Why Are Some Photographers Choosing to Go back In Time?

Why Are Some Photographers Choosing to Go back In Time?

Not every idea is golden, and not all camera systems are destined to become legends. Digital photography has always grown by leaps and stumbles.

Yesterday’s fresh feature inevitably becomes tomorrow’s standard issue. Each successive photographic breakthrough rests atop the foundations that came before. This is the natural way of things.

At the heart of any digital camera body is its sensor. No matter if it’s CCD, CMOS, Bayer, X-Trans, cropped or full-frame, it’s the sensor that puts the digits in digital imaging. 

The insanely gorgeous 100 megapixel sensor of the Hasselblad X2D medium format mirrorless digital camera.

Entire corporations rise and fall on the performance of their camera sensors. The Megapixel Wars still rage. Full-frame versus APS-C partisanship continues to cleave families in two.

By its very nature, the organic progression of digital cameras would dictate that any older model should be immediately cast aside by respectable photographers in favor of the shiniest new build. In many ways, this is still the norm.

Despite this, a quiet anomaly has grown within the greater photographic community in recent years. Call it niche, call it a fad, but it’s there all the same. More and more otherwise accomplished photographers are choosing to travel back in digital camera time.

Older, simpler, less advanced digital camera technology has become popular. Some of these cameras are now favored over their cutting-edge modern counterparts, even by professionals.

How can this be? Why are more and more photographers, new and old, amateur and pro, seemingly turning to outdated camera tech?

My friends, allow me to present a hypothesis.

The “Close to Film” Hypothesis

Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

With that single line, ol’ Newton made it clear that his own scholarly advancements were achieved through studying and applying the work that came before him.

So, where did it all start for digital camera sensors? What were the engineers looking at as a baseline when the first commercially available digital cameras were manufactured in the late 1980s?

Just as Newton had his giants, I argued that early digital camera technology stood on the shoulders of photographic film, specifically 135-format film (commonly known as 35mm). 

Stay with me here.

Early digital sensors were built around metal-oxide semiconductor (MOS) technology, with CCD sensors being based on MOS capacitors while their CMOS cousins were based on MOSFET (MOS field-effect transistor) amplifiers. I apologize for that headache-inducing sentence.

Naturally, these primogenitor camera sensors produced images carrying unintentional visual characteristics, largely due to the physical components of the sensors themselves. 

As digital cameras continued to evolve between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, more and more manufacturers refined their proprietary sensors and processors.

Camera makers recognized the interpretation of colors and contrasts, shadow and highlight behavior, it all had to be anchored into orbit around some well-established aesthetic star. 

The visual aesthetic of the digital images their cameras produced needed to revolve around something the greater consumer market already knew. What did the consumer market already know? What was the entire picture-taking world using at the time to make still photos? That’s right: film.

This is why some photographers have concluded that vintage digital camera sensors purportedly carry a little something “extra.” 

Many say there’s just a bit of well — something — that makes digital photos from these cameras look less digital. This brings us headlong into another facet of the “close to film” hypothesis: what does it mean for a photograph to look “less digital"?

Poisoned by Film?

Regardless of personal tastes, it’s difficult to deny the impact of the so-called “film Renaissance” on modern digital photography. The “film look” is King, at least in the jungle of social media. 

With filters, presets, recipes, and grain simulations, you can find ways to give your digital photos and footage an “analog” kiss around every corner of the internet.

So, which came first? Are more and more photographers turning to old digital cameras because their sensors truly do offer something unique or is it all psychological? 

Cameras akimbo in Yosemite Valley

Would anyone consider using these admittedly technologically inferior cameras if the growing trend of popular digital photography never leaned towards lo-fi? The answer is… a bit of both.

Search my name on Google and you’ll quickly find I’m one of those damn, dirty film guys. Not exclusively, but 95% of my personal work from the past decade swims up from a tub of murky chemicals. 

New Mexico sunset on Kodak Ektar 100 film with the Hasselblad 500 C/M

I also proudly join the ranks of those who believe select digital cameras truly do produce a “more fertile image.”

