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

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Unfrozen Cave-Man Design

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

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

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

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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.

X100T: Some other things while we’re here

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Since the original piece inadvertently left out a few items, here they are.

Effects of face recognition. The prolonged use of face recognition brings a few things to light:

  • The X100T’s lens (essentially an unchanged X100 23mm f/2 lens) is much better close-up and wide-open than you might have been led to believe by using the focus-and-recompose method (which you will use if face detection fails).
  • Face recognition (or more accurately, its confusion with two faces in-frame) encourages compositions either with one visible face or two in much different planes of focus.
  • The problem, at least initially, is a conditioned inhibition from framing a face at the extreme left or right side of the frame.
  • A profound sense of disappointment ensues when one considers that the face recognition of the original NEX-5 works faster and keeps working during video recording.

Electronic shutter. This feature takes advantage of the electronic front curtain function of the X-Trans II sensor. The upside is that you can now expose at ISO 3200 and f/2 during a nuclear explosion. The downside is that you cannot use flash to do it. In terms of actually needing a shutter that can fire for 1/32,000 of a second, there are virtually no such applications in real life. The real purpose of the electronic shutter is to cut shutter lag. Ordinarily, the X100-type shutter would have to close and then open to fire; with electronic shutter selected, it fires and then closes. There is a tiny bit of lag before the next shot, but this makes the camera much better at capturing the right moment (“decisive” for those who would pretend to be Catier-Bresson).

“Rolling shutter.” Granted, this can be a problem if you shoot F1 racing from the sideline on the straightaway, but there is no real rolling shutter issue with the X100T. This “problem” has been trotted out in quite a few online reviews, but it is very difficult to show in real life. In fact, the X100T shutter captures much faster than a normal SLR shutter (which typically scans a slit in 1/320 sec max) – so if your application were going to present an issue with the X100T, you would already have seen it on a DSLR.

Fuji WiFi vs. EyeFi. The Fuji internal system has a few advantages over EyeFi,

  • It can automatically resize on the fly for transmission.
  • It can select shots for transmission without having to trip the “protect” flag.
  • It does not burn power to project a WiFi signal unless you specifically tell it to.
  • It does not take so much work to get it to wake up to transmit.
  • It does not dictate the maximum storage size of the camera.
  • It does not physically fall apart or slow down/ jam up under heavy use.

On the other hand, EyeFi still has a few advantages up its sleeve:

  • It can be moved between cameras.
  • In connection with moving it, any camera you use it in will show up with the same SSID.
  • It is better when you are shooting in a quasi-tethered manner (i.e., you want all photos to flow to a handheld) because it lets you use the camera like a camera. The Fuji requires its somewhat clumsy remote mode.

The nice thing is that you can use either system.

Exposure counter. What.the.hell? It’s bad enough that Fuji invented this on the GW and GSW cameras; it’s worse that people flip out over it when buying any used digital camera; and it’s worse yet that Fuji somehow decided to put a shot counter on the setup menu. And while we are reaching for superlatives, does someone have an explanation for why this is even a thing when according to the documentation, the counter is incremented by various operations that don’t even take pictures?

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Fuji X100T: Ch-ch-changes (from the X100)

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It would not be a Machine Planet kind of Friday afternoon if we didn’t boot up a 1970s Pioneer SA-9500II, crank up the David Bowie’s Young Americans on the Wheels of Steel, and pray that the protection circuits don’t open prematurely. There is a mild short somewhere. Maybe in a speaker wire, maybe in the brain. But while you’re remembering your President Nixon and the bills you have to pay, remember the Leica sold during that presidency: the M4. For its third (and perhaps final) iteration of Fujifilm’s Kleinerersatzmesssucherkamera (to clumsily and incorrectly coin a German compound), the Japanese company dropped the frame around the viewfinder window – just as Leica dropped that frame from the M3 to the M4 (let’s ignore the M2 because it doesn’t fit with this theory). If Leica had old-man shills instead of effusive wedding photographer shills, someone would have pointed this out sooner. But let’s face it, this entry is highly unlikely to be linked to the enthusiastic Fujirumors.com.

There is a superstition that says to upgrade on the odd numbers for Nikon (F to F3 to F5) and on even-numbered ones for Leica Leicas (M2, M4, M6). If you consider the F2 ugly, the F4 clumsy, and the M5 weird, you might also think about upgrading from the X100 to the X100T.

This piece will concentrate on differences between the original X100 and X100T, on the assumption that people are not considering incremental upgrades between the S and T. Let me know if I succeed in telling you some things that other writers have not. So let’s go point by point.

Design. The X100T is roughly the same dimensions as the X100; however, almost every exterior part has been changed between the two cameras. This is indicative of Japanese consumer product design – things get redesigned even with no apparent purpose, apparently without regards to the costs of tooling all new parts. That said. the X100T oddly has the same rubber plug near the battery door that the original X100 does – despite the fact that Fuji does not officially support AC adapters for this camera. The black version, which I tested, has a speckled finish that is not unlike a finer-grained version of what Nikon uses on its higher-end bodies. The frame around the front window is gone, as is the divot in which the ambient light sensor sits.

Layout. Compared to the original, the layout has changed somewhat.

The top deck is the same, the front its same (with the exception of focusing mode, which has been revised to reorder focusing modes as S-C-M (bottom to top) rather than the accident-prone C-S-M. This brings the camera in line with current DSLRs and eliminates an annoying tendency of the original to end up in continuous or manual by accident. And no one understands quite what continuous is supposed to do on the X100 or X-Pro1.

