A digital photographer’s thoughts on film
Ten years ago (probably pretty close to the day) I walked into my local Wolf Camera store with a backpack full of Nikon 35mm gear and walked out with a small box containing a single 2MP Nikon Coolpix 950 digital camera. I haven’t looked back since. Then, last week my friend Stephen sent me over this little Pentax ZX-5n 35mm film camera (circa 1997) he picked up to play around with. I picked up a 2-pack of 24exp Fuji Superia 400 color print film and took the ZX-5n for a spin. Here are my observations:
The size and light weight is really nice with my 50 1.7 for a walking around set-up. It reminds me of the Olympus e430/450. This almost makes me re-think the Olympus w/ a 25mm (50mm equiv) f/2.8 as a walking around set-up, except that f/2.8 isn’t fast enough for me. If Olympus did a 25mm f/1.4 pancake… The Pentax FA 28-70 f/4 kit lens unbalances the ZX-5n a bit in single handed use but makes for a good grip when carrying and shooting two handed.
ISO 400 film is too fast for shooting wide open (f/1.7) in daylight (1/2000 max shutter isn’t helping) and too slow for shooting wide open in low light. I don’t think I could live without the variable (and AUTO) ISO on my K10D. In fact, I’m really hoping the ISO 6400 setting on the new K-7 is usable as that would really transform my photography (currently I rarely shoot over ISO 800). Can you imagine a set-and-forget auto ISO range of 50-6400?!
The electronic display inside the viewfinder is useless in bright light. My old K1000’s mechanical needle was a far better solution for manual shooting with fast lenses. Also, something about the viewfinder meant that if I didn’t hold the camera up to my eye just right I couldn’t see the info bar on the right side of the VF and I had to kind of peer around inside the camera to find it.
The pop-up lock button on the shutter speed wheel constantly foiled my attempts at shooting manually. I ended up shooting in Av mode and trying to do my best with exposure compensation without the aid of post shot LCD review. Twisting the aperture ring on the lens was a nice throwback and the electronic display of the f/stop selected was perfect. I never shot in full Program mode nor did I use the built-in pop-up flash.
The lack of an AF point indicator (the little red box that pops up in the VF) makes critical focus difficult (especially in MF situations). The split prism focus screen of the older MF only cameras is definitely a better solution for manual focus. The f/4 kit lens has enough DoF that the viewfinder/focus screen combo probably works fine for 99% of users. Shooting at f/1.7 I found it difficult to correctly discern if I had the part of subject in focus that I wanted. This was easier to do than with the smaller VF in my K10D, however.
Let’s just say that if I had upgraded from a ZX-5n to a K10D I would never have reason to complain about the K10D’s AF performance. While I shot with all of my lenses (A series 50mm f/1.7, FA 35mm f/2 AL, FA 28-70 f/4 AL, Takumar 135mm f/2.5, and even a couple of shots with my DA 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 K10D kit lens), most of my shots were taken with my manual focus only 50 1.7 using the focus indicator beep as a guide just like I do on my K10D. I did shoot a few with my FA 35mm f/2 in AF mode. The focus speed was on par with my K10D but the accuracy was crap. I routinely had to refocus after the camera had locked 2-3″ in front of the subject.
The best part about shooting the ZX-5n was having my 50mm f/1.7 and 35mm f/2 actually BE 50mm and 35mm lenses.
The FA 28-70 f/4 AL lens included as a kit lens with the ZX-5n is an interesting little lens. I did not shoot it much on the ZX-5n but I did find it features a great focal length range on a FF camera (pretty much the same as an 18-55 kit lens on a DSLR). I did shoot it a bit on my K10D and found it to be a decent performer on par with other FA lenses. Unfortunately, it is quite soft at f/4 so if you want sharpness you have to stop it down and loose what little DoF control you may have had at f/4. It might make an excellent portrait lens when shot wide open at the long end (when ultimate sharpness is not the goal). It would also make a good landscape lens (as long as you don’t need to go too wide) and could be a really good street lens (as long as you like the f/8 look). I was reminded of the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L I rented in San Fran to try out on my 5D a year and a half ago. At f/2.8 it provided wonderful DoF control but it was an enormous hunk of glass to lug around. This little f/4 lens could be pretty nifty in certain situations. Looks like decent quality used versions can be had for around $70.
