Design a site like this with
Get started

The look of film

I hear the nouveaux filmistas talking of ‘the look of film’, but what is it? Is there a magic or secret sauce that film has and digital can’t do?

From looking at old Photography Year Books or magazines I could say that the traditional film look is low dynamic range, odd colours, grain and blur. But equally, I’ve got digital pictures that look like I doodled them in crayon while blindfolded.

I know in the early days of digital it was easy to tell them apart. Digital had a visual smoothness – a lack of fine detail or grain. Not so much the grain though – it was perfectly possible to make smooth and grainless film images (if only I’d learned how). I think it was the lack of fine detail. And then digital got more pixels and a wider dynamic range and it could be as fine or as gnarly as film. So what now is the film look?

Film or digital, and why?

I can add grain to a digital picture if I want to. I can emulate the colours of Kodak or Fuji or almost any brand or age of film. Crush the shadows to black? Put a halo around the highlights? All easy enough. Double exposures? I used to think this was only possible on film, but then I learned how to do it with digital. So what is the magic that only film has?

Film or digital, and why?

I wonder if the look of film is actually the rendering of the older lenses we used? If I put an old film-era lens onto a digital sensor, would I get the magical look of film without the inconvenience? Maybe what people call the look of film is the look of older lenses? And what happens if I use a modern digital-era highly corrected lens on a film camera? Do I get the look of digital?

I think film has a couple of unique things, but you won’t see them in the final image. One is longevity: film is a physical medium and if you hold it up to the light you will understand that it contains pictures. This is less obvious with a memory card. So even if we can no longer read an old storage medium, we can scan or project film. The other is that you can revisit film with newer technology and get more out of it. I upgraded my scanner some years back and got better scans. Then I learned to use my scanner and got even better scans. My digital files will never reveal more detail than they already have. Actually, there’s a third thing – I can tell my analogue images apart from my digital by the scratches, dust and hairs.

But am I missing something? Is there a film look that only film has?


Ricoh KR-10 Super

I was given this with some other bits by a very nice person, in response to a talk I had given about shooting film. I was particularly delighted as my first proper camera, my Ricoh XR-2, appears to have died. The XR-2 was introduced in 1977 and the KR-10 Super in 1983, so what happened in those six years?

The KR (for short) still has a metal chassis under the plastic but has made more use of electronics. The slowest shutter speed is now 16 seconds. In comparison the XR goes to 4 seconds on manual and 8 on auto. The ISO range is the same at 12 to 3200. The meter on the KR may be a tad better, as it covers EV0 to 18 while the XR only goes to 17. What is notable though is the indication in the viewfinder. The older XR has a moving needle that either shows you what shutter speed you will get in auto or provides a match-needle for manual metering. The KR has a needle, but it uses an LCD and not an actual moving needle. Where the XR had a visually simple matching of needles, the KR has arrows that appear at the top or bottom of the scale to tell you if the exposure will be over or under. I’m not sure I will find it as quick in use, but I can always leave it in automatic mode. It’s odd though, that they chose to copy an analogue meter display rather than do something better. Pentax used just a few coloured LEDs on the MX and it works very well. But, to be fair, Ricoh went on to produce the Mirai, so we have to thankful that the quirks on the KR-10 were few and small.

The camera came with the original sales brochure, and this is interesting in itself. The range of lenses available was a surprise, and there are a few I’d fancy even now. There’s a 16mm fisheye, a 300 f4.5 and a 600 f8, for example. There is even a 50mm autofocus lens, with a bulky mechanism built into and around a modest f2 bit of glass. The camera has a clever feature that is not obvious, but is mentioned in the brochure, and that’s the mirror. Rather than just hinge up, the reflex mirror swings up and back in an arc. This lets them use a bigger mirror that still clears the back of the lens.

The arm you can see at the left swings the mirror back as it rises

One thing that might be telling is that there is a switch on the front of the camera for the metering. The meter will turn-on with the usual half-press of the shutter button, but the brochure makes a point of the sensitive electronic release. I wonder if the shutter button is a bit too sensitive for an easy half-press, so they gave you a safer dedicated meter switch as well?

