Lytro Illum vs Light L16: Computationism

Computational photography

The term “computational photography” sounds fancy, but it is a fairly tame concept: using a computer to substitute something that is missing from a conventional optical treatment. Little bits and pieces of computational photography exist in the panoramic feature of your digital camera, any type of in-camera HDR, in-camera tilt-shift (“toy” or “perspective correction” features), and even the Portrait mode on your iPhone. More extensive computational photography is illusive; there are only two cameras that could actually do it. One, the Light L16, was the subject of a previous article. The other is the Lytro. Neither is still made.

The Lytro Illum (“Il-lume”)

With all the hates going around these days, we will focus on something political and judgmental nonetheless: the light field camera, here, the Lytro Illum (pronounced illume, not Ilium like in a Kurt Vonnegut novel). I’ve read now almost every review of the Lytro products, and it seems that people universally get super judgy on this thing. To be fair, it is a weird device – and the tech behind it is probably unfathomable to most people who use it. It’s more like a strange alien technology.

If you have to imagine the form factor, imagine a Sony a6000 that grew up to be really, really big. To put the Illum in relatable terms, the lens is as big as a 500mm mirror lens, is about as light, and it feels like someone has attached an iPhone X to the back. Maybe it’s like a Hasselblad X1 lookalike.

The Illum has some shortcomings and unforced errors in handling that no doubt affected its popularity

  • The lack of an EVF can make it challenging to use in the type of light at which the sensor excels – bright. Eye-level would have been far better.
  • The flash shoe is set forward to maintain the center of gravity when shooting with the extremely rare dedicated flash for this unit. Unfortunately, it does not have the position or spring-loaded security that would make it easy to use with an optical accessory viewfinder.
  • The “focus” and zoom rings are by wire and have the lackluster, disconnected feel of the hydraulic steering on a 1981 Cadillac Brougham.
  • The battery is a complete oddball trapezoid. Because f*ck you. We’re Tech Bros.®

But when actually using the camera, you realize that it probably evoked a visceral negative reaction from reviewers because in many cases, you feel like Luke Skywalker shooting with the blast visor down. You might shoot this without really looking, and fixating on “AF” might slow you down – or actually degrade the results. This is largely a shoot-first and finalize-later type of camera, which is something that makes film people go crazy. It actually made a lot of digital people go crazy too — because although the camera could show you previews, the big stuff is for desktop software.

The limits of plenoptia. The Illum is a plenoptic camera – meaning that it uses an array of microlenses to capture both luminance and directional information about light. Cameras like this capture a phenomenal amount of data and can basically reconstruct a point of view from it.

The shortcoming of plenoptic cameras is directly related to the advantage. For a sensor of a given size, you lose quite a bit of spatial resolution (megapixels) by recording all of that directional information. That means that the Illum starts with a 1″ sensor with a big pixel count (40mp) but computes it down to 2540×1634 (4Mp) at any given distance. This was seen as absurdly low resolution when this camera came out, but given what most people do with photography today, it’s in the ballpark (and Adobe Super Resolution can increase the apparent resolution).

Below you can see how the system can change the focus, the depth of field, and even to a degree, the perspective.

Enhance 224 to 176. Enhance, stop. Move in, stop. Pull out, track right, stop. Center in, pull back. Stop. Track 45 right. Stop. Center and stop. Enhance 34 to 36. Pan right and pull back. Stop. Enhance 34 to 46. Pull back. Wait a minute, go right, stop. Enhance 57 to 19. Track 45 left. Stop. Enhance 15 to 23. Give me a hard copy right there.

Now for some real fun, the Lytro desktop software can output left-right stereo cards or red-blue anaglyphs from a single exposure.

Optics. The Illum lens is interesting – it’s a 30-250mm equivalent with power zoom and a fixed f/2 aperture. Contrary to what you might believe, it does not do all focusing with computational power. The lens essentially operates in four ways:

  • No focusing – works better at middle to long distances. Focus later.
  • Autofocus or manual focus – lock in at a certain point, which improves optical quality around that point but still allows plenty of margin.
  • Hyperfocal focusing – you can enable this on the menu, and the lens will focus to a point that maximizes depth of field/focusability.
  • Infinity focusing – when you need to make sure the distant future is perfectly sharp.

The good and the bad. The Illum has some very positive features:

  • Sharp pictures of things at reasonable distances
  • Focusing pretty much as close as the surface of the lens
  • Arbitrary focusing after the fact (and enough onboard imaging horsepower to preview it on the camera)
  • A really intuitive touchscreen system where to see past pictures, you just swipe right
  • Plenty of depth mapping information
  • Decent ergonomics
  • Good battery life and the ability to charge off USB 3.0 (the Micro B, i.e., flat figure-8)
  • Reasonable hard buttons for AE, AF, and hyperfocal
  • Control wheels front and back
  • A 72mm filter thread
  • Light weight
  • Flash system actually works. It is a Viltrox JY68DL, it’s TTL (somehow), and how exactly it works for exposure is unclear. It appears to be a scene-averaging system.

The software, for its part, has a lot of interesting capabilities beside the usual Lightroom develop-style basics. These include:

  • The ability to simulate apertures from f/1 (shallower DOF than the lens) to f/22
  • Moving the focus point
  • Applying “tilt” (miniature effects)
  • Generating lenticular files, stereo pairs, and red-cyan anaglyphs from single frames
  • Exporting depth maps
  • Changing the perspective of pictures after the fact
  • Generating animations
  • Compatibility at least to MacOS 10.14 and Windows 11 (yes, the software runs in a VM, too)

And the not super good:

  • Due to the very short effective base length, you will really want something within a meter or two of the camera if you are shooting for 3D output. Generally, with 3D, your base length should bear a relationship to distance of the closest subject in frame.
  • It’s difficult to tell whether this camera has a low-pass filter, or whether the algorithms break down at long distance, but distant details can be underwhelming. This is also affected by focus. But the point of a camera with adjustable focus is not really to shoot things where the major interest is at infinity.
  • 2D resolution is not huge. This is not a big deal with Adobe magic, provided that your key details are not too small (e.g. limestone texture on distant building). For anaglyph 3D, absolute resolution in the file is a lot less critical. Resolution is also not a big deal for most internet-related uses.
  • The camera’s zoom and focus rings’ functions can be switched, but their direction cannot be reversed.
  • Not easy to use the massive 4″ LCD in bright sun. Bring your Zacuto finder.

Conclusion: why did it fail?

I would joke that like Tinkerbell, it needed people to believe in it. And they ultimately did: computational photography (in a relatively “lite” form) lives on in cell phones (Portrait on an iPhone, for example, is a limited version of the Lytro focus manipulation that makes a depth map from two very conventional Bayer-array cameras).

In a way, it did succeed. A 4mp final end image is sufficient for almost any modern (read: screen-based) use, but to get there, you sacrifice dozens of megapixels of information that is used only to tell light direction before you output a file.

This concept would have revolutionized photography but for one thing: it was never going to be scalable. Sensors in the 1″ form factor maxed at 40 megapixels 10 years ago, and so to get higher 2D resolution would have required (and still requires) a base sensor that does not exist yet. And although there are 100mp+ sensors now, that doesn’t really translate into a lot more resolution post computation – and those sensors that would never fit in a camera this small (or large…). It seems that you have to have a super-telecentric wide-angle lens for this type of photography, and since you are constrained at a single physical aperture, you want it to be big. If this were built around a 36×24 sensor, it would probably be the size of an M1 tank barrel.

Buying used cameras

This picture taken with a film camera 20 years ago, when this was still a lens worth buying.

It is just as easy to fall in love with a good camera as a bad one

This is the first in what might be a series of articles on how to actually evaluate used cameras. This covers some general principles common to most 35mm and medium-format cameras. Film-testing cameras is stultifying, expensive, and time-consuming. Unless you really have a chance to develop test negatives immediately, you will miss the return period for the camera. So to be practical, let’s at least take some steps to rule out cameras that have obvious problems.

How to check a camera

The following checklists will help illustrate important points to consider and their relative importance. If you are looking at a collectible item, though, all bets may be off.

ConsiderationWhat to checkWhat it means
Body integrity (plastic)Cracks in camera bodies can cause issues with light-tightness, and in extreme cases, with structural integrity. Note that most higher-end cameras in the 1980s and on had plastic covers that look like metal, usually on a metal chassis.Cracked plastic generally cannot be repaired. As long as the camera is light-tight, you should be ok. And in most instances, plastic covers are not used as light seals.
Body integrity (metal)Bent metal covers, traumaIn general, the only metal trauma that matters is the one that causes misalignment of the lens and film plane. Pretty much anything else is cosmetic.
Missing controlsMissing button and knobs can introduce functional challenges. It’s pretty normal for covers like the ones on hot shoes, viewfinders, and flash synch outlets to have been lost over the years.If a non-critical button or switch is missing, you may or may not be able to live with that. Be aware that some missing parts are part of weatherproofing.
Body coatingsRubberized coatings can get nasty. Who thought this was a good idea?The selection of these materials in the 1990s is befuddling, but many times simply rubbing sticky coatings off with a cloth and alcohol can be a solution. Just be careful of any painted-on markings.
Light sealsIf these gaskets around the inside of the back door and around the film reminder window are in bad shape, you will get light leaks.Replacing light seals is labor intensive and within the capabilities of moderately skilled people. The materials are cheap. I would just tape over the film reminder window.
Film railsInside the back of the camera, there are (usually metal) rails. Check to make sure these are not scratched.For reasons known only to Nikon and the Almighty, paint often transfers from the camera pressure plate to the rails and manifests as a black spot or two. Not harmful.
ViewfinderIn general, viewfinders do not affect pictures, although haze, fungus, and misaligned viewfinder elements can make shooting less fun. LED/LCD elements should work; LCD displays should not be bleeding.Be ready to live with the state of the viewfinder; very few cameras have viewfinders that are simple enough for a user to clean safely, especially where exposed beamsplitter mirrors are present.
SLR MirrorSLR mirrors should flip back down after shooting a picture. Some very old SLRs like Exaktas – and some medium-format cameras may require the film to be wound to return the mirror.Stuck mirrors are usually caused by bad light foam around the focusing screen. On some motorized SLRs, a stuck mirror may be symptomatic of a burned-out motor.
Light meterWith batteries (if needed), the light meter should respond to various light levels. With the shutter speed set to the reciprocal of the ISO (for example, 1/125 for 100 ISO), you should get a reading of f/11 or f/16 in bright light outdoors.Meters have some adjustability, but many older types of photocells decay over time. Sometimes you can compensate by changing the ISO setting to fool the meter. If it’s a fully mechanical camera, you can of course use an external meter.
ShutterShutter should fire on all manual speeds. Blades should be free of oil or rust. At the synch speed (or 1/60), you should be able to make out the entire scene looking through the back of the camera and pressing the button.Shutter repairs are best done by professionals; amateur repairs generally do not stay fixed. A non-functioning shutter should be considered a show-stopper.
Iris ActuatorOn an SLR, the actuator is what pushes the iris closed to the selected aperture. If you change the aperture on an SLR lens and shoot, you should see the iris stopping down to sizes that correspond to aperture numbers.Generally, if this is not working, it is due to mechanical faults deep within the camera. If this is not working, then it’s game over.
Film driveThe camera’s film drive should work when you operate the winding lever (or if motorized, should operate when you press the shutter release). Rewind crank (if so equipped) should turn smoothly.Film drive issues are generally beyond reasonable repair.

