Archive | May 2015

Fuji X-T10, Time Magazine’s 35mm Camera, and Fuji’s direction

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Unfrozen Cave-Man Design

The comparisons are inevitable (if you were born before, say, 1985). They are unnoticeable to Fujifilm’s obsequious band of pre-release “reviewers” (more on this later). But the similarity is undeniable. Fuji has, for its sixth camera based on the X-Trans II sensor and its eighth based on the 2011 Sony 16Mp base sensor, copied the design of a camera given away with magazine subscriptions. Hopefully unconsciously. That said, let’s not denigrate the Time-Life unit too much; it has a 50mm f/5.6 glass meniscus lens that at a small enough aperture will be competitive with multi-element lenses. It also contains so much lead in a ballast plate in the base that the scrap metal content outweighs (literally) the purchase price. Operators are standing by.

The only thing that makes the X-T10’s design really egregious coming from Fuji is that the Fuji X line is supposed to be a better-thought-out alternative to DSLRs. Yet here we are, in 2015, and the most recent two models have aped DSLR designs. Are we as a market that gullible? Do they think this will somehow make it easier for us to swallow giving up heavy SLR gear? Whatever it is, it does not say good things about the market or the manufacturer.

The silly game of making one thing look like another goes back a while. Consider the Horsey Horseless Carriage. Whether it was serious or a parody perpetrated by a rich gentleman, you get the point:

horsey

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Fig1

Fig2

One is left to wonder whether the head was to be sourced from taxidermy or upholstery, but whatever the intent, it was not going to end well for horses.

Mimicry in camera design is not new, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon. In most cameras, form has to follow function; a camera is a box with a lens on one end and an imaging surface (film or digital) on the other. In the old days, there were no twin-lens reflexes that looked like rangefinders and no SLRs that looked like anything else. It is probably also fair to say that with a few exceptions (like the Zeiss Tenax or a couple of Raymond Loewy specials), no one actually cared whether a camera was ugly or not. After all, a Rolleiflex is only attractive in the context of twin-lens reflexes. You wouldn’t put it on a coffee table.

For some time, the proportions of digital SLRs were tied in to the film cameras that spawned them. Some of this was understandable; makers were in many cases recycling the chassis castings/moldings of existing cameras – or reusing key components like mirror/shutter boxes and viewfinder assemblies. When DSLRs started to feature their own purpose-built main castings, there was some carryover that were hard to explain – such as why grip surfaces retained proportions originally designed to house 35mm cartridges. But then again, the Space Shuttle’s engines’ dimensions are ultimately traceable to the size of the rump of a Roman soldier’s horse.

Fuji, for its part, stuck to function in designing its early X-series cameras. The X100 looked like a baby Leica M3, but any combination of an integrated optical finder is going to force a certain layout – the window either goes on the left of the right of the lens, and most people are right-eye-dominant. Yes, there was a little window-frame embellishment, but that has evaporated in the X100T. The X-Pro1 carried very subtle call-backs to the G/GL690-series cameras, but it too stuck to the function-defines-form script for the most part (it is clear given subsequent cameras that Fuji made this camera much thicker than it needed to be, given that it had a non-articulating screen). The XE, XM, and XA cameras looked like other finder-equipped or finder-less bodies – various Panasonic G, Sony NEX, and Olympus EP cameras.

The industry turning point (for the worse) came with the Olympus OMD-E5 in 2012, an unabashed visual clone of any of a number of Olympus OM-series SLRs. There was no reason to stick a pentaprism-looking housing atop a mirrorless camera. Pentax was also right there with its K-3. As if it had passed through a mirrorless camera development stage, the K-1’s top bump suddenly blossomed into a full-figured faux prism.

Fuji was always late to the party, and it took Fuji until 2014 to imitate SLR design in the X-T1, the pretext being that the big EVF required a pentaprism “hump.” Fuji dropped that pretext with the 2015 release of the blocky X-T10, stating now that it did this to recall Fuji’s (forgettable) AX line of SLRs. But the X-T10 does not look like an AX at all; it looks like a rinky-dink plastic camera. And its design appears driven neither by function nor aesthetics. It’s an ugly little box.

