Light L16 computational camera: trypophilia
Let’s cut to the chase. There is no better way to spend $250 on ebay on a camera, unless old engravings of Seraphim, pictures of honeycombs, or lotus seed heads frighten you. This is a camera that took a thrashing in early reviews, maybe because reviewers didn’t get past the short learning curve (or never made it to firmware 1306, where the image processing hit its peak.
The Light L16 computational camera was another one of those late 2010s products that ended up being a flash in the pan, in no small part because the insect-like attention span of internet reviewers was insufficient to understand what a genius piece of engineering this is.
Imagine 16 x 15mm diagonal sensors in two focal lengths, a laser, and a high-intensity LED illuminator. Now imagine that this camera does a steroidal version of the iPhone’s Portrait mode, selecting focal lengths to use, building depth maps, and cranking out photos that are 80 megapixels (at 28mm and 69mm fl equivalents), 52mp at peak performance, and minimum 14mp. The camera can crank out a 14mp JPEG from this (using 5 cameras’ data), or you can run it through the Lumen software to get staggeringly large DNG files (n.b., not Bayer DNG files, but it’s not like you would ever need to up-res files this large using Adobe).
The basic hardware is an ARM64 Android 6 device with a bunch of highly specialized imaging equipment added. The dozen-plus cameras are randomly distributed over the face of the unit and tied together with unit-specific calibration information. To dispel one persistent myth, these cameras cannot addressed by generic Android imaging apps like OpenCamera. At least they cannot if you want to focus at distances other than 20cm.
The Light includes a hefty Li-Ion internal battery and 256Gb of internal storage (recall that this listed at $2k in 2017). The camera’s hardware includes GPS, so it is capable of geotagging your photos (yeah!). The GPS function, though, is very hard on the battery, especially with the final release of the firmware. I managed to side-load a couple of navigation apps (Sygic and Here WeGo), and they function as expected (thought GPS ping interval might be too slow for driving).
Ergonomically, the Light is far better than a cell phone – because it has a dedicated shutter button and a place to grip the camera on the right side (left side, you need to be careful with your fingers – but the camera will vibrate if you block one of the lenses). As to the controls, if you can operate a camera on a mobile phone, you can handle it. Focusing can either be by face recognition or arbitrarily touching a subject on the screen.
From a semiotics standpoint, the camera just looks like a big cell phone. It does not actually attract very much attention. In what you trade off in image quality from a full-frame A7rii, you make up for it in not standing out too much.
The flat form factor makes this pocketable (in the back pocket of Levis or a coat pocket). You will want to keep the camera in its soft case (or use at least a rear screen protector) because it’s all glass son both sides.
Battery life is good; it is supposed to go all day; the four units I tested NIB after 5 years of storage all charge and discharge as expected. It really behooves you to actually power down the camera when not in use – otherwise, depending on what features you have enabled (GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth), it may wear itself down gradually.
Note that unlike the Lytro Illum (review almost done on that too!), you might want to actually focus this camera because everything is shot at f/2). Pictures come out with a simulated aperture of f/15.2 – meaning almost everything is as sharp as a tack, but when you dial back the effective aperture, you will see exactly where the camera focused. An Illum, by comparison, lets you refocus arbitrarily with arbitrary aperture settings, but in doing so, it throws away almost 90% of the data it captures.
Image quality is why you came here, right? Rather than retreading subjects seen in other treatments, here are the points I think that others have missed on this camera:
First, this is generating between 52 and 80mp at maximum resolution (28-35mm, 69-75mm), the rest being digital zoom, with attendant resolution loss (150mm is 12mp). This is real mp, not your cellphone binning 3/4 of the data from a 48mp sensor. The purpose of having 52mp is to brutalize images with perspective correction without leaving many clues. Interestingly, there is little variation in quality between center and edge, but then again, since these images are composites of 10 or more smaller images, it makes sense. And it is good pixels. Click on the picture below (no, no distortion correction…) and blow it up to 100% (it is full-resolution). Every brick is sharp, even in the extreme corners.
