had a body with integrated film transport, it would probably be slightly wider but a lot thinner front-to-back. The Graflex-style roll back almost always requires an extended or set-back viewfinder so that you can actually put your eye to the eyepiece. Its principal virtue is that it is narrow, but it also sports a complex film path that brings you to this: if you have interchangeable backs, they are sufficiently slow to load that you probably need more than one.
There have been a few scattered ergonomic successes, like the Vivitar flash grip, the Linhof 220, and those camcorder-like SLRs and point-and-shoots from the 1980s. But those are exceptions to the apparent rules of camera-making: (1) all cameras must be boxes or cubes that don’t fit in the hand and failing that, larger versions of smaller un-ergonomic cameras; (2) all winding must require a hand off the camera or disrupted framing; (3) thou shalt never use the [left] side eye; and (4) if you don’t like what we’re offering, stuff it.
This site would have no pictures if I could get away with it. The predecessor site had few. Still photography is a visual art whose technical aspects generally can expressed with words or static pictures and diagrams. Unless you are illiterate or incapable of abstract thought, you do not need a video to show you how to turn a shutter speed dial, how to take a meter reading, or how to agitate film in a developing tank.
One beauty of the human mind is learning by theory, maintaining knowledge in the abstract, and then executing it in practice. You can see the words “invert three times every 30 seconds” and figure out what they mean in seconds, not minutes. When you think about the technical side, there is little (if anything) that calls for video. In fact, unless you have a video-graphic memory, you may have to take notes on what you see — which means you could have started with a written description in the first place.
By the way, the answer is 7 minutes at 20º C for almost any normal black-and-white film, in any normal developer.
The artistic or expressive element, likewise, can be expressed or exemplified with still photos. When you think about it, the power of images is such that when you pick up a coffee table book or look at a photo site, you might never read the words. There is a maxim in literature that poets should not interpret their own work. That probably goes double for photographers describing or even creatively titling their own images. We’ve all seen it, the photo of a pasty-skinned, depilated nude model (male, female, take your pick) in the middle of Death Valley, or among prickly pears, with a title like Natural Beauty. Bill Mortensen did a great job skewering this and every other trite figurative subject, back in the 1940s. In books.
Everyone seemed to get along fine with websites (and before that, magazines) that summed up photo products in one page. Here’s that super dorky Pentax, here is what its lens does, here is a non-damning conclusion from a site/magazine that needs Pentax advertising.
Something that never ceases to amaze (or horrify) is number of Youtube videos about still photography and its apparatus, particularly film photography. This might prove that there is something worse than the Hollywood-movie-about-making-Hollywood-movies. Maybe video-about-film-photography doesn’t have the same potential for creating a navel-gazing singularity. Not quite the same potential. But close.
Overestimating how cool you are
Many people who make Youtube videos about still photography and still photography equipment vastly overestimate how much people want to see them (and by “them,” I would include myself).
Or see their monster jellybean Golden Sherpa® table microphones. This was not a good look on Larry King, and was not a good look on anyone. Also, Larry King was not a good look on anyone. Not even on Larry King.
Or check out their stylish walking around, contemplating… stuff while wearing messenger bags. Sir, we all know that’s a camera bag and that it will crush the life out of even the most carefully basted sportcoat shoulders. A gentleman would never carry anything larger and cruder than a Contax T, which slips handily into the pocket of any pocket of any piece of clothing.
Or endure the name-checks. Many of these videos look like unpaid promotions for purveyors of peripheral photographic gear. On some videos, you can ascertain that every manufactured good in the scene has a name and a manufacturer. Please, do tell where I can buy another $70 nylon strap that looks like something cut out of the restraint system of a passenger car.
Or to listen to weird smooth jazz music in videos that have no words. Somewhere it’s popular to unbox cameras wearing white cotton gloves while something approximating Kenny G plays in the background. Well, at least it’s not as creepy as the videos with synthesized robot voices.
Some presenters are attractive and well-spoken. Some are not. This is not to say that having super-attractive people do these videos would be much better (pointing away from their faces and perfect hair/makeup: “the camera is down there”).
You have to calibrate the aesthetics-to-content correctly. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when they made color books about doing photography, you got 90 pages of correct but basic instructions and 10 pages of photographs, of which one or two images usually was (were) soft-focus semi-nude shots that revealed some previously-undiscovered British paraphilia. The one that springs to mind was the topless woman wearing a construction helmet and safety vest, holding a stop sign. I think it was hidden in a book about light meters. Not even years of therapy can counteract seeing that. Fortunately, Youtube has age/content gates that prevent equivalent video education from propagating the Road Repair Crew fetish/lifestyle.
