Archive | December 2012

Lomo Belair-X 6×12: In Hand

Lomo Belair X 6x12

This writeup is based on the midrange Jet-Setter model ($188 after all early-adopter discounts; $299 regular price; $254 current discounted price).  The Lomo Belair-X is definitely built to a price point (cheap to manufacture, expensive to buy) but is relatively well thought out. It will take a couple of weeks to put it through its optical paces, but these are some notes on construction – and some things that have not been brought up before in “reviews.” Lomo does a good job of making the first two pages of Google search hits point to its own commercial web sites. Then there are gadget sites regurgitating Lomo press releases. Then some Flickr discussions devoid of any frame of reference relevant to people who use bourgeois cameras.

Chassis. The Belair-X is based on a two piece chassis: front and back. The underlying structure is black polystrene; the covers are fairly heavy (almost 1mm) aluminum sheet with a nice sandblasted finish.  The back comes off completely via two levers on the bottom; it has the hot shoe attached and connects to the shutterand front shell via two contacts. The mount for the viewfinders is on the top; it’s a hexagonal opening into which you insert the foot and twist 90 degrees. It’s actually a pretty well thought-out way of attaching a finder without losing it in use. The frame mask (6×6, 6×9 or 6×12) drops into the open back. Leatherette is synthetic (as you can imagine). There is an off-center tripod socket. The bellows release is a chrome button in the center of the bottom.

Winding. There is a two-position ruby window (6×6/6×12 and 6×9) that is always open to one of these settings.  To load the camera, you pull up on the winding knob (not intuitive, but there are always the directions…), insert the tongue into the take up reel, turn a time or two, close the back, and look for the frame number in the window).  The knob is ratcheted in the crudest way possible (quality cameras have a roller ratchet that makes no noise). The only tension on the film seems to come from two foam pads around the supply spool. It is unclear how the film stays tight on the takeup spool (usually, cameras have leaf springs pushing inward on the roll at each end). There is no pressure plate whatsoever, leading to the question of just how flat the film will stay. Small apertures like f/8 or f/16 do not put tremendous demands on film flatness (at least at the center of the frame), but even so, this is s a reason why you might want to reconsider buying the new expensive Russian glass lenses for this camera.

Bellows. Shockingly, these are made of cast rubber. They also smell a little like new tennis shoes or a rocket-style air blower.  These are obviously less labor-intensive to make than folded leather, they are heavier, and they will probably not pinhole – just catastrophically fail by cracking some day (so take good care of them). The scissor-strut that supports the bellows is solid and mechanically simple. It is as about as stable as a Polaroid auto pack camera bellows and folds simply by pushing the buttons at the crossover point (top and bottom of the struts) and collapsing. Interestingly, as you collapse it, the front standard slides left and then right and then into position. It is hard to gauge front-standard alignment because the metal trim piece is slightly warped (the underlying piece that actually holds the lens looks properly aligned).

Front standard.  This assembly contains two button cells, the shutter, and the lens mount. The shutter (top speed: 1/125 second) is essentially a #1 press shutter (more than 30mm wide) sunk about 1cm into the front standard. With no batteries, it shoots at 1/125. With batteries, it will go down to several seconds. The action is not as rough as some people would have you believe; as with many a target pistol, there is a long and/or heavy takeup with a tiny bit of additional pressure tripping it. There is also a tiny click that happens right before the shutter trips – the easy way to shoot this without excessive vibration is to press until the tiny click and then trip with that last little bit. It would be nice to have a cable release, but c’est la vie.  There is no double-exposure interlock. The photocell is to the side of the lens, and just behind it, there is an ISO dial.

Finders. The finders are actually fairly well finished, with clear and remarkably undistorted views. There is no parallax correction, and there are little “points” (none too visible when using the finder) that show the 6×6 and 6×9 frames. It’s too bad these are not available with standard ISO feet.

