In Search of a Filmic Digital Sensor

In Search of a Filmic Digital Sensor

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As the price of film and development costs rise, my mind is less often drawn to the dwindling stock of film in the fridge, and more often to what happens next. I am not alone in this. As users search for ways of making pictures that feel more authentic than their phone’s camera, compact digital cameras from the 1990s and 2000s have been gradually gaining value.

There is more than a dash of nostalgia in this market, and the illusory value of high megapixels has shifted now to the back of potential digital camera buyers’ minds. We want pictures that look like the pictures of our childhood, and digital cameras defined by the following:

  • Relatively low megapixels
  • Terrible ISO performance
  • Constantly clipped highlights
  • Small CCD sensors
  • Middling autofocus
  • Inaccurate viewfinders

And a bonus points for avoiding:

  • Obsolete memory cards (Fuji / Olympus XD, CF cards, Sony memory sticks)

When I started shooting digital, early DSLR’s were out of reach for everyone but professionals or the photo-obsessed. Plus, in those days you could still shoot film, and people did so with great results, which made the pro digital camera seem kind of half baked. It’s hard to imagine, but as film photography shifted to digital photography, digicams (early compact point-and-shoot digital cameras) were the only affordable game in town.

But who would want a 1.2 mp camera made by a fax machine manufacturer?

Everyone, apparently. These cameras sold in their millions for very good reason. They removed the cost of film, so you could shoot as much as you liked within the realm of your memory card’s capacity. The results could be seen straight after shooting, even though they were surprisingly hard to share (files were too big to email, and they had cables that always seemed to be proprietary).

But things got better. Megapixels began snowballing, and by 2006 you could buy an 8 megapixel digital compact like the Sony DSC-W100 for £250. They had the resolution to print 8 x 6, just, but not always the sharpness. Highlights still clipped, and the colour rendering wasn’t quite yet up to snuff.

The w100 seems to have jumped in price after being exposed to to a new audience on Tik Tok and Instagram. That is part of what is fuelling the re-emergence of digicams, and their relative price rises. It is in effect a mirror of what happened at the end of the 2000’s amplified by social media – people remembered how films had made their memories appear, and they sought out cheap film cameras and film. A new generation rediscovered film, and the current generation is now rediscovering the digital cameras that superseded 35mm compacts for the same reasons.

But where does that leave those on what seems to the final cycle of colour film photography? £15 rolls of film and £10 to develop them makes each photo precious again.

Is there a middle ground between two nostalgias, with one waxing as the other wanes? Where is the meeting point – where a usable camera meets a filmic sensor delivering something close to film?

Everything old is new again.

I’ve been buying and hoarding cameras for the best part of fifteen years now, and started shooting on the early wave of digital cameras. One of my early cameras was an HP Photosmart 317 with its tiny 5mp sensors. The images it made were adequate, but no better than the camera phones of the year after it – having macro and infinity settings was cool though. It ate as many AA batteries as I could feed it. I look at the handful of family images it made with some pride, everyone looking young and thin, highlights clipping pretty hard.

I don’t know how I’d feel about using it today. I’ve run through some late 2000s Sony’s in the last few months. They are decent, reasonable resolution (7/8/9mp), fine to use – they just don’t set my heart alight. The CCD sensors are just middling, the optical viewfinders do a job – if I found a Photosmart 317 I think I would have the same reaction. It functions, but just isn’t there in terms of what I want.

The Panasonic LX-3 is a great little camera.

It really is. I found one in a charity shop with a load of other interesting cameras and bought the lot. 24mm equivalence with a decent-sized sensor is a big deal for street stuff. The CCD bloom from sodium lights is particularly pronounced. If you’re not asking the camera to focus quickly in low light, it will do the job. ISO 400 is the best middle of the road ISO to keep shutter speed up – at night switching to black-and-white when you go above 800 is advised.

This is obvious stuff, but I only advise as image quality falls apart in term of colour noise above 800. When the dynamic range is as limited as it is, noise in the shadows requires a bit of tweaking in Lightroom. What it delivers in good to fair light makes up for this though. A great camera, worth having if you find one cheap.

The Olympus E-500 is a good pick, but caveat emptor / look at the Sony A200.

Moving towards the SLR side of things, a couple of contenders leap out.

There’s a lot to love about the 8-megapixel Olympus E-500. Colour rendition is good (although it does tend to underexpose), AF is surprisingly decent, grain is chunky and film-like, tones are filmic (greens especially). But beware; the green cast pops up in poor light, and the ISO performance just can’t handle, well, anything but good light.

Handling noise is much easier than it used to be, but there is a level of sadness that arrives when you see the pictures on your PC screen with a heavy green tint and fuzz of noise when used at the dizzying top ISO of 1600.

