5.27.2022

I'm reposting an entry from January of 2009. I wanted to show what I got right about the future of camera design. I surprised myself. Which is always something.

 January 2009. 

I stepped back in time yesterday and bought a Nikon F4


It's silly.  The tidal wave of progress long since ground the champion cameras of yesteryear to the ocean floor of photography to be compacted over time into an archeological layer that future scholars will dislodge with tepid interest.  I couldn't help it.  The Nikon F4 (film) camera represented a revolution in so many ways.  It was the first professional autofocus camera.  It was the first of the Nikon F series cameras to come with a self contained motor drive.  One of the first cameras to include "predictive" autofocus. 


From a manufacturing point of view it was the pinnacle intersection of mechanical and electronic symbiosis.  A blend of 1700 parts.  Each chosen to be the best ever crafted for this kind of tool.  The inner shell of the body was constructed with a specially concocted alloy that boasted incredible strength while also dampening vibration and shock.  The view through the eyepeice was designed to introduce as little dissonance between the object as it was and the object as it was observed.  Even the metering was new and spectacular.


But why would I fling $200 away on a piece of antiquated industrial art in the age of digital?  Well, precisely because this is the age of digital.


Let me explain.  In one or two generations the camera manufacturers will advance the craft of digital camera making in a number of ways.  One of which will be the removal of the moving mirror which must lift up to make an exposure and then drop down again into order to allow the photographer to see through the finder.  SLR cameras that still feature this sort of "thru the lens" viewing require precision ground, silver pentaprisms of extremely high quality glass.  The best are still pretty much hand finished.  The mirror mechanism in the professional cameras has to be engineered to rise and fall up to 12 times per second which requires appreciable mass to be started, accelerated and then stopped in milliseconds. The mirror mechanism also requires a highly precise shutter to shield the sensor from light until the exact moment of tightly timed, and highly repeatable exposure.  All this costs money while introducing less reliability than a totally electronic camera.  It costs lots more money.


So the drive is on to drive cost from professional grade cameras.  The first thing to go will be the pentaprism and the beautiful image projected optically through the finder.  The next thing to go will be the mechanical shutter.  In one fell swoop every mechanical connection between man and camera will be eliminated.  Withdrawn.  And this is generally a good thing for both camera manufacturers and people who will never experience a "real" camera because both will save money.  And the difference in images may not even amount to a hill of beans.


But it seems as though the tactile integration of man and machine will be greatly diminished.  Like a race car driver who can no longer shift gears.  A mechanic with computers but no tools.  A chef with a microwave.  The Nikon F4 represents to me the collective drive that existed in the last cenury to make a machine that wasn't sensible and efficient (or worse, cost effective), not the best in a category,  not just "good enough"  but the very best machine that could be built, for its intended purpose,  with no holds barred.  And in my mind it's come to represent something that's missing from our digital culture:  The Pursuit of Creating the Most Excellent Art Possible.  No excuses.


Since we capitulated to the power of the web, and the implied cost effectiveness of digital cameras, we've gone down a sinister path that may be more devastating to our culture than the present economic disaster.  We've allowed ourselves, collectively, to be subdued by the economics of process progress.  The web represents the lowest common denominator of quality precisely because every image placed upon it is a compromise between size and quality. Resolution and loading time.  Color depth and quickness.  Surrendering to the idea that color is just relative since no two monitors will perform identically.  We work with the expectation that everything will turn out to be crappier looking than ever before so we aim for that target.


The economic fear that we live with is already reducing the number of printed magazine pages, month by month. The driver of the professional digital camera market has been a relentless pursuit of higher and higher resolution but that will become increasingly meaningless as the drive to the web accelerates.  Even ad agencies are finding ways to make "social marketing" and "networking" profitable (in direct opposition to the intention of social networking......) which will further decay the need for true quality.