Lenses. The tiny lenses are uncoated plastic (no surprise), and the optical resin should not be worse than your eyeglasses (or, indeed, uncoated Zeiss folders from the 1950s). The apertures are f/8-f/16: and only those two. The f/8 setting is a natural circular opening; f/16 is a Waterhouse stop that folds in two pieces. Why just these two settings? Probably easier to link into the AE system. There are no filter threads.  The barrels themselves are hideous, semiglossy plastic whose irregular gloss looks like a product of uneven molding finish. All markings are pad-printed. A nice touch, though, is the product name with a Zeiss-blue line under it (this is on the underside when mounted) The lenses friction-click into place (longevity may be a question if you are a compulsive lens changer; focusing is an unlubricated helicoid that makes the whole lens front rotate, but at least the aperture settings are snappy. The lenses do come with both caps (and the body has a cap as well).

Hacking? The thing that makes this camera hackable is its 6×12 film opening, low price, plastic frame and shutter that sits behind the lens. And it’s a plus that the AE sensor is a good distance from the lens axis. One thing that might make hacking difficult is that the lenses have about a 90mm register distance (the 58mm is very clearly retrofocus) – which is going to limit what you can mount in terms of wide-angles. The workaround,might be to collapse the bellows (which brings the distance down considerably). But it would be a good idea to clamp it closed to maintain some semblance of alignment.

Shutter placement is a double-edged sword. Most medium and large-format lenses anticipate a leaf shutter placed at the nodal point of the lens. Accordingly, most such lenses and shutters have standard threads. The Belair-X has a fairly large, 5-bladed leaf shutter with a conventional-looking operation, but it lacks threads. Its intended use behind the lens is advantageous for longer lenses (which would simply mount in front – think Packard shutters and Sinar auto shutters) but would be a problem with symmetrical wideangle lenses – because you would either have to find a way to mount the front and rear cells to the front standard or mount the whole thing ahead of the shutter (which would exacerbate problems with the already-long register of the body). Of course, you could just gut the existing shutter, which would allow you to hack on a complete lens/shutter assembly from a 4×5 camera. This is in essence what happens when you hack a lens/shutter onto a Polaroid pack camera.

It is also worth noting that because the body has no focusing mechanism built in, any hacked application would involve fixed focus or a helicoid-enabled lens ($$$).

Focusing aids? None. But you don’t need any.  A 6×12 with a 58mm lens is like a 35mm camera with a 21mm lens. Focusing at 3m at f/16 gives you good focus from 1.52m to 146.3 meters – in essence, everything from 5 feet on. Get on DOFMaster, print some guidelines that fit your application, and go on your merry way. The owners manual for the camera also includes some DOF guides that you can photocopy and carry with you. If you get really freaked out, you can insert a Kodak Service Rangefinder into the accessory shoe and manually call the distance.

Upshot? This is a so-so proposition in the $180-200 range, promising some fun at a price point where a total loss in value would not be the end of the world. And as long as you internalize a few basic things about focusing and exposure, it should produce at least printable negatives. Beyond that price point (such as at the $299 rack rate), or for any serious (or prolonged) 6×12 use, it’s worth looking into other options.  As a 6×6 or 6×9 camera, it’s large and satisfies the Lomo aesthetic requirements (soft lenses, double-exposures, and other low-fidelity work), but there are cheaper and better options for serious work in those formats.

Look for an update on optics in an upcoming installment.

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Automation vs. automatons

crania

The human brain has been shrinking since the time of H. neanderthalensis. The apparent cause is the rise of written and pictographic language, which relieve the necessity to have so much grey matter.  Some photographers claim that the use of autoexposure, autofocus, and auto-advance (or even their availability on modern cameras) are evidence of this shrinkage (or, alternatively, its causes). The catch is that the aforementioned aspects of photography often leave little room for free will – only a choice of what will be the prime mover physically.

1.  Film really sets the stage for photographic determinism, and loading a roll of it – particularly a roll of 24 or 36 in a 35mm camera – commits to an initial set of variables (color or black and white? low, medium or high contrast? what kind of curve?).  The ASA (now ISO) rating of the film and its characteristic curve operate as the baseline for everything else that happens.  That rating is the setting at which – in the manufacturer’s view – the toe and shoulder are in the right places and relationship, and the right range and linearity exists from low tones to high. It is possible to manipulate things at the developing stage, but these only result in a different fixed universe, which might – depending on the treatment – result in blocked shadows, shouldered highlights, or unreal midtones. And the expedients used – push-processing, pull-processing, or standing development – may work for some pictures on a roll but seriously compromise others.

