False Nostalgia

Posted on August 10, 2005 by psu

I had a feeling of nostalgia come over me a few weeks ago and got out the old manual film camera to shoot a roll of black and white and send it to a lab I found that does process-and-scan.

Aside from the Leicas, there is no current production camera that is as old school as the Nikon FM3a. It has manual focus, manual wind, and that signature manual camera snick noise when you take a shot. It feels and sounds and works just like a real camera should.

But, don’t be fooled. The truth is that old cameras suck.

Here’s what you do to get ready to shoot some pictures with an older camera

  1. Open can of film.

  1. Open back of camera.

  1. Pull the leader out and stuff it into the little slot in the takeup spool that doesn’t hold on to the tab quite right so the leader falls out when you try to wind the first shot, so you have to try three times before the film finally catches.

  1. Shoot a blank. Wind the film. make sure it is going on to the takeup spool.

  1. Close back of camera.

  1. Shoot 3 or 4 blanks to move the film past the leader.

It’s easy and fast once you get the hang of it. Well, actually it isn’t.

Here’s what you do to get ready to take some shots with a digital SLR.

  1. Put in a memory card.

  1. Turn on camera.

To be fair, there are auto-load film cameras with nifty motor drives. But, these are not nostalgia items. People don’t fawn over their classic controls and sleek metallic bodies. For the most part they handle just like digital cameras with their faceless and efficient electronic interfaces. Of course, this also means that they are actually usable.

There are three things you want to do with a camera to take a picture: frame, focus, and set exposure. The modern film or digital camera has three handy dials that do each of these things quickly without requiring that you remove your eyes from the viewfinder. Various auto modes can also make the process faster if you know what you are doing. The old stupid camera has a handy focus dial on the lens and a fantastically huge panoramic viewfinder that projects the scene into your eyeballs with the brightness of a thousand suns. That’s where the beauty ends though. To set exposure, you are likely going to end up taking the camera off your face to find the tiny little shutter speed dial that is on the camera top that is impossible to turn with just a finger. You will paw at it with your huge fingers, straining to see the tiny little numbers that are barely visible in the low light. Don’t worry though. This is the classic camera interface, and it’s good for you.

If you use the automatic mode in the FM3a and you want to set exposure compensation (so that white comes out white), the situation is even more insulting. Not only do you have to turn a tiny little knob, but it has an even tinier little locking button that you have to push down before you can make a setting. This is so you don’t turn the tiny little knob by accident because it is so easy to reach up there and accidentally grab it with your two smallest fingers in the death grip needed to actually make it move. This is the legendary ease of use of use of a classic camera. The camera keeps you from setting things easily, so you don’t do it accidentally.

Having reacquainted myself with the wonders of the classic camera interface, I shot through my roll of film. I was surprised when I hit the end of the roll could no longer wind the camera. I must shoot in batches of 50 or 60 with my digital. So I flipped the rewind knob up to rewind my shots back into the can, and it did not turn. Worse, when I gave it a little nudge, I heard the film break off. It turns out that you can’t rewind the film without first pushing a small button on the bottom of the camera to reverse the transport. I had completely forgotten that this button exists. More of that classic design helping me out.

So here is the last wonder of the film world that I will have the pleasure of experiencing: losing 36 frames because the fucking film transport system breaks the film out of the canister making it impossible to retrieve without going into a darkroom.

Yes, it is truly sad that the hallowed days of capturing images on emulsion are behind us. We are missing so many tactile pleasures now. Like opening up the back of the camera (in daylight) and ripping out the film we just shot so we can tear it up into little pieces on the driveway and stomp it into oblivion.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, especially when it is so easily cured. Anyone want to buy a slightly used Nikon FM3a?

Additional Notes

This commentary in Gizmodo is infused with the same false nostalgia that victimized me. I’ve use that Pentax body. It has stupid dials. His griping about exposure compensation is especially laughable, since that is the easiest thing to set on most modern cameras.