Photographs and memories…

I am on the verge of upgrading to a better digital camera. I have a buyer for my Canon S100 Digital Elf, and the store where I’m buying the new hardware will give me a good trade-in price on my old Nikon SLR. There are two significant issues I need to work through before I finally go through with this purchase; (1) which camera to buy, and (2) how to let go of my SLR.

Which Camera To Buy?

It’s down to two models: The Canon G5 or the Nikon CP5400. I’ve done all the reading, I’ve done the side-by-side comparisons at dpreview.com, and I’ve even taken a CF card to the store and shot some pictures with both cameras to get a “feel” for them. I still can’t decide.

The Canon has a fabulous reputation. I’ve heard almost nothing bad about it. It also has a really sweet way with manual focus. On the other hand, it didn’t feel as good in my hand as did the Nikon. Specifically, the Nikon felt like a camera, while the Canon felt like an electronic device. Given my long history with 35mm photography, the “feel” of the camera is important to me.

The Nikon has that nice feel, but it also has a buggy history. There is no focus-assist light for low light conditions (although I curse the focus assist light on my S100 because I don’t have the option of turning it off). There are some issues with image processing speed and image sharpness. On the other hand, its wide-angle setting is the equivalent of 28mm in the 35mm world. 28mm wide-angle was always my favorite angle of view, and I’ve always lamented that it is almost impossible to find a 28mm in digital or point-and-shoot cameras. That 28mm issue is a deal maker for me. But I can’t help but worry about those other issues.

Letting Go of the SLR

Tram 28, LisbonIn the end, it will not be very hard to decide which one to buy. Both are good cameras, so I can’t really go wrong. The really difficult thing will be letting go of my last remaining SLR, a Nikon FE2 (in excellent condition) with a 50mm 1.4 lens and a 28mm 2.8 lens. I have not used it for some years, but whenever I get it out and fiddle with it, I become awash with nostalgia. I love the feel and sound of the mechanics – using it is like second nature to me. The spin of the frame advance lever, the turn of the f-stop ring, the zzzip of the shutter speed dial. All bring back fond memories of using that trusty and reliable camera in the Arctic, in England and Scotland, in France, and in Portugal. I often shot black and white film with it, and then spent hours in the darkroom perfecting prints.

I do, however, need to be practical. I don’t use film anymore, and I do shoot (some) digital. Digital cameras have the great advantage of being filmless. This means instant feedback (through the LCD display), no film and processing costs, and the ecological consideration of not having to manufacture, use, and dispose of all those processing chemicals. Hurray! A great leap forward.

Paris, from Eiffel TowerWith any camera, there is a layer of abstraction between you and the image. With my FE2, that layer consists of mechanics that I fully understand – I know how to work the mechanics and I can predict exactly what will happen when I turn a dial or push a button. With digital – or any advanced electronic camera – the layer of abstraction feels slippery and murky, as if it is not quite under my control.

Yes, I can learn the menus and what all the various options are for, but when it comes down to the moment of truth – when I’m about to squeeze the shutter release – I can’t fully predict what will happen. There are so many modes and sub-modes that even if I know what my current settings are, there might be something I forgot about that will override something else. Or there might be a bug in the firmware (the camera’s operating system). What if the batteries are running low? What does that icon really mean?

TuktoyaktutThere are too many mysteries with electronic devices! With hand-held computers and MP3 players and similar devices that don’t really have non-electronic counterparts, this isn’t really an issue. You’re in a new paradigm so enjoy the possibilities.

But with photography it’s different. At least it is for someone like me, who has spent a considerable amount of time building up a non-digital paradigm. In both cases – film or digital – the end result is the same. Either a print in your hand, or an image on your screen. How you begin to arrive at that image is also fundamentally the same: you see something, envision an image in your mind’s eye, point the camera at the thing/view, and make the camera to do what it needs to do to produce an image like the one you have pre-visualized in your head.

To do that – or at least to do it reliably and effectively – you need to really know your camera and to trust it. You have to trust that when you squeeze the shutter release, you are the master and the camera is the servant. It will do whatever you want it to, unquestioningly. (The key, of course, is knowing what it is you want the camera to do. None of this applies to people who don’t understand the methods and mechanics of physical photography.)

Canadian ArcticI don’t feel that with electronic cameras. I feel like I am at the mercy of the camera’s electronics. I have to memorize all of the various settings and sub-settings and I have to understand them all, and I need to know exactly what is set – and how – whenever I prepare to squeeze the shutter release. That is virtually impossible, given that most settings are arrived at by navigating through several layers of screens on the tiny LCD monitor. With a mechanical camera you can see at a glance – or a feel – what the settings are. Not so, electronic.

It’s like when I put a disc in my DVD player and want to skip through some of the crap at the beginning. I press the “fast-forward” button but all I get is “[NOT ALLOWED]” flashing on the screen. What is that? I’ve paid for the DVD player and I’ve paid for the disc. I own them! But the player is telling me I’m “not allowed” to fast forward! While that does not negate the otherwise clear advantages of DVD over VHS, it does give me a sinking feeling of not being master over my machines.

UrinalsDitto digital cameras. When I squeeze the shutter and nothing happens because the subject is too close for the auto-focus to work, I get disoriented and annoyed. When everything is perfectly framed and I have to wait two seconds for the camera to set exposure and focus – and as a result I miss the shot – I get pissed off. When the flash goes off without my asking it too because with all the buttons to push and icons to look at I didn’t notice how the flash was set – I roll my eyes in exasperation.

And when the battery dies, I simply pine for my Nikon FE2, which worked with or without battery power.