Archive | April 2021

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

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

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

Do I need a light meter? Maybe not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about my phone?

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

Cell technology

There are essentially three meter cell technologies.

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

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

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

Types of electric/electronic meters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incident vs. reflected

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

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

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

What’s the difference? Consider backlighting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading your meter

Meters have various ways of displaying the exposure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Match needle: meter needle moves (no scale), and you turn the calculator dial so that the two pointers match (the pointer moves when you turn the calculator dial). Then you read the same type of scale as on an light-intensity meter. This is far, far, faster to operate than a light-intensity meter. All you do is match the Meßwerkzeiger (German for “meter needle”) with the Nachführzeiger (German for “ring thingy…” actually, “tracking pointer”) by turning the calculator dial (the thing with shutter speed/aperture combinations). Below is a Gossen Super Pilot (or “Sixtar” as they called it in Europe and “Systar” as they call it in Lego) (ok, bad joke…).

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

Filters

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

Good and bad meters

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Fuji’s X-series aperture rings?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which systems turn left? This is a start:

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

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

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

Vapid vainglorious video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overestimating how cool you are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is your video a Wonderbra?

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

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

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

Curation, curation, curation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funleader 18mm f/8 Caplens M-Mount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Near (M typ 240):

Far (Monochrom Typ 246)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leica M typ 240

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

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

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

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

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