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. 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, spot metering is workable. For everything else, it can be 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 is somehow a universal shortcut and are resigned to dealing with the consequences in post; and (3) people who deal with complex flash 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…).

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.

Funleader 18mm f/8 Caplens M-Mount

I’ve always thought of myself as a fun follower, not a fun leader. Well, someone had to try it, right? Two weeks and $179 later, I got a small package from China via City of Industry, California. I almost threw away the lens by mistake. The following will be a brief initial review of yet another interesting lens from China’s burgeoning camera lens industry (another example is the Venus Laowa 15mm f/4.5 shift, reviewed previously).

Funleader is a somewhat obscure company. I actually saw the lens on a targeted Facebook post, making that pervasive surveillance useful to me for the first time ever. The company makes two versions of the Caplens and a drop-in conversion mount to put the 35 Contax G Planar on Leica M bodies. Everything appears to be designed by Mr. Ding (who is the counterpart of Venus’ Mr. Li).

The Funleader 18mm f/8 cap lens / Caplens / whatever is a follow-on to the company’s original 6-element ultrawide-in-a-cap. The difference for Leica M mount is that the lens can actually focus, which is a big deal because f/8 is not quite pan focus for an 18mm lens. The focusing mechanism on the lens is a little lever with a rotating cell. The focusing scale is marked 0.45m, 0.7m, 1m (with a click), 2m, and ∞. This lens is designed for Leica M mount, though in a future installment, I will plug it into a Sony A7r II and a6300 just to see what it does with those.

My assessment of this lens is that it is shockingly not bad. It’s pretty clear that this takes a direct shot at the MS-Optical Perar series of lenses costing five to six times as much (depending on what fetishized finish the Perar features). You’re not expecting the Funleader to compete with a ZM 4/18mm Biogon (which is still five times the price and ten times the thickness…). Let’s do the quick run-through.

Construction. The lens is solid aluminum, decently finished. Mechanical action is nice. All markings are engraved, or at least etched through the anodized finish. This includes the obnoxiously large “FUNLEADER” logo, but a little Sharpie marker will make that less visible. The lens comes with a rear lens cap, but it’s somewhat puzzling that there is no front cap (it would take a 36mm push on, notched for the focus lever). There are no filter threads. The lens weighs 40g, or about 1.3 ounces. It’s not much bigger than a body cap, hence, “cap lens.”

Focus. The lens is not rangefinder-coupled, though the mount will cause the camera rangefinder to read a little over 2m. If you can validate the correct focus-lever position on the lens so that the optical focus matches the RF, you will have at least one place where you can precisely focus. To do this, you need to use LiveView or an EVF. The 1m click stop on the lens is good for moderately close objects. But if you really want to be precise, you will crank it to ∞ outdoors and use an EVF indoors. Or focus-bracket. The Leica M EVFs can easily work with lenses at t/16, so this is no challenge. What might be a challenge is that indoors, you will be on a high-ISO marathon and that focus peaking may require some judgment calls. Fortunately none of those calls are difficult.

Aperture. The iris changes quickly and easily from f/8 to f/8 to f/8 and then back to f/8.

Sharpness. As noted, focus does make a difference, and it seems from looking at prior tests that the original Funleader Caplens (fixed focus) did not have a small enough aperture to cover all distances. Although the caplens is not critically sharp on infinite subjects (like a lot of wides, you are actually best advised to shoot close-to-mid distances), it does have enough bite to work. The following two pictures are scaled down to 3000×2000, but they will go large enough to see that the lens is actually more than passable. In fact, it’s embarrassingly good in some ways (but read on). There is little or no “smearing” at the edges, but where that appears in other Leica-mount lenses, it disappears by about f/8 anyway.

Near (M typ 240):

Far (Monochrom Typ 246)

Casual tests reveal sharpness consistent with at least the 10lp/mm metric shown for the lens if not also 30lp/mm.

Distortion. There is actually vanishingly little distortion at 1m and on. No sample picture is distortion corrected, or even cropped. This is not a symmetrical lens, at least not obviously, but it does have the same straight lines. Distortion is spherical, from the looks of it.

Falloff. Ok, there is tons and tons and tons of falloff on this little guy. Corners are 1-2/3 stops darker than the center. The M typ 240 metadata generator says variously that the exposures are f/8 or f/11 overall. M cameras compare on-sensor exposure with a small photocell eye. The measurement is not perfect, but it can often be very close.

Color shifts (Leica M cameras). This one suffers from the modified bandiera italiana effect, shifting substantially purple on one side and bluish-green on the other. The exact left-right balance seems to depend a bit on the angle between the light source and the lens. The color-shift effect is an artifact of Bayer sensors, complicated sometimes by the microlenses on Leica sensors. You knew that was coming. But it’s an issue on many lenses, particularly symmetrical wide-angle lenses. The “center” can be manipulated slightly by pushing the lens hard from side to side. On some M cameras, there is just enough tolerance to shift the lens on the camera bayonet slightly (the lens flange is slightly smaller than an M body mounting flange).

The color-shift effect should be correctible using Adobe Flat Field. If you even care enough to worry about it.

The Leica Monochrom cameras could care less. They are colorblind anyway. The color shift actually helps darken skies in b/w landscape shots (the picture above was actually taken in bright overcast).

These color shifts should not be as pronounced with film cameras, but film cameras would likely yield poorer sharpness due to the inability to check focus.

Leica M typ 240

Performance on Sony A7R2. Since the optical part of this lens was originally developed for mirrorless cameras, it is not much of a surprise that it performs well with them. Some notes:

  • The A7R2 viewfinder is capable of displaying images from f/8 lenses with no problem.
  • It is a bit easier to focus with the A7R2 focus peaking than with the M cameras.
  • The image stabilization function makes up for the slow maximum aperture. Image stabilization does not fix moving subjects.
  • Sharpness is good across the frame. Focus looks correct with a Novoflex ($$$) M to Sony E adapter, and infinity focus may be affected if you use cheaper adapters that are “thinner.”
  • Color-shift problems are fairly neglible. Vignetting is still there. The vignetting looks symmetrical, but the color shift makes it look a little lopsided.
Illumination/color balance on A7R2

Room for improvement. Funleader, if you are reading this, here are a couple of things that would make this lens more fun. These are not critical, but they would improve the user experience a bit.

  • A front lens cap, rubber. This lens makes a camera pocketable, so why not protect the glass from the things people carry in their pockets?
  • Depth of field marks (this would just need to be two tick marks on the rotating part of the lens).
  • 6-bit coding (achievable through simple engraving of the back on the black version).
  • An Adobe Lightroom correction profile.
  • Wider flange. The lens flange is not quite as wide as an M-camera’s bayonet mount. It would be helpful to have more of a grip surface for mounting/unmounting, since Leica M cameras have very stiff bayonet springs.
  • Some way to mount filters – magnetic ring on the front?
  • Optional f/16, f/22, and f/64 Waterhouse disks to drop over the lens. When shooting in bright sunlight, it makes sense to stop down. It’s probably not practical to put an iris in a lens this small.

Initial Conclusion. The Caplens is an interesting and creative democratization of the MS-Optical Perar line of lenses, not so fast but a lot cheaper. The performance is surprisingly good, especially given the number of pans of the prior version in reviews. It’s not a 4/18mm ZM Distagon, and in color, it has some Lomo-ish (or 4,5/21 ZM Biogon) characteristics, but all in all, it’s a very nice lens for the money.

Three tired tropes of analog photography

Three questions regarding film photography bear some quick study and quick disposition.

Is the cost of film actually significant?

Everybody likes to complain about the cost of film. Every time prices make their annual 10% uptick (or as McKinsey types like to say, “uplift”), people complain that this will spell the end of their film use.

Yet they are still around to complain about it the next year.

You might find yourself chasing film that is a dollar less a roll. Today, TMY 135 (well, now 135TMY-2) costs 7.50 a roll for 18 rolls if commercially loaded — or $109 for enough raw film to load 18 cartridges (variable cost 6.05, plus 80 cents roll fixed cost for the first 18 cassettes you do (this is a function of their service life, which is 3 loadings). It is not entirely clear what bulk-loading gets you here – an opportunity for scratched film, the chance to expose a bulk roll while getting into the loader, losing consecutive frame numbers, and ending up with a cassette that is either missing DX codes or pops apart if you drop it. One thing it does not get you is an actual cost advantage, especially after you spend an hour or two cleaning and loading the cassettes for each 100 foot bulk roll.

