Dances With Digital Dilettantes – Pt 1

Shooting with film for the last five years or so has given me huge pleasure, taught me a great deal about the basics of composing and taking photographs, and created a small body of work I’m very happy with.

But there came a point some months back where I deconstructed what film photography gave me, and whether these benefits could be gained from a digital machine.

To my surprise, the majority of the reasons I shoot film, can be experienced very similarly (and some identically) using a digital camera.

Now I’ve begun exploring digital more again (I never stopped entirely, it was just secondary to film photography output wise), I want to simplify and get down to the essence of what I like about each machine I have.

With film, I’ve honed down pretty much to three SLR bodies with about a dozen lenses, plus three compacts.

I could feasibly go to two SLRs, maybe three lenses and two compacts. But I’m at peace with the kit I have now, so don’t feel a further “urge to purge”.

With digital though, I do want to hone down even further, and maybe this is in part due to the greater complexity of digital cameras.

With pretty much any film SLR, once you’re familiar with one, you can pick up any other and be taking pictures within a couple of minutes.

With digital cameras and their endless options and menus, this isn’t quite so simple.

I don’t want to learn the settings and menus all over again every time I pick up a camera, I want it to be instinctive and immediate, like an extension of my eye, hand and mind.

But is it possible to have and master just one digital camera that suits all my needs?

This is part one of a two part post on the five main digital cameras I have and have extensively used, what they do for me, and why I like them.

As usual on 35hunter, you won’t find extensive tech spec, 100% crops or pixel peeping. These are my purely subjective thoughts on how and why these cameras work (and fall short) for me and my photographic preferences.

Sony NEX3N

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Handling

Disappointing. The grip at the front isn’t big enough to grip, and it always feels like a slightly awkward device, rather than a camera.

Since I’ve always used the NEX with a vintage lens and adapter, I end up mostly holding the lens/adapter. Which is fine, but the NEX itself could have such better handling. With this set up the camera is always front heavy to, so is a bit awkward and unbalanced around your neck.

This is quite possibly its biggest downfall, for me, and it becomes even more apparent when I return to a camera with excellent handling.

It is small, but once you put on a vintage lens and adapter, the depth is the same as a DSLR. Maybe with a pancake Sony AF lens it would feel very different, but I have no interest in modern AF lenses.

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Flexibility

This is excellent. I have used the NEX with at least half a dozen different adapters for vintage lens mounts, and on Aperture Priority (Av) mode the NEX is very simple to use and gives reliable exposures.

Focus peaking is a huge plus, and makes focusing with all kinds of manual lenses (even very slow ones) a breeze.

It shoots RAW (JPEG is an option, I’ve not really used it) and has all the ISO range I have ever needed – ISO1600 is relatively clean and grainless on the occasions I’ve used it, though mostly I use it at ISO400.

The tilting screen adds a great deal, especially for low or high shots that you just couldn’t get into the right position with using a DSLR.

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Enjoyment

AV mode, with the tilting screen and focus peaking, makes playing with vintage lenses great fun. This is what my NEX quickly became – the body to test any new lens I discovered and purchased.

It’s the major reason why I bought over 100 lenses in 50 months.

But it remains very much a fun device for testing lenses. A device or tool, rather than a proper camera for the kind of immersion in a scene I so value.

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Its performance in terms of sharpness is unequivocal. And with the focus peaking you can finely craft exactly how you want your images to look in terms of focus placement and depth of field.

But I’ve never much liked the colours it gives.

Really, only the images that have had fairly radical (for me) post processing having pleased me, colour wise. Most of the time either the colour is flat and dull, or it’s vivid enough but too clean, too clinical, too, er, digital.

Which is a major flaw for my needs – I don’t want to be heavily processing images, when there are other cameras that give me very pleasing pictures and colour with next to no processing.

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Overall

The NEX has made tens of thousands on photographs in my hands. Whilst it’s a very capable tool, I’ve never bonded with it as a camera. And I have to do quite a bit with the final output to get it looking how I want. It took the discovery of the next digital body on the list to hammer these realisations home.

Pentax K10D (/Samsung GX10 / Samsung GX-1S)

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Handling

I loved the K10D the moment I picked it up. It just felt right in my hands and up against my eye. It’s not light, but its heft is reassuring and further enhances the handling, and the feeling that this is a serious, quality camera. I don’t think there’s anything I don’t like on this front.

