Beneath The Old Elm – A Nostalgic Wander With A Former Flame

Back in 2010, my photography life had thus far looked like this…

2006 – 2010 Made photos with a Sony Ericsson camera phone.

Er, that was pretty much it.

Aside from a two pack flirtation with a Polaroid and my best friend and partner at the time, I’d used no other cameras but those on my phones.

Mid 2010 saw me upgrade to the Sony Ericsson j10i2, more endearingly known as the Sony Elm.

The major factors in my choice were my previous familiarity with Sony, and the reputation of the camera, another step (to 5MP!) from my previous, and already very capable, 3.2MP model.

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The other day I remembered I still had it in a box, and wondered if it still worked.

A quick charge later, it did, and does.

So I decided to take it out for a wander to see how it felt compared not only with my latest phone, another Sony, the G8441 (aka Xperia ZX1 Compact, seriously, what is it with Sony and their dull model names?) but with the other “holy trinity” of three cameras I’ve settled on as my core arsenal – the Ricoh GX100, Ricoh GRD III and Pentax Q.

You know me, I don’t encourage tedious tech talk, what matters is how easy the phone is to use, how much you enjoy using it, and what it’s capable of.

These are my main thoughts about going back to the Sony Elm. 

First, it’s tiny and very light.

My Xperia (the “Compact” version of the bigger ZX1) is still modest in size compared with some smartphones today, and doesn’t require a crowbar and/or a tub of lubricant to remove from your trouser pocket every time you want to use it.

But the Elm is so much smaller.

It weighs only 90g compared with the Xperia’s by no means heavy 156g. The Elm just disappeared into my pocket, I had to keep checking it was still there. I love that low profile, that invisibility.

Better still, although very little, it still handles well as a phone, significantly better than the Xperia, or my old iPhone 5C.

Partly because as its smaller you can grip it better, and partly because of its tapered shape with a grooved back where your right middle finger rests and grips. Quite a contrast to the slick black monolith Xperia, which like most smartphones, handles like a slab of smooth cold granite.

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The Elm has a proper shutter button too, with half press to lock focus, and normal buttons to select up and down through the settings.

Initial set up was quick – Normal shoot mode, Auto Scene, 5MP, Macro Focus enabled (down to 0.1m), Flash off, Normal Metering, Auto White Balance, Black and White Effect. Quite a lot to play with and strangely so much more like a compact digital camera to use with those “proper” buttons and simple menus than my Xperia or previous iPhone.

Once I chose those options, all I used was the shutter button half press to lock focus, recomposed if required, then pushed the shutter button all the way to capture the photo.

This simplicity, compared with its almost invisible presence, makes the little Elm as close to the ultimate point and shoot as you can probably get.

When you squeeze the shutter, all icons disappear from the screen except the focus square in the centre, which starts white then turns green once locked, along with another green light that flashes then locks at the top left of the screen. Again, very simple, very obvious, very pure.

After a few shots the Elm became second nature to use again, and half a dozen shots later I even became oblivious to the seriously cracked screen.

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Sony Elm, centre, flanked by the Pentax Q and Sony Xperia ZX1 Compact

Once home I found the quickest way to upload the images was to bluetooth them all in one go to my Xperia, which then auto syncs with Google Photos.

All the previously mentions of compactness would mean far less if the core performance of the Elm was under par. 

The in-camera b/w mode is quite good, but I used it mostly so I could see the compositions in b/w not colour when shooting, then used my usual Snapseed preset to add a little contrast and mood. The results didn’t disappoint.

Later on the same walk I put the Sony away and used my Ricoh GX100 for a while, on paper a far more sophisticated, dedicated 10MP camera.

Sifting through the photos afterwards though, aside from when I went really close with the Ricoh (0.01m compared with the Elm’s still very respectable 0.1m), I struggled to distinguish which photos came from which camera.

The Elm in some shots seem to handle the light even better than the Ricoh, too, or certainly more to my liking for the mood I seek.

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Once again I believe this experiment proves that we don’t need anything like as sophisticated a camera (or collection of cameras) as we think we do.

The Sony Elm is not even one of those cameras you’d say “it’s not bad, considering its age and sensor”.

I feel the images it’s capable of are still really decent today, and stand up more than adequately for my needs on all fronts. (The photos in the post are all from that walk with the Elm.)

The Sony Elm is so light, small, easy to use, and capable in the final image, I could easily use it as my only camera and make photographs I’m proud of.

So what next? Sell everything else and use just the Elm?

Well, no.

I like my aforementioned “holy trinity” of digital compacts too much, and they are all more of a pleasure to use, with more control, when I need it. There’s no reason to keep the Elm at all.

But for now, just because it seems to fit my simplicity and invisible camera causes so well, I’m keeping it for another outing or two and see where that leads me…

Which cameras from your past do you remember fondly for their simplicity, fun, compactness, directness, or anything else that your current kit might lack? 