But, yes, Kodak and now Ilford price bulk film high. So take it down a notch. Say you buy Ultrafine Xtreme (I’ll predict that when/if it comes back in 400, it will be $59 a roll). There, your variable costs drop to $3.33 a roll, for a total cost of $4.13. This is cheaper in dollars, no doubt, to the tune of $67 per 18 rolls of film.

That seems like a lot unless and until you start thinking about the rest of the process. Even if you priced your own labor at the aspirational minimum wage of $15, a day of shooting (call it four rolls of film – which would be optimistic for serious, non-pro photography) would incur:

  • Eight hours of taking pictures ($120)
  • Four rolls of film ($13.32)
  • Chemicals for processing (call it $4)
  • Two hours of processing the negatives ($30)

So in this calculation, which I think you’d agree is a best case, the choice between TMY commercially loaded and Ultrafine Xtreme is $16.68 out of $167.32, or roughly 10%. That assumes you get at least 3 uses from bulk cassettes and does not factor in the cost of a bulk-loader. Actually, it doesn’t factor in the 10 minutes it would take to bulk load the 4 rolls of film. But you get the picture. And if your day of sightseeing only yields one roll of film, you’ve saved maybe 2%.

Let’s move on to the bargain category where film is “almost as good.” Yes, Ultrafine is cheaper, but yes, you have to use more filtration on blue skies, which means that it is not quite as fast for landscape work. On some more primitive cameras, the sprockets sometimes rip out if you overstuff a film cassette. Even as a frequent Ultrafine user, I would comment that TMY is more than 10% better than Ultrafine, quantified however you want: true speed, negative toughness, ability to be pushed, sharpness, or fine grain.

Bulk loading is not the only place people seem to spin off into attempts at cost-savings. There seems to be a lot of pursuit of developing-world-quality film because it’s cheap. It’s great that [fictitious] Nemopan Stasi-Special Ortho 25 is back on the market, but remember, there was a reason Nemopan went out of business. It wasn’t just our hypothetical Nemopan that went out of business. A lot of top-quality companies like Agfa and Fuji also departed film manufacturing, leaving only two clear survivors. Oh yes, two survivors and a bunch of zombified brands trying to revive their glory days selling into command economies.

Is film at all helpful for risk management?

Get too close to APUG (whoops, Photrio), and you’ll get schooled about how digital is so much less archival than film. Just think, if there is that nuclear war, you can still see 35mm transparencies or prints (assuming, of course, they were not incinerated along with their owners). Or if for some reason every one of the ten hard drives you keep as backups failed to work. I would posit that if there were an event that wiped out all electronic devices, looking at vintage photos of any type would be a sixth-tier priority.

The archival superiority of film may or may not be true (having seen my share of faded film from the 1980s – I can’t say that it is), but what is definitely true is that film photography is risky. Every single thing in the film imaging chain involves a risk.

  • You could fat-finger your bulk loading.
  • You could drop a reloadable metal cassette and have the ends pop off.
  • You could get mishandled, spooled down bulk film.
  • You could absentmindedly open the camera midway through a roll of film.
  • Your subject could blink.
  • You could blow the exposure.
  • You could shoot an entire roll at the wrong speed.
  • You could set the wrong ISO on the meter.
  • You could blow it in development. Or your lab could.
  • You could ruin wet negatives.
  • You could even get defective factory-loaded film.

These things have small but real probabilities, and the terrifying range of ways things can go wrong continues to broaden with the passage of time. Everyone who has shot film over more than a couple of years has had at least one of these things happen. By comparison, a much smaller number of people has experienced an SD card failure.

A failure with film – because it stores a latent image until developed later – generally means the loss of a lot of time and often situations that cannot be repeated. It could be a foreign vacation. It could be a client job. It could be your young family. Time only marches in a forward direction, and subjects don’t like to redo whole projects.

Risk is part of life. Risk is definitely part of film photography. That’s fine. We all know that. But there is little that advocates for compounding risks by doing important things with untested cameras, with sketchy old film, etc.

Is film cheaper than digital?

I will confess to having been in the past a big proponent of the argument that film is cheaper than digital. That was true, seventeen years ago, when a 35mm negative could deliver a 24mp (4000dpi) scan and digital cameras like a D2x cost $4,500, cropped lenses to 1.5x and got to 12.4mp. The math went something like this: a digital camera is super-expensive, and processing regular pictures is y dollars a roll. All of that was true if your film camera was a sunk cost, and yes, in 2004 costs, it would take a lot of $3 film plus $12 processing to hit $4,500 (so 300 rolls of film, more than most people who shoot in their entire life).

But as Gen-X Luke Skywalker would say, every single word I just said is wrong (today).

First, in 2021, the idea of “film” as distinct from “digital” is specious. Since the early 2000s, almost every commercial output from color film has been digital. Minilabs have not used optical printing for decades now. Every negative gets scanned to become a print, even ones destined for chemical photo paper. Likewise, the home audience has to convert negatives or transparencies to digital to make them visible to any stranger other than magazine readers, gallery visitors, or slide-show watchers. Actually, getting into a print publication or a gallery almost always requires digitization for submission or curation.

Second, the sunk-cost equation has reversed. The “film is cheaper” argument was last effectively made before 2008, when camera phones started to stand in for point-and-shoot cameras. Today, a camera phone takes better pictures than any Canonet ever did, and those pictures are immediately ready for use on the internet. And nearly everyone in the developed world owns one. The “demise of digital,” as some would trumpet, is really more about the disappearance of lower-end digital cameras as separate appliances. If every phone is a digital camera, production is actually up year after year after year. In this context, entering film photography is the extra-cost exercise, usually starting with a film camera that — due to the magic of attrition — has become really expensive.

Finally, the price-to-performance equation firmly favors digital over 35mm. Labs don’t give away full-resolution scans with photo processing. That means you end up doing it yourself. A high-end 35mm film scanner pulls 4000dpi, or let’s call it 24 megapixels. If it’s a Nikon, you actually get almost that much useful information. A good film scanner costs about $2,000. To that, you can add from 4-8 dollars a roll for film and about an hour of scanning time per roll. A 24mp camera will set you back $400-1,000 these days, no extra cost. Want 42mp – which exceeds what anyone without a Flextight or drum scanner can do? How about $1,300?

You just can’t make the argument that film is “cheaper” with a straight face anymore. Fun, relaxing, and a change of pace – but not economical.

A brief note on underexposure

So you’ve just gotten back a roll of color negative film that is muddy, grainy, and dark. You did everything right, or you think you did.

Although camera shutters never speed up with age, the photocells in older cameras age badly. Old cameras and handheld meters, pre-1980, often have meter cell decay. Cadmium-sulphide (CdS) photocells pass more current when more light is hitting them. And when there is no light hitting them, they are essentially “off” switches. Unfortunately, over time, the material breaks down and loses its resistance to electricity. This may manifest first as battery drains – and eventually will manifest itself as underexposed pictures. This really hit Polaroid auto pack cameras hardest, but you will see it in anything with a CdS cell, from old Luna-Pro meters to 35mm SLRs. Some lower-end point-and-shoots have CdS cells as well (by the 1980s, most good meters had gone to silicon cells).

An oft-overlooked second cause of underexposure is the wrong batteries. Millennials and GenZers who grew up in an era where there were only alkaline and silver batteries might not know that most SLRs using button cells were designed to run off 1.35v mercury cells (say a PX625). Mercury cells have extremely flat voltage until they die, which means that a meter need not have further voltage regulation (or much of it). They also have an almost infinite shelf life. Unfortunately, producing and disposing of them were not good for human health or the environment, and they went away.

Putting a 1.5v alkaline of identical size, like an A76 (or 1.55v S76 silver) cell in one of these mercury-cell cameras – even if it is the same physical size – will overwhelm the meter and lead to a stop or more of underexposure until the battery drops to 1.35v. But over time, the alkaline battery will drop below 1.35v and start to overexpose. So unless you catch the battery at just the right moment in its life, it won’t work too well.

