Analogue film cameras: 50 years of classic photography
Image credit: Bernie Boston/ The Washington Post
While no one can doubt that 1967 has left us with a body of photographic gems from a Golden Age that is still with us, the hardware (cameras) and the software (film) were severely limited in comparison with today’s digital incarnation of the technology. It was all so different then.
It was the shot that was seen around the world. Bernie Boston’s ‘Flower Power’ image of a Vietnam War protester offering a single flower to a phalanx of armed military police outside the Pentagon. It was the Summer of Love, and if any single photograph summed up the philosophy of ‘make love not war’, it was this. Boston took several versions of this iconic photograph, and while underground protest movements were urging the US government to ‘get the hell out of Vietnam’, their protests were being recorded on mechanical cameras using analogue film.
While the likes of war photographers Larry Burrows and Paul Schutzer were sending back rolls of film from the front line a world away, in London the Beatles were sitting for David Bailey; Terence Donovan was imortalising Carnaby Street fashion with his industrial backdrop images of a youthful Twiggy; and, not to be outdone, in the States, Jim Marshall was racking up stage shots of Jimi Hendrix live at the Panhandle. All of these images were to survive, to inform our view of what the 1960s was like, and in some respects have contributed to a bias that takes us away from the reality of economic uncertainty and post-war austerity.
One photographer from the era, Tony Howarth, remembers with fond nostalgia a glittering ‘scene’ where photographers were “well paid and achieved a similar celebrity status to the musicians and models we shot”. This, says Howarth, was because there were “fewer people taking photographs in those days. Cameras were expensive and photography was in the hands of the cultural elite”, despite the boom in colour magazines that was creating a market for photography as it moved away from trying to find an identity as an art form to setting the agenda.
But what were the cameras like in those days? According to Steve Watkins, editor of Outdoor Photography magazine: “Although they might have seemed very advanced at the time, cameras really were very simple, basic machines. The camera body was pretty much a film holder and their operation was strictly via a shutter release button.” He says that while higher-end cameras allowed you to change aperture and shutter speed, and while there might even be an onboard light meter in the form of a moving needle, “these things were rudimentary in comparison with the digital machines that we use today. There was nothing concrete you could hang your hat on in terms of guaranteeing what you’d get once you’d processed the film.”
One of the biggest limitations faced by field photographers was that even if you were using 35mm film, you’d be limited to 36 exposures before needing a new film. While photography consumables came at an expense premium, the real problem was the time taken in changing the film, leading to war and sports photographers routinely having three cameras slung around their necks, with variables such as aperture and shutter speed on standard settings (such as f8 at 1/125th sec). Watkins says: “Because there was no review feedback on these cameras you were pretty much shooting blind. Experience gave you some idea of what you might end up with in certain conditions. But the guys who were shooting fast-moving stuff couldn’t have had much grasp of what was going on in that respect.” Where they really set the gold standard, though, was in that they “would get absolute belters of shots because they weren’t distracted by fiddling around with knobs and dials on the camera”.
Often these shots would have to be rescued in the darkroom: “But even that was difficult, because the latitude with negatives was small compared with what you can do today with a digital file,” continues Watkins. “It was all very basic and limited. But what they brought to the party, which is perhaps lost now, is that because of their limitations, they had to shoot really carefully. They didn’t worry so much about the technical aspects and concentrated much more on the content of the scene before them. With digital, we seem to have become more concerned with the technical perfection of a picture, and when you have so much information at your fingertips, the camera can actually get in the way.”
In the pre-digital age, photographers such as Burrows and Schutzer would be using 35mm film in handheld cameras such as the Leica M4, while more studio-based photographers such as Bailey and Donovan often preferred a larger format film that would require bigger, more static cameras with tripods and long exposures. Whichever film was used, one of the real problems was with exposure. “The more you got away from what you’d intended to get on the film,” claims Watkins, “the more obvious it became that you were essentially restoring photographs, and you’d get too much grain in the picture or you’d lose image detail. Today, in digital, you have typically four times more bandwidth.”
One of a new generation of National Geographic photographers, Kilian Schönberger, says: “Film photography was a much more aware way of working. It’s a different experience to hold film in your hands compared with looking at a digital file on a screen. Also the whole issue of visual communication has changed since the high days of film photography. Back then, a photograph showed what had happened in the past. Today, with live streams and social media, we use photography to communicate what is happening now.”
The big debate
Although there are photographers that, to this day, prefer to shoot on film rather than digital for artistic or creative reasons, there is little technical or scientific data to support the analogue mode being ‘better’ than digital. At the end of the day, the medium on which you chose to capture your photons is a matter of personal choice. But before going down the ‘retro is good’ route, here are seven points to consider (but, as with all things to do with photography, there are many, many more…)
- Resolution. On digital cameras this is calculated by the pixel count within a given area, while on film we arrive at the figure via angular resolution. Tests have shown that while various 35mm films will give results from 4 to 16 million pixels (MP), today entry-level DSLRs routinely give 24MP, which means that, in terms of resolution, digital outperforms analogue.
- Instant review and turnaround. The handy little display monitors on the back of DSLRs are more than handy. They provide ‘field verification’ when it comes to crucial issues such as composition, exposure and simply whether the shot has been recorded or not. Removable data cards and USB connectivity means that your images can be in their editing environment and onto your file-sharing and social media platforms straight away. With film, you don’t honestly know what you’ve got until it is processed by the lab or in the darkroom. Even then, you still need to digitise your results if you want to publish your photos effectively.
