13 Aug 2016

If you want to get the best out of digital, buy an old film camera.

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You should buy an old camera You should buy an old camera RedShark/Shutterstock


RedShark Summer Replay: Old cameras can teach us some essential lessons about using modern digital ones (first published February 2015).

I was in Leeds this week and I came across a wonderful photographic shop. It only sold vintage cameras - including the Zenith SLR that was my first SLR when I was seventeen. This camera was a quite remarkable device, because it cost very little and not much short of a nuclear explosion could stop it working. I have proof of this. I bought a Russian telephoto lens, which felt like it was made of depleted uranium, and once left it and the camera on the roof of my car. I drove off, and didn't notice until I saw the camera and lens in my rear-view mirror, tumbling along in the road behind me. Apart from some fairly deep dents and scratches (in the road) it was fine. The lens still worked as well, although when you zoomed in it felt like a pepper grinder.  It's probably in a land-fill somewhere now, ready to take some more pictures as soon as someone finds it.

I couldn't tear myself away from the shop. There was something about the beauty of the cameras and their sheer permanence. I'm not completely sure what I mean by that but maybe it's that none of these cameras had any software in them. No updates, no bugs. No electronics, even. Everything you need is there, and if it breaks, it's fixable.

I was drawn to a shelf with a row of stately-looking Medium Format cameras. Mamiyas, Hasselblads, Yashicas. All of them looking like they had every intention of being around as long as Stonehenge.

I'd buy one of these

I am seriously considering buying one of these. They're not expensive (until you start using them) and the pictures are wonderful. I have a friend - a proper photographer - who has a Mamiya, and there is something quite indefinably good about the pictures. Maybe it's shallow depth of field. Maybe it's the sheer size of the frame. And almost certainly it's because of the nature of chemical film.

I spent the rest of they day checking my phone and pecking out emails on my 4G iPad, as usual. But just for half an hour or so, I was transported  to another place where the world seemed different, and better in some ways.

In a completely unplanned way, we seem to be having an extended discussion in RedShark about the merits of analogue vs digital. It's like once we started it, we couldn't stop. But it's OK, because it gets right to the heart of what we do when we work with creative imaging - moving or still - in these mercurial modern times.



Image: Wikipedia

Very recently, we looked at why some people prefer the sound of Vinyl to the demonstrably more accurate sound of a good digital recording. I know that this is a real thing. I know dedicated audio enthusiasts, fiercely intelligent, and entirely logical in their outlook. They still prefer the sound of what is by any scientific measure (apart from human preference) an inferior medium.

If you look at the comments to the article you'll see there's a common theme. It is that when records were made primarily for vinyl, they were made differently. Specifically, they were mastered in a different way.

If you've never worked in the audio business you could be forgiven for never having thought about mastering. It's a very important process.

When a record is made, there will be a master tape. It will be a two channel stereo recording. It will be the best quality that the sound recordists could make. But it won't necessarily be the best recording to make a record from, because consumer recording mediums have different properties. Vinyl has a limited dynamic range. You can't have sounds that are too loud, or the grooves in the record will bump into each other, and it's also possible to make the needle jump out of the groove. So vinyl masters took this into account. They might also acknowledge that the needle moves slower through the groove as it gets closer to the centre. So that's why you often find the gentle ballads near the middle of the record.

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David Shapton

David is the Editor In Chief of RedShark Publications. He's been a professional columnist and author since 1998, when he started writing for the European Music Technology magazine Sound on Sound. David has worked with professional digital audio and video for the last 25 years.

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