Ironically, this same thing would not happen when you stick an old mercury cell in a modern camera – because there is more resiliency in the circuits of a modern camera to account for battery voltage fluctuation (alkalines start high, stabilize at a lower voltage, and eventually die).

I blame this battery-voltage problem a bit on battery manufacturers, who glibly published guides showing that their alkaline button cells fit into all manner of older cameras. They do fit, but they don’t work well. Of course, it’s a moot issue because you can’t buy 1.35v batteries except as highly corrosive zinc-air hearing aid batteries. You don’t want those in your camera. The second they run out of power, they begin to ooze nasty goo.

In terms of countermeasures, you can counter the CdS cell aging by recalibrating the meter. This will give you some more years, but it won’t last forever. If you don’t want to recalibrate, just try cutting the ASA in half on the meter.

Recalibration can also work for incorrect battery voltage, provided that the meter has enough adjustability, but the easier solution is to have a zener diode installed in line with the battery. This drops 1.5v to 1.35v. There are some adapters that incorporate these – you would use a slightly smaller silver cell in the adapter.

Anyway, I hope this helps you understand those muddy negatives were not (entirely) your fault.

Venus Laowa 15mm f/4.5 Zero-D Shift W-Dreamer FFS Review

Months after it came out, there is nothing really out there on this lens except for some stock factory pictures and writeups that are predominantly plagiarisms of promotional materials, “why don’t you get to the point” videos, and vapid clickbait reposts of said videos. There are a couple of decent reviews, but I don’t feel like they were really pushing the lens.

So in the Machine Planet tradition of going off half-cocked, I will give you the dirt on this after spending a day shooting the Nikon F version of this in -3º C weather with a Leica Monochrom Typ 246. No need to start simple, or even with the camera body on which this lens (ostensibly) was intended to mount.

A Typ 246 is an all-monochrome, FX, 24mp Leica mirrorless body that can shoot to 50,000 ISO without looking even as grainy as Tri-X. It has a short flange distance, which means that virtually any SLR lens can be adapted to it. It has pattern, off-the-sensor metering, so there is no messing around with exposure compensation or trying to figure out why shift lenses underexpose on Nikon F100s and overexpose somewhat on the F4 (yes, this is true). It also has an inbuilt 2-axis level that you can see in its EVF, a welcome aid when it is cold outside. These features mean that you can use a shift lens handheld. This lens is a ~22mm equivalent on APS-C (DX) nd I believe a ~30mm equivalent on Micro Four-Thirds. This probably is not a lens for MFT, since it is absolutely massive on any MFT body. In fact, it seems really big for a Sony Alpha body…

The physical plant

The first thing you ask yourself about this lens is, “how could a lens out of China possibly cost $1,199?” But this is a shallow (if not also culturally chauvinistic) observation. Your iPhone is made in China, and there is nothing wrong with its lenses. Or apparently, you iPhone’s price. Venus is something of a newcomer in the camera lens market, and it uses the designator “Laowa,” which is a reference to frogs in a well (not kidding… check out the Facebook page). The idea, they say, is to look up at the sky and keep dreaming. That, of course, is possible where the cost of manufacturing a zillion-element, double-aspherical lens is relatively low. The front ring reads “FF S 15mm F4.5 W-Dreamer No. xxxx.” FFS of course stands for “Full-Frame Shift.”

The 15/4.5 lens is available in a variety of mounts. Word to the wise: get the Nikon F or Canon EF version. Nikon has the longest flange-to-focal distance at 46.5mm, meaning that it has the shortest rear barrel, meaning the maximum compatibility with mount adapters (with simple adapters you can go from Nikon to any mirrorless camera, including Fuji GFX). Canon EF is a close second at 44mm. If you have an existing Canon or Nikon system, just take your pick. Your worst choice is buying this lens in a mirrorless version (Canon RF, Nikon Z, or Sony FE), since you will end up locked into one platform exclusively. Remember that this lens has no electronics or couplings, so adapting it is just a matter of tubes.

The lens comes packed in a very workmanlike white box, just like $50 Neewer wide-aperture lenses for Sony E cameras. This is a mild surprise, but nobody maintains an interest in packaging for very long after a lens comes in. Nikon lenses, after all, come in pulpboard packaging that strongly resembles the egg cartons your kids might give to their hamsters as chew toys. The instructions end with the wisdom, “New Idea. New Fun.” And that is very on-point: for most people, photography is about fun.

The lens is a monster, and it’s not lightweight. It feels at home one something at least the size of a Nikon F4 (and balances well on one, btw). On an M camera, you need to employ the Leica Multifunction Grip (or something similar) to effectively hold onto the camera (this combo can still break your wrist…). Weight as ready-to-mount on a Leica is 740g. For comparison, a Summilux 75 (the original gangster heavyweight for M bodies) is 634g. An 18/3.5 Zeiss ZM Distagon is 351g.

The front element is bulbous. And you must remember that you cannot simply set the camera nose down, since (1) the glass sticks out, (2) there is no filter protecting it from damage from the surface the lens rests on, and (3) this is a really expensive lens. This is also a lens whose lens cap you cannot, must not, ever, lose. It is solid, pretty, bayonets on, and probably can’t be replaced. It is not clear why – if you can mount a 100mm filter holder to the front of this lens – that such a holder is not simply built into the lens – if for no other reason than protecting the front element.

I mounted mine with a Novoflex LEM/NIK adapter, which is pretty much the only dimensionally accurate anything-to-M adapter. Proper registration is a big deal because a 15mm lens cell has very little travel from zero to infinity.

The Novoflex’s stepped interior suggests a place to stick a filter — since the lens has no front filter threads — but for reasons discussed below, this is not a big deal. And in the back of the lens, it’s gel filters – or nothing.


First, this lens is easy to handle wearing gloves. Which, given the temperature yesterday, was fortunate.

This is a little bit different from a traditional PC lens, on which turning a knob would make the shift. The Venus has a third lens ring – behind the focus (front) and aperture (middle). This is different from a Nikon PC lens, for example, where the aperture is front and focus is rear.

The shift ring cams the lens back and forth along the direction of shift, 11mm in either direction. You would think this would interfere with focusing or using the aperture ring, but in reality, it’s likely the only ring you would be moving on a shot-to-shot basis. This lens has such staggering depth of field that you will put this roughly on ∞ and forget about the rest, and you will probably turn it to f/8 and leave it there. Shift is locked with a knob that looks like the knob Nikon uses to shift the lens.

There is a small tab that locks the rotation of the shift mechanism, which can be set to 0 for horizontal pictures, 90 or 270 for verticals, and 180 if you are strange. It moves in 15-degree increments. A 28/3.5 PC-Nikkor does not have a lock, which occasionally can make things exciting if you start framing and realize that your shift is now 45 degrees from vertical (or horizontal).

The aperture ring has light clicks and is logrithmic (unfortunately) – each stop at the wide end is the roughly the same amount of movement, but things do bunch up at f/11, f/16, and f/22. It’s puzzling in this price range.

The focus ring has a short throw, infinity to 1m being about 1cm of travel. Set it and forget it. If you’re looking at pictures on the net and wondering why the focusing scale makes it look like the lens focuses “past” infinity, it’s a mystery.

  • At the hard stop and no shift, the lens is indeed focused at infinity. But the scale is off.
  • At the hard stop and shifted, the focus is still correct at infinity.

I verified optical focus at the stop both on a Nikon F4 with an adapted red-dot R screen (grid/split prism/f<3.5), the Nikon F4’s phase-detection AF sensor, and with the Leica.

To understand the strangeness of the Venus focusing ring, consider that in an old-school, manual focus lens, you typically have three things in synch for “infinity.”

i. The lens is at its physical stop, meaning you can’t turn the focusing ring to make the optical unit get closer to the imaging surface. This is normally an inbuilt limitation. It is not typically a critical tolerance on a lens due to the two adjustments below.

ii. The lens is optically focused at infinity, meaning that an infinitely distant object is in-focus on the imaging surface. This is usually a matter of shimming the optical unit or in some lenses or using a similar adjustment for forward/backward position of the optical unit.

iii. The focusing scale reads ∞. In the old days, this was simply a matter of undoing three setscrews, lining up the ∞ mark with the focus pointer, and then tightening the screws. If you are a super-precise operator like Leica, your lens stop/focusing ring/scale are made as one piece and so precisely that no separately applied focusing scale is required.

