Gestalt of 35mm

January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

The Gestalt of 35mm Tri-X vs. Digital

Update — and Apology

First up this morning, an apology to those who pre-ordered copies of my bookThe Empirical Photographer. I’m afraid the book still isn’t printed and ready to ship. I heard before I started this project that it’s always best to actually have the printed books in hand before offering them for sale; as usual, I didn’t listen to that advice, and, as usual, I should have. I never imagined this could, or would, take me so long.

At any rate, I’m very close to the point at which it will be possible for the publisher to wrench the approved final files from my clutching fingers, at which point the fussing and fretting will be over and the book will be on press. I still expect it to be finished and mailed this Fall, at least before Christmas.

Sorry to make you wait, and please don’t think I’ve absconded with your money and gone into hiding on a small tropical island that has no extradition treaty with anybody; I assure you I’m still here in Wisconsin, nose-to-grindstone, and that everyone will get their signed copies…eventually. Again, I apologize for the delay.

(On the good side, a second book,The Lens Image and the Light-Tight Box, a compendium of all my writings about cameras, formats, and fine lenses, is also coming along nicely.)


Following last week’s "Ask SMP" column, I got the following question from David V.:

Q: I’d like to go "digital". Would even buy the Sony 828 when it comes out.

But I can’t get past all the menus, etc on digital cameras. I’ve had a few tryouts with different models, but by the time I figure everything out, and set it all, I’ve lost my "oneness" with the image (or the light has changed, the sexy kiss is over, etc.).

I currently use a fully manual camera with three lenses. Simple.

I know that in the past you had a "thing" for Contax lenses and Tri-X.

Do you feel that your photography (the "art" part, not the "gearhead" part) is better using your Sony 707 or using Contax and film?

I feel that I’m missing something not using digital, but I’m afraid I’ll get "pixel-bound."

Note: it’s not the technology that scares me — I work as a graphic artist using a Macintosh G4 computer with a Epson 220 printer.


First of all, shooting with digital cameras is to photographers like candy is to kids. It’s photography with no pain, photography with no fear. It’s instant gratification with the possibility (in theory at least) of exceptional control. It is, in a word, wonderful.

Digital pic taken with the Sony F-707handheldat f/2. Trythatwith yer Velvia.

For many years I’ve been encouraging people topracticewith their cameras — get comfortable with them, know all the controls, learn "the feel of the wheel" so that the operation of the camera becomes second nature. Granted, this is even more difficult with most digital cameras than it is with film cameras, which themselves have gotten far more complex over the past couple of decades. But I think if you bought a digital camera, you’d gradually learn to get comfortable with the menus. You’d learn what the preset when, how to improve lag time, and how to make adjustments without distracting yourself. This might take a little time, and it might take some practice, but you’d accommodate to it. So what’s probably to blame for your misgivings is simply that digital cameras can indeed be confusing and recalcitrant on short trial flights. You’d get over that.

Responsiveness and "The Art Part"

Mostly, anyway.

The issue you’re talking about more generally is called "responsiveness," and it’s something that a fairly large number of photography enthusiasts (both digital and film) are relatively ignorant about these days, because we have a whole generation that’s grown up with autofocus and even a fledgling group that knows digital alone. You refer to it as "oneness with the image." That’s maybe a little metaphysical for some people, though I know what you mean. Looked at in a more quotidian way, it simply means that the camera will do exactly what you tell it to, very, very quickly, and you won’t have to think about it (i.e., get distracted by it) much.

Automated systems and controls interposed between the impulse to photograph and the recording of the photograph work against responsiveness. For instance, manufacturers have worked very hard to make autofocus more and more responsive since the mid-1980s when it began to become common, but it’s still a step between you and the picture. And by "controls interposed," what I mean is anything additional that you have to "set" before you’re ready to shoot. This is why, during my entire "career" (I use the term very loosely!) of teaching and writing for photographers, I’ve consistently been critical of cameras with too many bells and whistles, and of zoom lenses. Neither are sins, but both interfere with responsiveness.

Thoroughbred foals, Kentucky. Leica M6, 35mm f/2 "Pre-ASPH" Summicron.
This picture was actually taken on XP-2, not Tri-X, but you get the idea. (Copyright 1992 Michael C. Johnston)

Responsiveness is exactly why the 50-year-old Leica M design is still valued by photographers today, despite its technical mediocrity and lack of features. The Leica M cameras have very, very few controls; while shooting, you deal with essentially four: focus, aperture, shutter speed, and the shutter release. (On the M7, you do have to check what shutter speed the camera has set for you.) Importantly, each action has only one interface: that is, you can’t turn a command wheel and mistakenly choose the exposure compensation instead of the aperture, or whatever. On a "responsive" camera, one control changes one parameter, reliably and absolutely. Experienced Leica photographers have most of these controls set, or very close to set, before raising their cameras to their eyes. The one they don’t set in advance — the shutter release, of course — is supremely responsive mechanically; it has a lag of some 18 milliseconds. Only recently have a few other cameras caught up. A photographer who knows the feel of her Leica’s shutter release can time the moment of exposure exquisitely.

