Categories: Essays, Photography
Tags: AestheticsCameraDigitalFilmOpinionVintage

Appreciating the Camera

Can digital cameras be appreciated alongside film cameras as the tools they are, or does nostalgia and aesthetic value always mean film cameras are appreciated more?

In October 2021 I sold my Nikon D700, a camera I had desperately wanted ever since it was first released. I bought mine second-hand from my local camera shop and proceeded to photograph many weddings, portraits, landscapes and mountain bike sessions with it. However, as time and technology marches on, the DSLR form factor and mass of lenses and flashes became too unwieldy for my dodgy back and my self-consciousness. Looking for a smaller, lighter camera with no compromised on image quality I bought into Fuji, starting with the XE-1, and later the X-Pro2. As I drifted away from sports photography to a documentary-based practice, the XPro-2 more than superseded the XE-1, which I thought was a good match for the D700 for what I needed in a camera. I didn’t take a single shot with the Nikon for at least four, maybe five years. In all that time it sat in my ‘other’ camera bag with my D200 and a plethora of lenses doing nothing, but I couldn’t ever bring myself to sell it.

Unfortunately, I come from a family that likes to hold on to things. Not quite up to hoarder level, but more acquiring things that only get thrown out once they’re worn out or beyond repair, never sold. For my own camera collection this means holding on items that work, of little value, that never get sold. Even taking old clothes to the charity shop takes a good month of soul-searching. There are some things that do hold sentimental value; My father’s Contax 139 and Mamiya 456 cameras are two examples. But I continue to use the Mamiya on an infrequent basis, actually making it my second most used camera, and more used than the D700 had been in the last five or so years.

I can’t explain why I want to hold on to my old cameras – especially the ‘soulless’ digital ones that I saved up for and bought new with my hard-earned. I have a very well-used and beaten D100 – my first DSLR, that I converted to shoot Infra-Red. A D50, my father’s DSLR, and the aforementioned D200 that’s held together with Duck Tape. For some reason I’m keeping them despite having no plans to use them. Coming from a ‘use it until it wears out’ mantra, I could never sell them at the time of their replacements, as I never really found the need to upgrade cameras on a regular basis. Nowadays, their condition alone would mean that they are destined for the junk, not to mention a phone camera today would produce a better-quality image. They are worthless, but I hold on to them ‘just in case’. I’m at a loss to justify the scenario where I’d need to use a 6mp DSLR that shows noise above ISO400, but if the need arises, I guess I’m covered.

This is the mindset I had to overcome selling the D700. While that camera was considered a flagship camera in its time, the 35mm equivalent sensor, (usable) high-ISO capability, and fast autofocus made it a ‘must have’. But at the end of the day it was only a tool. A tool that was replaced many years ago and is no longer required. It was also probably the only camera (apart from my F5) that was worth the postage selling it. I envy folks who can buy a camera, use it, then sell or part-exchange it a year or 18 months later with little depreciation.

My collection of film cameras that I’ve picked up from antique and charity shops, inherited, or been given probably totals less than I sold the D700 for, but these cameras have something that the DSLR’s don’t have. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but they have a certain quality that is missing with the DSLR’s. They are mechanical film cameras. Some of them the epitome of the basic camera – a light-tight box with a lens at the front, film held in the rear and a shutter in the middle. My small collection ranges from cameras from the 1930’s through to the 1990’s, plus the Nikon F5. Nearly all of them work, and half of them I have taken nice photos with.

Appreciating the Camera. Can we give digital cameras the same aesthetic value we do to film cameras?
Images taken on my trusty XE-1

Aesthetic Values

Personally, these old film cameras have an aesthetic value that is greater than their monetary value. Displaying them can place them into the realms of an objet d’art in much the same way that museums display tools and artefacts from past cultures that had a specific function, but are now considered an object to admire (a gross simplification as a unit on my MA that covered this very subject dealt with, but that’s for another blog post). Displayed as a collection these cameras can be appreciated on their own terms; As individual mechanical statuettes showcasing the progression of ways to create a photographic record. Who used them? What photos did they take? Lost questions with no answers.

As the DSLR form factor developed – basically a small computer mounted on the back of an SLR camera, mirror box proudly displaying a white logo on an all-black body – a certain romanticism as to what the camera could do and what it represented in the hands of a skilled photographer was lost.

That’s not to assume that DSLR cameras, or even the mirrorless cameras that have been taking a larger bite out of their market share can’t produce era-defining images. I’m arguing that the camera, the tool itself, can have a particular ‘aura’, to hijack Walter Benjamin’s term. Ironically this  was coined to discuss the very means of mechanical production that was seen to be de-valuing art that his 1935 essay discussed. However, it appears that this ‘aura’ has waned with the advent of the digital camera.

In the past these cameras really were dark boxes that required an intimate knowledge of light and shadow, rather than today’s intimate knowledge of Lightroom and Capture 1. Fifty years from now I wonder if camera collectors would be placing on their shelves Nikon D100’s or Canon 10D’s in the same way we place Voigtlander, Agfa, and Comet? Or will the ever-evolving consumerist photographic machine mean that digital cameras have a fixed life-cycle of part-exchange for a new model, or thrown away (and hopefully recycled as much as possible). As such they will have no value, monetarily, aesthetically, or sentimentally past a certain point and we’ll still hold on to the distant past of what will be century-old mechanical cameras from East Germany or Japan.

In the same way a mechanical watch has more perceived aesthetic value over a digital watch, so it seems that mechanical cameras will always stand the test of time for their aesthetic value. As I’ve written about before, vinyl records are enjoying a resurgence, and small companies are producing new film stock (albeit at a price). Maybe we shall see in the next five years a new manual camera being released from a small start-up company?* To many photographers, the act of taking a picture is also the act of preserving memory. A memento-mori that will outlive us and that can be passed down the generations. I’d like to think that it’s not just the images that can do this, but also the tools that were used to capture these memories. Maybe we can start to appreciate the camera, film or digital, as a tool and value it for what it can do.

*I do realise that in the large-format film world there are new manual cameras being released all the time – I am hypothesising a new camera in the 35mm world, which some would say is running on life-support, and others that it’s now just a niche form of artistic expression.

Post Script

I generally write things as they enter my head, then take a long time editing and polishing the final article. A new baby has that effect. Since originally writing this in January 2022, I left my (uninsured) X-Pro2 with 27mm lens in a pub. After a month of not realising I’d left it there I contacted the pub, but no-one had handed it in. A year on I’m still a bit raw about it. I pretty much stopped taking photos for most of 2022 because of what had happened (even the birth of my son in the summer has been documented sporadically with my phone), but I’m slowly getting back into it with the trusty XE-1. Ironically, the D700 would have been a useful stand-in…

Further Reading

Film Photography is not dead

Digital Nostalgia – 5 Early Digital Cameras from between 2001 and 2005 – From