When a manufacturer of modern autofocus lenses (or even high-performance manual telephotos) is confronted with design constraints, it generally omits the relationship (i), the physical stop, and (iii) the infinity mark. It will do this on telephotos (like the 300/4.5 ED-IF Nikkor) because heat-related expansion might otherwise prevent a telephoto from actually focusing on a distant object. With AF lenses, hard stops are not the best for the fallback “hunting” mode — and with the user relying heavily on AF anyway, there is no need to inject another thing to check in QC. By the way, on a lot of AF lenses, the focus scale is basically just taped on – eliminating the setscrews.

Cheaper lenses, like the Neewer I-got-drunk-and-bought-it-on-Ebay specials, don’t really couple any of these things precisely. The stop is set so that you can optically focus past infinity and yet when the lens is optically focused at infinity, the focus scale might read somewhere between 10m and the left lobe of ∞.

For reasons that are frankly baffling, Venus uses a different idea entirely, which is to match the collimation and the stop – the hard part – and yet to omit matching the focusing scale. This provides no ascertainable benefit unless the focusing ring is not just a ring but an integral part of the focusing mechanism. I don’t see any setscrews, so maybe this is the explanation. And really, something in this price range should have things line up, even if it means adding one more cosmetic part to make the focusing scale adjustable.

On the surface, this design choice is frustrating to perfectionists and degrades the value of the focusing scale. That said, in 99% of pictures you take with this lens, you’re going to set it to the hard stop and get more than sufficient depth of field for close objects just by virtue of stopping the lens down.

If you are reading this, Venus, the focus scale design needs to be fixed.


There was nothing remarkable about shooting this lens, which is a good thing. As long as you realize it has no electronic connections or mechanical control linkages to the camera it… works like any Leica lens.

They used to advise that PC lenses had to be used on tripods. That was true when (1) cameras did not have inbuilt electronic levels and most did not have grid focusing screens, (2) viewfinders blacked out at small apertures and with shift, and (3) through the lens meters freaked out at the vignetting.

None of those conditions exist with mirrorless cameras, where viewing is off the sensor, focusing is by peaking, and signal amplification makes it possible to frame a picture even closed down to f/16. On the Leica Monochrom, for example, it is very easy to use this lens – no different from using any other with the EVF. The M typ 240 series cameras have inbuilt levels that are visible through the EVF; the later M10s do too. A visible level is absolutely essential if you are going to shoot this (or any shift lens) handled.

Speaking of the sky, the sweep of this lens, its vignetting, and its self-polarization mean that in many pictures, the sky will be darker than you expect. Most people will not mind. I suppose you could mount a 100mm filter to the front or a gel in the back, but this is highly dependent on what you are trying to do, your tolerance for the expense, and the light response of your camera.

One thing you begin to realize is that if you switch from a 28mm PC lens to a monster 15mm PC lens, you go from shifting exclusively up to avoid converging parallels – to also shifting down to cut down on excessive sky. You might think of the shift as the “horizon control” adjustment. The challenge is, at the end of the day, that this is still a 15mm lens with a super-wide field. Unlike a 28 or 35, you need to think about both the top and the bottom of the picture.

One other thing you will see in a couple of the pictures in the article is that a slight forward tilt of the camera can make things look slightly bigger than they should at the top. This is user error and the unintended opposite of converging parallels.

With wide lenses, you need to watch 3 axes of alignment – left/right tilt, front/back tilt, and critically, parallelism to the subject. This last point can be a major irritation with this lens since cameras don’t typically have live indications of whether you are square with the subject.


Note: WordPress scales pictures down and not in a flattering way; if you want pixel-level sharpness comparisons to other lenses, there are other reviews out there that do that.

The jury is still out here – at least until I get a sunny day and hook this up to an A7r ii, which is more representative of cameras most people would use with this lens. But the foreman is asking some of the right questions for the verdict we want. Field curvature is also something that needs more exploration. As it stands, though, the lens seems to be more than sharp enough for its intended purpose.

All wide-angle lenses have degradation toward the edges of the frame. Many cameras don’t have the resolution to make it obvious, but this is a well-known reality. Shift lenses have a bigger image circle, which gives them comparable performance (not stellar, but comparable) performance to normal lenses over a wide area. They are “average,” but average in the sense that they are reasonably sharp over the whole frame, not super-sharp in the center and falling apart at the edges.

Put another way, a shift lens for 35mm is essentially a medium-format lens. Medium format lenses do not have the highest resolution – because they don’t have to. But they do deliver their performance over a wider field. But by shifting the lens, you are bringing lower-performing edges of the field into the 35mm frame.

But… you protest… my AIA book has all of these perfect architectural pictures of xyz buildings.

No, it does not. First, they are tiny, and that with the halftone screens, they give off an impression of being much sharper than they are in reality. Second, if you look at an original print closeup – pixel-peeping on prints was never normal when people made prints – you’ll see that the pointy top of that building is fuzzy because someone used a 4×5 or 8×10 camera and shifted it to accommodate the tall object in the picture. But seeing it in a gallery or an exhibit, you would (i) be standing back from it and (2) paying attention to the center of the frame, which is where most pictorial interest is. That pointy top is in your peripheral, not central, vision. The central part still has adequate performance for the purpose.

For this reason, the sharpness of a shift lens can only really be understood in terms of shift lenses or shifted medium- or large-format lenses: if you leave a little sky above a tall building, you don’t have to confront so much the inevitable performance falloff in those last couple of mm of the frame. All shift lenses have this issue, and it goes both to illumination and sharpness. Go to maximum shift on anything, and you can expect image degradation at a pixel-peeping level in the top third of the image.

So what? This is the same thing that people with shift-capable cameras have faced since… forever.

And why do shift lenses exist? The answer is pretty simple; it’s easier to get to a good result than many types of post-correction. If you plan to do post-correction, you have to use a much wider lens than you normally would, you have to crop (because tilting an image in post makes the field a trapezoid that must be rectified), and you have to have an accurate measurement of the scale of the original object. On this last point, if you don’t know the XY proportions of a building’s windows, perspective-correcting it in post-processing will result in awkward proportions. So if you have a 42mp image that needs serious correction to make a tall building upright and correctly proportioned, you may end up with less than 20mp of image by the time the process is over. And since tilting magnifies the top edge of the image, you are magnifying lens aberrations in the process.

Post-correcting does have one advantage, though, which is that you can use a lens that performs highly across the frame. I do it a bit with the Fujinon SWS 50mm f/5.6 on a 6×9 camera: when you are working with a wide lens, from a 96mp scan, you have plenty of resolution to burn in fixing one degree of inclination. This is not so much the case with a 35mm lens on a 35mm body.

As of this writing, Leica just announced in-camera tilt correction for its 40mp M series cameras. This is an idea long overdue, since the camera knows what lens is mounted (or can be told) and the inclinations at the time of the shot. s.

You don’t escape post-processing with shift lenses, particularly when you have to fix skew between the image plane and the subject (rotation around the vertical axis of your body). PC lenses also have distortion to contend with, and simple spherical distortion sometimes seems less simple when the “sphere” is in the top half of the frame. But the corrective action is far, far milder.

The complication with digital and shift lenses is diffraction. With a shift lens, you need a small aperture to even out the illumination and sharpness, but that small aperture cannot be smaller than the diffraction limit without degrading sharpness overall. That’s f/11 on a Leica M246 and roughly f/8 on a Leica M10 or a Sony A7r II or A7r III series camera.

A further complication with all shift optics is dust. Small apertures, smaller than f/5.6, tend to show dust on the sensor. Shift optics have at least one extra place for dust to get into the camera body (the interface where the shift mechanism slides the two halves of the frame).

Sharpness seems to peak at around f/8 on the Venus, which is not surprising. The sharpness itself is good as well as consistent until the very margins of a shifted frame; I did not need to turn on sharpening on Lightroom. As with all lenses, apparent sharpness is higher on closer objects – because their details are bigger in the image, pixel-level aberrations are not as apparent.


