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Get a grip: the 107-year debacle of small-camera ergonomics

er·​go·​nom·​ics |  \ ˌər-gə-ˈnä-miksan applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely (Merriam-Webster, 2021).

In the industrial setting, ergonomics is a matter of avoiding unnecessary fatigue, injuries, and discomfort. It is intended to promote both safety and efficiency. Ergonomics was first invented in 1949, after Barnack before the Leica M camera. There does not seem to be any suggestion that any camera made before about 1970 cared much about this science. Certainly, the Leica M camera – and most other small cameras – ignored this important principle of design.

Did you know that having an opposable thumb is not necessary to grip a camera the way Leica intended? It should not be a surprise that primates and even lower animals like raccoons have the right types of hands to grab cameras. Because small cameras are not actually designed for human hands. Let’s discuss small (6×9 and smaller) camera ergonomics in six rubrics.

1. How do you hold this?

Even before ergonomics had a name, small camera design went off the rails when small cameras were invented in 1914. Oskar Barnack – who being born in 1879 undoubtedly had shorter fingers than 21st-century camera users – designed the Ur-Leica with slippery round ends encased in a textured surface. This leicapithicus wetlzarensis was designed around a focal-plane shutter that did not cap and an arrangement that required a separate viewfinder. It was light, compact (65mm top to bottom), and for its weight and intended function, workable. Because you had to put the lens cap on between shots, it was not a speed demon; you were going to take the camera down from your eye to reset for the next shot costing a king’s ransom on rare double-frames of 35mm movie film. You could almost call it the mini 4×5 of its day.

There is a trope about the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle ultimately tracking back to the width of a Roman horse’s haunches. Whether or not that is true is a much more difficult question than tracing our conception of how a “small” camera should appear. The Platonic form of a camera is, after all, a Leica M3, which for dimensional purposes is a taller and heavier Ur-Leica, matching dimensions to the single millimeters. The Leica inspired many also-rans from Europe and Japan, some of which turned out to be better, but all of them have the same formula: small squarish body, lever wind, viewfinder on the left. Most fixed-lens rangefinders were actually smaller than the Leica; once you substitute a leaf shutter in the lens for a focal-plane type, the body can be even tinier.

What’s wrong with this design? If the correct method of holding it it requires a paragraph-long written description, it is not a tool that is ergonomic. Leica’s own user manuals illustrate the poor hand-fit in pictures, but the written camera-holding instructions call into question whether it is the human who is being forced to conform to a tool.

Look at a Leica III or Leica M manual. Actually, look at a bunch of them. Needless to say, the right way to hold a Leica has evolved since the days of Barnack. The first suggested M grip, which tracked how the III was supposed to be grasped, completely disengaged your left hand from the focusing ring, meaning you would never be able to refocus and re-shoot quickly. The III series has you cupping the bottom corners of the camera in the fleshy parts of your palms. At least one version of the M3 manual says nothing about how to hold the camera; the more detailed one has the corner-to-palms technique again. If you look at other brands’ camera manuals from the 1940s to the 1980s, you will see a dizzying array of hand-cramping contortions.

The right hand position has stayed mostly the same. What you are supposed to do with your left has changed over time. Here is the end point of Leica’s evolution of descriptions with the M7 and M8/M9 (the M8 is shown; the M9 has the same description with the little Ikea Man holding the camera):

Leica M7

“As a practical accessory, we recommend the Mx hand grip which allows you to hold the Leica M[x] extremely steadily and to carry it with one hand/while keeping your hands free.” This begs the question – why can’t you hold an M extremely steadily without another $400 doodad? And how was it a hands-free device for the M[x]?

The record – at least as expressed in successive generations of Leica manuals – reflects a variety of “right” ways to hold a camera, then “suggested” ways (M6), then “correct” (M7/M8/M9) and with the M240 and onward, no guidance. The M240, in fact, moves the discussion of the optional M hand grip to the “accessories” section at the end. I guess given the number of Leica owners with postgraduate degrees, it’s part of the 400-level course you were supposed to take before you started at this school.

What you are even supposed to do with your right thumb seems to be a matter of interpretation, some manuals showing it, some not. The M6 manual references resting your thumb on the lever “in the standoff” position. The M240 and M10 have a nub on which to rest your thumb. The M10-D has an ersatz M2/M3 focusing lever/thumbrest whose position does not quite match an original lever kicked out. The new $300 Leica thumb-rest looks puts your thumb in the same position as the M10-D. As noted at the beginning of this article, the user of one of these cameras does not need an opposable thumb. This camera might require a totally different type of hand.

Hint: if you have long fingers, a good one-handed grip on an M240 is to put your index finger on the trigger, your middle finger on the function button, and your ring finger on the front of the camera. The camera can sit on your curled little finger (imagine a C parallel to the bottom of the camera). Your thumb rests vertically against the grip nub/control wheel. See? You can control everything, and your ring finger is still available to accidentally press the lens release.

They say if you injure your leg and then limp enough, you don’t notice it any more. This is probably the only reason that Leicas (or similarly-configured rangefinders) are thought to be “ergonomic” – it’s just the way it’s been for 100 years. Were “ever ready” cases really useful for protection – or were they makeshift “fat grips” around ill-shaped cameras?

As much as things like the Argus “Brick” are lambasted for their funny shapes and palm-poking corners, something that fills the hand is not all bad. Ask anyone who shoots Olympic pistol. But you can also ask Nikon and Canon, who figured out in the late 1980s that a fat right grip is advantageous, even if your winding motor is so small it fits inside the takeup spool. In fact, Leica uses that “fat grip” design on most of its non-M digital cameras.

