Friday, July 6, 2018

The End of Film

Topham Pond, Toronto, June 2018

I BOUGHT MY LAST REAL FILM CAMERA IN 2003. I've bought cameras since then - antiques and curiosities and some Lomography stuff, but they were either used as toys or meant to sit on a bookshelf in my office. The last new film camera I really used was the Canon EOS Elan 7e I purchased in 2003, after my trusty Canon EOS Elan (known in most markets around the world as the EOS 100) stopped working after a solid decade of hard use.

I knew when I bought it that the 7e would be my last film camera. Digital was happening in a big way, but the technology was still pretty hit-and-miss and the camera manufacturers hadn't come up with a single image file as the industry standard. I thought that I'd be using the 7e for at least three or four years when I packed it for my press junket to Peru - the camera's big shake-out cruise.

It's a pretty great piece of gear. Built out of alloys and polycarbonates like most of Canon's lower-priced cameras, it was on the top edge of their prosumer SLR line and included some pretty incredible technology, like an eye-following autofocus that worked really well, though it's never reappeared on any of Canon's subsequent cameras, amateur or professional. It was light and took all my old lenses and by the time I was back from Peru it seemed like we were ready to go.

I rarely ever used it again. The camera companies finally agreed on a common image standard - jpegs for compressed images and RAW files for uncompressed. With that settled, they could really begin competing with each other in the marketplace, which saw prices for cameras start to drop. In 2004 the free daily put me back to work shooting and bought a Canon digital SLR for me to use. The 7e was packed away in a camera bag and I don't think I put another roll of film through it again until last week.

Topham Pond, Toronto, June 2018

Knowing that I was going to be writing a blog post about the end of film photography, I pulled the 7e out of its bag in the basement, put some fresh batteries in the grip and loaded it with an expired roll of Ilford Delta 400 film I'd had sitting around since the camera was new. It only took a minute to decide that the most suitable subject on a warm June day was in my old neighbourhood, just a couple of blocks away from where Kodak Canada's plant used to be - the factory where women in my family worked since the '20s.

The pond on the southeast corner of the Eglinton Flats wasn't called Topham Pond when I was a kid. I don't recall it having a name (though I distinctly remember its stagnant odour in the heat of summer), and the parkland surrounding it was mostly grass and scrub with a few stands of shrubs and a single copse of trees at the bottom of the hill where teenagers went to smoke and make out. It's been landscaped and naturalized since I moved away over thirty years ago, and has become one of the nicest green spaces in the city, as far as I'm concerned.

Topham Pond, Toronto, June 2018

To compare and contrast, I also brought along my current favorite camera - the Fuji X-30 that has been a big part of the revival of my enthusiasm for shooting. There's no denying that the two cameras make me shoot differently, and that the images that come out of them have distinct qualities. Even if I didn't have to push the Ilford a stop to compensate for the lack of sensitivity of expired film, the grain in the film is hard to ignore, and has to be worked with when processing up the final images in Photoshop.

The digital files are very different - smooth and full of resolution when working from RAW files, and far easier to manipulate in editing. The film shots look like lithographs, full of rough analog texture, while the digital photos have a fine, long tonal curve that feels more like graphic art. It's easier to push and shape the digital files into something less realistic, and since the move to digital I've been able to realize effects that I could only imagine in the darkroom.

But the 7e wasn't my only final film camera. A year before I bought it, I walked into the one hour photo lab by the basement food court in the mall next to the free daily's offices and picked up an Olympus Stylus Epic on impulse. With my first steady paycheque in almost fifteen years, I was feeling flush, and I wanted a little camera I could fit in a pocket.

Until the Stylus, most point-and-shoot cameras were pretty dismal, but Olympus had produced a really useful bit of kit that, thanks to its bright, wide lens and an unusually accurate exposure system, had become a hit with professionals who used it to take notes, or even as a backup camera. It was the first small, inexpensive camera that I felt I could trust the way I've since learned to trust almost any recent digital camera - or the cameras in my smartphones, which have effectively killed off the point-and-shoot market.

Lunenberg wharves, Nova Scotia, Summer 2002
Barrington Street looking north from Sackville, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Summer 2002
Fog at Harbourville, Nova Scotia, Summer 2002

The Stylus was as indispensable then as my X-30 is today. I packed it with a Holga plastic camera on the Peru trip, and I actually have to look close to tell the difference between shots taken with the Stylus and the 7e. It was most useful of all on the summer trips we took to visit my wife's family in Nova Scotia, both before and after we had kids. I could use it for family snaps and for artier shots, like a short series I took holding up some of the vintage postcards I was collecting in the spots where they were taken.

If I'm honest, I don't miss film. I never really enjoyed the smell, the cost or the inconvenience of the darkroom, and I don't care if I ever develop another roll of film again. Image editors like Photoshop offer a complexity and ease of manipulation that has the added advantage of working anywhere - preferably in a comfortable chair by a window. But I feel bad that the 7e will never get used as much as its predecessor, and not just because it feels like I never got my money's worth out of its purchase price.

No comments:

Post a Comment