Stepping Back to Film

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: suddenly my camera’s playback screen wouldn’t work. I had no level, no histogram, no composition indicators. My autofocus stopped working, I couldn’t change ISO and I suddenly only had the ability to take 24 shots, not 2400. I wasn’t using my micro four thirds kit though - in this case I was using a late 1960’s film SLR camera called the Mamiya 500DTL, and it unlocked something that I had been missing in my photography up to this point.

Full disclosure: the title of this post is a bit misleading. As a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I was more into computers and hockey than I was into cameras. My only real experience with film was an APS canister system (that I’ve come to find many pro photographers simply hated at the time). As a consumer who just wanted to snap photos, the APS system's auto loading and auto rewinding was quick and easy. By the time I caught up with photography, the digital world had taken over and I had already invested in a Sony digital camera in the late 90’s. In a way, I’m not stepping back to film, I’m now stepping into film.

I had somehow recently gotten this sudden interest to experience film - real film in all of it’s 35mm negative glory. I had brought up the subject with my girlfriend’s father, who shares my passion for photography, and before I knew it he had sent me the newest addition to my kit: the aforementioned Mamiya 500DTL, one of his own personal collection. Thanks José!

Mamiya, now more well known for their medium format cameras after their 35mm business went bankrupt in the early 80’s, developed the 500DTL in 1968. The 500 designation refers to it’s maximum shutter speed, and they also manufactured a 1000DTL and a much more rare 2000DTL. José did an amazing job taking care of this camera, as you can see in the pictures above. It’s seemingly brand new out of the box, and my first reaction upon picking this up was, “Wow! This thing is heavy!”

At almost 2 pounds, the all-metal construction makes this thing feel like a tank. I wouldn’t dare drop it to test it’s resilience, but the difference between this and an X100S, in terms of weight, is striking. It feels incredibly solid, and it’s definitely going to be getting it’s own strap here in a few days. Carrying it around by hand is easy enough but not encouraged. It can get a little heavy after a few hours.

I mentioned before that using this camera unlocked something that had been missing in my photography, and I was referring to patience. The simplicity of this all-manual camera really encouraged me to stop and think about every shot and really study and pay closer attention to my surroundings. Whereas with digital we’re free to snap as many photos as we feel the need to, the reality of film is that you have limits. You have the film’s ISO limit, you have the shutter speed limit, and you have the all important constrained amount of exposures per roll. And, contrary to my post on Zooms vs Primes, I even found the fixed 50mm f/2 lens that came with this camera to be an excellent limit in and of itself. It really encouraged me to think carefully and be patient with every shot. The framing and composition had to be something that I was not only happy with, but it had to answer the all important question - “Is this shot worth one of my exposures?” 

I tested the 500DTL in Montreal’s Old Port on a beautiful Saturday last week and I must have seen at least 50 people with their DSLRs. On one occasion I watched a photographer take five pictures of the same wall at nearly the same angle. She just kept snapping away. I was intrigued, I had to go see if I could see what caught her eye, and honestly…I could not see it. I strained to see anything that might be worth an exposure, but the shot wasn’t there for me like it was for her (five times, apparently). I wondered if she would have taken even one picture of that wall had she been more limited by her medium. Film seems to help prevent us from going through 200 pictures of the same things when we finally sit down to study our shots.

Prior to walking around in the Old Port, I had taken the 500DTL to the excellent Photo Service here in Montreal, and when we replaced the aged battery with a brand new one the meter instantly sprang to life. It was amazing to see a camera from 1968 still functioning, but that can also be due in part to the 500DTL’s fully mechanical features - the battery is really just to control the meter. The great thing about the meter on this camera is that it has two modes - spot and area (one of the first cameras, if not the first camera, back then to offer both metering options through the lens).

You can instantly switch between Spot and Area metering through the lens with this switch on the 500DTL

You can instantly switch between Spot and Area metering through the lens with this switch on the 500DTL

By pushing the film advance lever in, the needle on the meter will tell you if you’re under exposed, over exposed or just right. If anything, having this setup helps me to even better understand the association of ISO, shutter speed and aperture under various conditions. It’s a great teaching tool that I can implement in my digital photography as well.