As the demand for large prints diminished so will the demand for the last remaining photographic labs and their master printers.  All photographic art will be destined for the screen or the wild interpretations of ink jet printers on papers of dubious quality and keeping potential.  We, as a culture, will have done to art exactly what we have done to the DVD player and the hamburger:  We will have commodified it, driven it brutally to it's lowest price with all the attendant compromises and we will have sucked the "humanism" out of the process in a vain and egalitarian attempt to make all things accessible to all people.


So, the F4 convinces me that the expedition in search of excellence is still part of human nature....even though it is temporarily in hibernation.  The feel of the camera is superb.  The feedback of the shutter and mirror noise is sensuous.  And the looks of my photographic peers are priceless as they try to figure out just what the hell I'm up to now.


Bottom line:  You owe it to yourself to go out and buy the industrial art of your era.  The Nikon F2's, F3's and F4's.  The Leica M3's, M4's, M5's and M6's.  The portable Hermes typewriter.  The Linn Sondek turntable or the Luxman tube amplifiers.  Once they disappear, like spirits and whimsy in old fairy tales, they disappear forever.  And over time the tool, and the imperative it represented recede and finally vanish.


That's why I bought a used F4.


Note.  I'm doing a little experiment.  I'm buying color film from Costco.  It's Fuji 400 speed color print film and it can be had for around a dollar and change per roll.  Each roll gives you 24 individual frames to fill.  When you've got a handful of the rolls shot you take them back to Costco where their lab develops the film and color corrects and prints the film and finally puts all the images on a disk for a very low price.  Then I'll come home and look at them.  And I'll be happy that the images exist in a physical form.  That they can be physically cataloged and reinterpreted.  It's comforting.



Posted by Kirk, Photographer/Writer at 15:05 icon18_email.gif

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Labels: camera, economy, kirk, nikon, photography, tuck

23 comments:

LUIS [ lgg photo ] said...

wow, great post. 
even though i'm a younger photographer, i can still relive my youth in boy scouts, when i had $40 dollar olympus film camera that i used to take pics of our camping trips. i rarely recall giving much thought to my position as 'historian' in my troop until now. i'm older and understand a little more what it meant, and hopefully what u mean as well.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Luis, Thank you for adding the first comment to this new adventure. I think you got it just right!

Best, Kirk

Anonymous said...

Nice, Kirk. I cut my photographic teeth on my dad's Pentax SP-II. Nothing automatic about that camera but the meter--a great way to learn.

Now I've got some incentive to pick up an old film body to work with my new Nikon lenses!

Unknown said...

Great post, Kirk. Makes me think of the time when I was a young'n, seeing a Minolta ad in Modern Photography. Not sure if it was a fold out ad or a 3-pager, but all the ad-copy was on the first page, and the fold-out or double-page spread was a text-free "glamour shot" of a Minolta SRT-101 with a huge gleaming f/1.2 lens. I removed the ad and taped it to my bedroom wall and dreamed of owning something like that one day.

Anonymous said...

"The feedback of the shutter and mirror noise is sensuous. And the looks of my photographic peers are priceless as they try to figure out just what the hell I'm up to now". Kirk, I think I'm going to like it here. Your post articulates exactly why I am teaching myself large format photography and creating a darkroom for alternative process printing.

Anonymous said...

Well put Kirk. Over the holidays I unpacked my old Kodak Retina's and Leica Range finders and am having a great time with them. Part of my youth coupled with super engineering as well as a connection with my late father. Great post and a real insight to something that is disappearing fast in modern times.

Anonymous said...

I love my Fe2 for the same reasons…

Ed Z said...

Kirk - I just picked up a Mamiya 6 the other week for similar reasons! it is a beautiful piece of machinery and quickly becoming my favorite camera, not even for the beautiful images it produces but simply for the way it functions in my hands!

matthew said...

Kirk,
I'm currently a freelance photographer and graphic designer, but in the part-time, to help make ends meet, I work at Ritz Camera where I've worked part-time all the way through college (essentially the last 5 years). 