Second, the color is phenomenal, like the old Kodak 14ns and Leica digital M cameras. Slightly disappointing is that no version of the firmware has the “Baz Luhrmann Elvis Movie” color rendering.
Third, as you can see in the 28mm shot below, apart from the slight camera tilt on my part, there is little if any distortion. This should be expected, since there is a lot of stitching and blending and correcting going on. That compositing is 99.9% invisible – and the 0.1% is when the camera is operating at 80mp – and manifests as things like a mismatched one-pixel-wide line in a limestone block wall (Light probably decided that 35 and 70 are where you are 100% free of any artifacts). That said, anyone’s chances of seeing a 1-pixel-wide artifact on an 80mp image, especially at web size are…. zero.
Fourth, the L16 runs at much, much higher ISOs than a cell phone, more like a camera with a 1″ or APS-C sensor. Above is ISO 2400. If you have ever seen EXIF data from an iPhone, you see low ISOs and very long shutter speeds (tied to the miniscule focal length of lenses). This is due to the physics of sensors – your cell phone has tiny pixels that can’t capture many photons – hence the shutter needs to be open a lot longer.
Fifth, forget everything you think you know about apertures. The L16 returns a simulated aperture of f/15.2, which is really different groups of cameras focused at different distances, computed and focus-stacked into massive depth of field. The reality is that all the cameras are shooting at f/2 (they are all 28mm or 70mm FOV). You don’t get diffraction from this “very small” aperture because it is not really very small, but you do get tons of depth of field even in low light. The tradeoff is that depending on the subject-background separation, you may not be able to reduce depth of field completely in post (it depends on a lot of things: subject/object distance, difference to the next furthest thing in the frame, complexity of the focused subject). I would guess that in most situations where you would use an L16, you would take the deep depth of field and run with it.
Finally, in its highest-performance use case, it’s still partially beholden to sensor size. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it just means that Light pictures just come off a little grittier than a Leica full-frame at higher ISOs. This is not so much the case at other focal lengths (like, say, 150mm), where there is more averaging.
It is crucial that you have a platform to run the Lumen image conversion software. This does not run on either of the most recent MacOSes (11 or 12); however, it runs fine on Windows 10 and 11. I use it in Windows 11 on a Parallels VM on a Mac Studio Ultra and export the DNGs to a folder that gets picked up by Lightroom.
One thing to bear in mind is that the Lumen software is not great at simultaneous exports of files from several L16s. It can import them fine, but the way exports work, if files from two cameras have the same native filename (L100006, for example), the second one to export overwrites the first one. So think in batches. Or export from one camera at a time,.
The software is not particularly fast when run on a VM (it takes a couple of seconds to export each file); if you are a particularly heavy user, consider a dedicated machine. You know, like the one you already have to run your Flextight, Pakon scanner, etc.
Firmware (guide for the soft-minded)
The firmware on Light cameras is difficult to upgrade these days because the update server is offline. So you are likely going to be stuck with the camera features you have on day one.
Unless you are prone to serious self-doubt and OCD freakouts, 18.104.22.168 is the latest firmware that actually impacts the on-image performance of the camera. Since I have used cameras from 22.214.171.124 to 126.96.36.199, here is the marginal value of each additional feature:
- Priority modes: We added Shutter priority and ISO priority modes to give you easier access and more control when shooting on the go. –> You won’t use this.
- AWB presets: Choose from five different white-balance presets when composing your scene. All options—from Incandescent to Fluorescent to Daylight to Cloudy (and Auto)—are viewable in real time on the L16’s touchscreen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
- On-camera editing: Now you can adjust color, contrast, tint and more as soon as you snap your photo. Bonus: These basic edits will even carry over to Lumen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
- Histogram: Curious whether you’ve captured the right exposure? With the L16’s new histogram feature, you’ll know as soon as you open the photo in gallery. –> You won’t use this.
- Metadata: Find your photo’s EXIF data much easier in gallery mode. –> You won’t use this.