The first roll of film was a complimentary 200 speed color film from Photo Service’s older stocks. I was informed that it was quite the cheap film and that I’d be better off investing in more quality film later on, but at least this would be a good start to make sure the camera was functioning properly. The raw results are below.

My first impressions are: the grain is charming in some but annoying in others, but that might be down to the quality of the test roll that I was using. I took some of the shots of the Montreal skyline on a rooftop with the camera over my head, and so they’re slightly at an angle. Still, I could take any of these scans and bring them into Photoshop to correct that skew and tweak a crop or adjust color if necessary, but that makes it fall into digital image territory and that's not what this exercise was about in the first place. Overall I’m very happy with the results. This camera definitely performs, even after all of these years!

Before I left Photo Service I also picked up a roll of Ilford B&W film, but not the “true” B&W. Once again I opted for something inexpensive and quick to test the camera before investing in more expensive options, and so I went with a B&W roll that uses the C41 development process so that they could process it in house with the same equipment as opposed to sending it out. I have to say, I’m still impressed with the results below.

The 50mm focal length will take some getting used to, and I can already see where a 28mm would have worked better for some of these shots, but I’m quite pleased for the first effort. I still prefer the versatility of a high quality zoom, but there’s no denying that these nearly 50 year old lenses are still sharp. These were also low resolution TIFF scans (again saving money just to test that the camera worked), but I can always take the negatives back for higher quality scans if I came across a shot that I really love.

All in all, I really do enjoy shooting on the 500DTL. Here are some additional observations from my first journey into film:

  • Advancing the film after committing to an exposure is a satisfying and rewarding experience. I feel more "connected" with the camera when I lock away that last shot and move on to the next exposure.
  • The hard focus stops on these M42 screw-on lenses are fantastic compared to the fly-by-wire all electronic continuous spin of the micro four thirds lenses that I use.
  • Looking through a real viewfinder instead of an electronic viewfinder is also a nice change of pace. It's de-cluttered and the focus assist of the pentaprism is ingenious and easy to use. I am far sighted however, and diopters are nearly impossible to find on these cameras nowadays, but I still find that I don't have too much trouble focusing.
  • Not having to worry about a million different screens, menus, options, dials and presets helps me to focus on the actual shot and less on fiddling with the camera.
  • Loading and rewinding the film feels more rewarding then swapping out a memory card, but I can see where it would be a pain if it needed to be done in a critical moment where a shot might be missed. I'm sure I'll get faster with time.
  • I’ll need some more time to get the hang of manual focusing everything, but I appreciate that even in 1968 a lens could give you a focus assist and a DOF preview. After using the 500DTL for a few days, I was startled to go back to my G6 yesterday and see the manual focus magnification window and focus peaking pop up!
  • Stubbornly I will admit that it was fun to be "limited" to a prime lens on these outings.
  • I mentioned before that some of the graininess of the shots was "annoying", but I think that's because we live in a day and age where we're consistently fed the lines that everything should be tack sharp and perfectly in focus. When I see grain, I associate it with noise (which is something completely different) and I somehow feel as if that is an error on my part for not setting something correctly. The thing that I think anyone shooting film, including myself, has to remember is that there is an inherent grain and softness to film that makes it unique. If I wanted tack sharp and perfect focus, I can shoot digital. If I want to experience film with all of it's character and quirks, I'll shoot film.
  • I don't think the cost of film is bad at between $3 and $10 a roll, but the cost of processing and the wait time is a slight turn off. We're used to instant feedback with our digital technology, and the fact that I can't review a picture until days later is exciting and aggravating at the same time.
  • If you think film is dead, tell that to the guy that dropped off 46 rolls of film ahead of me when I dropped off the two rolls above!
  • The world of old manual focus lenses is amazing. Super sharp copies of all focal lengths are available on auction for less than $100. The stabilized, auto focusing weather resistant m43 lenses I own are great too, but they also cost ten times as much as one of these old lenses that are still perfectly sharp! 

I'll be spending more time with different films and film cameras in the future, but I have to say that the 500DTL is here to stay. Even now it makes me smile to look over and see it sitting on my desk, patiently waiting for me to load the next roll of fresh film.