Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Old Digital Cameras

A number of people have picked up on a New York Times piece with the title "The Hottest Gen Z Gadget Is a 20-Year-Old Digital Camera", which remarks on the take up of "old" digital cameras by the young (I haven't read it myself, though, as it's behind a paywall). As it happens, before Christmas I sent on to my daughter (who is technically a "millennial", I think, not "Gen Z") a little Canon Ixus 70 we gave her waay back in 2007, and which I was clearing out of my cupboard of obsolete camera junk. I assured her she'd almost certainly get better photos out of her phone, but she was still keen to have it. It is a lovely thing, it's true, a classic bit of cool industrial design that puts nearly all subsequent "compact" cameras in the shade, if your chief goal is to create something elegant to keep in a handbag or the glove compartment of your Audi TT.

Despite advances in sensor size and resolution, older cameras can still have a certain something when it comes to picture quality. "Picture quality" is clearly a highly subjective business, despite the efforts of manufacturers and reviewers to reduce it to a series of quantifiable measures like resolution, "sharpness", lack of noise, etc. But the fact is that, whenever I gather together photos from my backfiles for a project, I am always surprised at the number that I have singled out as excellent photos which happen to have been made with "obsolete" cameras. This could mean several things, of course. Perhaps I was a better or more inquisitive photographer a decade or two ago; not impossible. Perhaps the limitations of those earlier digital cameras caused me to take more trouble over my photographs: by avoiding (or taking steps to ameliorate) situations like "too dark or "too bright", maybe I more consistently hit the mark. Or, most likely, maybe the software engineers had to pull out all the stops to get acceptable results from those early cameras with their smaller sensors and files, which gave the images character, an even more difficult quality to define and measure, but one you know when you see it.

For example, for many years I have used a 12 MP Fujifilm X20 as my "holiday" camera. In almost every way it is just right for the purpose. It is small (but not too small), robustly made out of metal, zooms from 28mm to 112mm (in 35mm terms) using a very satisfying twist mechanism around the lens that also turns the camera on, is "fast" (f/2 wide to f/2.8 tele), has a just-about-acceptable optical viewfinder, uses a proper lens cap rather than those fragile blade thingies that most compacts have, and – most important – takes decent photos under almost any conditions. These pictures have a film-like grain that is especially pleasing when converted to monochrome. As I say, they have character, rather than a sterile perfection.

Fuji X20, August 2016

Fuji X20, August 2016

Similarly, I find that photographs made with a 10MP Panasonic LX3 or even my venerable 5 MP Olympus 5050z still hold up very well. For years these were the cameras I used for my daily lunchtime perambulations around the Southampton University campus, after I had realised that these new-fangled digital cameras would give me results matching (or even sometimes exceeding) the medium-format film cameras I'd been lugging around, and best of all would slash my not inconsiderable weekly "dev & contact" costs to zero. Indeed, the most popular set of photos I have ever made in terms of exhibitions and sales (collected in my first real book, The Revenants) were made with that Olympus 5050z. I simply print them small, usually about 15cm square on a 21cm square sheet, and their imperfections vanish, overwhelmed by their pictorial interest.

Olympus C5050z, ca.2004-5

Olympus C5050z, ca. 2004-5

Olympus C5050z, ca. 2004-5

So if old cameras can only make small prints that's fine by me: I've never seen the appeal of a photograph printed any larger than about  A3 (12" x 16"), anyway, and even less so ones printed at the size of a garage door. I think photographs are best regarded as an intimate, hand-held medium, not as a gallery-scale billboard experience. In fact, if I'm honest, I think photographs are best seen reproduced as well as possible in a book. I can't imagine owning more than one or two of Pentti Sammallahti's sublime photographs (which are actually very small [1]), and certainly couldn't contemplate owning a few hundred, but paging through his superb "best of" book Here Far Away is one of my favourite ways of restoring my faith in photography.

Of course, whether this interest in older digital cameras is anything more than a passing hipsterish thing, like the baffling craze for using film, remains to be seen. But a fad, caught at its height, is definitely a good time to offload old kit. I was amazed, for example, when I was clearing out that photo-junk cupboard, to make £200 on a commission sale of my old Olympus Mju II (Stylus Epic in the USA), a film camera. Why anyone would think it was worth the £250 they must have paid for it beats me. It served me well back in the last century – most of our first decade of family snaps were taken with it, as it fits so easily into the pocket of a pair of jeans – but it uses 35mm film, FFS! I mean, old digital cameras, yes, but film compacts? Haven't you got a decent phone? Trust me, you'll get much better pictures, and save yourself a ton of money on processing. But there's no point in talking sense to someone in the grip of a must-have fad.

We're all subject to irrational impulses from time to time, of course: this is one reason why photo-junk cupboards exist in the first place. A few years ago I started to collect the different coloured variants of the tiny Olympus Mju-mini Digital ("Stylus Verve" in the USA) when they were plentiful and dirt-cheap on eBay. As much as anything I just loved the way they look: nothing quite so sleekly quirky has been made before or since. I'm not sure why not; as well being extremely cute, it's a very practical design for a truly pocketable camera. But I've never actually used any of the examples I now have – black, red, white, and silver – partly because they use the old XD Picture memory cards, which is a pain, but also because, like that Canon Ixus, the main attraction is the novelty of the design, not their capacity as picture-making machines.

Rummaging deeper into the cupboard, I find I'm often surprised by some of the stuff in there: when and why on earth did I ever think I needed a set of macro extension tubes and a ring flash? Whatever, I'm pretty sure I have no need for them now, and I should really sell them on. But then, you never know when some old impulse might return... I suppose they might yet come in handy? Safest to put them back in the cupboard, just for now.

Panasonic LX3, March 2010

Panasonic LX3, May 2010

Panasonic LX3, January 2023
(that's right: I took it out for a test-drive)

1. No, really: some of his best-known panoramic images are printed on a sheet just 15cm x 23.5 cm in size. If you've ever contemplated buying one from the Photographers' Gallery in London (I have, quite often, but have never followed through: much as I'd like to own one, I'm too mean to part with that much money) here's a "heads up": his prices will go up by 25% from February 1st.


Kent Wiley said...

The frozen rake is a good one.

Mike C. said...


Yes, I was pleased with that -- the LX3 is a nice little camera, has a respectable zoom, and it does raw files, too. I suspect I may start carrying it around again.