The rear left button layout is considerably different, and it has not changed for the better. The original X100 had four highly tactile buttons running down the left side, from top to bottom, Play, AE (doubling as zoom-in in playback), AF (zoom-out), and View Mode. The X100T has changed these to View Mode, Play, Trash, and WiFi. The Trash and WiFi buttons are re-programmable, but the cardinal sin lies in moving the play button to a position where in reaching for it, the user constantly cycles view modes: viewfinder, LCD, eye sensor, and many permutations in between (like the strangely useless viewfinder only plus eye sensor, which shuts all views off when not looking through the VF. This causes unexpected problems if shooting and even occasionally checking pictures on the back of the camera. The smaller, lower-profile size of the buttons is even less helpful.

The rear right is similarly a mess. Display mode is in the same place though much smaller. Drive has thankfully been moved to its own button, out of the way of accidental pushes on the scroll wheel (which is not abolished). The problem is that the Drive button is now directly in the path of any accessory thumb rest (like the Thumbs Up). The magnification control has been moved from the left buttons to a full-fledged control wheel (occupying the space of the former rocker switch). But this too is subtended by a thumb rest. AE/AF lock is its own button, smaller than on the X100 and right in line with the button the activates the useless Q menu, a tactile failure just as it is on the X-Pro1.

Fortunately, the X100T has seven re-programmable function buttons:

  • FN (still in the same place on the top deck – default function is to start video recording without any intermediate menus).
  • Up arrow
  • Left Arrow
  • Right Arrow
  • Down Arrow
  • Trash
  • WiFi

Here are some suggested things to program to these buttons:

  • Video (because otherwise you would have to wade through the Drive menu) (FN)
  • Focusing area (Up)
  • Film simulation (Left) – still has a bunch of films whose names most users of this camera would not recognize, plus “Classic Chrome,” a pretty obvious knockoff of Kodachrome, a film Fuji never made.
  • Flash mode (Right)
  • White balance (Down)
  • Face Detection (Trash) – this is new. Face detection (described in more detail in Focusing, below) detects human faces to set focus and exposure.
  • WiFi (WiFi) – this activates the connection memo used to connect the camera to the Camera Remote app.

This is the full menu of things that can be mapped to the seven function buttons:

  1. Advanced filter (the “artsy” effect filters). For those who can’t wait for Photoshop, you can do all of your fakey selective color, cross-processed, toy camera, and tilt-shift effects. Also soft focus.
  2. Multiple exposure
  3. Macro
  4. Preview depth of field
  5. Iso – this now includes the option to program up to three different auto-ISO presets. And they don’t work with flash unless you use a Fuji unit.
  6. Self-Timer
  7. Image size
  8. Image quality
  9. Dynamic range
  10. Film Simulation
  11. White balance
  12. ND filter
  13. Photometry (i.e., “Metering Mode”)
  14. AF mode (area/spot)
  15. Corrected AF frame
  16. Flash compensation
  17. Select custom setting
  18. Preview Pic. Effect
  19. High performance this makes everything go faster, including your batteries.
  20. Raw
  21. Conversion Lens – this is for the TCL-X100 and WCL-X100, the 28mm and 43mm conversion lenses.
  22. Shutter Type – you can use this to trigger the new electronic shutter, which goes up to 1/32,000 second. This is a teats-on-a-bull proposition, because to need that shutter speed, you would need to have the camera at 3200 ISO and f/2, on the surface of the sun. The super-fast shutter does not work with flash, nor does it capture action well.
  23. None (mercifully)

Operation. Assuming you can keep your fingers in the right places, the camera is snappy, responsive and quick to take pictures. And that’s all you can really ask. All controls have much more solid clicks (particularly the top dials). The 1/3 aperture stops are actually annoying.

Focusing. The X100S and -T introduced phase-detect focus to the X100. This is supposed to speed up focusing, which it does in very bright light (as in EV 11 and over); contrast does not seem to enter into the picture. Focusing is very, very quick in this mode. But note that this mode does not cover the entire frame and does not operate at all when faces are detected in frame. You can tell when phase-detect is working because the focusing reticle just goes green with no hunting. Phase-detect is used to support the “split image” focusing aid that is available in M mode (and in the “tab”). The contrast-detect focus is faster than on the X100. There are two things that are actually exciting about the X100T if you are used to the X100.

  • Face detection. Although not perfect and often arbitrarily selecting between faces in a shot, this feature eliminates a lot of focus-and-recompose shooting. Exposure then adjusts for the face. When no face is detected, the camera reverts to the chosen focus point and either phase-detect or contrast-detect as necessary. Note that face detection requires that (1) the camera be focused enough to pick out some face at least vaguely and (2) that the face be larger than the focusing reticle. Face-detection does not work in OVF mode, though with the “tab” (see below), it should be possible.
  • Focus tracking during continuous shooting. Focus continues through continuous shots. It might fall behind the subject, but it is a considerable step up from the locked focus that the X100 exhibited wile in continuous. Continuous focus locks out face detection in multiple-shot sequences.

There is a “pre” focus setting that seems to mirror the “continuous” function on the X100. But here it is actually useful because it facilitates face detection. The “real time” parallax correction operates only in manual focus. Why is this a marquis feature of the X100T?