Why should anyone care?

On one hand, one would be tempted to ask, who cares? Fuji owners (and potential Fuji owners) should. Like a photographic version of roles written for Jason Statham, Fuji has for three years pumped out camera after camera based on the same sensor and incremental inclusions of off-the-shelf technology. Fuji’s three big additions since the X-Pro1 – namely, high-quality EVF technology, on-chip phase-detect focus, and face-detection – were set up for consumer products before the X-Pro1 came out (check out the timing of the NEX-5R and its patents). By the time the X-E2 came out, all the pieces were in place for a serious update to the X-Pro, the “flagship” camera. Between then and now, Fuji has instead pumped millions into design, tooling, and software for multiple minimally differentiated cameras – far more than it would have taken to put an X-Trans II chip, EXR II processor, and better EVF into an X-Pro2. This points to one of two possibilities: (1) the X-Pro1 was such a dog for sales that management required the engineering team to start doing what other mirrorless makers were doing or (2) Fuji has turned to avidly churning the market to keep up market share in the declining interchangeable-lens market, and an updated X-Pro1 was not anticipated to do the job.

1. Looking like what sells. On the first point, it is of some note that the X-E2 resembled the Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4:3 cameras, as well as the Sony NEX-6 and -7 APS-C Cameras. The X-T1 and -T10 have followed other manufacturers’ quasi-SLR digital designs. The lens selection in compacts of both formats (APS-C and M43) also reflects a more into competing with entry-level DSLRs: zooms, big zooms, and big primes.

This direction (physical bloating) undermines what APS-C (and Micro 4:3) were supposed to be about: smaller, lighter cameras. This has never really happened: Fuji’s and others’ lenses are not as much smaller than FX lenses as one might have been led to believe. Part of this may be that it’s cheaper to design big telecentric lenses than smaller, more symmetrical ones that require offset micro lenses. And autofocus probably exerts its own size expansion.

But for people who liked the idea of the X-Pro1, this translates into a camera that is somehow bulkier than a 24x36mm Leica M. That does not seem to be the right direction in an era where camera phones (that everyone is already carrying) are eating into compact camera sales. If aside from a camera phone, we are going to haul around another box with its own lithium-ion battery, one that is not plugged directly into social networking, do we want it to be bulky?

2. Churning and burning. The second possibility is more sinister-sounding – but it is supportable. Fuji’s product releases have occurred twice yearly since the X-Pro1. That is very often considering that the underlying technology has moved very little since fall 2013. Fuji’s marketing strategy for the XF has been simple: use shills to build up excitement, release products at high prices, slash prices when sales start to flag a couple months in, and then build excitement for the next big thing.

Fuji is not alone here, but it seems more visible in its use of “reviewers” to promote the process. The practice began with with some Fuji employees — but at least they disclosed who they worked for. But then it moved on to “reviews” started coming rom (a) semi-pros; (b) Fuji-sponsored photographers; and (c) a few easy marks who believe that whatever just came out – from whatever manufacturer – is the greatest thing ever (we all know who they are). Throw into the mix some hyperventilating Fuji-oriented sites that get revenue when people click through to retailers, and you get the perfect storm of non-objective reporting. After all, whether it trips FTC guidelines or not, who would bite the hand that feeds him? And in a world where people pay good money for SEO work, catapulting your photo business to the top of any search has value.

Then comes the product. It’s great. It takes great pictures. I know this first-hand.

And a few months later comes the burn. Left with a run that it can’t sell, and even absent any fundamental spec change or replacement model, Fuji will usually slash prices 20-30% within six months. This gives an impression that every Fuji model is overpriced to begin with – and in slashing new prices, Fuji puts its own new sales directly in competition with the secondary market. This in turn hurts middle-class amateurs trying to unload old Fuji equipment to upgrade within the line. This is a great strategy for fixing a one-time inventory problem, and certainly no budget shopper in the used market will object. But especially where forced depreciation occurs without some compelling improvement (or even the oddly missing “camera body” roadmap), existing users start to feel burned, and smart shoppers learn to hang back. Why would you ever buy new? Look at completed sale prices on Ebay. Buying an XF body or lens new costs you 30-40% the day you open it. Put another way, Fuji’s pricing practices violate a fundamental rule of luxury goods sales (and let’s face it, a $1,300 camera body is a luxury good for most people): never slash MSRPs. You can have occasional rebates, bundles, or “demo” units. But once you start slashing prices, you begin degrading your brand equity. Or has that happened already?

