Spend any amount of time on photography forums and you’ll learn pretty quickly that photographers will argue about anything. Analog versus digital, slides versus C-41, Nikon versus Canon, and Leica versus everything else. The unbridled passion burns brightly on all sides and it’s hard to see through the smoke to what’s best for us, the innocent, onlooking photo geeks.
But there’s one debate that goes way back to before the internet was even a thing; back to the heyday of the darkroom. It’s a debate that has no doubt changed the very face of photography as we know it, and a question that we wrestle with ourselves here at CP. Should we shoot mechanical or electronic cameras?
As with any long-contested debate, numerous misconceptions and outright myths have emerged on both sides. This can get confusing and overwhelming for people simply searching for a camera that’s right for them. But never fear; we’ve got your back. We’ve set out to clarify a couple of things in the hopes that we can help you, the shooter, choose a camera without doubt or regret. A lofty goal perhaps, but one that’s absolutely worth a shot.
So let’s get to it. Do gears and levers truly rule over batteries and quartz crystals? Or does new-age technology leave old-world craftsmanship in the dust? Let’s find out.
The Battery Problem
Let’s get this one out of the way first. The main gripe with electronic cameras is that they require batteries. To some, this simple fact is enough to throw a Canon AE-1 in the bin and pitch a Nikon FE into the sea. Yes, some photographers speak of batteries as if they’re a huge burden they have to bear. But why? If carrying film isn’t a problem, then carrying batteries shouldn’t be either. In fact, about a dozen button cells fit inside a film canister and they can be changed out as easily as film.
It seems a lot of shooters also suffer from range anxiety. They think that an electronic camera will chew through batteries so fast they’ll be left with a useless hunk of junk halfway through their shoot. Not the case. Batteries last much longer in older cameras than they do in modern-day DSLR and mirrorless cameras. It’s normal for any electronic SLR to go months, even years without a battery change. And since it’s trivial to carry around a couple of spares, we see no reason to ditch electronic cameras out of fear that their batteries will leave you stranded.
But what about the cold-weather argument? True, batteries don’t fare as well in colder weather and discharge faster, but this also depends on the type of battery in use. Lithium batteries tend to work better in lower temperatures while alkaline and zinc-air batteries don’t. That said, it’s not as if electronic cameras become useless lumps of metal and plastic in the snow. They’re entirely usable and shooters shouldn’t be afraid of taking them out in challenging conditions. Not to mention that mechanical cameras aren’t immune to problems in the cold either. Lubricants can dry up and make shutters and mirrors stick, and some mechanical machines are only rated to a rather lackluster cold-weather limit. Very few mechanical cameras allow worry-free shooting in the extreme cold.
The Reliability Issue
For many years it was long-held that mechanical cameras were inherently more reliable than electronic cameras. Gears and levers are not as prone to failure as wires and circuits. Circuit boards crack, wires snap, and microprocessors die unprovoked. It’s much more likely that found mechanical cameras will work for these simple reasons. But is this always true? Not exactly.
Take two titans of the professional camera world, the Nikon F2 and F3. In the 1970’s, the all-mechanical F2 was the king of 35mm film cameras, a symbol of masterful craftsmanship married to unbeatable reliability. Photographers the world over pledged their devotion to the F2, and for a time it seemed that no amount of technological wizardry could ever knock it off its perch.
Recognizing that the world was shifting towards automation, Nikon was forced to leave the F2 behind and modernize their pro-spec camera, a move Nikon knew some would consider heresy. So fearful was Nikon, that when the F3 came along at the dawn of the 1980s it would initially be sold at a lower price than the F2! Why? Nikon suspected that photojournalists wouldn’t pay top dollar for what they perceived to be a less reliable camera. And Nikon was right. Many photojournalists of the time still favored the familiar, robust mechanics of the F2 over the newfangled electronics of the F3, and refused to switch.
But history has shown these photographers to be wrong, and jackasses. It was the F3’s potent combination of reliability and usability that signaled the shift to automation for professional photographers everywhere. The next thirty-odd years would see the F3 escape Earth’s gravity in a NASA shuttle, film part of an Indiana Jones movie, and be the subject of countless glowing reviews in nearly every major camera publication, proving once and for all that the F3 is every bit as reliable (and even more capable) than its mechanical predecessor.