Despite my own marrow-deep love of photographic film, it is the opinion of this author that there exists no true “film look.” This is a dangerous position and has resulted in no less than four death threats from the North American Portra Lovers League.

No matter the film stock, there are generally far too many variables at hand preventing each and every sheet or roll from being identical enough in color, grain, and tone. 

Age of the developing chemicals, age and storage condition of the film, developing time and agitation, the phase of the moon, ancient ancestral curses, you name it, so many things come into play when determining the final visuals of film. 

To say that any digital sensor simply “looks more like’’ film is a misrepresentation of the complexity of the issue. I feel it is certainly true that the closer a digital camera’s manufacture date falls relative to the prevalence of film use, the more “filmy” the images do tend to appear.

However, this supposed appearance can be due to many factors, namely the lower resolution of these sensors compared to their modern counterparts. 

From the Mid-2000s with Love

My beloved Fuji X-Pro 1 is my death-row digital camera. It just is. 

The Fujifilm X-Pro 1

It’s my favorite digital body of all time, and I’ll dig my grave at the feet of that first-generation Fujifilm X-Trans sensor. 

Still, that sensor is a 16-megapixel APS-C. The X-Pro 1 focuses slightly faster than a boiled carrot. It produces remarkably crisp photos (frighteningly so, depending on the lens) with the best color I could ever dream of, but it simply can’t compete in terms of overall performance with some of my other cameras, such as the 42.4-megapixel full-frame beast that is my Sony a7R III.

Does that make the Sony inherently better than my Fuji? On paper, definitely yes. In my heart and in my opinion, certainly not.

Apples for apples, or pixels for pixels, I should say that I just prefer the photos my X-Pro 1 takes over my a7R III. This proclivity still holds true when shooting the same lens with both cameras.

And that perfectly sums up the reasoning behind my hypothesis on why certain photographers prefer digital photos made by older digital cameras: you have to enjoy less. You have to appreciate simplicity. You have to look with a certain kind of eye.

A Game of Sensors

There’s no denying that older digital cameras are coming back into fashion, at least amongst a niche contingent of photographers. The exact reasons why are buried in a small bronze box somewhere in Atlantis next to my lost youth.

Cameras like the EPSON R-D1 rangefinder have become photographic unicorns, fetching prices approaching Leica in some circles. 

The EPSON R-D1 S digital rangefinder. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. 
Rama, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Epson_R-D1s_IMG_2942.jpg

The tiny Casio Exilim S100 point-and-shoot with its ceramic lens element has become an ultra-meta badge of underground street shooters. The list goes on as more and more photographers begin to incorporate older digital cameras back into their personal and professional photography. Fstoppers own Zhen Siang Yang just wrote a beautiful love story after resurrecting his first-gen Ricoh GR.

It could well be that my hypothesis is unprovable, but the most interesting ones always are. Do older digital camera sensors hold their appeal because they were cast from a more film-centric mold, or is the entire idea completely manufactured?

What’s certain is that there remains nothing more human, indicative of this affliction shared by many creative-type people, than to be forever searching for meaning in the inexplicable. 

Do these old digital camera sensors have something different, or are they just anachronisms from a time before our ascent from photographic darkness? When do flaws cross over to character?

You, Me, Us

As photographers, we are unique amongst artists. We exist in a weird symbiosis with the tools of our trade. Our cameras are an extension of ourselves, one being wholly useless without the other.

In the end, it might well be true that the best camera really is the one you have on you, but for some the best camera is the one that bridges the gulf between personal feeling and external expression. 

If that camera is a $5 local thrift store point-and-shoot from 2002, great. If it’s a $10,000 medium format mirrorless rig straight from Sweden — wonderful.

Some cameras just sing to us. Never be afraid to hear the music.

Adam Welch's picture

Adam is a professional photographer and author specializing in medium, large, and ultra large format film photography as well as historical printmaking. He has penned nearly 400 articles on photographic technique and digital post-processing while working with legendary brands such as Hasselblad, Tamron, Sigma, DJI, and GoPro.