Imaging. See any review of any camera with any 16MP X-Trans sensor. The face detection tends to up the sharpness of faces (compared to focusing and re-composing). Your subjects will hate you.The X100T has a lens modulation optimizer (LMO), which is designed to combat diffraction. In general, versus the X100 sensor, this picks up about a stop of low light capability, four extra megapixels, and a bit more decoding time on Lightroom.

Viewfinder. Two major observations here. First, there are more megapixels, and the menu text does look finer. Second, this is not the revelation that some people seem to suggest. The pixelation during contrast-detect focusing is much smaller, but that’s about it. There is a new “Daylight” mode that makes the screen incredibly bright – but makes everything look overexposed snd washed-out indoors. Finally, the fast refresh rate causes strange interactions with fluorescent lights. The fonts and arrangements for the in-viewfinder displays have changed. They are more comprehensive but also less legible. A helpful feature in EVF is an indicator that – even when you are in photo mode – tells you how much recording time you would have if you hit the instant-on button for video (internal memory holds a whopping 8 seconds).

The “tab.” As if switching between EVF and OVF were not enough to lose track of, pushing repeatedly to the right toggles the  “tab,” which is a small semi reflective mirror in the lower right corner in OVF mode. In autofocus modes, this operates to show what is actually in focus. In manual focus, it can show your choice of focus peaking or a split image view. Pressing the control wheel gives you a choice between actual and 5x magnification; holding it switches between focus peaking and split image. The tab is dangerously close to the long-fantasized “digital rangefinder” that Leica users have begged for: it is an electronic superimposition in an optical finder. It is brilliant. The unfortunate thing is that it cannot be put in the center of the frame. The problem appears to be that the finder itself does not have enough contrast in bright light to mask ambient light and replace it with a usable split image. That can be fixed in the corner, but in the center frame, it would require a permanent silvered square.

Batteries. Alleged improved battery life is not a big deal. There is only so much power in a battery the size of an NP-95, and the chemistry has not changed. What is a big deal is that you can now charge the batteries via the USB 3.0 port on the camera – meaning that you can plug it into your computer, your car, that dodgy 15,000 MaH battery pack you bought on Ebay, etc. It is nice that Fuji has decided to continue to use the matchbook-sized NP-95 battery. Although it doesn’t have the greatest capacity, you can reuse your old batteries and chargers and interchange them between cameras as needed. Video. Aside from the ability to trigger video instantly (welcome to 2009!), the video has been upgraded to 1080p, 60fps (not obviously car whether -p or -i). A variable-level mic jack has been added (it also operates as a remote release), manual focus is available for video, and ISO is adjustable for video.

Wireless. The camera has a built-in wireless function that allows remote focusing and shooting of the camera and viewing what the lens sees via an iPhone app (note: Camera Remote, not the other three Fuji apps on the App Store). It can be somewhat slow. The camera can geotag (allegedly) by picking up WiFi signals. Transfers work well, though it is still far easier to use a WiFi Mobi card. The camera does thoughtfully have a 3Mp down-sample mode for social media. Dumb things that won’t go away. Although we keep hearing the word “Kaizen” in connection with Fuji, heaven help the things that Fuji won’t let go:

  1. Making people buy the AR-X100 adapter to use 49mm filters. Come on. This is a $5 part that most people buy for $5 from Chinese eBay sellers. And the one Fuji makes ($49) doesn’t really match the black cameras.
  2. Not allowing the use of flash in continuous shooting, and holding up shooting while slow flashes recharge.
  3. Not making a small flash that shoots off the lens axis.
  4. Finishing the shutter release and flash shoe in quick-weaning black paint.
  5. Leaving the diopter wheel open to the elements. How often is this really adjusted that it needs to be prone to contamination and bumping off the setting.
  6. Continuing to recess the eye sensor so that it doesn’t work well with sunglasses or eyeglasses.
  7. Continuing to disaggregate in the menus the selection of composition grids and the setting that actually shows them in the viewfinder.
  8. Poor strap rings. The new steel inserts are nice, but loop lugs (such as on older Fujis like the GA645) would be better.

Conclusions. The X100T is indeed a serious step up from the X100. Although its sensor is nothing new (and indeed, neither is its lens), the X-Trans sensor gets more out of the lens, and the more sophisticated focusing system in turn gets more out of the X-trans sensor. The general responsiveness boost is welcome, and the improved power options are making it easier to carry this camera about anywhere. Fuji does need to cut the ADD when it comes to changing physical controls.

Fuji X100: Into darkness with the B+W 093 filter

We have been in dark places with an infrared-converted X100. Sometimes these dark places have been in bright sunlight; it’s just that what the camera sees is another world, defined by light humans can’t see. The Marche du Nain Rouge, a parade through some of the world’s most non-gentrified areas, is an excellent place to demonstrate the capabilities of this fully operational battle station device.

The B+W 093 passes an insignificant amount of visible light and creates monochrome infrared; at this wavelength, light pretty much slices through the RGB filter array (and we have been able to test this using a beta of Accuraw Monochrome). With a converted camera, sensitivity is a couple of stops less than with visible light (and about 8 stops higher than trying to use an IR filter on an unconverted camera). We have noted this before but are noting it again: the 1/4 wave multicoating used on modern cameras is completely ineffective against flare and ghosting from infrared frequencies. This makes lens hoods important and imparts a little bit of glow to everything. It is not the hazy, slightly out-of-focus effect you get with DSLRs that can’t focus IR and older IR film. It is more the look of an old Tessar on Plus-X. That said, with no color information, there is no color-specific tonal correction or false color work.

