Like collecting original retro consoles(?,) synthwave, and coachella(?,) shooting on 35mm film is so 2010. (Yes, I’ve indulged in 2018, but you should know by now that I understand cool significantly more than I embody it, especially in these Jaguar-less, e-scooter, and e-cigarette-filled times.) This time last year, I spent $500 developing film at Portland’s infamous Blue Moon Camera, which is stuffed with 5 and 6-figure, meticulously-restored Big Name Cameras from every conceivable point throughout film’s history along with a handful of gorgeous portable typewriters that cause one to swoon momentarily and ache for the trust fund hippie lifestyle. However, the most surprising truth demonstrated by Hawthorn — my expert guide in the exploration of this hobby — is that poverty in the case of camera collecting is actually a tremendous positive. I’d go so far as to deem it a necessity if one intends to have any fun.
As loudly as my German blood screams for a Leica M-something, there is not a single defensible argument for someone like me (even plus unlimited funds) to purchase one. Though I consider myself unusually adept at photography, and I could technically cite some very sparse professional work with images, I’m still severely lacking in the training and experience necessary to be considered an authority. I could travel through Europe with an iconic German 35mm expending tremendous effort in arranging and arraigning its visual capture and the products would have very little innate value to anyone else. The same applies to more original subject matter, as well — no result of my operation of such a device could ever be relevant. An interested party would always be better referred to a “real” photographer’s collection, archives from historic magazines, or a goddamned student project. Frankly, anything else is a waste of time.
In order for my demographic (amateurs, Lomography customers, Portland Instagrammers, etc.) to produce work with artistic value, we should almost always begin by tossing reproduction completely out of the equation. You’re a hobbyist — fuck shit up and make something interesting. It doesn’t take much reflection at all to recognize that one’s effort is objectively devalued by attempts to “contribute” to aesthetics which have already been tirelessly worn-in by online communities. You are literally assuring your work will reliably and seamlessly disappear into my Tumblr feed and ensuring that its greatest possible achievement will be fragmented distribution in the midst of visually-identical batches shared among dedicated aesthetic-curation accounts. As amateurs, we have the privilege of spending our allocated photographic work exploring our subjects and our equipment. Shooting Fashion Week trims a minimum of 8 months off the average photo pro’s life expectancy each year they attend, and wedding photographers are the most suicidal entrepreneurs in the Western world. Do not aspire to die thanklessly behind a camera without surpassing a six-figure salary for it.
Of course, my designation as a hobbyist actually prevents me from making such arguments with authority, but I cannot possibly imagine a reason to use one’s time to further established aesthetic categories on the internet with the exception of academic study. As always, I would be elated to hear any and all related thoughts you have via comment or email, though we’re going to proceed for the moment as if my word is indisputable. My particular “specialties:” underexposure and fooling with white balance. Neither of these seem to appeal much to others, so I’ll save further opining on these techniques for another time, but I’ll point out now that both are particularly suited to the digital process, specifically.
But isn’t digitalization the end of art?! By its fundamental systematic nature, is it not doomed to be a flawed endeavor toward inexistent absolutes which leaves its realm in a valley between real and unreal, where all magic and ethereality is ultimately extracted from expression? These questions continue to arise in more and more segments of current discourse and more than warrant an essay, themselves, but for now, let me offer a more specific counterargument in the form of collecting cheap digital cameras from the oughts.
Since January, digicam.love has been curating a very hip celebration of cheap digital point-and-shoots from mostly young photographers on Instagram and Tumblr. Most of the devices exhibited in the collection can be happened upon in thrift stores for $5 or less, or found on ebay for $15–40, yet their images are overwhelmingly more beautiful than you may or may not remember. The technically-enthusiastic observer appreciates their convenient reminder of some elemental truths of photography which we have universally been allowed to forget. Though smartphones have long since surpassed the resolution in which these devices shoot by two, three, and four times, 4 megapixels still outsizes 1080p screens by no small margin, and with even the most rudimentary consideration of light, the perspectives of the digicams are no less whole, yet hundreds of times more financially accessible.
At the very end of the last century, digital cameras were still expensive, experimental toys for only the most photographically-invested consumer, but the present is almost assuredly the best time there’ll ever be to buy even the most exclusive digital photography products of the time. Hence, Hawthorn’s recent purchase: an example of “the most anticipated eagerly anticipated digital cameras of the year 2000,” according to Phil Askey, founder of the Digital Photography Review, which could be bought new for 900 USD — $1,345.94, accounting for inflation — yet for this Nikon COOLPIX E990, she paid only $6 to Goodwill, where it’d been donated after little to no use, I’m convinced. ◎ I’m still grateful she was willing to surrender it to my clumsy hands because it is fascinating from the historic, hardware, and software perspectives. I’ll outline some of its most interesting aspects, but Askey’s nearly 20-page-long review is (conveniently) the most comprehensive document I’ve ever seen about a single digital camera model, and any especially-nerdy readers should consider themselves referred.