It’s worth mentioning this shutter release in more detail. The release button is in the centre of the speed selector, which is easy to do when you are using electronics rather than mechanical connections. It has a lock position. One click away from lock is auto, so it is easy to flick from safe to shooting mode. But the next click round is B, followed by the slowest shutter speeds. To get to the normal-range speeds you need to turn the dial back past lock to get to 1/1000, and then work your way down. To me this is another odd little ergonomic choice: the camera is intended to be used in auto mode, with less thought given to manual. There is no way to set the camera at say 1/125 and f8 ready to shoot and also lock the release against accidental triggering. It just says to me that this was a capable consumer camera meant to be used in automatic mode.

Anyway, what’s it like to shoot a 45 year old SLR? Well, before you can, you may need to replace the light seals. But because the camera had an optional data back, the standard back can be taken completely off the camera very easily. This makes the scrape-and-clean job much easier. With that job done, I can load it and take it for a walk. Nobody is going to care what sort of pictures it takes – the results are too dependant on other factors – but the general handling of the camera is of interest, and this can only really be determined by using it. The camera came with Ricoh’s 50mm f2 lens. It feels a bit plasticy, unlike the 50mm f1.7 from my older XR, which is definitely metal. It has nice clean glass though and a snappy aperture, so it was looked after and has aged well. The camera body is the same: clean and scratch free. The previous owner had even taken the batteries out before storing it. I’m a little ashamed at how much I hammer my own kit, but I still think cameras are tools, not jewels.

In use, it was much as I expected. The shutter button is quite hard to find, resulting in me taking one accidental shot and then looking first to make sure my finger was in the right position. Not a camera I would choose to shoot wearing gloves. The meter needle is also hard to see against a dark background. I wouldn’t seek out this camera myself because the ergonomics would annoy me, but if it was what I had I would happily use it.; But, saying that, it is a competent SLR with a good specification and they are not expensive. Worth a look if you have some K mount lenses that you want to use.

SLR – the perfect camera

There is an idea in computing of the Turing Machine. This is a general-purpose computer that can do any computational task by changing its program. I have mentioned this before in the same sense, of being able to make a digital camera emulate other sensors or effects. My premise here though, is that there is also a general-purpose type of camera, and it’s the SLR.

The SLR can do any photographic task, because it can be adapted and has few constraints.

The key feature is that the viewing lens and the taking lens are the same: you look through the actual lens in use to frame and focus the image. This means that what you see is what you get. The only other camera that does this is the large format type, where you compose and focus on a sheet of ground glass that gets replaced by film to make the exposure. The benefit of the SLR is that the ground glass and the film are in the same box at the same time: when you have composed and focused the mirror flips up and the shutter opens to send the incoming light to the film (or sensor). There are no delays while you swap the focusing screen for the film.

The clever hinged mirror

The other clever trick that the SLR has is the pentaprism. This reverses and inverts the image from the lens so that you see the scene the right way up and the right way round. Compare this with the large format camera above, where the image you see is upside-down. Or a TLR, where the image is the right way up but reversed left-to-right. So the SLR shows the world in the same way that it looks without the camera. There is no struggle to follow action or level a horizon, because the camera moves in the way you expect.

The inside of a pentaprism

Because you look through the lens, so can the lightmeter. Rather than the meter having a different view of the scene, you know exactly what it is measuring. This means that the meter automatically adjusts for filters, close-up work, odd apertures and strange lenses. By strange, think of using projector lenses, or even zoom lenses that have a variable aperture.  As an aside, this is why cine lenses have T markings rather than F stops. T is the actual transmission of the lens and is true for all lenses at the same setting. A marked F stop may not be the actual value of the light that gets through though, due to the realities of multiple elements etc. This is why it is useful to be able to meter through the lens to measure the actual light rather than the marketing department’s number. It also means that with a long lens, for example, you are measuring the distant scene rather than the general light you are standing in.