The Samsung GX10 is a rebadged Pentax K10D, so handling is identical, as is everything else for the purpose of this review.

The GX-1S is a smaller, lighter body, with a 6MP CCD sensor, instead of the 10MP CCD in the K10D/GX10. The difference in weight and size is quite significant, the difference in image quality isn’t.

I think of the GX-1S as just a smaller, simpler version for when I want to travel lighter, otherwise all three cameras are very similar.

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Flexibility

These bodies can use any of my M42 lenses with a simple adapter to shoot on Manual mode, and any of my Pentax K lenses. They shoot RAW, and 90% of the time I keep them on their native ISO – 100 for the K10D/GX10, 200 for the GX-1S. All give highly usable images down to ISO400, when the light is less.

This is exactly the same ISO range I’m used to from shooting film, so I don’t bemoan the fact they can’t see in the dark and shoot at ISO6400, in fact I’ve never even used ISO800 on any of them.

That’s all the flexibility I need.

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Enjoyment

The K10D is a joy to use overall. Nothing else gets me as close to that immersion in the moment experience I get from 35mm SLRs.

Focusing with slower lenses can be tricky so I stick to faster ones, and anything f/2.8 or over presents no problems. The cameras’ focus confirm light helps if/when the light is tricky and has proved to be reliable.

I have found a couple of things that I don’t like so much.

After a while, maybe an hour of shooting, my eyes get really tired using the viewfinder (VF). This doesn’t happen with cameras with screens and no VF.

Also, with vintage lenses, exposures often need a bit of fine tuning. With the NEX, I get maybe one inaccurate exposure per 100 shots, it’s amazing. With theses DSLRs I’ve come to expect I need to shoot, tweak, maybe shoot once or twice again, and make use of the “blinkies” and histogram.

It’s good in that it makes me slow down and I rarely end up overall with what I think is a great shot, but that’s let down by poor exposure. But it’s sometimes frustrating to not be able to point and shoot and trust the exposure will be ok first time.

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Post processing for these cameras goes like this – Copy RAW files from SD card to computer. Import images into LightRoom. Export favourites as JPEG after LightRoom automatically does its very subtle tweaking. That’s it.

I love the colours the CCD sensor of the Pentax’s give combined with vintage lenses. It’s not film, but it gives a very pleasing, warm look that reminds me of film, and is very different to the cool, clinical performance of the NEX.

Ironically, those CCD sensors are the work of Sony! Maybe if they stuck one in a NEX I’d be far more happy with the final images from that! All in all, the K10D and its siblings produces my favourite photographs I’ve made that haven’t been on film (and some are amongst my favourites in any medium).

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Overall

The K10D has been a revelation. Being able to use my beloved vintage M42 Takumars, plus a few very appealing Pentax A series, on a “proper” camera with a great viewfinder and excellent handling, plus the convenience of digital, has made me very happy.

The only slight downside is the sometimes demanding need to be very precise with exposure and that the VF tires my eyes pretty quickly. I envisage continuing to use these bodies for when I want that slow, immersive, film-like experience with my favourite vintage lenses.

Nikon CoolPix P300

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Handling

Despite being a compact minimalist black block of plastic and metal (it always reminded me of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey), the Nikon is impressively reassuring to hold.

The little rubber strip down the front of the camera and the rubber thumb grip at the rear make the handling really quite good. No VF, but the screen is bright and clear and gives all the info you could ever need. The shutter button is responsive on half and full press and all other controls feel sturdily made.

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Flexibility

No RAW option, but when I got the CoolPix back in 2011 I was oblivious that this even existed, and it didn’t hold me back.

The camera has a variety of modes (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual) plus some very useful settings in the Scene modes. I made (and still make) extensive use of the high contrast b/w mode which gives really moody, inky and contrasty images straight out of camera.

For colour shots, a tweak of extra saturation gives me surprisingly pleasing colours without any further fiddling too.

A macro mode which goes down to a few centimetres adds to the flexibility, as does the zoom lens (which starts at a really wide 24mm and goes to 100mm, I think) and that screen which encourages different angles and closeness compared to a viewfinder camera.

