Friday, July 16, 2010

Why this blog has no original pictures

Last summer, my trusty Pentax Super Program, which I’ve been using faithfully for nearly twenty years, since I got it as a gift for graduating from high school, failed—as many as a third of the 600-some slides I took of the “silk road” were hopelessly underexposed, indicating that the electronic “guts” had finally given up the ghost. For about five years now I’ve been rebuffing the urgings of friends and fellow-travellers that I join the 21st century and “go digital.” This isn’t just a camera, I tell them; this is my friend: from my first trip with it through the Rockies on Outward Bound, where it suffered its first “ding,” to the trip to the forbidden island where I knocked it off a chair, to jungles and deserts and glaciers and overstuffed backpacks and X-rays and Customs inspections, it’s valiantly accompanied me on every major trip of my life. It can’t do any of the digital tricks, but it has gotten shots few computerized cameras can. But when you go literally halfway around the world for a shot, as I do, you can’t afford to lose any due to equipment failure. The most painful of last summer’s losses were my photos of the ship cemetery in the remains of the Aral Sea; it cost me a lot of money, time, and trouble, to get out there, and, since the rusting hulks are being slowly cut up for scrap metal, I’ll never duplicate those shots even if I go back. So for a year now I’ve had in mind the need to buy a new camera.

My old Pentax cost about $250 new in 1991. If you go to the fascinating and imaginatively named website, you can see that such a price would equal about $388 in today’s money. Yet “entry-level” DSLRs begin around $699, and anything “advanced” easily runs over $1000. Salesmen brush aside my cost concerns, boasting that the new cameras have far more features than my old one. Trouble is, most of these are features I don’t want, and, worse, many of them do more to get in the way than facilitate good photos. And in certain small but significant ways, modern cameras are actually worse—smaller, dimmer viewfinders, e.g., fewer direct manual controls, and, in the case of the Nikon D5000 I had my eye on, no depth-of-field preview. Then, of course, there’s the need for a recharging cord and power source, memory cards, computer connection, Biblical instruction manual, etc. Was I the only one left who appreciated the simplicity of film? Browsing lent support to my skepticism. So I started trolling the Internet for used cameras, and what should I find but my very own Pentax, body only, for $64 (I could continue using my existing lenses). Once again I’d be unable to post to this blog, email, etc., but I could buy a lot of film for the difference in cost between that and a new digital beast. This was a deal too good to pass up: the camera I’d always wanted, $200 less twenty years later!

Asking for a “physical scan” of my film at Newark airport made me doubt my decision momentarily: this took nearly ten minutes and involved wiping little swabs over my rolls of film and passing them through some malfunctioning machine, as well as patting me down manually, even though I’d already passed through the metal detector and X-rays like everyone else. “The film is the question, not me, right?” I asked the stone-faced woman in the smart blue TSA uniform. “It’s your camera, isn’t it?” she replied, as if that made some sort of sense. Gone are the days when you could reason with security officers.

But today, in Dakar, when I stopped to take a picture of several hundred women’s shoes lined up for sale on the sidewalk, two little boys begged me to snap their photo too. I agreed, but showed them the boring black back of my old camera, trying to explain in my halting French that they wouldn’t be able to see the result—I’ve learned on previous trips that some people in foreign countries have become so accustomed to digital cameras that they grow angry when shot with film. But they just smiled and nodded and urged me on. Flustered, I didn’t get exactly the exposure I wanted, but I’m pretty sure I got a workable one. I won’t know for six weeks, when I get home and develop the film. That’s the forgotten beauty of photography: enjoy the experience of taking the photo, and later, after you’ve all but fogotten the people, place, and moment, live it again.


  1. I fear you are fighting a glacier. Two strangers have recently mentioned the end of Kodak and, most likely, all film sooner rawthah than later. Also, I think you can something pretty good, by digital standards, WAY under $700. I'm just sayin' . . . I'll never go back.

  2. Yeah, I have a great digital Kodak z650 (now probably a $200 camera) that's lasted 5 years so far, but I do know of many that have died after one year. For most settings, digitals are king, but I admire your stamina on the traditional. I don't think film will disappear entirely, but it will be something you have to get at a specialty store, a la art supplies.

  3. Thanks, Chad. I tried to say much the same two days ago in a comment that apparently disappeared.

    I'm not fighting, as Banjo suggests, just taking a temporary retreat. Digital will certainly "win" for most people, but that's partly due to love of gadgetry and intense advertising pressure as much as a genuine pro/con comparison.

    At the risk of being curmudgeonly, I'd say 35mm and digital are both much TOO convenient; how many snapshots, whether printed or on-screen, does anyone honestly look at more than once or twice? Back when photography was a really big deal, with black hoods and box cameras and time exposures, the ratio of "winners" was paradoxically way higher. But of course, no one, including me, wants to go back there.