Loosing control
Gear Theory Workflow

Seeking Control through Simplifying the Digital Experience – By Vic Mortelmans

July 8, 2021

I never bought a new camera in my whole life. In my teens I started taking pictures with my father’s old Agfa Silette. Three speeds, manual focusing, no light meter, but setting the exposure based on the pictorial guidelines that are still printed on the inside of lots of film boxes. My next camera, also my father’s, was a huge upgrade: the Pentax Spotmatic F, with a built-in light meter, metering with the diaphragma open and a fast prime lens.

Over the years I bought dozens of film cameras and lenses on the second hand market, or I got them from family or friends, and I also got rid of lots of them. Now, at 45, I have the feeling that my collection is reaching some sort of consolidation (yes, I know, you’ll say that I’m being silly). Still using film very often, I also have entered the digital era. In this article, I’ll line up my 6 favourites, 3 analog and 3 digital camera’s and I’ll explain how I chose my digital camera’s because of their analog character, and then how I have tried to make the experience of shooting them even more of an analogue-like process.

Fujifilm X100s and Canon QL17 GIII

The compacts

The Fujifilm X100S (released in 2013) is my most recent acquisition. Being a digital compact camera, it features a classic optical viewfinder (I know, it’s hybrid, but I carry the digital viewfinder as ballast) and dial controls for exposure. It’s the second camera in the X100 series, but the first that has the X-Trans APS-C sensor. I skipped the first X100 because I read that it has quite some usability quirks.

Its analog counterpart in my collection is the Canonet QL17 GIII (released in 1972). Both cameras have absolutely silent leaf shutters. It must be the analog camera that resembles its digital brother most, although the layout of the dials is quite different: the Canonet has the shutter speed dial on the lens and no exposure compensation.

Epson R-D1 and Leica M4-2

The rangefinders

The Epson R-D1 (released in 2004) is my most expensive camera. It’s a Bessa-based rangefinder, also featuring an APS-C sensor and compatible with a wide range of M39 and M-mount lenses. In my collection, I pair it to a Leica M4-2, made in Canada (released in 1977), the latter being the only meter-less camera among the favourite six. They can share the same lenses.

From retro perspective I love the analog readouts on the top plate of the RD-1, although this is not something that refers to analog cameras at all, and the rewind knob that functions as a digital control. And of course: it has a shutter cocking lever!

Sony A850 and Pentax LX

The SLR’s

One can’t do without an SLR, so my third digital camera is the Sony α850 (released in 2009). It is my only full-frame digital and it is the last SLR in Sony’s product line, before they gave up on mirrors. I only have one dedicated lens for it, the 85mm, but I have a whole array of M42 lenses that can be mounted with an adapter.

The comparable analog camera is the Pentax LX (released in 1980), but I can’t withstand to mention my Pentax ES (released in 1971), that I salvaged during long evenings, harvesting parts from a second body.

Overwhelming Controls

Enough showing off. For all that I have digital equivalents to my film cameras, there is something that always puzzled me about digital camera’s is their overwhelming amount of controls. Even the most low-end digital compact floods its user with menus and processing options. Not that I don’t want to be in control: you’ll never see me using the “green dot” setting for auto-everything and I take pride in doing a sunny-sixteen assessment for double-checking the metered exposure. It’s the processing options that puzzle me most.

Camera manufacturers have since long standardized on exposure settings: film sensitivity, f-stops, shutter times, they’re the same on any brand of camera, analog or digital. And talking analog, that’s all there is to it. Once you pop in your film, they’re the only controls that you get. My rolls of family snaps take weeks to fill up, covering all sorts of lighting conditions, so doing pushing, pulling or non-standard development is not really an option for me. And frankly, I’m always happy about the results, unless I screwed up while taking the picture. Apart from the lab that once returned my film completely black, analog is foolproof! I hardly ever postprocess the scans that the lab delivers me.