How to check a lens

ConsiderationWhat to checkWhat it means
ClarityGlass should be reasonably clean and clear (see next section)On all but the simplest lenses, cleaning glass may require expensive professional help. Some things cannot be fixed. The effects of some things are exaggerated.
Iris/ApertureThe iris should be free of oil. All blades should be present. On an SLR, the iris should snap open and closed freely.Iris repairs are generally simple in themselves but require inordinate effort to reach the relevant assembly in the lens.
FocusingFocusing action should be reasonably smooth and not too stiff. Focusing ring should not feel loose. Rubber grip rings should stay on.Focusing rings can be re-lubricated; however, there is a danger that the helicoid will not be reassembled correctly. Many focusing mechanisms use multiple points where the thread could start. Rubber grip rings can be fixed in a lot of instances with rubber cement.
Infinity focusGenerally, when the lens is on ∞, the focusing aid in the viewfinder should line up on a super-distant object.This is mainly true for prime lenses; zooms almost never focus at a hard infinity stop. If you reach focus on an “infinite” object a little before the lens scale reads ∞, especially on a zoom, you should be ok. On rangefinder cameras, you might not be ok. Do note that on SLRs, the “misalignment” at infinity may be your camera’s mirror bumper.
Filter ringFilter rings should be round and able to accept filters of the stated size.Minor bends in filter rings are not a big problem and happen to a lot of people. You can tell there is a very subtle bend sometimes because the filter threads will have a bare-metal, “worn” spot. But the bottom line is that if it accepts a B+W filter, it is not significant. Hoya and Kenko filters have looser threads and will fit rings that are slightly more “out of true.”
Inscriptions/EngravingsShould be legibleThese are purely cosmetic.

What is “good” glass?

The most agonizing part of buying used lenses is figuring out if the glass is “good.”

Clarity. A lens is generally clear enough when you open the iris, look through the back. point it at a halogen light bulb, and don’t see an obvious defect. LEDs are not a good test because no lens passes them. Every lens has a dispersion of 1-10% per internal surface, and LEDs make even new, high-end lenses look nasty 100% of the time. A few dust specks are normal. Even new lenses have them. A film of dust may call for cleaning.

Scratches. In general, scratches are not good on lenses. A couple of barely-visible marks in the coating on the front or rear of a lens is nothing to worry a lot about. A nest of fine scratches is. Cleaning marks are scratches. That seems like a euphemism, but they are unintentional and generally not in the same class as a scratch that can catch your fingernail. A couple of fine marks inside really expensive lenses is usually an artifact of manufacturing (hand-grinding). Recoating a lens only works for the most minor marks, and there are few people in the world who do it. It is also beyond justification cost-wise for any lens that costs less than a thousand dollars.

Haze. This is tricky. Twenty years ago, I would have said that haze is not a big deal. But as lubricants in old lenses break down, or as rare-earth metals corrode, it can be permanent. Do not assume that merely because it’s haze and not fungus that it can be fixed. Sometimes you run into mechanical problems – like the fact that hazed elements are milled into a metal barrel that does not simply come open. The same sealed-in haze thing can happen to viewfinders as well.

Fungus. A surprising amount of fungus comes clean – but you won’t know until you’ve tried it, which often takes an inordinate amount of lens disassembly (fungus usually strikes the middle of the lens, near the aperture, since that is a usual entry point for humidity). A lot of lenses coming out of Japan in the 2020s have really bad fungus. If fungus is minor, and you can live with it, great. If an element is overgrown, repair costs may be impractical. Fungus looks like cotton threads or sometimes little stars. It usually grows from edge to center.

Separation. This is a really ugly thing. It turns out that a lot of old lenses had elements cemented with nothing more than Canada Balsam, which is clarified tree sap. If you see discolored areas at the periphery of lenses, the lens is a goner unless you want to spend megabucks having the elements cleaned and recemented.

Schneideritis. Named for the fabled optical producer of Bad-Kreuznach, Germany, this is a condition where the blacking paint on the edges of a lens element craze, making it look like the lens is full of little stars. Minolta brought this to a high art with the CLE-era 28mm lens. This is correctable as long as the lens cell can be disassembled, but it has a nasty habit of showing up where a cell is milled shut.

Bubbles. Bubbles are completely normal on older lenses. According to myth, it was a sign of quality.

Pits. Sometimes you get pits and pops on front elements. These do not actually require abuse; in some cases, they are the product of pinholes (that were always in lens coatings) allowing tiny amounts of moisture to reach rare-earth metals in glass which oxidize and pop. Although these are intellectually challenging, they are in almost all cases harmless.

Dear God, the film base is gray

Dear God, the film base is gray, and I will never reach the end of scanning 120-format negatives. The spools are scattered, the tape is stuck to my fingers, the backing paper chokes the trash can in the laundry room. A chipped Paterson grad is a divine rebuke. The chugging sound of a Nikon scanner runs day and night, singing a hymn to the almighty Eastman. I have been walking barefoot on a cold floor slick with developer.

Tonight I shut the machines down, put the negative carrier between pages 947 and 948 of the final 120 binder (I would say ‘last,’ but it is supposed to be ‘final’) and close the book for the night. They were some pictures of Chicago taken during the beginning of COVID. The irony is that I am just back from Chicago, same time of the year, same weather, and I even stood in the same spot. Maybe I can scratch the date imprint off the bottoms of the frames and pretend that I am not so far behind. The room is quiet save the starburst-blue transistorized Seiko wall clock that parrots the sound of the scanner at 18,000 beats per hour. The sound is goddamned relentless.

It’s hard to even imagine a number like 948 rolls of medium-format film, about five hundred of which were from the past 10 years. Ever wonder how you would justify a Leica Monochrome? Consider that 500 rolls of film today would cost six grand. The worst thing is that the pages in that book now run well past page 1,000. A mile of sleeving, hundreds of gallons of HC-110, a million hours of listening to 99% Invisible, turning tanks, sniffing fixer, and wondering if any surface of the basement would ever be free of photo chemicals. Every year I look at a hundred-roll stash of TMY and tell myself that when this is gone, that’s it for film. And yet, every following year, there are a hundred rolls of TMY in the closet. The lot numbers get higher, the packaging changes ever-so-slightly, and yet…

During the pandemic I relentlessly bought and shot and developed film. And ran it into continuous glassines, five rolls at a stretch. And rolled it up. And stashed it. When the fog lifted, there were dozens and dozens of rolls of film in the file drawer of a folding secretary desk. And in a drawer in the office. And in an overhead cabinet. Estar rolled up in zippered plastic bags. Ordering, cutting and sleeving that much film took time and a lot of bad Jason Statham movies. Which ones? You know, the ones where he is a former SAS agent/police officer/special agent called out of retirement for one last mission that involves a bank heist/getting the bad guy/transporting guns, money, or women in a BMW/Audi/Mini.

I don’t know why there was so much 35mm under the bridge during the pandemic. Abstractions, snapshots, a lot of unserious photography that I would never have done with my Leica M246. Banalities intentionally made difficult by shooting them on film. Just in case everything ended and someone needed to remember what the world was like. Medium format was for Serious Things. And plenty of that got shot too. This will all have a point someday, maybe.

We’re out of lockdown and this is another year in which Kodak color film is missing in action and Fuji has again arbitrarily executed half its product line. Film is expensive, and the internet is awash with performative statements about this latest price increase being the last straw. Funny how half these people will still be around to complain about the next price increase; the other half were never really in the game. You don’t stop shooting film because a roll goes from being the cost of one Starbucks to two. You stop doing it when it ceases to have any real enjoyment. Everyone who shoots film will feel that way, if only for a couple hours when a batch of film is ruined in development.

And yet we still see film zealots, most freshly minted, who accuse anyone backing away after decades to be soft. Would it be mean-spirited to reveal to these acolytes that there are but three cycles of readings and after some number of Masses, you’ve heard them all? Meaner yet if you revealed that the schedule was exactly the same even if you fled for an Orthodox or Episcopalian church? To those of us people born into film, a lot of its use is functional, meditative. We don’t listen much to the readings anymore. We know what they are. If we don’t get it by now, we never will. We’re the Jack and Diane to your Billy Graham, the people who on Sunday mornings inhabit the coffee shop when everyone else is out film-churching.

With apologies to Anne Halley.

Sony ZV-1: a different[ial] review

The Sony ZV-1 is an interesting addition to the Sony RX family. Unlike Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch, the ZV-1 actually serves a purpose in comparison to existing cameras. The most apt comparison is the RX100M5A, which might have been the high point of the RX100 for stills. The RX series, to add a tiny amount of context, is a Sony line built around 1″ sensors – so bigger than what you find in a phone or camcorder but smaller than APS-C. The reality with sensor sizes is that in bright light and base ISO, basically anything works.

Sensor size starts to matter when the light starts getting poor – because more surface area means more photons captured. FX (36x24mm is great), and APS-C (24×16) are both popular for video due to their light gathering, but they come with large and expensive cameras (that often have bad “rolling shutter” problems. Small-sensor camcorders have no issues with rolling shutters – but they are very noisy in low light. One inch is a good medium (or small).

Because this is a Gen X site, we can skip the copious test images and self-descriptive blather and cut right to five minutes of concrete discussion, as well as the second half of Heathers. But seriously, there are monstrous quantities of sample videos on the internet, and frankly, if you have a newer RX series camera, you know what you are getting, image-wise. We do have some illustrative pictures that will be inserted into this in the next few days.

Fixing RX video “limits”

The RX line has always been capable of doing video, but the two key limitations have been that (1) the video functionality by default is linked to a button of a size that only scary child dolls can actually activate it and (2) that the camera can only record video for 30 minutes. The second limitation is a function of customs laws that class something as a video camera once it can exceed 29 minutes and 59 seconds of continuous recording time. Even so, you might not actually get there, though, due to battery life and overheating issues. But do you really want to get there? Except for long-form interviews, there is actually very little of a use case for 30-minute single takes. A third limitation (real or imagined) is that the RX100 screens flip up 180 degrees, which is not so great for using flash. But come on now. You’re holding a camera at arm’s length, set at 24mm, to take a selfie. You’re going to look bad no matter what you do.

The ZV-1 fixes most of this by having a big red video button and unlimited recording (and depending on the mode, you can get two video buttons). Interestingly, it still has a regular shutter button coaxial with the zoom lever. The unlimited recording is facilitated by a plastic (“composite”) shell that dissipates heat better, and it has settings to increase tolerance for thermal shutoff. Battery life is still limited by the matchbook-sized BX-1 battery, but it can run indefinitely on USB power. Just in case you need that two-hour tracking shot. As to the issue of the screen, the up-flip of the RX series is not a problem because the RX does not have any connectivity on the top of the cameras. The ZV-1, though, sports a Multi-Interface shoe above the “Sony” logo, and so if you use a plug-in microphone or the dead cat attachment, it would block the screen. Hence, the screen flips out to the side.