First up: your standard foliage picture, taken just before local noon. Yawn. You know what might spice this up? A pale “art nude.” Oh wait, that’s been done like a million times already.

This is your standard 930nm foliage shot. Yawn. This would be better if it had some pale nudes in it. Wait, that's been done only one million times.

Next: dragons. Yes, large mechanical dragons that travel on wheels and belch huge orange flames. Check out the reflectivity of average winter wear. Architectural details are rendered mostly normally, though red objects show up white.

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And now the Nain Rouge addresses his attackers:

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Whose winter coats are dazzling:

 

All of this happens in the shadow of the world’s largest Masonic temple..

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…which is located in a neighborhood that may be completely mowed down for a new hockey stadium and entertainment zone.

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This is the kitty-corner, limestone.

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Up the street is the old Chinatown.

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Fuji X100: the Pitch Black project (infrared and beyond the infinite)

x100-overview

In the corner of my office, there is a small cabinet full of old Persol sunglasses, almost all of which have Havana Brown frames and bottle-brown tempered glass lenses. They are brilliant for photography because that shade of brown makes everything look so beautiful, and it takes a lot more than the metal eyepiece of a camera to scratch glass. The problem is that virtually all of them are now derelict, with cracked frames, missing lenses (dropping onto cement causes tempered glass to shatter into a million blunt cubes), and general acetate decay.

I worried for a little while that my Fuji X100 would eventually meet this same fate, slipping bit by bit out of use until it became a paperweight or a bludgeon-style weapon for a small child to use. So I wondered, “why not make it see something I can’t?” And so the project began to build a full-spectrum X100 (UV + visible light + infrared). It’s a little like eyeshine in Pitch Black, the rather interesting indie movie that spawned the awful Riddick sequels.

Here are some examples of what the X100 can do with its intrinsic IR capability, a Polaroid 720nm filter (like a Hoya RM72), and difficult-to-handhold exposures (as in things like 1/10 sec at f/2 at ISO 3200 – which would not be too bad if you were used to using infrared film back in the day.

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Standard landscape, shadow side, unmodified camera.

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Standard landscape, lit side, unmodified camera.

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Backlit tortoise-shell Persol glasses, unmodified camera.

The X100 actually turned out to be the best camera for a conversion for a number of reasons:

  • It has live view for focusing and a glass viewfinder for framing. This solves almost every focusing and framing problem that plagues the conversion of DSLRs. You can’t really do a full-spectrum DSLR because sticking an infrared filter on the lens blocks the viewing and focusing mechnism. And putting a filter on the sensor not only limits your options – it also means that your phase-detect focus can only be optimized for visible or IR – not both.
  • It can be fitted with 49mm filters. Pretty much every bandpass filter ever made comes in this size.
  • It has a color balance fine-tuning facility that works on the red-magenta axis. This is important because it helps cut down on the number and strength of filters used to shoot visible light.
  • Its conventional Bayer pattern and files are supported by a considerable number of platforms, and some are coming down the pipeline (like Accuraw Monochrome) that will be able to do uninterpolated conversions.
  • It is a very small camera with a very big sensor.

The filter pack. The X100 has a package of filters that sits right in front of its APS-C sensor. These consist of a UV/IR blocking filter (interference type), two layers of filters that act as the antialiasing filter, and a thin sheet of S8612 filter glass, a bluish rare-earth glass filter that knocks out the rest of the UV and IR. Most cameras have a package like this, usually adhered to the sensor.

To convert a camera to infrared only, you pick your wavelength, usually 590, 650, 720, 830nm, etc. and install the appropriate filter. The lower the number, the more visible light gets in. More visible light means that you can differentiate colors better, leading to something called “false color.” At around 830nm, something really magic happens, and everything goes monochrome (well, at least mostly; see below). It does this because the R-G-B (or Bayer) filter on the sensor does not work at all with infrared light – it all goes right through. On film cameras, there was no infrared conversion – you would put some infrared film in and slap an infrared filter over the lens. That led to a very low-performance arrangement: focusing had to be adjusted, the film picked up a very large range of light (an “infrared” filter usually started well into the visible light range, so not everything could be focused perfectly), and so things always looked a little soft. With a closed-loop focusing system on a digital camera, you don’t have to stop down – and the advent of cheap filters 830nm and up, it is easier to concentrate only on IR light.

To convert a camera to full spectrum involves replacing the filter pack with a piece of colorless glass. Shot without a filter, this leads to a reddish picture – because you have dropped a cyan filter from inside the camera and because there is significant infrared contamination in the red channel. So for visible light shots, you need to stick something on the front of the lens to block everything but the visible. Your basic choices are (and they are by no means mutually exclusive, since the X100 can use two full-size filters with no vignetting):

  • Interference filter: the X100 has a 35mm FOV (@35mm), which means that you can use a B+W 486 filter with no color shift. The 486 knocks out pretty much all UV and all IR. It cannot be used on wider-angled lenses. The 486 is not actually a bad idea with any camera; it does not screw up color balance and it kills the remaining IR bleed (the X100 attenuates IR 10 stops, but that’s still an amount you might want to cut).
  • BG38, BG39, or S8612: these can be in many instances the only solution you need – they knock out most IR, a tiny bit of UV, and re-compensate the color balance of the camera. The problem is that these filters are made of fluorite glass impregnated with rare earth metals, which gives you fragility (or scratchability) combined with vulnerability to moisture (Schott publishes warnings with all of them that they will decay over time). To do a really good job, you also need to block UV.

