Future-proof cameras- film or digital?
January 27, 2005 12:52 PM   Subscribe

I own a digital point-and-shoot camera, and was looking to upgrade to a "nicer" camera for some more ambitious photography. But I was wondering if it makes sense to spend a lot on a digital camera, as it seemingly will be a bit archaic, if not outright obsolete, in a few years. E.g., old Leicas or even manual Nikons still fetch fair amounts on Ebay, while digital cameras a few years old sell for a fraction of their original value. I know digital cameras are supposed to making analog obsolete, but I'm just wondering about the obsolescence factor of digital. In other words, should I buy the new digital Leica or a vintage analog Leica? Any thoughts?
posted by jgballard to Technology (31 answers total)
If I was buying a Leica, I would definitely get the film model. Putting a CF card into a Leica just seems wrong.
posted by trbrts at 1:00 PM on January 27, 2005

I agree, some things shouldn't be "improved". But that said, I'm a huge digital fan and have taken thousands more pictures because of the digital aspect.

Obsolete is a matter of personal opinion in digital camera terms. I have been very happily using a mere 4 MP Canon S400 for a couple of years now and it still takes great pictures. Doesn't mean I don't want one of those sexy Sony T1's but I can wait a bit longer.

There will always be something newer, better, faster or whatever. Get what you are happy with and let the rest of the world worry about itself.
posted by fenriq at 1:11 PM on January 27, 2005

I found DP Review to be very helpful in my search for the right digital camera. From what I remember, the Leica digital was not rated particularly high for it's price.
posted by lobstah at 1:13 PM on January 27, 2005

I side with digital because I know personally the hassles of film would prevent me from actually doing the photography. I think you can gain experience much faster with digital where you're worrying about money spent on film and effort spent in a dark room. The freedom to snap away is what it's all about for me. (I'm not professional, and I am in the same state as you, snapping pics with a P&S camera.)

I'm sure some film enthusiasts will correct me shortly.
posted by knave at 1:14 PM on January 27, 2005

I paid $800 for a Canon G3 two years ago. Searching E-bay for closed auctions for them, they're averaging around $400. That's not too bad for consumer electronics.

There will always be something newer, better, faster or whatever. Get what you are happy with and let the rest of the world worry about itself.

Excellent advice.
posted by jperkins at 1:15 PM on January 27, 2005

An old Leica or manual Nikon has had thousands of dollars of film run through it by the time it's sold on ebay, whereas a digital might sell for much less on the used market, but it only ever required one or two thirty dollar CF cards during its lifetime. In terms of money, you still end up ahead with digital. In terms of photos, well, that's a more complicated decision. While a digital camera bought today might be "obsolete" in five years, current medium to higher end digital cameras take pictures of sufficient quality that I doubt you'd be limited by your equipment, even if a new model has more resolution or features.
posted by Nothing at 1:15 PM on January 27, 2005

Are you planning on selling this camera in a few years? It sounds to me like you're thinking more about the money than about the functionality. If you want a camera that'll take good photos now that you can easily store/manipulate on your computer, then get the digital. If you're more comfortable with non-digital, then go that direction. Obsolescence is in the eye of the beholder IMHO. I have an Olympus that I bought for $700 a few years ago that I probably couldn't sell for $100 now. I took lots of photos with it though, and had a blast. It was worth it to me. And though it may technically be obsolete today, I still use it and think it does the job just fine. Granted, I'd love a new Nikon D70, and my old non-digital Nikon still works and takes great photos. I value the digital aspect so much though that I never use the old Nikon anymore.
Sorry, that was kind of rambly.

Oh and on preview - what fenriq said
posted by soplerfo at 1:15 PM on January 27, 2005

I went through a similar decision recently and I realized that I needed to figure out what sort of workflow I wanted and what I wanted to do with the pictures first, and then the digital / analog decision would come pretty naturally.

For me it didn't make sense to take a picture on film unless I was planning on making a photographic print to hang on the wall. I really like sharing pictures by email / web / electronic means and the workflow using film for that involves taking a picture, developing the roll, scanning the roll (frame by frame or slide by slide), making any adjustments in Photoshop, and then finally uploading the pictures.

With digital images this workflow becomes: take a picture, import the photo into iPhoto, make any edits / crops / adjustments in either iPhoto or Photoshop, and then use Photon to automatically upload the pictures to my blog. No wait, no muss, no fuss.