3. The pocketability conceit*

“But wait, the Leica [or insert camera name here] is pocketable.”

Baloney. This might be true of a tiny minority of camera/lens combinations, or 1980s-style pleated trousers, but Leicas generally have not been “pocketable” since the advent of the long aspherical lenses if not since the M3. And grip-ability does not necessarily change the dimensions that would make something “pocketable.” Is a Hexar AF less pocketable with its front grip ridge than a Leica M3 with its flat front? Hardly. Even among other manufacturers of M-mount cameras, the ergonomics have been better, whether it is a palm swell on the back door, a grip ridge on the front of the right grip, or even something like a rubber covering. I suspect it is more Leica’s user base than the company that drives the need to keep things the same. Witness the fate of the CL and the M5.

Interestingly, what encouraged (and maybe forced) small cameras to become more ergonomic was the incorporation of batteries and motors into the right side of the camera, something that came in with cameras like the Konica FS-1, Canon T-50, and Nikon F4. Even in non-motorized SLR cameras, grip nubs began appearing on the right front of the camera (as on the Nikon FA). When you think about putting coreless motors and electronics largely on one side of the camera, and motor-driven shutters in the middle, the mechanisms in the bottom become considerably less complicated (open a manual-wind, mechanical SLR’s bottom plate to see the assemblage of shutter-cocking levers, pinions, and gears). And by a weird twist of fate, the lithium cells best-suited to powering cameras (like the 2CR5) had a chonk factor that made them better candidates for placement in a fat grip.

This brings us to a cruel irony: point-and-shoot cameras in the late 1970s and 1980s frequently had better ergonomics than what we would call “prosumer” cameras today. In fact, many of them have better ergonomics than the Leica, long-vaunted as the enthusiast’s camera. And I write that as a Leica user.

On the other end of the “small” camera spectrum are the ultracompact 35mm cameras (Rollei 35, Contax T*, Nikon 35ti, etc.). In a sense, you can cut them some slack because their major purpose is to be pocketable most of the time – at the expense of handling and durability. These were designed to fit in a sport coat at the racquets club or the horse track, to be shot for fifty or so exposures, forgotten by the owner, sold at his estate sale, rediscovered by some internet influencer, and then driven to stratospheric resale prices that hold up until someone discovers one of the following things: (1) despite often brilliant optics, they are miserable to use; (2) they are not as durable as once thought. Weight versus size is also a factor in ergonomics – and many of these cameras are lightweight and despite their shortcomings, not impossible to use.

*Ok, I only wrote this heading because the Pocketability Conceit either sounds like an old-series Star Trek episode name or a Robert Ludlum novel title.

4. O Camcorder, where art thou?

My maternal grandfather, being a doctor, retired at age 55 – assuming that like most men of his generation, he would be dead at 60. This did not come to pass (he was “retired” for 25 more years…), and after a couple of years of golf got bored and moved into TV production at his local station. Being an early adopter of almost every technology that existed, he would get the latest and greatest video equipment every year. This meant at every Christmas, he would open the trunk of his Lincoln Continental and among other gifts, pull out last year’s latest and greatest video equipment and leave it to the good offices of my parents.

One thing that was always striking about video cameras (and later camcorders) – especially by contrast to still cameras – was the amount of effort put into making them comfortable to use. This was important because the early cameras were really heavy. Pistol grips and shoulder rests for the “camera” were de rigueur when the “recorder” part was a huge heavy hard square silver purse, and even when recording decks merged with cameras in the mid-1980s, the emphasis was on one-hand control operation and anything that made it easier to hold a unit steady for a prolonged period. Zoom controls have always been able to be operated by the same hand that “presses the button.”

The “camcorder” design ethos bled over into consumer “bridge” cameras – the ones designed to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot and full-blown SLR. The Canon Photura, Ricoh Mirai, and Yashica Samurai – variously 35mm SLR and viewfinder AF cameras – acquired camcorder-like morphology, particularly pistol grips that were either parallel to the lens or adjustable. They did not experience some Chicxulub-level event; rather, they just didn’t catch on. In retrospect, it is not terribly surprising; they were expensive, didn’t look like “cameras,” and tended to be bulkier than their blocky cousins.

In an ironic twist, the replacement for camcorders was an atavism. But it was also a reversion to something else. When DSLRs, particularly Canons, became popular for video, they retained their DSLR shape – which was in turn based on a film camera shape dictated by a 35mm frame and the necessary film drive. This spawned an industry of workarounds – cages, grips, handles, and all kinds of other accessories that serve as indictments of functional design. Sony’s selection of a “quasi SLR” design for the A7 series is baffling; the a6x00 series is both more comfortable and (lacking a silly fake pentaprism bulge) true-to-function (as is the new A7C), especially when misused for video.

5. Left eye, right eye, leave me alone

About 25-30% of the human race is left-eye dominant, being made up of about 1/3 left-handers and 2/3 people who are right-handed but use their left eye for tasks involving critical focus or alignment. Eye dominance cannot be changed; this is a matter of hard-wiring from an early age. It is not a matter of visual acuity; it is a how efficiently one eye communicates with the brain.

For people who are left-eyed, cameras with left-side viewfinders automatically cause ergonomic problems with the use of top-mounted winding levers and cutesy “thumb grips.” On most such cameras, winding the camera requires you to move your eye from the viewfinder so you do not poke yourself in the right eye with a winding lever. This is disruptive. The Retina IIc and IIIc, as well as the Canon VI-T avoided this by moving the winding actuator to the bottom – and the Konica IIIA and IIIM avoided this by moving the winder to the front. Although the original Leicavit trigger winder was designed to speed up the knob-wind of the III series, the Leicavit M:

allows experienced photographers to shoot up to two frames per second without taking the camera from their eye

The only reason you would need a bottom trigger winder to take two frames per second without taking the camera from your eye… is that you are left-eyed. This is likely the same reason that people tolerated Leica’s relatively sluggish motor winders.

Perhaps the most befuddling thing about left-viewfinder cameras is why users are in manuals are shown with both eyes open (left eye just hanging out there; right jammed against the viewfinder glass). For a right-eyed person, this means that your mind will be trying to reconcile a reduced viewfinder picture with an unaided non-dominant eye while supporting the camera against half your face. Consider also that the center point between your two eyes is now even further from the lens axis. If anything, the left eye should be closed.

If you look through the viewfinder with your left eye, conversely, you can jam the camera in a 3-point brace between your nose and eyebrows and block your other eye with the camera body. And it is here that people of Neanderthal ancestry have a secret weapon: brow ridges.

Blessed are those, I guess, who are left-eyed and have access to left-viewfinder cameras without winding levers. For they shall inherit the stable hand-hold.

SLRs are more egalitarian: with their center viewfinders, they exist to oppress everyone. And we shall know their users by the leatherette and film-minder-window patterns impressed into their noses.

6. TLR/MF/UC – WTF?

There is only one reasonably ergonomic twin-lens reflex: the Minolta Autocord, which allows you to hold the camera and focus without shifting your left-hand grip — and to fire and advance with your right hand. This is a massive improvement over the Rolleiflex’s insatiable need for constant hand-shifts (or having three hands if you use the pistol grip). Even in the Rollei’s end-state – the 2.8GX with its huge focusing knob – the operation is barely comfortable. The persistence of TLRs after the war is a strange thing. Germany always wanted to make medium-format SLRs, and a twin-lens was a way of approximating that before the mechanical engineering caught up. But the TLR, especially when used at waist-level, causes strange camera-to-subject angles for humans and is not the easiest thing to focus (at least Rolleis are not – an Autocord ground glass is slightly easier). Rollei stopped developing twin-lens cameras in the early 1960s, eliminated serial production of the F in 1976, and moved on to its own SLRs. Note that the user of the Rollei in the diagram below is not wearing a tie. This is an important safety tip. Neckties had a tendency to get ingested by the Automat’s film-detection roller, leading to asphyxiations. That is why seasoned Rollei shooters only wore ascots or bowties.

Does anything look comfortable here?

But more seriously, medium format has always struggled with how its cameras should be configured, starting with the Brownie that kicked off the 120 format. Some are boxes (like Hasselblads), some are oversized 35mm cameras (Fuji 6×9, Pentax 6×7). The earlier Pentax can be fitted with a bulky, heavy, and still somehow uncomfortable wooden grip. The 67ii finally got the message about having something of a right-side grip.

Other medium format cameras are standardized around Graflex-style film backs that were designed just after the war and make what would otherwise be slim cameras extra thicc. If a Horseman SW612 had a body with integrated film transport, it would probably be slightly wider but a lot thinner front-to-back. The Graflex-style roll back almost always requires an extended or set-back viewfinder so that you can actually put your eye to the eyepiece. Its principal virtue is that it is narrow, but it also sports a complex film path that brings you to this: if you have interchangeable backs, they are sufficiently slow to load that you probably need more than one.

Conclusion

There have been a few scattered ergonomic successes, like the Vivitar flash grip, the Linhof 220, and those camcorder-like SLRs and point-and-shoots from the 1980s. But those are exceptions to the apparent rules of camera-making: (1) all cameras must be boxes or cubes that don’t fit in the hand and failing that, larger versions of smaller un-ergonomic cameras; (2) all winding must require a hand off the camera or disrupted framing; (3) thou shalt never use the [left] side eye; and (4) if you don’t like what we’re offering, stuff it.

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.

Three tired tropes of analog photography

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

Is the cost of film actually significant?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is film at all helpful for risk management?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is film cheaper than digital?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archivism: immortalitas vel non

Everyone in this picture is dead. The man on the left could not beat actuarial tables. The next man over, in the yellow, had a stroke. The teenage girl died of breast cancer. The boy met an industrial accident. The lady in blue was hit by a car. And the guy on the right was killed when his girlfriend’s husband came home unexpectedly.

One. Ok, so I made that all up. What I do know is that this picture is from Rio de Janiero in the spring of 1979. I know my grandfather took it. I know it’s on Ektachrome, in a Bell & Howell slide cube, in a tray of slide cubes, in a box, in my basement. And that is all I know about it.

Two. For fun, I put to a Facebook film group the question of how to deal with this — and thousands of other slides that contained no people that I (or any other living person) could identify, with little artistic or editorial merit (I could easily pull out the ones with family members, which is a small fraction). This was due to being lazy; I could have just fed these into a Nikon LS over a few weeks. I asked what lab could scan pictures like these so that I would be “done” with them, throw them out, and free up some physical space. The reaction was as expected. What? Discard originals? They are more archival than digital, so why downgrade? The reactions ranged from puzzlement to indignation.

Three. Part of the difficulty in dealing with modern photographers is the idea that every sperm is sacred (apologies to Monty Python…) and that you can never, ever dispose of a physical piece of media, no matter how worthless. I chalk this up to being an artifact of digital – people don’t edit their digital work because storage is cheap. That carries over into a feeling that one can’t dispose of any piece of film, ever, never, not ever. Also, when film is expensive, you’re throwing money away, right?!

Do these guys know that in ye olden days (meaning just 25 years ago), people tossed slides all the time? I mean, there is no rotary slide magazine that is a whole number multiple of any length of film, unless you were shooting old rolls of 20 and hit 100% of the time… and not even the Almighty shoots that many keepers. Before matrix metering, it was hard as hell to shoot slides. Ok, shoot them well.

Do they know that when you’d pick up prints from a minilab, you would put the rejects right in the trash? How about leaving those neatly scalloped four-frame strips of badly stabilized C-41 negative in an acidic paper envelope for fifteen or so years?

Do they know that when you only get one frame to come out on a roll of film, you don’t have to save all six strips of negatives? Or, if you don’t like that one frame, any of them?

Do they know people threw away test rolls all the time? Today, I was adding up some numbers and figured out that I had shot about 1,900 rolls of film in 25 years – and that I had probably pitched fifty whole rolls of test pictures.

Four. The archival film protection business had a boom in the 2000s. Granted, old vinyl photo pages were a train wreck. “Try our new polyethylene ones. They last for centuries!” There was always something new: non-acidic fixer, paper, binders, sleeves, chemicals. Your pictures will live forever. Forever, of course, was a lot shorter time when everyone smoked.

With digital imaging came “archival” inkjet paper and the thousand-year, erm, hundred-year archival, pigment-based inks. Pushed partly as a way to justify charging big money for inkjet prints perceived as less valuable than chemical prints, these new materials turned out to be a way to perpetuate prints of bad pay-to-play nudes, early Photoshop compositing abominations, and anodyne and provincial landscapes. Had this work faded faster, it would have been immolated in trash-to-energy plants before that method of waste disposal was outlawed. Now they just stuff landfills, visual interest improved occasionally by the overturned bottle of Palmolive thrown in on top of them.

Today, we worry about the longevity of digital. You could record things on Mitsui gold DVDs. Or M-Discs. Or asynchronous offsite backups. Or in the cloud. Or in a holographic data storage array in a quartz crystal when that day comes. The possibilities are endless because we are constantly coming up with new ways to hoard and new ways to pack bits into smaller spaces using more permanent materials.

Five. As John Chrysostom would have said in the 400s (or actually did say…) “all is vanity.” Somebody once said that you don’t die until the last person forgets you. Many cultures and people have taken credit for this line (I first heard it on Westworld), but like all good retransmissions (or appropriations) of someone’s culture, it gets recycled because it actually is useful.

When we think about photography and archivism, we might be solving for the wrong variable. We try to make everything last forever using blunt force. The actual problem is motivating preservation in others, not in achieving it ourselves. You might think that color film will fade in 20 years. Or black and white in 100. Or that your prints will discolor and fade. Or that JPGs will somehow be obsolete in the future and unreadable.

The real danger is not time, or technology, or the elements, or phlogiston. The real danger is that the work will fall into the hands of someone with no interest in it – or for whom the effort of understanding the work is overwhelming compared to any potential benefit. When you’re at a secondhand store looking in that shoebox at the counter (or were, in the Before Times), you always wonder what kind of philistine gets rid of family pictures. Well, it could be you. Or me (see above). Or our children. All it takes is for someone to be looking at a collection of random pictures of strangers and to give a shrug of the shoulders. Someone to decide that there is no room for one more photo album. Or no point in renewing a cloud storage subscription. Or that they need that 12tb hard drive for something else. Or they lack the decryption key to open the drive with the files (nota bene: this is coming).

Six. Things become valuable for a couple of reasons: intrinsic value and attrition. An Ansel Adams print would be valuable even if the supply was less finite. By the same token, we preserve a lot of historic buildings and cars that were poorly designed or poorly made — but are the last exponents of their age. The average person has no ability to influence this aspect of his or her photography except (a) to be brilliantly good (bonus points for the back story that includes dying young of consumption) or (b) have his or her output survive some extinction event that wipes out trillions of other images. Let’s all shoot for “brilliantly good.” Dum spiro spero.

Seven. Maybe what we should do is not fixate so much on the hoarding so much as encouraging future preservation. Is it an uncomfortable subject because it’s not something you can buy?

  • Things that are accessible are more likely to be enjoyed. That might be a printed photo album. It might be one that is shared online.
  • Label, organize, and give people a reason to save your stuff, long enough for it to become valuable (enough) to strangers. Why does this picture matter? Even banalities of everyday life can matter later. What may be an unimpressive picture of a hotel today might be the only visual representation in a future in which it has been knocked down.
  • Follow directions when processing your materials. You might be surprised at how long “non-archival” material lasts. In fact, the pictures in that shoebox in the antique store – printed on acid-containing paper and probably not properly fixed by today’s standards – are a hundred years old and have outlived the use anyone had for them.

You might find in the end that your time and money is better spent on life experiences than making the record of it last just a couple more years longer. If you do good work and give it meaning, people will find a way to preserve it.

 

Did we ever really understand film?

One of the coolest developments ever. But do we know what to do with it?

The word Columbusing has become a thing for describing the phenomenon by which a person believes that he is discovering something that in reality had always existed. It certainly seems possible that this is happening when people try to write reviews of cameras or films. I have now read hundreds of the film reviews in particular, and as an old-time Gen Xer, I realize that these writers are in a position to do one thing: demonstrate whether they as photographers can get a good image out of the material. The rest is of limited use.

Cachet qua cachet

Often, but not always a film review article will take this rough agenda. I think if you go back on my old site via the Wayback Machine, you may even find me doing this (though at the time I was writing about film, the cachet step wasn’t there, since almost all of today’s discontinued films were still sold then… In the early 2000s, when most of those pages were being written, film was just starting its tailspin.

Cachet signaling. This is the prelude. Usually consists of a description discussing how “those in the know” understand Film X (likely discontinued before the author ever picked up a camera, or in some cases was born), some information cobbled together from Google searches, and how the author came into possession of the now-expired film of unknown history, storage conditions, etc.

The low-sample test. Film X is frequently shot with a camera of significant vintage and unknown meter accuracy, sometimes used in conjunction with a meter of a certain age. Film is either commercially processed or done once, whether by the book, by guess, or by the Massive Film Development Chart (which can also be a crapshoot). Bonus points are awarded for random-guess compensations for the film’s age. Double secret bonus points if a restrainer is involved.

Abstraction to what the film is “about.” Author concludes that Film X is magical for xyz reason and that you should pay some scalper (or re-labeler) big time to get it.

Just stop here for a second. I am impressed at how good some of these writers are at photography. They have an eye. They can take a good picture and make a pleasing output. But nothing else they are doing is very instructive because their experience is not accurate or repeatable.

Call it a generational thing (or maybe half-generational) thing. As a group, Baby Boomers walked away from film photography and neither preserved nor transmitted decades of institutional knowledge on the subject. Most Gen X people know film as something you would shoot and take in to be processed. Even for them, unless they made pictures professionally or for a hobby, film photography became disposable as soon as digital became cheap. Which brings us to the millennial children of boomers: a knowledge discontinuity leads to satisfying feelings of discovery. But just as Columbus’ setting foot on Hispaniola did not mean a “new world” for peoples who were already there, superficial film reviews provide little (and really no) novel information.

Do b/w films really have looks?

But let’s back up to something in the cold light of day: with a few exceptions that came really late in the day, film was never really designed to have an aesthetic “look.” It was always designed to have a function. That drove aesthetics. To a point.

Almost 20 years into the 21st century, conventional black-and-white film has no real mysteries. For most of recorded history, film followed a pretty regimented set of tradeoffs: slower film had finer grain and finer tonal rendition. Things got grainier and lost dynamic range as film increased in speed. Although tablet grained b/w films helped increase performance, most of what you see in black and white films is the product of design tradeoffs rather than some deliberate aesthetic proposition.

Recall that the basis of film photography was science. I would suggest that, after a lot of time developing film, the differences between films of a given type and speed are actually relatively minor compared to the effects of varying developer, time, temperature, and agitation. Let’s take an example: Tri-X and TMY are different films, right, Tri-X with an S curve and TMY straight? Here is that classic Tri-X characteristic curve.

Ok, and here is your philistinic, “robot,” “soulless,” TMY, also developed in D-76:

Now develop both in T-Max developer and overlay the curves (black is TX, red is TMY). Don’t have a heart attack, but there are far more similarities than differences in response. Maybe a minute’s difference in developing time. Oh no…

But wow, this was like the holy of holy in differences in “look,” right?Nothing should be very surprising here; tablet-shaped film grains aside, the reaction of silver halide molecules to photons has not changed at all in 150 years of film photography.

So today, some films are grainier than others, some are contrastier than others, some are faster than others, normalized for a developer. But the choice and deployment of developer (if not also every other step of the output chain) can hugely influence or obliterate the “curve” which is the seat of the “look.” In other words, film is just a variable, and from a tone and grain standpoint, perhaps it’s far less of one than we thought.

Did consumers ever actually understand color film?

When you get to color film, things get more complicated because these start with silver halide, which is bleached out and functionally replaced with organic dyes. Color dyes are fickle.

When it was still made in a bunch of varieties, color negative film itself was somewhat inscrutable to anyone but pros and the very serious amateur. Moderately skilled (or more accurately, moderately informed) photographers knew that some types of film were better at skin tones than others (such as Kodak Vericolor III), but for the Joe Average, who had a skill level equivalent to most people writing about film, pretty much every C-41 negative film went through a minilab/printer, which was a highly automated way for drugstore personnel to make magic from your little canister and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process. If you were a pro, you would send your film out to a pro lab where professionals would make magic from your little canisters of film and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process.

Although competing brands of film within a certain type (color negative, color slide) used different methods of getting to the “right” color, skin tones were the pivot. Color, oddly, never really got more differentiated than high-contrast/saturation (Velvia, Portra VC, etc.) and regular (Provia, Ektachrome, Portra NC…).

Did you ever notice how much people hate on Kodak ProImage 100 for being excessively grainy and undersaturated? Aside from slight desaturation, it’s essentially where 100-speed film was when people stopped putting money into developing 100-speed consumer color film. The point-and-shoot camera – typically with a slow lens – put a high premium on 400-speed performance, and that’s where manufacturers went. The faster film got to the point where Kodak HD200 and 400 were far smoother than good old GA-135. Here is an easy conversion from consumer to prosumer to pro:

  • Gold 100 gen 4 » Extinct » ProImage 100 (rebalanced)
  • Gold 200 gen X » ColorPlus
  • Gold 400 gen 6 » some other steps » Gold Max 400
  • Ektar 125 » Ektar 100 » Royal Gold 100 » Extinct » Ektar 100
  • Royal Gold 200 » Kodak HD200 » Extinct
  • Ektar 400 » Royal Gold 400 » Kodak HD400 » Extinct
  • Vericolor III » Portra 160NC » New Portra 160
  • Portra 160VC » Replaced by New Portra 160
  • Portra 400NC » New Portra 400
  • Portra 400VC » Replaced by New Portra 400
  • Portra 400UC » Extinct

Slide film might have been even more mysterious — and represented a medium that spanned the absolute best professional photography and the worst amateur work feared by man. And nothing in between. You either had it or you didn’t. Transparency film was sold in large quantities to tourists and people wanting to shoot color in the really old days. Which made a lot of sense when a goddamn color photograph was a big deal, even if it took 6/12/36 exposures to get one good one. Kodachrome was a tri-layer black and white film that got an infusion of dye during processing. Slow, sharp, permanent, and capable of delivering a nice looking picture assuming the constellations were lined up. And if they weren’t, blown highlights, blocked shadows, and blue. Slides were the ultimate measure-twice, cut-once medium — but few people bothered to measure. Ektachrome and Fujichrome made it cheaper and easier to generate huge boxes of vacation slides that no one wanted to see — and ultimately faded out transparencies that no one could see.

Today, unless you plan to look at tiny positives backlit by homemade ground glass after the Zombie Apocalypse, or have brought some friends over, Buffalo Bill style, to watch vacation pictures projected on a screen (“it puts the slides in the carousel”), digital photography does everything slide film did – but better. Where you can vary the ISO, get more dynamic range, infinitely adjust contrast and saturation, and crop at will, it’s hard to make the argument that Ektachrome came back for anything but nostalgia and motion pictures. Which is a worthy reason. Let’s just not pretend it’s scientific.

In addition to allowing things to happen that could never happen with a filter-based minilab, the rise of the Fuji Frontier in the late 1990s was really the nail in the coffin of film-awareness. With hyper-sharpening, dynamic range compression, and ultimately, smart automatic operation, the Frontier made every photo look perfect. The technology is not unlike how people deal with negatives today: develop, scan, print (in the case of the Frontier, onto photo paper, using a laser). Today, the Frontier’s weirdly regimented view of the world lives on in the hackneyed wedding presets used on Lightroom by an army of semiprofessional shooters using Canon 5Ds.

And if you remember old film packaging, there is the warning that “color dyes in time may fade” (Gospel of Eastman Kodak, K41:1). Everything on earth is capable of influencing the colors and balance of color films: lot, storage temperature, age, exposure, environmental radiation, magnetic fluids, and phlogiston. The same goes for the output media, which if you’ve seen old Fujichrome slides, can be interesting.

That’s part of why the support infrastructure was so complicated, whether it was a minilab computer or CC10, 20, and 30 filters in cyan, magenta, and yellow. And why pros – once they had a particular lot of film dialed in – like a particular lot of Ektachrome – they stayed with it as much as possible. And even pros sometimes had to lean on color correction experts at labs to make every one of those Glamour Shots® perfect.

Conclusion

Hopefully you have not found this discussion offensive, but as an almost old person, I am not at all hesitant to tell you that everyone in their 20s has a Dunning-Kruger delusion when it comes to the technical aspects of photography. As someone who was there for the twilight of mainstream film photography, I would mostly observe that until the bitter end, film R&D was aimed at making the medium a neutral one that could be manipulated via development, printing, or even scanning – and that today, you can easily mistake random errors for some intentional aesthetic balance.

Browniegate: In hoc signo vinces

20190103_204435.jpgWell, you have that day where you feel like you want to step off the film train. Oddly enough, it was not because some digital sensor came along with massive resolution, or film hit $8 a roll, or the EU outlawed developing chemicals. Or you name the calamity.

Here, it was the product of well-meaning backward-compatibility. I had this thought as I was looking at a roll of TMY shot with a Silvestri H that probably cost $10,000 new. It uses standard-style roll backs made by Mamiya that are bulletproof and have nicely spaced frames. The pictures themselves were sharp, undistorted, and perspective-corrected. But they were ruined for optical printing because backing paper numbers – useful only to people with red-window cameras – transferred onto the emulsion. I felt like Constantine the Great, kinda. I looked in the sky, and the sign of “Kodak 14” was shining down on me. In this sign you will [be] conquere[d].

Browniegate (let’s give it a good name, at least) occurred because Kodak had an issue with backing paper on 120 film (this affected some lots made between 2-4 years ago). Environmental conditions could cause backing paper frame numbers to transfer onto the emulsion of the film and show up in low-density areas, especially the sky. Lomographers probably loved this. Everyone else, not so much.

Kodak handled this reasonably well (but not optimally),* and it has been very good about replacing defective film. Given that they had few choices for backing paper (1-2 suppliers of this worldwide) and that they probably couldn’t anticipate the full range of environmental abuse film might experience in storage, I cut them some slack. We all accept that any time we use film, we could end up with no pictures. Grab the fix instead of the developer. Leave a rear lens cap on. We’ve all been there. But the backing paper thing is not within user control. Unlike the bad roll of film that comes up every hundred thousand rolls of film, the frame number thing hits more often. It’s not like lightning. It’s more like a tornado ripping through farm country.

The what is one thing. But the why is another. Laying aside bad material choices by the backing paper manufacturer, the underlying issue is that frame numbers on paper backing were last needed for serious cameras in the 1950s (the Super Ikonta C may be the last one), and the ruby-window method of seeing what frame you are on persists mainly in (1) Brownie cameras whose design goes back to 1895; (2) Lomography-oriented products; and (3) current large-format roll holders that should know better. There is actually no excuse for this last category, since there is no patent for frame counters that is still valid, and roll backs are only made in LCCs now. It’s the support of these older and cheaper cameras that requires frame numbers past #1 – and in a weird way, the shadow of the 19th century is still causing problems in the 21st.

The bigger question this begs is this: if backward compatibility is a significant part of the business case for 120, does that mean that when the ruby-window market fizzles out, it will take serious medium-format photography with it? Best not to think about that.

*By not optimally, it would be nice to have a new catalogue number for new backing paper, so that people trying to buy film from B&H for critical use would not get stuck with old product – like I did when I was going to Singapore, bought 20 rolls of TMY in March 2019, got 158xxx TMY, and had backing number transfers on every roll of film, with up to 75% of 6×4.5 frames being affected on any given roll. Or maybe use a laminated paper that has punched-out numbers and not printed ones. 

 

Bokeh gonna burn your eyes

bokehlicious.jpg

Mark my words (as if they are that important): the future will not look kindly on the gimmick-bokeh that dominates the aesthetic of 2000s photography, just as we get a chuckle out of 1970s pictures with excessive sunsets, lens flare, and nipples. People yet to be born will wonder why photographers in the 2000s took insanely expensive lenses, better than any ever designed to date – and cheaper – and then used them to simulate astigmatism, near-sightedness, and macular degeneration. The most charitable explanation will be that photographers were trying to show solidarity with the visually impaired.

The buzzword (today) is subject isolation. But why are we isolating a subject from its context? What’s wrong with the context? Are we creating millions of pictures of the same peoples’ faces with nothing else in the shot? Are they people or products?

In the present, good composition can still be shot at f/16. Small apertures are also obligatory on larger-format film cameras because a lot of those lenses have serious light and sharpness falloff at the edges at their maximum apertures, especially with the focus at infinity. Nobody buys a $3,000+ 6×12 camera to get the types of pictures you could see from a $250 Lomo Belair.

There is a reason that early autoexposure SLRs used shutter priority: if you had to make a choice for what would be in focus, it would be your subject; if you had light to spare, you’d want use as small an aperture as your lowest desired shutter speed would support. And that thinking underpins historic picture-making. Intentionally shallow depth of field is not a feature of most of the world’s most iconic images. Arnold Newman did not need shallow depth of field to shoot Stravinsky. Eugene Smith did not shoot Spanish policemen as an exercise in subject isolation. And David Douglas Duncan captured every crease in the face of an exasperated Marine captain. How about Richard Avedon with his Rollei and every celebrity on earth? There are exceptions, but throughout history, wide apertures were primarily driven by a need to keep shutter speeds high enough to avoid blur. Light constraints are not such a consideration when ISO 6400 is a thing on digital cameras.

The worst part about bokeh, and the one no one talks about, is that it can actually be unpleasant by causing eyestrain (or maybe brain-strain). In many ways, a human eye – if you looked at the whole image projected on the retina at once – resembles a cheap Lomo-type lens: sharp in the middle (the fovea) and blurry at the edges. It even has a complete blind spot (the punctum caecum). The eye has a slow aperture, estimated by some to be f/2.8. But, dammit, everything looks like it is in focus. That’s because your eyes are continuously focusing on whatever you are looking at. Your brain is continuously piecing together fragmentary information (the blind spot thing is incredible – vertebrate biology beat Adobe to content-aware fill by about 500 million years). The end result is what looks (perceptually) like a scene where everywhere you look, things are in focus. It’s actually pretty amazing that this works.

In every photo, there is a compression of three dimensions into two. More depth of field allows your eyes to wander and allows you to process the scene fairly normally. When you look at bokehlicious pictures, definition is concentrated on one object (and often just a piece of it). You might find your eyes (or visual perception) constantly trying to focus on other aspects of the scene besides the subject. But neither your eyes nor computational photography can remove extreme artifacts once they are “flattened.”

Scroll back up to the picture at the top. Same composition, shot at f/8 and f/1.5 with a 50mm ZM Sonnar. Look left and look right. On the left, you can look almost anywhere n the scene and see whatever visual element you want to scrutinize, at at least some level of detail. On the right, you are always and forever staring into the Contractor Ring®. You can try to focus on other elements of the picture on the right, but the information simply is not there. Need an aspirin?

And it can be fatiguing, more so that the aesthetic is played out and that anyone with an iPhone X can play the game. Pictures with ultra-shallow DOF don’t look natural. They are great every once in a while, or if you need a 75/1.4 Summilux to get an otherwise-impossible shot, but otherwise, get off your ass and move the camera (or your subject) into a position with a reasonable background.

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Digital photography – really photography?

Can you believe that Pullman is used for “bus” in parts of Europe? Jeez, I thought that a pullman was inherently a rail vehicle. How dare usages change! Somebody get on the Rail Transport User’s Group (RTUG) and post a philosophy question. We need to take the name Pullman back!

But really, how many hours of the waning days of old men’s lives have been wasted arguing about whether newfangled cameras grabbing electrons can be “photography” as an art or a craft? How many should? Would that time be better spent arguing about cars, finishing, guns, boats, or wristwatches?