Not so with digital. White balance completely off, colors much too dull or oversaturated, detail loss in shadows or highlights… How often do I think: “hey, that looked much better on the camera display than on my pc”! Should I have used the “Portrait” processing instead of the “Normal”? Should I have lowered the contrast in the settings? In the end this gets frustrating, because I have no means to work out all these parameters before taking each picture. And no, I’m not going to spend long evenings post processing RAW images. I just want my digital camera’s to deliver the same fulfillment as my analog ones.

Things don’t become easier noticing that digital processing settings on cameras have not been standardized at all. Sony has Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Portrait and Landscape processing. Fujifilm calls it Provia (standard), Velvia (vivid), Astia (soft), PRO Neg Hi and PRO Neg Std. The Epson doesn’t have this kind of foolery, but just like the others it offers fine-tuning parameters. You can set EdgeEnhance, Saturation, Tint, Contrast and NR (noise reduction). Fujifilm has different parameters: Color, Sharpness, Highlight tone, Shadow tone and Noise reduction. And on the Sony there is a third set: Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness, Brightness and Zone. The combinations that you can make with these settings are innumerable! Some are self-explaining, but Epson’s “Tint” and Sony’s “Zone” mean little to me and the user manuals are not helpful. A DR (dynamic range) setting is available on Fujifilm (100%, 200% and 400%) and on Sony (off, DR, DR+, DR+L1 to 5).

Setting my baseline

It’s like having an analog camera on which you have to turn 10 dials before making your picture and each brand having different sets of dials! To suppress the feeling of despair each time I dive into the menus, and hopefully make my digital experience a little more consistent, and perhaps even a little more analogous to shooting film, here’s what I did.

Each of the camera’s has three registers for storing custom settings. I use them to setup similar profiles for: (1) all-round daylight or flash pictures, (2) black-and-white and (3) available light shooting. These could be considered close to having 3 types of film to choose from, : (1) a daylight colour film, (2) black-and-white film (3) high speed film.

Here are the settings that I use as a baseline. Of course I will be gradually applying improvements, but I will be limiting myself to these three profiles when I use the cameras.

Table 1: Fujifilm X100s

C1 all-round

C2 b/w

C3 night

Processing

Provia

B/W

Astia

ISO

auto (< 800)

auto (< 800)

6400

DR

auto

auto

100% (*)

Color

0

0

-2

Sharpness

0

+1

0

Highlight tone

0

+1

-2

Shadow tone

0

+1

-2

Noise reduction

0

0

+2

(*) I suppose one would expect a higher DR setting here, but from the few test shots that I made, I had the impression that it doesn’t have that much effect. The tone settings do all the work.

Table 2: Epson R-D1

film 1 all-round

film 2 b/w

film 3 night

Processing (*)

color

monochrome

color

ISO (*)

200-400

200-400

1600

EdgeEnhance

+1

+1

-2

Saturation

+1

0

-2

Tint

+2

0

-2

Contrast

0

+1

-2

NR

0

-2

+2

(*) not actually part of the presets, I must set these manually

Table 3: Sony α850

C1 all-round

C2 b/w

C3 night

Processing

Standard

B/W

Neutral

ISO

auto (< 400)

auto (< 400)

3200

DR

DR

DR

DR+

Contrast

0

+1

0

Saturation

0

0

-2

Sharpness

0

+1

-2

Brightness

0

0

-2

Zone

0

0

-1

I hope that this will give me some predictability as to what the pictures will look like, and put my mind at rest.

Testing

For the first set of test pictures that I made, I used 35mm (or equivalent) lenses on all of them. On the Pentax LX this was the 40mm pancake lens. For the APS-C cameras, I had 28mm lenses. I’ve only used the Pentax as an analog representative, with a cheap ISO200 Kodak ColorPlus film. I used -2 stops exposure compensation for the available light shots, except for the Sony, there -1 stop was sufficient.

On the film shot, I forgot to set exposure compensation, so it’s brighter. I think that my presets for Brightness and Zone have the effect of another step down. On the film shot, I forgot to set exposure compensation, so it’s brighter.