And with the medium-high resolution of the D70 I can still make decently large prints.
posted by bshort at 1:19 PM on January 27, 2005

A Leica gearhound tells me that film cameras are devaluing, but I'm not sure I buy the rationale. I have bought good digitals since they were first released, and I am loving my D70 these days. It really does take excellent pix, even without a wizard behind the shutter. I have retired all of its predecessors and they are pretty much valueless these days (to me).

Looking at obsolesence, how much improvement over 6Mp do you need (yeah, 640kb should be enough for anyone). You can get more these days, but I've read that 6Mp is as good as film at the 4x6 point, and reasonably good up to a full sheet of letter or A4.

I have a Nikon F3 and too much glass, but I wouldn't sell it today. It was all bought used (by aforementioned gearhound) and probably is still worth what I paid. It's marginally compatible with the D70 (no metering on AI lenses) and it does something the D70 can't in producing the film negative. These days we put mostly B&W film in the F3 and use digital for our snaps. This is a pretty harmonious blend.

As for Leicas, my main question would be of value for money in their digital offering. If their CCD doesn't deal with the quality of the lenses, what's the point? There are good reviews (and forums) at sites like Steve's Digicams that tackle issues like the one you are raising.
posted by sagwalla at 1:31 PM on January 27, 2005

Not much on a digital camera is really going to go obsolete; they're too self-contained for that. Think of the parts of the camera:

There's the internal, picture-taking part, that spits out jpegs or tiffs or raw files onto your memory card. *THIS* part will be obsolete soon, in the sense that there will be better camera cores next year, and better still the year after that. But so what? Even if there's better out there, that doesn't degrade the quality of what you have in the slightest. It will still take the perfectly-good pictures it took yesterday even when the Niko-Canon Super-Mega-Thingy 5000 that's nine billion terapixels and can see through wood is released next week.

The rest of it is obsolescence-proof for a long time. Cameras spit out images onto memory cards; all of the formats are going to be around for a while, especially compact-flash. They communicate using USB, which isn't going away anytime soon. By the time they're a couple years old, they'll have had all the firmware updates they're ever likely to get or need.

As far as resale value goes, it's a consumer product, not an investment. I wouldn't consider resale value to be important on a camera any more than I would on a TV, unless you're considering blowing $10K on a big pro-level setup.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:36 PM on January 27, 2005

I'm not saying you shouldn't go digital, I shoot with a Canon 20D right now. But, if you are going to go digital, I wouldn't get the Leica. You can get better quality and more features for less money. The digital Leica is just trying to replicate the analog camera for the digital age. Some things just can't be improved on.
posted by trbrts at 1:40 PM on January 27, 2005

Also, something to note - if you're buying a even a low range DSLR, you're also going to be buying a lot of other stuff - lenses, flashes, lights, what have you. All of that other stuff doesn't tend to devalue the same way digital cameras do, and you'll more than likely be able to move it all to your next body, even if it doesn't have all of the new bells and whistles.
posted by Caviar at 1:41 PM on January 27, 2005

Not sure about the Digilux 2, which has a hard-to-get-used to LCD viewfinder, but I have had a Digilux 1 for two and half years now and still adore it. Sure, it's relatively bulky and only 4Mp, but for ease of use it's hard to beat - everything is right to hand and the controls are amazingly intuitive, even on fully manual settings. It's also beautifully built and the 2.5" screen is still far better than most. Even so, I don't think the Digilux 1 would be the first choice of a professional photographer (you'd want more flexibility with lenses), but I have met a photographer who uses a Digilux 2 day to day.
posted by jonathanbell at 1:49 PM on January 27, 2005

If you want to collect cameras, get a Leica. If you want to take pictures, there are much less expensive options that you should consider.

(1) Soviet leica / zeiss clones. "Fed" and "Zorki" are worth looking at. These cameras are simplified copies of their german counterparts. At the top of the dot-com boom, they went for $100-$200 each. Now they often go for well under $100, with a lens. They take standard 35mm film, and are compatible with Leica screwmount lenses. These camers don't have built in light meters. Fully manual.

(2) Japanese "Voigtlander" cameras. Amazing wide angle lenses, mostly leica screw mount. Very decent camera bodies that generally include a light meter.

On the digital side, Panasonic makes Leica's digital cameras. You can get nearly the same camera for a much lower price by picking up the Panasonic version.

Unless you have tons of money to throw away, avoid the digital SLRs. The SLR design uses a mirror to allow the photographer to look through the taking lens before the photograph is made. But digital cameras provide an LCD-preview screen connected to the CMOS or CCD sensor. So the mirror and retrofocus lenses it requires are really unnecessary for digital cameras.