- On-camera rating: Pick your favorites on the go. The camera’s 5-star rating system will now carry over to Lumen. –> I would highly recommend editing only on a computer.
- Pocket assist: The L16 can now detect once you’ve stored it away in your jacket. It will automatically turn on standby mode to save your battery. –> Causes camera to freak out.
- Image-quality indicators: We added a couple new icons in gallery mode to show you when you’re viewing a preview versus a higher quality, processed image. –> Not actually useful.
- Low-light assist: When you’re shooting at a higher ISO in auto mode, your L16 will now utilize image stacking to capture significantly more detail and much less noise. –> Doesn’t seem to do anything.
- Tripod assist: The L16 now has a sixth sense. When the camera detects stability and stillness in auto mode, it will lengthen the exposure time and lower ISO to improve image quality. –> Not helpful; can lead to slow shutter speeds on handheld shots.
- Basic editing tools: We added the ability to crop and rotate your images on camera. All of your edits will save automatically and transfer to Lumen when you import. –> Helpful if you get bored; otherwise a gimmick.
- Tutorials: We updated the L16’s onboarding tutorial to help you get up to speed faster. –> This camera isn’t that hard to use; these popups are annoying.
- Key focal length: We made it easier to zoom to 75mm, which provides the best edge-to-edge resolution. –> It might be a touch easier, but this was actually enabled in 188.8.131.52.
- Usability: A few of our basic camera modes got a facelift. It should be easier to see which mode you’re shooting in. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.
- Home screen: We made a few tweaks to the L16’s home screen experience, making it easier to access settings, software updates, and the feedback app. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.
- On-device depth editing: We added the ability to adjust depth effect on your L16. You can now change the effective aperture from f/15 to f/2 and add that beautiful background blur. You can also change the focal point using your L16’s touch screen. –> A little gimmicky.
- Video recording (beta): Your L16 can now record single-camera video at 1080p and 30fps. The video is based on using either the 28mm camera or the 70mm camera, allowing you to zoom all of the way from 28mm to 150mm. –> Your iPhone is better for video.
- Editing presets: Customize and create presets to easily edit your images in your style – all on your L16. Presets include color and geometric edits. Any changes will carry over to Lumen and be applied to the full (up to 52MP) resolution. –> Much less punishing to edit on Lumen
- Power save mode: Maximize your L16 battery life with new Power save mode in the Android menu. The advanced settings even let you customize which functionality is turned off –> Almost makes up for the fact that this firmware is more punishing on battery life.
- Capture experience: We updated the capture screen to include resolution (approximate megapixels) and handshake warning for low-light. –> Somewhat helpful for people who can’t remember that 35 and 75 are the best, 28 is good too, and 150 is the worst. Also, what can you do with a handshake warning?
- Lumen deletion: Now you can delete images in the L16 gallery directly from Lumen while your camera is plugged in. –> Helpful if you shoot 1,200 images between trips to the host software.
- Android third-party apps: We added options to allow you to install your favorite Android third-party apps. Please note that the L16 does not have access to the Google Play store. In order to download these apps, you must do so by downloading them from a third-party Android app store. –> Ok. There is probably a use case for this (see my note on nav software), but it’s not obvious. You can download installers from apkmirror.com and install them. You need software that runs on Android 5.0 plus; not everything will install on this machine, and no camera apps work.
The L16 is misunderstood, under-appreciated, but also a little bit tricky. It is a good substitute for a mobile phone camera, and if you can trade some grain for a lot of flawless, a good substitute for a Sony A7rii if you use fairly normal-length lenses. The software is not the easiest, but the reality is that once files are in DNG, you’ll be doing everything in Lightroom anyway.
Trick: punch balloons and Heliopan filters
It is terrible to find yourself beset by Heliopan and B+W filters that keep coming loose but don’t have slotted retaining rings so you can get a grip. At best you have rattling glass. At worst, a ring screwed in from the back can let the glass hit the front surface of some lenses or jam your Hexar AF’s focusing system.