Many photographers shoot for the normal in most scenes: lighting on the main subject and what looks to the eye like a normal range of tones from low to high (call it the “98%”). Once a photographer is locked into a film, the “normal” scene requires an exposure within a fairly narrow range to work best. Averaging meters (in-camera and handheld) get the exposure into this range – after which post-processing or optical printing calibrates that last little bit.  Automatic cameras achieve the 98% of “normal” scenes fairly handily (witness that pictures in the western world are now predominantly taken with iPhones that have zero manual exposure control). Even the information that used to be printed inside film boxes could get you close enough during daylight hours. It is difficult to argue that manual controls provide any additional advantage; regardless of whether you set both variables (aperture and shutter speed) or set the more important one to you (say aperture) and let the camera choose the other (let’s call this single-variable AE), you are still operating within a finite range of aperture-shutter pairings. Using a camera in manual mode does, however, create an ability to sometimes miss exposure in this normal 98% of scenes – so if your best case is getting to the same result as with an automatic, just slower, then manual cameras may even seem to be a bit inferior.

The other 2% are situations that are often induced intentionally for aesthetic purposes: shooting into the sun, shooting low- or high-key, basing the entire exposure off the darkest shadow or brightest highlight, or taking multiple spot readings to define the lighting range of a scene. These are situations that require, to varying degrees, more than simply pointing some kind of averaging meter at a subject or following the Sunny-16 rule. Situations like these absolutely require the photographer to think about the desired final result. It is far from clear, even in these situations, that shooting a manual camera (or an automatic camera in M) presents any unique advantage aside from setting a fixed exposure that never changes. Even the original single-variable AE systems, like the Konica Autoreflex T, allowed a reading to be locked, permitting the user to meter the foreground and largely ignore the backlit  portions of the frame. Subsequent cameras featured exposure compensation dials that allowed a consistent exposure offset through a session (and even before that, the ISO setting could be adjusted up and down). Multipattern metering cuts into the idea of multiple independent spot readings, and exposing for the shadows (or highlights) was vastly simplified by the advent of in-camera spotmeters. Although at some gut level, automation may seem to be useless, plenty of it is well-suited to serving creative goals.

Manual-only cameras also tend to have some exposure-related features that actually degrade their usefulness for careful work:

  • Some metered manual cameras have primitive match-needle (or -diode) readouts that actually obscure what is happening. Using any Leica rangefinder, for example, gives you only indications that the exposure is one or more stops off, that it is half a stop off, or that it is on. All the time you are turning the shutter speed dial or aperture ring to make it match, you are disconnected from both numeric values. Although some people may successfully memorize the aperture ring direction and mentally keep track of where it is set, some shutter speed dials turn all the way around, and for most, this is an invitation to guess and randomly attain (or not) the correct exposure. This actually has all of the randomness of a camera running in Program mode – only there is no consistent program. Some cameras display the settings at the same time they display the match needle or diodw (like a Nikon FM2n), but the match-needle still acts only as the roughest indicator.
  • Meterless manual cameras beg the use of handheld meters, which almost universally are averaging meters (either incident or reflected). Not only does the use of these devices inject an extra step into the process, it is often also hard to tell – given the questionable ergonomics of most reflected meters – exactly what they are measuring.
  • Many manual cameras only have whole stops for apertures and shutter speeds. High precision, high thought work may want an intermediate speed or intermediate f/stop. Cameras that set these variables tend to be able to set them continuously or in one-half to one-third stops.

And there is rarely a reason to choose a manual camera over an automated one with manual override (assuming the automatic one otherwise does what you want to do – and recognizing that sometimes the manual camera is the one you happen to own).