Digital camers with interchangeable lenses will eventually converge to rangefinder style camers like the Epson RD-1, and SLRs will slowly die out.

When considering the cost of digital vs. film, also consider the cost of processing. I typically take between 2 and 10 thousand digital pictures a year. At 36 frames per roll, and an average of $20 for film and development, that would be between $1111 and $5555 in film and development cost. Even though a new digicam will be obsolete in a few years, it will probably pay for itself in the first year you own it, unless you take very few pictures.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:49 PM on January 27, 2005

Faster digital cameras are currently extremely expensive and still much slower than film cameras. So if you need to take a series of shots quickly (e.g. sports photography) you'll probably want a film camera. Otherwise, for photos that are mostly only going to be used on a computer, digital is probably preferable. Film still produces the highest-quality images but on a computer the difference is will be negligible.

As far as resale value goes, it's a consumer product, not an investment.

Antique fountain pens can be worth thousands. You can't get anything for a used Bic is worthless even though in some situations a Bic pen is preferable (like filling out triplicate forms).

A film camera might be an investment because there is a degree of craftsmanship not present in digitals, which are essentially fungible. But someone could reasonably prefer to use a digital camera.
posted by TimeFactor at 2:02 PM on January 27, 2005

The difference between digital cameras and a quality slr: the lenses. Most digital cameras have at best medium quality lenses. With a 2 or 3 MP sensor I guess it doesn't matter that much, but now that higher resolution sensors are becoming affordable the next horizon will be the glass. To step up you will want to find good high speed lenses with high resolving ability, low flare and low aberrations. Right now those are found on digital SLRs and perhaps a very few fixed lens digital cameras. If you pick the right SLR system (this is hard and I have no answers) your investment in glass, flash accessories etc. will not become obsolete in the next couple of years the way the electronics probably will. I shoot both film and digital and each has its advantages, but I really like digital for the ability to shoot massive numbers of pictures at low cost. On the other hand, learning the art of picture making with a camera is probably still best done with a manual focus and exposure camera which forces you to think through each picture. If b1tr0t is right, and you choose well these lenses should still work on a viewfinder style digital camera.
posted by caddis at 2:15 PM on January 27, 2005

If you buy a digital SLR, your investment in the body will eventually be dwarfed by the amount you spend on lenses, just as it would be with a film SLR. You can upgrade your body when the next great thing comes out and typically lose only a few hundred dollars -- assuming you stay with the same manufacturer. Otherwise you have to buy all new lenses.
posted by kindall at 2:29 PM on January 27, 2005

The SLR design is very good for long lenses (telephoto) but very poor for wide-angle lenses. The "length" of a lens is a reference to the distance from the film plane to the focal point of the lens. Wide angle lenses range from about 15mm to 35mm.

Because an SLR's mirror takes up a lot of space in front of the film plane, optical designers have to use highly complex "retrofocus" designs in order to keep the glass in front of the lens, but the focus point at exactly the right point. As a result, a 16mm wide angle lens from Canon or Nikon will cost over $1500 and be larger and heavier than the camera body itself. A 15mm lens for a rangefinder camera will cost around $500 and be not much larger than a stack of quarters.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:44 PM on January 27, 2005

Unless you have tons of money to throw away, avoid the digital SLRs.

Dear God, no. Digital SLRs offer a lot. Because the ccd isn't charged all the time, the batteries last for-freaking-ever. Because the ccd isn't charged all the time, the camera is ready to take a picture the instant you turn it on, point, and click. I don't know if it's related to not having the ccd charged all the time, but digital SLR's have *vastly* lower levels of noise, and far higher usable pseudo-film-speeds, than do "regular" digital cameras.

I hardly think rangefinder cameras are the wave of the future. Not seeing what the ccd or film is seeing gets old real fast, and who wants to spend their photographing time holding their camera out in front of them at arms length to compose on the lcd?

If you're going to be taking lots of very wide-angle pictures, this might be different. On the other hand, if you're going to take lots of wide-angle pictures, you can assemble them after the fact with panorama-stitching software.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:07 PM on January 27, 2005

Thanks ROU, I thought the rejection of a digital SLR odd as well. Save one thing: opening your sensor to the atmosphere might be fraught with peril. I only have one lens for my D70 so have not faced this concern. Anyway, opening up a film SLR to the atmosphere is something to be careful with as well.

On the issue of wide angle lenses and SLR's, I am not quite following what the problem is. Is a good SLR lens expensive? hell yeah but I use my Canon A1 primarily to shoot wide -- with a 20 mm, 28 mm, 35 mm perspective correcting and something else in there as well -- it has been great and I am amazed every time I look at Kodachrome slides that come from that camera. Still better than digital to be certain.