The goal is “Zero-D(istortion).” The lens gets close – and better than most SLR lenses in this range, and certainly better than a lot of SLR PC lenses – but not completely distortion-free. Unshifted, it looks like a relatively mild +2 in Lightroom (the shot above is uncorrected except for slight horizon tilt). Shifted might be a little tougher to correct, but you can either create a preset for Lightroom or use some of the more advanced tools in Photoshop.


Yes. It has flare when light hits it wrong. Check out the picture above. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it is an irritation. Luckily, it does not seem to happen very often,

Value Proposition

There is a real tendency to abuse superwides in photography today, usually to disastrous effect due to the inability of photographers to properly compose pictures. Companies like Cosina/Voigtlander have fed into this, as has Venus, with about a dozen high-performing superwide lenses that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. “Wide” used to mean 35mm; now “wide” tends to mean 24mm, and “superwide” is below 15mm. The Venus has all of the vices of a wide-angle lens, notably posing the question, “what do I do with all this foreground?”

By the same token, shift lenses are very specialized tools. Old-school shift lenses were the least automated lenses in their respective SLR lines; new ones are marginally more automated (mainly having automatic apertures), but they are staggeringly expensive.

The Venus somehow manages to combine the best and worst of all of this. You cannot argue with the optical performance as a shift lens, but the lack of automation (and frankly, ease of use) makes it just as miserable to use on a native SLR body as any old-school shift lens was. You’ll note where people complain about this lens in reviews, that’s what they complain about. I’m not sure that merits much sympathy; you know what you signed up for. What makes the Venus more fun is that it connects to mirrorless bodies that, by virtue of their EVFs, remove a lot of the irritation that would occur using the lens on a traditional SLR body.

Whether you will always be shooting 30-story buildings from 200m away is a matter of your own predilections, and that might be the deciding factor. Unless you are really good with wide-angle shots – or are a real-estate photographer in Hong Kong, you may not have a very solid (or at least somewhat economically viable) use case. But in reality, the market is not driven by professional needs. If it were, the only things that would ever be sold would be full-frame DSLRs, superfast 50mms, and the “most unique wedding I’ve ever seen” presets package for Lightroom.

Bottom Line

Pros: solid build quality, clever shift mechanism, wide angle of view,* reasonably low distortion, actually collimated correctly for its native mount.

Cons: non-linear aperture control,** odd (incorrect?) focus scale calibration,** facilitation of compositional errors you never previously imagined possible,* bulbous front element, no inbuilt filter capability, and a lens cap that only mounts one way.

*Qualities that would be inherent to any lens this wide with shift capability.

**Qualities that do not typically belong on lenses in this price range.

Adobe face recognition: beat the system?

The Kobayashi Maru test is not a test of character unless you see the world in terms of “go down in dignity with the [star]ship” or “be a coward.” Or whatever Nick Meyer thought the outcomes would be. Captain Kirk won the test by not accepting a binary decision tree. This is exactly how you should approach any problem that looks like it is unwinnable. Rewrite the simulation. Use a screwdriver as a chisel.

One of the ways you can do this is to ignore the process as presented completely, decide your goal state, and then selectively use whatever is available to get there. Face recognition is exactly such an exercise. Adobe would have you select one of two suboptimal tools (Lightroom Classic or Lightroom) and have you build out the recognition process and leave it in the platform where it started.

Not believing in the no-win scen-ah-ri-o (sorry, Shatner), I started with the first principle:

What is the purpose of face recognition in photos?

This is actually a really good question. The way the process on Lightroom proceeds (either version), you think the purpose is to name every person in every photo and know what precise face goes with every name. This view assumes that you are a photojournalist who needs to capture stuff. You will go bat crazy trying to achieve this goal if your back catalog is hundreds of thousands of pictures and you use Lightroom Classic (“Classic”) as your primary tool.

Let’s face it – you are (at least this year) a work-at-home salary man, not Gene Capa. The real utility of face recognition is to pull up all pictures of someone you actually care about. You need it for a funeral. For a birthday party. For blackmail.

That does not actually require you to identify precise faces, just to know that one face in the picture is the one you want. You already know this person’s name and how the person looks. And even if you didn’t remember, a collection of pictures of that person – no matter who else was in or out of the shot – would have one subject in common. You would know within a few pictures who John Smith was.

Taking this view, a face identification is just another keyword.

It’s not even 100% clear that you would ever need it done in advance, on spec, or before you had a real need to use it.

What do we know about face recognition in LrC vs LR?

Our statement of problem: 250,000 images of various people, some memorable and some not. I want to get to being able to pull up all pictures of John, Joe, Jane, or Bill. And I want this capability to last longer than my patience with Lightroom cloud. I want to be able to ditch Lightroom, even Classic, one day and change platforms without losing my work.

When you are figuring out a work flow, or trying to, it’s helpful to consider what your tools can and cannot do; hence, with Classic and Cloud, start breaking down the capabilities.

  • Both recognize faces with rudimentary training.
  • Cloud is much faster than Classic and tends to have fewer false hits (due to Sensei)
  • Both can do face recognition within a subset of photos.
  • Classic can an apply keywords to images that Cloud can see/
  • Cloud cannot create keywords that Classic can see.
  • LrC has better keyword capabilities, period.
  • You can make an album in Cloud and have it (and its contents) show up as a collection in Classic.
  • You can put things in one of these items in either program and have it show up in the other.

Do these suggest anything? No? Let’s step through.


Let’s talk about some preliminaries that no one ever seems to address.

Order of operations. If you are starting from zero, you should identify faces in the import every time you import something. Not only are names of near-strangers fresher in your mind, it also prevents the kind of effort we are about to explore.

What’s my name? You must have a naming convention and a normalized list of names. It doesn’t matter whether you pick someone’s nickname, real name, married name, whatever. Whatever you decide for a person must be treated consistently. Is my name Machine Planet? Planet Machine? PlanetMachine? This has implications for Classic, where you can’t simply type a two-word name (Bill Jones) into the text search box without getting everyone named Bill and everyone named Jones. For that you might want to concatenate both names together (unless you want to use keywords in the hierarchical filters). In Cloud, the program can sort by first and last name, so there is value in leaving these separate.

Stay in the moment. Although you might be tempted to run learning against every single picture you have at once, this leads to a congested Faces view (or People view), slow recalculation on Classic and a lot of frustration. Do a day or a week at a time. Or an event. This will give you far fewer faces from which to choose, and fewer faces to identify. Likewise, if there is a large group picture in the set, focus your effort on tagging everyone in it. This will set up any additional Identified People in Classic and will kickstart Cloud.

Who’s your friend? You next need to decide who is worth doing a lot of work to ID. You are not going to do iterative identification (especially on Classic) with people you don’t care about. Leave their faces unidentified. Or better yet, delete the face zones. This is a very small amount of effort in a 200-shot session or a 36-shot roll of scanned pictures.

Start in Cloud. This part is not intuitive at all. Go ahead and sync (do not migrate!) all your pictures to Lightroom mobile. This consumes no storage space on the Adobe plan. If there are a lot that have no humans, use a program like Excire Search to detect pictures with at least one face pointed at the camera. This is a reasonable cut, since there are few pictures you would bother tagging that have one face, solely in profile.

The synch process will take forever. I don’t think there is a lot of point in preserving the Classic folder structure when you do this; I would just make a collection like “Color 2000-2010” in the Classic synched collections and dump your targets into that (n.b. a collection in Classic is just an alias to your pictures; making a collection does not change the folder arrangement on your computer). We are only using Cloud for face recognition; its foldering is too rudimentary and inflexible to be useful – although right-clicking in Classic to make folders (or groups of folders) into synched folders will let you adopt the Classic organization in Cloud, albeit flattened, without re-synching. Again, not very useful. Also, for reasons described further on, you want to have a relatively clean folder panel in Cloud because you will be making some albums, and you don’t need extra clutter.

Ok. Let the synch run its course, or start your identification work on Cloud as it goes. Cloud will start aggregating what it thinks is the same face into face groups, which you then must name. Start naming these according to the convention you chose. I would put the People view to sort by “count,” which naturally puts the most important people at the top (you have the most pictures of them). Let’s say you name one face group “John Smith.”

Crossing over

The process so far is pretty generic. To start crossing things over to Classic, you need to make folders (“albums”) in Cloud. Start with one per important person (“___ John Smith”). Search for that person. Dump the search results into the album. You can always add more later.