C1 test shots

C1 “all-round”

C1 test shots

C1 “all-round”

C2 test shots

C2 “B/W” (the film shot is plainly converted to grayscale)

C3 test shots

C3 “available light”

Conclusions:

  • Exposure: Fujifilm has a tendency to overexpose a bit. Sony underexposes up to 2 stops. Epson seems quite OK.
  • Auto white balance: Fujifilm is quite accurate. Sony is inconsistent. Epson is consistently too warm (but that may be the “Tint +2” that I threw in?)
  • Tonality: with the exposures diverging, it’s hard to assess… Although I must say I appreciate what the Epson is doing, despite that it has the oldest sensor!
  • Color: again, with the white balances going berserk, hard to tell; and my test subjects weren’t that colorful, so I leave this to a future test.
  • B/W: Fujifilm and Sony have too much contrast. Epson is quite OK.

So this is the end of the article, but only the beginning of the story! When you look for me, I will be fine tuning my settings, manually setting white balances and calculating sunny sixteen exposure setting in something of a bid to make my digital experience a little more film-like… or I might even just be shooting some film.

Through all this, the most important lesson that I learnt is valid for most aspects of life: whenever you’re given the impression that you get more control over something, you’re probably actually losing control! And, of course, the old recipes often work the best!

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6 Comments

  • Reply
    Dan
    July 8, 2021 at 3:06 pm

    Have you tried the old Sigma Foveon cameras? I’ve gone through a silly amount of classic digital cameras such as the Leica M9, Fujifilm X100 and Fujifilm S5 pro. The most satisfying output by far has been the Sigma. Horrible interface and quirky in every sense of the word but totally worth it for the output. Good luck with your venture!

  • Reply
    Nick Lyle
    July 8, 2021 at 4:51 pm

    I found your approach interesting and food for thought. Perhaps you might be interested in a brief account of a different way to mingle film and digital tools. I shoot both digital and film cameras of all types. We approach processing differently though. I almost always scan the film myself, with much less consistent results than typical lab scans provide. This means that digital processing of film images is even more complex than for digital camera files. I enjoy the variety this provides, but it can be frustrating as well. With digital cameras I find, as you do, that they vary quite a bit, and it takes some time to come to grips with each one, much like learning to work with a particular film stock. I have experimented with using camera settings to alter digital output, but find that RAW files usually give better and more consistent results, so I tend to shoot digital cameras in all manual modes, just like my film cameras; I ignore most of the menus and special features. I do use a range of old and peculiar lenses to bring more variety and character to digital images. One thing that can make this a bit easier is using a camera with a good EVF. Like you I appreciate optical finders, and do use an X-Pro1 as well as a Pentax DSLR, but I have found that using a good EVF can really help in learning to control the output of a digital camera. For better worse, all this means that I find digital cameras give me more control in many circumstances, while film is often more of a wild card. Fortunately I like surprises.

  • Reply
    Arthur Gottschalk
    July 9, 2021 at 12:26 am

    Wow! Now this was a most helpful post. I’m a film photographer reluctantly contemplating a switch to digital for travel. But I’m put off by the complexity of digital and need something like your advice to make the switch. Thanks,

  • Reply
    c.d.embrey
    July 9, 2021 at 7:25 am

    We are all different. I shoot fresh film, and have it developed and scanned by a pro lab.

    I often shoot in P (for professional). I do not like surprises 😉 I like using a digital Canon 5D Mk3 better tan I do my film Elan 7n.

  • Reply
    Tobias Eriksson
    July 9, 2021 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you for a great article! I admire your dedication to finding consistent results. I solved the problem of having a screen on the back of my Fujifilm XE-1 by covering it with a half-case for an analog camera. Now the interface is only through the viewfinder.

  • Reply
    Sean Benham
    July 9, 2021 at 2:07 pm

    This is great! I love breaking down the systems and comparing to film cameras. It helps me appreciate older digital cameras and respect what was trying to be done at that time. I own a Nikon D70 that still takes incredible photos in decent lighting and the features on it quite deep. Even comparing to my Nikon N90 it’s quite an impressive opponent, nonetheless the N90 shoots in full frame but I love using the same lenses on both. I also own a Fujifilm X-E2 and love everything about it and is still my main shooter. On the film side I probably use my Minolta Hi-Matic E and F the most.

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