Bottom-line, aside from better color grading options, video is the same as the RX100M5 and 5A: 60fps for 1080 and a lower frame rate for 4k. Is this a limitation? Probably not for most people; unless you are using an editing platform that supports compressed video, 4k files blow up into obscene sizes when uncompressed for editing. 1080 is more than sufficient for Youtube, TikTok, and even 4k flat-panel TVs at a normal viewing distance. We will also point out that if your subjects are over 30, you might be doing them a favor by laying off unnecessary 4k.

The ZV-1 adds microphone jack, which allows you to pipe in audio from a variety of sources, including non-Sony-sanctioned UHF microphone systems, the Konica Revio digital camera/MP3 player,* and the Barbie® Dream Sound System. The ZV-1’s audio playback is tinny, and the volume control is buried in a menu. Also, there is no headphone jack. The ZV-1 also has live-streaming capability through its hard connections, but if you’re doing it from a desk, you might just want a Logitech Brio for that.

*Sorry on this second point, but if you don’t remember a time when everything was “also an MP3 player,” then I can’t guarantee you’ll understand anything else in this article.

Look and feel

Being a post-COVID development, the ZV-1 was tired of Sony’s (yes, that is grammatically correct) being shamed for being old and having camera body hair. As a result, it has both let it grow in and go gray, as evidenced by the top of the camera in the picture above. Seriously, though, that’s a “dead cat” windscreen for a top-mounted directional microphone that replaces the RX100’s popup flash. It attaches via the Multi-Interface that displaced the popup EVF. We’re still trying to figure out how effective this audio merkin is, but wind noise in outdoor shooting is a significant issue with compact cameras – and so far, it seems to help. It does engage subjects 9/10 times, if you don’t get tired of answering the question, “why does your camera have a hairpiece?”

The other development is that the ZV-1 shows a new confidence in its body shape, exhibiting new curves (like a molded-in front grip) and a thicker profile, being a couple of mm thicker (and longer) to accommodate the articulated rear screen. This makes the camera slightly less pocketable, but for people with big hands, it also makes the camera a little easier to hold. Since the first thing most people buy for the RX100s is a stick-on rubber front grip (and Sony even sells one), it is surprising that this grip did not appear sooner in the RX line.

The look and feel is also influenced by the placement of the flash shoe, which means that any add-on accessory will be off-center. Watch heavy flashes. By the way, although it has been reported that this camera does not work with third-party flashes, it seems to work fine with the Metz 26AF (n.b., that on “Auto Flash,” the ZV-1 never wants to use the flash. Use “Flash On” instead). Using that same shoe for a viewfinder is not as awkward is it might be, and you can even shoot the camera with an optical finder and the digital screen stowed so you can’t see it. Think: way cheaper (and smaller) Leica M-D. That you can’t see focus confirmation is not very important given that the face-finding AF is so good.

Versus the RX100M5A

So if you’re familiar with the existing line, the image quality is not really distinguishable, which should not be a surprise given the same lens, same sensor, and same DSP.

That said, the ZV-1 has some additional beautifying effects for video (giant alien eyes among them), a bokeh mode (press a button on the top and the lens opens up – something of variable utility in super-bright sunlight), and “product showcase” mode so that you can show your corporate overlord’s products in a bid to monetize your social media. The ZV-1 also has color grading controls that resemble those on the A7 line. You can also live-stream video. The settings for remote operation of the camera through Imaging Edge, however, are hard to find.

AF is at least as fast as the RX100M5A, it has better options, and it’s more tenacious. This is a really good thing. The face recognition, focus, and tracking is a step up in ease – because you can touch the thing you want to focus on and use the center wheel of the click button to cancel. In video, it does a great job of keeping the exposure correct on people’s faces, which is a big deal when you have a backlit scene. “Smile shutter” really wants to see teeth before shooting.

One neat new feature over the still cousin is that the ZV-1 can acquire location/GPS data from your smartphone as you shoot. This gives you an extremely reliable way of placing pictures.

Tradeoffs vs other RX cameras.

The tradeoffs are something you should consider carefully.

First, where there is no eye-level EVF, you really need to adjust your hand-holding technique. The Steadyshot built into the cameras is ok, but it will take some time to get rid of the shakes. One would imagine that a good amount of the intended use case for this camera is with a table tripod, and if you can swing it, a real tripod. The use of a touchscreen for view finding also means that you are at the mercy of the sun, which if behind you can make viewing difficult.

Second, when there is no built-in flash, there is no easy fix for harsh shadows on people’s faces in still shots. Granted, this is a video-focused product, but since it has almost all the same functionality for stills as any other RX, you might be leaning toward this as an all in one. Just be careful how you approach this.

Third, you’re going to need to think about your end game before you start shooting. The typical PSAM, Intelligent Auto, Panoramic, and Scene modes are buried in the menus, without a physical top dial. You will probably go for Intelligent Auto in still mode if you want to shoot video and stills. In this mode, the default view is a still frame, and each of the buttons (shutter and video) performs its own function. In Intelligent Auto video mode, the default view is a 16:9 video frame, and both of the buttons do the same thing (start or stop video). Exposure comp is available in PSAM modes.

Finally, the accessory shoe is a blessing and a curse. You can do all kinds of things that you couldn’t do since the RX100M2, like mount microphones, flashes, and optical (note: not EVF) finders. The problem is that you can only do one of these things at a time, and the dead cat attachment uses the shoe.


This is probably not a good first or only Sony RX camera unless you are planning to do a lot of video. That said, it makes a great adjunct to an existing RX100 setup because it uses the same BX-1 batteries, has equal still capabilities (if set correctly), and better video. It is also a good addition to an A6x00 family or A7RM2+ family because it can make for a great B camera and takes many of the same Sony video-oriented accessories, Sony liked the idea of the ZV-1 so much that it went on to make the ZV-E10 (same thing, but APS-C with the ancient NP-FW50 battery, interchangeable lenses, and apparently some shutter roll in 4k) and ZV-E1 (similar to an A7C but with a lower stills resolution – 12mp – and seriously amped up video). Of these, the latter is very compelling if you have a lot of money – the ZV-1 and -E10 are very similar in specs, but the -E1 is a beast with very large pixels, a 60fps frame rate for 4k, and SD-card-bruising 200mbps data flows.

Verdict: if you can score one used for around $500, it’s a great value. Even at rack rate (currently $700), it’s not a slouch, either.

Light L16 computational camera: trypophilia

Trypophobics need not apply

Let’s cut to the chase. There is no better way to spend $250 on ebay on a camera, unless old engravings of Seraphim, pictures of honeycombs, or lotus seed heads frighten you. This is a camera that took a thrashing in early reviews, maybe because reviewers didn’t get past the short learning curve (or never made it to firmware 1306, where the image processing hit its peak.

The Light L16 computational camera was another one of those late 2010s products that ended up being a flash in the pan, in no small part because the insect-like attention span of internet reviewers was insufficient to understand what a genius piece of engineering this is.

Imagine 16 x 15mm diagonal sensors in two focal lengths, a laser, and a high-intensity LED illuminator. Now imagine that this camera does a steroidal version of the iPhone’s Portrait mode, selecting focal lengths to use, building depth maps, and cranking out photos that are 80 megapixels (at 28mm and 69mm fl equivalents), 52mp at peak performance, and minimum 14mp. The camera can crank out a 14mp JPEG from this (using 5 cameras’ data), or you can run it through the Lumen software to get staggeringly large DNG files (n.b., not Bayer DNG files, but it’s not like you would ever need to up-res files this large using Adobe).


The basic hardware is an ARM64 Android 6 device with a bunch of highly specialized imaging equipment added. The dozen-plus cameras are randomly distributed over the face of the unit and tied together with unit-specific calibration information. To dispel one persistent myth, these cameras cannot addressed by generic Android imaging apps like OpenCamera. At least they cannot if you want to focus at distances other than 20cm.

The Light includes a hefty Li-Ion internal battery and 256Gb of internal storage (recall that this listed at $2k in 2017). The camera’s hardware includes GPS, so it is capable of geotagging your photos (yeah!). The GPS function, though, is very hard on the battery, especially with the final release of the firmware. I managed to side-load a couple of navigation apps (Sygic and Here WeGo), and they function as expected (thought GPS ping interval might be too slow for driving).


Ergonomically, the Light is far better than a cell phone – because it has a dedicated shutter button and a place to grip the camera on the right side (left side, you need to be careful with your fingers – but the camera will vibrate if you block one of the lenses). As to the controls, if you can operate a camera on a mobile phone, you can handle it. Focusing can either be by face recognition or arbitrarily touching a subject on the screen.

From a semiotics standpoint, the camera just looks like a big cell phone. It does not actually attract very much attention. In what you trade off in image quality from a full-frame A7rii, you make up for it in not standing out too much.

The flat form factor makes this pocketable (in the back pocket of Levis or a coat pocket). You will want to keep the camera in its soft case (or use at least a rear screen protector) because it’s all glass son both sides.

Battery life is good; it is supposed to go all day; the four units I tested NIB after 5 years of storage all charge and discharge as expected. It really behooves you to actually power down the camera when not in use – otherwise, depending on what features you have enabled (GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth), it may wear itself down gradually.


Note that unlike the Lytro Illum (review almost done on that too!), you might want to actually focus this camera because everything is shot at f/2). Pictures come out with a simulated aperture of f/15.2 – meaning almost everything is as sharp as a tack, but when you dial back the effective aperture, you will see exactly where the camera focused. An Illum, by comparison, lets you refocus arbitrarily with arbitrary aperture settings, but in doing so, it throws away almost 90% of the data it captures.

Image quality

Image quality is why you came here, right? Rather than retreading subjects seen in other treatments, here are the points I think that others have missed on this camera:

First, this is generating between 52 and 80mp at maximum resolution (28-35mm, 69-75mm), the rest being digital zoom, with attendant resolution loss (150mm is 12mp). This is real mp, not your cellphone binning 3/4 of the data from a 48mp sensor. The purpose of having 52mp is to brutalize images with perspective correction without leaving many clues. Interestingly, there is little variation in quality between center and edge, but then again, since these images are composites of 10 or more smaller images, it makes sense. And it is good pixels. Click on the picture below (no, no distortion correction…) and blow it up to 100% (it is full-resolution). Every brick is sharp, even in the extreme corners.

Second, the color is phenomenal, like the old Kodak 14ns and Leica digital M cameras. Slightly disappointing is that no version of the firmware has the “Baz Luhrmann Elvis Movie” color rendering.

Third, as you can see in the 28mm shot below, apart from the slight camera tilt on my part, there is little if any distortion. This should be expected, since there is a lot of stitching and blending and correcting going on. That compositing is 99.9% invisible – and the 0.1% is when the camera is operating at 80mp – and manifests as things like a mismatched one-pixel-wide line in a limestone block wall (Light probably decided that 35 and 70 are where you are 100% free of any artifacts). That said, anyone’s chances of seeing a 1-pixel-wide artifact on an 80mp image, especially at web size are…. zero.