Also, it is very selfish to ask others to judge you by posting videos of yourself all the time. People have things to do! It is not your audience’s privilege to have to slavishly critique you every time you spam a Facebook photography group with your latest and greatest. Many in your audience accept keeping people away from deficient videos as their duty to society. It’s a form of noblesse oblige exercised by those who have free time (or at least pretend to while not stuffing Amazon trucks). And do you know what happens to the nasal passages when someone laughs and snorts while drinking tea? Man, think of the innocent viewers!
Is your video a Wonderbra?
A lot of videos suffer the vice of promising a lot while hiding disappointing content. Many things in the clothing world do this for women’s and men’s bodies, pushing, pulling, compressing, or expanding the body in various ways for the purpose of selling. Car makers in Detroit got busted by the Federal Trade Commission for building 8×10 cameras with curved backs that made huge 1960s and 1970s cars look even huger. Food manufacturers had to explain that the graham cracker was not really six inches square like on the front of the box.
The lack of information density is not just a feature of photography videos; it is also feature of almost any technical video about anything. If the solution for cleaning something is vinegar or ammonia or something else, there is no need to package a very simple idea in a very elaborate video. If the key thing in touching up car paint is selective 3000-grit sanding and progressive application of thin layers of paint with more wet sanding, well, that’s easy to say. Omegas are almost as good as Rolexes. An Acura is not as fly as a Bentley. Follow me for more recipes.
Did you ever wonder why people take at least eight minutes to convey only the smallest piece of information? It’s because the shortest video on Youtube that supports ‘midroll’ advertising. Padding is also encouraged by the Youtube minima for watch hours (4,000) and number of subscribers (1,000). This should tell you everything you need to know about why most videos come with click-baity titles but are then letdowns – and you rarely come out of watching one feeling like you’ve learned something. It might also explain why people plaster social media with links to their videos. You are a means to an end. Just not yours. Like this video I was watching the other night, “Ten things you didn’t know about sprocket layout on Kodak 135 films. The last one will break your heart.”
Curation, curation, curation
But isn’t the real issue here curation, or the concept that something should filter out the fluff? One of the biggest differences between the pre-internet media and now is that there was a considerable cost to creating and propagating content. And particularly for print, editors (note, not Redditors) and publishers made decisions about what would be salable. They bore the risk of failure. It was not easy to expose the public to unadulterated garbage; works had to pass some basic test of economic viability. Self-publishing was seen as sleazy.
Not so much is it so in the Youtube model. There, uncompensated individuals use personally-funded (and cheap by historic standards) video equipment to produce their own videos, where they are allowed to post them, with no advances and in many cases zero long-term compensation. And no filters.
The video site uses to the content to earn advertising money – and then kicks a percentage of that down to users. The per-click and per-engagement pay is small – and it is difficult to justify the time investment in terms of money. This causes many content purveyors to turn to
prostitution affiliate relationships and accepting free loans of equipment. How long do you think a manufacturer would keep sending you things to review if you kept trashing them?
This creates a morass of content of varying quality that is difficult to filter. People are trying like crazy to be seen because being seen might mean making money. People are trying like crazy to see something useful. Guess who wins? Neither of these two groups. Someone else, though.
Some video content on photography is really, really good.* If you read all the way through this, you know this had to be said. But if a diamond is mixed in with too much debris, it creates a certain fatigue. And that is the point, in too many words, of the twenty-five minutes lost in writing all of this (ok, plus another 7 minutes on a patent site and then 5 minutes deciding that even the 1940s patent description of squeeze-and-lift was unsuitable for this site).
*Steve Meltzer’s (lkanagas) video parody review of the Leica Monochrom is hilarious, including a camera slip that reveals that a revolver was one of the things he unpacked from the factory box.
So you’ve just gotten back a roll of color negative film that is muddy, grainy, and dark. You did everything right, or you think you did.
Although camera shutters never speed up with age, the photocells in older cameras age badly. Old cameras and handheld meters, pre-1980, often have meter cell decay. Cadmium-sulphide (CdS) photocells pass more current when more light is hitting them. And when there is no light hitting them, they are essentially “off” switches. Unfortunately, over time, the material breaks down and loses its resistance to electricity. This may manifest first as battery drains – and eventually will manifest itself as underexposed pictures. This really hit Polaroid auto pack cameras hardest, but you will see it in anything with a CdS cell, from old Luna-Pro meters to 35mm SLRs. Some lower-end point-and-shoots have CdS cells as well (by the 1980s, most good meters had gone to silicon cells).