3. Rewarding risk? Fuji should never lose track of the risks that one takes on a proprietary camera system. XF lenses do not fit anything else. There is no repurposing the same lenses on old film bodies (such as with Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Leica) – or even repurposing them on different types of digital bodies (you can stick the same Nikkor on an APS-C D7500, FX D4, and 36Mp D810, for example). In a closed digital system. people invest in a collection of lenses in part on the premise that the line is going to continue – and that the line will remain viable compared to other systems. In a sense, everyone knows that they will be replacing camera bodies in 3-4 years. But when real upgrades never come, it causes justifiable questioning. And it’s not just sensor resolution. It goes to functionality:

  • Will battery life ever improve?
  • Will there ever be a good TTL flash?
  • Is there something about X-Trans decoding that makes it too processor-intensive for a 24Mp sensor?
  • Is the “organic sensor” thing a dodge for never upgrading the X-Pro?
  • Will the video function get less “aliasy?”

These are questions that Fuji should be in a position to answer.

Now what?

Fuji presents a strange case. Its X100 line is fantastic (and its marketing low-key). Even in the XF line, there is little to complain about in image quality. But the reaction to Fuji’s marketing strategy? Maybe the best strategy is to wait out new Fuji XF product releases and just buy used. History, after all, tells us that most of the the prices are inflated anyway.

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All SLR lenses are Coke® bottles, right?

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Click to enlarge. The eyes are the focus point. What lens took this?

The advent of digital photography has made a couple of things clear: (1) many pros did not have so much talent as ability to overcome barriers to entry and (2) much of what you were told about lens quality – in terms of SLR versus rangefinder – was (or is now) untrue. This second point bears some examination.

What is the state of play on SLR vs rangefinder lens quality? The perception of SLR versus rangefinder lenses was developed when both shot on film, and there has been a major reversal of fortunes. Film was not sensitive to the angle of incidence of light coming from the back of the lens, and because rangefinders did not have mirrors, lens designers could make symmetrical lenses whose rear elements might sit just a few millimeters from the film surface. This knocked out distortion, incurred a little bit of vignetting (which was largely absorbed by the latitude of negative film, and resulted in a compact package.

SLR lenses, on the other hand, had to design around mirrors. So lenses under 50mm generally had to start with a longer focal length and then compensate it down by introducing a negative element in the front. This retrofocus arrangement generally compromised distortion and sharpness slightly, but it produced a good enough result that SLRs were able to exterminate rangefinders as mainstream cameras. But today, when the imaging surface is a flat sensor with a Bayer pattern, chromatic aberration, angle of incidence, color shift, and vignetting became big issues for traditional rangefinder lens designs. Even Leica’s very expensive wide-angle rangefinder lenses, on Leica’s very expensive bodies, were now capable of returning disappointing results in terms of color shifts and vignetting.

The goal today is sometimes called telecentricity, which is commonly understood to be the situation where light rays hit the sensor parallel to the lens axis. It is still achieved by retrofocus designs. It is telling that many Leica and mirrorless wide angles that avoid color shift and vignetting are creeping up in size to SLR lenses. Witness Leica’s fast wide-angle lenses, which are quite large – especially when you compare aperture to aperture. A 21/3.4 Super Elmar has a 46mm front thread; the 21/2.8 Elmarit-M has 60mm, which is only a hair smaller than a 20mm f/2.8D Nikkor (at 62mm). But nowhere is this phenomenon more stark than in Fuji XF lenses, where the register is shorter, lenses cover an APS-C image circle (much smaller than a 35mm camera’s) nor have to clear a mirror, and the lenses yet are 80-90% as large as SLR versions of the same.