2.  Manual focus seems illusory. Although it is true that manual focus lenses are actuated by human hands, almost all modern (post 1970) manual-focus cameras utilize focusing aids: split-image rangefinders, fresnel spots, split prisms, or aerial crosshairs.  All of these aids are located in the center of the viewfinder (granted, the focused subject can then be moved off-center), but more importantly, all of them operate in binary mode: they either show objects as (1) in focus or (0) out of focus. They all drive binary decisions by the photographer (“is this in focus?”).  Aside from moving lens elements via twists of the hand, there is no difference between any of the systems above and a phase-detect AF reticle, a contrast-detection scheme aimed at a particular spot, or active infrared rangefinding at a defined point in the viewfinder field. Against this, active and multipattern AF also have the ability to do something a human cannot: instantly determine – and focus on – the closest object in the frame.  Cameras with manual focusing modes do allow fixed zone focusing for landscapes, but most serious AF cameras also allow the AF to be switched off.  And aside from the rare completely unadorned groundglass focusing screen, no design – manual or automatic – provides a realistic picture of what is in focus with the lens stopped down (don’t kid yourself – that fresnel-brightened screen blacks out before it shows you the depth of field).

3.  Manual winding adds no value. It is always in the photographer’s interest to have an unexposed frame of film behind the shutter and ready for action. If one looks to manual winding primarily for “contemplation,” the exorbitant price of film today is now the better reason to contemplate each shot. Manual winding has, for many years, satisfied an engineering consideration: power-consumption.  The winding stroke(s) both moved the film and cocked a spring-driven shutter.  As shutters took on more accurate electronic timing and ultimately, servo motor drive, the value of that thumb lever began to decline. By the mid-1990s, all pro 35mm cameras were motorized, and the only serious cameras left with manual wind were nostalgia-driven rangefinders, legacy designs, or medium-format cameras whose prodigious size and bulk would be compromised further by motors (or that were so slow in use that faster film availability was not a big concern).  The preponderance of auto-advance cameras is not unlike the domination of Olympic shooting by semiautomatic target pistols: you need to keep your eye on the target.

None of this is to say that photography is otherwise preprogrammed; it is just to point out that performing some things “manually” is not very meaningful if it invariably reaches the same result that a robot camera would have achieved in the first place. Acceptance of technology allows you to use your diminished H. sapiens brain capacity on composition, focus selection (rather than execution), tone balance, and lighting – all of which are at the heart of a picture. And there are plenty of legitimate reasons to select a manual-only camera – but most of them have to do with unique capabilities, film format or other qualities that carry through to the final image. Anything else verges on conflating the happenstance of ancient mechanical engineering with some Zen stroke of genius.

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Fuji X-Pro1: revisited

ImageBackground. If you have not read that X-Pro1 review here, that will provide some context. This camera system has some pretty phenomenal optics and – if you have the patience – produces killer files. The following are some longer-term (9 month, thousands-of-frames) observations.

Overall operation. Successive waves of firmware have made the camera much happier than when it first hatched. With some practice, it’s a fairly easy camera to use.  The controls are easy to verify by sight.  The large, undistorted viewfinder is pretty amazing for a modern camera. and the ability to use Nikon-sized diopters is a big plus.

These are the longer-term irritations that for some may be short-term irritations:

  • The EV comp dial is actually pretty easy to accidentally activate in practice – as is the Q button. The EV dial is, however, much harder to displace than on the X100. The “Drive” button is also annoyingly easy to trigger, depending on your grip.
  • The always-open shutter introduces some exposure lag. This can make life very difficult when dealing with children. This problem seems to afflict all cameras that use live-view (or focus with it). On the other hand, having live view eliminates stop-down focusing errors, lets you shoot at unusual angles (camera held over your head, etc.), and enables easier macro work.
  • There is no flash synchronization when the camera is in continuous shooting modes. Look, we aren’t all using the under-capable Fuji flashes all the time.
  • The tripod socket is stragely located, seriously inhibiting the use of Arca-Swiss style plates when changing batteries or cards.

The gestalt is much more Contax G2 than Leica M. But you probably knew this coming in. This will not replace your Nikon D700.

