For The Traditionalist
New Millennium Is Not The End Of The World


Rollei SL66: 25 years old, still my main studio camera.

Now that we all have to begin dating things "--, 2000" instead of 19-something, some may feel that this transition somehow represents a nearly final parting of the ways for traditional photography as we've known and loved it for many decades; grain is out, pixels are in, digital photography rules.

Not so fast. Sure, great strides are being made in digital image capture, but the cost vs. quality delivered equation still has a long way to go before it's on a par with traditional cameras and film. And few consumer desktop film scanners will get you much beyond an 8x10 with the standard of quality we've become accustomed to direct from an enlarger. High-resolution drum scans are available from service bureaus at surprisingly reasonable cost, but that just gets you back to where you already were when you had your film processed.


Detail of a sailing ship's rigging; easy close-up with SL66's built-in bellows.
Photos © 1999, Dave Howard, All Rights Reserved

To be sure, the digital "revolution" is real; if we stick our heads in the sand and deny it we'll only be kidding ourselves. But digital evolution can go on side by side with silver halide based photography, in its own little parallel universe, without causing us any immediate concern. And it's not just a purely "by the numbers," cost/resolution progression that is inexorably bearing down on us. Digital has to match a certain feel and look that, at the moment, only film can deliver. An audio analogy would be CDs; if CD sound is as superior as its promoters would have us believe, then why are the very finest classical music recordings still produced in vinyl LP form? Further, why do many of the extremely high-end, megabucks stereo amplifiers feature vacuum tube designs, rather than all solid state? The answer is a warmth of tone that transistors and CDs have yet to emulate, at least to discerning listeners. It seems that binary ones and zeros have trouble duplicating the "smoother" audio and visual range of current "old-fashioned" analog technologies. It will most likely come, in time, but let's not sweat it until then.


SL66's tilt bellows comes in handy with depth of field distribution.

Now I'm not so bone-headed that I stand in a corner at a camera club meeting, stubbornly declaring that one or another of my favorite 30 or 40-year-old SLRs is "just as good as" anything made today. The qualities that endear them to me are far more subjective than objective. I love the feel of the finely finished metal bodies, along with the clicks and whirrs of their precisely machined inner mechanisms, for the same reason I treasure a fine old pocket watch; a $10 plastic watch with a modern quartz movement will run circles around the jeweled-movement pocket watch in terms of timing precision, but ultimate accuracy isn't everything. Similarly, our love affairs with classic cameras are based on mostly intangible perceptions, rather than easily defensible reasoning.


Rollei 2.8F TLR: 22 years old, still working perfectly.

The electronically timed shutters in contemporary SLRs are far more accurate and repeatable than were the shutters of yore; much higher speeds are taken for granted, as is higher X-synch; fewer action shots are missed, thanks to integral motor drives replacing the thumb wind-lever; autofocus greatly improves our batting average with rapidly and erratically moving subjects; viewfinders are now wonderfully bright; TTL exposure measurement, center-weighted or spot, plus TTL, OTF flash metering result in a lot fewer culls per roll; auto bracketing means more "just rights" than "almosts"; multiple programs and custom functions let you tailor the camera's operation to your preferred method of shooting; DX-coding means never blowing it by forgetting to change the camera's ISO setting when switching film types; auto film loading to frame one gets you back into action faster; ditto auto rewind, also avoiding accidentally opening the camera back before rewinding; etc.; etc.; etc.


Refurbishing the Capitol dome, Sacramento, California.

So, just why is it then that picking up a camera as frankly bizarre and marginally practical as my Alpa 8b still brings a smile to my face, along with a bit of a warm, fuzzy feeling? OK, its standard 50mm Macro Switar was a sweet lens 40 years ago, and it still is. But the camera's rotating shutter speed dial is a nuisance; the funky external lens diaphragm automation takes getting used to, as does the forward-mounted film wind-lever; the trippy 45° finder prism is neat for horizontals, but quirky for verticals; the auxiliary direct-view optical finder, switchable for three focal lengths, rangefinder couples only to the 50mm; the flash connector required is an obsolete oddball; the sharp corners of the lens mount plate, on an otherwise very rounded camera, really get your attention in the winter when your fingers are cold; etc.; etc.; etc. Set it on a shelf and ogle it periodically, fine, but actually use it? Now that's eccentric!


Old building in gold rush country, California.

Just so you know there is hope for me, I wouldn't grab such a camera to run out and shoot a paying assignment, especially one that couldn't be easily re-shot. No matter how well cared for, old shutters and film wind mechanisms eventually become increasingly unreliable. Like some old photographers. No, for real-world photography I use more contemporary gear that's reliable, produces state of the art quality images, and that makes things a bit easier on me in terms of operational convenience. I owe that much to myself and to my clients.

But come the weekend, I select one old warrior or another, load it up with film and thoroughly enjoy myself while pursuing photography at a leisurely pace. And while these old war dogs might not match the shiny new auto-plastiblobs in ease of use or ultimate quality results when enlarged to the max, at magazine size their images are indistinguishable from one another.


Exakta Varex IIb: great camera for southpaws, incredible number of lenses available.

Besides, modern materials help even the odds a bit. Today's films are vastly superior to what was available when our classic cameras were new, letting the oldies perform better today than they did then. If your vintage SLR's finder is dismally dim, many can be fitted with a new "bright" screen by a competent repairman. Over time, your old lenses can develop a contrast and sharpness robbing haze on the interior air-to-air element surfaces; it can usually be cleaned by a repairman, restoring the lens' former crispness. Just because your camera's maker (if still in business) will no longer repair your venerable antique, several independent repairmen specialize in just about any brand of classic camera you're likely to want to keep functioning; check the Service Directory ads in the back of Shutterbug.


The old, flare-prone lens used made this Arizona ruin look as hot as it was.

There are some "preventative medicine" steps to help keep classic cameras functioning. Keep protective plugs in flash/ accessory shoes and PC sockets to prevent corrosion and loss of electrical contact. If you won't be using the camera for a while, remove the battery and put it in a properly labeled plastic bag in the refrigerator. Replacement batteries are now available for several EPA-obsoleted mercury batteries, such as the PX-13 and 625. Replace dried, cracked, or worn leather camera straps that can give up the ghost suddenly, with disastrous consequences. Periodic cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment (no garage mechanics, please) works wonders. Use a lens shade. Vintage, non-multi-coated (or non-coated, period) glass can perform surprisingly well if protected from non-image-forming light.


Sunset, Coronado Bridge, San Diego, California.

Camera store shelves are currently stocked with a plethora of film and darkroom materials. Our favorite films and darkroom potions will continue to be available for as long as they make a profit for the manufacturers. How many times have we howled in agony over the discontinuance of some film, paper, or developer, only to later realize it's been years since we actually bought the product? You (and a few thousand of your buddies) keep buying, the companies keep making; you quit, they quit--it's just that simple.

But when the well of traditional materials finally does dry up, most of us will happily embrace the superior capabilities of a matured silicon technology. After all, we'll still be taking and making pictures, only the tools and materials will have evolved to the next plane. And for those few who absolutely refuse to let go of photography's glorious chemicals-based past, I'm sure someone will market a handy dandy, mix-your-own-emulsion kit, which you can then coat onto Saran Wrap and roll your own film, which will have become an alternative process. As long as there's the will, there will always be a way.


Leica M4: 30 years old, but you'd never know it.


Interior detail, Santa Barbara courthouse, California.

Another interior shot, Santa Barbara courthouse, California.


Alpa 8b: my favorite camera in terms of engineering eccentricity, 40 plus years old.


Another view of Mission San Luis Rey.

Mission San Luis Rey, California.