This isn’t to say that reliability isn’t a concern for all electronic cameras; at the consumer level, mechanical cameras dance all over electronic cameras. A mechanical camera that’s been sitting around for years is less likely to have major problems simply because they lack the intricate and fragile circuitry of an electronic camera. We’re just saying that at the professional level, the reliability of electronic cameras becomes less of an issue.
The Accuracy Argument
Because photography deals with fractions of a second, cameras must be mind-blowingly accurate. But which kind of camera delivers the best accuracy and consistency?
Most shooters will tell you that electronic cameras hold a distinct advantage here. It’s simple: springs and gears just aren’t as precise as magnets and quartz crystals. While mechanical cameras slow down over time, electronic cameras often remain as quick and precise as the day they left the factory. Professionals the world over made the switch to electronic cameras for precisely this reason. But for the casual shooter, does this actually mean anything? Yes, and no.
Sure, some people obsess over absolute, infallible accuracy to ten-millionths of a second. But really, with today’s exceptional film’s impressive exposure latitude (the degree to which something can be under or over-exposed and still produce an acceptable result) the argument against mechanical camera accuracy starts to fall apart pretty quickly. With negative film, small inaccuracies become insignificant, and even large inaccuracies don’t seem to figure as much as we fear they will. Yes, slide film requires more accuracy, but it’s nothing that a well-adjusted mechanical shutter can’t handle. The millions of perfectly exposed slides taken by the Nikon Fs and Leica M3s of the world proves this point perfectly, and nobody’s complaining about those cameras.
So which is better when it comes to exposure accuracy? Shooters who value consistency and repeatability will prefer an electronic machine, if only for the peace of mind that they provide. That said, mechanical cameras will serve those same shooters just as well, provided the camera has been properly serviced.
The Ease of Use Conundrum
This is the primary argument for electronic cameras- they’re easier to use. Many electronic cameras feature some sort of automated auto-exposure mode, whether it be shutter priority, aperture priority, or a full-on program mode. These modes have been a saving grace for shooters who prefer a quick-fire shooting style, or for photo geeks who just want to relax every now and then. For new photographers who simply want to learn the art of composition without worrying about exposure, electronic cameras are the way, the truth, and the life.
But as always, it isn’t that simple. Even though mechanical cameras lack speedy automation, shooters can still shoot just as quickly provided they know a thing or two about the science of exposure and the mechanics of their camera.
Our recent experience with the all-mechanical Olympus OM-1 proves this point perfectly. Because both the shutter speed and aperture are located around the lens mount, we just need to pick which ring to “prioritize.” Then we can twist the other ring until our light meter needle goes to the center and we’re ready to shoot in what is essentially aperture or shutter priority. In practice this is surprisingly quick, with the added benefit that shooters are paying attention to their settings and learning the basics of exposure along the way. And even though the OM-1 is something of a special case given its positioning of the shutter speed selector along the lens barrel, this style of shooting can be achieved with any mechanical camera with a built in meter.
Mechanical cameras become even faster when we consider that we don’t have to fiddle with annoying locks and inconveniently placed exposure compensation dials. With a mechanical camera you simply use both the shutter speed and aperture dials to over or underexpose to your heart’s content. Easy peasy.
In practical use, electronic cameras are easier to use overall, but mechanical cameras aren’t slouches either. In fact, shooters may learn a thing or two by learning to shoot mechanical.
The Look and Feel Debate
Okay, we realize that this is the most subjective aspect of the argument, but the look and feel of a camera are super important to most photographers. And mechanical and electronic cameras both have very distinct features that could make or break their relationship with any photographer.
Mechanical cameras mostly hail from the decades before 1970, and so they carry the hallmarks of design schools from 1910-1969. Zeiss and Leicas of a certain vintage belong to the Bauhaus school of design, while the older TLRs have a distinctly Art Deco feel to them. While this is cool as all hell to some, others will cry “hipster!” at the sight of a mechanical camera. Whether or not that matters is up to the shooter, but we like to think the joys of shooting a mechanical camera outweigh whatever labels might come with.
On the other hand, electronic cameras feature any and all design elements from the 1970s onwards. Some say this is a blessing; others, a curse. Cameras such as the Canon A-1 and Nikon F3 are widely agreed to be among the most gorgeous camera designs ever, but cameras like the Minolta Maxxum 7000 date themselves quite conspicuously to the late 80s, an aesthetic that some like, and many vehemently despise. Also worth mentioning are many of the plastic autofocus SLRs from the 90s which, if we’re honest, are about as visually inspiring as a Toyota Corolla.
As for the touchy bits, mechanical cameras have a certain feel to them that can’t be found in more modern electronic offerings. The all-metal innards of mechanical cameras give them a reassuring density and an air of high quality that’s hard to match in an electronic camera. These machines never let you forget that they’re timeless inventions of steel, brass, and aluminum- not even for a second.
And then we have the electronic machines, which can feel flimsy and plasticky. This is all the more obvious in consumer-level electronic SLRs, which in some cases can feel downright light and puny. That’s not to say all electronic cameras feel like pieces of junk; the Olympus OM-2 and Minolta XE-7 come to mind when thinking of electronic cameras with a simply luxurious feel. Ergonomically these two are about as perfect as they come, and one could argue that they feel even better to operate than anything the mechanical world has to offer. So again, much of the “feel” debate comes down to a case-by-case basis.
So after all this blathering, which one’s better? The answer is… it depends!
Okay that’s a cop-out, but it’s true nonetheless. Every shooter has different needs, and different cameras fill those different needs. If you’re a shooter who values speed, accuracy, and a more modern look, electronic cameras are your best bet. If you’re a shooter who wants a camera that’ll last multiple lifetimes, has a classic design, and offers that old familiar sound of gears and levers, then a mechanical camera is your best bet. But it’s worth remembering that there are many cameras that exist in the glorious space between both worlds, where the blending of modern amenities and timeless craftsmanship balance equally to create a simply perfect machine.
Which one do you think is better? Or is this argument pointless and absurd? Let us know in the comments.
Ready to buy a camera? Check out our inventory at F Stop Cameras, or browse film cameras on eBay and Amazon
Follow Casual Photophile on Facebook and Instagram
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]
Again a great article and really helpful!
Can I maybe offer a few additional viewpoints to this question?
As a longtime user of both electronic and mechanical 70’s and 80’s era camera’s I have learned a few things related to this the hard way. I want to share these with the audience to help them with the decision :-)…
Typically the fully mechanical camera of the time (Olympus OM1, Nikon FM, Leica R6/M etc.) are built for professional use. As such they can withstand a fair bit of use (and even abuse). But most of these camera’s were bought by amateurs. The upshot of this is that, provided a non-abused/heavily used camera (and you can always see that a camera is heavily used), you can never wear out a mechanical camera. Therefore a purely mechanical camera will usually not break.
But it does need service (as you mention)! Especially if a mechanical camera is not used for a long time the grease and oil’s lubricating the mechanics tend to dry and get sticky. Therefore there are a few golden rules for purely mechanical camera’s:
The first is: use them or lose them! This means that regular use is better than no use at all. If you do not use them for a few months, at least cycle them once or twice a month through all shutter speeds to keep the lube from drying.
The second is: when you aquire such a camera, bring it to a good service person and have it CLA’d (Cleaned, Lubricated, Adjusted). This will give it a second life and it will reward you with many wonderful moments.
As for the electronic camera’s: electronics in the 70’s and 80’s were, on average, not as reliable as they are now. And parts are, of course, not available anymore. This means that a dead electronic camera usually cannot be repaired anymore (unless you buy another camera for spare parts). In example: I had an Olympus OM2Spot that had a display with a few missing segments. Even 15 years ago it could not be repaired. And I eventually elected to replace it for an OM2n (with a more reliable needle meter). Another, more extreme, case (and out of scope for this website) is what happened to Leica’s M8. It has now such an age that the LCD display’s sometimes die. And since the vendor Leica sources the displays from went bust there is no replacement. That means that you (very expensive) camera is a paperweight when the display dies.
The good thing is that most 70’s and 80’s era camera’s are very reliable and will give you lots of years of joy. Even the electronic ones… In example: I own a Nikon FG and Nikon EM. Both can be bought for very little money and both still work as a charm and give me a lot of joy!
Good luck selecting your next camera :-)!