Now flip back to Classic. You will see collections under “From Lightroom.” Voilà! One of them is “John Smith.”

Now you can do one of two things.

You can simply make a quick check to make sure there are no pictures included that obviously are not John Smith. But after you do that, or not, you can mass-keyword everything in that collection “John Smith.” If you named John Smith consistently with any pre-existing Classic face identification of John Smith (i.e., not two different variations of the name), your searches will now have the benefit of both tools. Save those keywords down to the JPG/TIFF files (Control-S/Command-S) or XML files (same), and you will forever have them, regardless of whether you leave the Adobe infrastructure. In fact, many computer-level file indexes can find JPGs and TIFFs by embedded keywords (which the index sees as text).

Congratulations. Now you’ve highjacked Sensei into doing the dirty work on Classic.

With a small but not overwhelming amount of creativity, you could use a technique like this to cross-check your past Classic calls.


Second, if you’ve missed your OCD meds, you can also use the results of this to inform your Classic face-recognition process.

a. Select this “From Lightroom–>John Smith” collection and flip to Faces view in Classic.

You are now seeing all “Named People” and all “Unnamed People.” Unnamed people are shown by who Photoshop thinks they are most likely to be. You can sort Unnamed people in various ways, but however you do it, you want to get John Smith?s in a contiguous section where you can then confirm or X out. By going into this in the From Lightroom–>John Smith collection, you are not waiting for recalculations against every photo you have – just the ones that Sensei thought should have John Smith.

So the cool trick is this: if you see 106 pictures in From Lightroom–>John Smith, then you know you are probably going to be done when you have 106 confirmed pictures of him. Or done enough. John can only appear in a picture once. There will be a margin of error due to how closely Classic can approximate Sensei, but you can get to about 90% of the Sensei results without a lot of trouble. This is a bit better than Classic on its own, where more pictures of John Smith at an earlier age might be really buried down in the near matches. Further, Classic is something of a black hole for similar pictures because unlike Cloud with Sensei, there is no minimum required similarity score to be a suspected match.

b. You can, of course, drill down on John Smith as a Named Person. You don’t have much control over how “Similar” pictures are ordered (I believe it is degree of match for the face), but here, you can confirm a much more concentrated set (after you decide how to deal with the “fliers” who are not John Smith).

One other technique I have developed while in the “confirming” stage is that it may be easier to confirm en masse (even if some are wrong) down to the point where the “not John Smiths” are about a third of the results in a row of Similar faces. A small number of “fliers” can be removed by going up to the Confirmed pictures, selecting them, and hitting delete. Trying to select huge swaths of unconfirmed faces in Similar and then unselecting scattered fliers tends to really slow things down. As in Classic really slows down as it tries to read metadata from everything you selected.

Incidentally including and then manually removing a few fliers from Confirmed does not seem to affect accuracy (because every recomputation of similarity is on the then-current set of Confirmed faces – changing that set changes the computation). If you have 99 pictures that are right and one that is wrong, it won’t even change the accuracy appreciably. If in Confirmed, you have 995 pictures that are John Smith and 5 that are not, again, the bigger set of correct ones will predominate future calculations.

Next, at some point, especially with siblings, Classic is going to reach a point where Jane Smith (John’s Sister) is going to show up as a lot of the “Similars” with John Smith. When this happens, go back to Faces (top level, always within From Lightroom–>John Smith), click on her, and confirm a bunch of her pictures. When you go back to Named Person John Smith, a lot of the noise will be gone, and hopefully more John Smiths will be visible in a concentrated set you can bulk-confirm.

Crossing back (optional)

I did write “iterate,” right? You might want to keep your Cloud face IDs as complete as possible, since there is not 100% correspondence between results from the methods used by the two platforms. This is relevant if you have already trained Classic on John Smith.

  1. In Classic, note the count in your From Lightroom–>John Smith collection. Say it’s 106 pictures.
  2. Do a search from your Classic Library for all pictures of John Smith. If you used a space in the name, add Keywords to the field chooser menus (via preferences) and select that line.
  3. Drag all of those results to From Lightroom–>John Smith.
  4. Flip to Cloud. They are now in that “John Smith” album. Or they will be when it synchs.
  5. Select all the pictures in the “John Smith” album.
  6. Hit Control-K (or Command-K) to bring up keywords and detected/recognized faces in the “John Smith” album.
  7. Now name any faces that are blanks – but should be John Smith.
  8. Now from the All Pictures view, search for John Smith and drag all his pictures to the John Smith album.
  9. In Classic, check your count. If it’s say 128 pictures, now, that means that Cloud took your examples and found more John Smiths. And now they are ID’ed in Classic as well.
  10. Switch to Faces and confirm the 22 additional faces as John Smith. Now both systems have identical results.

Calibrating your efforts

For searches for random people, Cloud is still the best because it requires very little training. That said, for randos, you are using a tool that does not give you any permanent results. That’s probably ok for people who you don’t really care about. Or if you plan to be on Cloud forever.

For close friends and family, you may just run the “Crossing Over” exercise. I would do it in groups: do a bunch of albums on Cloud (say seven people), then do a bunch of naming on Classic (their collections), etc.

If you are really a neat-freak or compulsive, you could use the “Crossing back” step. But Sensei is reasonably good at what it does, so the marginal effect of adding Classic results to Sensei may not be much. If you have Excire, you might use it to find pictures that look like a picture of John Smith, which will give you a third means of concurrence.

The thing to remember about face recognition is that it is miraculous but also imperfect. It has to detect a face and then it has to identify a face. It doesn’t see how you see. Efficiency works at cross-purposes to accuracy.

But it is still vastly better than trying all of this on your own.

Face-off: Apple vs. Adobe face recognition

So here is a question: what’s the best way to catalogue and tag your pictures? Is it Lightroom Classic? Lightroom Cloud? Is it Apple Photos? Is it something else? Maybe it’s a lot of things. If you are a high-volume imaging-type person, you’ve probably wondered how to deal with things like tagging people. The most macabre application, of course, is the funeral collage. But say you have tens of thousands of pictures of family members and want to print a chronological photo album. Then what? Face recognition features in software may be your best bet. From a time standpoint, they may be your only choice. The problem is that different software has different competencies.

Apple Photos

Something like Photos is designed to group pictures, more or less automatically, around people, events, dates, or geography. Think of it as your iPhone application on steroids. Photos is not big on user control. It is not even engineered to do anything with folders except display them if that’s how photos were imported.

Face recognition in Photos is incremental and behind the scenes: it only finds faces when you are not actively using the program, and over time, it batches up groups of pictures which you confirm or deny as a named person in your Faces collection. To establish your Faces collection, you have to put names on faces in a frame where faces have been detected. This tends to mean that face recognition proceeds by which faces the user thinks are most important. As it should be.

Unlike Lightroom, Photos does not presume that detected faces are unique. It applies a threshold such that if it detects Faces A, B, C, and D, and they are close enough, they are treated as the same (unnamed) person. As such, naming one person can have the unintended effect of tagging a bunch of false matches. Either way, you can error correct by right-clicking the ones you see that are wrong.

My assessment of Photos is that it is not suitable as a face-recognition tool if you have hundreds of thousands of images, for several reasons:

  • Its catalogs are gigantic, even if you use “referenced” images. Photos loves it some big previews, no matter what you do. For scale, my referenced Photos library is 250gb where my entire Lightroom Classic library folder is 40gb (both excluding original image files – so Photos sucks up 6x the space).
  • The face recognition process appears to be mostly (if not completely local), it runs in spare processor cycles, and in my experience, can cause kernel panic. Hand-in-hand with this is the fact that you can never actually turn Photos off. It’s part of MacOS.
  • There does not appear to be any indication that Photos actually writes metadata to files. So when you move to a new application, you’re starting from zero.
  • You can’t really use it in conjunction with a grown-up asset management system like Lightroom.

Photos is, however, good for generating hilariously off-base collections of photos (memories) with weird auto-generated titles (“Celebrate good times” with a crying baby as the cover photo). Or collections based on the date a bunch of pictures taken over decades were scanned (such as my 42,600 pictures apparently taken on December 12, 2008). I actually have no idea where these are generated. But they are funny.

