New Camera Envy and Old Camera Envy

Since Nikon debuted their most recent models of professional cameras, I have been a bit confused. Sure, the flagship D4 is an amazing camera, but the price tag is a bit beyond what I see as worthwhile for what I shoot. Then there is the D800, which is at a more attractive price point, but at 36MP, with RAW files that can be in the 75MB range, shooting with one would require a serious upgrade in memory cards, and computer memory, and hard drive space, just to end up throwing away up to 80% of the pixels every time I went to make a reasonably-sized print. It just didn’t seem worth it. I am skeptical about the megapixel wars anyway, and my D700 makes such lovely pictures I didn’t want to significantly change things just to get a new camera. What I really wanted was a full-frame digital camera with 16-18MP at the price of the D800. Nikon wasn’t giving it to me.

Yesterday, Nikon announced the Df, the camera that, by specs at least, is what I have been waiting for. In case you don’t know, Nikon designates its digital SLR cameras with a D: D4, D700, D3200, etc. Its film cameras, of which two are still produced, were designated with an F: F5, F100, FM10, etc. So the name suggests what is a bit odd with the Df, something that it shares with a newish collection of cameras from Fuji and Sony: It is a backward movement in design.

Ever since the F5, cameras have used dials, rather than knobs, to make adjustments. It allows for quick shooting and making changes to exposure on the fly without having to pull the camera away form the eye. It is extremely convenient. But on the other hand, there are those who claim that the F4 is actually the better camera, even though it was the last of Nikon’s cameras to use knobs on top of the body instead of dials on the front and back. The Df is, in essence, a digital version of the F4, whereas digital cameras up to this point have been aspiring to the F5 (okay, that sentence was film propaganda…the D3 surpassed the F5)

So why are we moving backward? Well, we’re not. The Df is a technological move forward, and its digital pedigree is the high end Nikon digital cameras that pros everywhere have in their bags already. This camera, as well as the Fuji x100, simply are giving a nod to the fact that there are multiple camera designs out there, and that some people prefer the older design. That’s the thing about modern dSLRs…there is really only one design, regardless of what brand you prefer. Nikon claims this camera, the Df, will slow you down, make you think more…return you to “pure photography”. Maybe. It will still be a hotrod workhorse.

But what is with this small counter-trend toward the antiquated? Why do photographers turn back the clock on technology, when we have the most powerful imaging technology available to us? To answer, I quote at length from Susan Sontag’s On Photography, in the chapter “Photographic Evangels”:

“Whatever the claims for photography as a form of personal expression on a par with painting, it remains true that its originality is inextricably linked to the powers of the machine: no one can deny the informativeness and formal beauty of many photographs made possible by the steady growth of these powers, Like Harold Edgerton’s high-speed photographs of a bullet hitting its target, of the swirls and eddies of a tennis stroke, or Lennart Nilsson’s endoscopic photographs of the interior of the human body. But as cameras get ever more sophisticated, more automated, more acute, some photographers are tempted to disarm themselves or to suggest that they are not really armed, and prefer to submit themselves to the limits imposed by a pre-modern camera technology–a cruder, less high-powered machine being thought to give more interesting or expressive results, to leave more room for the creative accident. Not using fancy equipment gas been a point of honor for many photographers–including Weston, Brandt, Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Frank–some sticking with a battered camera of simple design and slow lens that they acquired earlier in their careers, some continuing to make their contact prints with nothing more elaborate than a few trays, a bottle of developer, and a bottle of hypo solution.

“The camera is indeed the instrument of ‘fast seeing,’ as one confident modernist, Alvin Langdon Coburn, declared in 1918, echoing the Futurist apotheosis of machines and speed. Photography’s present mood of doubt can be gauged by Cartier-Bresson’s recent statement that it may be too fast. The cult of the future (of faster and faster seeing) alternates with the wish to return to a more artisinal, purer past–when images still had a handmade quality, an aura. This nostalgia for some pristine state of the photographic enterprise underlies the current enthusiasm for daguerreotypes, stereograph cards, photographic cartes de visitie, family snapshots, the work of forgotten nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century provincial and commercial photographers.

“But the reluctance to use the newest high-powered equipment is not the only or indeed the most interesting way in which photographs express their attraction to photograph’s past. The primitivist hankerings that inform current photographic taste are actually being aided by the ceaseless innovativeness of camera technology. For many of these advances not only enlarge the camera’s powers but also recapitulate–in a more ingenious, less cumbersome form–earlier, discarded possibilities of the medium. Thus, the development of photography hinges on the replacement of the daguerreotype process, direct positive images on metal plates, by the positive-negative process, whereby from an original (negative) an unlimited number of prints can be made. (Although invented simultaneously in the late 1830s, it was Daguerre’s government-supported invention, announced in 1839 with great publicity, rather than Fox Talbot’s positive-negative process, that was the first photographic process in general use.) But now the camera could be said to be turning back on itself. The Polaroid camera revives the principle of the daguerreotype camera: each print is a unique object. The hologram (a three-dimensional image created with laser light) could be considered a variant on the heliogram–the first, cameraless photographs made in the 1820s by Nicephore Niepce. And the increasingly popular use of the camera to produce slides–images which cannot be displayed permanently or stored in wallets and albums, but can only be projected on walls or on paper (as aids for drawing)–goes back even further into the camera’s pre-history, for it amounts to using the photographic camera to do the work on the camera obscura.

“‘History is pushing us to the brink of a realistic age,’ according to Abbott, who summons photographers to make the jump themselves. But while photographers are perpetually urging each other to be bolder, a doubt persists about the value of realism which keeps them oscillating between simplicity and irony, between insisting on control and cultivating the unexpected, between the eagerness to take advantage of the complex evolution of the medium and thee wish to reinvent photography from scratch. Photographers seem to need periodically to resist their own knowingness and the remystify what they do.” (123-126)

It should be noted that Sontag wrote this around 1973, somewhere around the time that we are currently referencing in our own throw-backs. Of my three most-used film cameras’ the most recent was made in the early 1980s. Only one autofocuses. Two are sure-fire conversation starters simply because they are not tiny or fast.

So the retro movement itself has a long tradition; it is not something of the moment, not something we are just doing in the second decade of the 21st century. Throwing back, and having major companies present powerful tools that are in someways throwbacks, invites us, if not forces us, to reconsider the benefits of the relentless Futuristic surge forward, the apotheosis of speed and resolution. Why 36MP? Why dials? Why digital? Why 35mm?

Fuji’s x100 and Nikon’s new Df are not rebukes, or answers in and of themselves. But they are very pretty and powerful chances for every photographer to reaffirm–or maybe even reconsider–why and how they shoot. How many cameras can we say that about?


Excerpt taken from:

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Picador: New York, 1973.