It is of some note that if you can get away without an aqua filter, then you pick up some sensitivity in the red and green channels – meaning that if you are shooting b/w, you might get a speed boost.

Filters. The big complaint about full-spectrum cameras is that you always have to use filters. This is not such a big deal if you are like me and use a B+W MRC UV to seal off the end of the X100 lens tube anyway. And certainly, you are not cabined to a camera that shoots one band of IR and has zero ability to shoot normal pictures. This is more of a consideration when you start talking about more expensive cameras.

Should you go with an IR-only camera? On an SLR camera, the answer is probably yes, because you can’t slap an IR filter on the lens and still be able to see through the viewfinder (the filter would be behind the mirror and not in your line of sight). Additionally, an SLR can’t be set up to autofocus both IR and visible light (the focus points are different). The downside on an SLR done like this is that the metering is usually in the viewfinder, so you are not metering through the IR filter.  The other thing to consider is that, contrary to some statements you have seen on the interwebs, slapping an 830nm filter over a 720nm conversion is not the same as just using the 830nm (due in part to the fact that you have to multiply the transmission curves).

The conversion. The camera went to LDP LLC (MaxMax), an outfit in New Jersey that has a pretty impressive array of optical conversion services, almost like the armorer in The Man with the Golden Gun (Bond: “Of course, yet you make guns for fingerless hoodlums, bullets for assassins…”). Why LDP? The simple reason is cleanliness. I saw the dust test from another service that converted X100s, an I was not impressed. The other thing is turnaround; LDP gets your camera back within a week.  And indeed, the camera arrived there on a Thursday and shipped out on the following Monday. The conversion was more expensive than the $450 shown on the website; it was actually even more than the $500 someone reported paying for an X-Pro.

The conversion did not change anything visibly on the camera except a tiny amount of stress on some of the leatherette. Here are some preliminary observations (and some sample shots will come with the next installment).

General exposure: with 720nm and 830nm (B+W 093) filters, there is little predicting where exposures will end up (unless you pay very close attention to whether CFL bulbs are the light source – they emit very little usable light). The 720nm filters generally expose similarly to the uncoverted camera. That points to absolutely huge sensitivity to IR in the CMOS sensor, since you are basically lighting an entire scens with wavelengths that humans can’t even see. At 830, you lose about two stops in most situations that involve sunlight or incandescent light. Fluorescent lights produce very little IR, and exposure times rise radically.

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093 filter, hot lights

Color. You’ll obviously want to pick a pleasing color balance, but this is where you land with the various permutations as they show in auto white balance and with some tuning:

  • No filter – big red cast
  • No filter (cyan +9, blue +4 to +9): reasonably good auto white balance; blue “wood” effect.
  • 720nm (no trim): pink or blue to white. Many woods and some plastics look blue.
  • 720nm (cyan +9): neutral plus blue.
  • 830nm – monochrome red-violet to white. Don’t worry about false color; just put the camera in black and white mode or convert to b/w in Lightroom.

The AWB on the camera will generally get you to a place where for 720nm, things will look like Frankie Avalon in heaven in Grease. Strike that in part. The clothes look like Gene Kelly’s suit in Xanadu. Faces still render fairly normally; some synthetics look pinkish or bluish. Wood looks blue. With 830nm, it’s monochrome purple (easy to turn to grey).

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AWB for hot lights (720nm). Note the ghosting that occurs – lens multicoating is ineffective in IR light.

You can, of course, do what you want with false color to suit your mood.

720nm, false color

720nm, false color

Monochromaticism. There seems to be a little bit of misinformation about monochromatic operation in infrared. You hear that in the high infrared range, Bayer filters become transparent. With the 093 filter, which may be as far as you want to go to shoot available light, the apparent effect is monochromatic in files, but a dump of the raw file using the Unix command-line program dcraw (use the -d flag) reveals that the various channels are not exposing exactly evenly.* Accuraw Monochrome promises to fix this and prevent the false noise that occurs.

*Why are all off-the-shelf OS X builds of dcraw so old that they can’t do the X100 (let alone the X-Pro1)? To get dcraw to work, you need to install xCode (1.72Gb plus) and then do a recompile. Getting xCode for a machine with OS 10.7 or earlier is a lot like pulling teeth. I will see if I can’t find a way to make this build available. That said, dcraw does not do a great job with 093 to monochrome conversions, particularly at high ISOs.

Take for example Mr. Spats (the insets are at 200%, so you can see the effect more clearly).

Overall view, made mono in Lightroom

Overall view, made mono in Lightroom

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Detailed view, LR conversion (200%)

Straight dcraw conversion (200%)

Straight dcraw conversion (200%)

dcraw RAW dump (200%)

dcraw RAW dump (200%)

Cautions for social photography. IR photography has two uses that are interesting. One is landscapes, where you can help cut some haze and get more dramatic skies and plant tones. The other is for available-light social photography, where people’s faces light up much more brightly in IR than they do visibly (I have no idea why this is; my guess is that ceiling mounted can lights, even when apparently dim, can emit a lot of IR radiation that we just can’t see).  Aside from that, there are many practical observations about taking pictures of your friends.