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22 Comments

I am a very old school film user and 98%+ of my personal work is done using T-Max 400 film and large cameras. For me digital is too clinically slick. I have images that I printed in my darkroom using one of the best contemporary papers, which are admittedly not as pleasing as some of the papers from just 20 years ago, that have a depth and "glowing" component that I cannot quantify in words compared to prints from a very high end Epson wide format printer. The ink jet prints look fine until you see them next to a silver based darkroom print. Some digital papers come close, but no cigar. I my Arts and Crafts fair days I would have some digital and some silver prints in my booth. People always converged on the silver based prints. Admittedly, the silver prints are much more tedious to produce, and a lot more expensive, but next to an ink jet print, even a very good one... no contest. So I think the answer to your statement isn't necessarily the camera media but the output onto real photographic paper.

When I send digital files to be printed on chemical paper by MPix they look more like "film prints" than the same files printed with inkjet technology.

Very good point, Nathan. You're correct about the differing, almost un-quantifiable aspects of some silver-gelatin prints, and I'll add some historical processes to that list as well. If it's well done, they can be transcendent. Of course, the downside is they can only truly be understood by viewing them in person, which essentially reinforces your original point.

The other side of using analog materials is that, with the advent of AI fakery people will be more inclined to believe an analog print than a digital one. That is just my observation. That and the fact that when I was involved in Arts and Crafts fairs when I had digital black and white images and silver images on my wall people gravitated to the silver prints. Very interesting to watch, especially since they were not labeled as a silver, or darkroom, photograph. The only clue was that the silver prints were a lot more expensive.

Wow, Nathan you've just hit on a point that has a long history with me, and that is the tendency for some (more than you'd think) photographers to imply their digital photographs were made with film. Personally, it does not matter to me what someone does or how they present their photos. However, some of these photographers have vast followings, and they sometimes add fake film borders and other little nuances to their clearly HEAVILY processed film work/digital photos. I always felt that passing off those types of photographs as being representative of what could be expected from the medium put an enormously unrealistic standard for those who were just starting out or looking to get into non-digital processes. A bit of a tangent just to get back to your original point about how, in general, non-digital print processes (when well executed) just carry a bit more "in-person allure."

I was living in New Orleans for a few months back in 2019 and wandered into a photography gallery with my Speed Graphic. It was Dave Spielman's gallery and wholly worth a stop for anyone in that area of the country. At any rate, I got into long conversation with the curator there about my Graflex and film photography in general. Dave Spielman works in digital and film, and he has both silver-gelatin and inkjet prints hanging in his space. The curator said that he would often ask the visitors to the gallery to pick out which prints they thought were from digital and which they thought were from the darkroom. Strangely enough, many of them guessed correctly, mostly.

Normally I would defend inkjet prints to the bitter end. I'm generally only willing to hear the other side of the story from those people with a credible portfolio... something in short supply at Fstoppers. In other words, talk is cheap. But, wow, Nathan, what an impressive collection of photographs you have. I spent half the morning visiting the American West through your lens.

As a photographer, one of the things that impressed me was the cohesiveness of your body of work. It feels like you live with a mindful purpose. On the other hand, I've got such a mish-mash of images on my site that probably nobody would think it was created by the same person. I value prints and the printing process more than anything else, except maybe family, so I'm always open to improving my craft. Which is not to say that making silver prints is in my future, because I can barely justify the expense of an inkjet printer. But maybe I will see some of them in a gallery and get a better appreciation. I really really love a good print.

My heart rejoiced when I read what you wrote about there not being any such thing as "the film look". I've been making the same point for years and years and years and the nitwits keep shooting me down. It feels so great that another human finally gets it!

Haha I'm equally glad to hear this as well, Tom. Naturally it's not always the case, but especially scanned film can be made to look like virtually any stock to a great degree of approximation. I remember when I first started learning about RA4 reversal printing and purchased a set of color correction filters for the prints. That's when it hit me that "you know what, these can look like anything' and I haven't been able to shake that realization since.