The benefit of rangefinder cameras, we are told, is that you can see outside the frame. This means you can see things that are about to come into the frame. This is supposed to be a benefit in street photography. The disadvantage is that the frame you see is not quite the same as what the lens sees, and this gets worse as you get closer. You also need the camera to have the necessary viewfinder frames for your lenses, or you need to use a supplementary viewfinder, introducing another source of error and turning the focusing and framing into separate actions. An SLR, on the other hand, will focus and frame any lens you can fit to it. Rangefinders also struggle with very long or very wide lenses, as the viewfinder and focus patch become less useful. Just think of the difficulties of focusing a 500mm lens (4 degrees) or a 180 degree wide angle. With the 500 the actual field of view may be smaller than the focusing patch. With the wide angle you have no idea if your feet are in shot or not. An SLR will happily handle both.

Swap the focusing screen for a different one

Rangefinders do have one advantage over the SLR though, in that they are often quieter to use. There is no sound or vibration from the SLR’s mirror flipping up and down. They can also be physically smaller, as the camera body doesn’t have to hold a tilting mirror.

The big development has been in mirrorless cameras, which combine the smaller size of the rangefinder with the through-the-lens utility of the SLR. I think that mirrorless cameras took off due to mobile phone cameras. We got used to the idea of holding a camera out in front of us and looking at the screen on the back, rather than holding the camera to our eye. So the mirrorless camera gains the smaller body of the rangefinder and drops the complex mechanism to raise and lower the mirror. It does rely entirely on electronics to display the viewfinder image though, so you need bigger batteries and get through them quicker. So there is a trade-off between the bigger and heavier SLR and the smaller and lighter mirrorless that may require you to carry an extra battery. There is also no equivalent to the manual SLR. I can use my Pentax MX with or without batteries and it works just fine. On the other hand, everyone seems to be swapping to mirrorless cameras, so perhaps I am wrong about SLRs? For digital, I probably am.

The epitome of the SLR is the professional system camera. These took full advantage of the adaptability of the configuration to allow you to swap viewing/ focusing screens, viewfinders, film capacity, motor drives, macro gadgets etc. You started with the basic film holder and shutter and added other bits as needed. The need for this has gone away with digital, as you can add picture capacity by using a larger storage card and do most of the other tricks in software. So what you are left with is the viewing mechanism – the facility to see through the lens and focus the image produced by that lens.

The downside of the SLR is that they are more complex than other types of camera. There is some clever orchestration to close-down the lens aperture, lift the mirror, trigger the shutter and then reverse it all. It also means that lenses for an SLR have to be designed to have a large enough distance between the back of the lens and the sensor to allow room for the mirror and shutter. This flange distance was fixed by the camera manufacturer for their cameras and lenses and is the main reason why not all lenses work on all cameras. The precise mechanical engineering of the mirror and shutter are probably why SLRs are declining: it’s a lot easier to use electronics to display what the lens is seeing than to use mirrors and prisms to do the job. It certainly makes manufacturing easier. For what is basically a niche product in a small market, this is important. The lack of a reasonably priced shutter mechanism is probably what is preventing any new SLR being developed (although we may be in luck).

So basically, there you have it: the SLR was the pinnacle of practical usability, replaced by alternatives that were cheaper to make or more flexible (mirrorless cameras and mobile phones). RIP the SLR.


I’m puzzled. I worked in IT (that’s reason enough, right there). Not the brainy side where they do development, but the messy side where we fix stuff. So we do a lot of systematic problem-solving, very often under pressure. If you can’t run the payroll on time, people get excited.

Now, I know that nobody ever came to work to use a computer. Well, maybe the code developers did, but they’re special. The rest of us have a job to do. A computer is one of the tools and, like a tool, I don’t have to understand how it works. As a colleague used to say – people don’t want drills, they want holes. But you can’t buy a bag of holes, so you have to use a drill.

This is where the puzzlement comes in. Why do so few people learn how to use the tools? I used to think I knew the answer, but I swapped sides and now I’m not so sure. Let me explain. And I promise I will get around to photography.

First, a small aside. The people in IT who provide support may often know less about what a computer can do than the people asking for help. The reason is that the IT people don’t use their computer to do your job. They know the basics and can fix most problems, but asking the IT guys how to set up running headers that repeat the section title or how to best-fit a curve to data, and they will do exactly what you could: read the Help file.