An oft-overlooked second cause of underexposure is the wrong batteries. Millennials and GenZers who grew up in an era where there were only alkaline and silver batteries might not know that most SLRs using button cells were designed to run off 1.35v mercury cells (say a PX625). Mercury cells have extremely flat voltage until they die, which means that a meter need not have further voltage regulation (or much of it). They also have an almost infinite shelf life. Unfortunately, producing and disposing of them were not good for human health or the environment, and they went away.
Putting a 1.5v alkaline of identical size, like an A76 (or 1.55v S76 silver) cell in one of these mercury-cell cameras – even if it is the same physical size – will overwhelm the meter and lead to a stop or more of underexposure until the battery drops to 1.35v. But over time, the alkaline battery will drop below 1.35v and start to overexpose. So unless you catch the battery at just the right moment in its life, it won’t work too well.
Ironically, this same thing would not happen when you stick an old mercury cell in a modern camera – because there is more resiliency in the circuits of a modern camera to account for battery voltage fluctuation (alkalines start high, stabilize at a lower voltage, and eventually die).
I blame this battery-voltage problem a bit on battery manufacturers, who glibly published guides showing that their alkaline button cells fit into all manner of older cameras. They do fit, but they don’t work well. Of course, it’s a moot issue because you can’t buy 1.35v batteries except as highly corrosive zinc-air hearing aid batteries. You don’t want those in your camera. The second they run out of power, they begin to ooze nasty goo.
In terms of countermeasures, you can counter the CdS cell aging by recalibrating the meter. This will give you some more years, but it won’t last forever. If you don’t want to recalibrate, just try cutting the ASA in half on the meter.
Recalibration can also work for incorrect battery voltage, provided that the meter has enough adjustability, but the easier solution is to have a zener diode installed in line with the battery. This drops 1.5v to 1.35v. There are some adapters that incorporate these – you would use a slightly smaller silver cell in the adapter.
Anyway, I hope this helps you understand those muddy negatives were not (entirely) your fault.
Every man with a hobby or particular skill likes to publish a self-serving, single-criteria test of manhood: whittling, hunting, tiling a bathroom, fishing, purifying rain water, rebuilding a Cleveland V8, growing hydrangeas, surviving a Turkish prison after a bad rap for hashish, brewing beer, operating a sailboat, bedding a strumpet, making an adequate gin & tonic, constructing your own lightsaber, &c.
Now I say unto you that you will not truly be a
man mature adult unless you can generate your own DX coding stickers decals so that you can use underwhelming offbeat slow-speed film in your way-too-expensive point-and-shoot compact camera. Or get your camera to read your Tri-X as 320 because your technique is that good, your meter is that accurate, and that 1/3 stop makes a huge difference. And because you’re too lazy to turn that ISO dial!
I was actually doing the former – trying to use 50-speed film in a Canon Sure Shot (Prima) 120 Caption, a phenomenal camera that oddly defaults to ISO 25 when it can’t read a DX code (the reliable plastic bulk loading cassettes are uncoded…). You just can’t overexpose Pan F Plus… and try using a P/S zoom at EI 25… and what better excuse to trash my home office with bits of paper and foil? And naturally, a child in the household had stolen the only X-acto knife with a good blade, so I wasn’t going to do it by hand.
Commercially-available DX labels are limited in ISO choices, and they are also surprisingly expensive. Also, film photography these days is about reinventing the wheel. You can make decals, in a completely overwrought and overly-technological way using a machine that might already be in your household: the pattern cutter (Cricut, Brother Scan ‘n’ Cut, etc.).* We have the Brother,** so you may need to adjust your technique slightly for the Cricut. A Brother has two funtions: drawing with a marker and cutting with a blade. We will use both techniques.
*I am fully aware that this is most likely to be in your household if you already have a spouse, and that the only way to get a spouse might be to perfect your DX decal skills, which is hard to do without a pattern cutter. Such a conundrum! Better brush up on your beer-brewing.
** The Brother is way more goth than the Cricut.
You will need: your cutter, its pen and knife attachments, a roll of commercial film for reference, a DX decoding chart (available online), some half-page (Ebay) labels, and a roll of self-adhesive metal foil (0.05mm / 0.002 inches or thicker). It can be any metal you want (aluminum, stainless, brass, copper), as long as it is conductive.
