According to many folks, film cameras are obsolete and soon to be extinct.
However, I still use film cameras in a number of situations. A film SLR is less battery
dependent than a digital SLR, and can be more rugged and lightweight as well. This is important to me because I tend
to treat my camera equipment rather rough, and spend time in cold environments that are hard on battery life.
Even though a high end digital SLR can produce images that surpass those shot with
35mm slides, shooting slide film can still give you excellent prints, and slides can be converted to digital images with
a film scanner (see the link above to the Plustek 7300 scanner.)
Another, more practical consideration is that it would cost me a large amount of money to replace
all the lenses and equipment in my film SLR set-up with digital equivalents.
So, I haven't yet consigned my film cameras to the rubbish heap.
Here are some of my thoughts about my favorite film cameras.
Weight vs Versatility: What to bring?
When deciding what to take with me, the first thing I ask myself is how
much emphasis I plan to place on photography for a particular trip. In other words, what amount of time, energy, weight of
camera equipment, and mental effort am I willing to allocate to taking pictures?
For 90% of my climbing trips, I limit myself to bringing a single pocket camera. This is
for the obvious reason that weight is crucial on a climb. A heavier, bulkier pack makes the climb more difficult.
On a climb that is challenging, where I'm pushing my limits, I simply can't afford any significant extra weight.
However, on climbs where I'm well within my abilities, and where I'm not likely to be pushed
for time, I will occasionally take my SLR setup. Many of the mountain scenery shots from the Bugaboos and French Alps
that are appear in my Backcountry pages were taken with an SLR.
When I do decide to bring the SLR, I follow one of two approaches: I either just bring
a single, 35-105 zoom, or I go "whole hog" and bring three fixed focal length lenses, the 24mm, 85mm, and 135mm. Even
if I am bringing the SLR, I will always bring a pocket camera
My SLR lens arsenal consists of the following lenses:
24mm f:2.8 weight: 9.9 ounces (14 ounces with case)
85mm f:1.2 weight 17 ounces (22.3 ounces with case)
135mm f:2.8 weight 15.1 ounces (20.2 ounces with case)
35-105mm f:3.5 (constant aperture) weight 23.6 ounces (27.4
ounces with case)
85-300mm f:4.5 (constant aperture) weight 72.7 ounces (including case)
The 24mm is ideal for broad landscapes. It is great for capturing
the sweeping panoramas that are common when traveling in the high mountains. It is also the lightest and most compact
of my lenses. Unless I'm just carrying the single 35-105 zoom, I've always got the 24mm with me when I'm carrrying
The 85mm is a specialist lens. It's defining characteristic is
its very large f:1.2 aperture. This makes it exceptional for low light situations. This lens excells at dawn
and dusk, and any time where I need a wide aperture to give you a faster shutter speed. The
glass in this lens is the highest quality, and this lens provides exceptional sharpness. I like the 85mm focal
length to the standard 50mm lens because it takes better face shots, and the greater magnification of the 85 is good
for bringing details a bit closer. The downside of this lens is that it is a bit fat and heavy, weighing in at over
The 35-105 zoom is a good all-purpose lens, with sharpness that is almost
as good as the fixed lenses. It is a viable one lens solution, when I want the capabilities of the SLR, but don't want
to lug along a bunch of lenses.
The 135mm is a nice, relatively compact telephoto lens. It's maximum
aperture of f 2.8 makes it a decent performer in lower light conditions, and it's weight is quite reasonable.
The 85-300 is a wonderfully sharp lens, but it weighs a ton. I've
only carried it on one climbing trip ever. That was a climb to the top of the Tour Ronde in the French Alps. The
climb was relatively easy, and so I wasn't that concerned about the weight of the lens. Also, I knew that the summit
of the Tour Ronde is an exceptional vantage point for photographing a number of mountains in the surrounding area, including the
best view of the Kuffner route on Mount Maudit.