  • Red-eye is fierce when you use IR and flash. Everyone is a Replicant, and Lightroom does not see the red-eye to correct.
  • IR pictures without flash can sometimes give “doll eyes,” depending on the iris color.
  • Be careful with some clothes that go from black to white; nothing becomes see-through, but you can see undershirt lines and the shadows of other bulges that you wouldn’t notice on a black background.
  • At 720nm, it’s very easy to spot where people have hit the Just for Men or the Clairol hair coloring products because they come out in unusual colors (most hair and some skin looks blue, but there is a hyper blue from the dyes). For some reason, dyed hair has a distinctive signature. I need to do more testing to confirm this.
  • Note that the X100’s focus assist lamp does not transmit any usable focusing assistance for 830nm and up filters.
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The icy effect of rebalanced 720nm. Or is that the cold shoulder? This shows you how you can get quite a bit of usable light in environments where you can barely see.

And another. Here is some fierce IR lens flare.

And another. Here is some fierce IR lens flare.

Not for X-Ray. There seem to be some pervs who think that infrared is great for “see-through” effects. Let me offer some observations on this:

  • If your goal is pornographic, there are many better ways to spend $550.
  • Most people wear more than one layer of clothing.
  • Forget about fabrics – most materials in general are not sufficiently IR porous to allow light to go in one way, bounce off something underneath, and then make it back to the camera. That “fake check” thing is very hard to reproduce.
  • I’m sure you can teach to the test by going outside in massively strong sunlight and make an attack on the thinnest, chintziest synthetics, but most synthetic materials actually reflect IR brightly, to the point that black becomes bright white.

My suspicion is that wherever these effects do exist, it’s at wavelengths that are very difficult to shoot anyway (950nm and up).

Upshot. This is still under heavy testing, but on balance, the better low-light capabilities of a converted camera are fun – and open up some doors you might nor otherwise see. That said, where the camera has a lot of IR capability already, you may be better off living with the longer exposures (or getting a tripod). We’ll update over the next few months.  The issues currently under study are false noise (or high ISO noise, as the case might be) and ways to improve 830nm focusing operation.  But it’s been fun so far.

Fuji X-Pro1: revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fuji X100: the dirt on the dirt

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Updated: May 24, 2011 (moved the close-range AF discussion to the end to accommodate some illustrations).

One does not need to comment on the X100’s picture-taking ability. If you want to see performance evaluations, some good, some half-baked, some systematic, some useless, and some by people who saw a spec sheet and freaked out (note that the last two are separate categories…) you can go to the usual sites. There, you can also see, variously, sample pictures of liquor bottles, small-town riff-raff, anodyne Scandinavian scenes, flowers, and felines. On this last point, with all of the other strange auto modes showing up on cameras, why no “cat” mode?!

I would shortcut the performance issue by looking at DxOMark, concluding that the camera is fine for most purposes, and move on. Your application may be different and more demanding, covering things we humans can’t even believe. Perhaps taking pictures of attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion. Or capturing sea beams glittering at the Tannhauser Gate. You should probably wait for the perfect camera and herniate, while your photographic prospects are lost in time, like tears in rain.

But what might merit some discussion is correcting (or supplementing) some misinformation about what the X100 is like in person in terms of how it handles. I was able to pick this much up from a couple days. It is not certain whether any of the information or opinion below will impel you to buy an X100 (or not), but there are many things that just don’t appear to be the way people describe them. So here, labeled in a Snopes-style fashion, we have what we hear versus what we see.

1. “The X100 is as big as a Leica M [Hexar AF, etc.].” False. In overall volume, it’s only about 2/3 the size and less than 80% of the weight. In terms of feel, it seems a lot smaller and lighter than it is. It’s still about triple the volume of a GR Digital I/II/III, though. It’s a little bit bigger than a late-model Canonet 28.

2. “The X100’s build quality is fantastic.” Unclear. Expectations regarding build quality must have slipped a lot. The X100 is made of metal, but it has a very lightweight feel in the hand that is suggestive of a Bessa R or a compact SLR of the 1980s. Magnesium does not create the same heft in the hand that the typical silicon-aluminum alloy does. The top-deck switchgear and the aperture ring are excellent quality.

Finishing of the filter trim ring is unremarkable, as is the finishing of the lens cap. These are revelations if you grew up with Sony’s plastic accessories, but they are pretty mediocre even by the standards of third-tier SLRs of the 1970s. All of that said, this feels a bit more solid than the Olympuses and a little less solid than an NEX-5.

By the way, this camera comes with the flimsiest triangular strap rings ever. You don’t need the included spreader to get them on – just your fingernail. By the way, other than some bizarre nostalgia, why not just put a modern strap loop on both sides of the camera (and two on one end, in Fuji fashion)? It seems strange to go crazy making a metal top cover only to make a strap attachment mechanism (rings) that is likely to damage it. And speaking of nostalgia, I am not sure how I feel about the Leica M2/M3 styling. This could have looked a bit cleaner and more modern, like the Hexar RF. And why does the viewfinder selector lever look so much like the self-timer lever on an Olympus 35RC?