Files. We know that at least one guy does not dig the XE-1 (and presumably X-Pro1) files. Says that the greens go crazy. This looks overblown; it’s pretty evident over long use that you get “painterly” effects by cranking up the sharpening too much – and if it has not been evident in several thousand pictures outdoors, it is not likely to emerge by surprise. If you really want to hypersharpen the world, turn the raw file into a TIFF and then sharpen once the image is “locked in” – not at the stage where Lightroom is trying to make sense of a 6×6 matrix. Once something is in TIFF, it has already been interpolated and is immune to any claimed strange effects of the X-Trans sensor. What is true about these RAF files (and rarely documented) is how long it takes for Lightroom to process them. To someone like this author – who has taken university mathematics up to Maps and Flows, it is not surprising that the X-Trans color matrix requires a ton of computing power. What is surprising is that a 4-core, 2.8 Ghz Xeon – with more computing power than the entire world had up until the 1980s – still takes 10 seconds to draw a full-size preview.

Lenses. The 18-55mm zoom is the tour-de-force here. Not only does Fuji release a fast (f/2.8-4) zoom with OIS, the lens is nicely sharp everywhere and pretty much at every setting. The caveat is that low light can make things difficult with the zoom at the long end – and this is a lens where you often find yourself switching finder modes to get a clear picture of what is going on. The good news is that for travel, there is a finally a nice-performing, versatile lens that focuses quickly. And by the way, this lens is good enough to make using adapted rangefinder lenses look like something of a silly exercise. In fact, the stepper motor makes the ultrasonic motors on the 18, 35 and 60mm lenses look downright primitive.

It will be interesting to see if the Zeiss 12mm lens beats the 14mm Fuji lens to the market. The 14mm is also overshadowed by the promised/threatened 10-20mm stabilized ultrawide Fujinon zoom.

The rest of the promised lens lineup has failed to materialize.  But then again, is the Fuji X series really something around which you would build a multi-thousand dollar lens collection? It’s very hard to say.

Flash.  Now, most of a year later, we wonder when we will see a competent flash for this camera. The current choices remain the EF-20 (a toy, close to the lens axis, no tilt), the EF-X20 (less of a toy, with bounce but not swivel, still close to the lens, and the Sunpak-sourced EF-42.  The 42 is the closest thing to a real flash – but has some pretty serious shortcomings:

  • Huge battery consumption and quick draining in auto-standby mode (overnight – any longer, and you have a flash full of battery goo).
  • Clumsy controls – very modal buttons for changing flash exposure compensation.
  • No lock on the swivel/tilt head.
  • Screw-lock on the foot that is difficult to tighten and loosen.
  • No (A)utomatic function. This cuts down the usefulness of the flash with other cameras, and TTL flash extracts a shutter speed penalty.
  • Glacial recycling time.

In a sense, things were a lot better with the X100. With its leaf shutter, it is much more capable of doing balanced fill. And you could always use the built-in flash as a trigger for a bigger automatic flash. Before you spend a dime on a dedicated flash for the X-Pro1 (if that is the only X camera you have), look into an automatic flash you already have. The Nikon SB-800 triggers just fine. It also has a great swivel/bounce capability, a fast-recycling 5th battery option, and a real locking foot. It won’t auto-zoom or trigger synch speed on your X-Pro, but that’s why there is a shutter speed dial…

The M adapter. The “official” M adapter  is basically a high-end Chinese M to XF adapter that has a multifunction button on the outside and a large electronics module on the inside. It barely accepts a 35/1,4 Summilux ASPH, and although it does have neat selectable settings for distortion and vignetting, it doesn’t overcome the issue that adapted wides – regardless of the adapter – perform poorly on the X-Trans sensor, at least compared to things like the Leica M8 and M9. It also is short front to back, meaning that the distance scale on the lens is compromised.  And really, if your plan is to shoot adapted lenses longer than 18mm, you might as well get the 18-55mm lens. Cheaper M adapters are also available (with varying degrees of correct lens registers), but they seem more of a novelty designed to forestall the inevitable  realization that lenses designed to fit Lecica film cameras only really work best on Leica digital bodies.

Upshot. This camera gets a 8 out of 10 – made up of a 10 for optical/image quality, a 9 for fun factor, and a 5 for petty annoyances that cannot be avoided in any live-view camera. It won’t make everyone in the world happy, but especially with the addition of its midrange zoom lens, it makes a credible travel, everyday, and snapshot camera (provided that your subjects are adults).