I think the choice needs to hinge on what kind of photography you are doing: for cameos and being discrete, a Leica has not real match -- even the best digital SLR will not fire as quickly (not shutter speed, but time to trip shutter from pressing the release) as a Leica rangefinder, as far as I know.
posted by Dick Paris at 3:33 PM on January 27, 2005

I don't know if it's related to not having the ccd charged all the time, but digital SLR's have *vastly* lower levels of noise, and far higher usable pseudo-film-speeds, than do "regular" digital cameras.

It's related to the fact that digital SLRs' sensors are fricken huge by comparison to a regular digicam's.

who wants to spend their photographing time holding their camera out in front of them at arms length to compose on the lcd?

I do this all the time and I wish SLRs offered this feature. Having to hold the camera up to your face all the time limits the angles you can shoot from.
posted by kindall at 3:35 PM on January 27, 2005

Actually, kindall, I agree sorta. I'd really like it if my bride's D70 had:

(1) A swiveling LCD like on my (formerly her) 5700
(2) An option or setting to lock the mirror up, continuously expose the chip, and compose with the LCD.

But I wouldn't want to have to do that all the time. As a choice, sure, but I wouldn't want my only options to either see something other than what the lens is seeing, or to compose at arms-length on the LCD.

It's related to the fact that digital SLRs' sensors are fricken huge by comparison to a regular digicam's.

...which means that each pixel is getting a more representative, accurate sample of photons, and so less noise, neh?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:06 PM on January 27, 2005

Exactly right, ROU. Looked at another way, each pixel gets more photons, which means sensitivity is greater, which means you don't have to amplify the output as much, which means less noise.

The sensors in SLRs aren't designed for continuous use, unfortunately. That's why they still have a mechanical shutter. However, an SLR could be built with a second, low-res (e.g. TV quality) sensor that flips up against the viewfinder, and drive the display from this second sensor. The image quality for such a function doesn't need to be all that good, as it's just for framing the shot; if you need to focus manually, you just use the viewfinder first. So a cheap sensor would do fine, and those are cheap cheap cheap.
posted by kindall at 5:29 PM on January 27, 2005

Obsolete? I just sold a Nikon Coolpix 950 on eBay for $75. It has a magnesium body, a crazy macro mode, a decent interface, and takes pictures.

1 other thing. I'm sure there are 5 million discussions about this one google away, but I don't think consumer cameras will continue to increase in pixel count at the same rate. Both because of the engineering required, and because 1 megapixel increases become less and less significant as you go. 1 vs. 2 is a big deal, 6 vs 7 is not as significant.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 5:36 PM on January 27, 2005

I do this all the time and I wish SLRs offered this feature. Having to hold the camera up to your face all the time limits the angles you can shoot from.

Shooting with the camera arms length in front of you seems to be the standard now-a-days, arms shaking, squinting to see the view finder. Funny stuff. And they wonder why they have out of focus photographs.

While it would be nice to have the option, the image of someone holding a huge slr at arms length isn't pretty, and 99 percent of the time wouldn't give as good a photo as someone who shot it correctly.
posted by justgary at 6:15 PM on January 27, 2005

Get a camera that takes AA batteries and a standard flash card and you'll be fine. The battery and the storage are the two things most likely to have problems over the functional life of the battery. I picked up a secondhand Kodak DC260 recently and it rocks. It doesn't really matter that it's only just a megapixel. Bung in a big CF card and a set of AAs and you're good to go.
posted by krisjohn at 9:54 PM on January 27, 2005

Shooting with the camera arms length in front of you seems to be the standard now-a-days, arms shaking, squinting to see the view finder. Funny stuff. And they wonder why they have out of focus photographs.

Use a tripod with your digicam, and you end up with a mode of operation similar to a large format camera. You don't get tilt/shift, but the large composition screen is nice.

My Nikon FE2 was great - the focusing screen man manual focus composition a snap. When I added an 8008s, the screen came without any focusing aids. Relying entirely on the AF mechanism was a severe enough creative limitation that I ended up not using the camera much. Changing the focusing screen to a manual-type screen would defeat the AF mechanism and eliminate much of the utility of that camera.

Digital SLRs have a similar problem. Try out a digital rebel, and you will find yourself half-pressing the shutter release just to get a quality focus. Though it carries the "SLR" letters, it is not the creative tool that the old manual SLRs once were.

