Old's Cool, Apparently

July 04, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

I was chatting with a friend of mine recently about a classic track from the 1990s that I was looking for on vinyl.  He owns an independent record shop in my hometown, so was the right guy to be talking to about it.  I wanted to know if it had originally been released on vinyl when it charted in 1995, and the answer was yes, but that it was a fairly rare item.  The reason? Well, the early 90s were dominated by the newly established Compact Disc format, which had signalled a decline in vinyl sales to the general public.  Artists still released their work on the format for DJs etc., but the majority of us now listened to CDs.  I vividly remember being very excited at the end of the 80s, when I purchased my first player, providing the ability to skip, shuffle and repeat my favourite tracks, without the hazardous manoeuvre that was ‘cueing’.  CDs were much more robust, took up less space etc etc, but like all technology, it was eventually overtaken in popularity by the download.  The conclusion to our discussion was that the single I was asking about hadn’t been re-released, as many classic 12 inch vinyls had, so if I wanted to listen to it I’d have to buy the album, which had been.  

The same afternoon, I was reading an article about the rise in popularity of early digital point-and-shoot cameras.  Wait a minute, what?.  While I’d got used to the idea of the re-emergence of audio cassettes, which stuck me as a little weird, and am anticipating the rediscovery of the mini-disc (which I still use in my studio), I hadn’t seen this coming at all.  With my large collection of vintage film cameras, I consider myself to be a fairly ‘retro’ guy, but really?  The cameras that were being referred to were the photographic equivalent of the CD.  They introduced inexpensive photography to the masses, with no more pesky developing of film, and the advantage that you could store and organise the pictures on your computer.  I bought my first digital point-and-shoot camera just before I got married in 2001.  It was a Canon Digital IXUS V2, which as a collector, I now bitterly regret getting rid of.  It was a beautiful design (see the below image), and boasted a whopping 2.1MP.  It took pretty good images too, which for me was a bonus because I wasn’t into post processing at all at that point, and therefore wanted the finished article straight out of the camera.  Eventually, I replaced it with another model, the IXUS 750, which increased the resolution to 7.1MP.  They were both great compact cameras 20 years ago, but why would anyone want to use them now?

The beautiful Canon IXUS V2 (Image from WikiCommons)

I guess the same question could be levelled at the audio world. Unless you’re using really decent equipment, playing music on an analogue format is a pretty poor experience.  Audiophiles will tell you that there is more depth, warmth etc, and while that may be true, you need to spend some serious money to be able to detect those qualities, even before considering how good your hearing is.  I love listening to vinyl because of the tactile nature of it, because it’s fragile and it draws me in to listening to a complete record; something that contrasts with my much younger self.  All other things are secondary to me, and I think that is what is going on here.  The younger generation is used to being surrounded by seriously good technology, whether it’s their noise cancelling headphones or the powerhouse camera in their mobile phones.  These gadgets insulate them from having to be involved in any way, which is fine when we consider how chaotic their lives are.  Taking time to engage with something on a technical or interactive level, is a luxury and perhaps the origin of these continually evolving trends as we older folk see them.  If we consider these humble cameras in 2023, they sit between film and modern digital alternatives, both of which can be very expensive.  Film and film camera prices have rocketed since I took it up again several years ago, and modern digital cameras are so pricey that they are often out of reach of young people.  It makes sense to play with a camera that requires some effort to get the best from it, everything from settings to getting the right cables to learning post processing, rather than embrace something more costly. 

While I get the idea, are they actually any good?  I’m one of the few people that don’t consider technically crappy photographs as ‘artistic’, which is why I have a pathological dislike for cameras like the Holga 120 or Diana, neither of which will ever likely become part of my collection.  That’s not to be confused with cameras where a particular look is associated with the way they work, of course.  I love Polaroid and pinhole photography for that very reason; the process is part of the result.  Light-leaks, manufacturing defects and bad optics, though, are not for me. Fortunately, I still have my little IXUS750, so I thought I’d see for myself how it stacks up some 18 years after I bought it.

Macro mode, f/2,8, 1/160th, ISO400

Normal Mode, f/13, 1/200th, ISO400

Portrait Mode, f/4.9, 1/400th, ISO400

The verdict? Surprisingly not bad.  These shots are unprocessed jpegs straight from the camera. Its 7.1MP sensor yields an image size of 3072 x 2304 pixels, which is certainly big enough to print at A4 without any major degradation.  The lens performance isn’t stellar, but nobody would really expect that.  The sensor renders the colours well enough, although contrast and noise performance, particularly at its highest sensitivity of ISO40, is lacking.  Again, this to be expected from a sensor of that period in a point-and-shoot.  Put it this way, I’ve seen worse shots from an equivalent film camera despite those being so-called ‘full frame’.  I’ve also seen plenty of mobile phone shots from the past decade that would be embarrassed by the little Canon.  What surprised me when I took this camera out, was how enjoyable it was to use.  The settings that can be changed are basic, so forget working the exposure triangle with it.  What you do get are special modes for macro, presets for portraits, landscapes etc., as you would with a zone-focused camera.  There’s White Balance adjustment, exposure compensation and a self-timer, all of which do the job.  There is enough about it to be tactile and experimental, something that I personally cannot say about any phone.  Best of all, the IXUS750 can be had for under 50 quid, which I actually think is a bit of a bargain.  

Perhaps then, the renewed interest in this old tech does actually make sense for those looking to escape the constant battle for megapixels, 8K video and novel ways to upload to Instagram.  It occurred to me that my generation is fortunate enough to have lived through some landmark shifts in technology, encapsulated by the digital revolution in personal computing, imaging and music.  We are also fortunate, in my opinion, to witness the acknowledgement of those past innovations for what they were, by a generation not old enough to remember the first time around.  Call it nostalgia, or call it curiosity, I think it’s pretty cool.  I also love the idea of appreciate and ‘re-use’ over ‘replace’, something that is more environmentally conscientious than vinyl or film photography appears to be in the 21st Century.  As far as I’m concerned, they should keep it going.  If they could just unearth the mini-disc, that would make me a very happy man. 


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