Please share your thoughts and experiences below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

26 thoughts on “Beneath The Old Elm – A Nostalgic Wander With A Former Flame”

  1. As we discussed recently, for me it’s also a very Spartan camera phone, the LG KC550. Many things you mention about the Sony Elm also apply to the LG.

    Ultimate camera in terms of fun, unpredictability and delicious imperfections: the Holga 120 CFN (I just put an extra gallery on my site with Holga photos). If money were not an issue, it could be the only camera that I would use. The copy that I still own is broken beyond repair (even for a Holga), but – maybe for sentimental reasons – I might look for another one.

    Honorable mention: the first generation Leica D-Lux (3.2 mp), my first digital camera. Beautiful compact camera, with an actual viewfinder (although tiny). After that I used my share of compacts, but never with the same “feel” as the first D-Lux.

    1. Robert, love your Holga images, they’re wonderful. I’m currently playing with my 07 lens on my Pentax Q to get close to something like this, by changing how far in the lens sits in the surrounding mount. Very much trial and error, the default focus is stated as 0.6-2m I think, mine currently seems to not be focusing on anything at any distance! So more playing needed. I’m also thinking about using the surrounding mount and putting a different lens in the centre, something of a cheap plastic and/or disposable film camera, for example, see how that looks.

      A Holga 120N was my first film camera (aside from the Polaroid mentioned above which I don’t really remember) so like yours it holds very fond memories. I also modded mine a little to use 35mm film, as the 120 film was just too expensive to have processed. I should probably shoot a roll every now and then a treat, I still have it….

      Not quite the same, but have you ever used a Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim, or one of the Superheadz clones? Again, a very quirky and individual look.

      Yes we spoke about the D-Lux before, and older digital cameras (including phone cams) just seemed to have more charm and personality than those today… Plus I’m just not much of a fan of using a touch screen device to take pictures, I prefer physical buttons you can gently squeeze rather than jab!

      1. Dan, I also tried to simulate the “Holga look” digitally, especially on smartphones with Hipstamatic or Android’s Vignette app. Not the same thing – not so much in terms of end results, but more in the overall process. The thing about digital photography is that – because it is so easy and so cheap – one takes lots of pictures for the sake of taking pictures. Not because of occuring moments that are special for whatever personal reason. I only picked up the Holga – for budget reasons to start with – when there was really something “worth” photographing. From all those photos in my Holga gallery I remember very well when I took them, with who I was, how I felt, and so on.

        It is perhaps my biggest struggle with digital photography, and especially mobile photography – the devaluation of the emotional value of photos; 99% ends as a forgotten files on a hard drive (best scenario) or in the digital bin (most likely scenario).

        I never used the Vivitar and Superheadz, but I did have a Lubitel (hated it, gave it to a friend with more patience) and a Konica Pop (fantastic, but not really “lo-fi” results).

        1. Robert yes that is one major pitfall with digital photography, not taking hundreds of pictures just because you can.

          Oh I had a Konica Pop, great fun, and its more sophisticated sibling the C35 EF3 which was probably my favourite compact camera of that era and the lens frequently dazzled… My Pop had an intermittent light leak that for me added to the charm of the images.

        2. I think now I’m more interested in not so much simulating the Holga look, but more the simplicity of use. There are so few controls you have no choice but to try to learn how to get the best from the camera in other ways, play to its strengths without any short cuts or tricks. I’m exploring this to some extent with digital now, like the Sony Elm. For example I’m quite used to have exposure lock and focus lock. The Elm has both, but only together. It also has exposure compensation. So I have to think about different ways of getting the exposure I want, as well as it focusing on the right subject, whereas with a camera with these functions independent you just lock one, then the other, then recompose and shoot. I like that simpler cameras require more creative thinking and encourage you to explore them more.

          1. Personally, I already simplified the technical aspect, I think. Only one camera (my smartphone), just shooting in native ratio 4: 3, and sticking to two Snapseed recipes (one for color, one for black and white).
            Current challenge is to simplify WHAT I shoot. I quit looking for possible online feed content, getting “likeable” single shots that ultimately have no meaning to me. I want to make photos that have some personal value, however trivial that meaning may be. The series Fragments that I recently started on my blog helps with that. I now try to take pictures without thinking about the “sharing” aspect at all, and then choose to share the photos that I personally like for whatever reason.

          2. So Robert, in simplifying what you shoot, are you thinking about narrowing down to specific subjects or genres, or purely making pictures of anything or any moment that has some personal value to you?

          3. Dan, probably a bit of both. Eric Kim wrote a nice post on his blog on this topic today. He says, among other things: “Make photos like you were the only one to look at them.” That is a nice summary of how I look at photography right now. In the past I sometimes took a picture, thinking “Ah, people on Tumblr or Instagram are going to like this.” That is, of course, absurd. So yes, only photos that mean something to me personally (that can be something as simple as a color that I like), even though that context will be unknown to others.