The Sony A200 came a couple of years after the E-500, and those years appear to be where CCD sensors had turned the corner. Colour rendition is accurate, as is autofocus, reds bang, ISO performance is better due to the bigger sensor and greater range. The resolution is slightly higher at 10 megapixels, and grain from noise is closer to what we expect digital noise to look like, so this is a trade off, but one that is worthwhile for the useability.

A final word of warning for users of either of these cameras – learn to squint like a kitten opening its eyes for the first time, because the viewfinders are horrific.

Some filmic sensors were better than others.

I went down a rabbit hole a few months ago when I acquired a Fujifilm F47fd. I have a strong feeling, and that’s all it is, not a scientifically determined fact, that the 6th generation of the Super CCD sensors is where Fuji really hit the nail on the head in terms of rendering images close to film.

Again, good light is needed to get the best out of them, but with the NP mode carried over from their late era film compacts combined with that sensor, we’re starting to see images at the crossroads of digital and film.

The highlights clip less, and the colour balance seems warmer. I liked it so much I bought the Fuji S9600 to see how RAW files would look from the same sensor, shot through a better lens. Pretty much the same, it turned out. Fujifilm are ahead of the curve generally in compacts – that isn’t to say that they are miles ahead of the competition – but in the terms that matter for what I want there is a definite advantage.

In all honesty, I don’t know how much reality is attached to the idea of filmic sensors – how X or Y sensor creates images that look filmic. Everyone’s idea of how a film picture looks is different.

If we look at common emulsions of the 1990s, Kodak Gold 200 and Fuji Superia 200, there’s middling grain, medium contrast, colour pop of different flavours depending on favoured brand. There’s an underlying impression of warmth from film images, yellows are golden, reds tend to jump out, some blooming of light sources and smoothing of colours through chemical interaction.

With some CCD sensors, we do see this, as if in early days colour science was attempting to deliver what consumers already knew they wanted. Early CCD sensors are just not there in terms of matching film’s image quality, but when they do get there (2005 – 2008) the vision of what cameras should deliver in image quality is still shaped by what went before. Only when CMOS sensors gain prominence over CCD do digital sensors finally give an impression of themselves.

When that clinicality is brought to photography, many technological aspects do change for the better, but something is lost too.


We are happy to occasionally publish the words and images of photographers and writers all over the world. Today’s guest author is…

Tom Perry is a photographer and camera collector living in London. He loves cats, music, and photographic equipment.

See more of Tom’s work on Instagram.

 


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6 comments
  • I’m as guilty of GAS as anyone, but try to remember that photography is always about the images. You don’t need to search out some ancient piece of junk. What you need is a camera you enjoy using, and which is compact enough to carry with you. And maybe filter threads. Put a diffusion filter on there. And maybe learn to love some presets – in-camera or after the fact.

    But remember, photography is about the images, even the image-making process; the gear is secondary.

    • With respect Colin, this is not a universal truth. For some people the gear is as important as the images, because the process makes the image and the gear is crucial to the process. I find it very simplistic and reductive to say “it’s not about the gear”… because sometimes it is. And that’s fine! Who are we to say what others should find important in their own photography?

  • “people remembered how films had made their memories appear”
    I know exactly where I was when that happened to me; a 2018 art instalation in the British Museum, with a large glass table underlain with the average lifetime’s pharmaceutical use, surrounding this were candid family photos captured on film. Something about the images seemed magically-more-real-than-real to me, and they packed a hefty emotional punch. Film has had this magic quality to me ever since. Digital has seemed somewhat lifeless in comparison.
    I really struggle to get similarly excited about the new-wave vintage digital camera resurgence though. Perhaps because, as a 40-something, these cameras were never part of my childhood. Rather, they remind me of what somewhat disappointing inital experiences with compact digital photogrpahy as a 20-something in the 00’s. Once you got over the novely, it was all a bit ‘meh’ and didn’t seem worth the effort, especially with all those silly cables, poor battery life and shutter lag.
    Then smartphones came along.

  • thanks for this post

  • thanks for this post. I can attest to the rise in old(er) P&S. I bought my LX5 from ebay and I believe I paid $150 about 4-5 years ago. Am shocked to find that it is often significantly more than that. Nice photos btw. Really like your website.

  • Nice read! I have been intrigued by the resurgence of vintage digital during the last couple of years, bought and sold multiple cameras 3X more expensive after a year or so. While the claims about ”film-like images” often feel a bit overstated I find that the process involved (especially with older DSLR:s) often emulates the process of using a film camera quite well (the results a bit of a black box due to the horrible LCD screens, while lack of live view on the same also leaves you more or less with the optical viewfinder as an option). You also need to think more actively about the quality of lighting and the dynamic range of a scene than when using digital sensors. I’m still using a Fujifilm Finepix F31fd and a Nikon D700 (a CMOS camera but rendering images a bit similar to the contemporary CCD:s) occasionally when the light is good, and really like the colourful sooc results as well as the RAW files from the Nikon. I am currently looking for a Fujifilm S5 Pro which I would love to pair with some Voigtländer or Zeiss glass.

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