Why It Sucks

Published at 12:56 on 4 March 2012

Basically, the end of slide film (not yet, but the writing is clearly on the wall) sucks because it is my preferred choice for nature photography, and it is extremely unlikely that digital cameras will ever be as suitable for my nature photography as older, manual-focus film SLR’s are.

The Problem is Autofocus

Unlike most forms of photographic automation, autofocus is not and cannot ever be purely additive: if one adds autofocus feature, one of necessity must subtract other functionality from a camera.

That puts autofocus into a different and unfortunate category. Consider exposure automation: adding, say, shutter priority or program modes to a camera does not make it any less easy to continue offering a metered-manual mode, one which works every bit as well as it used to on an old, all-mechanical body. (Sure, you lose battery independence, but for macro photography on slide film, where metering is so critical and complex, you never really ever had that in the first place. A metered body offers so many advantages for such photography that one would be a fool not to use one.) Exposure automation also adds no weight penalty to a camera: weight now present in the form of solenoids, circuit boards, and a small battery is countered by weight in the form of clockwork that is now absent.

Autofocus, on the other hand, forces the manufacturer to add focusing motors to either the body or the lens (read: more weight and bulk), to add significantly-sized batteries to power those motors (which use much more electricity than a metering circuit or an electromechanical shutter, yet more weight and bulk), and to rob light from the finder for the autofocus sensor to use. Alternatively, one can delete the optical finder completely and replace it with an electronic one (which will fall short in both resolution and in low-light performance).

EVF’s Will Not Significantly Improve

Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to return back to the case of SLR cameras. Autofocus SLR bodies first started appearing about 20 years ago back when film was still king. The only new manual-focus SLR body introduced since that time which I am aware of is the Pentax ZX-M. (The Nikon FM-10 does not count; it was an existing Chinese camera that Nikon chose to rebrand and sell under their marque with their lens mount. Cameras like the Nikon F3 continued to be made well into the autofocus era, but they were not new introductions.)

More recently, there have never been any manual-focus DSLR bodies, from any manufacturer. The closest thing to such an attempt was Leica’s release of a digital back which turned their R8 and R9 bodies into exceptionally large and awkward (not to mention expensive) DSLR’s. In short, manufacturers have gotten away with deleting manual focus functionality. All evidence indicates that most photographers are willing to trade a superior finder for the autofocus feature.

Not me. I quite naturally evolved a style of very slowly and meticulously adjusting focus manually in my macro shots, often at the sub-millimeter level, and often in gloomy forest-floor conditions. I find that this matters a great deal where the depth of field is almost never as much as a quarter inch. This is about the worst possible conceivable case for either using autofocus, coping with a darker finder, or coping with the diminished resolution and lack of real-time response of an EVF. Consider the combination of needs: I need something that provides the highest resolution and which offers immediate response even in low light.

But that’s just me. Evidently, there are not enough photographers like me to prompt manufacturers to cater to our needs. Given this, what does that say about any incentive to make EVF’s have better resolution and imperceptible low-light lag? Basically, it says that such incentives do not exist. EVFs are being introduced to make autofocus camera bodies smaller and lighter. Period.

This is a recent insight of mine, and a most depressing one. I would actually like to have the choice of using digital for macro photography (and not have to make compromises which inevitably compromise the quality of the resulting images, or which compromise my ability to carry equipment on foot for significant distances). I used to hold out hope that EVFs would eventually get to the stage where they became as good as or better than the optical finders on manual-focus cameras. No longer.

Conclusion

In short, the only lightweight, compact, interchangeable-lens cameras suitable for ultra-precise manual focus at close range are film SLR’s. And this is unlikely to change.

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