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Enjoyment

When I got the Nikon I shot around 1000 photographs a month for eight months, before discovering film. In many ways this camera taught me how to compose, how to see in black and white, and how much I liked shooting up close with a blurred background.

It remains fun to use and really couldn’t be much more compact or versatile.

The only thing I would like is some indication of the focal length you were at, and a zoom with set steps, rather than zooming constantly. Obviously I know the wide end is 24mm and these days use it almost entirely at this focal length, but I would like to be able to set it to 35, 50 or 80 or 100mm, and know I was at that setting.

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Image

As mentioned above, for b/w I use the high contrast mode, and for colour I usually slightly increase the saturation in camera, and with the screen of course I can preview how it looks before I take the shot. Aside from that, I do nothing with the images the camera creates.

They never see LightRoom, and for that it feels one of the most streamlined and hassle free cameras to post process. I just download them from the camera, then choose the best and delete the rest. Ideal!

The only thing I’m not so keen on is the 4:3 aspect ratio which kind of feels an awkward compromise between 1:1 and the 3:2 of film, my NEX and my Pentax DSLRs I’m so used to.

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Overall

I have an attachment to this camera because it was my first “proper” digital camera after a few years playing with camera phones.

It’s also the camera that’s documented dozens of family trips and occasions, and I even shot (video) one of our best friends’ wedding, and they were delighted with the final film.

The more I’ve used other cameras since (and I’ve had a few!) the more I have appreciated the build quality, compactness, versatility and images from the Nikon. It cost me more than any other camera before or since (around £300) but has been tremendous value in the six years I’ve had it.

It’s an excellent compact, which for a while was – and still could be – sufficient for many dozens of pleasing photographs.

So those are the first three of five digital dilettantes, thanks for reading this far!

In the follow up post (read here) I’ll talk about two more digital cameras that have made a significant contribution to my photographic adventure, then sum up the whole lot, and make some decisions on what stays and what goes.

What’s your favourite digital camera? Please tell us about it in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

 

19 thoughts on “Dances With Digital Dilettantes – Pt 1”

  1. My favorite digicam is my Canon S95. I’ve made more photos with it than with all of my film cameras combined. I wish it rendered color better in its JPEGs — it’s muted color, which I gather is typical of Canons. It also shoots RAW, so I can fix color all day long in Photoshop. Thing is, I wish I didn’t *have* to. But other than that, I pray that it is many, many more years before this little camera wears out.

    After having shot Canon so many years, I know its menu system. My son has a friend from China, and when their family came to visit a few years ago and the boy’s mom wanted a group photo on her camera, I set it on my tripod and navigated the menu system *in Chinese* with no trouble because I know where things are.

    In comparison, using my Pentax K10D’s menus feels like getting into somebody else’s car to find that the gas pedal is on the left and the steering wheel has been replaced with a joystick. I can drive, but there’s a lot of cognitive load as I do it.

    1. Jim, your Canon sounds much like my Nikon CoolPix, a very capable digital P&S that’s been reliable for thousands of photographs… Are there any saturation or hue settings, or is there a “scene” mode you could try to add a bit more punch to the in-camera jpegs?

      I’m sure the K10D will soon fit like a glove. I think once you’ve set up that initial stuff like making sure it’ll let you use a manual aperture lens, the day to day, photo to photo tweaking in the menus is minimal.

      The only thing I really adjust is ISO occasionally if light is lower (Fn button, press right, adjust as required) but 95% of the time it’s at ISO100. I do need to change the exposure quite often, as I explained above, but this is just a case of looking at the screen and if anything looks overblown (I have the “blinkies” on which show over and under exposed areas) I shoot again with the shutter speed a stop or half stop adjusted.

      The main menus I don’t really need to go in now. I think you’ll find the same in time and it’s a really instinctive camera to use.

      1. Oh yes, just like my S95 I can see that I’ll have two, three settings I change in the field on the K10D and I’ll get good with them. I adjusted ISO several times in Chicago and I think I have that down. White balance too — I don’t like the choices AWB makes indoors.