3. “The X100’s OVF is nothing to write home about.” False. Are you kidding? It is bright, clear, undistorted, and has the most visible framelines every put into a camera. It also has the ability to project a lot of data that has never been seen in a rangefinder camera, such as depth of field against a distance scale, a digital level, and composition lines. It even has parallax and field corrections. If you use Leica Ms, the X100 ‘s optical viewfinder is like something that came back through a time warp (naked), stole a biker’s clothes, and then started punching holes in brick walls.

4. “The X100’s image-review-in-viewfinder is annoying.” Unclear. You can always turn it off, but it is impressive to be able to see – for a second or three – what you just shot, without taking your eye out of the viewfinder. You take the shot, the blind closes, you see the image, blind opens, next shot. Suum cuique… but do consider that if you set auto-review and b/w simulation, it looks just like in a movie: color image (seen through the OVF) followed by momentary b/w freeze-frame (instant EVF-in-finder review).

5. “The X100’s flash is a joke.” False. Well, it will light up a white wall to white at 15 feet away at ISO 200, so it is not exactly impotent. If you think that’s insufficient, bolt another flash onto the hot shoe. After all, you won’t need that shoe for an accessory viewfinder. Just watch the sync voltage. But bear in mind the following: (1) the hot shoe contact must be activated through a menu – and that option shuts down the internal flash; and (2 ) the locking pin is in the same position as on a Nikon or Leica flash (following the ISO standard).

6. “The X100’s charger is poorly designed.” True. Get the Digipower TC-55F compact charger for about $25. Very small; plugs in without a separate cord; runs on 220; seems to have fully charged a Delkin NP-95 (1800 mah) from new in about 3 hours. It also has a nice, clean display and has a USB port to charge your phone.

7. “You can screw in a 49mm filter upside-down, right onto the filter threads.” Unclear. This is physically possible in a pinch, but (a) it is not clear whethe alloy filter threads will bind to the accessory threads and (b) you can’t use a hood easily. A 49mm Hoya filter, for example, does not seat completely and may end up falling off. Also be aware that if you get too close and try to autofocus, the lens front will bump into the filter and prompt you to restart the camera. There is also an issue with scratching up what is normally the inside glass surface of filters (B+W MRC, for example, is not hydrophobically coated, to my knowledge, except on the front side). Get the double-female 49mm spacer ring from photofilters.com for $5. It’s ugly, it’s crudely finished (like many Sonia products), but it works perfectly (and it’s black).

8. “The X100’s menus are confusing.” Depends. An adult of moderate intelligence (I’ll be the guinea pig) can figure out where the various controls are in half an hour or less and have the camera completely set up in two. What is confusingis having different settings apply in different modes (M, A, S, P), and it is the same thing the Ricoh GR digitals have done forever (MY1, MY2, and then settings associated with the individual exposure modes). Is there only one firmware writer in Japan?

9. “The X100’s manual focus is useless.” Depends or False. It beggars belief that people think to replicate a mechanical rangefinder mechanism with an electronic one. But it is true that the manual focus “ring” is vestigial on the X100. They could make it more functional – but the question is, why?

The theory of a prism rangefinder is that you point the camera at what you want to be in focus, you use a defined focus aid to line things up in a go/no-go fashion, and you shoot. Since rangefinders have no groundglass to illustrate what is happening in the rest of the field, most rangefinder users are doing manually the exact same thing that single-point AF is. Sorry, guys, but if you’re a slave to the RF, you can be replaced by contrast-detect or phase-detect autofocus. View camera users can, of course, move on to management… if you can find that elusive 8×10 film in your favorite variety.

The X100 actually does the same thing in MF mode when you point the focusing spot at the subject you want and hit the AE/AF button. The camera focuses on the selected item and stops focusing when you let go of that button. That cuts the lag and prevents refocusing. It’s the functional equivalent of using a rangefinder, but it just requires different hand movements.

10. “The “shutter sound” is for tyros.” Depends or False. You can tell that Fuji must have acquired some people from Konica-Minolta (or Fuji management spent a lot of time watching Airwolf) because the camera has a “silent mode.” This mode cuts off the AF assist light and all sounds (on the Hexar AF, it slowed down all of the camera’s motors to half-speed). You can also dial down individual sounds. The default shutter sound is a cheezy p/s noise, but there are two others. I am a big fan of sound #2, which sounds like a louder version of the clicks and whirrs that occur in the process of focusing and taking pictures – because at least you know you’ve taken the picture (unless you have instant-review turned on, it’s not always obvious that you shot the picture). And the practical reality of camera noises is that no one really hears them unless they are listening for them.

11. It would look better in black. False. For the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, black-painted (or -finished) cameras were viewed as workmanlike, plebeian, cheap – and with good reason. Chrome was a tougher, more elegant finish – and photographers rarely felt the need to sneak around.

Some people think tha having a black camera makes it more unobtrusive. Arguably, this is false; people are least freaked-out by camera phones and silver point-and-shoots. A black camera signifies professional (or spy). And you lose any element of surprise when you actually try to shoot with anything. Sometimes you never had an element of surprise. To put it in a crude and potentially politically incorrect way, a western tourist in Bangkok shooting is still a western tourist- regardless of whether the camera he holds is black or silver.

Seriously, though, there is a case to be made for chrome cameras where heat dissipation is needed. You never really think about the 140º F maximum operating temperature of your black, electronic camera until you are in Luxor in June at 11 in the morning – with no shade in sight. You will be surprised at how fast a camera can start acting strangely.

