Portrait of the photographer

Film nostalgia in photography might be all the rage today – it seems a lot of people are hungry for that 'organic, analog look' – but for Seattle photographer Sofi Lee, nostalgia for vintage digital compacts is a lot more fun. And it's the limitations of these cameras that help to set Sofi's professional work apart from the crowd.

Lee only graduated college two years ago, but in that short time has amassed quite a few clients in the Pacific Northwest by shooting beautiful images that, yes, feature blown highlights, chromatic aberration, rudimentary noise reduction, coma and more.

Tell me about your professional work as a photographer.

I do photography and animated GIFs, mostly for journalistic purposes. My Seattle clients include Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, City Arts and the Weekly Volcano in Tacoma. Nationally I’ve worked for Vice.

Sofi shoots a lot of portrait work for publication in the Pacific Northwest. This image, of the band Pleather [Claire Nelson and Andrew McKibben], was shot on a Fujifilm FinePix E900.
Photo: Sofi Lee

I know you spend a lot of time shooting with digital cameras from the early and mid- 2000’s. Tell me a little bit about your interest in these cameras.

I first got into older point and shoots back in 2014. At the time, the analog revival was really taking off. I was in a commercial photography trade school and watched many of my peers either straight up shooting film or trying to recreate the aesthetics of film in editing. There were definitely a lot of talks in class about photographs looking 'too digital' as well as instructions on how to add more of an 'organic, analog' feel to your images.

There were definitely a lot of talks in class about photographs looking too 'digital' as well as instructions on how to add more of an 'organic, analog' feel to your images.

At the time, I observed to myself that the re-emergent fascination with film was probably ephemeral, specific to the current zeitgeist and highly rooted in nostalgia. So I asked myself, 'What will be the thing people look back to next, after film?' I started digging through Flickr archives of photos taken on older point and shoot digital cameras, or 'digicams' as some people called them, and felt there was something different about them.

They stood out in a way apart from modern digital files: The dynamic range is narrower and the shadows have a character that looks different from those of modern CMOS cameras [due to the lower pixel count and simplistic noise reduction]. That really interested me, so I started spending hours poring over DPReview [laughs] looking for cameras. I made a list of qualities I looked for: cameras with CCD sensors that shot Raw and, initially, were released around 2001.

The Canon PowersShot G2, in hand.

So what was the first camera you settled on?

The camera I ended up settling on was the Canon PowerShot G2. It turned out that Raw was very uncommon for cameras at the time apart from pretty much Canon cameras. I also picked it out because its maximum aperture is F2.0. The body also has a classic look to it, something ineffably iconic of its era. When I saw it, I said to myself, 'That’s the one.'

The Canon G2 ended up coming with me everywhere I went. I think a lot of photographers find freedom when they shoot film, but I found it here instead.

So I started taking photos and made a Tumblr [blog] album called Summer of G2 to host it. With this gallery, I did street photography, still life and portraits and kind of let loose, departing from the more restrained work I had to do in my commercial photography studies. The G2 ended up coming with me everywhere I went. I think a lot of photographers find freedom when they shoot film, but I found it here instead.

A portrait of Kitty Blume. Shot on the Fujifilm FinePix E900. Photo: Sofi Lee

You mentioned that you appreciate the limited dynamic range and blown highlights that come with these older digicams, specifically ones with CCD sensors. What else do you consider to be part of the vintage digicam look?

This is by no means specific to CCD sensors, but one thing that really stood out to me was chromatic aberration. Obviously, this is something that’s been around as long as glass has, but because of the of the tiny sensors and lenses, CA really stands out. A lot of people hate this, but I think it’s gorgeous. I feel like people look like they’re glowing when they’re surrounded by CA.

Another thing is, well, I basically have a grudge against shallow depth of field and bokeh. It's something which has a stranglehold on the photo-aesthetic world right now. I get why people like it and why it emerged as 'looking professional' when everyone shot with digicams. But on the other hand, I like a deep depth of field a lot. I think there’s a lot of challenges when having to account for everything in the frame being in focus. I have to really stop and think about what I’m shooting before I shoot it.

The Canon S40.

So you started with the Powershot G2 (2001) – did you eventually move on to more modern cameras? if so, tell me a little bit about that journey.

When I first picked up the G2, I also started going to thrift stores almost every day to hunt for interesting cameras. I lived really close to a Goodwill [thrift store] so I’d stop by every time I happened to pass it, say on the way to get groceries. On my free days, I’d travel to the suburbs and hit up every thrift store there.

Soon enough, I amassed a pretty sizable collection. No one was really looking for these cameras at the time, so they were cheap and plentiful. Since then, actually, I’ve seen a lot fewer. I’m curious if other people are starting to get into them as well. That or Goodwill is catching on and just putting them on their online store.

Anyway, the first cameras I started using after the G2 were the PowerShot S series. I got the Canon S40 first and then I came across an S30, brand new in the box with manual and cable and stickers and all.

What did you pay for it, do you remember?

Five bucks, I think. Originally it was a $200-300 camera.

Just a small part of Sofi's 'digicam' collection.

Wow.

I honestly picked up so many cameras. Anytime I saw something interesting, I would look it up, see if it had a CCD sensor and if it did and was old enough, I would grab it. Eventually I accumulated too many and had to become more selective.

'My sweet spot now is between 2008-2011. Cameras from this era have a good resolution for print but still have the digicam look.'

I started keeping a Google Sheets document of every camera that shot Raw on my smartphone. There’s a Wikipedia page that helped a lot. And one by one, I ticked a lot of those cameras off. Actually, a few months ago, my assistant was looking through my collection and was just like, 'Wow, you have pretty much everything on this list.'