      2. The K10D is a camera I’m sure you’ll come to bond with. I don’t really shoot indoors so just leave the WB on auto. Also, whilst I might change the ISO to 200 or 400 when there’s less light, mostly I stick with the native ISO100 of the sensor. This is where the K10D shines most, and for me it’s just like shooting Superia 100 for example, so I’m used to the range of shutter speeds and apertures typical at this relatively slow ISO. The K10D also has shake reduction so hopefully that buys us an extra stop or two of shutter speed compared with a film camera with ISO100 film. I wouldn’t recommend going above ISO400, I think you’ll quickly see the performance crash.

  2. I love my K-5, it’s my only digital camera and I mostly only use K- or M- Pentax lenses with it, though I do have two autofocus lenses which are useful sometimes. It has a setting that produces JPEGs with some lovely colours called ‘slide film’, and while it doesn’t look like film I often really like the way those shots look.

    I always shoot in raw as well so there’s no worry about changing colours or even exposure after the fact. I like editing too (unlike you!), I don’t spend more than 10 minutes on a photo but I find the process quite enjoyable. Sometimes I can salvage something I like from something that didn’t work straight out of the camera – which is useful as I mostly shoot street stuff that can’t be repeated.

    1. Thanks for your input Sam. I’ve read lots of praise about the K-5. If you find a scene or custom mode that gives you colours you like, that’s brilliant. That’s what I did/do with my Nikon Coolpix for b/w, always use the high contrast mono mode.

      Yeh I’m not so keen on PP! Plus what I tend to photograph is usually very static and I can take my time to get the settings as right as possible there and then in camera. I just found this is quite straightforward with the K10D, but with my NEX say, I hardly ever like the images straight out of camera and end up doing some fairly dramatic changes with a LightRoom preset etc.

  3. As you well know I have that love/hate relation to digital…. sometimes I long for a digital camera, sometimes I bought one only to sell it again soon after.

    Those last weeks I’ve been thinking about the Canon EOS 400D I had up to 2012…. cheap as chips now, or a Pentax (you Mase me look into that one). Of course with manual M42 lenses… but for the moment my film cameras make me happy!

    And the iPhone, which I shoot in square format, contrasty b&w setting.

    1. I do feel in the same boat Frank, re the love/hate thing. Most digital images I see I really don’t like! So when I find something like the cameras above (and those in part two to come) that do give me images I like, it’s really exciting. The CoolPix for b/w shots, the K10D for colour. And my iPhone for Lomo/Instagram stuff, mostly in square format, like you.

      Let me know if you need any pointers on Pentax, I’ll help if I can!

  4. Interesting series of posts recently Dan. I’ll post my view on film v digital on your other post but I share much of your experience with digital cameras. Like you I’ve recently been fiddling in CSC land abet with micro 4/3 cameras (both Olympus PEN & Panasonic Lumix). I’m left feeling underwhelmed by these technically very good and capable cameras. I’m struck I just can’t use them properly although when They work they are pretty good. The same cannot be said for my dSLR a Nikon d50. This often overlooked as junk now with a 6MP sensor and very limited ISO range, but Nikon produced a storming camera that within its limits is very capable and in good conditions feels little different form using my AF film Nikons (and unlike any later entry level dSLR works fully with all my F mount lenses from the mid 70’s AI revision on.Its a camera that has served me and my family since my 13 y.o Daughter was born and still works today. It also doesn’t lend itself to doing my biggest bug bear on Flickr – the HDR image (great on smart phones but elsewhere can we not move on !!!)

    1. Thanks Alan. The Sony NEX is technically excellent but kind of soulless – in use and in the images. I think it’s evident that it’s made by an electronics giant, not a camera manufacturer. My Pentax K10D, it sounds like your Nikon D50, is an older SLR made by a company with great pedigree and experience in what photographers need and enjoy – great handling and viewfinder, intuitive design and function and of course the images.

      I’ve read that with many of the earlier DSLRs, the CCD sensors were optimised to give colours and grain/noise that resembled film as far as possible, to encourage film users to make the jump to digital. As time went on and CMOS sensors became the norm rather than CCD, the look and colours have become more neutral, clinical, and, well, digital looking. This is a major difference between pictures from my Sony NEX (16MP CMOS) and Pentax K10D (10MP CCD). The Pentax makes lovely, warm, natural images (to me eye), the Sony’s are cool, bland, clinical, and somehow lifeless.

