Going retro – or a recent experience with severe "film deja vu"

A little bit of background. I’ve been seriously interested in photography for a long time. I owned several film SLRs before I switched to a digital camera at Christmas time in 2000. It took me a while to change over, since I wasn’t convinced that digital quality matched film. Once I did switch, I haven’t looked back (until now), and I’ve been happily shooting digital ever since.

When I used film, I always wanted a pro level Nikon camera and could never afford it. This started with my first SLR, which was a Yashica entry level model (I don’t remember which one). The best film camera I ever had was my last one, a Nikon 6006. I bought this sometime in the 1980s and it was a great camera, but it wasn’t a “pro” model.

So recently, I was browsing eBay and ran across a listing for a Nikon F4. This tank of a camera was introduced in 1988 and was Nikon’s top of the line film camera until maybe 1996 when the F5 was introduced. To make a long story short, I couldn’t resist.

This particular one is an F4S and is in great shape for a camera this old. It comes with an MB-21 auto-winder: can you imagine ripping through almost 6 frames of film a second with this puppy? A whole role of 36 gone in 6 seconds! Another feature that’s really nice is that this one can meter / focus with all Nikon lenses, including the newer G series (although you can’t control the aperture directly). For more information on the camera, you can look at the Nikonians website article on the F4 or visit Ken Rockwell’s site, where he talks about it. Also, a Google search will reveal several places on the web where you can download a PDF file of the camera manual.

Déjà vu 9 - B&W Rose
After the frost. Tri-X film, Nikon F4S, 60mm f/2.8 macro lens

When the camera arrived, I went to my local drug store to buy some film. To my surprise, they carried Kodak Tri-x B&W ISO 400 film! This is the first film I ever used in my rangefinder and SLR cameras and I used to load my own 35mm photo canisters from 50ft. rolls of film and do all of my own development. So … of course I bought a roll to run through my “new” camera. 24 exposures later, I brought it back to get developed. “Do you develop Tri-X black and white film?” I asked. [Photo clerk looking at film canister] “Of course we do. Do you need it back in an hour?” “No, I said” [Thinking to myself – ‘this is amazing’], “I’ll come back later tonight to pick it up.” So I leave and on my way home, I get a call from the clerk: “Uh, sir, we can’t develop this film.” Apparently they can develop B&W film that’s designed for color print film chemistry, but not good old Tri-X. Anyway, my local camera store (Colonial Photo and Hobby) does develop Tri-X and can also scan it to CD for you as part of the process. I also ran some color print film through the camera, and ended up shooting a total of three rolls.

Déjà vu 2 - weed
Weeds. Kodak Ultra Max Color Print film, Nikon F4S, 60mm f/2.8 macro lens

The camera works pretty well. The focus and exposure seem good. So what else did my tests reveal? How was the experience? What impressions did the Nikon F4S make? Did I finally fulfill my desire for a pro film camera? Will I give up digital and go back to film?

First of all, the controls were very familiar, so I didn’t have any problem using the camera. The locks were annoying to me – I’m not used to having to unlock the on/off switch. One thing that using the F4 emphasized is that film cameras are simpler to operate than modern digital cameras. Most of this is because on a digital camera, you not only have to control the camera, you also have to control / adjust the sensor response. Loading your film into a film camera determines the white balance, ISO, color profile, etc. for you.

Second, this is the heaviest camera I’ve ever used. An F4S weighs 45 oz. vs 37 oz. for a D700 or 25 oz. for a D90. That’s a big difference. Maybe I’m glad I didn’t have to carry this around all the time.

Third, I shot three different kinds of ISO 400 film: Tri-X, Ultra Max, and Black and White (CN 400). Grain is apparent in all of the shots although much less so in the CN 400. In fact, the grain is much more apparent than noise in either a D-90 or D-700 shot at ISO 400.

Déjà vu 6 - B&W Orchid
Orchid. Kodak Black and White (CN 400) film, Nikon F4S, 60mm f/2.8 macro lens

Fourth, having 24 or 36 exposures to work with instead of hundreds is quite different too. There’s much less experimentation and more ‘get it right the first time’. Even though I was only testing this camera and not on a serious shoot, I still found myself conserving film instead of shooting with abandon.

Fifth: Chimping is really handy! With a film camera, you can’t tell if you got the shot until much later. There’s a lot more “trust the camera” and “trust your skills” involved. I remember a trip to Germany in the early ’80s with many rolls of slide film and its narrow exposure range. I felt a lot of anxiety then until I got the processed slides back.

So, am I going to abandon my digital tools and revert to the good old days of Film? Absolutely not. It was fun to play with the camera and it brought back a lot of memories. But we’ve come a long way and the F4S is going on my shelf to look at. I won’t be looking through it too often.

You can click on any of the photos above to view them on Flickr. You can see the rest of my test shots here.

©2010, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

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