Film cameras are making a comeback. Google “Lomo camera” if you do not believe me (the Lomo is a simple film-based camera now popular with art students and hipsters generally). You will get about five and a half million hits. Nothing makes you feel old than realising that nostalgia now extends to things that you remember as cutting edge.
And so yesterday I found myself helping my son load a reel of 35 mm film into my old manual Nikomat camera: unlocking the back, dropping the cartridge into the left-hand side, pulling the film out to line up on the sprockets on the right hand side, releasing the shutter and winding the film forwards a couple of times to make sure that the film was secure, and finally closing the back and winding forwards two more times before all was ready to go. Then I had to remind myself how to operate a completely manual camera – looking through the viewfinder at the exposure meter and then adjusting aperture and shutter speeds until the needle was balanced in the middle of the scale. Finally, I had to explain that this camera had no in-built flash mechanism. This one, indeed, is so old (early 70s vintage, I think) that it does not even have a hot shoe on which to attach a flash gun.
My elderly Nikomat, with 35-75 mm zoom lens.
There is a satisfying – and, for me, highly nostalgic – “clunk” when you press the shutter release; a purely mechanical sound of the simultaneous movement of the mirror mechanism swinging out of the way whilst the shutter opens and closes. It takes me right back to my travels during the 1980s and early 1990s accompanied by my trusty Nikon EM. The one big difference is that my Nikomat (bought as a replacement for the EM) has a zoom lens whereas my 1980s travels also involved a bag of interchangeable lenses.
The two biggest changes that digital photography ushered in were immediacy and the cheapness of individual images. Rolls of film and their processing both cost money and the rolls themselves took up space in suitcases. I even carried a special lead-lined pouch to protect my exposed film from airport X-ray machines. The pleasures of receiving pictures back from the developers were often offset by disappointment when an image for which I had high hopes turned out to be underexposed or badly composed. These days, we all see the images immediately and can reshoot if we are not happy. Steps such as cropping and adjusting colour balance which were beyond the reach of all but the most dedicated are now commonplace.
I am quite happy to leave film cameras behind. My current digital cameras offer me a quality that I could only have dreamed about when I was lugging my old SLRs around (see In praise of the Olympus TG2). The only advantage of a film camera that I can think of (beware: Grumpy Old Man alert …) is that it will be harder (and more expensive) for Ed to fill up rolls of film with “selfies”. I do miss that mechanical “clunk”, however.
Ed, selfie, Central Park, May 2014.