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Artefacts of light

07 April 201901:49PMirlintrospection

For Christmas last year, Grace got me this gorgeous beast:

a nikon nikkormat ft2

Yeah, that's right. I shoot on film now.

In all seriousness though: I've gone from having one phone camera about 18 months ago to having three cameras now - two of which are actually quite nice. And I think it's fascinating the way I think about them and use them differently.

My phone camera is all about remembering. It's always with me, it's small and quick to use. The photos it takes are spontaneous, and the picture itself is often less important than the memory it jogs.

My "proper" digital camera is for sharing. It's more powerful and more flexible and more importantly, produces photos that someone else might want to look at. It's a purposeful storytelling tool, whether that's illustrating a blog post or standing on its own.

This new camera - old camera? - is a different beast entirely. It's got a limited roll and no playback, so every shot is composed. The settings are simple, but they're all manual, so every shot is meditative and mindful. The other cameras are about the result, but this is about the process. It's about enjoying every step of making a thing. This camera is fun.

But I there's something else I want to dig into there as well, something that's a bit deeper than just "it's fun". And to figure out what that is, you have to look at why you'd take pictures on film at all.

When I got them back from the developer, I was blown away by how right these photos looked. Maybe some of that is because I'm used to noisy smartphone pics. But these are crisp and dreamy and awash with style without any kind of filter. The colours are true, in the absence of white balance, but somehow also reflect how the thing felt. They're not photons on pixels, they're so clearly beams etched on film. They are artefacts of light, and they are beautiful, and they are real, and that is worth something.

Because the photos are real. There is no abstraction. There is no digitisation, noise reduction, white balancing or lens correction. There's no fixing the exposure or tweaking the curves. This is nothing more or less than physics slamming into chemistry at 300 000 kilometres a second.

And the camera is real too.

With a frankly astonishing combination of shaped glass and layered chemicals and precision engineering we figured out how to catch light. We did this with a completely mechanical device that moves reliably and accurately in thousandths of a second, that lets in just the right amount of light into a box that's otherwise completely dark. And somehow, on top of all that, it's a joy to hold and use. It is nothing short of genius that we were able to achive this.

We thought of and measured and built this by hand, and it is beautiful.

It's early days yet, but that's what I think I love about this camera. It's closing on 50 years old, and not only does it still work perfectly, it's also still pretty much the pinnacle of its technology. Sure, we've tinkered around the edges since then, adding autofocus and other tweaks to make the job easier, but in terms of exposing a rectangle of film to precisely the right amount of light there's really no further to go.

Computers have eaten the world. We're so used to the idea of machines thinking for us - or at least I am - that when something comes along that's entirely analogue it kind of just leaves me reeling. It's completely dumb, but it's so clever. Cameras, and clocks, and record players and printing presses, and the Saturn V moon rocket - they're works of collective human genius, built bit by bit by thousands of minds. They remind us that we were capable of so much. And when we put our minds to it, we still can be.

Anyway, enough navel-gazing. Go look at some photos:

flickr album preview and link

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