Fourth, the L16 runs at much, much higher ISOs than a cell phone, more like a camera with a 1″ or APS-C sensor. Above is ISO 2400. If you have ever seen EXIF data from an iPhone, you see low ISOs and very long shutter speeds (tied to the miniscule focal length of lenses). This is due to the physics of sensors – your cell phone has tiny pixels that can’t capture many photons – hence the shutter needs to be open a lot longer.

Fifth, forget everything you think you know about apertures. The L16 returns a simulated aperture of f/15.2, which is really different groups of cameras focused at different distances, computed and focus-stacked into massive depth of field. The reality is that all the cameras are shooting at f/2 (they are all 28mm or 70mm FOV). You don’t get diffraction from this “very small” aperture because it is not really very small, but you do get tons of depth of field even in low light. The tradeoff is that depending on the subject-background separation, you may not be able to reduce depth of field completely in post (it depends on a lot of things: subject/object distance, difference to the next furthest thing in the frame, complexity of the focused subject). I would guess that in most situations where you would use an L16, you would take the deep depth of field and run with it.

Finally, in its highest-performance use case, it’s still partially beholden to sensor size. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it just means that Light pictures just come off a little grittier than a Leica full-frame at higher ISOs. This is not so much the case at other focal lengths (like, say, 150mm), where there is more averaging.


It is crucial that you have a platform to run the Lumen image conversion software. This does not run on either of the most recent MacOSes (11 or 12); however, it runs fine on Windows 10 and 11. I use it in Windows 11 on a Parallels VM on a Mac Studio Ultra and export the DNGs to a folder that gets picked up by Lightroom.

One thing to bear in mind is that the Lumen software is not great at simultaneous exports of files from several L16s. It can import them fine, but the way exports work, if files from two cameras have the same native filename (L100006, for example), the second one to export overwrites the first one. So think in batches. Or export from one camera at a time,.

The software is not particularly fast when run on a VM (it takes a couple of seconds to export each file); if you are a particularly heavy user, consider a dedicated machine. You know, like the one you already have to run your Flextight, Pakon scanner, etc.

Firmware (guide for the soft-minded)

The firmware on Light cameras is difficult to upgrade these days because the update server is offline. So you are likely going to be stuck with the camera features you have on day one.

Unless you are prone to serious self-doubt and OCD freakouts, is the latest firmware that actually impacts the on-image performance of the camera. Since I have used cameras from to, here is the marginal value of each additional feature:

  • Priority modes: We added Shutter priority and ISO priority modes to give you easier access and more control when shooting on the go. –> You won’t use this.
  • AWB presets: Choose from five different white-balance presets when composing your scene. All options—from Incandescent to Fluorescent to Daylight to Cloudy (and Auto)—are viewable in real time on the L16’s touchscreen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
  • On-camera editing: Now you can adjust color, contrast, tint and more as soon as you snap your photo. Bonus: These basic edits will even carry over to Lumen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
  • Histogram: Curious whether you’ve captured the right exposure? With the L16’s new histogram feature, you’ll know as soon as you open the photo in gallery. –> You won’t use this.
  • Metadata: Find your photo’s EXIF data much easier in gallery mode. –> You won’t use this.
  • On-camera rating: Pick your favorites on the go. The camera’s 5-star rating system will now carry over to Lumen. –> I would highly recommend editing only on a computer.
  • Pocket assist: The L16 can now detect once you’ve stored it away in your jacket. It will automatically turn on standby mode to save your battery. –> Causes camera to freak out.
  • Image-quality indicators: We added a couple new icons in gallery mode to show you when you’re viewing a preview versus a higher quality, processed image. –> Not actually useful.

  • Low-light assist: When you’re shooting at a higher ISO in auto mode, your L16 will now utilize image stacking to capture significantly more detail and much less noise.  –> Doesn’t seem to do anything.
  • Tripod assist: The L16 now has a sixth sense. When the camera detects stability and stillness in auto mode, it will lengthen the exposure time and lower ISO to improve image quality. –> Not helpful; can lead to slow shutter speeds on handheld shots.
  • Basic editing tools: We added the ability to crop and rotate your images on camera. All of your edits will save automatically and transfer to Lumen when you import. –> Helpful if you get bored; otherwise a gimmick.
  • Tutorials: We updated the L16’s onboarding tutorial to help you get up to speed faster. –> This camera isn’t that hard to use; these popups are annoying.
  • Key focal length: We made it easier to zoom to 75mm, which provides the best edge-to-edge resolution. –> It might be a touch easier, but this was actually enabled in
  • Usability: A few of our basic camera modes got a facelift. It should be easier to see which mode you’re shooting in. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.
  • Home screen: We made a few tweaks to the L16’s home screen experience, making it easier to access settings, software updates, and the feedback app. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.

  • On-device depth editing: We added the ability to adjust depth effect on your L16. You can now change the effective aperture from f/15 to f/2 and add that beautiful background blur. You can also change the focal point using your L16’s touch screen. –> A little gimmicky.
  • Video recording (beta): Your L16 can now record single-camera video at 1080p and 30fps. The video is based on using either the 28mm camera or the 70mm camera, allowing you to zoom all of the way from 28mm to 150mm. –> Your iPhone is better for video.
  • Editing presets: Customize and create presets to easily edit your images in your style – all on your L16. Presets include color and geometric edits. Any changes will carry over to Lumen and be applied to the full (up to 52MP) resolution. –> Much less punishing to edit on Lumen
  • Power save mode: Maximize your L16 battery life with new Power save mode in the Android menu. The advanced settings even let you customize which functionality is turned off –> Almost makes up for the fact that this firmware is more punishing on battery life.
  • Capture experience: We updated the capture screen to include resolution (approximate megapixels) and handshake warning for low-light. –> Somewhat helpful for people who can’t remember that 35 and 75 are the best, 28 is good too, and 150 is the worst. Also, what can you do with a handshake warning?
  • Lumen deletion: Now you can delete images in the L16 gallery directly from Lumen while your camera is plugged in. –> Helpful if you shoot 1,200 images between trips to the host software.

  • Android third-party apps: We added options to allow you to install your favorite Android third-party apps. Please note that the L16 does not have access to the Google Play store. In order to download these apps, you must do so by downloading them from a third-party Android app store. –> Ok. There is probably a use case for this (see my note on nav software), but it’s not obvious. You can download installers from and install them. You need software that runs on Android 5.0 plus; not everything will install on this machine, and no camera apps work.


The L16 is misunderstood, under-appreciated, but also a little bit tricky. It is a good substitute for a mobile phone camera, and if you can trade some grain for a lot of flawless, a good substitute for a Sony A7rii if you use fairly normal-length lenses. The software is not the easiest, but the reality is that once files are in DNG, you’ll be doing everything in Lightroom anyway.

Trick: punch balloons and Heliopan filters

It is terrible to find yourself beset by Heliopan and B+W filters that keep coming loose but don’t have slotted retaining rings so you can get a grip. At best you have rattling glass. At worst, a ring screwed in from the back can let the glass hit the front surface of some lenses or jam your Hexar AF’s focusing system.

Here is a quick trick: take a popped (and clean) “punch ball” balloon (the type children have with the rubber band attached to the top), lay it it over the retaining ring you want to turn, and push your fingers to the edges (so you are pressing laterally on the retaining ring through the balloon.

Now rotate the retaining ring (with your fingers) clockwise (locking ring facing up) – or turn the filter mount counter-clockwise (the lens glass and retaining ring should always rotate in the same direction). After you get a feel for it, the ring will screw in and secure the glass.

For extra never-come-unscrewed-again-ness, add a tiny drop or two of Loctite® Purple to the threads of the retaining ring (you have to take it all the way out before you do this). Make sure that you get all the thread locker off the glass before it dries and be sure that ring is screwed down tightly.

By the way, this trick can also work with retaining rings that are slotted, as well as lens beauty rings. Be aware, however, that for high-value optics, you want to be very, very careful in touching the glass with rubber that could be contaminated with grit.

Get a grip: the 107-year debacle of small-camera ergonomics

er·​go·​nom·​ics |  \ ˌər-gə-ˈnä-miksan applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely (Merriam-Webster, 2021).

In the industrial setting, ergonomics is a matter of avoiding unnecessary fatigue, injuries, and discomfort. It is intended to promote both safety and efficiency. Ergonomics was first invented in 1949, after Barnack before the Leica M camera. There does not seem to be any suggestion that any camera made before about 1970 cared much about this science. Certainly, the Leica M camera – and most other small cameras – ignored this important principle of design.

Did you know that having an opposable thumb is not necessary to grip a camera the way Leica intended? It should not be a surprise that primates and even lower animals like raccoons have the right types of hands to grab cameras. Because small cameras are not actually designed for human hands. Let’s discuss small (6×9 and smaller) camera ergonomics in six rubrics.

1. How do you hold this?

Even before ergonomics had a name, small camera design went off the rails when small cameras were invented in 1914. Oskar Barnack – who being born in 1879 undoubtedly had shorter fingers than 21st-century camera users – designed the Ur-Leica with slippery round ends encased in a textured surface. This leicapithicus wetlzarensis was designed around a focal-plane shutter that did not cap and an arrangement that required a separate viewfinder. It was light, compact (65mm top to bottom), and for its weight and intended function, workable. Because you had to put the lens cap on between shots, it was not a speed demon; you were going to take the camera down from your eye to reset for the next shot costing a king’s ransom on rare double-frames of 35mm movie film. You could almost call it the mini 4×5 of its day.

There is a trope about the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle ultimately tracking back to the width of a Roman horse’s haunches. Whether or not that is true is a much more difficult question than tracing our conception of how a “small” camera should appear. The Platonic form of a camera is, after all, a Leica M3, which for dimensional purposes is a taller and heavier Ur-Leica, matching dimensions to the single millimeters. The Leica inspired many also-rans from Europe and Japan, some of which turned out to be better, but all of them have the same formula: small squarish body, lever wind, viewfinder on the left. Most fixed-lens rangefinders were actually smaller than the Leica; once you substitute a leaf shutter in the lens for a focal-plane type, the body can be even tinier.

What’s wrong with this design? If the correct method of holding it it requires a paragraph-long written description, it is not a tool that is ergonomic. Leica’s own user manuals illustrate the poor hand-fit in pictures, but the written camera-holding instructions call into question whether it is the human who is being forced to conform to a tool.

Look at a Leica III or Leica M manual. Actually, look at a bunch of them. Needless to say, the right way to hold a Leica has evolved since the days of Barnack. The first suggested M grip, which tracked how the III was supposed to be grasped, completely disengaged your left hand from the focusing ring, meaning you would never be able to refocus and re-shoot quickly. The III series has you cupping the bottom corners of the camera in the fleshy parts of your palms. At least one version of the M3 manual says nothing about how to hold the camera; the more detailed one has the corner-to-palms technique again. If you look at other brands’ camera manuals from the 1940s to the 1980s, you will see a dizzying array of hand-cramping contortions.

The right hand position has stayed mostly the same. What you are supposed to do with your left has changed over time. Here is the end point of Leica’s evolution of descriptions with the M7 and M8/M9 (the M8 is shown; the M9 has the same description with the little Ikea Man holding the camera):

Leica M7

“As a practical accessory, we recommend the Mx hand grip which allows you to hold the Leica M[x] extremely steadily and to carry it with one hand/while keeping your hands free.” This begs the question – why can’t you hold an M extremely steadily without another $400 doodad? And how was it a hands-free device for the M[x]?

The record – at least as expressed in successive generations of Leica manuals – reflects a variety of “right” ways to hold a camera, then “suggested” ways (M6), then “correct” (M7/M8/M9) and with the M240 and onward, no guidance. The M240, in fact, moves the discussion of the optional M hand grip to the “accessories” section at the end. I guess given the number of Leica owners with postgraduate degrees, it’s part of the 400-level course you were supposed to take before you started at this school.

What you are even supposed to do with your right thumb seems to be a matter of interpretation, some manuals showing it, some not. The M6 manual references resting your thumb on the lever “in the standoff” position. The M240 and M10 have a nub on which to rest your thumb. The M10-D has an ersatz M2/M3 focusing lever/thumbrest whose position does not quite match an original lever kicked out. The new $300 Leica thumb-rest looks puts your thumb in the same position as the M10-D. As noted at the beginning of this article, the user of one of these cameras does not need an opposable thumb. This camera might require a totally different type of hand.

Hint: if you have long fingers, a good one-handed grip on an M240 is to put your index finger on the trigger, your middle finger on the function button, and your ring finger on the front of the camera. The camera can sit on your curled little finger (imagine a C parallel to the bottom of the camera). Your thumb rests vertically against the grip nub/control wheel. See? You can control everything, and your ring finger is still available to accidentally press the lens release.

They say if you injure your leg and then limp enough, you don’t notice it any more. This is probably the only reason that Leicas (or similarly-configured rangefinders) are thought to be “ergonomic” – it’s just the way it’s been for 100 years. Were “ever ready” cases really useful for protection – or were they makeshift “fat grips” around ill-shaped cameras?

As much as things like the Argus “Brick” are lambasted for their funny shapes and palm-poking corners, something that fills the hand is not all bad. Ask anyone who shoots Olympic pistol. But you can also ask Nikon and Canon, who figured out in the late 1980s that a fat right grip is advantageous, even if your winding motor is so small it fits inside the takeup spool. In fact, Leica uses that “fat grip” design on most of its non-M digital cameras.

3. The pocketability conceit*

“But wait, the Leica [or insert camera name here] is pocketable.”

Baloney. This might be true of a tiny minority of camera/lens combinations, or 1980s-style pleated trousers, but Leicas generally have not been “pocketable” since the advent of the long aspherical lenses if not since the M3. And grip-ability does not necessarily change the dimensions that would make something “pocketable.” Is a Hexar AF less pocketable with its front grip ridge than a Leica M3 with its flat front? Hardly. Even among other manufacturers of M-mount cameras, the ergonomics have been better, whether it is a palm swell on the back door, a grip ridge on the front of the right grip, or even something like a rubber covering. I suspect it is more Leica’s user base than the company that drives the need to keep things the same. Witness the fate of the CL and the M5.

Interestingly, what encouraged (and maybe forced) small cameras to become more ergonomic was the incorporation of batteries and motors into the right side of the camera, something that came in with cameras like the Konica FS-1, Canon T-50, and Nikon F4. Even in non-motorized SLR cameras, grip nubs began appearing on the right front of the camera (as on the Nikon FA). When you think about putting coreless motors and electronics largely on one side of the camera, and motor-driven shutters in the middle, the mechanisms in the bottom become considerably less complicated (open a manual-wind, mechanical SLR’s bottom plate to see the assemblage of shutter-cocking levers, pinions, and gears). And by a weird twist of fate, the lithium cells best-suited to powering cameras (like the 2CR5) had a chonk factor that made them better candidates for placement in a fat grip.

This brings us to a cruel irony: point-and-shoot cameras in the late 1970s and 1980s frequently had better ergonomics than what we would call “prosumer” cameras today. In fact, many of them have better ergonomics than the Leica, long-vaunted as the enthusiast’s camera. And I write that as a Leica user.

On the other end of the “small” camera spectrum are the ultracompact 35mm cameras (Rollei 35, Contax T*, Nikon 35ti, etc.). In a sense, you can cut them some slack because their major purpose is to be pocketable most of the time – at the expense of handling and durability. These were designed to fit in a sport coat at the racquets club or the horse track, to be shot for fifty or so exposures, forgotten by the owner, sold at his estate sale, rediscovered by some internet influencer, and then driven to stratospheric resale prices that hold up until someone discovers one of the following things: (1) despite often brilliant optics, they are miserable to use; (2) they are not as durable as once thought. Weight versus size is also a factor in ergonomics – and many of these cameras are lightweight and despite their shortcomings, not impossible to use.

*Ok, I only wrote this heading because the Pocketability Conceit either sounds like an old-series Star Trek episode name or a Robert Ludlum novel title.

4. O Camcorder, where art thou?

My maternal grandfather, being a doctor, retired at age 55 – assuming that like most men of his generation, he would be dead at 60. This did not come to pass (he was “retired” for 25 more years…), and after a couple of years of golf got bored and moved into TV production at his local station. Being an early adopter of almost every technology that existed, he would get the latest and greatest video equipment every year. This meant at every Christmas, he would open the trunk of his Lincoln Continental and among other gifts, pull out last year’s latest and greatest video equipment and leave it to the good offices of my parents.

One thing that was always striking about video cameras (and later camcorders) – especially by contrast to still cameras – was the amount of effort put into making them comfortable to use. This was important because the early cameras were really heavy. Pistol grips and shoulder rests for the “camera” were de rigueur when the “recorder” part was a huge heavy hard square silver purse, and even when recording decks merged with cameras in the mid-1980s, the emphasis was on one-hand control operation and anything that made it easier to hold a unit steady for a prolonged period. Zoom controls have always been able to be operated by the same hand that “presses the button.”

The “camcorder” design ethos bled over into consumer “bridge” cameras – the ones designed to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot and full-blown SLR. The Canon Photura, Ricoh Mirai, and Yashica Samurai – variously 35mm SLR and viewfinder AF cameras – acquired camcorder-like morphology, particularly pistol grips that were either parallel to the lens or adjustable. They did not experience some Chicxulub-level event; rather, they just didn’t catch on. In retrospect, it is not terribly surprising; they were expensive, didn’t look like “cameras,” and tended to be bulkier than their blocky cousins.

In an ironic twist, the replacement for camcorders was an atavism. But it was also a reversion to something else. When DSLRs, particularly Canons, became popular for video, they retained their DSLR shape – which was in turn based on a film camera shape dictated by a 35mm frame and the necessary film drive. This spawned an industry of workarounds – cages, grips, handles, and all kinds of other accessories that serve as indictments of functional design. Sony’s selection of a “quasi SLR” design for the A7 series is baffling; the a6x00 series is both more comfortable and (lacking a silly fake pentaprism bulge) true-to-function (as is the new A7C), especially when misused for video.

5. Left eye, right eye, leave me alone

About 25-30% of the human race is left-eye dominant, being made up of about 1/3 left-handers and 2/3 people who are right-handed but use their left eye for tasks involving critical focus or alignment. Eye dominance cannot be changed; this is a matter of hard-wiring from an early age. It is not a matter of visual acuity; it is a how efficiently one eye communicates with the brain.

For people who are left-eyed, cameras with left-side viewfinders automatically cause ergonomic problems with the use of top-mounted winding levers and cutesy “thumb grips.” On most such cameras, winding the camera requires you to move your eye from the viewfinder so you do not poke yourself in the right eye with a winding lever. This is disruptive. The Retina IIc and IIIc, as well as the Canon VI-T avoided this by moving the winding actuator to the bottom – and the Konica IIIA and IIIM avoided this by moving the winder to the front. Although the original Leicavit trigger winder was designed to speed up the knob-wind of the III series, the Leicavit M:

allows experienced photographers to shoot up to two frames per second without taking the camera from their eye

The only reason you would need a bottom trigger winder to take two frames per second without taking the camera from your eye… is that you are left-eyed. This is likely the same reason that people tolerated Leica’s relatively sluggish motor winders.

Perhaps the most befuddling thing about left-viewfinder cameras is why users are in manuals are shown with both eyes open (left eye just hanging out there; right jammed against the viewfinder glass). For a right-eyed person, this means that your mind will be trying to reconcile a reduced viewfinder picture with an unaided non-dominant eye while supporting the camera against half your face. Consider also that the center point between your two eyes is now even further from the lens axis. If anything, the left eye should be closed.

If you look through the viewfinder with your left eye, conversely, you can jam the camera in a 3-point brace between your nose and eyebrows and block your other eye with the camera body. And it is here that people of Neanderthal ancestry have a secret weapon: brow ridges.

Blessed are those, I guess, who are left-eyed and have access to left-viewfinder cameras without winding levers. For they shall inherit the stable hand-hold.

SLRs are more egalitarian: with their center viewfinders, they exist to oppress everyone. And we shall know their users by the leatherette and film-minder-window patterns impressed into their noses.


There is only one reasonably ergonomic twin-lens reflex: the Minolta Autocord, which allows you to hold the camera and focus without shifting your left-hand grip — and to fire and advance with your right hand. This is a massive improvement over the Rolleiflex’s insatiable need for constant hand-shifts (or having three hands if you use the pistol grip). Even in the Rollei’s end-state – the 2.8GX with its huge focusing knob – the operation is barely comfortable. The persistence of TLRs after the war is a strange thing. Germany always wanted to make medium-format SLRs, and a twin-lens was a way of approximating that before the mechanical engineering caught up. But the TLR, especially when used at waist-level, causes strange camera-to-subject angles for humans and is not the easiest thing to focus (at least Rolleis are not – an Autocord ground glass is slightly easier). Rollei stopped developing twin-lens cameras in the early 1960s, eliminated serial production of the F in 1976, and moved on to its own SLRs. Note that the user of the Rollei in the diagram below is not wearing a tie. This is an important safety tip. Neckties had a tendency to get ingested by the Automat’s film-detection roller, leading to asphyxiations. That is why seasoned Rollei shooters only wore ascots or bowties.

Does anything look comfortable here?

But more seriously, medium format has always struggled with how its cameras should be configured, starting with the Brownie that kicked off the 120 format. Some are boxes (like Hasselblads), some are oversized 35mm cameras (Fuji 6×9, Pentax 6×7). The earlier Pentax can be fitted with a bulky, heavy, and still somehow uncomfortable wooden grip. The 67ii finally got the message about having something of a right-side grip.

Other medium format cameras are standardized around Graflex-style film backs that were designed just after the war and make what would otherwise be slim cameras extra thicc. If a Horseman SW612 had a body with integrated film transport, it would probably be slightly wider but a lot thinner front-to-back. The Graflex-style roll back almost always requires an extended or set-back viewfinder so that you can actually put your eye to the eyepiece. Its principal virtue is that it is narrow, but it also sports a complex film path that brings you to this: if you have interchangeable backs, they are sufficiently slow to load that you probably need more than one.


There have been a few scattered ergonomic successes, like the Vivitar flash grip, the Linhof 220, and those camcorder-like SLRs and point-and-shoots from the 1980s. But those are exceptions to the apparent rules of camera-making: (1) all cameras must be boxes or cubes that don’t fit in the hand and failing that, larger versions of smaller un-ergonomic cameras; (2) all winding must require a hand off the camera or disrupted framing; (3) thou shalt never use the [left] side eye; and (4) if you don’t like what we’re offering, stuff it.

I think I see the light (meter): how to buy one

The Sekonic L-358: not a white whale, perhaps a grey one.

With the stumbling self-taught revival of film photography, there does not seem to be any really simple, practical treatment of how light meters are supposed to work or why you might want one type over another. This article will probably not be that treatment, but why not try? It will definitely have information density; you can read this in 12 minutes and save yourself the trouble of watching 200 Youtube videos. And hopefully minimize the number of missteps in selecting a meter.

Do I need a light meter? Maybe not.

If a light meter is to serve any purpose other than being neck jewelry, there must be a use case. If your camera has a working internal meter, there is probably no situation, for hand-holdable light levels, in which a handheld meter is going to add a lot. Well, as against a well-tuned, in-camera meter and experience in using it, using a handheld may add a lot of delay and inconvenience.

If your camera lacks a light meter, you need (i) a meter or (ii) enough practice not to need one. Film is not free, and making pictures takes a lot of time.

In the ancient days of rollfilm, people used very rudimentary methods to measure light: experimentation and extinction meters. An extinction meter was a piece of developed film (or printed acetate) a black background and numbers of progressively decreasing transparency. As the numbers got higher numerically, the density of the film was higher. So when you looked at it, you would see that say “7” was the highest number you could see (i.e., light would pass through the number), you would use that to compute the exposure. This was still inaccurate because the effectiveness of extinction meters depends on the type of scene and human eyesight. So people experimented. All of this was totally ok because black and white film was insensitive to red light – so you could “develop by inspection,” in other words, watch for the highlights (darkest parts of the negative) to become visible. So an extinction meter might be good enough.

That was if you were a professional. Mainstream amateur cameras lacked the exposure control to make metering useful. The No. 2 Brownie camera – the first thing to use 120 film – had a fixed aperture and shutter speed, exposure control basically demanded only that the camera be used outside in bright sun, with the sun shining on the subject. So developing by inspection (and printing as best you could) was the only way to go. You can still do this with ortho film. Pictures were remarkably good.

With progressively more sophisticated folding cameras came variable apertures (like f/6.3-16) and some need to tell one lighting condition from the next. This could still be done with extinction meters or settings based on general light conditions (see the “Sunny-16” rule below).

Two things put more pressure on the development of light meters. One was panchromatic black-and-white film, which has to be developed blind because it can see any color of visible light. The other was color transparency film that in comparison to b/w negative was fantastically intolerant of exposure errors.

Light meters were not always common for amateurs, who often read suggested exposure setting off the inside of a film box. The instructions expressed the “Sunny-16” rule. It seems simplistic, but you realize, after metering thousands of different situations and noting the results, that the “Sunny-16” rule is right almost all of the time in outdoor situations. The Sunny-16 rule looks at the lighting condition and suggests an exposure:

  1. Bright sun, distinct shadows – 1/ISO shutter speed + f/16 (so with 100-speed film, 1/125 and f/16)
  2. Bright sun, soft shadows/partly sunny – f/11
  3. Bright overcast – f/8
  4. Medium overcast – f/5.6
  5. Sun setting – f/4

…And outdoors, there may be little point beyond that unless you have a camera on a tripod.

There is a reason why the Sunny-16 rule was printed inside Kodachrome boxes: it works. So the box says that these are “starting points,” but depending on your needs, they may also become “ending points.”

What about my phone?

No matter how cute a phone app is for light metering, it combines the elements of using a second camera, taking a spot reading and not an average, being a handheld device with poor haptic feedback, having a tendency to lock itself when least convenient, and exhibiting a tendency to be hard to read in bright light. By contrast, the Sekonic shown at the top of this article has no pretty graphics, no A13 processor, and no color. You press the button to take a reading, and you simply spin the thumb wheel to see all of the equivalent exposure combinations. It is ergonomically simple and supremely functional. Of course, Sekonic had to get rid of it in favor of an L-478 that looks and works like an iPhone. Because some executive decided that it was what the “kids” wanted.

Cell technology

There are essentially three meter cell technologies.

Selenium. Meter cells made of this bioaccumulating metalloid emit electricity when exposed to light. Meters with these cells need no batteries. Selenium cells degrade over time with exposure to light (and more commonly, moisture), but when they are in their prime, they are bulletproof. Selenium cells have poor low-light accuracy but have very good accuracy across different color temperatures. Selenium cells are sensitive to EV +4. Don’t worry. That’s fairly low light.

Cadmium Sulfide (CdS). These cells were used in most electronic cameras well into the 1980s. CdS cells require a 1.35v input voltage, which previously was supplied by long-lasting mercury cells that kept the same voltage until they died. Many CdS meters lack voltage regulation, and sticking a 1.5 alkaline or 1.55v silver battery in one is a great way to experience underexposure. Most CdS cells have experienced significant degradation due to chemical breakdown. They lose their resistance, pass more current, and make the meter think there is more light than there actually is. Many CdS meters will need calibration, no matter what the eBay seller/photo pimp says. CdS cells do not do as well as selenium in incandescent light. CdS and other modern cells can meter to EV 0 or even lower.

Silicon blue cell or silicon photo diode (SBC or SPD). These operate like CdS cells, except that almost every meter or camera that has these takes modern batteries and has voltage regulation. This is the current state of the art in handheld meters. These also have issues with incandescent light, so bracket.

Types of electric/electronic meters

There are three types of electric/electronic meters for ambient light. This guide will ignore flash metering, which is simply using any of these types of meters to measure an instantaneous light impulse rather than a continuous one. Flash metering is important for studios, but for most handheld uses, people most commonly rely on a flash’s internal metering or TTL flash provided by the camera.

Reflected light meters. Most handheld meters are this type. They generally accept light from 10 to 30-degree angle, average some or all of a scene, and try to expose that scene for middle grey. For example, if you pointed a reflected meter at an all-black scene, it would attempt to make the whole scene 18% grey. Same thing if you pointed it at a white wall.

If your scene is perfectly average mix of light and dark, or all concrete or limestone, this type of meter works without any thought at all. If not, you need to practice to understand how much brighter or darker than middle grey various objects might be.

Reflected light meters were used by Ansel Adams and pretty much anyone who needed to measure the brightness range of a scene. Point the meter at the dark parts. Take a reading. Point it at the high. Take a reading. Average or compute the scale. This type of meter (and preferably a spot meter, below) is absolutely essential for the Zone System.

Spot meters. These are a species of reflected light meter that typically accepts from 1 to 5 degrees. 1 degree sounds small, but on a distant subject, it can be quite big. Spot meters help you sort out the various tones in a scene so that you can spend 1000x the effort to get a picture that is 10% better than an averaging reflective meter used correctly. This is being cynical, but spot meters, like communism, seem like a great idea until you try to use them on an everyday basis. You pretty much always have to take more than one reading of a scene, unless you use a grey card to cheat (and at that point, you might as well use a cheaper reflected or incident meter). For landscapes or slow-moving subjects, careful spot metering is workable and with appropriate finishing can result in brilliant output. For everything else, it can seem punishing.

Incident meters. Incident meters are used by people with many skill levels and personal creeds, but they are especially popular with three groups of people: (1) cinematographers who cannot afford to make exposure mistakes; (2) people who think that incident light measurement is somehow a universal shortcut and are willing to clean up any unexpected consequences in post; and (3) people who deal with complex flash or studio lighting situations. Incident meters are very helpful, but read on to understand why you may not want to buy a meter that does only incident. One important thing to understand about incident metering is that the Sunny-16 rule is essentially a rough-cut system of incident metering: it cares about what the light is, not what the subject is.

Incident vs. reflected

The choice of incident versus reflected metering seems to be the subject of much ignorance confusion. You might have noticed that most older meters regard incident metering as an afterthought; the sliding white domes are tiny. Incident light measurement is not something most people needed with negative film. It has its ups and downs.

You’re not fooling me with that sheepskin! Incident measurements care about the light source and assume a normal range of reflectivity for a scene: no Vantablack and no white phosphorous. Dark objects look dark; light objects look light. Exposure is based on the expected reflection by the subject of a particular quantity of light. The meter is not fooled by the color of the object or the reflectivity of any particular object.

Reflected metering measures light falling on a scene (meter pointed at the subject) and assumes that it is an “average” scene, which is one where the actual reading is normalized to that 18% brightness.

What’s the difference? Consider backlighting.

  • The incident meter will not be fooled by the bright backlight because it is pointed toward the camera position.
  • The reflected meter may read two stops low if it averages the entire scene.

Or consider bright overcast where you expect an exposure of f/8.

  • The incident meter will not be fooled because the huge bright sky is out of its field of view – and it is the light source.
  • The reflected meter will underexpose if there too much sky in the measurement (reading f/16, for example) and will overexpose the sky if the meter is pointed toward the ground (reading f/4).

Tonal range. But that ability to read (or misread) parts of the scene is what makes the reflected meter useful. Incident meters are blind to what the subject actually is. This is the flip side of not being fooled by subject reflectivity. Incident metering tells you nothing about how you might need to push or pull developing. Pushing and pulling is not such a big part of color film photography, and here, an incident meter and a reflected meter are very similarly capable.

Sightlines. One requirement of successful incident metering is that if you cannot stand at the subject, you at least need to be able to replicate the subject’s sight line to the light source. For example, if you are standing inside a dark structure taking a picture out a window, an incident reading is going to see a dark “sky” and force a very bright exposure. If, on the other hand, you can walk up to a subject, it tends to work better. You can approximate an incident reading at the subject by standing somewhere in which the meter cell can receive approximately the same light that the subject is, for example, on the roof of said building.

The approximation works well outside because the difference between your position and the subject’s position, given the brightness and distance of the sun, is insignificant. With the sun 150 million kilometers away, what’s another 100 meters between you and the subject? Nothing for purposes of light metering. For artificial light, which is far weaker and less uniform, you have to be at the subject for incident metering to work correctly. This is due to the inverse square law: doubling the distance from the light quarters its brightness. This is a factor when the difference is 3m or 6m from a 60w light; it is not a factor for natural light, which is literally a hundred million miles away.

Reflected metering can be done anytime you can see the subject with your eyes.

Splitting the difference. So why weren’t incident meters more popular over history? Because taking a reflected reading of an 18% grey card lit the same way as the subject gives you the same reading as an incident meter. This trick can be used even with spot meters that have no incident capability at all. One of these cards can fit in your pocket.

Another trick. But wait! You don’t actually need a grey card if you know the reflectivity of your own skin. For example, if you meter a grey card at f/8 and your skin at 11, then you can assume for the future that reading a reflected meter off your hand and adding a stop (or reading your skin with half the ISO) gets you to middle grey. This works for every skin tone, so long as you know the offset. Measure off the palm of your hand. Unless you spray-tan your palms, this is a very stable reference point. This trick also works if your reflected meter is the one in your camera. Fill the meter’s field of view with your hand, maintaining the same lighting as the subject, i.e., don’t shadow your hand with the camera.

Reading your meter

Meters have various ways of displaying the exposure.

Direct read (shutter/aperture – digital): a digital display shows a shutter/aperture pairing. This is best if you shoot predominantly with one shutter speed or aperture and let the other variable float. Otherwise, direct-read meter displays fail the human-machine interface test for the same reason digital watches do – humans for some reason are much better at reading graphic displays than numerical ones. That’s also why digital speedometers are disfavored. A direct-read digital display also requires you to scroll through the combinations if you switch up apertures, for example, between shots. Direct-read does have the advantage of being able to display an averaged reading instantly if your meter supports that. Some also can show you what percentage of an exposure is ambient and what percentage is coming from flash.

Some of these meters have an analog-looking scale at the bottom that can be used to show the spread of multiple readings and their average. Not all of these things show on the dial at once; this illustration just shows how many things a Sekonic digital would tell you, depending on mode.

Many of these meters will also show exposure value (EVs), which correspond to pairs of shutter speeds/aperture settings.

Direct Read (f/stop, analog): a few older meters do this, like the Weston 853 and one new one (the Sekonic L-398). These involve setting your shutter speed and having the needle swing to the right f/stop for the light level. This is very similar to how shutter-priority autoexposure works in SLRs. This type of reading requires something to moderate the light compared to account for different shutter speeds; the 853, for example, has a rotating mask that covers part of the photocell to simulate faster shutter speeds.

Light intensity (exposure value/footcandles): here, a needle points to a number (EVs, footcandles, etc., sometimes both!), or an LED shows a number, and you rotate the calculator dial to that number (having previously rotated a pointer to your ISO value), and you see the shutter/aperture pairings on a ring or a slide-rule. Most selenium meters work this way; few selenium meters lock the needle. Below is the Sekonic L-398 (selenium); the other all-time greats for light-intensity meters were the Gossen Luna Pro S (or Lunasix) (CdS) and the Weston Master series (selenium). They require computation using a calculator wheel to get to a camera setting. The L-398 below includes both direct read for f/stops and light intensity (footcandle) readings:

For reference, this is a table of EVs (Exposure Values) from Wikipedia.

As you can see, EV +4, where selenium meters mostly peter out, is not even remotely hand-holdable. And this version of the chart is helpful because it goes down to -6; your AF SLR maker may claim the ability to AF down to EV -4 (minus 4), but you would not be able to see much yourself in that kind of light. EV +15 is about the highest light level most people would encounter in everyday life, and EV +9 would be the darkest that most people would take pictures. EV +21 might be expressing a nuclear explosion; most tables don’t go this high. Like a lot of things, there is quite a bit of math behind how this works but for operational purposes, it’s not important. EVs are just one of the ways that meters read.

One thing that is fantastically confusing about EVs is that EV is typically expressed for ISO 100 when cited in camera specs. This is just like Guide Numbers for flash, which are also always expressed at their ISO 100 values. EV +15 for 100-speed film is actually EV +17 for 400-speed film. This is why most handheld meters show the ISO-corrected EV on a calculator dial – so it can change with ISO. Some meters don’t show the actual EV corrected for the ISO – for example, the Pentax Digital Spotmeter’s viewfinder display only shows the EV for ISO 100, and that number, combined with the ISO setting gives you all the pairs of camera settings, not the actual EV.

Match needle: meter needle moves (no scale), and you turn the calculator dial so that the two pointers match (the pointer moves when you turn the calculator dial). Then you read the same type of scale as on an light-intensity meter. This is far, far, faster to operate than a light-intensity meter. All you do is match the Meßwerkzeiger (German for “meter needle”) with the Nachführzeiger (German for “ring thingy…” actually, “tracking pointer”) by turning the calculator dial (the thing with shutter speed/aperture combinations). Below is a Gossen Super Pilot (or “Sixtar” as they called it in Europe and “Systar” as they call it in Lego) (ok, bad joke…). Match needle probably gets the highest score for human-machine interface because you don’t have to read and comprehend a number, remember it, and then transfer it to the calculator dial.

Null: basically a variation of match needle (and on a camera, you would actually call it “match needle”), but the thing you are doing is making the needle hit a fixed zero mark by turning the calculator dial. In practice, this is simpler. This is better than a match-needle for measuring brightness range. The Luna-Pro SBC is one of the few good meters that have this.


Few things are more complicated exposure-wise than dealing with the use of filters in metering. There is no use in reinventing this wheel. Go to this article on the old site, and it will tell you what you need to know about exposure compensation. Maybe not everything, but there is a lot of data.

Good and bad meters

Well, you were going to ask for recommendations, right? How about some snarky short-takes? This does not cover every possible meter, but it will cover the ones you commonly see.

Note: this does not cover any of the many types of electronic meters designed solely to fit in a flash shoe; those have too much interaction with the ergonomics of a particular camera to make even somewhat accurate snap judgments.

  1. General Electric DW-58: a perennial Bakelite favorite at yard sales and one of the most popular meters ever made, this 1940s dual-range light-intensity-style meter (reads in foot-candles) has a grille to change from low to high range. It has a calculator dial from which to compute exposure combinations. You can also take the snout off for incident readings – though it is not a dome – it’s just a flat cell.
  2. Gossen Digi-Six: tiny lightweight digital light intensity meter that also fits in a flash shoe. Has a thumb wheel to compute aperture. Crude but tough and effective. Competitor to the Sekonic Twinmate.
  3. Gossen Luna-Pro S (CdS): the king of the old school, this meter is awesome, assuming yours is calibrated correctly and you use the right batteries. You read a numerical value from a low or high range and set that into the calculator dial (which in turn will compute actual EV). The meters are cheap used; factory calibration costs megabucks; some independents will do it too, but you know it’s been done right if the top of the low range matches the bottom of the high range. Most (maybe all) use 1.35v cells unless they have adapters or have been converted. This can be kludged with attachments into measuring anything but flash. There are probes, domes, waist-level finders, you name it.
  4. Gossen Luna-Pro SBC (silicon): This Luna-Pro variant is larger and uses a null dial instead of starting with an arbitrary light value (you can read the EV off the calculator dial). It also fixes the one thing that challenges the Luna-Pro S: it uses a modern photocell. The Luna Pro SBC can take a flash measuring attachment that is best ignored in an era when flash meters are made much better.
  5. Gossen Super-Pilot (CdS): this is basically a baby Luna-Pro with a match-needle.
  6. Gossen Scout 2: Cheap, functional, selenium.
  7. Gossen digital meters (silicon): all of them are good. User interface is about as good as Minolta digital, which is not that good. Dieter Rams and the Braun design philosophy do not translate well to light meters.
  8. Metered Light Pocket Spot (silicon): interesting little handheld meter that uses a hole through the meter as an aiming reticle. Built of anodized aluminum and tough!
  9. Metrawatt Metrastar (CdS): The coolest-looking CdS meter ever made, this one has a tiny waist-level viewfinder built into the dial.
  10. Minolta digital meters (silicon): all of them are good. User interface is about as good as Gossen digital, which is not that good.
  11. Pentax Digital Spotmeter (silicon): many of these are not actually Zone VI modified (even if they have the sticker with the grey squares – you need the main label). The holster-like Zone VI case could get you shot at a traffic stop. It takes 40.5mm filters. It is accurate, durable, and expensive. Unless you become a Zone System afficionado, you will use it twice, stick it in a drawer, think you need it for about two years, and then sell it to the next guy on eBay.
  12. Sekonic L-208 Twinmate (silicon): what a cute widdle Luna Pwo! Tiny match needle meter that also fits in a flash shoe and runs on a lithium coin cell.
  13. Sekonic L-308: basic incident and reflected meter. Classic functionality. Runs on one AA. The only inconvenient thing is that it has up/down buttons instead of a thumb wheel. Electronically, it’s a baby L-358 that is more versatile out of the box. But its one big vice for reflected metering is that the meter cell is on the same side as the display.
  14. Sekonic L-358 (silicon): with a reflected or spot attachment, it’s great. With an incident dome, it’s a great studio tool, but I suspect that most people buy this configuration by accident. The L-358 with the Lumigrid reflected meter lens is ace.
  15. Sekonic L-398 (selenium): the king of selenium meters by default, this studio favorite has been in production longer than most readers here have been alive.
  16. Sekonic L-438 (silicon): a cross between Luke Skywalker’s binoculars and a 110 camera, this pocket spotmeter runs on a single AA cell and works like a baby camera. The novelty wears off quickly. No incident or reflected capability, so it’s a one-trick pony.
  17. Sekonic L-478D (silicon): the supposed replacement for the L-358, this is extremely competent but ergonomically poor.
  18. Sekonic L-558 (silicon): imagine an L-358 that also includes a viewfinder for taking reflected measurements. Replaced by the L-858D, which is the touchscreen version.
  19. Shepherd/Smith Victor DM-170 Light Meter (silicon): solid and serviceable, it has a bright 80s-style LED light-intensity display (some displays are red, some are a cool green). Runs on a 9v battery. Dependable.
  20. Soligor digital spot meter (CdS): this will not get you killed at a traffic stop, but it will get you killed if Kirk and Spock have already drawn down with phasers.
  21. Vivitar 45 CdS meter (CdS, of course!): cheap, small, match needle.
  22. Weston Master series (selenium). These used to be the top dog before the Luna-Pro displaced them. These measure light intensity.


Meters are subject that is both simple and complex. The best way to choose a meter is to borrow one and see if you can get into the rhythm of using it the way it is designed. I am a big fan of match-needle meters, but having used them all, there is no truly bad design. The bigger question is how you will meter (incident? reflected? spot?), and you may not learn what works best for you on the first try. So take your best guess, try it, and if it doesn’t work, try again!

Fuji’s X-series aperture rings?!

Visible even in Fujifilm’s file photos, the aperture ring turns against the tide!

I was trying to finish a writeup on the Sony A7r2 with a 35mm lens versus Fujifilm X100-series cameras and got off on this tangent, which became too much of a distraction to appear in the other article. Sorry to drag you along for this ride, but it’s a gloomy, rainy Saturday afternoon, and it was either finish this or develop 12 rolls of film…

Someday, when Fuji is put in a room with bright lights and given the leather-glove treatment, it might be able to answer the question of why X-series lens aperture controls turn right toward their smallest apertures (or A). Although this sounds like a trivial problem, this kind of thing can and does cause momentary confusion when you are using two kinds of cameras at the same time. I discovered this over time when an X100T was one camera in use and a Leica M was the other. I’d end up with a little bit of confusion in aperture priority momentarily. The most frequent error was cranking the Fuji lens to A instead of to 2.0. Not a huge problem in terms of getting some shot — but perhaps a problem in getting the shot I actually wanted.

The way controls work is actually a big point of study, and the stakes with cameras are quite low. The stakes can be quite high in other contexts like aviation. Most of us encounter mild annoyances like badly-designed remote controls, Apple Watches, and manual transmissions that have reverse in a bunch of different inconsistent locations. Luckily, a digital camera is not an airliner, but you get the point. And the more tired someone is, or the more stress he or she is under, the more likely there is going to a problem. And photography can become stressful.

The point that was going into the other article is that “any manual control system that has sufficiently annoying quirks will encourage the use of automatic systems to avoid it.” If you take issue with that, consider how little you have actually used manual focus on AF-capable Fuji XF lenses. Their focus direction might have been a problematic issue as well, but frankly, the focus-by-wire is so terrible that everyone just uses the superb autofocus.

Digital camera viewfinders are pretty poor examples of human-machine interfaces. They are cluttered, they show numbers as digits and not graphically, and and there are too many things going on. This is a fault of pretty much every digital camera (except for Leicas, whose viewfinders have 8-segment LED displays that convey virtually no information).

One major point of the X series is to present tactile controls. The X-series aperture ring, both on the fixed-lens camera and interchangeable XF lenses, is a control-by-wire actuator that could have been designed to work in either direction. Perhaps more remarkably, it was designed both opposite to the Leica rangefinders the X-100 cameras and X-Pro cameras visually mimic and also opposite to about 60 years of Fuji’s own rangefinders.

This is not the first time an “Opposite Day” has happened; in 1998, Leica reversed the direction of the M film camera’s shutter speed dial for the M6TTL, and people went out of their minds. The problem was that on a Leica, LED over- and under-exposure arrows previously told you which way to turn the shutter speed dial or the aperture ring.* They were now inaccurate as to the shutter speed dial. With the M7 and then the digital M8, M9, M240/246/262, and M10 people just put the dial on A and left it.

*By the way, Leicas only had acquired LED meter indicators in 1984 with the M6, so people only had 14 years to have their brains calcify around the way the meter was supposed to work with the LED indicators. Previous Leicas, laying aside the M5 and CL, had no meters at all.

Back to the story. Now which systems turn right toward minimum aperture, like the X100n and the X-series mirrorless cameras? Rangefinder systems are color-coded red and Fuji’s own rangefinder systems bold and red.

  • Fuji’s X series 35mm SLRs
  • Nikon F lenses (historic ones)
  • Canon FD
  • Pentax K
  • Pentax 6×7 SLRs
  • Bronica RF645 rangefinder
  • Canonet rangefinders
  • Contax/Nikon rangfinders (not produced since the 1960s)

Which systems turn left? This is a start:

  • Leica screwmount (including clones by Avenon/Kobalux, Canon, Konica, Minolta, Voigtlander)
  • Leica M lenses (including Minolta M-Rokkor, Konica M-Hexanon, and Voigtlander VM)
  • Fuji V2 35mm compact rangefinder
  • Fuji 6×7 and 6×9 interchangeable lens rangefinders
  • Fuji GW and GSW series 6×7, 6×8, and 6×9 rangefinders
  • Fuji GS645S and GS645W rangefinders
  • Fuji GW670 rangefinder
  • Fuji TX / Hasselblad X-Pan
  • Contax T rangefinder
  • Contax G compact interchangeable-lens camers
  • Mamiya 6 and 7
  • Minolta Hi-Matic
  • Plaubel Makina 67
  • Fuji GX680 SLR (if the lever could be equated to a ring)
  • Copal and Seiko medium-format shutters (same note) (and Fuji G617/GX617)
  • Rollei 35/35s
  • Olympus Pen
  • Leica SLRs
  • Minolta SLRs
  • Konica SLRs
  • Olympus OM SLRs
  • Contax SLRs

Talk about being on the wrong side of history… The vast weight of rangefinders over history, particularly the ones the X series was intended to evoke… went the other way. What is inexplicable in this is that the X100 and XF-mount cameras were clearly very carefully designed from an aesthetic and basic control layout perspective. For reasons probably known only to one or two engineers, Fuji took a flier on this one. Was the idea to bring back the glory days of a Fuji 35mm SLR system that the world had forgotten? Left-handed designer? Conscious counterculture?

It is difficult to believe this was an oversight. But it’s also difficult to divine why it would have happened.

Vapid vainglorious video

You probably know this product by its 1990s trade name, but it is an apt metaphor for a lot of video content about photography.

This site would have no pictures if I could get away with it. The predecessor site had few. Still photography is a visual art whose technical aspects generally can expressed with words or static pictures and diagrams. Unless you are illiterate or incapable of abstract thought, you do not need a video to show you how to turn a shutter speed dial, how to take a meter reading, or how to agitate film in a developing tank.

One beauty of the human mind is learning by theory, maintaining knowledge in the abstract, and then executing it in practice. You can see the words “invert three times every 30 seconds” and figure out what they mean in seconds, not minutes. When you think about the technical side, there is little (if anything) that calls for video. In fact, unless you have a video-graphic memory, you may have to take notes on what you see — which means you could have started with a written description in the first place.

By the way, the answer is 7 minutes at 20º C for almost any normal black-and-white film, in any normal developer.

The artistic or expressive element, likewise, can be expressed or exemplified with still photos. When you think about it, the power of images is such that when you pick up a coffee table book or look at a photo site, you might never read the words. There is a maxim in literature that poets should not interpret their own work. That probably goes double for photographers describing or even creatively titling their own images. We’ve all seen it, the photo of a pasty-skinned, depilated nude model (male, female, take your pick) in the middle of Death Valley, or among prickly pears, with a title like Natural Beauty. Bill Mortensen did a great job skewering this and every other trite figurative subject, back in the 1940s. In books.

Everyone seemed to get along fine with websites (and before that, magazines) that summed up photo products in one page. Here’s that super dorky Pentax, here is what its lens does, here is a non-damning conclusion from a site/magazine that needs Pentax advertising.

Something that never ceases to amaze (or horrify) is number of Youtube videos about still photography and its apparatus, particularly film photography. This might prove that there is something worse than the Hollywood-movie-about-making-Hollywood-movies. Maybe video-about-film-photography doesn’t have the same potential for creating a navel-gazing singularity. Not quite the same potential. But close.

Overestimating how cool you are

Many people who make Youtube videos about still photography and still photography equipment vastly overestimate how much people want to see them (and by “them,” I would include myself).

Or see their monster jellybean Golden Sherpa® table microphones. This was not a good look on Larry King, and was not a good look on anyone. Also, Larry King was not a good look on anyone. Not even on Larry King.

Or check out their stylish walking around, contemplating… stuff while wearing messenger bags. Sir, we all know that’s a camera bag and that it will crush the life out of even the most carefully basted sportcoat shoulders. A gentleman would never carry anything larger and cruder than a Contax T, which slips handily into the pocket of any pocket of any piece of clothing.

Or endure the name-checks. Many of these videos look like unpaid promotions for purveyors of peripheral photographic gear. On some videos, you can ascertain that every manufactured good in the scene has a name and a manufacturer. Please, do tell where I can buy another $70 nylon strap that looks like something cut out of the restraint system of a passenger car.

Or to listen to weird smooth jazz music in videos that have no words. Somewhere it’s popular to unbox cameras wearing white cotton gloves while something approximating Kenny G plays in the background. Well, at least it’s not as creepy as the videos with synthesized robot voices.

Some presenters are attractive and well-spoken. Some are not. This is not to say that having super-attractive people do these videos would be much better (pointing away from their faces and perfect hair/makeup: “the camera is down there”).

You have to calibrate the aesthetics-to-content correctly. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when they made color books about doing photography, you got 90 pages of correct but basic instructions and 10 pages of photographs, of which one or two images usually was (were) soft-focus semi-nude shots that revealed some previously-undiscovered British paraphilia. The one that springs to mind was the topless woman wearing a construction helmet and safety vest, holding a stop sign. I think it was hidden in a book about light meters. Not even years of therapy can counteract seeing that. Fortunately, Youtube has age/content gates that prevent equivalent video education from propagating the Road Repair Crew fetish/lifestyle.

Also, it is very selfish to ask others to judge you by posting videos of yourself all the time. People have things to do! It is not your audience’s privilege to have to slavishly critique you every time you spam a Facebook photography group with your latest and greatest. Many in your audience accept keeping people away from deficient videos as their duty to society. It’s a form of noblesse oblige exercised by those who have free time (or at least pretend to while not stuffing Amazon trucks). And do you know what happens to the nasal passages when someone laughs and snorts while drinking tea? Man, think of the innocent viewers!

Is your video a Wonderbra?

A lot of videos suffer the vice of promising a lot while hiding disappointing content. Many things in the clothing world do this for women’s and men’s bodies, pushing, pulling, compressing, or expanding the body in various ways for the purpose of selling. Car makers in Detroit got busted by the Federal Trade Commission for building 8×10 cameras with curved backs that made huge 1960s and 1970s cars look even huger. Food manufacturers had to explain that the graham cracker was not really six inches square like on the front of the box.

The lack of information density is not just a feature of photography videos; it is also feature of almost any technical video about anything. If the solution for cleaning something is vinegar or ammonia or something else, there is no need to package a very simple idea in a very elaborate video. If the key thing in touching up car paint is selective 3000-grit sanding and progressive application of thin layers of paint with more wet sanding, well, that’s easy to say. Omegas are almost as good as Rolexes. An Acura is not as fly as a Bentley. Follow me for more recipes.

Did you ever wonder why people take at least eight minutes to convey only the smallest piece of information? It’s because the shortest video on Youtube that supports ‘midroll’ advertising. Padding is also encouraged by the Youtube minima for watch hours (4,000) and number of subscribers (1,000). This should tell you everything you need to know about why most videos come with click-baity titles but are then letdowns – and you rarely come out of watching one feeling like you’ve learned something. It might also explain why people plaster social media with links to their videos. You are a means to an end. Just not yours. Like this video I was watching the other night, “Ten things you didn’t know about sprocket layout on Kodak 135 films. The last one will break your heart.”

Curation, curation, curation

But isn’t the real issue here curation, or the concept that something should filter out the fluff? One of the biggest differences between the pre-internet media and now is that there was a considerable cost to creating and propagating content. And particularly for print, editors (note, not Redditors) and publishers made decisions about what would be salable. They bore the risk of failure. It was not easy to expose the public to unadulterated garbage; works had to pass some basic test of economic viability. Self-publishing was seen as sleazy.

Not so much is it so in the Youtube model. There, uncompensated individuals use personally-funded (and cheap by historic standards) video equipment to produce their own videos, where they are allowed to post them, with no advances and in many cases zero long-term compensation. And no filters.

The video site uses to the content to earn advertising money – and then kicks a percentage of that down to users. The per-click and per-engagement pay is small – and it is difficult to justify the time investment in terms of money. This causes many content purveyors to turn to prostitution affiliate relationships and accepting free loans of equipment. How long do you think a manufacturer would keep sending you things to review if you kept trashing them?

This creates a morass of content of varying quality that is difficult to filter. People are trying like crazy to be seen because being seen might mean making money. People are trying like crazy to see something useful. Guess who wins? Neither of these two groups. Someone else, though.

Some video content on photography is really, really good.* If you read all the way through this, you know this had to be said. But if a diamond is mixed in with too much debris, it creates a certain fatigue. And that is the point, in too many words, of the twenty-five minutes lost in writing all of this (ok, plus another 7 minutes on a patent site and then 5 minutes deciding that even the 1940s patent description of squeeze-and-lift was unsuitable for this site).

*Steve Meltzer’s (lkanagas) video parody review of the Leica Monochrom is hilarious, including a camera slip that reveals that a revolver was one of the things he unpacked from the factory box.