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Fujifilm Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS

1855If nothing else, the Fuji X series exhibits good looks. The 18-55mm is no exception. For what Fuji charges for this standalone lens ($699 – or, if you are like this writer, $249 plus a zillion American Express points), the company knows not to disappoint buyers with entry-level plastics.  The 18-55mm is a substantial lens, heavy and (at least to the touch) well-built. The zoom is extremely well damped, the switchgear is good, and it even has a nice ED-style trim ring. The lens extends when zoomed but not when focused.

Be aware that this is a fairly big and heavy lens; it is fatter than an original Tri-Elmar, and it makes the camera more nose-heavy (and not so featherweight). It is not pocketable by any stretch. The lens barrel will partially block the AF assist light, and in the “wide” OVF mode, it impinges quite a bit into your field of view.

Let’s get to the big question first. Yes, the image quality is all that, wide open, at pretty much every focal length and all reasonable distances.

Actually, let’s back up a little bit. Why are these marked “Fujifilm,” when “Fujica” is already in the inventory and more media neutral?

The next big question, and the one that gets too little play, is how fast this lens focuses (Fuji claim: 0.1s for locking, though under some unspecified set of conditions).  It’s easy to ascertain that this corresponds to outdoors daylight, which is, realistically, EV10 and up. And yes, it’s crazy fast.  Indoors, in artificial light, it slows down a little bit, but it is still a lot faster than the 35/1.4 in most circumstances.  The 18mm setting is blindingly fast (in no small part because the lens lets in the most light at that setting).  23, 35, and 55mm slow down progressively (and, as can be expected, the closer the range, the slower the focusing).  Toward the 55mm end, you occasionally see some unfamiliar behaviors (if you are used to the 35).  One is that hunting is inaudible, and its only manifestation is that for a second, it looks like nothing is happening when you press the shutter. Then, without warning, the framelines (OVF) shrink, the light goes green, and the camera fires.  In EVF mode, you see the lens run through its distance range and then locks and fires. The interesting thing in EVF mode is that the frame momentarily seems to pixelate, which might be indicating that the camera looks at a downsampled data set to see when contrast is maximized.  The other interesting behavior is the red AF warning.  A few notes:

  • The red AF warning comes up more often in EVF mode, and after some experimentation, it seems that it happens most often in low light, where the AF spot size is set to the smallest setting. If you press AF and then increase the size of the spot with the thumbwheel, it mitigates the problem. This fix is not suprising; increasing the sample set helps the camera find some contrast to compare.
  • In EVF mode, the X-Pro1 will let you fire an out-of-focus shot with no warning. If the box does not turn green, don’t count on getting a picture that is in focus.
  • The “mash-n-go” technique still works in OVF mode. This is the one where you press the shutter release until the camera fires (and it only does so when things are in focus).

Manual focus runs through the entire useful range of distances in a little over a quarter turn at all focal lengths. You won’t use it much, and even if you do, you will probably use the AE/AF button to do a spot focus.

Note that the focusing is dead silent – making your AF-s or USM lens sound like an agricultural implement. What is not silent is the aperture actuator, which makes a very subtle click when focus completes and the lens stops down.

As to controls, the internet seems a little confused about how aperture setting works. The unmarked ring just to the rear of the focal-length indicator is the aperture ring (aperture is not manually controlled from the body, as some people seem to think). Unlike the primes, which have numbers and a physical stop at each end, the zoom has a ring that turns all the way around. Turn it to 2.8 and keep turning – it still stays on 2.8. The A switch activates auto-aperture (like the red A on the prime lens rings). To tell the truth, this is a lot better than the prime lenses, which inexplicably omit locks on the “A” setting – making it easier to accidentally switch the control from A to 16 (with attendant blur). The aperture automatically compensates as the focal length changes if the ring is set to the widest opening – but if you set the aperture to f/4 or smaller, it does not change with focal length changes.