So, even though this is a terrific lens that is great for bringin things
close, there simply aren't many climbing situations where I'm willing to climb with an extra 4 and a half pounds
of weight just to have access to a long telephoto lens. I'm just not that good a climber, and not that serious of a
photographer. Where the 85-300 gets used most is on photography focused day hikes, and also to take pictures of
other people climbing at local crags or icefalls, when I'm planted comfortably on the ground.
SLR Camera Body: The Canon F1
(32.9 ounces, with padded neck strap)
The Canon F1 is a classic, manual focus camera from the mid 1980s.
I am rough on camera equipment. I drag it into the backcountry where it gets bounced, dropped,
banged, and frozen. Before buying my F1, I had gone through several different SLR camera bodies. I started
out with several of the cheaper SLR cameras, and after breaking them all, decided to get a professional camera. I chose the
Canon F1 (the last F1 model), and it has served me well since 1985, performing flawlessly taking several thousand pictures.
It is built very tough, and has both electrical and fully mechanical shutter mechanisms, so if your batteries die, you still
can shoot from 1/60 through 1/2000 without the need for batteries.
It has controls which can be used when wearing gloves, aperture priority or full manual operation,
a very good center weighted light meter, and easy exposure control.
I sent it in for a full check-up and overhaul a few years back, and after years of use and
countless dings and drops (several of which shattered the lenses on the camera) and exposure to weather and temperature extremes,
the camera was still working perfectly, with the shutter speeds all within spec.
Like most manual focus film cameras, the Canon F1 is no longer made. The good news is that
this actually makes these camera bodies easier to acquire rather than harder to get, and I picked up a spare F1 body in mint
condition a few years back as a spare. So, if I ever do manage to break my F1, I've got a back-up.
I have used some of the more modern auto-focus/digital marvels which are available now,
and they are truly amazing as to what they can do. However, for shooting pictures in the backcountry, I prefer old fashioned
manual focus systems that have only minimal reliance on batteries and sensitivity to cold. Backcountry photography is hard
on camera equipment, and I want the simplest, lightest, and toughest gear I can get. For durability and ease of use
in harsh conditions, the F1 delivers.
Pocket cameras are what I use for the majority of my backcountry photography. A
pocket camera's light weight, and the convenience of being able to carry it in your pocket are huge factors, particularly
when climbing. Although digital SLR cameras have image quality that in many respects has surpassed that of 35mm slides,
the same can not yet be said for digital pocket cameras (because of the relatively small sensors used by digital pocket cameras.)
A pocket camera that uses slide film is therefore still a very viable option for taking high quality images
with a small, lightweight camera.
I've owned and used a lot of pocket cameras over the years. Here are
my three favorites:
Olympus XA (weight: 7.7 ounces)
The Olympus XA is a great climbing camera. It is very compact and light
weight, slipping easily into a shirt pocket. It uses two small button batteries that last almost forever. The 35mm, f:2,8
lens is very good. It is sharp enough for 8x10 enlargements at any aperture, and by about f: 5.6 is capable of
producing enlargements of just about any size (assuming you've got everything else right.)
The exposure control is aperture priority only (no program mode.)
There is an exposure compensation lever that allows you to adjust +1.5 EV for snowy backgrounds, and for even more compensation,
you can simply adjust the film speed ISO setting.
The camera is manual focus, using a rangefinder mechanism. This is
very reliable, as there are no little motors that can seize up or break, however, the rangefinder is a bit hard to use in low light situations, particularly when wearing glasses. However,
the "infinity" focus setting starts at about 10 feet, and I've found that just about anything I ever shoot outdoors is
10+ feet distant, so I usually just move the focus lever to infinity and I'm done.
The shutter speed read out in the view finder is similarly difficult to
see some times. In low light, you will have to squint a bit to see the shutter speed information.
The frame counter on the XA was poorly designed and almost invariably will
malfunction. I have had two of these cameras, both had faulty frame counters, as did the XA's of two of my friends. This isn't
a huge deal, but can leave you guessing as to just how many pictures you have left on a roll of film. I haven't had any other
reliability issues with my XA's, and they have functioned well for me in spite of relatively harsh treatment and use in extremely
The XA has no built in flash, although a compact accessory flash is available.