So this is what I did. Every time I wanted to do something difficult, I copied and adapted examples from Help until it worked. The (previous) scientist in me would use test data so I could check that the results worked. The geek in me wondered why nobody else did this. I also wondered why our organisation would throw people at technology with no training. Or rather they did train, but sporadically and with precise focus on how to do specific tasks.

What broadened my view was changing places. In my (early) retirement I took a part time call-centre job. We have multiple systems in use – many more than when I was a techie. I can use them, but I have no spare time to learn anything more about them. I also have no reason or incentive to do anything more than my assigned task. When something doesn’t work I don’t have the time to dawdle through the (non-existent) help facility. I want it fixed, right now. I also don’t want it changed. The systems are a minor component of what I do, but a major obstacle if they don’t work the way I expect. So now I understand why people hated IT when we rolled-out a change.

So what has this got to do with photography? So how well do you understand your camera? What about your editing software? Or your scanner? Just as we used to get people telling the IT help desk that they wished they knew more about computers (by which they meant how to use computer applications), so I hear people saying they wished they knew how to use their camera/ Lightroom/ scanner etc.

A while back I wrote an article about some aspects of learning. This was about the stages of moving from novice to expert and the false reassurance of feeling competent. While it set out what I had learned from the experts on the shape of the path, it didn’t explain how to make progress along it.

Hence the title of this post.

I have found that reading a manual or delving through menu options are not good ways for me to learn. Like I said, I could learn everything about the drill but what I want is the hole.

What I have found works for me is to try to do one thing, often imitating something I have seen or heard of. So with PhotoShop, for example, I started by removing hairs and scratches from scanned film images. I tried using cloning, but the results were horrible. Then I read about using layers. Then a bit more investigation led me to the healing brush tool. Combining that with a layer gave me a reversible and controllable spotting technique. Hurrah!

Trying a comic-book effect

I did the same with other effects that took my interest: toning; split toning; dodging and burning and so on. In each case the focus was on learning how to obtain a specific effect rather than memorising the entire manual. Each time I was happy with a process I made notes of the settings and layers I had used in a cookbook of techniques. This way I didn’t need to remember everything – I could look at the contents list for things like smoothing skin or sharpening to find the starting position. And each time I had a go at achieving an effect I could add it to the cookbook. A recent example is the use of texture layers. I went to a talk by the talented EJ Lazenby and saw how she uses texture layers and blending modes to achieve effects. Not a technique I will use every day, but useful to know and handy when needed. Very useful for dropping bad backgrounds in portraits (better would be to see and change the background at the time, but hey…). So I had a go, and fiddled until I got a result I liked. Then added it to the cookbook as a useful tool. I’m basically building myself the mythical bag of holes.

Trying the use of a texture overlay

What I am also doing (I realised, eventually) is breaking down the learning of a large area of knowledge into small steps that I am motivated to investigate and that reward me with results at each stage. To mangle another metaphor, I’m not trying to eat the whole elephant in one go. Instead I am serving an elephant-based buffet comprising elephant three ways, joues d’éléphant and a surprise pudding (of elephant). I still have no idea what PhotoShop is fully capable of, but if I see an interesting result I will learn how to obtain it. It also reduces stress. I am not fretting that I don’t know the whole of PhotoShop as I have a set of things I can do and a method for adding to the set based on interest or need.

It’s the same information-bloat with cameras. They are now so capable and feature-rich that I don’t imagine anyone knows or uses their full functionality. There is an example here of the full set of menu options on a modern camera. You can’t memorise this stuff. What you have to do is try one thing, say HDR, and see what works and what you like. Most digital cameras have one or more user or custom settings that remember a set of options. My Canon has one user mode saved that lets me shoot in mono (like a real camera) and a second mode for underwater. And I can always flick it back to program or manual if needed.

So rather than try to map the entire territory, I have explored paths that looked interesting and then left breadcrumbs so that I can find them again. Perhaps you have seen the film Jumper? The cool kids can travel instantly, but only to places they have seen in real life. I too have found my way to some useful results so I can jump to them any time I need them. The gaps between the end points remain undiscovered, unless I need something new.

