Plugged In: Go retro for tried-and-true technology

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Going “retro” seems to be quite a trend at the moment, and new camera gear is no exception.

Big, black and bulky digital SLR cameras still widely outsell more modern, “mirrorless” compact-system cameras in the U.S., despite the inherent cost, handling and optical advantages of compact-system cameras. On the premise that “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,”  Sony, Olympus and Fujifilm are styling their compact-system cameras to look more like traditional film SLR cameras from decades gone by.

In some ways, that’s positive. The design and handling of older 35-mm film SLR cameras became highly refined over the past half century or so. Reverting to proven designs of that sort might not appeal to the tablet photography crowd but is welcomed by serious photographers.

One feature often missed among digital camera products is a decent eye-level viewfinder. Film and dSLR cameras use bright optical finders, but those optical viewfinders require moving mirrors. Those mirrors in turn require a camera that’s larger and more expensive to build and keep in calibration. Mirrorless compact-system cameras and their lenses can be more compact because no moving mirror is used.

Until recently, though, electronic viewfinders were not quite good enough to compete with traditional optical viewfinders. For that reason, most professional photographers stuck with tried-and-true dSLR systems and their moving mirrors until quite recently.

As electronic viewfinders greatly improved over the past few years, high-end mirrorless camera systems have become popular among knowledgeable professional photographers. In time, that perception will likely filter down to consumers, and the technical advantages of mirrorless compact-system cameras will likely outweigh the traditional preference for bulkier dSLR cameras.

  • For the past several years, Olympus and Fujifilm have made some of the most popular mirrorless system cameras. Fujifilm’s X-series compact-system cameras and Olympus’ E-P Pen series were, until now, reminiscent of classic rangefinder cameras such as those made by Leica. These excellent cameras sold only moderately well despite their compact size, sharp optics and advanced features.

After Olympus repackaged its digital camera technology as the OM-D line, styled to resemble the company’s classic and popular 1980s OM film cameras, Olympus had a product line that literally saved the company and was voted Camera of the Year for 2012 and 2013. Similarly, Fujifilm packaged its X-series digital technology into its new X-T1, a more angular camera that looks like a classic film SLR camera from the 1970s or 1980s. With the introduction of the X-T1, Fujifilm also created the sort of save-the-company marketing excitement that can’t be bought, and X-series cameras finally took off among nonprofessional users.

Both the OM-D and X-series camera systems are excellent product lines, with a wide range of affordable and excellent cameras and lenses. I doubt, though, whether either product line would have been so successful in the market without their retro styling makeover. By the way, the recently introduced Olympus OM-D EM-10 is quite a bargain at about $700 average retail price, and with all the advanced features of the earlier OM-D cameras except weather sealing. It’s recommended.

  • I recently looked at some of the last prograde film cameras made by major vendors, like Pentax and Nikon. Initially, I looked into these last-model film cameras because I’ve again become rather interested in shooting black-and-white film photography. Now, that’s retro.

It also makes good sense. Most of my Pentax lenses fit and work well with the company’s earlier 35-mm film bodies. Using the same good lenses on two different camera systems makes economic sense, especially when clean, late-model film cameras are priced so inexpensively as used equipment at reputable dealers like Adorama and BHphotovideo.

Not all lenses in this digital age can cover the entire 35-mm film area, but lenses marketed as full frame can do so with varying degrees of corner sharpness. Owners of full-frame Canon and Nikon digital cameras might also find this a worthwhile excursion.

Shooting and developing black-and-white film is an excellent way to teach students the fundamental concepts and craftsmanship of photography before moving on to digital technology, which is more forgiving of sloppy technique. Magic Moments photography, in Soldotna across from Mykel’s Restaurant on the Kenai Spur Highway, has a number of new-in-box Minolta film cameras and lenses at highly discounted prices that would work for technically inclined students.

Black-and-white images have an aesthetic mystique that can’t be fully captured by converting a digital color image to monochrome, even with using specialized software from Nik and other vendors. Newer black-and-white films have some technical tone-rendering advantages compared to digital imaging, as well as very small and tight grain patterns that enhance enlargement. By definition, using 35-mm film is shooting “full frame.”

I’ll stick with digital processes for color images, though, because digital color is far more controllable and of much higher quality than film-based color imaging. Making silver and gelatin paper enlargements is also a bit too retro for me. Carefully scanning those black-and-white film negatives and then printing them on a high-quality digital printer like the Epson 3880 or 7900 seems best, combining the advantages of film negatives and digital printing.

  • Here’s something that’s decidedly not retro — an MIT-developed motion-analysis camera that can be assembled from off-the-shelf components, costing about $500 yet able to capture a billion frames per second. Who knows, perhaps it will be “As seen on TV” and on store shelves in the foreseeable future. Of course, knowing some advanced programming wouldn’t hurt. Here’s the story:http://web.mit.edu/press/2013/inexpensive-nano-camera-1126.html

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Go retro for tried-and-true technology

  1. I’ve always like Pentax for it’s lenses, and simplicity for it’s body.

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