I found a box of old camera stuff in my in-law's house while helping them move and it got me thinking, "what equipment did film photographers obsess over back in the day?"

For example, with modern day digital photography, the sensor seems to be the most expensive and most sensitive part of the camera body. Keeping it clean and safe is critical to good photos. There are countless articles and how-to's online for cleaning, maintaining and preventing damage to the sensor. However, with a film camera, the imaging surface is not a majorly expensive part of the system. Scratching the film would ruin your photo but it wouldn't ruin your camera body.

So what do you think, what equipment and maintenance questions do you think would fill up the forums back in the day?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ What does "back in the day" mean? Film photography has been around for a long time - for example, the V&A Museum in London began acquiring photographs in 1852 - and photographic technology advanced a lot over that time. The last generation of autofocus SLRs were quite fancy electronic gadgets. I still shoot film. \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 22:40
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Photo.net was launched in 1993. I think all of its old content is still online (although it did have some forum areas intended for more casual chat that would only last a few days before deletion). You can search around there to see what folks were asking about in the 90s. Although, as far as I remember, the most common question was: Which is better - Canon or Nikon? \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 22:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually you invest a lot more in lenses than in camera bodies. And bodies become obsolete a lot faster than lenses. \$\endgroup\$
    – xenoid
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 22:48
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Criggie you can pry my camalots from my cold dead hands. ;-) \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 19:50
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Criggie don't forget woodworking and musicians \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 22:26

5 Answers 5


Oh, goodness — everything. Film, camera, lenses, lighting, style, fashions and trends, whether or not photography is art, everything we see today. But the "forums" were... more literal forums — people getting together in person to discuss in photography and camera clubs. And, instead of the blogosphere of today, so many periodicals. To get a taste, do a Google Books search for "photography" in the 19th century. This will return some scanned and digitized annual collections of these journals. Of course, you can also choose later dates, but I think it's interesting to go back... basically to the beginning. Browse through though those, and you will see that the more things change, the more they stay the same!

For a quick sample, here's the index from The American Annual of Photography, 1887:

  • Abnormal Chloride of Silver.
  • A Cry for Simplicity.
  • Alum in the Hypo Bath.
  • "Amateurs," "Professionals," or "Photographers."
  • Argentometer for Controlling Silver Baths.
  • A Talk to Beginners.
  • The Origin of Blisters in Albumen Prints
  • About Bromide Paper
  • A Home-made Tourist Camera and a New Tripod-head
  • Carbonate of Soda Development for Platinotypes.
  • Collodion Emulsion.
  • Colored Screens in Out-door Photography.
  • Composition in Landscape Photography.
  • A Convenient Carrying-box.
  • A Copying and Enlarging Closet.
  • Dark-rooms.
  • Dark-rooms for Photographic Clubs.
  • The Detective Camera for Newspaper Photography.
  • Detective Cameras.
  • The "Detective" for Artists.
  • A Convenient Developer for Travelers.
  • A New Developer
  • A New Developer (Second article)
  • Does it Pay?
  • Durable Sensitized Albumen Paper.
  • Drying Negatives Quickly.
  • Enlarging and Reducing with Ordinary Camera.
  • The "Equivalent Focus" Not a Constant.
  • Figure, Landscape, and Combination Printing.
  • Focal Adjustment in Detective Cameras.
  • Focusing.
  • Frills and Blisters.
  • Genre Photography.
  • Heliogravure and Galvanography.
  • High or Low Art.
  • Hypo in the Developer.
  • A Method of Ink Transfer.
  • Iodide of Silver in Gelatino-bromide of Silver Emulsion.
  • "It's no Jist Ready Yet."
  • Japanese Paper for Photographers.
  • Lantern Slides and Transparencies.
  • Large Telescopes for Celestial Photography.
  • Magnesium Light Experiments.
  • Marine Shots.
  • Memoranda from My Reading and Practice.
  • Mixing an Emulsion with Ammonia.
  • Mounting Silver Prints in Optical Contact with Glass, and Ornamental Borders.
  • Musings by the Way.
  • My Dark-room Window.
  • "My" Developer.
  • Objectives for Photo-micrography.
  • Observations.
  • Odds and Ends.
  • Old Friend, Keep Young.
  • On the Character of Optical Glass.
  • On the So-called Optical Sensitizers.
  • Orthochromatic Photography of Paintings.
  • Orthochromatic Plates, Experiments with.
  • Over-Exposure and the Means to Correct It.
  • Photo-copper-plate Printing and Steel-facing of Etched Copper-plates.
  • Photographic Chips.
  • Photographing in Japan.
  • Photographing in the Arctic.
  • Photographing Machinery.
  • Photography by Lamplight.
  • Photography in the Navy.
  • On the Photography of Solar Eclipses.
  • A Simple Arrangement for the Production of Photo-micrographs.
  • Portraits in Imitation of Old Paintings.
  • Practical Hints on Obernetter's Method of Copying Negatives.
  • Preparation of Photographic Gun-cotton, On the.
  • Printing, Suggestions on.
  • Reproducing Architectural Drawings.
  • Results.
  • Retouching Gelatine Negatives with Red Chalk and Black Crayon.
  • [Editor's] Review of the Year.
  • Reversing the Print.
  • Silver Printing.—An Amateur's Experience.
  • An Amateur's Routine of Silver Printing.
  • A Simple Time and Instantaneous Shutter.
  • Some Thoughts of an Amateur.
  • A Home-made Stereopticon Outfit
  • Stereoscooic Pictures.
  • Tannin Plates for Lantern Slides.
  • Temporary Binding for Photographic Journals.
  • Theatre Photography by Electric Light.
  • The Elimination of Heat from Condensed Light.
  • The Lightning Photographer: A Sketch of the Future.
  • The Undeveloped Side of Photography.
  • Why Study Art?

