The Last Film Samurai

What's in my bag?

What’s in my bag?

A Nikon F6 film-loading SLR buried under a lot of rolls of Kodak Portra 800! Got new film yesterday in Lübeck and then shot two rolls of the new stock while on a guided tour through this Hanseatic city. Reactivating this last hurrah of Nikon’s SLRs (no “D” anywhere in sight!) was a joy and a source of astonishment for me. This is literally the ne plus ultra of Nikon film cameras.

F6 with MB-D 12 battery grip and Nikkor Ai-S G f/1,8 35 mm

F6 with MB-D 12 battery grip and Nikkor Ai-S G f/1,8 35 mm

It was introduced in 2004 and I’ve had two of them. This last one I bought new, and yes, you can still buy them new while stock lasts, I don’t think they’re in active production. I’ve written about them two times and I don’t want to repeat myself. So, this is just about yesterday’s renewed encounter with an old friend of a camera.

Why so emotional about a camera whose recording medium borders on the obsolete? Because in photography, the tools of the trade matter. Published in 1844 by Henry Fox Talbot, the first photographically illustrated book was called “The Pencil of Nature”. Let’s talk about this pencil (and the brushes, the colours, the palette, the thinner and the easel) at the transition between film and digital photography. The pencil changed. Photographers of my generation and earlier were comfortable with the whole film ecosystem. We had toiled in the darkroom or relied on labs. We chose our film stock and size carefully depending on the job or project at hand. We made our photographs conscious that we had a limitied amount of frames. Only the sports guys machine-gunned it. We were only content when we produced an object at the end of the processing chain: a matted and framed print, a portfolio, illustrations for a newspaper or magazine article or even a photo book. Today 95% of pictures taken don’t leave the smartphone they were captured on.
And then, in 2004 (again!), Kodak started to dig it’s own grave and introduced the DCS Pro SLR/n, the first viable, workable DSLR. The rise of the internet virtualized the end medium and the rest is history. Film use by photographers has gone down since, small upticks by Hipsters and Japanese Leicaphiles notwithstanding.
Exactly at the divide of this modus operandi photographicus, Nikon introduces it’s last SLR. The look and feel of this machine is transitional, too. The body is as rugged and functional as Nikon knows how to make them. The phenotype recurs in today’s D5, D850 and D500. The F6 even sports a rear screen, only it is just for the menu settings and status information. No chimping!
It is no small camera, and the battery grip makes it even more substantial. But once you grasp it, every button and four-way-controller falls under the right finger. You’re using a tool that supports your creativity. The finder is large and bright and the ground glass can be exchanged for one with wich you can focus manually, reliably. If you don’t want to do that, there are 11 autofocussing points and a 2004-state-of-the-art AF module to push your AF Nikkors about. Works good enough in most situations and with a few exceptions with today’s Nikkors, but of course, recent Nikon AF systems have improved a lot.
At today’s film prices, unreliable film handling in a camera can be cause for a nervous breakdown. Not so with the Nikon F6. It’s film handling not only engenders confidence, the camera even exposes technical data onto the leader and onto the strips bewtween the frames. EXIF data on film, so to speak!
I came back to the F6 when I had already had Nikon DSLRs, and it is very approchable this way. And very reasuring. Coming from the past, I can imagine someone upgrading from a F4 or (not so urgently) from a F5 to the F6 to prolong their film use into this digital century.
Uhm, does this make sense at all? It depends. Do you like the way film “draws”? When I think of resolution, I’d have to put the quality you can achieve with 135 size film almost at the bottom of the scale. Even most smartphone cameras surpass it today. Higher up on this scale comes medium format film, then comes APS-C digital, then comes full-frame digital, then comes sheet film (debatable, can switch positions with the previous medium), then finally at the top of the resolution pyramid comes medium format digital.
However, resolution doesn’t matter. Have you seen the masterpieces of photography like Korda’s Che and Capa’s falling soldier? Sketchy resolution and not much sharpness (which is a bourgeois concept, anyway).
Today, you use film because you like the way film “draws”. I mean, specifically the film you put in the last time you had the back of the camera opened. There’s still a lot of diversity and Kodak reintroducing a slide film like Ektachrome 100 encourages me.
But if you think of photography as a technical endeavour, it makes no sense at all. This is why it must be done. Because it isn’t.

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One Response to “The Last Film Samurai”

  1. Delayed Gratification Machine | Mostly Black & White Says:

    […] but it is unsellable and I still phantasize about contact prints on platinum-palladium-paper. The Nikon F6 I have been using on and off over years. It is the ultimate film enabler with it’s advanced […]

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