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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.

All SLR lenses are Coke® bottles, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The terrorists have not won

LeicaM60

There is a tasteless joke whose punchline is, “well, we’ve established what kind of girl you are; now we’re just trying to establish the price.” It goes back to a newspaper column by the Hereditary Peer and reformed Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, it is probably fictional in origin, and it has been twisted around in a number of ways. Nevertheless, the quip is a great counterpoint to people who make a point of maintaining their photographic “integrity” by using some “less automated” form of digital.

Every technical aspect of digital photography (or as film snobs would call it, digital imaging) is nontraditional and somewhat automated. Light does not write an image on anything (we have the φωτός part; we have no γραφή). Instead, light hits an electronic sensing surface that translates light into analog measurements automatically, those measurements are converted to numbers automatically, and a computer in the camera bakes those numbers into a RAW image file automatically. That file is in turn transformed into something visible to humans, either in the camera or on a computer – and it is only in this final stage that human control returns, and it is a totally different type of control than chemical development and optical printing. The physics and chemistry of film photography are actually simple compared to the computational power required for digital photography. Put it this way: the oxidation-reduction reactions used in film photography are taught in high-school chemistry; the mathematical transformations needed to convert Bayer sensor measurements into recognizable images are almost graduate-school math. Or to put it bluntly: men went to the moon in vehicles with computers less sophisticated than what we now use to replicate the 1960s Hasselblad film cameras they took.

Functionally, digital imaging is like film photography in that you ultimately get an image on paper — but only similar in the way that a Selectric typewriter and a laser printer can both put crisp Courier text on a piece of white office bond. In both instances, you start with a keyboard and end with clean text, but the intervening operations are completely different. And with photography, both film and digital begin with a using camera and end with a physical image. But nothing in the middle is the same. That makes two things immediately suspect: (1) claims by manufacturers that their digital cameras build on their film competencies; and (2) claims by photographers that people should avoid using some of the possibilities that digital technologies provide. Leica culture is guilty on both counts. The easy part to identify is the design ethos of the digital M line: a digital M is designed to look like a film camera and not like a ground-up digital camera. This is understandable in light of the other part: the hard core of Leica culture thinks like Hesiod: there was a golden age (the M3), a silver age (the M2), and a progression of lesser ages that run up to and include the current product line (iron age is especially appropriate given Leica’s late penchant for stainless steel). Even among apostates who keep buying new Leicas (scribe, prepare the interdict!), technological resistance has historically expressed itself in apologetics. Leica zealots denounced autofocus — or autoexposure, or auto-advance, or digital, or whatever at the time of the denouncement Leica’s R&D budget had not yet allowed Solms/Wetzlar to implement. With autofocus, it was not entirely Pharisaic; even today, the only truly competent AF seems to come from larger, heavier DSLRs. But just as Paleo diets have captured the imagination of some, there is a set of rangefinder users who would like to go back to the days of the Kodak DCS line, when men were men and “chimping” referred to primates at play. Or better yet, they would like to return to the metaphor of the M3.

The Leica „M Edition 60” is simultaneously the fantasy and horror of Leica traditionalists. One group seeks continuity: an ersatz film camera suggests an unbroken line. Where that is not compelling, another craves “simplicity.” And yet others believe that omitting things like a screen would make a camera less expensive. A $20,000 camera package that is no lighter or smaller than a Typ 240 is going to sorely disappoint two out of these three groups. The acrimony is understandable. The remaining group might find suspension of disbelief easier. After all, Byzantine emperors still thought of themselves as Romans.

It is fair to guess that a camera made in an edition of 600 and packaged with white handling gloves will never sully its sensor with photons nor flush it with electrons. If it did, there would be legitimate questions of whether a digital camera, particularly a Leica one, is viable without a LCD screen and shooting only RAW:

  • Shooting in DNG (i.e., RAW) is a poor substitute for proper exposure – and the Leica M meter has a tendency to produce results outside an easy adjustment range under a variety of circumstances: sunrise, sunset, flash. If the metering were more sophisticated on this camera, it might provoke less concern. But it’s fair to say that in tricky light, shooting the M architecture blind is not unlike exposing Kodachrome by guess. That, one assumes, is why the Typ 240 has auto-bracketing available.
  • Lack of JPG capability can severely cabin on-the-road productivity and completely inhibits the use of Eye-Fi.
  • Certain mixed lighting conditions that are relatively invisible to the eye (such as incandescent and daylight in the same frame) are detectable with an LCD, are correctable on-site at the time of shooting, and are extremely difficult to fix afterward.
  • It would be a bitter pill to have a malfunction throughout a shoot that ruined the shots and was not detected until it was too late to make corrections. Think: rangefinder misalignment, a spot on the sensor, travel use.

