Film in a Digital World – Capturing Film Shooting Data Automatically

One of the benefits to shooting digitally is that you have a record of the settings and equipment combinations embedded into each image you make. Every time you click the shutter on your camera, be it a high end DSLR or a cheap point and shoot, the image file has what’s called EXIF data baked into it. You can look at the image and then reference the settings you used to make it, which is very helpful in learning the interactions between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. When I was learning to use my DSLR I used this information all the time and as I’ve moved over to film I have used my experience in digital shooting to help me set the camera for the image I want to make. Going forward though, I’ve begun to miss that information and as I keep trying new film types, having access to that information would be very handy.

Common methods for documenting that kind of information when shooting film include either bringing a small pad of paper with you to write them down or a small voice recorder so you can just speak the settings and, one assumes, write them down later. These options are not really feasible for me, nor do I expect for most people. If I were out shooting with a large format camera that took several minutes to setup and shoot for each frame, that might be something I was willing to do. But, when I’m out on a hike or shooting some kind of event I don’t see myself as having the desire to break up the shooting like that. If you’re going to stop and document each shot on paper, you’re in the same position as a person how snaps an image on their digital camera and then stops to look at it. How many times have you done that only to look up a moment later and realize that you missed a couple other great shots? No. I’m not interested in the shooting information enough to take me out of the moment.

Until last week, as far as I was concerned, having access to good shooting data wasn’t really possible for me and I chose to keep shooting film in spite of that. It was on my mind though and, on a whim, I did a quick check for the current prices of Nikon’s F6 film camera. Unique to this camera, so I thought, was it’s ability to record shooting data to a CF card which could then be used later to match up to the film shot. This camera still sells new for about $2500 (12/23/2011) and it’s selling for about $1500 used. Well outside of my budget! As I was poking around though I noticed that Nikon’s F100 and F5 also shared in this ability.

My mind was blown.

I immediately starting doing some research to confirm that it was somehow possible to pull shooting data off of the Nikon F5 and the Nikon F100. As it turns out, it possible and in two ways. I would describe the first way as a dead end. When the Nikon F5, F100 and F90 were released Nikon would sell you a cable and software kit, under the name Photo Secretary, that would allow you to interface the camera to your computer and download the data. The hardware, the Nikon MC-33 or MC-31, is very rare these days. A number of people began making the cables after Nikon discontinued them but even those sources have dried up. If you’re able to get a cable and have a serial port on your PC, the 9 pin variety (which can sometimes be adapted to use a USB connector) you then need to source the software. Nikon’s software was released in the mid-1990s and is labelled as supporting Windows 95, and some older versions. The Mac version of the software will run only on very old versions of their OS and are not able to run on anything you likely have around. Should you be able to get all of these requisite items on hand and working you then somehow need to keep them working long into the future. If this were the only way to do this.. surely the best option would be to pass.

Thankfully, Nikon has one other method to capturing the shooting data these cameras make, and it’s called the Nikon MV-1. This little unit is basically a CF Card writer and it interfaces to the camera via the 10 pin round connector on the body of the camera. When you buy this over priced piece of kit from Nikon they provide you with the card reader and a CF card, mine is 128MB in size. Using this little box could hardly be simpler. You plug it into the front of the camera, power on the camera and then press the only button the MV-1 has. When the lights stop flashing, power off the camera and unplug the device. What you then find on the device is a series of text files, one for each roll of film, containing all manner of data you might want. It contains a wide variety of information from film speed to meter type and it’s laid out like a CSV file so you can, hopefully, use it to embed the data into your scanned frames of film.

The only somewhat complex part of the process is setting up the various cameras to record data and which data to record. I will write up a post for both the F100 and the F5 which are the two cameras I will be using this setup with. I want to document these processes and features in an easy way for anyone looking to do this in the future. Hopefully they won’t have to dig around as much as I did to sort all of these details out.

More to come!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.