This is especially true for us damn dirty home developer people. I will concede that professional labs with STRICT controls would produce a more consistent and identifiable result. However, I've worked in two seperate labs in my younger days and I can personally guarantee that there can be a wide latitude of "operational range" when it comes to the chems and tempts.

At any rate, happy I'm not alone in this.

First off, beautifully written. Not something that could be said for too much on the web today.

Secondly, I couldn't agree more. I wish I had kept my X-Pro 1 (the viewfinder switch went bad but I should have had it fixed, what with the prices they are going for today). But I least I replaced with an X-E2, those older Fuji sensors...

But my pride and joy is my old Olympus E-1 which I picked up for $54 about 10 years ago. That "antiquated" 5MP Kodak 4/3 sensor is legendary for colors that just can't be described, nor reproduced. Besides that, it's a tank, my go to rain, snow and dust camera. It once spent over a minute under the mud at the bottom of a murky river. Wiped it off and been shooting with it for the last 5 years.

Old can be good. Thank goodness.

Thank you sincerely for the kind words, Otto! That is immensely high praise. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

About your X-Pro 1, I've actually been tempted to purchase a second X-Pro 1 to just store away so I could have it for the sad, heartbreaking day my current X-Pro 1 finally dies. I might have waited too long. Shameful articles like this one continue to drive up the prices.

I digress.

That is WILD about your E-1 surviving it's little swim, just incredible. I've handled the original E-1's on a couple of occasions but never personally shot with them. However, I distinctly recall how solid they felt for the size, "dense" if that makes any sense.

I used an Olympus OM-1 for my primary 135 system for a couple years and it was much the same. Shockingly small yet built like a brass tank. I had an entire kit including a stove-pipe viewfinder attachment and a motor drive. In the wee hours of the morning I still wake up weeping with regret for selling it all.

Ah, never picked up the OM-1 but cut my teeth on the OM-10 my Dad passed on to me (along with the Canon AE-1). All my kids pictures were taken with those, mostly by my wife, who now just uses her phone. But she can compose like a pro

I picked up another E-1 about 5 years ago, in much nicer shape than the original, for around $50, as a back up. But I don't think my first baby is ever going to let it ascend to the throne. It takes a licking but just keeps on kicking.

Keep writing, please.

"Why Are Some Photographers Choosing to Go back In Time?"

Mental illness?

We are time travelers. Enigmatic in our being. Clearly, out of time itself.

I got rid of most of my 35MM kit (still have an F4, FM3a and I just found my late father's mint F100) and Mamiya C330 and M645 - but I kept my Tachihara Hope 4x5 (possible knockoff as it came without a nameplate) because the cherry wood is gorgeous and if I ever take up film again, LF is interesting and very distinguished from shooting with my D700 or phone - though as far as the medium, I'd trade a roomful of vintage AND modern gear for a consistent artistic vision, and without that, you're just TRYING to look special using an archaic workflow. I never had that vision (just a technical proficiency) so I sold my gear and filmstock during the pandemic and use my beautiful vintage AND modern lenses on the D700 if I need to shoot and that cherry wood 45 will one day look great as a display piece in some private alcove where I can stash away and sip a drink and maybe read a good book.

You've made some extremely interesting observations here, Jeffrey, especially about the seemingly widespread prevalence of some folks trying to look cool by shooting with non-digital or older digital cameras.

I've actually been cooking up another related hypothesis to this that correlates the size of the photographer's camera to the inability to present any type of positive emotion while making photographs. I'm serious. Look around at photos of photographers using larger and larger cameras; the bigger the camera, the fewer smiles, the more serious and tragic the photographer appears. I will point out my own profile photo as an example although in my defence I was wrangling my big 11x14 Ritter ULF (actually quite light) and I wasn't even intending for my face to be in the picture...that's just my resting morb face :D

I think it was Picasso that said it took a lifetime for him to paint like a child. I feel this in the very marrow of my being. As I progress through whatever photographic woods I've been wandering through for the past couple decades, I find I am gravitating towards more organic processes, especially cameras. That's why I've slowing become addicted to old box cameras, many which have only one shutter and aperture setting. Like you said, those types of cameras give me a simplistic pleasure and joy that I can't get anywhere else, which in turn allows me to express a weird side of my nature differently than I can with some of my other cameras.