The drawn outer box. On your design software, make a box that is 33x15mm. Designate that “draw.” This will contain two rows of six boxes, each 5.5mm wide and 7.5mm high. Make these 12 boxes and position them in a grid. Looking at your DX chart, color the boxes you want to be insulators (i.e., black and not silver). Fill color doesn’t matter. These should be “draw” shapes.
Your DX code. Look at the decoder and figure out what film speed you want. That’s the first row. For the second, row, number of exposures, I would recommend 36 (so the 2nd and 3rd spots insulated). If your camera reads exposure count, it will then rewind neatly so you have 6 strips of 6.
Negative space (conductors). Now change all of the little white boxes (the ones you did not color in) to “cut.” Where they are touching, merge them. In the ISO 50 example in the pictures up top, these will result in one L shape and one T shape.
Optionally, you can also delete the color-filled boxes because they were only there for reference. Your finished label can use white paper as an insulator. But it also looks cool if you leave the solid boxes. That’s what I did for the pictures.
You can also add something to the top or bottom of your big box to remind you which direction the decal points. I make an extra 3mm box that I point at the 35mm cartridge opening. I suppose you could make a really long one if you wanted to.
Clone your decals. Now draw a selection box around your DX decal design and “group” it using the design software. This will allow you to clone and arrange copies without having any of the elements get out of place. I made two rows of 5, spaced 30mm top of one to top of the next, 50mm from left edge to left edge.
Draw the decals. Move the design file to your cutter. Insert a sheet of label paper. Run a “draw” pass. This will sketch the outline of the DX decal, and if you left them in place, draw in and fill the insulator squares. If not, you will just see the outer 33 x 15mm rectangles.
Cut the codes. Now run the “cut” pass. This is where the magic happens. Do it with a “kiss cut,” or the type that does not cut through the lining of adhesive material. When the cut pass is done, you can pull out (I think they call it “weed”) = the shapes corresponding to the “conductors” – so I pulled a T and an L. You will see the shiny label backing through the holes.
Cut out all the decals as a group. Now cut around all of your labels as a group (I recommend scissors, but you could automate this). This will give things structural integrity because you will next peel them all off in one piece and set them on the top side of your metal foil (your “insulators” should all be attached at a minimum of one edge to the “frame”). From there, you can cut your individual labels as closely as you want.
Trim and apply. Now your metal foil holds everything together. Peel off its backing, position the decals on your cassettes using a commercial cassette for reference, and validate using a DX camera, preferably one that shows you the selected ISO. On a Nikon, for example, you can put the cassette in, close the back door, and if your ISO is on DX, all you need to do to read the cartridge is hold down the ISO button. Do this for each cassette.
You can obviously re-use your design file to make more – and it’s pretty easy to change ISOs in your design file. Just keep a master file in which all 12 of the little boxes are still separate.
You’ve made it! Years from now, when you have 2.5 children, a happy domestic situation, a great job, and a really cool electric car or carbon fiber bike, you’ll know that all this work paid off. If we don’t get to talk then, you’re welcome.
If you’ve never wondered what it’s like to be at a stage of your life where you feel like you are just waiting to die, I recommend bulk-loading Ilford Pan F Plus and not using all of it before the end of summer. When the light gets poor, using up a roll of film this slow can be as excruciating as watching your grandmother shooting a single roll of 110 film over three Christmases.
Pan F Plus is described as “35mm, ISO 50, high contrast, super sharp black & white film with very fine grain. Ideal for studio photography and bright, natural light.” It has considerable charm and makes great pictures:
- It includes fine grain and a ton of contrast, no matter what you use to develop it (HC-110 dilution B, however, has a very, very short development time).
- It also makes it easy to shoot outdoor pictures with phenomenally shallow depth of field (witness above, a 50/1.4D AF Nikkor).
- It holds overcast skies reasonably well.
It’s a classic b/w film, with a classic film speed. It is not a specialist film, as some might claim. It’s actually what a normal film would have been 50 to 70 years ago. It’s no Tech Pan. As a historical note, the Kodak closest product would have been Panatomic-X at a blistering 32 ASA, discontinued in 1987. Panatomic-X was also a general purpose film.
