Eric L. Woods

Revisiting a question: Can vintage digital be a thing?

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What led me to revisit this question was a recent trip to NYC. At one point I was packing some film camera big hitters to take, but in the end I decided to bring a less notable favorite of mine.

Contax 137 MA Quartz

But it never saw the light of day on the trip. So what gives?

An easy answer. Photography was not the main point of the trip. Visiting family was. More specifically celebrating my Mother In Law’s 80th birthday. So fast and efficient digital options prevailed. But here is the thing. Even when time permits I find that I am rarely shooting film recently. Why? Well…

I think vintage digital is now a thing.

For me anyway. Let’s review why I like to use film.

Feel

Rangefinder Side

The easy mention here would be a modern digital Leica M camera. But if one did not have the ability or desire to make that type of fiscal outlay there is another full frame option I can recommend.

Sony A7c - 7Artisans 75mm f/1.25
A7c/7Artisans 75mm f/1.25 MF

I have gone over this in prior posts but even though this is not a proper rangefinder it offers enough of the form…

Sony A7c and Leica CL

…and function to fulfill my needs. So much so that while I still have my M Mount lenses I have sold the last of my M Mount film cameras

Leica

…due to lack of use. Occasionally I regret these types of sales and consider repurchasing the camera. But that has not been the case here. I am perfectly fine with the A7c fulfilling my pseudo rangefinder needs.

DSLR Side

I really like the solid, brick like build of most film cameras. But there is one digital camera that delivers on this.

Pentax Normal SMCP-FA 50mm f/1.4
SMC Pentax-FA 28mm F2.8 AL

Pentax nailed that vintage feel along with providing all of the physical controls one could want on a camera, even down to a dedicated AF/MF switch.

Pentax K-1

It has so many physical controls I forget what one or two of them are for occasionally. As much as I love the old timey allure of my beloved Contax 137 MA Quartz mentioned above this camera matched it in every conceivable measure.

Vintage Glass

SLR

While you can adapt any manual focus vintage glass to most any modern full frame mirrorless camera…

AF Helios 44-2 58mm f/2
Random

…there is usually something lost when doing that. A feeling that you are using the lens in a different manner than it was originally designed. But here Pentax comes to the rescue again.

Pentax Normal SMCP-FA 50mm f/1.4
Pentax 50mm F/1.4

While you do lose the manual focus SLR lens matte screen Pentax does an excellent job implementing focus confirmation through the OVF and focus peaking in Live View. And crucially full native support of any Pentax AF lens ever. Nice.

Rangefinder

Covered M Mount lenses above, but I have also had a good time manual focusing with AF quasi-rangefinder lenses.

Sony A7c w/ Contax G Zeiss 28mm f/2.8
Contax G Biogon 28mm f/2.8

Medium Format

And last to the vintage lens party for me medium format glass via the Kipon Baveyes 0.7x adapter.

Kipon Baveyes 0.7x Optical Focal Reducer Lens Adapter

The link above goes into more detail, but the combination above works far better than it has any business doing.

Hasselblad 80mm f/2.8 - Kipon Baveyes - A7c

Will any of these replace shooting these lenses with film? No. But each has reduced my use of film cameras.

Image Quality

A large part of image quality goes down to the vintage lenses of course. So a good portion of the film look is covered by the last section.

But there is another aspect of film shooting that lenses alone cannot address. The film.

Some may scoff but there is something about the quality of film. The way black and white is rendered with the many shades of black. The way color is represented depending on the film stock used. The details. All of it.

Up until recently I had made my peace with digital sensor technology, but it still left me wanting more when compared directly to film. Convenience has been the major saving grace of digital.

I love black and white films like Rollei RPX 400.

Hasselblad 501c - Rollei RPX 400

But I have found another impressive digital black and white alternative.

Sigma dp2 Quattro

I also have a favorite color film, Lomography 400.

Film - 20200101 Durham Photo Walk - Lomography 400

Slide film Fujifilm Provia 100F is another favorite.

16 of 16 - Provia 100F w/ Pentax 645N

But there is another digital option I have found.

Sigma dp2 Quattro

What was the digital alternative to film for both black and white and color? The weird in use but also fantastic results Sigma dp2 Quattro.

Sigma dp2 Quattro

This is a camera that has nearly single handedly undone a recent post defending film cameras.

