Back in 2002, I received a shock which prompted me to open my thoughts to an alternative to a lifetime of professional film photography. At the time I was chairman of my local photographic society when we received a disturbing and rather frightening edict from on high. It signified a change to all our futures and it would split some clubs asunder.
“On high” was none other than the Surrey Photographic Alliance (SPA), the governing body of most photographic clubs in the county, plus clubs in parts of Hampshire, Kent and London. The unexpected edict was not welcome by any stretch of the imagination.
Henceforth, it was decreed, we must drop film and go digital if we wished to continue associating with other clubs and taking part in inter-club competitions. Give up film photography? This was 2002, remember, not even 2012 when there could have been some justification for such high-handedness.
It came at a time when none of my fellow Reigate club members even owned a digital camera. As with other similar outfits, our annual programme revolved around sociable inter-club “slide nights” or “match-a-slide” contests where all the images had been taken on film.
I soon realised that big changes would have to be made. For starters, we’d need a computer and a digital projector if we were to be ready for the start of the new season that September. That was some £2,000 we’d have to find somewhere. My task as chairman was about to become almost impossible.
Quite apart from the costs, I had to contend with the anti-digital sentiments among many members, especially older supporters. I was hardly well disposed myself. Our efforts to raise cash for this dubious and unwelcome turn of events almost split the club apart. Several of our best workers resigned rather than accept the sudden digitalisation of the club.
Nevertheless, I saw it as my duty to find a way to raise the cash and it needed several extraordinary meetings and, even, an application for a National Lottery grant, before we could get approval. As it was, several of our most loyal and long-serving members did eventually resign and, as a result, 2002 turned out to be one of the most depressing of my years of involvement.
What, you might ask, does any of this high-handed digital dictatorship have to do with Leica?
Well, at the time I was using two M7s. And in common with several of those members who parted company with the club, I was hardly computer literate. I, too, needed to get up to speed if I were to lead the club out of the mire. My wife, Jo, helped enormously. She set things rolling by buying me a second-hand computer: “There you are, get on with it and learn how to use it”. But that was just the start. Not much point in having all the processing power in the world but no digital camera.
Wonder of the age
Just before we departed on our summer driving tour through France, German, Austria and Italy, I bit deeply on the emerging digital bullet by shelling out nearly £1,000 on the then wonder of the age. It was a new auto-everything Leica Digilux 1, equipped with what proved to be a wonderful zoom lens.
Not that my heart was much in it at the time. I simply needed to get up to speed so I could respond to the new diktat from the SPA. With this lukewarm level of interest, it was no surprise to Jo that the Digilux didn’t come out of its box until the last day in Austria. I still much preferred using Kodachrome film in my beloved M7s and, I suppose, my subconscious told me that I didn’t want to waste any good shots on the unproved digital upstart.
Only when we were about to drive on to Italy, over the last few days of our holiday, did I finally gave in to the feelings of guilt over the Digilux. Make no mistake, my heart wasn’t in it, but I really felt I should give the Digilux 1 a try, perhaps doing a few back-to-back comparative shots so I could later evaluate both systems. That was my reasoning, anyway.
Film and digital
On returning to Reigate I had something like twenty rolls of Kodachrome 64 ASA to send off to Kodak for processing. At the same time, somewhat to my disgust, I found fewer than 30 digital images on the little 3.7
Yet, curiously, it was not the hundreds of Kodachromes but those few digital images which blew me away. To say I was surprised would be a gross understatement. Better still, it didn’t take me long to reason that with digital there were no film or processing costs to take into account.
Not only that, but I would no longer have to worry about the potential adverse effect of X-rays on film at airport security. But perhaps most impressive of all, I could immediately see my pictorial results on the camera screen and could instantly discard any images I didn’t like.
Surpassing all these logical benefits, my heart realised that I actually liked the results from the Digilux. The Leica’s almost Kodachrome-like output colours were extremely impressive. In short, Morley, after over 50 years of film work, was truly hooked on digital.
Rot sets in
My two film M7s were replaced by two M8s when Leica produced their first rangefinder digital camera. These were soon followed by two M8.2s, then two M9s, then two M240s. Everything has always come in twos in the Morley gear bag. This started in the 1950s when I was began my photo
A few years ago, however, I realised I could no longer manage the weight of carrying around the two M240s plus a bagful of primes — in fact, the selection of lenses I preferred was actually heavier than the two camera bodies. And, often, I’d carry a D-Lux “just in case.”
Something had to give, so I started to look for a lighter alternative. Fortunately, along came the truly fantastic X-Vario, then the T and my current CL which, incidentally, turns out terrific quality images. Despite this, however, from a handling point of view, the CL remains my least favourite Leica digital camera. The X-Vario is still highly rated, as is my Leica Q which I use far more often than the CL.
Quest for image quality
Throughout this continuing journey, the holy grail has always been ever better image quality. Although I’m not tempted to use them much these days, I have also kept most of my old Leica film cameras. But perhaps, unlike many others, I am now completely sold not just on digital as a genre but also on the modern auto-focus and zoom lenses, such as Leica’s TL series, which are ever more important factors given my increasing age and mobility problems.
I still look back with great fondness on those original and o-so-low-res holiday images taken with that little Digilux 1. Unless they are over enlarged, they remain not bad at all, even in the quality sense. What’s more, I still look at one of my 2002 Digilux shots every single day. The one I took of the “Bulleid” steam train at the Bluebell heritage railway has been used ever since as my screen saver. I still love it.
We have come so far in the past 17 years that digital quality is taken for granted. But despite ever-increasing pixel counts, the happy medium as far as I am concerned is 24 million. I don’t feel I need more than this and, of course, I don’t need the processing and storage problems some of the more modern sensors demand.
Film, though, is by no means dead and has been enjoying something of a revival in recent years. It’s not unusual, now, to see a Leica M3 or a mid-sixties SLR in the hands of young photographers who are rediscovering film in the same way they might experiment with vinyl records.
Back to 1929
I had a taste of this myself quite recently. I still own one of the first Leicas, a fixed-lens 1a from around 1929. I took it off the shelf and realised it contained a part-used film which had been there for many years. It was indeed so old that I had no inkling whether it was black and white or colour, negative or slide or even what ASA rating it had. I decided to finish the film off, guessing exposure quite randomly, and then extracted the film. It turned out to be a very old colour print film which had been given away many years before with the weekly magazine Amateur Photographer.
To keep costs down, because I had no idea what I’d find, I sent the film away for development only, rather than wasting money on printing. When it came back, I scanned a shot of my wife’s red Ford Ka. So my final offering in the film-v-digital saga is a single, analogue-but-digitised picture taken by guessed exposure on a nonagenarian camera through a fixed, uncoated lens onto a very old and poor-quality print film. I scanned it at 3600dpi to produce a stunningly sharp and very high-resolution film-to-digital image. Times change, but some things are constant.
So how’s that for progress prompted by a rather intemperate 2002 diktat from the Surrey Photographic Alliance? Fortunately, at the time, we were reprieved when the SPA received a tremendous backlash of criticism and decided to delay the “Must-Go-Digital” decision for another year.
But the damage had been done. Good members had left. Morley, however, had been hooked, perhaps a few years before he would otherwise have been forced to digitise.