Digital Diminishment: A Year (and Decades) In Review

B.B. King once sang "The Thrill is Gone."  Though this song was penned long before commercial digital photography was a reality, the tag line from this song resonates a bit with me as 2015 draws to a close. It wasn't always this way.

Like so many, I made the switch from film to digital around the turn of the millennium.  At the time, it was such an easy choice to make.  A seeming one-time budget outlay meant the end of a constantly recurring stream of film developing expenses while providing instant gratification and the ability to review or retake one's photos on the fly.  By the end of 2002, my Canon Elan IIe was relegated to sitting idly while my Casio QV3000EX enabled me to take photos of my favorite subjects as well as to take photos of countless other subjects that I'd overlooked before due to the expenses of film developing.  It seemed there was no coming back.

2002, rendered by the Casio QV-3000

But gradually, the honeymoon period began to wane.  The resolution on computer monitors steadily improved, and the once screen filling shots began to gradually look like oversized thumbnail images, for which I could not go back and improve later, as most had been shot at 1024x768 to conserve memory card and hard drive space.  Increasing interest in shooting some video shorts led me to replace the Casio in 2005 with a Canon S-1 IS, which sported a 10X lens, but a 3 MP processor similar to the Casio.  It was neat to shoot sound video for many projects, but my image quality suffered as a result of a lens that was trying to do too much.  Two more attempts to delve into HD video led me to buy a Kodak Z1275 in 2007, followed by a Sony T-500 in 2008.  The latter of these products was pretty great for video, but both had their share of image quality problems on account of trying to squeeze too much image onto too small a sensor, resulting in compression quality issues.

After later disappointments, I returned to Casio in 2009 for an ancient Digicam, the QV-4000, which was a nice improvement from the cameras I bought prior to it, but still lacked a good image size.

I eventually broke down and bought a second-hand crop sensor Canon DSLR in 2009 as well, which provided images of excellent quality for what I was shooting, but I found that I was spending a lot of time in post processing trying to tweak the images to achieve a more pleasing color palette akin to the Casio camera that had piqued my interest in Digital photography to begin with.  At around the same time, I actually scoured the market to pick up a few of the successor models of the Casio, the QV-4000.  These provided some nice looking images, but their quality was not on par with the Canon. Meanwhile, the Canon was not as portable or user-friendly as the Casio.  As a result, there were often times when I was lugging around 3 cameras: the Sony for video, the Canon for the good shots, and the Casio for the shots at the ready.  Add in the increasing utility of mobile phone cameras for snapshots, and my repertoire of images was now greatly scattered among multiple devices. All of these required regular charging and uploading, and a host of tweaks and edits to make digitally ready for prime time.  What had at one point been an amazing amount of fun was beginning to become tedious.

The bulky Canon Rebel XT, capable of some very good images with some post-processing.

Still, I kept biting.  2010 saw me purchase a Samsung EX-1, a nice spec of compact camera with a fast lens and larger size sensor (compared to the increasingly tiny ones being made) that seemed like it would be a long needed successor to the Casio cameras.  For a time, it seemed like I was on a good track.  Yet, the menu system was more convoluted in use and results never quite looked on par with the 10 year old Casio camera lineup.   Despite this, the Samsung would become my primary camera for nearly 4 years, though I noticed that my photography exploits were decreasing with each passing year.

The Samsung EX-1 gave nice images, but lacked that certain something. 

By 2014, my interest in photography was starting to wane.  I could take good images with either the Canon or the Samsung, but I felt quite disconnected from the images I was taking.  By now, I had relinquished almost all control to the cameras in the photo taking process, aside from an occasional tweak to the exposure compensation.  I had picked up a Fuji W3 3-D camera in 2012 that added an interesting flare to images, but this again was a machine that sought to do all the thinking for the user. The hobby of photography, which had once held such an interest for me, was becoming increasingly mundane.

A bit of a breakthrough would come about in early 2014, when I picked up a mirrorless digital camera, the Olympus PEN.  Compact compared to SLR's, this camera allowed the use of interchangeable lenses, providing a nice middle ground between portability and capability.  As I was frugal, I was also interested in another angle to this, being able to mount manual focus legacy lenses to the camera body using an adapter.  I had no idea that what I was about to do was to act as a gateway back to film photography.  At the time, I had no interest in returning to film and would pick up camera bodies to which lenses were attached that could be fitted onto the Olympus.  It all worked well, but with one factor that was often a huge drawback, the crop factor.  Putting a 50mm lens on the Oly made it act like a 100mm lens.  This was wonderful at times, but all too often, I would hoist the camera up to frame and realize I hadn't the room to compose the shot the way I desired.  Focusing the manual lenses could be a challenge on the LED screen, so most of the time, the camera was in an art mode that used fine lines for items in focus to assist in this.  This worked OK, but it meant I had to always shoot in a raw+jpg mode if I wanted a photographic image from which to work from rather than an abstract output.

2014 - Olympus Pen with a 135mm f/3.5 Olympus Manual Focus Lens.

And then the real moment occurred when I began my ascent down the wormhole, finding a TLR camera I had last used in the 1990's, along with some great images from this camera.  After getting it working again, I elected to run one roll of film through it just for old time's sake and a novel article to say "Hey, I shot some film again!" But it appears that the last laugh was on me.  The experience of shooting film again, of taking CONTROL of the camera again because you have to, of being pragmatic and mindful of what and how you shoot, and of appreciating the craft of photography had been absent in me for some time, and I never even realized it, that was, until I began to shoot film again for the first time.  Despite an outcome on the first try that was dismal, I managed to figure out the issue, remedy it, and feel a sense of reward for pressing the shutter release again.

Were you to chart my the percentage of shots taken by various methods over the past 20 years, you would see a switch over typical of many a photographer.  The difference is that I have found my way back to shooting film over the past year and a half to where my film exposures likely represent nearly half of all photos I take. 

A rustic scene taken on the Exakta VX on Rollei Retro 80S.

When I started this adventure, I never expected it would become a predominantly "film photography blog."  I expected I might do some articles about replicating the look of film (both generally and specific emulsions) in digital post-processing tools, but I never expected I'd shoot true film again. Looking back at what has actually occurred in the past year and a half, I regret nothing.  It has been a fun journey that I now eagerly look forward to continuing in new and ever quirky ways.  I can't guarantee that I will always have a fresh film, fresh camera, or fresh approach to present each week, but I've got some interesting concepts that stretch out into the coming months.  Thanks as always for peeking in and joining me.