- Digital noise / film grain. These are artefacts in the finished product caused by the sensor or film being pushed beyond its performance limit due to low light conditions. ISO (replacing ASA and DIN) is the standard for measuring film’s sensitivity to light and comes in fixed units of 100, 200, etc. The higher the number the better the sensitivity, but the more grain. To change ISO on an analogue camera you must change film (or go through the fiddly procedure of ‘pushing’ or ‘pulling’ film). With digital, it’s a software or manual dial option, or can be addressed automatically.
- Archiving. Remember all those flat yellow boxed of prints and transparencies that were never captioned or dated, that got lost or were victim to a garage clear out? Digital photographs contain metadata (including shooting information such as aperture, speed, date, ISO, focal length, GPS co-ordinates…) and when managed properly in software with strong database search capabilities (such as Light Room), can be captioned, watermarked, key-worded and kept in virtual collections.
- Dynamic range. The unit of measurement is the ‘stop’, a measure of exposure relating to either the halving or doubling of light. This was once the big advantage of film that has 13 stops of dynamic range. But, in 2005, digital cameras started to catch up and today routinely come in at about 14 stops, with high-end units reaching 15, making the issue moot.
- Film speed. Film usually comes in speeds from 100 to 3200 ISO (where 100 is slower relatively grain free, compared with the faster but heavily grained 3200). Digital sensors easily match the grain performance of these films, while extending their light sensitivity many stops higher. Consumer cameras can simulate light sensitivity of 51,200 ISO, while the professional Nikon D4S takes you up to 409,600, meaning that it’s no exaggeration to say that you can now take photographs in the dark.
- Post-processing. This is the term given to quality improvement techniques applied to a photograph after it has been taken. With film, this was done in a darkroom laboratory, employing techniques such as dodging, burning and masking to manipulate over- and under-exposure, as well as sharpening. These techniques require great skill, a lot of time, dangerous chemicals and a brain like a computer. Today, even the most modest of post-processing software can handle these processes non-destructively on your laptop with virtual sliders and automatic functions.
On the other hand, digital photography inevitably requires batteries, chargers, leads, backup drives and a whole gadget bag of electronic bits and pieces. And if you drop your digital camera – especially in water – you’ll be taking a walk to your nearest camera shop for a new one. Analogue cameras are, by comparison, future proof and virtually indestructible.
Camera technology through the ages
1502 - Leonardo da Vinci writes the first known description of the camera obscura.
1835 - Henry Fox Talbot produces silver-chloride negatives on paper.
1839 - Louis Daguerre introduces the daguerreotype process creating detailed permanent images on silver-plated sheets of copper (later in 1841, the calotype)
1861 - James Clerk Maxwell produces first colour image using the three-colour principle.
1888 - Kodak introduces its first box camera
1889 - First commercially available film introduced by the Eastman Company.
1925 - Leica introduces 35mm format to still photography.
1934 - Introduction of the 135 film cartridge.
1942 - The first colour print film – Kodacolor – introduced.
1948 - First Polaroid instant camera.
1950s - Leica M, Asahi Pentax SLR, Nikon F, AGFA Optima cameras all launched.
1964 - First Pentax Spotmatic SLR introduced.
1967 - First MOS 10 x 10 active pixel array
1973 - Fairchild Semiconductor releases first large image-forming CCD chip (100 x 100 pixels)
1978 - Konica introduces first ‘point-and-shoot’ camera.
1986 - Kodak announces first 1 megapixel (MP) sensor.
1990 - Eastman Kodak announces Photo Compact Disc as digital storage medium.
1994 - Nikon introduces its first optical-stabilised lens.
1995 - Kodak DC40 and Apple QuickTake 100 become first consumer digital cameras.
2000 - Sharp’s J-Phone J-SH04 is first to have built-in camera.
2005 - Canon EOS 5D introduced. First full-frame DSLR with 24x36mm CMOS sensor.
2006 - Canon and Nikon discontinue film camera manufacture.
2009 - Kodak announces the discontinuation of Kodachrome film. FujiFilm announces first 3D camera.
2011 - Lytro introduces first ‘light-field’ camera, allowing focusing of images after capture.
Leica M4 rangefinder
Regarded by classic camera aficionados as the last of the great Leica rangefinders, the M4 first came on the market in 1967 as a futuristic hybrid of its predecessors, the M2 and M3. Rangefinder cameras have a split viewfinder that allows the photographer to take sharper images when manually focusing, including framing lines for use with 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses. It also had significant improvements over the previous models in terms of film loading speed as well as film advance and rewinding. With its optional black chrome finish, the M4 was considered to be the most stylish camera available.
Olympus Trip 35
A classic ‘point-and-shoot’ of the era, the Olympic Trip 35, with its four-element Tessar lens, was renowned for producing technically acceptable images even in the hands of complete novices. The design rationale was to create a simple camera that incorporated features of more complex machines while being easy to use. With its built-in lens, two shutter speeds (1/40 and 1/200th second) and narrow range of ISO (25-400), controls were kept to a minimum, although it could sync with a separate flash via the hot shoe connector. David Bailey was the brand ambassador for the Trip, so named because it was aimed at the holiday market, which went on to sell more than 10 million units.
Polaroid Automatic 250 Land Camera
One of a series of instant film cameras designed by Edwin H Land (hence the name) the Polaroid Automatic 250 was a higher end unit folding ‘bellows’ camera that used self-developing peel-apart ‘Packfilm’. Despite being easy to use (auto-exposure) these cameras were of high spec quality, including a Zeiss Ikon rangefinder, three-element glass lens and all-metal body. But for the user, the real fun was that unlike other types of film, there was no delayed gratification to deal with: you had your photo developed in less than a minute.