          4. It’s a dilemma for all artists, especially once we have even a taste of an audience of some kind. We like the attention and so – maybe even subconsciously at first – try to give the audience more of what they like(d).

            I’m currently debating this with my Flickr. I’m wondering whether to make public again some of the photos that have gained me most views. Trouble is, something like 16 of my top 20 most viewed photos are pictures of cameras and/or lenses, and I don’t want my stream to be about gear now. But they did get me a lot of views, some of which likely converted to 35hunter readers.

            I think I’ve just answered my own dilemma though – I don’t want a stream that highlights gear, just my own best photographs.

      2. If you can’t get the 07 to focus it is because the glass element was accidentally inserted upside down. Easily done. I thought the direction did not matter at 1st till somebody had exactly the same problem as you described.

  2. Nope, no past camera like this for me. My photographic journey has had a strong aspect of trying a lot of cameras in hopes of finding those that would be my “forever gear.” Once I find a camera that really works for me, like my Canon S95, I keep using it until it dies.

    1. Jim I’m sure I could have done this with the Elm and with other phone cams before it, based on the camera, but more often than not it’s because other aspects of the phone just start to fail or it becomes too slow etc. Same with my iPhone I upgraded a few months ago – great camera, just not enough storage.

      Interestingly, with the Elm, though I’m purely using the internal memory and not a removable memory card, I haven’t had any issues with it filling up. Lower MP also means less storage required, and smaller, faster files.

      Other than these other reasons for phone upgrades, I might still be shooting the Elm as my main cam!

      1. My wife wanted a capable point-and-shoot digicam for her birthday — she’s long been a DSLR shooter but had grown tired of lugging it about. So I bought her a Sony RX100 Mk 1. It cost about $400 (compared to the current Mk 5 being about $1000) and is bloody brilliant. If my Canon S95 dies I’ll probably replace it with an RX100. It’s only slightly larger (thicker, actually) and is almost magical in how it gets exposure right, and renders color.

        1. Oh I’ve heard very good things about the RX100, it’s been on my sort of future wish list for a while. A friend of mine on Flickr who’s been a photographer for decades thinks they’re amazing.

  3. The two pictures of mine with the highest number of views were taken with an LG phone I got free for buying a years worth of Tracfone minutes. I only retired it because it became glitchy and couldnt be repaired after 3 years. My $200 iPhone is nice, but I wouldn’t say it takes better pictures. It is more resistant to flare though.

    1. Jon, I’m having to exercise huge restraint to not hit eBay and explore a whole range of 8-10 year old camera phones, as well as Sony Cybershot compacts from the same era!

  4. Well it wouldn’t be my phone 🙂 I am still resisting the smart phone and use an old Nokia dumb phone. It’s tiny, makes calls and texts and lasts a week on a charge … but takes pretty bad photos.

    Probably an old Yashica zoom compact I had in the nineties. I can’t even remember the model exactly … a google suggests Zoomtec 90? What I do remember is it had a very bright easy to use viewfinder and was fully auto with the only controls being flash or no flash and the zoom control on the back where the winding lever would have been if it had one. It consistently took sharp, well exposed contrasty pictures, with absolutely minimal effort other than deciding what to put in the viewfinder. I mostly just used it for holiday and family snaps.

    1. Smartphones are magnificent devices in so many ways, but I do often prefer the good old buttons of an old phone!

      Do you have any interest in exploring getting something like that old Yashica again?

      1. Hmm. I have enough to digest at the moment 😉 I actually have a non zoom 35mm point and shoot I picked up with some other gubbins A Minolta AFS-V “Talker”. It actually talks to you. “Too Dark! Use Flash!” and “Load Film”. Very 80s. it’s not all that consistent about it and thankfully you can switch that off. Seems to work, seals are good and I should imagine it has a decent enough lens. I might give it a whirl at a family gathering. I find that some people find SLRs and the like a bit intimidating and act a bit weird when you take their picture with one.

        1. Oh I’ve had an AF-S, but a non talking version. I’ve had two actually as I sold the first one then went through two dozen (or more!) other similar 35/2.8 compacts that weren’t as good so went back to the Minolta. Cracking little compact, great lens and I love the foolproof film loading with that translucent door you close.

  5. I loved my iPhone 3GS. It couldn’t handle high contrast at all, which to most people would be a bad thing, but I loved it! Made for some interesting effects depending on where you selected your focus point. And of course with its curves it was easier to hold than most current smartphones. Great phone/camera, I miss it.

    1. That’s even older than my Sony Elm I think, and “only” a 3MP camera! I resisted iPhones for years and years, even though I loved MacBooks. These days pretty much everyone has caught up.

      You could pick up an old iPhone for next to nothing I’m sure. My Sony doesn’t have an active SIM, I use it purely for taking photos, then sending via Bluetooth to my Xperia.

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