Projects and ponderings for film photographers

Some Cranky Opinions About Focal Lengths For Your Film SLR

My portrait lens says your kit zoom is lame and needs to go away

Today, practically all cameras come with a zoom lens; and photographers just take it for granted that you kinda smoosh the zoom ring back and forth until something looks sorta okay to you.

I think that’s regrettable for a couple different reasons. True, after a rocky start today’s zooms have evolved to be pretty decent in terms sharpness and compactness. But compared to single-focal-length lenses, you still pay a penalty of a couple of f-stops in maximum aperture. Furthermore, I think it gives a photographer a certain mental clarity having to make a deliberate choice between a limited handful of primes: “am I trying to do THIS, or THIS?”

As I wrote earlier, SLRs up through the 1980s typically came with a 50mm standard lens. From there, most photo hobbyists took the path of least resistance and bought one of the era’s cheap, ubiquitous 28mm wide-angles; plus either a 135mm telephoto or a chunky 70-200 zoom.

Well, in those days people also bought lots of station wagons with wood-grain-vinyl trim panels. That doesn’t mean it was a good idea.

Lets forget “what everybody did,” and start over by asking what focal lengths are actually useful? And I’d argue the typical 50, 28, 135 combo is actually a poor choice in many ways.

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“Is this old film camera worth anything?” A Handy Visual Guide

When you see some fancy-looking camera, it’s a natural reaction to think, “this must be valuable!” And especially so if you remember once spending hundreds of dollars on one.

A cute but very dated Minolta A

Will you be my friend?

But the sad truth is that in 2015, there are not a lot of people around who still want a film camera. If you check on eBay, most film-camera listings close with no buyers.

Cell-phone cams are everywhere today, and are adequate for most people’s casual snapshot needs. Enthusiast digital cameras have evolved tremendously. In fact, lots of cities don’t have a place to buy or develop film any more. So almost nobody needs a film camera now. (I wrote a bit more about that here.)

Yet you sometimes hear about a film camera fetching a freakish amount of money.

So which is it? Is your late Uncle Hubert’s dusty old Minolta a valuable heirloom—or obsolete junk?

Well… it depends. Yes, a few of us weirdos do still have an interest in film cameras. But you have to think through who and why.

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2015: The Fragile State of Film Photography

Sorry it’s been a few years since my last post here. I’m momentarily de-lurking, because in the past year I’ve sensed that once again the ground is shifting in the world of silverbased photography.

Kodak Advertisement, 1958

Fragment of a 1958 Kodak advertisement

• The number one change: Even late adopters who didn’t want to buy a digital camera now have one forced upon them—any time they get a new cell phone. And their phone-cams have turned out to be perfectly adequate for the kinds of record shots and family snaps most people take. Even “serious” photographers are finding they can do usable work with the newest generation of phone cameras.

• As economies of scale shrivel, the price of film has gone up noticeably over the past 6-8 years. The days of $1.80 for a roll of 120 film are never coming back. (Fortunately, I have a large freezer!)

• Thus it’s no surprise that the shakeout for film retailers and processors has reached critical levels. The last local storefront near me who sold and developed film closed down this January—it was the last one in the whole county, population ~350,000. So outside of a few large cities, anyone wanting to use film is now obligated to buy it via mail order; and either DIY-develop, or use a mail-out service (like Dwayne’s, NCPS, Blue Moon Camera, or Read the rest of this entry »