It’s very important to realize that THIS IS WHAT HIGH-TECH CAMERAS ARE TRYING TO EMULATE. When Garry Winogrand stepped out of his apartment and went down to the street, he looked at the light and set his shutter speed and his aperture. He knew the light and he knew his film and he knew what he needed. No matter how complex the light meter in a modern camera — whether it has 32 metering segments and a complicated algorithm embedded in a chip, or a thousand tiny color sensors — this is all it’s trying to do: set the aperture and the shutter speed properly. When Robert Frank learned to set the focus of his Leica by judging the distance to his subject by eye and then the position of the focusing tab by feel, it was so he could focus as he brought the camera up to his eye. No matter how complex and fast the AF system in a Wunderkamera — whether it has a whole fleet of little red spaceship focusing points in the finder, or the latest whiz-bang AF sensor chip — this is all it’s trying to do: set the focus properly.

A great deal of the technology in modern cameras exists to enable amateur and occasional photographers to do automatically — without knowledge or practice — what dedicated photographers have been learning to do, and training themselves to do, and doing, for more than a century.

Reality Face to Face

I’m not very experienced with digital cameras. I’m also not very experienced with the full-dress Wunderplastik-and-AF-zoom rigs so beloved of certain professionals and monied amateurs these days, the F5s and EOS-1v’s with their big fast pro zooms. However, overall, I’ve used more cameras seriously than most people have. Where I come down on the issues you raise is that the cameras we use really do effect the kinds of results we can achieve, and that different kinds of cameras tend to teach us different things about shooting.

I’ve made some people anxious by writing a time or two that any photographer would benefit from shooting with nothing but a Leica M and one lens for a year. Do youhaveto? Of course not. But I really think it’s a good lesson: it teaches you some important shooting skills. I think it would be a good exercise even for view camera photographers. (I’m not one of those, but I did do the converse exercise: I shot with a 4×5 field camera for a year or so in the ’80s. And yup, it taught me some things about photographing I didn’t know before. It wasn’t my style, but it was a good learning experience. I’m glad to have done it.)

Let’s face reality: many people these days, especially photo enthusiasts with jobs and families and busy lives, don’t have the time or the discipline to learn how to judge exposure by eye or use a manual meter. Many don’t practice enough to focus more surely than AF can. Andmosthave neither the time nor the investment in space and equipment to process their own film and make their own handcrafted prints.

Digital is convenient and enabling for them. It’s a fantastic learning tool, because each exposure doesn’t cost anything, and because of the instant feedback. It’s great for those who don’t photograph enough to be secure about what they’ve caught on film — they can check their results right away. It’s especially great for those who want to make fine prints but don’t have a darkroom or darkroom skills, because all you need is a desktop printer, Photoshop or its equivalent, and a trust fund to buy ink. And it’s fun. I think it is, anyway.

Is it therefore better than anything that has gone before? I’m not being a Luddite or a fuddy-duddy here, butno. It’s just another tool. It fulfills some wishes and ignores others. It will suit some people better than others. So if you want to stick with your manual camera and three lenses, go ahead. Nothing wrong with that.

Photoshop and Epson go a long way towards replacing the darkroom, in the same way that high tech features replace (to some extent) the judgment and the camera-handling skills of the old-time 35mm masters. That’s highly convenient, and it’s nothing to be scoffed at. But some people will stick to the darkroom. I have a friend, Ctein, who has spent decades mastering the arcane and beautiful dye-transfer printing process. He’s still making dye transfers: digital hasn’t eclipsed his craft. But the best digital can get 80% of the way there, and doesn’t require decades to masterorCtein’s great skill as a craftsman. Pretty impressive.

Also, consider that lots — probably the majority — of diehard Leica fanatics haven’t truly mastered how to use their cameras. They don’t shoot enough. They don’t practice. They fumble with them the same as Ms. Pop Photo does with her space age do-it-all Japanese plastic wonder, same as Pa Kettle does with his p/s.


To answer your question, I personally think I prefer the "Contax and Tri-X" option you cite. (Let’s call it "35mm and Tri-X.") Partly that’s because I’ve been working that way for twenty-two years. It’s also because I like the result better — pretty as digiprints can be, I really like my B&W printing style, and my B&W prints. (And, I confess, I enjoy B&W printing. Your mileage, as they say, may differ.) I will most likely stick with what I’ve been doing all along; but then again, that wouldn’t be as easy to say that if I hadn’t given myself a year or so of experience working with digital.

If I were to judge the Sony F-707 I used to have with the Leica M6’s I’ve enjoyed, I would rank them about equally in terms of pleasure of use and fundamental capability. They’re radically different, of course. They do very different things, and they do them very differently. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

So, if I’ve said in the past that photographers should shoot with a Leica and one lens for a while, would I say the same thing now about digital? I think the answer to that is "yes," too. Digital is easily good enough now. It’s different enough. It teaches you different lessons. It’s a necessary experience.

So since you’ve asked my advice, here it is: get the F-828, and have faith that, with practice, you’ll learn your way around the menus and accommodate to its compromises in terms of responsiveness. But hang on to that old manual camera too, just in case.

— Mike Johnston

See Mike Johnston’s website Also, check out his monthly column in the BritishBlack & White Photographymagazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)

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Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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