Here is a quick trick: take a popped (and clean) “punch ball” balloon (the type children have with the rubber band attached to the top), lay it it over the retaining ring you want to turn, and push your fingers to the edges (so you are pressing laterally on the retaining ring through the balloon.
Now rotate the retaining ring (with your fingers) clockwise (locking ring facing up) – or turn the filter mount counter-clockwise (the lens glass and retaining ring should always rotate in the same direction). After you get a feel for it, the ring will screw in and secure the glass.
For extra never-come-unscrewed-again-ness, add a tiny drop or two of Loctite® Purple to the threads of the retaining ring (you have to take it all the way out before you do this). Make sure that you get all the thread locker off the glass before it dries and be sure that ring is screwed down tightly.
By the way, this trick can also work with retaining rings that are slotted, as well as lens beauty rings. Be aware, however, that for high-value optics, you want to be very, very careful in touching the glass with rubber that could be contaminated with grit.
Get a grip: the 107-year debacle of small-camera ergonomics
er·go·nom·ics | \ ˌər-gə-ˈnä-miks: an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely (Merriam-Webster, 2021).
In the industrial setting, ergonomics is a matter of avoiding unnecessary fatigue, injuries, and discomfort. It is intended to promote both safety and efficiency. Ergonomics was first invented in 1949, after Barnack before the Leica M camera. There does not seem to be any suggestion that any camera made before about 1970 cared much about this science. Certainly, the Leica M camera – and most other small cameras – ignored this important principle of design.
Did you know that having an opposable thumb is not necessary to grip a camera the way Leica intended? It should not be a surprise that primates and even lower animals like raccoons have the right types of hands to grab cameras. Because small cameras are not actually designed for human hands. Let’s discuss small (6×9 and smaller) camera ergonomics in six rubrics.
1. How do you hold this?
Even before ergonomics had a name, small camera design went off the rails when small cameras were invented in 1914. Oskar Barnack – who being born in 1879 undoubtedly had shorter fingers than 21st-century camera users – designed the Ur-Leica with slippery round ends encased in a textured surface. This leicapithicus wetlzarensis was designed around a focal-plane shutter that did not cap and an arrangement that required a separate viewfinder. It was light, compact (65mm top to bottom), and for its weight and intended function, workable. Because you had to put the lens cap on between shots, it was not a speed demon; you were going to take the camera down from your eye to reset for the next shot costing a king’s ransom on rare double-frames of 35mm movie film. You could almost call it the mini 4×5 of its day.
There is a trope about the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle ultimately tracking back to the width of a Roman horse’s haunches. Whether or not that is true is a much more difficult question than tracing our conception of how a “small” camera should appear. The Platonic form of a camera is, after all, a Leica M3, which for dimensional purposes is a taller and heavier Ur-Leica, matching dimensions to the single millimeters. The Leica inspired many also-rans from Europe and Japan, some of which turned out to be better, but all of them have the same formula: small squarish body, lever wind, viewfinder on the left. Most fixed-lens rangefinders were actually smaller than the Leica; once you substitute a leaf shutter in the lens for a focal-plane type, the body can be even tinier.
What’s wrong with this design? If the correct method of holding it it requires a paragraph-long written description, it is not a tool that is ergonomic. Leica’s own user manuals illustrate the poor hand-fit in pictures, but the written camera-holding instructions call into question whether it is the human who is being forced to conform to a tool.
Look at a Leica III or Leica M manual. Actually, look at a bunch of them. Needless to say, the right way to hold a Leica has evolved since the days of Barnack. The first suggested M grip, which tracked how the III was supposed to be grasped, completely disengaged your left hand from the focusing ring, meaning you would never be able to refocus and re-shoot quickly. The III series has you cupping the bottom corners of the camera in the fleshy parts of your palms. At least one version of the M3 manual says nothing about how to hold the camera; the more detailed one has the corner-to-palms technique again. If you look at other brands’ camera manuals from the 1940s to the 1980s, you will see a dizzying array of hand-cramping contortions.