The S30 was $5, what was the average price you were spending, and was there a cut off in terms of how high you would go for a camera?

It was all dirt-cheap. I remember one time I picked up a PowerShot G6 for 12 bucks. Some of the higher-end looking ones, like the Olympus E-20, would go for $25. Those would be a little out of my range: it depended on how nice it was. I’ve definitely walked away from cameras that were too expensive.

A portrait of Neha Spellfish. Shot on the Panasonic LX5. Photo: Sofi Lee

CCD sensors were eventually replaced by CMOS sensors in a lot of these premium point and shoots. What year do you consider your cut off when shopping for used compacts?

My sweet spot now is between 2008-2011. I get asked to do professional/commercial work with these cameras and there was a while I’d have art directors telling me, 'this stuff is great, but can you give it to us in higher resolution?' [laughs] And I’d have to say, 'Sorry, this is the highest I have.' Because of this, I started narrowing down the cameras I was using and stuck with ones that shot higher resolution.

Cameras from this era [2008-2011] have a good resolution for print but still have the digicam look – great optics and Raws that allow me to do what I want. That’s not to say the cameras before that time weren’t any good, but the Raws can be challenging to work with.

You mentioned resolution and I guess in the simplest terms, to what extent does image quality matter to you? And does it matter to you personally, or is it more just the requirements of being a working professional?

I would say it’s mostly requirements. I’m even fine with 5MP cameras – that’s the lower end of what I’ll accept – but as long as it takes a good photo I’m generally happy. I think there’s too much emphasis on megapixels. Maybe that’s just because people like cropping their 42MP images. I don’t like cropping though, I try to get it all in camera if I can.

The Olympus XZ-1.

So what cameras are you currently shooting with? If you were headed out on a shoot after this interview, what would be in your bag?

I always have the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX150 (2008) on me. It literally lives in my bag and I never leave home without it. I use it more than I use my cell phone camera, actually. I love this one because it’s an ultracompact with a 15MP CCD sensor and also shoots Raw. It keeps a low profile: everyone just thinks you’re an anachronistic tourist when you use it. It’s quite a marvel of engineering; there really isn’t anything else like it. I use it in about 90% of my photos. It also has the unique honor of being DxOMark’s worst camera [laughs].

I always have the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX150 (2008) on me. It literally lives in my bag and I never leave home without it.

But if I need to do a portrait or something involving a strobe then I have a few different options. I’ll use either the Olympus XZ-1 or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, which I really like for the aspect ratio options. I also shoot with the Fujifilm E550, an older model - from 2004 I think - that manages to shoot 12MP Raws, higher than most DSLRs at the time. It has the best flash metering I’ve ever seen. It’s also nice and compact, with great ergonomics. I’ve done a number of shoots with it, including band portraits.

A portrait of Elle Sita. Shot on the Olympus X-Z1. Photo: Sofi Lee

Do you run into any issues sourcing batteries or cables for these old cameras?

A lot of that is available through eBay and Amazon stores, actually! So that hasn’t been that big of an issue. The biggest issue is sourcing accessories. I like collecting the original optional accessories as well, such as flash units or cases, and that’s really the more challenging part. This is stuff I really have to hunt for and a lot of the times I only find them if I look up obscure reviews or old manufacturer’s websites in Japanese.

The bigger issue, really, is memory cards. Most of the cameras take CF or SD cards but there are some like the Fujifilm E550 that take XD cards. Those are somewhat uncommon, tend to be expensive for their capacity and a pain to get files off onto my computer. I also have a Fuji that only takes PCMCIA cards. Yeah, that’s no fun.

Sofi's cable drawer.

So do you have a favorite camera in your collection?

I find myself always coming back to the FX150 and the LX5, but I’ve talked enough about those I think. I have a sentimental connection to the G2. But right now I’m really excited by the Ricoh Caplio GX100 and the Panasonic LX2.

I picked up the GX100 at a thrift store for $6: it was in pristine condition and looked just like the GR series. It’s very basic yet basically anything you could want in a camera of that size. The LX2, though, is fun because of the widescreen 16:9 sensor. It’s the same aspect ratio as APS film in APSH mode, so it reminds me of that when I’m shooting with it.

How many digital cameras do you think you own?

Maybe like 50.

Getting back to this current wave of film nostalgia, do you think we will look back at this era, 10, 20 years from now and laugh at ourselves?

Trends always change: I definitely don’t see photography aesthetics being static. If you look at the history of photography we can see how a lot of styles came and went. The obsession with shallow depth of field and bokeh is another thing that will probably go at some point. I’m personally getting tired of seeing one eyelash in focus.

The Panasonic LX2, in hand.

What’s the deal with pixel peepers?

I think there are a lot of different reasons people are into pixels, but I think pixel-peeping as a phenomenon has a lot to do with consumerism. People want the 'best of the best' and back it up through a variety of 'scientific tests.' Personally, I’m not into technical perfection and feel that falling into pixel-peeping strips photography from a lot of its character. In fact, high-end cameras, once you’re pretty good at shooting, make it too easy to produce an acceptable image. Where’s the fun in that?

That said, I think flipping the complete opposite direction – analogue worship, basically – isn’t good either. This comes from a false dichotomy that film is all character. There’s more than one way to be 'pro-character' or 'against pixel peeping'.

A lot of interviews I read on photography sites end with a sort of adage about the best camera being the one you have with you or how film inspires you to just think and shoot rather than pixel peep. I think photography is more than just capturing an image though; it’s also about imposing your vision on it. The best camera is the one that’s right for the vision, with the right noise profile, lens distortions, etc. Anyway, I’m sort of rambling [laughs].


Check out more of Sofi Lee's photography and animated GIF work at Sofi.pics, and in the gallery below: