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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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