The right hand position has stayed mostly the same. What you are supposed to do with your left has changed over time. Here is the end point of Leica’s evolution of descriptions with the M7 and M8/M9 (the M8 is shown; the M9 has the same description with the little Ikea Man holding the camera):
“As a practical accessory, we recommend the Mx hand grip which allows you to hold the Leica M[x] extremely steadily and to carry it with one hand/while keeping your hands free.” This begs the question – why can’t you hold an M extremely steadily without another $400 doodad? And how was it a hands-free device for the M[x]?
The record – at least as expressed in successive generations of Leica manuals – reflects a variety of “right” ways to hold a camera, then “suggested” ways (M6), then “correct” (M7/M8/M9) and with the M240 and onward, no guidance. The M240, in fact, moves the discussion of the optional M hand grip to the “accessories” section at the end. I guess given the number of Leica owners with postgraduate degrees, it’s part of the 400-level course you were supposed to take before you started at this school.
What you are even supposed to do with your right thumb seems to be a matter of interpretation, some manuals showing it, some not. The M6 manual references resting your thumb on the lever “in the standoff” position. The M240 and M10 have a nub on which to rest your thumb. The M10-D has an ersatz M2/M3 focusing lever/thumbrest whose position does not quite match an original lever kicked out. The new $300 Leica thumb-rest looks puts your thumb in the same position as the M10-D. As noted at the beginning of this article, the user of one of these cameras does not need an opposable thumb. This camera might require a totally different type of hand.
Hint: if you have long fingers, a good one-handed grip on an M240 is to put your index finger on the trigger, your middle finger on the function button, and your ring finger on the front of the camera. The camera can sit on your curled little finger (imagine a C parallel to the bottom of the camera). Your thumb rests vertically against the grip nub/control wheel. See? You can control everything, and your ring finger is still available to accidentally press the lens release.
They say if you injure your leg and then limp enough, you don’t notice it any more. This is probably the only reason that Leicas (or similarly-configured rangefinders) are thought to be “ergonomic” – it’s just the way it’s been for 100 years. Were “ever ready” cases really useful for protection – or were they makeshift “fat grips” around ill-shaped cameras?
As much as things like the Argus “Brick” are lambasted for their funny shapes and palm-poking corners, something that fills the hand is not all bad. Ask anyone who shoots Olympic pistol. But you can also ask Nikon and Canon, who figured out in the late 1980s that a fat right grip is advantageous, even if your winding motor is so small it fits inside the takeup spool. In fact, Leica uses that “fat grip” design on most of its non-M digital cameras.
3. The pocketability conceit*
“But wait, the Leica [or insert camera name here] is pocketable.”
Baloney. This might be true of a tiny minority of camera/lens combinations, or 1980s-style pleated trousers, but Leicas generally have not been “pocketable” since the advent of the long aspherical lenses if not since the M3. And grip-ability does not necessarily change the dimensions that would make something “pocketable.” Is a Hexar AF less pocketable with its front grip ridge than a Leica M3 with its flat front? Hardly. Even among other manufacturers of M-mount cameras, the ergonomics have been better, whether it is a palm swell on the back door, a grip ridge on the front of the right grip, or even something like a rubber covering. I suspect it is more Leica’s user base than the company that drives the need to keep things the same. Witness the fate of the CL and the M5.
Interestingly, what encouraged (and maybe forced) small cameras to become more ergonomic was the incorporation of batteries and motors into the right side of the camera, something that came in with cameras like the Konica FS-1, Canon T-50, and Nikon F4. Even in non-motorized SLR cameras, grip nubs began appearing on the right front of the camera (as on the Nikon FA). When you think about putting coreless motors and electronics largely on one side of the camera, and motor-driven shutters in the middle, the mechanisms in the bottom become considerably less complicated (open a manual-wind, mechanical SLR’s bottom plate to see the assemblage of shutter-cocking levers, pinions, and gears). And by a weird twist of fate, the lithium cells best-suited to powering cameras (like the 2CR5) had a chonk factor that made them better candidates for placement in a fat grip.