Why do SLR lenses meet our expectation bias? In one sense, it is fair to complain about the quality of SLR lenses because the end result is not what we want – and measured as a system, they indeed underperform. But in an era where SLR lenses are being adapted for use in other things, it is fair to deconstruct what part of this is fairly attributed to parts of the system we are no longer using, such as the traditional SLR itself. And let’s be clear about this: until the advent of mirrorless cameras, the SLR (or DSLR) was the only way to achieve perfect, parallax-free framing and to reliably focus long telephotos and macro lenses.

— Focusing wide-open, shooting stopped-down. All SLR lenses are focused wide-open, which makes focusing accuracy vulnerable to focus shift. This phenomenon, which comes with spherical aberration and “good bokeh,” means that a lens might be perfectly focused at a wide aperture but back-focused when the aperture stops down for shooting. This same thing afflicts both rangefinders and SLRs, only in rangefinders, it is written off as “focus shift” and in SLRs, it is called “being a poor performer.” Aspherics and floating elements help mitigate this – and both are in play on modern lenses of all types.

— Suboptimal focusing screens. You can’t win with a single screen on an SLR. The original SLR focusing screen, a plain ground glass, excelled at focusing telephoto lenses because as the focal length increased, so did the magnification of the subject that the photographer sought to focus. But this screen was dim in the corners and sometimes dim, period. It also failed with wide-angle lenses, where the details critical to focus were actually reduced. Over time, SLRs developed focusing aids like split-image center reticles (actually tiny rangefinders). They also introduced fresnel surfaces to brighten the corners. These made it simpler to focus lenses 50mm and down, but they degraded the ability to accurately focuses lenses 85mm and longer.

— Small viewfinder magnification. A key constraint of camera viewfinder systems is that eye point and magnification are in direct opposition. In practical terms, this means that to be able to see the whole picture through a reasonably-sized viewfinder, especially while wearing eyeglasses, the picture must be reduced. This degrades the focusing abilities of every SLR focusing screen.

— Taste-making. The problem with publications like Popular Photography (and now sites like DxOMark) is that they focus the user’s attention on tests that bear little or no necessary connection to real life.The old-school photo magazines paid little attention to rangefinder lenses, so the tests of SLR lenses were generally focused on the relative merits at huge enlargement factors, and not surprisingly, among SLR lenses, the results favored more expensive glass (the larger advertising budgets of the major companies is always suspicious as well). This did not affect the sales of SLR lenses in general (because at the time no one really liked rangefinders), but it did lead to a perception that anything other than a name-brand Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, or Konica was garbage. This was an inaccurate and unfortunate perception for three reasons: (1)  Cosina, Tokina, and Sigma were making some of the major brands’ lenses under contract; (2) some of the aftermarket lenses performed adequately for the purpose; and (3) the blanket perceptions about these products, particularly third-party lenses, has landed literally millions of completely usable (if not in some cases very good) lenses in landfills.

— Leica people. Yes, we said it. For all of the doctors, economists, attorneys, CPAs, and engineers who own these and similar rangefinder cameras, there is a widespread misperception that MTF figures for SLR lenses – like home run statistics for Japanese baseball – need some kind of implicit adjustment downward to be comparable to MTF for rangefinder lenses. Not so. MTF is MTF, and it is measured in standardized procedures that do neither the camera body nor care about the lens design itself. It is of some note, conversely, that Leica’s presentation of 5lp/mm (a largely obsolete measure relevant primarily to optical prints) leads to an impression that Leica’s MTF numbers are “higher and flatter” than comparable brands.

Turning the world on its head. Two things changed the picture (so to speak), and quite radically.

— First becoming last. As noted above, he advent of 24x36mm (“full-frame”) digital cameras has exposed just how poorly some traditional rangefinder lenses perform when they project images onto flat sensors. That negative effects are minimized on smaller digital RF and mirrorless platforms (because those corners are effectively cut out of the picture) is immaterial; the only compelling thing about using rangefinder lenses on another camera is killer wides. And frankly, native APS-C lenses – because they are designed correctly for digital sensors – crush adapted rangefinder wides.