I suppose we should expect Nikon’s incredibly thorough documentation archive from all hardware companies: search Google for “Nikon COOLPIX 990 Manual,” and the first result is The Nikon Guide to Digital Photography with the COOLPIX 990 Digital Camera straight from Nikon’s own CDN. Of course, I’ve still mirrored it for futureproofing’s sake despite their diligence because it’s nothing less than spectacular in user manual terms with its bespoke bullets and rainbow gradient banners, and yes, Nikon should be applauded for investing so much care in such an obscure document. Let’s back up, though, and rely on Nikon’s own product page for some basic specifications. The device shoots 3.2 million “Effective Pixels” — one of many oddball phrasings, as far as my memory serves. Translated, the 990 uses a 3.34 megapixel sensor behind an 8–24mm Nikkor lens offering 3X optical zoom. Returning to Phil’s review, we find more conventional language, comparisons with preceding and competing products, and the revelation that this camera was announced on my 6th birthday!
In usual Nikon fashion the 990 was announced in unison globally on the 27th January 2000 at 8 AM Tokyo Time. The look was familiar if a little restyled, most significant was the increase in resolution to 3.34 megapixels (2048 x 1536) and the addition of some neat new features and a sigh of relief from 950 owners due to solutions to some long term Coolpix gripes. Adding to some confusion (and still) is the fact that the US models feature a purple/blue insert in the rubberised hand grip and non-US models (Europe / Asia) feature a red insert.Phil Askey, Digital Photography Review
Neither Hawthorn nor myself had ever seen a device even remotely like the 990, which is by far the best reason to make a purchase in this hobby. True to its bizarre appearance, the incongruencies of its operation are numerous, but it is undoubtedly the most physically-dense image capturing device I have ever handled. With four AA batteries onboard, it weighs exactly half a kilogram, which I’ve found just below the acceptable limit for general carry on a single hand. Actually snapping photographs one-handed yields less motion blur than you’d expect in adequate light, but one is not afforded enough time by the hardware to be so unnecessarily lackadaisical — some images can take up to 10 seconds to finish saving on its first-generation CompactFlash card, depending on one’s image Quality selection as detailed in page 5 of Phil’s review. Bewilderingly, this setting is at the mercy of the camera’s sensors and algorithms when shooting in Automatic mode — perhaps in the pursuit of size efficiency, considering PC storage limitations of the time.
The camera’s controls are its most familiarly recognizable experience in format terms, though their action surpasses that of any other such buttons and segmented rotary selectors I can remember using. Without exception, they’re incredibly robust — one quickly notices and appreciates the complete lack of design compromises or mass-market ideology in the 990’s interface. Unexpectedly, its real-world ruggedness appears to match these tactile sensations: I dropped my 990 some four feet on rough asphalt last week whilst exiting an overpacked C-Class to zero apparent effect, and I can’t seem to stop bumping its metallic body into vertical supports on the bus, yet its behavior has not appeared to change. That is, trauma has not yet changed the frequency of the bugs, but they are fairly frequent, as one should expect from such a unique, early digital luxury good.
The most immediately noticeable and severe inconvenience in the use of this 18-year-old device is its rabid consumption of battery cells. So far, my experience suggests that four bargain AAs in parallel are consumed by snapping no more than roughly 40 images, though a combination of CMOS short circuit suspicions and a few months of idle storage have led me to freshen the lot at least four times. Honestly though, it would be absolutely flabbergasting if such an out-of-segment novelty managed DC power with any sane competence, and its user manual does explicitly suggest removing the batteries before extended storage.
It’s no secret that a huge incentive for #ishootfilm Instagrammers is being seen using a film camera. Bringing the Minolta Weathermatic-A to a house show in Portland guaranteed me the superior conversation piece, but the bearer of a more traditional SLR or 35mm point-and-shoot is a universal magnet for intoxicated hipster curiosity and completely unrealistic future “photoshoot” proposals. This dynamic is an old cliché, but exponentially-skyrocketing smartphone adoption has in recent years made just about any dedicated image capturing device a similarly-attention-grabbing accessory, so the most superficial photographers are not exempt from our collective obligation to further Digicam Love as the final relief from the film obsessive trend after its obnoxiously-extended rumination. Of course, this Nikon was surely received as a vain, dorkily-disruptive companion even amidst its peak popularity, so its expected effect shall forever remain primarily reactions in variations of what the hell is that thing?