I do kind of have to question your premise, though. I don't think sensors are an overriding obsession — on this site, we get at least as much worry about lenses and other gear too. Just like the above. There really wasn't one main thing then, just as there isn't now. That's actually part of the fun and appeal of the hobby — there are obsessions available for everyone, from deeply technical to highly philosophical.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Awesome resources! That's so interesting. It seems like there was a lot more interest in process. As far as sensors go, I've not seen it here, just on other sites it seems like that is a big concern for a lot of people. It was just an example of something I thought would be a good comparison. \$\endgroup\$
    – tmwaddel
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 22:40
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @pipe I give a general list and then a sample of the kind of things photographers were "blogging" about 150 years ago. Shrug! \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 13:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @pipe I added a concluding sentence spelling out my point. Does that help? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 19:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm Yep, it does \$\endgroup\$
    – pipe
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 19:47
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelC Well, to take this to the next level, there's actually plenty of obsessing about how people care too much about their equipment and not composition or light. :) See for example the article "It's No Jist Ready Yet" from the above journal. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 0:42

Simple. Film shooter obsessed over...wait for it...film.

How different emulsions captured the same scene, which could be push or pulled, which reacted well to stand development and how each reacted to a different developer. Darkroom techniques. These types of questions are still a hot topic on film discussion sites.

With film, the camera is quite literally just a tool to get the light to the medium. A lot of work takes place after that capture. The same can't really be said about digital because you do marry a sensor and it's behind the scenes technology.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That makes perfect sense. I had very little time in the darkroom when I first started photography. I'd guess that people spend many hours developing a process that meets their own artistic style. \$\endgroup\$
    – tmwaddel
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 0:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @tmwaddel hours? Maybe weeks or months for those that find something and stick with it. But for the experimental types, try a lifetime. I've shot a ton of black and white in 35mm, pushed and pulled it and played with developers. Moving to 120 was like starting completely over. Same with 4x5. Combinations I had previously disliked are now par for the course, so to speak. \$\endgroup\$
    – OnBreak.
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 19:48

Online forums (even Web-based, and before that BBS/FIDO/Usenet) were already well developed before mass acceptance of digital photography.

From the memory, popular subjects included:

  • lens: fast/tele/portrait/tilt-and-shift; Canon vs Nikon vs Pentax vs ... That still goes on with little change
  • filters. That also goes on, but in B/W photography filters played a special role, and to get correct white balance you also had to use a filter
  • film: B/W vs negative color film vs transparency color films. Color representation (mostly for transparency: vivid vs truthful colours), best grain shape (mostly B/W), sensitivity vs quality...
  • film size. Just as in digital we have full-frame and cropped, in film there are traditional 35 mm, medium format, large format, and a few sub-35 mm formats
  • general body quality. Ease of use, robustness, dust protection.
  • various features. Autofocus modes, exposure measurement: single-spot, full frame, weighted, smart... Top shutter speed and continuous shooting were more complicated than in digital photography, so they were also subjects of debates
  • camera types. Most professionals used SLRs, but rangefinders (e.g. Leica) were preferred by some, and there were more exotic types, like TLR, stereo cameras, etc.
  • film processing and printing: both at labs and at home
  • Canon vs Nikon vs Pentax vs Minolta, obviously
  • exotic stuff like pinhole photography, Lomography, IR
  • why digital cameras will never replace film.

Oh, and any instance of "was/were" above may safely be translated to "is/are", just in much lower numbers :)

  • \$\begingroup\$ so... same as it ever was, basically? =) \$\endgroup\$
    – scottbb
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 3:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh yes, that was a very common one! Digital vs film. \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 9:48

Google Groups has a searchable Usenet archive going back to 1995, so you can see what people were talking about in rec.photo.equipment on Nov. 23, 1995. It's largely the same list of things that people ask about today: cameras, lenses, filters, troubleshooting, etc.


Pretty much all of it (the equipment, that is.) As it is today, anything to avoid having to think about composition or seeing and shaping light.


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