If you shoot medium format, an ISO 50 film can be something of a hair shirt, since it is difficult to get hand-holdable exposure with lenses that often have f/3.5, 4.5, or smaller apertures unless it’s a bright, sunny day. And sadly, most medium- and large-format lenses perform poorly wide-open. Shooting this with a medium-format SLR? Hope you have a sturdy tripod. Thirty-five millimeter, though, gives you fast lenses – which makes things more fun.
That said, the most curious – and soul-crushing – feature of Pan F Plus is its tendency to disappear. The impact of this image fragility is that you pretty much have to develop what you shoot, as soon as possible after you shoot it.
Although this keeps your photos current (by force!), you also find that it’s just as much work to develop one roll of film as eight. I asked Ilford for an explanation of why latent images fade so much faster than with any other film. My smartarse best-guess hypotheses were:
- Somebody made a bad bet with the panchromatic doping back in 1992, and nobody bothered to change the formula to keep the image longer.
- Kodak fans like to joke that Ilford makes the second-best product for any application, and Panatomic-X has left the room. Of course, the same Kodak fans like to needle poor old Tri-X, too.
- Being owned by a pension fund (or venture capital company) means never having to say you’re sorry. Unfortunately, the income-generating pressures on both Kodak and Ilford have borne this out: some product has disappeared, and everything has become more expensive. Because shareholders.
The actual answer is (direct from Ilford staff – hooray for answering!):… a compromise with some other desirable characteristics. The basic formulation is probably the closest to the original of all our film emulsions even though it was updated several years ago. We have customers who are very attached to its particular curve shape and any emulsion redesign would inevitably change that so we are reluctant to touch it at the moment. However, we do review all our products and it is likely that at sometime in the future we will probably either update Pan F+ or replace it.
The note went on to explain that you should refrigerate the film after exposure to forestall this. Some of these points are expected (people liked the look…. refrigeration slows down chemical activity), and some are puzzling (it sounds like some Ilford formulas changed a lot). I like this answer. It means that one day, forgetting a roll or two of shot film will not spell disaster.
But you have to wonder: if I waited long enough, could I keep shooting the same roll of film over and over and over again, and only develop it when I had shot 36 frames I liked?
Of course, during a quarantine, anything passes the time.
Everyone in this picture is dead. The man on the left could not beat actuarial tables. The next man over, in the yellow, had a stroke. The teenage girl died of breast cancer. The boy met an industrial accident. The lady in blue was hit by a car. And the guy on the right was killed when his girlfriend’s husband came home unexpectedly.
One. Ok, so I made that all up. What I do know is that this picture is from Rio de Janiero in the spring of 1979. I know my grandfather took it. I know it’s on Ektachrome, in a Bell & Howell slide cube, in a tray of slide cubes, in a box, in my basement. And that is all I know about it.
Two. For fun, I put to a Facebook film group the question of how to deal with this — and thousands of other slides that contained no people that I (or any other living person) could identify, with little artistic or editorial merit (I could easily pull out the ones with family members, which is a small fraction). This was due to being lazy; I could have just fed these into a Nikon LS over a few weeks. I asked what lab could scan pictures like these so that I would be “done” with them, throw them out, and free up some physical space. The reaction was as expected. What? Discard originals? They are more archival than digital, so why downgrade? The reactions ranged from puzzlement to indignation.
Three. Part of the difficulty in dealing with modern photographers is the idea that every sperm is sacred (apologies to Monty Python…) and that you can never, ever dispose of a physical piece of media, no matter how worthless. I chalk this up to being an artifact of digital – people don’t edit their digital work because storage is cheap. That carries over into a feeling that one can’t dispose of any piece of film, ever, never, not ever. Also, when film is expensive, you’re throwing money away, right?!
Do these guys know that in ye olden days (meaning just 25 years ago), people tossed slides all the time? I mean, there is no rotary slide magazine that is a whole number multiple of any length of film, unless you were shooting old rolls of 20 and hit 100% of the time… and not even the Almighty shoots that many keepers. Before matrix metering, it was hard as hell to shoot slides. Ok, shoot them well.
Do they know that when you’d pick up prints from a minilab, you would put the rejects right in the trash? How about leaving those neatly scalloped four-frame strips of badly stabilized C-41 negative in an acidic paper envelope for fifteen or so years?
Do they know that when you only get one frame to come out on a roll of film, you don’t have to save all six strips of negatives? Or, if you don’t like that one frame, any of them?
Do they know people threw away test rolls all the time? Today, I was adding up some numbers and figured out that I had shot about 1,900 rolls of film in 25 years – and that I had probably pitched fifty whole rolls of test pictures.
Four. The archival film protection business had a boom in the 2000s. Granted, old vinyl photo pages were a train wreck. “Try our new polyethylene ones. They last for centuries!” There was always something new: non-acidic fixer, paper, binders, sleeves, chemicals. Your pictures will live forever. Forever, of course, was a lot shorter time when everyone smoked.
With digital imaging came “archival” inkjet paper and the thousand-year, erm, hundred-year archival, pigment-based inks. Pushed partly as a way to justify charging big money for inkjet prints perceived as less valuable than chemical prints, these new materials turned out to be a way to perpetuate prints of bad pay-to-play nudes, early Photoshop compositing abominations, and anodyne and provincial landscapes. Had this work faded faster, it would have been immolated in trash-to-energy plants before that method of waste disposal was outlawed. Now they just stuff landfills, visual interest improved occasionally by the overturned bottle of Palmolive thrown in on top of them.
Today, we worry about the longevity of digital. You could record things on Mitsui gold DVDs. Or M-Discs. Or asynchronous offsite backups. Or in the cloud. Or in a holographic data storage array in a quartz crystal when that day comes. The possibilities are endless because we are constantly coming up with new ways to hoard and new ways to pack bits into smaller spaces using more permanent materials.
Five. As John Chrysostom would have said in the 400s (or actually did say…) “all is vanity.” Somebody once said that you don’t die until the last person forgets you. Many cultures and people have taken credit for this line (I first heard it on Westworld), but like all good retransmissions (or appropriations) of someone’s culture, it gets recycled because it actually is useful.
When we think about photography and archivism, we might be solving for the wrong variable. We try to make everything last forever using blunt force. The actual problem is motivating preservation in others, not in achieving it ourselves. You might think that color film will fade in 20 years. Or black and white in 100. Or that your prints will discolor and fade. Or that JPGs will somehow be obsolete in the future and unreadable.
The real danger is not time, or technology, or the elements, or phlogiston. The real danger is that the work will fall into the hands of someone with no interest in it – or for whom the effort of understanding the work is overwhelming compared to any potential benefit. When you’re at a secondhand store looking in that shoebox at the counter (or were, in the Before Times), you always wonder what kind of philistine gets rid of family pictures. Well, it could be you. Or me (see above). Or our children. All it takes is for someone to be looking at a collection of random pictures of strangers and to give a shrug of the shoulders. Someone to decide that there is no room for one more photo album. Or no point in renewing a cloud storage subscription. Or that they need that 12tb hard drive for something else. Or they lack the decryption key to open the drive with the files (nota bene: this is coming).
Six. Things become valuable for a couple of reasons: intrinsic value and attrition. An Ansel Adams print would be valuable even if the supply was less finite. By the same token, we preserve a lot of historic buildings and cars that were poorly designed or poorly made — but are the last exponents of their age. The average person has no ability to influence this aspect of his or her photography except (a) to be brilliantly good (bonus points for the back story that includes dying young of consumption) or (b) have his or her output survive some extinction event that wipes out trillions of other images. Let’s all shoot for “brilliantly good.” Dum spiro spero.
Seven. Maybe what we should do is not fixate so much on the hoarding so much as encouraging future preservation. Is it an uncomfortable subject because it’s not something you can buy?
- Things that are accessible are more likely to be enjoyed. That might be a printed photo album. It might be one that is shared online.
- Label, organize, and give people a reason to save your stuff, long enough for it to become valuable (enough) to strangers. Why does this picture matter? Even banalities of everyday life can matter later. What may be an unimpressive picture of a hotel today might be the only visual representation in a future in which it has been knocked down.
- Follow directions when processing your materials. You might be surprised at how long “non-archival” material lasts. In fact, the pictures in that shoebox in the antique store – printed on acid-containing paper and probably not properly fixed by today’s standards – are a hundred years old and have outlived the use anyone had for them.
You might find in the end that your time and money is better spent on life experiences than making the record of it last just a couple more years longer. If you do good work and give it meaning, people will find a way to preserve it.
The word Columbusing has become a thing for describing the phenomenon by which a person believes that he is discovering something that in reality had always existed. It certainly seems possible that this is happening when people try to write reviews of cameras or films. I have now read hundreds of the film reviews in particular, and as an old-time Gen Xer, I realize that these writers are in a position to do one thing: demonstrate whether they as photographers can get a good image out of the material. The rest is of limited use.
Cachet qua cachet
Often, but not always a film review article will take this rough agenda. I think if you go back on my old site via the Wayback Machine, you may even find me doing this (though at the time I was writing about film, the cachet step wasn’t there, since almost all of today’s discontinued films were still sold then… In the early 2000s, when most of those pages were being written, film was just starting its tailspin.
Cachet signaling. This is the prelude. Usually consists of a description discussing how “those in the know” understand Film X (likely discontinued before the author ever picked up a camera, or in some cases was born), some information cobbled together from Google searches, and how the author came into possession of the now-expired film of unknown history, storage conditions, etc.
The low-sample test. Film X is frequently shot with a camera of significant vintage and unknown meter accuracy, sometimes used in conjunction with a meter of a certain age. Film is either commercially processed or done once, whether by the book, by guess, or by the Massive Film Development Chart (which can also be a crapshoot). Bonus points are awarded for random-guess compensations for the film’s age. Double secret bonus points if a restrainer is involved.
Abstraction to what the film is “about.” Author concludes that Film X is magical for xyz reason and that you should pay some scalper (or re-labeler) big time to get it.
Just stop here for a second. I am impressed at how good some of these writers are at photography. They have an eye. They can take a good picture and make a pleasing output. But nothing else they are doing is very instructive because their experience is not accurate or repeatable.
Call it a generational thing (or maybe half-generational) thing. As a group, Baby Boomers walked away from film photography and neither preserved nor transmitted decades of institutional knowledge on the subject. Most Gen X people know film as something you would shoot and take in to be processed. Even for them, unless they made pictures professionally or for a hobby, film photography became disposable as soon as digital became cheap. Which brings us to the millennial children of boomers: a knowledge discontinuity leads to satisfying feelings of discovery. But just as Columbus’ setting foot on Hispaniola did not mean a “new world” for peoples who were already there, superficial film reviews provide little (and really no) novel information.
Do b/w films really have looks?
But let’s back up to something in the cold light of day: with a few exceptions that came really late in the day, film was never really designed to have an aesthetic “look.” It was always designed to have a function. That drove aesthetics. To a point.
Almost 20 years into the 21st century, conventional black-and-white film has no real mysteries. For most of recorded history, film followed a pretty regimented set of tradeoffs: slower film had finer grain and finer tonal rendition. Things got grainier and lost dynamic range as film increased in speed. Although tablet grained b/w films helped increase performance, most of what you see in black and white films is the product of design tradeoffs rather than some deliberate aesthetic proposition.
Recall that the basis of film photography was science. I would suggest that, after a lot of time developing film, the differences between films of a given type and speed are actually relatively minor compared to the effects of varying developer, time, temperature, and agitation. Let’s take an example: Tri-X and TMY are different films, right, Tri-X with an S curve and TMY straight? Here is that classic Tri-X characteristic curve.
Ok, and here is your philistinic, “robot,” “soulless,” TMY, also developed in D-76:
Now develop both in T-Max developer and overlay the curves (black is TX, red is TMY). Don’t have a heart attack, but there are far more similarities than differences in response. Maybe a minute’s difference in developing time. Oh no…
But wow, this was like the holy of holy in differences in “look,” right?Nothing should be very surprising here; tablet-shaped film grains aside, the reaction of silver halide molecules to photons has not changed at all in 150 years of film photography.
So today, some films are grainier than others, some are contrastier than others, some are faster than others, normalized for a developer. But the choice and deployment of developer (if not also every other step of the output chain) can hugely influence or obliterate the “curve” which is the seat of the “look.” In other words, film is just a variable, and from a tone and grain standpoint, perhaps it’s far less of one than we thought.
Did consumers ever actually understand color film?
When you get to color film, things get more complicated because these start with silver halide, which is bleached out and functionally replaced with organic dyes. Color dyes are fickle.
When it was still made in a bunch of varieties, color negative film itself was somewhat inscrutable to anyone but pros and the very serious amateur. Moderately skilled (or more accurately, moderately informed) photographers knew that some types of film were better at skin tones than others (such as Kodak Vericolor III), but for the Joe Average, who had a skill level equivalent to most people writing about film, pretty much every C-41 negative film went through a minilab/printer, which was a highly automated way for drugstore personnel to make magic from your little canister and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process. If you were a pro, you would send your film out to a pro lab where professionals would make magic from your little canisters of film and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process.