I’m sure Photos is really good for those funeral collages, though.

Lightroom Classic (LrC)

Something like Lightroom Classic (LrC) is designed around manipulating, filtering, and outputting large numbers of pictures at once. This is, indeed, the killer app for handling large volumes of photos, and becomes a single interface for everything. It’s OK, but not great, for face recognition.

To put it mildly, LrC’s face-recognition is processor- and disk-intensive. The best way to use it is to use it on a few hundred photos at a time so that your identifications don’t swamp everything in your collection in a recalculation. LrC is good at showing you different faces all at once, as single images, so you can get cracking on identifying as many new “people” as you have patience for in one sitting.

The top level of the Faces module shows you (i) “Named People” and (ii) “Unnamed People.” You need to name at least one “Unnamed” person to start. After a while, the system will try to start putting names on “Unnamed” people. If you have a Named person named “John Doe” and are presented with an image that is “John Doe?” you can click the check box to confirm it and the X box to remove the suggestion (clicking again removes the detected face zone, such as if the system mistook a 1970s stereo for someone’s face).

Once you have done that, you can drill down on a “Named” person to see what pictures are “Confirmed” and what pictures are “Similar.” Again, to move from Similar to Confirmed requires an affirmative call. Here, you only get a check box. There is no “Not John Doe” option, which means that every possible match is shown, ranked in what LrC thinks is similarity. This is actually problematic because as you confirm more pictures, the number of “Similar” pictures rises exponentially. This puts a huge computational drag on things.

Wherever it happens, confirmation of a face’s identity is an affirmative process that is repeated for each picture (you can select several). This prevents false IDs based on grouping disparate real people into one “face,” but it also makes tagging excruciatingly repetitive. And slow. Highlighting faces to group-confirm or identify can have the “highlight” lagging far after your click. And God help you if you click six pictures and then try to type a name into one to rename all six. It works about half the time. The other half, it auto-completes with a totally unintended name. If you accidentally confirm the wrong face for a given name, you can highlight the errant thumbnail and hit Delete (this is not well documented).

Critically, the top level of the Faces module (where you see all named people as thumbnails) is the only place where the system puts a “most likely name” on unnamed people. Otherwise, looking at any particular “Named Person,” the same person – Bob – might show up as a similar for John Doe. And when you switch to Richard Roe, Bob will show up as a “similar” for him as well. This is part of the reason why people for whom you have 10 actual pictures always show up with 20,000 “similars.”

A big advantage of LrC over other solutions is that you can see and tag faces within specific folders, collections, or filmstrips. This lets you make context-sensitive decisions about who is who. For example, I am pretty sure that my kids did not exist in the 1970s. Or I might know that only 6 people are represented on a single roll of film that constitutes a folder in my library.

When a name is confirmed on a picture, that name is written as a keyword to the metadata in the library. It appears that XMP files (if you chose that option for RAW files) are written with the actual coordinates of faces in the picture, which allows some recovery if you have to rebuild a library from scratch. The important thing is that a picture is keyworded with the right names. Face zones are nice but not quite as critical in the long run because in reality, you only really care whether a picture contains John Doe or Richard Roe, not which one is which in a picture of both.

Always save your metadata to files if working with TIFFs/JPEGs/scans (Command+S) or “always write XMP” with RAW camera files. This helps keep your options open if you want to get divorced from Adobe. Or if your Lightroom library goes wheels-up and you have to rebuild from zero. There is no explanation for why this program just doesn’t write an XMP for every file. It would make things easier.

Lightroom [CC or “cloud”]

What a hot mess. The only thing that really works about Lr CC is face recognition. The rest of it is a flashy, underpowered toy that despite being “cloud” based can still consume massive amounts of hard drive space and processing power. If your photos are in the Adobe cloud, or synched from LrC, the program works with smart previews.

Adobe’s Sensei technology is a frighteningly good face-recognition system. In the People view (mutually exclusive with the Folders view), it takes all of your photos and groups them according to what it thinks is the same face (like Apple Photos). Put a name on that face, and it might ask you if this other stack over here is the same face. It is extremely fast (because it runs in the cloud). Sensei can also identify objects, and to some degree, places in photos. Naturally, the most important people in your life have the highest counts, and you can sort unnamed faces by count and work your way down. Things break down when 400 people have 15 pictures apiece, though…

The system, though, has some amazing limitations that are pretty clearly engineered in by a company that is trying to move everyone to its walled garden. Two of these four bear directly on the issue of why a hard drive – and keeping your own metadata local – is your ladder out of that walled garden.

First, metadata transfers to Lr are one-way. The program can absorb keywords applied in LrC, but not recognized faces/zones, and nothing you input in Lr can ever rain down on LrC. There is no programming-related reason that prevents metadata from flowing the other way, aside from intentionally engineering this out of being possible — so that you are eventually forced to store all your stuff in Adobe’s per-month-subscription storage space. Because paying a monthly to use programs that aren’t really being updated – like LrC – was not bad enough.

Second, you cannot force face recognition on arbitrary subsets of your library, at least very efficiently or intuitively. If you came at this program assuming that it would be like LrC, you would conclude that there is no way to do this. Instead, you have to select a group of pictures and hit Command/Control-K (for “keyword” – how intuitive…) to see the faces present in the picture or group. Lr then shows you the single picture with the face boxes – and the collection of faces in the picture on the right panel. This is great – but why is it so hard to find? You also get the impression that when you do this, the face boxes are generated on the fly. But the critical defect here is that the “named faces” that are shown as thumbnails are even smaller than the other face thumbnails in Lr.

Third, when asked to “consolidate” two faces, there is no way to flip between the two collections. This is an oversight – you are not asked to name a person based on one photo, but for some reason you are asked to make a consolidation decision that could have catastrophic consequences — based on a single fuzzy thumbnail. If in doubt, sit it out.

Finally, you can’t push face recognition data back down to LrC. So if you use LrC, you basically end up with completely separate face-recognition data sets based on the same photos. This is a big-time fail.


Well, in terms of applications you can access for a Mac right now, the options are ok – but not great. Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we look at a way to leverage LrC and LR CC against each other to speed things up.

Guerilla darkroom 2020: what to do with all that stuff

So three months went by in the blink of an eye, and I didn’t get around to Part Deux. Ok. Better late than never. Now that you have your unreasonably large arsenal of cheap darkroom hardware in place, let’s talk about some developing techniques.

The Box-Step. I had a professor in graduate school, a colorful character, ex-Marine, current pilot, and general hellion. He would write obscene puns into his own seating chart and then read them back and ask what other hellion wrote them. And then chuckle. There was a Jennifer day. There were pokes at city-slickers who didn’t know what a screw augur was (I’m pretty sure that he left Nebraska before he ever saw one in person). But I digress. His greatest line was that in school, they make you think that everything would be [a tango] but that when you get to the real world, it’s all a [box-step]. The bracketed words here stand in for obscene descriptions of something else. If you’re over twelve years old, you’ll get the joke. But Professor X did have a point: there is too much fanciness and not enough solid technique. And that goes for developing.

Developer. Get out of your head that you are going to do 1+200 standing Rodinal development. Put pyrocatechol-whatever in the back of your mind. Caffenol. Copex Spur-whatever. Buy a packet of D-76 (or equivalent) or a bottle of HC-110 (1+31!) and take it from there. Dig up your film manufacturer’s data sheet. Not “the Massive Dev Chart,” which I can tell you firsthand has some unusual and very obviously wrong information in some entries. Start with basics. Start with the book. The brave men of Kodak and Ilford killed themselves working on these meticulous tables. Do honor to their memory.

Mixing. Mix your developer well. Don’t be afraid to use very warm water with D-76. It’s actually shockingly difficult to break, cooling time is harmless, and solidified powder at the bottom of a bottle is unrecoverable. Let your developer sit overnight so that it returns to room temperature.

Temperature control. Here’s a life hack: if your darkroom is within 5 degrees C of any of your data sheet’s developing times, you temperature control your developer (only) and leave the others at room temperature. This is part of the reason you let the developer sit overnight. Five degrees C is not enough to make a difference for stop bath, fixer, or anything else. Most basements seem to be at almost exactly 20 degrees C, which is why that is a good temperature to pick. Most tap water is easy to get close to 20º C because it is traveling through pipes in earth that is 20º C.