The store I started at had a C41 Film Processor and a Fuji Mini Lab that was capable of glossy and matte 4x6, 5x7 and 6x8 prints only. About a year-and-a-half ago the C41 processor broke down. They said we didn't do enough film to warrant a repair so they replaced it with a Fuji DL400 Dry Lab capable of print sizes ranging from 3x5 to 8x12. Yay? No. I still shoot LOTS of film. I collect all sorts of cameras. I own over 40 cameras and most of them have had at least one roll of film through them by yours truly. I just love to see what they do. To see how the photographic process evolved just through mechanics and electronic and engineering development alone. But the digital age pushed out a film machine because 12 rolls of film per week just wasn't justifiable. Sigh.

So now I work at a different store because that one is closing. Being liquidated. And guess what's being liquidated with it? The DL400. Yep, gone to the highest bidder. You can have your very own Fuji Dry Lab Digital Printing setup at home. I asked the service tech why he wasn't going to keep it and he said, "They've got bugs, they're a pain to fix and the quality just isn't worth moving it to another store." That machine is less than two years old. The old Fuji C-41 machine was 20+ years old when they retired it and had been moved from it's first store, to a second, and finally to the store I worked at where it literally worked itself to death. That just goes to show you that film has a certain allure that digital can't compete with. This is just reinforcement for your seemingly foolish delve into 35mm photography via the Nikon F4, which I am a huge fan of although I am a Canon shooter for the most part and haven't owned the F4. (I have owned Canon EOS 1's and 3's which are similar in construction and design)

Thanks for the great post and the fantastic analogies. It was very well written, received and you have a fantastic outlook on the way that digital and film can be married efficiently through the use of film and a digital scanner. 

Cheers,
Matthew

P.S. Sorry for the long story.

Anonymous said...

Hey Kirk, I just found your blog. Most interesting an stimulating. I have two Rollei 3.5F's and a Hasselblad 500C. That body comes from 1957, and they all work very well. I think back in those days, Rolleis, 'Blads, Nikons and Leicas were built up to a standard. Now it seems to me cameras are built down to a price. Best to you.
Mike

Robert M. Teague said...

I've owned many professional Nikons, starting with the F2, but for some reason I never had an F4. I've currently got an F5 and an F6. The F6 is without a doubt the most fantastic 35mm camera I've ever used. It's got that magic blend of a modern camera body (with the associated meter and autofocus) while still being a film camera (and that fantastic viewfinder). I rarely pick up my F5 any more.

BTW, my primary format is actually 4x5, with my current camera of choice being a Chamonix 45N-1 (a wonderfully made Chinese camera constructed of Walnut and Carbon Fiber - about 3 lbs).

m-paul-o said...

Hi Kirk,

I decided after shooting for odd 5 years digital give film a try. Well the prices for used film gear helped as well as I'm on a budget here.

So I went for F4, mainly because I have Nikon digital so the lenses... you probably know the rest of the reasoning all too well I guess.

And my first ever camera was Nikon 135AF - probably the father/mother of compact cameras at the time, but it has autofocus, so the "point-focus-recompose" was known to me. 

F4 - what shall I say? marvel it is although a bit heavy ( bought the F4s :-) ) but I was amazed by the "feel" and the viewfinder where there is something to see and pictures are simply amazing; colors, depth and ... and there is a knob to set the function, but it does only the one function. And after shooting for two years with Nikon digital, I was right there even without opening the instruction manual.

Only "issue" is that if you want better slide film, you will need to go to the "proper" photo store; no grocery or something similar here in Europe (Austria) - not a big deal...

And the photos are developed, scanned and burned on CD in two days maximum. I am in no hurry anyway.

DZ said...

Hey,
My Costco doesn't do film anymore! But I've been thinking about this experiment as someone ventuuring into photography in mid-stream (midlife)--grab the old Pentax K-1000 and the Panasoinc UZ point and shoot and do double duty, shoot both and see for myself. So finding a lab would next.

I just picked up an F4s myself. I got an FTn from my late father and have developed a film bug lately. I'm excited to see where this journey leads me... as I continue to explore digital at the same time. Thanks Kirk, for your blog. I'm going to come by often!