— The closed circuit. One of the things that makes mirrorless cameras really, really good is that their autofocus systems can gauge focus from the sensor itself. But this benefit – which bypasses all of the focusing infirmities of SLRs. But the same advantages obtain when attaching manual focus lenses. Not only can the user see the image exactly as resolved by the sensor; he or she can see it at greater magnification or with focus peaking. Getting virtually any lens on to any body never seems to cost more than $30, and there is now plenty of opportunity for exploration on an epic scale.

How do SLR lenses do on digital bodies?  The answer is, “it depends on the lens.” The first place to start is the adapter. It needs to be plane-parallel and to have the correct register. Many adapters are off-kilter and are cut short to “assure” infinity focus. They will need to be shimmed sometimes to achieve correct infinity focus (if you want to scale-focus wide-angle lenses). Once you get past that, this is what you can expect. Over the next few posts, we will explore some favorites, but we will spill the beans on a few “sleeper” lenses here. Caution: be careful with M42 (Pentax Screw Mount) lenses with automatic apertures – you may need to disconnect the stop-down pin to get to shooting aperture.

— Wide angles (<35mm). Because these lenses have a palpable focus point wide-open, an EVF, either at magnification or with focus peaking, is the best way to focus these. Consider also that if you are shooting traditional rangefinder wides and actually focusing them, you have to look first in the camera’s viewfinder/rangefinder window, then switch to an external finder. An EVF kills both birds with one stone (or look). Wide-angle lenses will generally perform best close-up, where errors in infinity register will have the least effect (and you should never be aiming for infinity with shorter than a 35mm lens anyway – since subject details are getting too small to give any impression of sharpness). If your thing is close-up, wide-open shots, the Vivitar 20mm f/3.8 Auto is one of the best and cheapest things going. The header picture for this article is shot with it, wide-open on an M typ 240 (which is way more resolution than any historic 35mm-format lens was ever made to handle). Reasonably low distortion (-5 on Lightroom, if you have any straight lines in the shot), high sharpness (click to get it full-size, then blow it up to check out the eyes, which are the focus point), nice bokeh, and reasonable vignetting. Vivitar lenses should not be ignored; this was a company that often employed its own lens designers in the U.S. and produced many manual focus lenses that were quite good (disregard the autofocus products and recent-vintage manual focus lenses, which can be pretty bad). Did we mention that it often costs less than $60? The Tokina RMS 17mm f/3.5 manual focus lens is also pretty good, though it often shows up a bit overpriced. Adapted wide-angles are not as compelling on APS-C cameras – because they become slowish, semi-wide lenses with huge form factors.

— Normal lenses (50mm-60mm). This is the place where there is not much point to adapting lenses – except on APS-C cameras, where these behave like fast-ish short telephotos. The lens that came with your camera is going to outperform an adapted lens – and focus both faster and more accurately. Plus you already own it. One exception is in super-speed (f≥1.2) normal lenses, which become the equivalent of a 75/1.2 on an APS-C camera or remain an awesome 50/1.2 on your Leica M or Sony A7. If Leica users need EVF to accurately focus the $10K 50/1 Noctilux, you shouldn’t feel bad about using one to focus your 1970s Nikkor. The nice thing about 50/1.2 lenses and 57/1.2 lenses is that they were every SLR manufacturer’s showpiece lens; the optics are almost always great. The other use case for adapted normals is for lenses with “character,” such as Tessars and Sonnars. The Soviet Industar 50-2 (50mm f/3.5) and -61 (f/2.0) (both 50mm Tessar, M42 SLR mount) fit this bill.