This brings us to a cruel irony: point-and-shoot cameras in the late 1970s and 1980s frequently had better ergonomics than what we would call “prosumer” cameras today. In fact, many of them have better ergonomics than the Leica, long-vaunted as the enthusiast’s camera. And I write that as a Leica user.
On the other end of the “small” camera spectrum are the ultracompact 35mm cameras (Rollei 35, Contax T*, Nikon 35ti, etc.). In a sense, you can cut them some slack because their major purpose is to be pocketable most of the time – at the expense of handling and durability. These were designed to fit in a sport coat at the racquets club or the horse track, to be shot for fifty or so exposures, forgotten by the owner, sold at his estate sale, rediscovered by some internet influencer, and then driven to stratospheric resale prices that hold up until someone discovers one of the following things: (1) despite often brilliant optics, they are miserable to use; (2) they are not as durable as once thought. Weight versus size is also a factor in ergonomics – and many of these cameras are lightweight and despite their shortcomings, not impossible to use.
*Ok, I only wrote this heading because the Pocketability Conceit either sounds like an old-series Star Trek episode name or a Robert Ludlum novel title.
4. O Camcorder, where art thou?
My maternal grandfather, being a doctor, retired at age 55 – assuming that like most men of his generation, he would be dead at 60. This did not come to pass (he was “retired” for 25 more years…), and after a couple of years of golf got bored and moved into TV production at his local station. Being an early adopter of almost every technology that existed, he would get the latest and greatest video equipment every year. This meant at every Christmas, he would open the trunk of his Lincoln Continental and among other gifts, pull out last year’s latest and greatest video equipment and leave it to the good offices of my parents.
One thing that was always striking about video cameras (and later camcorders) – especially by contrast to still cameras – was the amount of effort put into making them comfortable to use. This was important because the early cameras were really heavy. Pistol grips and shoulder rests for the “camera” were de rigueur when the “recorder” part was a huge heavy hard square silver purse, and even when recording decks merged with cameras in the mid-1980s, the emphasis was on one-hand control operation and anything that made it easier to hold a unit steady for a prolonged period. Zoom controls have always been able to be operated by the same hand that “presses the button.”
The “camcorder” design ethos bled over into consumer “bridge” cameras – the ones designed to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot and full-blown SLR. The Canon Photura, Ricoh Mirai, and Yashica Samurai – variously 35mm SLR and viewfinder AF cameras – acquired camcorder-like morphology, particularly pistol grips that were either parallel to the lens or adjustable. They did not experience some Chicxulub-level event; rather, they just didn’t catch on. In retrospect, it is not terribly surprising; they were expensive, didn’t look like “cameras,” and tended to be bulkier than their blocky cousins.
In an ironic twist, the replacement for camcorders was an atavism. But it was also a reversion to something else. When DSLRs, particularly Canons, became popular for video, they retained their DSLR shape – which was in turn based on a film camera shape dictated by a 35mm frame and the necessary film drive. This spawned an industry of workarounds – cages, grips, handles, and all kinds of other accessories that serve as indictments of functional design. Sony’s selection of a “quasi SLR” design for the A7 series is baffling; the a6x00 series is both more comfortable and (lacking a silly fake pentaprism bulge) true-to-function (as is the new A7C), especially when misused for video.
5. Left eye, right eye, leave me alone
About 25-30% of the human race is left-eye dominant, being made up of about 1/3 left-handers and 2/3 people who are right-handed but use their left eye for tasks involving critical focus or alignment. Eye dominance cannot be changed; this is a matter of hard-wiring from an early age. It is not a matter of visual acuity; it is a how efficiently one eye communicates with the brain.