To rapidly warm developer, put the bottle in a tub of warm water and monitor the temperature periodically. Do not let the thermometer touch the sidewall of the bottle, and agitate the bottle every few minutes.

To rapidly cool developer, pour it over a reusable “ice pack,” be it the kind that is like a foil sheet of ice cubes or a solid blue plastic block. This way the temperature goes down without dilution. Otherwise, you can lower a plastic bag full of ice cubes into your container of developer to cool it down.

Development time. Like I said, if your room temperature is within range, pick the time/temperature combo on the data sheet and run with it. If you don’t have a data sheet, a good starting point for normal-ish developers and normal-ish b/w film is 7 minutes at 20º C.

How do you calculate that time? The first question is “small tank” or “big tank.” Generally, for an eight-reel Paterson, you’ll use the big tank. Surprisingly, you will be fine using that for the 2-reel version. Small versus large tank in Kodak parlance is mainly a function of how easy a container that size is to agitate. You will not be rapidly flicking 2.5L of liquid in a tank with one hand.

Do you start the timer when you start pouring developer in or when the tank is full? It actually doesn’t matter, as long as you always do it exactly the same way. I generally start the timer when the tank starts to sound full (you will hear a gurgle) and take the first couple of seconds of the timer to fill the top.

Fill level. The tank should always be full enough that at least 1/3 of the light-trap cone (this is Paterson, remember?) is filled with developer. Do not do the bare minimum. Modern films have surfactants (like soap) in them that make them wet more evenly. This means bubbles. And your bubbles must have a place to go, above the film. Unless you want weird dark spots on your clear 35mm skies.

The burp. Get that lid on. Press hard in the middle to force the air out and make a tight vacuum seal. Hit the bottom of the tank on something reasonably firm (but not concrete!) so that any air bubbles release from the film. Do an initial agitation per the instructions. Then open the lid and let the bubbles bubble over the sides of the light trap cone. Reclose and start your cycle.

Development and agitation. Programmatically, this is how I would execute a 7-minute development with a 2.5L (8-reel) tank. This is based on “large tank” assumptions. The large tank format provides less streaking through 35mm film holes, and you can pretend it is more like standing development. In my exercise, these are the times shown on the timer (any waterproof digital kitchen timer will do, preferably one that counts up after it runs down to 0).

  • 7:00 (not running yet) – start filling tank from a container that can pour fast, like a wide-mouth bottle (see previous article).
  • 7:00 – start timer with tank almost full.
  • 6:50 – agitate and “burp” the tank.
  • 6:05-6:00 – end over end 5x
  • 5:05-5:00 – end over end 5x
  • 4:05-4:00 – end over end 5x
  • 3:05-3:00 – end over end 5x
  • 2:05-2:00 – end over end 5x
  • 1:20-1:15 – last real agitation
  • 0:15 – pour straight down into a wide-mouth container
  • + 0:10 to +30 – fill with stop bath and rapidly agitate

You’ll note that this seems none-too-precise. The fact is that it takes about a 10% difference in developing time to make for an obvious difference in the end-negative (N+1 needs 25%, and N+2 generally 50% extra). 7 minutes is 420 seconds. So even if you have 15 seconds of “imprecision” in the process, it is not that impactful (example: how long is the stop bath taking to fill?).

If you can do the process consistently, then all you have to do after that is dial back your total time as needed to adjust the contrast of the negatives.

Push/pull processing. Shooting Tri-X 400 at EI 320 is pointless. It’s not significant for most purposes. Shooting Tri-X at 1600, though (see top picture here) can be helpful. Push processing generally brightens the highlights by making them more dense on negatives. It does not, repeat, does not really change the speed of the film, which is defined at midtones and below. So you tend to get normalish pictures from mid to high but a lot more blackness below middle grey. Pushing is good for overcast days or flat light; it is not very helpful if you generally lack light. Pulling supposedly improves shadow tones, but modern, straight-line films just need more exposure.

Standing processing. This is mainly for when you have an emergency or can’t identify what film is in that bulk canister. Standing processing tends to compensate all over the negative so you have a moderate tonal range. The downside is that it is a moderate tonal range that tends to defeat the “curve” built into the film and is miserable to print on RC paper. Standing processing takes a long time. Standing processing can lead to streaking. Standing processing sucks if you don’t actually need it. As a good friend of mine told me, standing development is good for taking pictures of lit filaments in lightbulbs and outside of that, covering screwups. Like communism, everyone thinks this would be a good idea if someone could just execute it correctly.

Pyrocatechol. Isn’t it amazing that a chemical that causes cancer can’t cure people’s poor photographic technique?

Caffenol/urinol. I’m not sure if the latter is real (I read about it in a lab book), but if you’re too cheap for HC-110 or Rodinal, you probably shouldn’t be using film.

Exhaustion. If you stick to 20 rolls of film per gallon of developer, it’s generally unnecessary to adjust the development times for successive batches. You pour the 2.5L of used back into the big container (1 gallon, 5L, etc.) and then pour from there for the next batch. Why does this work? Because 2.5L of developer is almost double what you actually need to develop 5 rolls of 120 or 8 rolls of 135. This is because exhaustion of developer is a function of film area (expressed by Kodak as square inches it’s about 80 for a roll of 120 or a roll of 135). It’s not how many rolls. It’s how much surface.

Stop bath. The only thing that stop bath does is change the pH of the film to arrest the development. Indicator is best. Ilford odorless is the best of those. You could probably use vinegar or even water to do this, but stop bath is cheap, and there is no reason to take chances.

Fixer. Fixer usually takes the solution back up to acid (a couple fixers are actually base in nature), which is why it is an archiving problem. Start with the fixing time on the bottle, but you can also take the cut (and undeveloped) end of a piece of film, drop it in the top of the tank, and monitor until it goes clear. Double that time, and your film is generally fixed.

Fixer does not take the purple stain out of film. It removes the unexposed silver, converts the exposed silver, and takes off the anti-halation backing, which is the milky opaque stuff on the back of the film. Anti-halo dye is generally removed by the developer and the fixer remover. And failing that, just put your b/w negatives in the sun for a little while.

Fixer remover and rinse. This process neutralizes the acid fixer and finishes off the dye. Take the light-trap cone out of the tank. Fill your tank with plain water and let it sit for a minute. Dump and refill with water plus a capful of Heico Perma-Wash. Let that sit for five minutes. Dump it out and see all that purple dye go down the drain. Your final rinse is 5 minutes or eight changes of water. That’s it.

Wetting agent. Photo-Flo 200 is designed to be used at 1:200. Try to understand what that means. Generally not more than half a cap to a tank. Too little, and it doesn’t work. Too much, and it gets gummy and nasty. May I recommend this? If your arm-span is long enough, hold the film in a U over a vat of water and Photo Flo. Run it back and forth in the U, dipping the “vertex” into the solution. This technique uses far less solution and also prevents Photo-Flo from getting all over your tank and reels. This U technique – which I cadged from an old Kodak instruction manual on developing orthographic film – helps make sure that the solution sheets off quickly, especially when you finish the cycle (I recommend 10-15 cycles of the U). For this solution, I would recommend distilled water with the Photo-Flo, although you can still get occasional water spots no matter how pure the water.

That wetting-agent contamination is not a big deal (note as above that “bubbling” when you add developer is actually coming from a coating on the film, not some insignificant amount of Photo-Flo residue), but it it doesn’t take much to hang up the little ball bearings in plastic reels.

Hang dry. Hang up your film in a reasonably humid area (basement or bathroom). This allows slower drying (less violent curling) as well as helps cut down on dust. Never, ever, never let drying negatives be so close to each other that they can kiss. If the emulsions get stuck together, it’s game-over.

See how you did. If your negatives are too dense overall, cut back on exposure. If they are thin but have blown-out highlights, you need more exposure. If they lack contrast, extend the development slightly. If they look bulletproof, cut the development slightly. This is a learning process. Note that in an era of scanning, overexposure is not your friend because scanners struggle with dense silver hightlights on negatives. For optical printing, you want normal if not beefier negatives, since there is a ceiling for improving contrast (5+ on Ilford papers).