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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Buying a Digital Camera

I am buying a digital camera.

This is not a big deal for most people. It’s the default these days. You buy a camera, it’s digital.

The last serious digital camera I bought was a Canon Digital Rebel. It was 2004. I bought it because I thought that if I shot more, I could get better at photography, and I could shoot more with a digital camera than I could afford to with a film camera. The camera cost me about $1000 if I recall correctly. What I found with the camera was that I was shooting a lot more, but my photographs were getting worse. I would spray and pray, which is to say, take a lot of nearly identical images and hope one of them worked. Very few of them did. This was highlighted on a trip we took to Florida to visit my parents. We spent a day at the Kennedy Space Center. I brought my Digital Rebel, and also brought this cheap plastic camera I had found in a thrift shop in Levittown, Pennsylvania, for a dollar, a (1960s vintage original) Diana. This was before Lomography came out with their version of the camera. The battery in the Digital Rebel died after three pictures, so I was limited to just using the Diana for our visit to this iconic location. Weeks later, when I got the film developed, I was awestruck by the photos. The heyday of the space program was the 1960s, and the photos I took looked like they could have come straight from that era. I was more impressed by the photos I took with my one dollar camera than with anything that had come out of my thousand dollar camera. From that point on, I shifted back to film.

I shot for the first few years on toy cameras like the Diana. I had a Holga, a Fujipet, an Agfa Clack, a Superheadz Blackbird Fly fake TLR, and some of the goofy cameras coming out from Lomography. I also got a Lomo LC-A. Lomography’s slogan “don’t think, just shoot” worked for a little while, until it didn’t. I found myself slowing down and taking photographs more intentionally. I started to get into Soviet cameras like the Kiev 88cm and Kiev rangefinders. I got back into Polaroid, starting with my dad’s old 250 that shot peel-apart film, and getting a succession of SX-70s. The Kiev rangefinders led to me getting a couple of Contax rangefinders, one pre-war that formed the basis of the Kiev camera, and one post-war, which was the West German attempt to recreate the cameras that had been spirited away by the Soviets to Kiev. The Kiev 88 got me into more medium format cameras; we bought a Rolleiflex after seeing a documentary about Vivian Maier, and a friend gave me a Pentax 67 he wasn’t using. When New55 had their first Kickstarter, my love of Polaroid, which dated to my childhood, led me to getting into large format, first 4x5 with a Calumet CC-401, then a succession of other cameras, including a Pacemaker Speed Graphic, several Graflex SLRs including two RB Super Ds, an Intrepid 4x5, a Wanderlust Travelwide, a 5x7 Century No. 5 studio camera, and even an Intrepid 8x10 when I found a Polaroid 8x10 processor for a very good price and needed a camera to shoot that film with. I slowed way down, shot a lot less, and found my photography slowly improving.

20 years on, I found myself wondering if these changes in how I shoot would make me work differently with a digital camera. I’ve had my eye on the Fujifilm GFX 100s for the past year. All the reviews I read about it mentioned that it didn’t work for people who had a need for speed, but if you were slower and more intentional, it was a great choice. Still, $6000 for a camera? That’s way more than I’ve spent on any camera ever. Probably the most expensive cameras I’ve bought were the Graflex RB Super Ds, which I got for a steal at $500 each (one in working condition typically goes for about $1800). My Contax rangefinders, which were comparable to Leicas back in the day, went for about $225 each. For Black Friday, the price dropped significantly, down to $4400. I considered it; Laura offered to get it for me as a combined 60th birthday / 20th anniversary / Christmas present. Okay, honey, thank you sooooooo much.

The process of getting it has been a pain. I still don’t have it. I ordered the camera a week and a half ago from B&H on Black Friday. They shipped it that day, via FedEx. It got from their warehouse in Florence, New Jersey, to FedEx Newark by Friday evening, then disappeared. It was supposed to be delivered on Monday, but it never showed up. I’ve been fighting with the two companies to get them to replace the stuff I ordered, and B&H finally said they would yesterday, but they still haven’t shipped the replacement. It’s been a real pain in the ass trying to get this camera in my hands. Hopefully it ships today and I’ll have it tomorrow.

I look forward to seeing how the camera handles when I finally get it, and how I integrate it into my photography. I’ve seen film photographers who work with digital seamlesses with film, and I’ve seen others who get seduced by the ease and stop shooting film. I hope I’ll be the former.

I’ve dived into YouTube videos about digital photography in the past week and a half. I’ve been out of the loop on digital photography for a long time. It’s interesting how much work people put into it to make their photographs look like they were shot on film. The Fujifilm cameras lean into this with film simulations, and there are videos out there showing, for example, just how close their simulation of Fuji Acros film comes to the results actually shot on Acros with a film camera. I don’t know, there are an awful lot of black and white film stocks that aren’t Acros that I love to shoot, and I’m not sure that imitating them digitally is where I want to go. But for color work, it’ll be interesting. There are some things that are hard to do reliably with film that I want to try with the GFX 100s. I’m also considering ways to dirty the output of the GFX up using things like pinhole lenses. It would be fun to see if I can set the ISO high enough to make handheld pinhole snapshots with the camera.

It feels a little weird to be getting a digital camera. So much of my identity as a photographer for the past 20 years or so has been that of someone who was completely devoted to film. But I could use a new challenge. This is an experiment for me, just to see if I control the camera or it controls me. It’ll be interesting to see the results. If it doesn’t work, I could sell the camera and get that Deardorff 8x10 camera I’ve had my eye on....

Posted at 6:07 PM

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