Monday, August 12, 2013

Back to Nature

In the book Looking at Photographs 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (p.4), John Szarkowski remarked,

 "When Daguerre announced his great invention to the public in the summer of 1839, he explained how it worked but not really what it was for.  The process was obviously a miracle of the age of science, and like many miracle it was self-justifying.  Painters did say that it would be a great aid to art, and physicists said it would be a great aid to science, but the important thing, on which every one agreed, was that it was astonishing.  Pictures of exquisite perfection had been formed directly by the process of nature."

It seems safe to assume that the contest for supremacy between film vs. digital is for the most part over.  Chemical photography has had an amazing run for almost 200 years and changed how we see the world forever. However, digital has finally surpassed it.  While I exclusively shoot digital, once in a great while there comes temptation to return to nature and snap pictures the old way.

The instrument of choice this time around was the compact Nikon FG of 1980s vintage.  Not obvious to many English readers, the word camera itself is Latin for room.  In this dark, light-proof chamber the photo-sensitive material is kept, ready to be imprinted by the force of nature.  A door at one side of the room opens up to let in the precise amount of light to flood the chemical plate.

Nikon FG

Sometime in its long history the chemical plate was replaced by a more portable (albeit highly flammable) nitrate film and later by the safer acetate kind.  The film used in this session was the non-flammable Kodak Ektar 100.

Cameras of this vintage, including the Nikon FG, benefited from the early days of electronic miniaturization.  In addition to fully manual operation, the Nikon FG has both Aperture Priority as well as Fully Automatic exposure modes.  Lenses from this era, including the 50mm f/1.8 used here, are mostly all mechanical, manual focus type.  Zoom is foot operated, leaving your hands to do other functions.

Despite being from 30 years back, the Nikon FG feels very comfortable and totally up to date.  Manual focusing, aided by a split-image spot, is quick and accurate. The shutter sound accompanied by the requisite mirror flapping is to die for.

Focusing tips from the Nikon FG manual

Unlike digital technology, with which you can shoot hundreds of photos into a memory card, the Kodak Ektar 100 comes in a roll containing 36 exposures.  In this photo session, I made the mistake of carrying only one roll of film and was caught wanting.  There were two forces that colluded to hasten me to use up the precious frames.  The first was my trigger happy digital finger, and the second was the desire to go home with a fully exposed roll so I could immediately develop it.  After all, chimping is not possible when you shoot film.  I had no idea whether the camera's electronics were giving me accurate exposure.  It was not until much later that afternoon that I got the result below. 


Now I know that the electronics and optics of this 30 year old instrument work properly.

Some positive impressions I got from this back-to-nature session:
  • The Nikon FG is one sweet retro camera
  • Shooting film in bright day in a busy street feels comfortable and quite natural
  • Shutter click with mirror flapping is sweet and very satisfying
  • No video button to distract you
  • Costco in my area still does C-41 processing.  Developing 36 film + Scanning to CD is under $5.  Prints are extra.  Scanned jpgs are 2.4MB (3087x2048 pixels). This compares favorably to Walgreens (0.9MB, 1800x1215 pixels)

Some challenges that I encountered:
  • You only have 36 (or 24) shots per roll, of which I had only brought one
  • If you just want to shoot a couple of photos, you can't have them until you finish the entire roll
  • When you are done with a roll, you need to go to a lab and have it developed.  Inexpensive but more money than digital
  • No chimping.  You have no idea whether your shot was good
  • No video button
  • You choose your ISO when you buy the film

All in all, I am very happy with this out of the ordinary session down memory lane.  I have a renewed respect and appreciation for this piece of time-tested technology.  The Nikon FG is definitely a keeper. The complete set from this session can be seen here. 

In time long past, Louis Daguerre introduced a way to harness nature to produce detailed images and the world has never been the same.