You can spin off into the etymological argument: electrons aren’t photo + graphy because the light is not making the image directly. Or there is transformation. Or something. Reliance on ancient Greek is misguided. Photography was a neologism invented in the 19th century. It was not true to the ancient Greek then (no thing was – or is – drawing or scratching in the sense of γραφή); the 19th-century term was just an arbitrary description for what happens when light was the prime mover in the imaging process. And we have legions of words whose meanings have deviated far from what they would have meant to Greeks or Romans – or even what they meant the first time the terms were coined. Hence the weird crossover between autobuses and rail cars.

Is photography art? If you believe that, look at what the art world says. It’s all photography. That’s what museums call anything that is an image captured by a machine (film or digital) where the substantive content originates in the original image recording process. The only distinction made (and only sometimes) is for pre-silver-halide work, and even then only if it is one of the more obviously exotic (Daguerrotypes, Cyanotypes, and other things that deviate from the look of optical or inkjet paper). Odd that they don’t care what system originated the image; they only care about the medium it is ultimately expressed. Just like other things you see on the walls are “oil,” “watercolor,” “pastel,” “drawing,” etc. A “dye diffusion print” does not differentiate between originating on negatives or a Handycam.

Or maybe it’s not odd. Art requires a visible or tangible expression, and in the end, that is all that counts.

 

Opiates of the masses: bokeh

26.jpg

As close as you will ever get to bokeh with the Konica Genba Kantoku DD (@40mm)

[2008-11-02] I have heard only one good argument for hunting marine mammals to extinction.  It came from my friend Leo, who pointed out that mammals spent millions of years evolving from sea life – so what kind of perverse animal wants to go back to the ocean?

The idea of perversity comes to mind when people criticize current optics as being attacked as “too sharp,” “too contrasty,” or having “bad bokeh.”   This seems to happen most with new rangefinder optics coming out of Leica and Zeiss.

As a preliminary matter, it is totally OK to buy a previous-generation lens because it is all one can afford (or all one wants to spend for a particular focal length).  But now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the seals and the whales.

The inexorable tide of history

Query whether at any point in optical history any optical designer pulled back because a design exhibited too much sharpness, too much contrast or too little uncorrected spherical aberration.  To the contrary, if Berthele, Berek or Mandler had been able to incorporate mass-produced aspherics, they no doubt have been building aspherical Summicrons and Summiluxes instead of Sonnars, Elmars or 35mm pre-aspherical Summicrons.  By the standards of yesterday’s optical designers, today’s multicoated, aspherical, retrofocus wideangles would seem like gifts from the gods.

One can always dumb-down a lens that is sharp or contrasty by stopping it down until it diffracts, using a softening filter, diluting your developer, going down a grade in optical printing, changing the RAW development curve, or even simple mis-focusing.  If you are consistently do the opposite of any (or all) of these, you probably really want a lens that is sharper and more contrasty.  One would wager that of all of the Photoshop or Lightroom controls, the most popular are the ones that make pictures more snappy.

Some people would make the argument that lower-contrast optics maximize dynamic range on digital cameras, but this is an argument that only carries water in scenes with 500:1 contrast ratios – and even then would assume that anything of interest lay in the shadows (hint: take a look somehow how JPG compression is set up – to preserve highlight detail, which perceptually is where the interest generally is).  Uniformly low-lighted scenes generally call for higher-contrast lenses because those scenes actually have a very limited brightness range.

Bokeh or baka?

If the justification for looking at old lenses is “bokeh,” question why it is even a concern.  Bokeh seems to have become an end only in the past 15 years – and it is legitimate to question why it merits so much internet bandwidth.  My personal observation, based on the existence of things like the Nikon Thousand and One Nights site, is that it originated in the nostalgia of some older photographers in Japan: “When I was 18, I really wanted a Nikon SP…”

But there are practical reasons to ignore the bokeh question altogether.  First, most of the discussion of bokeh seems to revolve around the use of lenses 50mm and shorter (or 35mm or shorter on a camera with a crop factor) for purposes of taking close-range pictures.  Many of these pictures just as easily could be taken with  lenses twice as long at twice the distance (example: a portrait at a meter),  Consider that:

– A 50mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2 and a meter has a depth of field of 36mm (about 1.5 inches)

– A 90mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2.8 and 1.8m has a depth of field of 50.6mm (about 2 inches).  Even shot at f/2 (assuming it has that aperture), it would still have 36mm depth of field.

With a longer lens, one is not crowding human subjects or hitting their faces with the unflattering distortion that comes with short lenses.  And we don’t see systemic complaints about bokeh with longer lenses (no doubt because with four or five elements they are less corrected in general), so if one has the light to use one, why not?  What’s that you say?  You don’t have enough light?  Can’t afford a telephoto?  Even if your only available optic is a short, fast, hypercorrected aspherical lens, the look of the background can be vastly improved by manipulating the relative distances from camera to subject and subject to background.

Second, many photographers appear to emphasize (and rely on) bokeh to make up for what are really severe compositional defects in photographs (point light sources in frame, relatively busy backgrounds, etc.).  The use of bokeh for this purpose goes hand-in-hand with the “wide-open, close-up” school of photography that not only leans on bokeh to tidy up backgrounds but also uses shallow depth of field to increase interest in what ordinarily would be unremarkable subjects.  Shooting with a camera on shutter priority is an excellent discplinary exercise.  With far less conscious control over depth of field, one composes far more carefully.

Finally, perhaps best way to forget about bokeh as a factor is to ask oneself just how many of the great pictures in history were ruined due to bad bokeh.  The answer is is, “none.”  No one even thought of the concept until the late 20th century, and it is arguably more wrapped up in romanticism than anything that has ever been validated as sound photographic practice.

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

timelife

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

HorseyText

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.