However, if you want the ultimate in creative photography, and don't mind spending a lot of time carrying gear and setting up, take a look at large format cameras. You will shot far *fewer* sheets of film than you would with a 35mm system or a digicam, but you can actually stick a loupe up against the back of the camera before you push the shutter release.

Of the P&S digicams, the canon G series may have the best lens around, though the new S60/S70 go up to the 35mm equivelant of 28mm wide. A 16mm lens on a 1.5x (Nikon) D-SLR will have an effective focal length of 24mm. Is $1500 for the lens, and $900 for a D70 body really worth it for 2 more mm?
posted by b1tr0t at 12:51 AM on January 28, 2005

Is there no way to install a focusing screen in any of the digital SLRs? Yes, it would defeat the autofocus mechanism, but if you don't like that anyway...? I do love the focusing screen on my late
'60s era Nikkormat.
posted by redfoxtail at 4:20 AM on January 28, 2005

b1tr0t, you seem to be very concerned with wide-angle. No, you wouldn't spend more for a D70 and lens to get an extra bit of wideangle. It doesn't matter much anyway; dump the camera on a tripod to keep it steady, take a few shots to get good coverage, and stitch together a panorama and you have as arbitrarily wide a lens as you want.

You'd spend more for the D70, if you wanted to, to get a better sensor than in a regular digicam. You'd spend more for more and more easily accessible manual options, and more choices between manual and full-auto. You'd spend more to be able to use your old lenses, if you have them. There are reasons to spend money on a camera beyond how wide the lens is.

It did not sound to me like jgballad wanted to move from a point-and-shoot to a large-format camera, even if that's where he ends up in 15 years.

It seems to me that if you're moving up from a digital point-and-shoot, there are two immediate and sensible options.

First, move to a better digital point-and-shoot -- one of the fancier cameras in the 5--8 megapixel range (more is not necessarily better here) with manual options and a raw-format mode. Obvious candidates here are the Nikon 5700/8700, Sony 717, Canon G6.

Second, move to a digital SLR. It'll cost more -- in the $1200 range for body and lens kit instead of $600-900 for a good digicam --- but you'll get some more functionality out of it, and a better sensor, if the extra money isn't a problem. Canon Digital Rebel and Nikon D70 are the obvious choices here, or you can look for older-better models used as new ones come out.

I think it makes more sense for someone moving out of a digital point-and-shoot to stay digital. Digital means that you can take as many pictures as you want with zero marginal cost, and thereby learn more quickly what works and what doesn't, and have immediate feedback when you're trying to do something creative with a particular photo.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:24 AM on January 28, 2005

You know, if you really want wide angle, Nikon sells a 12-24mm zoom (which is equivalent to an 18-35mm) and Canon sells a 10-22mm zoom.

I own a Nikon 12-24 and it gets as wide as I could possibly compose.

And you're totally right with regards to large-format cameras, unfortunately they're really really big and not that practical for most people. Also, you're going to have a hard time using one without a tripod and it's going to be near impossible to get one into a museum / church / etc. without trouble.
posted by bshort at 6:46 AM on January 28, 2005

Is there no way to install a focusing screen in any of the digital SLRs? Yes...

Not on the Digital Rebel, or, IIRC the D70. You have to get into the pro-grade cameras before you have the option of changing the focusing screen. That often bumps you up to $1500 - $2000 for the body alone.

b1tr0t, you seem to be very concerned with wide-angle.

Yes - when I was actively using film, I carried a Voigtlander Bessa-L with the 15mm Skopar, the 24mm lens, and a Zorki-5 with a colapsing 50mm Industar. I spent way more money on my Nikon gear, but took far more pictures with the leica-screwmount gear.

I jumped into digital with a Canon G1. Other than its easily-blown fuse (has this been fixed in later models?) and large size, it was a *great* camera. When the fuse blew, I replaced it with an S30. If Canon offered an advanced P&S with the speed of the G6's lens, and the width of the S60/S70, I would probably upgrade. The D-SLRs do a good job of giving you that photographer look, but I don't think they match the usability of manual SLRs or the convenience of modern P&S digicams.

I still have the Nikkor AF 80-200 f/2.8, a great long lens. But the lens is just too big and visually obtrusive to be useful in urban photography. It might be very useful for certain nature and sports photography, but 200mm really isn't long enough to catch disant details.

jgballard - before you buy anything, visit a pro-photo shop and try it out extensively. If you are looking at a D-SLR with some really nice lenses, rent one out for a weekend.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:01 AM on January 28, 2005

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