151023 Film & Digital - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto
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Last weekend I was out with both my new Fujifilm XT10 and my Zeiss Ikon rangefinder. I took 509 photos with the digital camera, 36 photos with the film one, and couldn’t be happier.

One benefit of using the same lenses on both cameras surprised me, although it probably shouldn’t have. I’m getting better at shooting with the rangefinder simply because I have a much better sense of how far, and in which direction, to turn the focusing ring. Shooting film at the prolific rate of one roll per weekend isn’t enough to develop those reflexes, if you’ll pardon the pun, but the putting the equivalent of fourteen rolls through a digital camera over the same timeframe really helps.

Two different people walked across the trestle bridge when I was shooting these photos, so I was able to take some time and wait for them to be in the right spots. With the XT10 I took a bunch of photos, and with the rangefinder I was considerably more restrained. But it's a very easy shot with a manual lens – just focus to infinity and pick an aperture.

My increasing facility with my Zeiss lenses does make me less likely to want other lenses for my digital camera. The Fuji aperture ring is backwards, like most of them are, which would be tough to adjust to as my Zeiss lenses become instinctive. So a Fuji lens would have to offer something very compelling over the Zeiss, and at this point I see two possible draws: close focus and auto focus. Time will tell which one I miss more, if either.

I almost always used the digital camera first, to explore what I wanted to do, and then switched to the film camera once I knew the results I was looking for. But the process isn't flawless. When I saw the digital results from photographing this rail bridge through the foliage I was disappointed that I left the bright concrete base of the rail line visible. That made the film version a pleasant surprise when I finally saw it several days later.

Happy accidents aside, the rangefinder is less accurate for framing, and that does change the way I use it. With a 100% through-the-lens viewfinder I can try for straight lines and right angles, but with the more ambiguous Ikon I'm more likely to look for a different composition.

I don't believe in "better", so trying similar photos with both cameras was only an effort to understand their differences. It worked, to some extent; I think that the digital is stronger for details, but that film expresses more character. 

Now saying that – based on my limited experience so far – that the digital camera is stronger for details while film expresses more character does somewhat undermine the Fuji. Using ZM lenses on it is mostly for the sake of character; if I wanted detail, I’d use a Merrill, or maybe the D800. So the ZM’ed XT10 actually lands as something of a hybrid, creating an experience that has some of the character of film but more of the convenience of digital. The Zeiss Ikon remains the real thing.

But I’m using the Ikon again because I have the XT10 to share its lenses, so each one enables the other to do its best. Carrying the Ikon and a Merrill wouldn’t make any sense, even though, in a less happy way, the Merrills also have an experience with some of the characteristics of film. The ZM/XT is simply too much fun to use together, and because of that, pictures get taken. That’s really the point of the exercise.

There is something that I’ve been avoiding admitting, even as I talk about how nice it is to have a film-digital combination that uses the same lenses. A pair of elephants in the room, so to speak: this is something that I’ve already had for many years with my Nikon D800 and F5. True, I don’t usually use the same lenses on them, preferring AF-S on my D800 and needing AF-D on my F5, but the possibility is there.

Two things have stopped me from using the D800/F5 pair in the way that I use the XT/ZM combination. One is that the SLRs themselves are too big to comfortably carry as a pair. They’re big individually, let alone together. The other is that contemporary Nikon lenses have even less charm than their cameras. The beautiful manual-focus ZM lenses are rewarding to use, and the little cameras that go with them are so small that it’s easy to keep them both in hand at the same time. That makes a huge difference, and as a result, pictures get taken.


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