Mike said...

It's nice to know people are interested in film again. I own a used Nikon D200, but I still prefer to do all my serious works on a F4, F5 and a Leica M6. For a long time, I don't know why people would give up film in order to "upgrade" to digital. Both mediums have their strength and weaknesses, one should not have to give up the left hand in order to use the right hand. That's just nuts.

Anonymous said...

I discovered your blog recently and went back to read the earlier posts. After shooting only digital for several years, I am going to purchase a used F-100 this weekend for about $250 from a local camera store. Another F-100 was my last film camera and I am looking forward to playing around with it and a couple of rolls of Ilford FP4 b/w film real soon. I am an amateur - a pleasure shooter but your blog has been the additional inspiration I needed to overcome my inertia, put down my D300 for a while and pick up that film camera. I have a feeling I'll be shooting as much film as digital in the upcoming months. Great blog.

Dave Jenkins said...

In 1991 or '92, the guy I was sharing studio space with at the time bought an F4. I hefted, said to myself, "Hmmm," and placed it on my UPS scales. Then I did the same thing with my Pentax 6x7 with normal (105) lens. They weighed almost exactly the same thing. I told him "There's no way I'm going to carry something that weighs as much as a Pentax 6x7 to shoot a piece of 35mm film." And I never did.

I haven't shot a roll of film since 2003. But I'm keeping my Leica M3.

Unknown said...

You still get film in Costco? I envy you. Costco in the Los Angeles area hasn't carried film for at least a year. The good news is they still develop and they still scan to CD (Noritsu at 6-8MP) for under $5.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful Essay!

i was glad to buy a F4s last year. 

Last vacation: six dvds (nef) and two rolls velvia ;-)


Best regards

Dieter

Anonymous said...

One of the great aspects of the digital age in photography is that I am able to indulge a great many photographic wants from my past. I presently am enjoying my Pentax 645N system as well as a Fujica GW690 - cameras and lenses that I own today all ridiculously affordable. I do have my analog toe in the digital age though with a pair of Nikon Coolscan 8000's for bringing all that analog material into the digital age.

Chroge said...

Great post Kirk!

I want to believe that I have finally graduated into 35mm film photography.

Like many my age, I grew up taking my first photos on my mother's fuji point-and-shoot. Did highschool trips with a Kodak disposable and was lured into digital photography by Casio in University.

One thing led to another and I couldn't resist the siren song of the DSLR and all of its options. I swore I would only use the kit lens and "save money". Four lenses later and about 6000 images I had fallen in love with photography.

What digital has taught me I will now hope bring to the 35mm film realm. I hope I am ready. I am deeply indebted to digital photography for teaching me the basics... light, exposure, flash and composition. 

I think many, like me, will follow a similar path... I just hope film and developing will continue to be accessible and affordable for the amateur photographer!

Chris

Anonymous said...

What great observations! But will the realm of fine, mechanically engineered cameras and the silver halide medium disappear altogether? 

I wonder... I keep reading about many photographers returning to film. A quality ISO100 film will still provide far superior quality to the best of the megapixel cameras of today...and without the expense of having to replace both the mechanism AND the medium (of which digital cameras are both) every three years. The best films still offers better tonal gradation, resolution and dynamic range.

And BTW: When photography arrived, they said it would be the end of painting. It wasn't. I suspect film will remain with us when absolute quality is needed, or when the tactile experience of fine art photography is desired. 

Film will always remain the purer form of photography...and purists will always be among us.

Anonymous said...

Many years have passed, 
but a big smile fills on my face when I read these things now. You do not misunderstand me please, I'm still shooting film rolls currently.
Great Post Kirk, about something every day seems more distant.
My nine year old niece is shocked and plays like something magical with the waist finder DW-20 on my F4. She always opens his eyes wide, when this heavy camera takes all his two small hands when she is shooting looking down with a fisheye lens mounted on it
Best, Kirk