In addition, some normal digital camera functions are completely dependent on the use of an LCD:

  • Sensor cleaning is a stab-in-the-dark exercise without being able to look at stopped-down exposures quickly. And in any event, one would lose the dust detection capability of the camera.
  • Lens profile selection becomes entirely dependent on Leica 6-bit coding.
  • Filename/folder arrangements, formatting SD cards, and other “disk maintenance” functions make it hard to clear space if needed.
  • Firmware updates would be difficult to implement.

And then there are some other things (normal features of digital and even many film cameras) that go away with the M Edition 60:

  • Strap lugs
  • Video (this is explicit)
  • Liveview
  • Histograms
  • Self-timer settings
  • Exposure bracketing
  • Slow sync controls
  • Auto ISO
  • Frameline color
  • Focus peaking
  • Histograms
  • Clipping detection
  • USB mode controls
  • Date/time setting
  • User (settings profiles)
  • Anything that has to do with JPEG generation (white balance, resolution, compression, film modes, color space)

There is no EVF workaround because the camera lacks an EVF port. So yes, as a digital camera, it is quite limited. These limitations may not have much effect on individuals shooting for pleasure. Theirs is no worse than the experience of shooting film, though the foibles of electronics inject a new element of risk. Photographers working in high-pressure contexts will not use something like this for the same reason they do not use medium format digital cameras: it is not the absolute disadvantage; it is the competitive disadvantage.

Functionality is a non-issue. Though a few perverse people will actually use the M Edition 60 to take pictures (just as one could use a silver dollar as currency), it is far from likely to be common. Leica’s replacement for the M Typ 240/M-P will undoubtedly have more technology, not less, and the superb industrial design of the „M Edition 60” will become a footnote like the M9 Titanium designed by Porsche or the M6J. Features of these special models may reappear (just as the high-magnification finder of the M6J and the LED-lit framelines of the M9 Titanium), but the whole package will not. The terrorists have not won; we can go back to screens and JPGs and video.

Leica, ultimately, wins here. It does not win on profit – a product in this low of a run barely pays for its own tooling. It wins in media exposure. Google “M Edition 60” and you will see that this device has put Leica on Engadget, DPReview, Wired, Forbes, CNET, and Petapixel. This puts the Leica line in front of a lot of people who previously did not know what Leica is – and more importantly, it puts the Leica brand in front of many people with disposable income. Not only does this represent a lot of free advertising for a niche brand, it is also likely aimed at selling more $7,000 M Typ 240s to people who don’t have $20,000 to drop on an M Edition 60 package.

Well played, Leica.

Cameras, proles, and animals are free

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On paper, digital photo equipment goes down in value very quickly. Whether it’s devaluation or the more accounting-oriented depreciation, a camera will drop in secondary market (used) value over time. But what does it really cost to own one?

When you consider a pro-level camera that costs $5,000 (and that is not the subject to a waiting list to buy), you can assume that it will lose about 1/3 of its value when it’s opened. But on average, it will down in dollar value (on the private secondary market) an average of $1,000 per year for its ownership period (2-5 years). That’s just under $2.74 per day. You can’t rent a camera that cheaply. You can’t even buy a Starbucks coffee for that kind of money. The only real inhibitor is having the cash flow to shell out the $5,000.*

* Financing it on a credit card would make it cost a bit more per year.

Someone (a pro, if any still exist) who can take depreciation on that camera could potentially deduct $1,000 per year from income, which at a 15% effective rate, would lead to annual tax savings making the cost of ownership per day closer to $2.33 a day. Expensing the camera would lead to a one-time tax savings.**

** Consult your tax professional, not photo websites like this one.

And for all but shelf queens, the equipment produces pictures. For pros, it is a source of income. For everyone else, it is a source of satisfaction or record keeping. It’s not fair to say that an amateur’s 10,000 frames year of digital saves that many frames of film (because someone paying for film would never shoot like that), but if the average rate on film was a roll a week, one can manage to save, in film and processing, the $1,000 per year paid for the camera. It certainly can overcome the effective spend on a less expensive model costing $2,500 (consider the Nikon D700, which four years ago sold for $2,500 new and generally sells for about $1,250 now).

All of that said, there still is a psychological blow to non-professional buyers when they see what they might perceives to be “investments” steadily losing value. Some manufacturers (like Nikon, Canon and Leica) avoid pouring salt on the wound by avoiding changes to MSRP. Others, like Fujifilm, will swing away at the primary market price (as much as 55%), thus creating an artificially low ceiling for resale.

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