— Telephoto lenses (≥75mm). Assuming that you can get a high enough shutter speed to use these (you generally want the reciprocal of 2x the focal length or faster), this is where things get fun. SLR telephotos are often a stop or two faster than rangefinder telephotos, and they often have slightly lower contrast wide-open (which was never historically a problem, since for most of history people used these lenses to shoot high-contrast, low-light pictures). Focusing is less challenging due to the higher magnification, and with many of these, focus peaking suffices (magnification would be absurd). From a quality perspective, even cheap telephotos work really well. Here, we would jokingly tell you to “go big or go home.” A worthwhile lens to try is the Konica Hexanon AR 135mm f/3.2. This is the best of Konica’s SLR 135s, it is the cheapest ($50 on Ebay), and it focuses down to a meter. Make sure it’s the 3.2 and not the 3.5 or 2.5. The Soviet Helios-40-2 (85/1.5) is a cult favorite, but there is no argument that it is cheap at $300-400 these days. It was fun for a C-note, but those days are over. The Soviet  Jupiter-9 (85/2) (Sonnar, M42 SLR mount) is also a solid portrait choice.

— Zoom lenses. There are only three true “zoom” lenses for digital rangefinders: the 16-18-21mm Tri-Elmar, the 21-35mm M-Hexanon Dual, and the 28-35-50 Tri-Elmar. The first two are expensive ($>2000), and the third is kind of ho-hum. And none of them is a true zoom; they are all lenses that have two or three discrete focal lengths. This is an area where the things that are most fun are not intuitive. Wide-angle zooms can be unwieldy when adapted to digital cameras; telephoto zooms can be somewhat challenging to control (but have some merits). The midrange zoom is where your sleepers lie, and if you are a heavy EVF user, a good, compact 35-105mm is not a bad thing to have around. One to check out is the AF 35-105 f/3.5-4.5D Nikkor ($100-150 used). This is a tiny, aspherical, internal-focusing push-pull zoom. It is quite sharp and contrasty, and if you ever get back to your Nikon DSLRs, it is quite a nice lens. It was not a cheap lens when it came out, but selling at around $100 today, it’s one to consider.

— Novelties. Many fun (and very occasional functional) accessories were made for SLRs – cheap fisheye lenses, 90 degree attachments, telescope adapters, and the like. For occasional use, these can be economical and entertaining. Fisheyes in particular are something that are, for most people, not worth investing in. Many of these lenses want 24×36 sensors to reach their full, ahem, potential.

Conclusion. It’s probably not good to counter one generalization (that old SLR lenses are no good) with another (that they are all good). For people who occasionally need a focal length, frequently use EVFs to focus heavy fast lens or telephoto users, or are already zone-focusing wide lenses, older SLR lenses are an avenue that might be helpful. Not every SLR lens is a great performer at a small pixel pitch, but there is value in seeing what can be done more simply and cheaply than forking over another several hundred (or several thousand) to buy a native RF or mirrorless lens that comes out of the bag once or twice a year.

Does a rangefinder camera make you a better photographer?

This was the first post on the old site and was published 14 years ago. Not backing down from any of it.


In a word, no. I have heard a lot of people, including several I respect very much, make the somewhat extravagant claim that a Leica or some other 35mm rangefinder camera makes better pictures, frees you up to be creative, allows you to “see” the subject, makes focusing easier, etc. There is only one adequate response to that: bullshit. You ability to make good photographs comes from within — the powers of composition and visual discrimination that make good pictures don’t depend on whether or not you are holding a box that says Leica, Voigtlander or Konica rather than a differently-shaped one that says Nikon, Canon or Contax. Those powers are within you. Maybe a rangefinder brings you confidence, like a pair of Johnston & Murphy shoes at an interview, but it doesn’t make you any better at making pictures.

This section will not address the use of rangefinders in medium fomat, where there are other reasons to use such a mechanism, as in avoiding the use of huge reflex mirrors.

Rangefinder Myths. Here are a few of my favorites, pulled from the sophisms repeated through the ages:

I find it easier to compose with a rangefinder.

The problem comes when you are composing using space and selective focus, both critical to portraiture. Using a rangefinder to focus a lens that has a thin plane of focus or tends to exaggerate space is sheer masochism, because a rangefinder presents an aerial image that always shows the same space. Once you hit about 90mm, or f/1.2, whichever comes first, you should be using an SLR, so you can see exactly what’s in focus and what’s out. When you are using a superwide, you might also use an SLR to see the spatial arrangement of the pieces.