For people who are left-eyed, cameras with left-side viewfinders automatically cause ergonomic problems with the use of top-mounted winding levers and cutesy “thumb grips.” On most such cameras, winding the camera requires you to move your eye from the viewfinder so you do not poke yourself in the right eye with a winding lever. This is disruptive. The Retina IIc and IIIc, as well as the Canon VI-T avoided this by moving the winding actuator to the bottom – and the Konica IIIA and IIIM avoided this by moving the winder to the front. Although the original Leicavit trigger winder was designed to speed up the knob-wind of the III series, the Leicavit M:
…allows experienced photographers to shoot up to two frames per second without taking the camera from their eye
The only reason you would need a bottom trigger winder to take two frames per second without taking the camera from your eye… is that you are left-eyed. This is likely the same reason that people tolerated Leica’s relatively sluggish motor winders.
Perhaps the most befuddling thing about left-viewfinder cameras is why users are in manuals are shown with both eyes open (left eye just hanging out there; right jammed against the viewfinder glass). For a right-eyed person, this means that your mind will be trying to reconcile a reduced viewfinder picture with an unaided non-dominant eye while supporting the camera against half your face. Consider also that the center point between your two eyes is now even further from the lens axis. If anything, the left eye should be closed.
If you look through the viewfinder with your left eye, conversely, you can jam the camera in a 3-point brace between your nose and eyebrows and block your other eye with the camera body. And it is here that people of Neanderthal ancestry have a secret weapon: brow ridges.
Blessed are those, I guess, who are left-eyed and have access to left-viewfinder cameras without winding levers. For they shall inherit the stable hand-hold.
SLRs are more egalitarian: with their center viewfinders, they exist to oppress everyone. And we shall know their users by the leatherette and film-minder-window patterns impressed into their noses.
6. TLR/MF/UC – WTF?
There is only one reasonably ergonomic twin-lens reflex: the Minolta Autocord, which allows you to hold the camera and focus without shifting your left-hand grip — and to fire and advance with your right hand. This is a massive improvement over the Rolleiflex’s insatiable need for constant hand-shifts (or having three hands if you use the pistol grip). Even in the Rollei’s end-state – the 2.8GX with its huge focusing knob – the operation is barely comfortable. The persistence of TLRs after the war is a strange thing. Germany always wanted to make medium-format SLRs, and a twin-lens was a way of approximating that before the mechanical engineering caught up. But the TLR, especially when used at waist-level, causes strange camera-to-subject angles for humans and is not the easiest thing to focus (at least Rolleis are not – an Autocord ground glass is slightly easier). Rollei stopped developing twin-lens cameras in the early 1960s, eliminated serial production of the F in 1976, and moved on to its own SLRs. Note that the user of the Rollei in the diagram below is not wearing a tie. This is an important safety tip. Neckties had a tendency to get ingested by the Automat’s film-detection roller, leading to asphyxiations. That is why seasoned Rollei shooters only wore ascots or bowties.
But more seriously, medium format has always struggled with how its cameras should be configured, starting with the Brownie that kicked off the 120 format. Some are boxes (like Hasselblads), some are oversized 35mm cameras (Fuji 6×9, Pentax 6×7). The earlier Pentax can be fitted with a bulky, heavy, and still somehow uncomfortable wooden grip. The 67ii finally got the message about having something of a right-side grip.
Other medium format cameras are standardized around Graflex-style film backs that were designed just after the war and make what would otherwise be slim cameras extra thicc. If a Horseman SW612 had a body with integrated film transport, it would probably be slightly wider but a lot thinner front-to-back. The Graflex-style roll back almost always requires an extended or set-back viewfinder so that you can actually put your eye to the eyepiece. Its principal virtue is that it is narrow, but it also sports a complex film path that brings you to this: if you have interchangeable backs, they are sufficiently slow to load that you probably need more than one.
There have been a few scattered ergonomic successes, like the Vivitar flash grip, the Linhof 220, and those camcorder-like SLRs and point-and-shoots from the 1980s. But those are exceptions to the apparent rules of camera-making: (1) all cameras must be boxes or cubes that don’t fit in the hand and failing that, larger versions of smaller un-ergonomic cameras; (2) all winding must require a hand off the camera or disrupted framing; (3) thou shalt never use the [left] side eye; and (4) if you don’t like what we’re offering, stuff it.
Fuji’s X-series aperture rings?!
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.