The viewfinder picture answers the question of why this is normally packaged with the XE-1.  On an X-Pro1, in OVF mode, the framelines shrink or grow (continuously) depending on the selected focal length. If you turn on corrected AE targets you can also see part of the challenge of using the OVF: the distance between the nominal and near-range boxes changes dramatically between 18 and 55mm. Though this condition exists with prime lenses, the zoom introduces a situation where you have to be able to internalize intermediate corrections at many more focal lengths.  In addition, you really have to decide whether you want to shoot wide or long. If the X-Pro viewfinder is in “wide” mode, the 55mm frameline seems impossibly small. If it is in “normal” mode, the framelines become bigger than the viewfinder around 30mm. It would actually be nice to have the camera automatically switch magnifications, but that does not look like it is part of Firmware 2.01.  It will be very interesting to see what happens with the 10-20mm OIS lens that is slated for next year.  EVF mode is easier to manage, with a stable focus point, and it is here that you get a little of the Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)  seasickness: the camera moves but the viewfinder picture moves less.

And on to OIS – this has three modes: off (via the lens), “shooting only” mode (via setup menu), and “continous” (also via the setup menu). The latter two appear to be a choice between having the accelerometers come on instantly or having them get up to speed while frame-finding. Cutting down on the OIS on time probably has a lot to do with conserving power.  The OIS will allow you to shoot below 1/10 sec @55mm and get passable results, which probably comes close enough to the “four stops” claimed by Fuji. It is very important to note that VR or OIS or however you want to trademark it is only effective at compensating for camera movement. It is completely useless for arresting subject movement in low light – and depending on  the interaction could conceivably make it worse (i.e., lens compensates in a direction opposite subject movement direction). So if you are trying to track fast-moving children in low light, well, get a Nikon D700 and a fast prime instead (if for no other reason, the AF is better).

Flash operation with the 18-55mm is fairly predictable (at least with the EF-42, which zooms appropriately with the lens). But do note that as you use more telephoto-like focal lengths, redeye becomes a bigger problem if you use direct flash.

All of this aside, though, the 18-55mm radically increases the functionality of the X-Pro1 and in yet another way makes it more fun than its Leica inspiration. The Leica world has no continuously variable “zooms” – let alone any that gets to the 82mm equivalent of the 18-55mm. And nothing in the M world gets as wide as f/2.8 (the 21-35mm Dual Hexanon does f/3.4, but that is mostly just for kicks).  The 18-55mm is a nicely done lens that should work great for travel, and it is certainly more enjoyable than the Fuji primes for casual snaps. It tends to make the reportage dichotomy a choice  between the X-Pro1 on the one hand and the $7,000 M240 on the other.

We will work on some nice-looking sample pictures over the next month when the weather transitions into winter (rather than grey, dull late autumn…). In the meantime, you might want to order one of these.

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Lomo Belair X 6×12: Not as silly as it might seem.

Lomo Belair X 6x12Ok, one of these is on the way. We have a thing for old Polaroids, particularly the ones with the electromagnetic (automatic) shutters. In addition, the Lomo Belair X was ridiculously cheap after the 30% preorder discount and the extra ILOVELOMO discount code. For the metal version not to merit $180 with two lenses would require it to be very bad – even by the relatively low standards of Lomography.

The following is a list of features and pros/cons that might (or might not) make it interesting to people trying to take pictures in some serious (or semiserious way). We will use as frames of reference the Brooks-Plaubel Veriwide 100 (the small one) and the Noblex 6/150.

As to the optics, it is very easy to be dismissive of plastic lenses. It is likewise hard to say whether these are engineered to be “bad” like other Lomo products, but if these lenses are even halfway good, they will probably be good enough for normal uses (granted, the higher-end Lomo user probably uses an Epson V750 to scan negatives). Consider that the object is a 6×12 negative, enlargement (in any context) will probably be very limited. Next consider that a lens with an f/8 maximum aperture has a high likelihood of being adequate, since it doesn’t challenge manufacturing standards (even a one-element plastic meniscus can be a good performer on 120 film if it has a small aperture). But the other thing to remember is that if you wear eyeglasses, you have been looking through plastic on a daily basis for years. Although it is not clear in  the Lomo-sponsored product descriptions, Belair lens comes with its own finder, neither of which competes for the hot shoe accessory mount (first accessory to buy: Seculine Action Level Cross).