      1. I’m with you in part Dan but my iPhone messes that argument up neatly as it produces quite warm less clinical shots in good conditions before I even get into the filter milarky with its CMOS sensor. I found my first 2 CSC particularly soulless (sadly Olympus worse than Panasonic IMHO) and uninvolving. But I’ve now got a G2 and whilst the EVF is no where as good as a SLR Viewfinder, it switches it too a much more involving camera

        1. We can never know what other internal processing goes on with cameras and their “jpeg engine”.

          I wonder if even the standard iPhone jpegs have been warmed up a bit, and increased in saturation, so as to look more appealing.

          I used to use one of the in built filters (Transfer) for 95% of shots and really liked the look, and a few of the others (Process, Instant, Chrome) are fun in certain situations. But Hipstamatic gives a whole other level of adjustments. More on that in part two! : )

          Disappointing to hear about your Olympus experiences when they come from such an amazing and innovative heritage. Panasonic you might expect more from too, given their fairly long standing Leica connections.

          I’ve heard many talk about the colours of the Fuji X series as very pleasing, and those cameras have in built film emulations of some of Fuji’s classic emulsions I believe too.

  5. With regard to the Coolpix, that’s surprisingly similar to my story.

    I bought an A300 around the start of the year and shot around 3,000 “keepers” with it. All sorts of stuff from landscapes to street shots and lots in between. I loved it. But then I learned a bit more about its limitations and the possibilities offered by a “better” camera. In particular, after getting into 35mm SLRs I wanted manual control. So I sold a load of film gear and did a lot of online window shopping. Eventually I bought a used Coolpix S9900 in excellent condition and that’s my main digital camera today.

    I do keep toying with the notion of an older DSLR but that’s really only for the larger sensor. To be honest, I’m not looking at any pictures I’ve shot and thinking “if only I had a larger sensor”, it’s just pure GAS! But I usually take a pocket sized digital with me wherever I go. Not sure that would be the case with a DSLR and, like you, much as I love my iPhone SE, I’m not going to rely on it as my only camera.

    There’s a short video on YouTube of Daido Moriyama shooting with a compact digital (probalby a Ricoh GR) and that sums up what I like about them. They’re capable, portable and unobtrusive.

    I think the biggest adjustment that I have to make with my digital cameras is understanding the difference between the image displayed on the rear screen, and the actual image recorded. There’s often a slight difference in exposure/brightness. I tend to leave the camera set about 0.3 stops under and for colour I turn the saturation down one “notch”.

    For whatever reason though, I like the black and white pictures it takes better than the colour ones. For that I use either the in-built “high contrast B&W” setting or simply leave it in P mode and turn the saturation right down if I want to alter the ISO settings manually.

    1. Richard, interesting to hear your experiences too.

      In truth, there’s very little my Coolpix can’t do. I don’t crave any “better” resolution, the colour shots are more than adequate with a touch of extra saturation, and the high contrast b/w shots I really like.

      It could be my sole camera, let alone my sole digital camera. And it was for about the eight months after I bought in 2011/12. I took thousands of pictures and must have a couple of dozen I still love now.

      Then I found film, and as you probably know, tried about 100 cameras in 50 months, and now feel I’ve almost come full circle.

      In the second part I’m going to talk about my iPhone, and my newest digital, the Ricoh GR Digital III which has been a complete gamechanger…

      1. Hopefully post it tonight or tomorrow night. In the meantime check out the best shots I’ve got so far with the GR Digital III on my Flickr –

        Thanks for reading Richard, and the encouraging words.

  6. Hi Dan, Interesting insights. I find it reassuring reading your blog and Instagram posts, that I am not alone, an awful lot of what you express is very similar to my own experience. Like you I shoot Sony and Pentax. You mentioned warmth of Pentax photos the other day when we spoke on Instagram, your comments in this article too got me thinking, I can’t help wondering why Sony cameras have that characteristic. I wonder if it’s down to white balance implementation. Each camera manufacturer would control that with thier own algorithms. I tried it on my A7, and it just might be the reason, though would that carry through to the Raw file? Anyway talking of balance an Nex cameras , have a look at Sony A3000, they tend to be cheap, DSLR styled e-mount, so deep grip, a 20mp sensor, with a built in evf. For less than £100.

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