Slowing Down

With film photography a lot of ink is spilt about the benefits of slowing down and for good reason. Of course you could slow down with any camera theoretically. Just go slower. But in practice it is not that easy. Perhaps as a result of growing up in a microwave society I tend to shoot as swiftly as the camera I am using will let me. Blazing fast constant AF with 10 fps you say? Whoot! Brrrrrrrrrr…..brrrrrrrrrr…. And then just cull the bazillion images later, right? Just not the same.

I also tend to be impatient about reviewing photos and stop to look at them intermittently also.

But there is a recent digital acquisition of mine that, by way of its functional limitations, discourages this sort of behavior. Once again.

Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro

This camera’s limitations…

  • Contrast AF is not on par at all with the best of breed hybrid AF systems out there so there will be no spray and pray blasting away.
  • Takes a good amount of time to write to the SD Card. By the time it finishes writing to the card my attention span has moved on to other things.
  • Has no EVF and the screen is nigh indecipherable in direct sunlight which demands a greater level of focus than usual.
  • Battery life is decent now that I have some fresh batteries, but 200 shots a battery does make one consider whether or not you really want to burn through the battery for this shot.
  • Only usable up to 400 or 800 ISO at most so you will be swiftly reacquainted with film era camera holding techniques.

…force you to slow down whether you want to or not.

On paper this sounded awful admittedly. But in practice it has been a revelation as of late. It has brought about a take your time to shoot and worry about what you captured later experience I typically associated with film.

Combine these shortcomings turned into attributes (flaws as features?) with the film like image quality this camera delivers and it is quite an enjoyable experience for a part time film head like myself. I may come home with fewer photos. But my keeper rate has increased immensely every time I use this camera. I enjoy the dp2 so much that I am currently fighting the urge to pursue the same sensor with an even faster lens. But I am standing down for now.

Value

This has changed recently. I used to champion film cameras as a relatively affordable way to get into full frame photography. While this is still true with lower tier film cameras mid-tier and upper tier film cameras have been going through the roof recently. Cameras I tried only a couple of years ago and sold on are now worth multiples of what I paid for them.

For example in the past I purchased and tried a Voigtlander Bessa R2,

Voigtlander Bessa R2 (Olive) w/ Voigtlander Nokton Classic 40mm f/1.4

Leica M3,

Leica M3

and Contax G2

Contax G1 and G2

…and paid considerably less than a $1,000 for all three. Well I recently noticed that all three now go for more than $1,000. Considerably more in some cases. While I did not lose any money when selling any of these cameras I am wishing I had held on to them a little longer now.

Meanwhile full frame digital camera prices have dropped considerably recently. You can pick up a brand new Canon EOS RP or a Sony A7II right now for just under $1,000. Add a lens to either for less than used Voigtlander Bessa R2C body alone. And you can mount legacy glass to either digital all you want to. While not apples to apples I have to say that I am glad I bought these film cameras when I did because I seriously doubt I would ever spend the amount required currently.

And you know what else costs less than these film cameras? A Pentax K-1 new costs about the same as these cameras, and even less used. A Sigma dp2 Quattro costs less used or new. And the dp2 includes a lens.

Again. There are still quality, inexpensive film cameras to be had. But with brands like Voigtlander and Contax starting to creep upwards like other historically expensive brands it is not too far fetched to believe that these price increases will creep down into lower tier cameras as well. Especially since film cameras are a finite resource as they are no longer made. Due to breakage and/or folks like me that have no plans to relinquish their film cameras for fear of not being able to afford repurchasing them one day alone.

So with film cameras going up and digital full frame cameras coming down value is no longer as strong an argument as it used to be.

Conclusion

My opening question was “Can vintage digital be a thing?”. I believe so. But that is not really the question I ended up evaluating. What I ended up dealing with was:

Can current and older “vintage” digital cameras take the place of a film camera?

My answer for now is a qualified yes. Depends largely on what you use and what you are looking for.

Will I be giving up film? I doubt I ever will. While usage may go down over time every time I do make a trip out with a film camera I enjoy the experience. I enjoy the process of developing black and white film myself. I enjoy that moment when I pick up color film and hold it up to the light for the first time. I enjoy the process of scanning film. For me film is not going anywhere as long as there is film for sale.

As far as pricing goes I do not really have a conclusion. Just spit-balling really. Assessing trends I see in the camera market and changes in my own camera usage. If you have a film camera you may want to hold onto it. I do notice a significant climb in film camera prices over the last year and a half. Some film therapy going on perhaps? Perhaps film camera prices will normalize or even go down a bit when the pandemic finally passes (fingers crossed on both).

But one thing I can say is that the film/digital experience gap is closing for me.

Happy shooting.

-ELW

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