On the distortion front, you can see from Lomo’s own sample pictures that the lens has the typical perspective distortion (objects near the edges are wider) plus the usual barrel distortion of cheaper wides.  This is like the Veriwide 100 but different from the Noblex, which has a very distinctive cylindrical distortion that is all but impossible to correct without higher math (to be fair, it is not a big problem unless you are working very close-up).

Zone-focusing, likewise, is dismissed by rangefinder and SLR users, but it is completely normal with panoramic and superwide cameras.  The Veriwide 100 had a Super-Angulon 47mm that focused via click stops (and many of its successors also use helicoid mounts for zone-focusing). Most variants of the Noblex have fixed focus (with additional items being brought into focus by stopping down).  In the rangefinder world, it is completely normal for 12, 15 and 18mm lenses to lack focus coupling, and many fisheye lenses for SLRs have fixed focus too. And once you are used to it, it is not challenging to estimate hyperfocal distances. In fact, considering that the 58mm lens is the equivalent of a 21mm lens for a 35mm camera, it will actually be quite easy.

The shutter appears to be a press-type, meaning that your pressing the release lever cocks and releases the shutter, and the camera holds the shutter open until capacitors inside collect enough electricity. One interesting feature is that the release is on the front standard, which enhances the overall stability in your hold – but the force of releasing the shutter could throw things off.  Early reports indicate that this is a traditional leaf in appearance (not the guillotine associated with the old Polaroids).  The construction of the lenses is, at this point, unclear. Given that the 58mm and 90mm have the same approximate size – and that the back-focus is fixed – there are three design possibilities:

  1. The lenses all sit in front of the shutter, and the 58mm is a retrofocus design. This seems likely, although the curvature of the 58mm lens’ front end strongly suggests that it is symmetrical and not retrofocus.
  2. The “lenses” are really interchangeable front groups, and a fixed rear group is fitted behind the shutter. This has antecedents in the Kodak Retina cameras, but given that one lens promised by Lomo is a Russian glass lens, this might not be the case.

If #1 is the case, it would not be a big deal to install a conventional lens board and 4×5 barrel lens (or lens and shutter), provided that you could deal with a fixed back-focus (you could always just fit a lens of approximately the same focal length as an original). Even with #2, you could simply remove the rest of the glass and go from there.

One surmise is that the 1/125 top speed of the shutter is a function of its size, particularly if it is a behind-the-lens type (a shutter placed at the nodal point of the lens would be much smaller).  Is that speed an impediment?  Probably not. Outdoors, it’s highly likely that people would be shooting ISO 100 film at f/16.  In low light, the top shutter speed would provide no impediment at any ISO. In fact, the real problem would be the small maximum aperture of the lens.

It is nice to have a hot shoe with X-synch. Not many flashes work well with ultra-wide angles, but it’s better than nothing. And a shoe takes not only a flash or an electronic level; it can also be used to mount a Jobo-style geotagger.  Although the Veriwide 100 has a sync post on its Synchro-Compur shutter, its accessory shoe is usually engaged by the accessory viewfinder. Noblexes have no flash sync at all, although it seems vaguely possible to rig an arc of shutters to go off in sequence.

With the exception of the bellows, which look pretty solid, the rest of this camera strongly says “low-spec.”  It’s not really that much different from any 6×9 of the old days, chrome finish notwithstanding.  Three aspects of the camera look like they came right off the Moscow-5 folding 6×9/6×6 – the removable back door, the multiformat mask, and the ruby film advance window. They could also have come off many other folding cameras over the years, albeit individually.  The removable back portends a possible Polaroid back; the multiformat mask is probably just for fun; and the ruby film advance window is an efficient way to deal with multiple formats without a lot of gears and rollers (though the lack of any kind of advance-shutter interlock will make for many unintentional double exposures). In fact, the “automatic” frame counter on the Veriwide 100 is a flaky piece of engineering, and given the two position shutter release in the Noblex (a contact triggering the drum and a mechanical release allowing winding), it is very easy to accidentally double-expose.

So on all of this, we’ll keep an open mind until we can feed some negatives into a 4000-dpi negative scanner to see just how much information is in them. One might suspect that this camera will perform better than people think. But then again, the bar is pretty low when a company’s user base is so, ahem, starry-eyed. Tune in early next year.
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