On a side note, I'm happy to hear you decided to keep your Tachihara, beautifully designed cameras regardless if it's a fake. Very similar to Zone VI which was my very first LF camera.

I've kept all my old cameras and glass and they are displayed in various places around the house, much to my wife's dismay. But they are a lot cooler than Hummels.

Very good article that contrasts the differences between analog and digital capture. My problem with digital photography is on the viewing side. Not since the days of prints and slides have we been able to view same sized photographs of both orientations on the new digital displays. The blame goes to the folks that produce the only photo-specific viewers on the market, the digital photo frame. Given the opportunity to break away from the confines of the video format to a more appropriate format for still photographs. The "inventors" of digital frames, and I use the term loosely, made no attempt to alter the shape of their displays to adapt to their singular purpose, displaying still photographs. Any analog photographer who has ever viewed an analog slideshow or printed from a 2 1/4" square negative knows that the only shape that can contain all still photo aspect ratios and both orientations without compromising image size of either is the square. This bothered me so much that I went through great expense patenting a new photo display design that allows both single and multiple image arrangements of same-sized photos. Convincing photographers that my way is better for photos has so far been an effort in futility. Most seem to be satisfied with the excuse, "but, we've always done it that way". Putting a decorative frame and matt on a rectangular display for photos is not an invention, it is merely putting lipstick on a pig.

Very interesting, Salvadore. I'd actually be interested in learning more about your display concept if you'd like to share. Feel free to reach out via the contact form at my website (link in bio).

I suspect most people who would like to go back in time probably were born or came of age, photographically speaking, during the era of film and darkroom processing. I can think of many ways I'd like to go back in time. There are lots of analog devices that I have fond memories of... music for one. I wish I still had my TEAC reel-to-reel tape deck. There is nothing electronic about the piano in our home. However, I really don't have any desire for darkroom chemicals that make my eyes water, or wait a week for my film to be developed. I enjoy being able to shoot, edit, and print all in one continuous step.

And I love making prints. While darkroom enthusiasts will probably find this hard to believe, I get a huge thrill of watching a print come off my inkjet printer; as much as I ever had watching a print appear on paper in the darkroom. I would imagine that inkjet paper finishes and characteristics are as equally diverse as darkroom papers. And the digital process from beginning to end allows me precise control over every detail in the print. I really don't care about mimicking film characteristics, for whatever they might be. I just like making a print that makes me smile. If a silver-based print does that for you, great. Whatever it takes to postpone the death of paper, because an image really isn't a photograph, in my opinion, until committed to print. The decision of which is best... film or digital capture only matters to the person making the picture.

I very much agree with you, Edward. I'm sure you would also agree that to firmly take a stance of "film is better" or "there's just nothing as good as digital" is to entirely miss the point of photography, or any creative enterprise. As you said, pulling a print that makes you smile is the culmination of the entire photographic process, no matter how it's made.

You are correct. Photography should never attempt to pick winners and losers. I am entrenched in so many ways with where I live and the type of work I do that the lifestyle you describe of yourself on your website seems like something out of a fantasy book for me. To extract and criticize the manner in which you live or type of equipment that you use to pursue your dreams would do a great disservice to you as an individual and your accomplishments. The freedom you experience in real life shows in your photos.

I can only add that in this day and age where both analog and digital photography coexist, it still boils down to the the image itself. A lesson I learned as a digital photo restoration artist is that, a damaged silver gelatin print, restored and printed on inkjet paper is just as precious to the client as the original was. In the end, it's not the process, it's the final image that really matters. Its not how you get there, it's that you get there.