Scott Redding, Marc VDS Team, Silverstone, June 2011
This was a more subtle use of several methods to improve the shadow detail

So, my sincere apologies to anyone trying to just get a job done. I am now in the same position at work and I just want stuff to work without effort. But for things that are optional, done for fun or to get a specific outcome, may I recommend trying small steps, with each one focused on getting a specific result? Don’t try to learn PhotoShop, learn how to darken a sky or level a horizon and then go from there.

And, as they used to say on Blue Peter, here’s one I made earlier:

Learning like this works for me. I hope you find it useful.

PS – why Ricercare? Because GEB.

The Lomo Spinner

If I thought the Horizon was a weird wide-angle camera, then this is taking it all too far. Where the Horizon rotates the lens to scan the image across a curved film plane, the Spinner rotates the whole camera while pulling the film past a slot behind the lens. It’s the same basic idea: scan the image across the film through a narrow slot. But where the Horizon shoots a 120 degree field of view, the Spinner can do 360 (and often a bit more). There is no standing behind this camera – you are usually in shot.

The metal ring is the pull-string that operates the spinning.

The camera is driven by a spring motor in the handle. You pull out a length of string to wind the motor and when you let go, the whole camera spins around on the handle. Your two composition choices are how level you want the camera to be, and where the rotation starts. Where the Horizon holds the film around a curve to match the rotation of its lens, the Spinner pulls the film past a slot as the camera rotates. This means it also exposes the sprockets.

The bubble level would be more useful on the underside. The switch for apertures and rewind is visible below the name badge.

The shutter speed is between 1/125 and 1/250 and there are two apertures available at f8 and f16. So you will also need to use the film sensitivity as one of the controls. Sunny days will use 100 ISO and darker days 400. It’s probably best to use colour negative film and go for over rather than underexpose and use the film’s latitude to cope.

Flat film gate with a slot. The film is held against it by the roller on the rear door. The drive belt at the bottom pulls the film through as the camera rotates.

Like the Horizon, the lens gets the extreme angle of view by rotating rather than being inherently very wide. But while the Horizon has a 28mm lens, the Spinner seems to be 25mm. Probably just as well, as the photographer usually in ends up in the shot and is pretty close to the camera, so that extra bit of wide-angle keeps the shooter in focus.

360 degree field of view

Shooting it is an experience – you hold the ‘stick’ at the bottom of the camera, try to get it level, then pull and release a string. Pulling out the full length of the string gets you a shot of a bit more than a full rotation. You can also pull out less string and get a smaller scan. This may be the only way to stay out of your own picture, other than holding the Spinner up over your head. This is why it really needs the bubble level on the bottom of the camera – so that you can hold it up and get it level and not be in your own shot. On the other hand it’s great for group shots, as the photographer is usually always missing. There is a tripod socket on the bottom of the handle, so it is also possible to set it up on a tripod, duck down and get a 360 panorama in one shot.

Croix de Van, Switzerland

The Spinner gets around eight shots on a 36 exposure roll, depending on whether you do full or partial spins. Scanning them can be a problem – I scan each frame in sections and combine them. The frame size can be up to 23cm – that’s 230mm, so six times wider than a normal 35mm frame. If you send the film away to be processed remember to ask for it not to be cut.

So it’s a rather specialised little beast, but good at what it does.

“I want to learn how to take pictures”

This is often followed by “what camera should I buy?”.

Perhaps the best way to start would be to go to the end and work backwards. “What sort of pictures do you want to take and how will you use them?”.

The answer friends and family, shared online means sticking with your phone camera and perhaps learning the basics of composition. This desired outcome is not about learning how a camera works but all about how pictures work.

To capture the amazing places I go and make prints could mean a decent quality digital camera with a zoom lens and adding some time to learn post-production and printing (or post-production and finding a reliable print shop). This is also all about how pictures work, with enough about the camera settings to be able to capture scenes as intended.

I’ve been given a camera and want to learn to use it can be much more focused. This is a technical how-to that is tightly constrained to a specific camera’s functions and capabilities. But once the camera has been mastered, what then? I could learn how to operate a lathe but unless I have an outcome in mind it would be an empty technical skill. I think that learning to use a specific camera should be directed by what it will be used for. Shooting fast sports needs different settings to macro work or portraiture, so you would be learning less but it would be more relevant and useful.

A manual rangefinder, because Leica.

Because all the social influencers are using one of these is a scary response. Perhaps the best that can be offered is a description of the workflow and some advice on the costs. Camera possession as social confirmation is a strange edge-case. My preference would be to suggest a cheap and simple digital point and shoot to try. If they like the results and persist, then we can talk about how or if to upgrade, based on what they want to be able to do.

a TLR, because life isn’t hard enough already

The ‘given a camera’ and ‘want to be like them’ responses could also be part of an enquiry that was “I want to learn to use film”. I think this needs the same response of ” what do want to be able to do?”. Why go to all the bother and expense of using film if you are already getting the results you want? And if what you want is to learn to control the camera more, digital is by far an easier learning tool than analogue, as it’s so much quicker to see the results (plus the results are not dependent on a further step, so there is one less variable in the process).

It was my dad’s

With all of these, I think the best approach is to start with old, cheap and simple. This is because you don’t know what you really want until you learn what you want to be able to do. Once you find yourself pushing against a constraint in your kit, then you know what kit you really need. And you might get bored and give up too, so why invest heavily at the beginning? As an example, I go scuba diving. For this I wear an inflatable jacket that also carries the air tank. The jacket can be inflated to control my buoyancy underwater and to float me on the surface. There are many different types of jacket and they can cost a lot of money. The one I use for normal diving is functionally OK, even though a bit awkward to use. But it has loads of buoyancy if needed, so is great for the diving I do with novice divers in open water. I also have a second jacket that I use in the pool when training. This is a different design that has the buoyancy arranged on the back, either side of the tank. The jacket is very comfortable to wear and holds me easily in a good posture underwater. But if I ever needed this jacket to support me on the surface it would fail: the buoyancy bags would roll me face-down in the water. Fine for snorkelling, not fine for general safety.

It’s similar with cameras and photography. Starting with secondhand kit means a soft entry and a chance to learn what you like or not and what you need versus what you have. Do I need depth of field preview? Never used it. Do I need to be able to change focusing screens? Not really. Do I need light metering? Yes please. Rangefinders? Why make things harder? Autofocus and focus confirmation? Yes very please. Good high ISO performance? Very useful. Wide range of lenses? Absolutely. Small, light, rugged and available? Definitely.

So those requirements cover several different types of photography (or use cases, as we nerds say) and result in several types of camera. Each camera has a job, as opposed to buying something very clever and having too much power most of the time. I confess though, that I am as guilty as many others of having more kit than I need. My only defence is that it was all the cheapest I could find, in the usual quest to find out if X is better than Y. Everyone raves about the Lomo LC-A for example. Tried one, didn’t like it, swapped it for something else more functional and suitable for my needs.

I’m an IT guy, so I was often asked the equivalent question of ‘what computer should I buy?’. This got the same answers of ‘what do you want to be able to do’ and ‘will this change over time’. Wanting to do a bit of t’interweb and email leads to a different solution from editing video.

So, circling back to where we came in… I think there are two avenues to explore. Learning to take pictures is a lot about learning what makes a picture work, and this means studying pictures. It means working out what you like in a picture and the types of picture you like. Then you can study how to get the effects you like in the type of pictures you want to take. Things like exposure, aperture and shutter speed make sense when they are linked to results. Learning to use a camera is a technical skill that can be learned but has very little to do with the final pictures (as long as the camera settings are about right – but that is why we have automatic modes).

The bonus from this is that, if someone is learning how to get the type of pictures they want rather than how to operate a camera, they might be less inclined to give up when it gets difficult. Every step forward would be towards what they want, rather than just one possible method of getting what they want or a further descent into a technical rabbit hole.

Speaking of rabbit holes – anyone who keeps asking for a camera recommendation should go here.

%d bloggers like this: