The “Back To Basics” Delusion

In 1932, the legendary photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt took several pictures of cocktail waiters at Grand Hotel in the Swiss town of Saint Mortiz. These pictures of waiters balancing their drinks trays while hurtling past on ice skates are among his most recognizable work. In an interview Eisenstaedt recalls “I did one smashing picture of the skating headwaiter. To be sure the picture was sharp, I put a chair on the ice and asked the waiter to skate by it. I had a Miroflex camera and focused on the chair”.

Eisenstadt waiter

Image: Albert Eisenstaedt

Though the Miroflex camera that Eisenstaedt used was state of the art for its time, it’s very basic by today’s standards. Eisenstaedt had to manage the variables of film-type, shutter speed, and lens aperture to get the right amount of light into his camera. Understanding that his subject would be moving fast, he used the chair to aid his focus. All of these skill-based factors resulted in an image that few photographers of his era could make.

In early 2019, I started researching a camera purchase. I bounced around between Canon, Nikon, and Sony, the three major brands that everyone talks about, before settling on Fujifilm – a company that is rapidly gaining a reputation as a top class manufacturer of cameras and optics. I watched hours of video reviews – with many Fujifilm enthusiasts talking about how the camera’s “back to basics” style lured them away after years or decades shooting Sony, Nikon and Canon.

Having mostly used an ancient Canon point & shoot, and in recent years my cellphone, my “back to basics” Fujifilm camera was a challenge. In the first month that I shot over 1,000 exposures, I watched many more videos about the features of my Fujifilm camera and have since learned to do a half-decent job with it. As I learned more about the film simulations, the Christlike forgiveness of the RAW image format, and the ease of shooting with shutter speed set to “automatic”, I realised that there is nothing basic about the Fujifilm camera. Youtube reviewers rave about the dials for exposure, shutter speed, and film sensitivity at the top of the Fujifim XT3 that “put the effort back into photography” or give one “total control over the process”. These are just switches on an incredibly complex computer. Even manual focusing – something that needs a combination of good eyesight, steady hands, and great skill with composition to get right, is assisted by the camera. I found that shooting in RAW with the shutter speed set to Automatic made my camera as simple as my Canon Point and Shoot. The below image – of my daughter with her nanny was taken during the first week that I owned the camera. This image – shot at dusk without a flash, from a direction perpendicular to the direction of motion wasn’t particularly challenging for a novice like me. This photo would have been impossible with Eisenstadt’s Miroflex. For those who wonder, this picture was taken in very low light and the RAW image was processed to recover details from the shadows.

DSCF0678.jpg

Image: Ajit Nathaniel

There’s an apocryphal story about a company that was disappointed by the market response to its instant cake mixes. Apparently women weren’t buying it because there wasn’t enough “work” in the cake. Once the companies left out the astringent and required women to break a couple of eggs into the mix to make a batter, sales picked up, because consumers felt that they were actually contributing to the outcome.

One evening while taking pictures in the park, it struck me – perhaps the rise in Fujifilm’s popularity was that these dials were the eggs in Fujifilm’s batter. Canon and Nikon make outstanding cameras with 35mm wide “full frame” sensors that capture almost double the light than Fujifilm’s 25mm wide sensor. Sony, on the other hand has the large sensors and sensor technology that is 2-5 years ahead of all of the others. In reviewing Fujifilm’s cameras, some infatuated photographers grudgingly acknowledged that full frame cameras would outperform Fujifilm in situations where light gathering was important, but followed it up with a comment about how the “feel” of Fujifilm cameras was a key factor in their decision to switch. This “feel” was about how Fujifilm concealed the sophistication of their devices with the illusion of “work” that the three dials require. Fujifim has taken this a step further with their latest release – the viewing screen – de rigeur on digital cameras for the past 15 years, has been hidden on the X-PRO 3. Instead, a tiny screen will display the film simulation and sensitivity setting reminiscent of film cameras. From what I see on the internet groups, the buyers are already lining up.

Fujifilm’s bollocks Back to Basics is a clever marketing strategy. For those looking for a real Back to Basics experience – get a Leica M9 with a 50mm lens and see how that works out for you. Working on a budget? Get a Yashica electro-35 film camera and put up with the suspense of waiting to see how your pictures turned out.

The Back to Basics illusion is pervasive today, thanks to the corruption of the Neo-Platonic concept of Via Negativa. The idea that an infinite, inestimable, inscrutable God could be understood or described by focusing on what he is not rather than what he is, has been co-opted by self help gurus who promote the concept of “addition by subtraction” or somesuch. People are throwing away possessions that fail to “spark joy” – what actually happens is that these possessions are rapidly replaced or their functions converged into a sophisticated gadget. Healthful diets modelled on foods that our prehistoric ancestors supposedly ate, are in fact the product of social or financial privilege that owe a lot to modern science. People who shun television often find themselves sucked into social media, and those fortunate enough to log out off Facebook for good often find themselves hooked to a streaming service.

To get Back to Basics in today’s world is challenging, and your environment will resist you every moment. Any time you’re asked to pay a premium for something that makes this claim, look closer to be sure that it is not added complication in a misleading package.

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