What the hell, indeed. I’m not precisely sure who was supposed to buy this camera new (or who actually did,) but I can’t imagine anyone buying a hypothetically-equivalent, sturdily built market-topping camera with such lighthearted nuances ever again, and that’s saddening. Why, exactly, did tastefully-placed rainbow-reflective logos and Zenon, Girl of the 21st Century-esque accents have to disappear from top-end consumer-marketed cameras? Was 9/11 really that bad? And what about triple exclamation points following all-caps are you sure? prompts in the software, or meticulously-designed user manuals? There is absolutely no reason why this one Nikon product is the most extreme exception I’ve ever found in this regard instead of a potential pioneer of a more sincerely joyful norm.
Should the unlikely new owner of a COOLPIX 990 happen to have sought out this piece for actual reference, I do have at least one essential nugget of advice not found anywhere in the aforelinked references: your first task should be to reset all settings (Menu 2 ⇥ RESET ALL) and then to immediately change the AF mode from ‘CONTINUOUS’ to ‘SINGLE’ (Menu 2 ⇥ FOCUS OPTIONS ⇥ Auto-Focus Mode ⇥ Single AF,) disabling the lens’ default, unsettling mission to constantly refocus, which has virtually zero applications for a camera of this sort apart from the most electromagnetically-malicious (or perhaps masochistic) user’s desire to consume the world’s batteries. In a bizarrely lucky encounter with an outlet mall camera store employee, Hawthorn and I were given the correct CompactFlash card for the COOLPIX after spotting it sitting alone on the counter. Whatever deity of electronics hardware is responsible for this impossible event has my thanks, for the search for such a card had returned little results, up to that point. Finding the correct cable to transfer photos directly from the 990 to a PC is similarly difficult. Either my repeated searches relating to this camera model were particularly influential upon subsequent results, or the UC-E1 standard was used only on this Nikon product — the first Amazon listing on Google names the model in its title. However, given its reviews, I would instead suggest using any CF-reading digital device you probably have around with a more traditional output of your choosing (audio recorder, DSLR, etc) as a substitute card reader instead of bothering with a direct connection. While this requires an additional step and your care not to reformat the card from your chosen device, it’s probably safer than indulging the novelty of a virtually-unused IO format.
The COOLPIX is surprisingly capable snapping the low-light, low-exposure photographs I’ve come to enjoy taking. I’m relatively alone in treating underexposure as a legitimate photographic technique (as far as I know,) but I’ve experimented enough to know that coaxing a mirrorless digital camera to refrain from compensating for my minimal exposure settings with post-processed amplification is often a pain in the ass, and point-and-shoots tend to limit my ability to lie to the camera’s white balance reference. Finding these settings in the 990’s early menus took way less effort than I’ve experienced in the past. Its malleable Manual Mode is just as customizable as I’ll ever need and its fully Automatic Mode’s nannies are far more manageable than any I’ve found on modern DSLRs like the Canon 7D.
Considering these qualities and the COOLPIX 990’s one-of-a-kind design, I can declare it the ideal device for me, but digicam.love’s rejection of my two submissions taken with it may indicate that it is 100% unfit and unwelcome from any sort of uniform movement in photography. Then again, my photography could very well just be bad and dumb. Either way, I’m a motherfucking hobbyist and I can enjoy embarrassing myself without care. I plan to expand upon what I’ve shot so far with a series called Portland Offbalance.
◎ Apparently, I am a “wasteful person” because of my habit of indulging myself in depreciated luxury goods. The 1980s were wild, sure, but in the late 1990s, we no longer needed cocaine for our mania because history was over! We were going to shed our bonds with everything old (including our government’s 20th century atrocities,) hyper-polarize our summer palettes, and entirely forget the Berlin walls of the world so that we’d be free to completely reimagine ourselves for the enchanting dream technology of the new millennium. Everything was going to be different, and it was definitely the best time to be alive. Then, the September 11th attacks and the Bush Era’s recession reminded us how dependent America’s body had become on its old ways and old addictions, and our temporary blindness to ourselves from flashes of neoprene green gradually left our vision infinitely many gradients of the truth. The cowardly among us either fled back to the 80s to nurse their vanity, or continued on another route toward that darkening technological ‘dream’ as a complete substitute for their very lives. I say, it’s time to stop sulking and start surrounding ourselves with a lot more of that 90s enthusiasm for the future (without the designed ignorance of the past, of course.) Again, if not for any reason but frugality. In 2018, you can live like a turn-of-the-century oligarch for tenthed sums: buy yourself a Rolls-Royce limousine for $15,000 and a bushel of VHS tapes at 25 cents a pop. Gluttonize; waste everything! There is some satisfaction to be had in acquiring “luxury” items cheaply because it sustains an illusion of excess within which you are powerful in your apathy toward possessions of great prestige and craftsmanship. Crash the car! Lose the watch! Who cares! It was just sixty bucks, right?