The case of the XA is quite smooth and slick, which led to the demise of my first XA when it slipped out of my hand and dropped
about 900 feet.
The biggest drawback of the XA is the fact that it is no longer made.
However, you can get a used XA on ebay for less than $100. That's a screaming deal on a really terrific camera.
Ricoh GR1 (weight: 6.8 ounces)
The Ricoh GR1 is a truly tiny camera, considering that it has autofocus, automatic film advance and a built in
It has a very sharp 28 mm f:2.8 lens that is one of the best quality lenses available on a pocket camera. The
light meter and exposure control are very good. You can turn out very high image quality pictures with this
There are a number of features that allow for creative control over your picture taking. The GR1 has programmed
and aperture priority exposure control, and exposure compensation for funky lighting conditions. Of particular note,
the exposure compensation is very easy to use, with a dedicated knob on top of the camera that can be easily manipulated
while wearing gloves.
It has a lightweight magnesium case.
Overall, this is a great camera, but has a few annoying traits which keep it from perfection. The first is that the
autofocus mechanism is a bit finicky. It often takes several tries and a fair amount of tilting the camera back and forth
to obtain a focus lock.
The veiwfinder is a bit small and dark, and it's not easy to read the shutter speed information or other viewfinder information.
The other truly annoying trait of the GR1 is that the on/off button is extremely susceptible to getting activated unintentionally.
The camera is constantly turning itself on while in your pocket or even when carried in a pouch. This can become a real headache
after a while. I finally cured the touchy on/off button problem by cutting up some small pieces of plastic and super-glueing
them in a circle around the on/off button to make the button more recessed and protected from inadvertent pressure. With this
modification, which took about 20 minutes, I have had no further problems with the camera turning on by itself, although it
is now harder to turn on and off when wearing gloves.
I've used the GR1 for many years. During that time, it has developed a few problems, all related to the lcd screen
on top of the camera. The film counter, which is incorporated into the lcd stopped working. Also, the focus mode
indicator (also on the lcd display) won't show two of the focus modes. I don't know if the lcd malfunction is due to
getting damp, or for some other reason, but it does indicate that the camera isn't quite as robust as it might be.
|Ricoh GR1 and Nikon 28Ti
|Note the plastic pieces glued on to prevent turning on the GR1 by accident
Nikon 28Ti (weight: 11.9 ounces)
The Nikon 28Ti is one of the best (perhaps even THE best) pocket cameras
ever made. It is designed as a serious camera for those who want high level image quality in a compact package.
The heart of the Nikon 28Ti is its Nikkor 28mm f:2.8 lens. The
lens is extremely sharp, with optics quality almost indistinguisable from a high quality a fixed length SLR lens.
It has aperture priority and programmed exposure, and exposure compensation.
The controls and readouts are all analog dials and needles and are very easy to read and adjust. All of the exposure information
is easily readable without having to peer through an undersized viewfinder. I can work all of the dials and knobs even when
wearing gloves. It has a somewhat retro look to it, but it is all very functional.
The light metering on the 28ti is exceptionally sophisticated, and can handle
some very strange lighting conditions very well. The 28ti has active autofocus, which is very reliable, but takes about a
second or more to lock, so quick action shots are difficult because of the delay between pressing the shutter button and taking
Even though it is made from titanium, the Nikon is heavier and bulkier than
either the Ricoh or Olympus. However, it is extremely well built and robust. I have used this camera for many years, and it still functions flawlessly.
The biggest drawbacks to this camera are the size (a tight fit in a regular
shirt pocket, but fits easily into a jacket pocket or small pouch), and the price (about $900).
However, in spite if its slightly larger bulk, the reliability and quality of the Nikon make it my first choice when
I reach for a pocket film camera. The 28Ti is beautifully engineered and constructed, and is a real joy to
|Top view of the Ricoh GR1, Olympus XA, Nikon 28Ti