Seeing outside the framelines really helps.

It is true that with a rangefinder, you can typically see an area outside the framelines. Rangefinders suffer from parallax error (even when they are “parallax corrected). The field size they shows is often much smaller than the actual frame, with an error of up to 15% (oddly, the dime-a-dozen cheap rangefinder cameras often have field correction). That means that you can get quite a bit more than you bargained for in the frame, which is sometimes unpleasant in a format like 35mm, where it’s often impractical to grab one-half of a frame and enlarge it.

Rangefinder cameras are smaller and more concealable.

This was true when the alternatives were the Home Portrait Graflex, the Speed Graphic and the Nikon Photomic. Traditional-style LTM cameras are small, but their size is more than made up for by their sheer inconvenience and squinty finders. A Leica M3 is no smaller than a modern SLR, and a lot heavier. They may be easy to conceal if you’re a big guy…

Leicas are soooo quiet.

I’m not sure how this one started. In the 1950s, when it was a world of Leica, Contax and Rollei, the Rolleiflex was the quietest camera (in fact, leaf shutters are almost universally quieter than Leica-type focal-plane shutters). Perhaps it was in the 1970s when you had mirror slap and the Copal Square S metal shutter. But it is not the case now. Today, a Leica is more quiet than a loud motorized SLR, but it is a lot louder than a Contax T or a Hexar autofocus model. In fact, it is even louder than some cheapo p/s cameras.

The operation is so simple, it frees me up to be creative.

I’m sure that most people who write this would probably never own a Pentax K1000, but the metering on the Leica M6 and the Cosina Bessa-R is identical. I never liked the Pentax K1000 because the match-needle metering was useless in a crunch – where you have about 1/4 sec to figure out how to change *a* parameter. The first thing you always reached for was the aperture dial, because you didn’t need to take your eye away to do it. SLRs started coming out with aperture-based autoexposure to allow you to preserve your aperture selection instead of resorting to changing it first in a hurry. The invention of needle-based and LED-based shutter speed scales allows you to see the contrast range of a scene in ways that you can’t with match-diode metering.

People who make this statement in reference to the meterless cameras of yore may also think that a Model T frees you up to enjoy driving more, because automation like an electric starter takes away from the fundamental experience of driving.

Rangefinders focus more accurately.

This is true, to a point – but to be true, the rangefinder mechanism in the camera has to be aligned perfectly (vertically and horizontally), you have to be able to see clearly, and your lens needs to be 90mm or shorter. Even then, as noted above, you lose focus as a predictable compositional element. SLRs also let you see the depth of field in a lens wide-open, which can be more effective than trying to figure it out using a distance scale on the lens. They also allow you to detect and compensate for bad lenses sometimes because you will see them not focusing. That is not the case with RFs, where you often find out about these problems the hard way.

It’s not hard to bottom-load a Leica once you get used to it.

As Sir Winston Churchill said in relation to the abolition of grog and the Navy’s protest that it was tradition, “Tradition? Rum, sodomy and the lash.”

I learned how to load and unload my M3 after many false starts. It is not convenient, no matter how well you know it. I have looked at a lot of pressure plates, some of which are as big as Leica’s — even on rapid-load, motor-driven cameras — and no one has ever been able to articulate why Leicas can’t be made to load through other than via a $246 removable baseplate. I really don’t like putting parts of my camera in my mouth to load a roll of film. The thing that makes it even more unpleasant is that even my Fuji 690 has a swing back and is easier to load — and with 120 rollfilm yet!

Rangefinders have less camera shake.

This is an argument that is very hard to evaluate in practice. Many people seem to believe that you can handhold a rangefinder camera at much slower speeds, because there is no mirror mechanism or autodiaphragm mechanism to introduce additional moving parts. The theory is simple Newtownian physics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It is a reasonable theory.