I was still trying to check the non-existent rear LCD after each shot even at the end of the second roll. Several people asked to see my shots and then looked confused when I showed them the back of the camera. “What’s that…film? I didn’t know they still made film.” Having the ability to review shots after they have been taken is not just a convenience. It makes you a better photographer. You are more likely to experiment and having instant feedback allows you to ensure you have gotten the shot. With film…well you just have to do your best and hope you got everything right.
With digital I set the camera, shoot, verify exposure & focus and shoot again if need be until I get what I want. With film I set the camera, second guess all my settings, re-set the camera, shoot and then hope that I got it right because I can’t afford to bracket the shot for exposure AND focus. Suddenly, the creative process seems to be somewhat out of my control.
The ZX-5n basically functions just like my K10D without any of the advantages of digital imaging. If I do more film I will be looking for a better overall experience. Maybe a rangefinder (Leica) or medium format (Hasselblad). Basically, I want both the photographs and the photographic experience to be different from what I get with my K10D. The ZX-5n may be great for a first-timer but for me I did not find any creative advantage by shooting it over my K10D.
I had Sam’s Wholesale develop my film, print 4″ x 6″ prints and scan it to a CD for around $6.50/roll. I dropped my two rolls off Thursday morning and picked them up Tuesday afternoon. The one remaining local C41 lab in town charges over $10 a roll for processing and $8/roll to scan to CD (but has same-day service). The Sam’s prints I got back look great but the scans are pretty terrible. They are only 1536 x 1024 pixels, out of focus and have very low contrast. In the end, I can get processing and decent scans for around $10/roll including film & shipping. If I switched completely to film I’d likely be spending at least a couple hundred dollars a month on film, processing, scanning, and shipping.
Contrary to what Ken Rockwell says, the math for film just doesn’t work out for me. Ken says he spends less than $2,000 a year getting his film processed and scanned to 25MP digital files. I have looked at the prices at NCPS where he gets his stuff done and the only way I can figure his math works is if he shoots less than 100 rolls of 35mm print film a year. No way a professional photographer is only going to shoot 100 rolls a year. My guess is he gets special pricing from NCPS that makes his math work out (ie: “free”). His argument is that the quality of the scans is better than what he gets with digital. I may have to give NCPS a try some time so I can judge for myself. However, as a hobbyist Flickr-er, I don’t need $20 25MP scans.
Even if you figure that a decent 35mm SLR like this ZX-5n can be had for under $100, I’d end up spending way more on film processing over the course of a year than the cost of a high-end DSLR like my K10D (and that would be shooting less than 1/3 the photos I take now). Sure you can factor in hardware and software expenses but if you amortize everything out over say 3 years ($1,500 for camera + $2,500 for computer + $300 for software + $300 for external HD= $1,533/year), the annual cost still comes out better than film. Plus, if you’re doing it Ken’s way you will still need the computer, software and storage to deal with the digital scans anyway! With digital, the investment may be higher up-front but once have the gear you can shoot all you want without fear of recurring film processing charges hanging over your head. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t apply the same critical thinking to shooting digital as film demands. BTW, lenses are assumed to work with both and are a whole other issue!
Here are all the photos I shot with the ZX-5n. Keep in mind that these are the unprocessed crappy low-rez scans direct from Sam’s. Since I was testing the camera many of the shots were just taken to compare how the camera performed in similar situations to what I have become accustomed to shooting with my DSLR and are not at all intended to be great compositionally. Here are some of the better shots I have processed a bit and pushed up to my Flickr site. I will say that I was pretty much shocked at how similar all my shots looked to what I would have expected to get from my K10D in the same situations. In fact, there is not a single reject in the bunch (when you look at the prints). Also, the Fuji daylight print film handled the varying lighting conditions a lot better than I expected (also more noticeable in the prints than the scans). I can recall shooting a roll of film only in hopes of getting a single decent shot (and often being disappointed). Of course, I have had an extra 10+ years of experience since then to better learn what I am doing with a camera…
I’m sure I will shoot film more now that I have given it a try again. However, like I said before, it will need to be in a way that provides a different experience than what I have grown accustomed to with my DSLR. There was a time when I was reading Ken Rockwell’s blog and thinking “maybe I should switch back to film.” No way. Maybe if all I shot was landscapes… but since I shoot so much variety in such changing conditions (and on a budget), digital is the only way for me. It was a fun experiment though and I still believe that there is an opportunity for the camera manufacturers to recapture some of the essense of shooting film and combine it with the advantages of digital imaging. For more on those thoughts take a look at the bottom of this blog article I wrote a while back after attending the PMA show. In conclusion, if you are a digital photographer I highly recommend giving film another try if your get the chance to do it on the cheap.