Although competing brands of film within a certain type (color negative, color slide) used different methods of getting to the “right” color, skin tones were the pivot. Color, oddly, never really got more differentiated than high-contrast/saturation (Velvia, Portra VC, etc.) and regular (Provia, Ektachrome, Portra NC…).
Did you ever notice how much people hate on Kodak ProImage 100 for being excessively grainy and undersaturated? Aside from slight desaturation, it’s essentially where 100-speed film was when people stopped putting money into developing 100-speed consumer color film. The point-and-shoot camera – typically with a slow lens – put a high premium on 400-speed performance, and that’s where manufacturers went. The faster film got to the point where Kodak HD200 and 400 were far smoother than good old GA-135. Here is an easy conversion from consumer to prosumer to pro:
- Gold 100 gen 4 » Extinct » ProImage 100 (rebalanced)
- Gold 200 gen X » ColorPlus
- Gold 400 gen 6 » some other steps » Gold Max 400
- Ektar 125 » Ektar 100 » Royal Gold 100 » Extinct » Ektar 100
- Royal Gold 200 » Kodak HD200 » Extinct
- Ektar 400 » Royal Gold 400 » Kodak HD400 » Extinct
- Vericolor III » Portra 160NC » New Portra 160
- Portra 160VC » Replaced by New Portra 160
- Portra 400NC » New Portra 400
- Portra 400VC » Replaced by New Portra 400
- Portra 400UC » Extinct
Slide film might have been even more mysterious — and represented a medium that spanned the absolute best professional photography and the worst amateur work feared by man. And nothing in between. You either had it or you didn’t. Transparency film was sold in large quantities to tourists and people wanting to shoot color in the really old days. Which made a lot of sense when a goddamn color photograph was a big deal, even if it took 6/12/36 exposures to get one good one. Kodachrome was a tri-layer black and white film that got an infusion of dye during processing. Slow, sharp, permanent, and capable of delivering a nice looking picture assuming the constellations were lined up. And if they weren’t, blown highlights, blocked shadows, and blue. Slides were the ultimate measure-twice, cut-once medium — but few people bothered to measure. Ektachrome and Fujichrome made it cheaper and easier to generate huge boxes of vacation slides that no one wanted to see — and ultimately faded out transparencies that no one could see.
Today, unless you plan to look at tiny positives backlit by homemade ground glass after the Zombie Apocalypse, or have brought some friends over, Buffalo Bill style, to watch vacation pictures projected on a screen (“it puts the slides in the carousel”), digital photography does everything slide film did – but better. Where you can vary the ISO, get more dynamic range, infinitely adjust contrast and saturation, and crop at will, it’s hard to make the argument that Ektachrome came back for anything but nostalgia and motion pictures. Which is a worthy reason. Let’s just not pretend it’s scientific.
In addition to allowing things to happen that could never happen with a filter-based minilab, the rise of the Fuji Frontier in the late 1990s was really the nail in the coffin of film-awareness. With hyper-sharpening, dynamic range compression, and ultimately, smart automatic operation, the Frontier made every photo look perfect. The technology is not unlike how people deal with negatives today: develop, scan, print (in the case of the Frontier, onto photo paper, using a laser). Today, the Frontier’s weirdly regimented view of the world lives on in the hackneyed wedding presets used on Lightroom by an army of semiprofessional shooters using Canon 5Ds.
And if you remember old film packaging, there is the warning that “color dyes in time may fade” (Gospel of Eastman Kodak, K41:1). Everything on earth is capable of influencing the colors and balance of color films: lot, storage temperature, age, exposure, environmental radiation, magnetic fluids, and phlogiston. The same goes for the output media, which if you’ve seen old Fujichrome slides, can be interesting.
That’s part of why the support infrastructure was so complicated, whether it was a minilab computer or CC10, 20, and 30 filters in cyan, magenta, and yellow. And why pros – once they had a particular lot of film dialed in – like a particular lot of Ektachrome – they stayed with it as much as possible. And even pros sometimes had to lean on color correction experts at labs to make every one of those Glamour Shots® perfect.
Hopefully you have not found this discussion offensive, but as an almost old person, I am not at all hesitant to tell you that everyone in their 20s has a Dunning-Kruger delusion when it comes to the technical aspects of photography. As someone who was there for the twilight of mainstream film photography, I would mostly observe that until the bitter end, film R&D was aimed at making the medium a neutral one that could be manipulated via development, printing, or even scanning – and that today, you can easily mistake random errors for some intentional aesthetic balance.