As a generalization made about rangefinders vs. SLRs, though, I think this is a fallacy which persists because there is no really good way to measure shake. Any tripod suitable for a resolution test will have sufficient mass to make the moving mass of a mirror no less significant than an earthquake in Japan when you are living in Denver. Leicas are also far heavier than modern SLRs, so it is easier to keep them steady (when you are fighting your own ability to keep the camera still, the heavier the camera, the less effect your involuntary movements have. It is probably true that you can hold a Leica steadier than a low-end SLR, just as a function of weight. That’s why I would love to see a comparison of camera shake involving a Voigtlander Bessa R and a Nikon FM-10 (as close as you can get to bodies which are identical except for the viewfinder system). If I had to speculate, I would guess that you would see the same shake in both.

In reality, camera shake depends on a lot of things, not the least of which are: mass of the camera, mass of the moving parts, steadiness of the operator, magnification of the lens, and relationship between operation of the moving parts and the exposure. In addition, some SLRs have mirror-counterbalancing mechanisms which cancel any equal and opposite reactions from the mirror. So be circumspect about what you are comparing.

When you close your eyes and pick up the Leica and the Hexar several times, the difference in feeling and haptics emerges. When you hold the Leica, your thumb slides behind the advance lever and your finger lays on the shutter release button, which is sharp as a trigger. This simple and intuitive act signifies to the brain a state of alert attention and you fall into the mood of a hunter or an active sportsperson anticipating the moves of the other players. When holding the Hexar, both hands hold the body and wen your finger touches the release button, there is no trigger effect. The finger just rests there and you do not get any feedback from the body. So you switch almost automatically into a more passive state of mind and allow the camera to work for you. That is easy to do as the automatic functions of the camera (exposure, film transport, motorwinder) are so well executed that you start to rely on them and even transfer control to them. In fact you are starting to become an operator of the camera, adjusting the wheels and not the driver who forces the camera to do as he wants it to act.

Whoa, Nelly! The above-statement was written by a noted Leica expert in relation to two cameras that take the same lenses and have exactly the same type viewfinder and focusing. Personally, I would like to see the EEGs of people using Leicas and Hexar RFs before I swallow a statement like that. While the writer is normally very organized and scientific in his methods, I can’t help but conclude that this statement is probably the clearest proof that Leica (Leica, not other brands of similar equipment) is a religion. Isn’t a camera supposed to work for you?! Ifyou want to talk haptics and concentration, there is nothing that breaks the concentration of a left-eyed shooter faster than putting you right thumb in your right eye while winding an M3. Talk about tactile. I’d rather take the shot and forget about the “experience” of taking the picture.

Then why use a rangefinder? I think there are a few compelling things about rangefinders, and all but one are related to the subjective qualities of optics.

  • Non-retrofocus wide-angle lenses like the 21/3.4 Super Angulon, the 35/2 Summicron and the 21/2.8 Kobalux. There is no question that symmetrical rangefinder lenses outshine retrofocus SLR versions in distortion and resolution. They’re also smaller front-to-back. You can get teeny 28s, for example, that make a rangefinder camera pocketable. Retrofocus design (which underlies SLR wideangles) also works better for rangefinder wideangle lenses (as it does in the new Cosina lenses), because with rangefinders it is used to increase the number of lens elements to improve correction rather than being used to radically increase the backfocus distance to clear a 45mm-deep mirror.
  • Lenses with well-defined optical fingerprints. These are the 50mm Sonnar-type lenses which could never be made for an SLR due to back-focus constraints. All modern SLR 50mm lenses are planar-type. With a lot of modern lenses you lose bokeh and highlight separation.
  • Telephoto lenses no one wants to make anymore. These include Ernostars, Sonnars and Tessars. Again, these have the highlight separation that works well for people’s faces.
  • Lenses that are tough to get running with a modern body. The first version 105/2.5 Nikkor SLR lens requires an older Nikon F body with no AE, or a disfiguring modification to work with AI meters. By contrast, the 1954 105/2.5 Nikkor rangefinder lens can be put on an autoexposure Hexar RF made in 2001 and used like any modern lens.

Go with your gut. Ultimately, you are the person who chooses your tools. Think carefully. In the end, the experience of the camera makes no difference, nor does its make or model. It is only the image you create with it.

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