Also, the silver color is very popular with infants. Had I kept that little Hi-Matic F, I may have been able to deflect unwanted baby attention.

12. “The menus are too hard to use/inconsistent/anti-intuitive.” Depends. If my 14-month-old son can figure out how to press buttons on a stereo receiver until music comes out, you can probably make it through the menus on the X100 to take a picture. Once you settle on how you want the camera set up, many of the most commonly-accessed controls are buttons and dials. The only two things that are somewhat buried are the on/off controls for external flash and Auto ISO (whose “on” should be popping up in the menu of ISOs when you hit FN).

The menus in general could be a little “flatter,” and that is something that is true of most digital cameras. The Leica M8/M9 menu structure is simpler in that regard – but those camera have intentionally limited settings. Perhaps the easier solution is to do what Kodak used to do on its Nikon-based SLRs – and have a selectable one screen “basic” mode that shows commonly used functions and a complete hierarchy of menus for everything else.

The relationship between the “view mode” button and finder selection lever on the front requires some practice. The switch is actually electronic, not manual, so it only has a resting position and an activate position.

13. “You can’t hit the OK button on the control dial without selecting something else.” True but pointless. It is true that you need microscopic fingers to reliably press the OK button. The catch, however, is that you don’t need the OK button – all you need is the directional control. The way the Fuji menus are set up, selecting an item and pressing left (back) selects it just the same way OK would. And for the controls accessed while using the camera, you don’t need an OK. Whatever option the cursor comes to rest on automatically is selected when you release the particular buttton. The exception is in deleting files, but that should be difficult anyway.

14. “It doesn’t work with Lightroom.” False. But for some strange reason, you first see the JPG preview (film simulation) on importing the files. But when you click on the Lightroom preview, the picture reverts to the raw file. Frustrating, to be sure.

15. “The X100’s OVF has inaccurate AF at close range.” False. Actually, it is fine down to the minimum focus possible in OVF mode, which is not particularly close (in the film era, compact film cameras’ closest AF focus was always about two feet). There are three things at work here. First, what people don’t seem to grasp is that it is an AF zone – so if everything in the zone is at the same distance from the camera (or you get closer to fill up more of the zone), it all works out fine. If you don’t fill up the zone, the camera does not know the focusing intent. This is true of every AF camera ever made, whether a DSLR using TTL phase-detection or a viewfinder-type using external active or passive AF.

Second, there is also parallax error for which to account. You might be totally ignorant of how AF works with viewfinder cameras, but you need to recognize that focusing misses are largely a lack of practice on your part, not a product or design defect. Fuji did a pretty reasonable job at attacking a very tricky problem – what do you do when you are using one optical path to frame and another to focus?

  • On a camera where the focusing is external to the optical path (Leica rangefinder, infrared on a point-and-shoot, hybrid on a Fuji GA-series camera), the AF sensing target/point is simply looking to find range to an object and make sure the lens is set, arbitrarily (through a coupling or encoder), to that distance.
  • The basic system is one in which the focusing mechanism (zone, square, crosshairs) shown in the viewfinder in the same relative position, no matter what the focusing distance. So when you focus, if your framelines shift or shrink (depending on the camera) to account for parallax and field size, all you have to do is recompose – because the accuracy of focusing has zero to do with what is going on at the imaging (or film) plane.
  • Leica-style rangefinders will also move the focusing spot along with the framelines as you close in. But the idea is the same: the you are sensing a distance to which to set the lens, through a mechanical coupling – and as the RF spot shifts, you naturally and continuously adjust the focus.

But the real pain comes when you use a focusing target in the (offset) viewfinder but put the focus mechanism on the image plane. Here is an illustration of what happens:

This is the base case. At infinity (or some preselected distance – the Fuji appears to be set for about 2m), the field shown in a separate viewfinder and captured on-frame is identical

This is field shrinkage (seriously exaggerted so that you can see where the focusing zone ends up). This happens because you are getting closer to the subject than infinity or the preselected distance, effective magnification increases, and the viewfinder or framelines are showing too much. Because Fuji’s preselected distance is relatively close, you don’t see this as much as you might expect (but it’s there). Shrinkage alone doesn’t have a huge effect on focusing accuracy in the center spot, because the position relative to the frame is the same. Other focusing spots change their radial distance from the center – as well as their size.

This is parallax error. Closer than the preselected distance, the fact that the finder is above and to one side of the lens comes into play more. Framelines move to compensate.

This is parallax error plus field shrinkage. Note that the focusing spot (in the middle of the frame) is different from where it appears to be in the viewfinder. You can see how both moving the spot and changing its size could cause a little bit of a problem.

Fuji’s solution was to disable the AF at very close distances when the OVF was activated. This does not entirely solve the problem, but it is not unlike what Leica did in making the M3 stop focusing at 1 meter. If you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all. Think of SLR lenses. There is nothing that theorectically stops you from infinitely extending a lens barrel to get closer focus – but size, weight, and piled-up optical aberrations get in the way.

Finally, as you may have gathered from some of the discussion above, all cameras have mismatches between the focus indicators and the actual focusing sensing. DSLRs are a great case in point – those brackets in the VF can be off a very close distances. Other mismatches occur because focusing mechanisms assume that the lens throws a perfectly flat plane of focus. Most lenses do not.

The bottom line – as it always has been, with every camera, is this: if you find yourself shooting pictures with subjects smaller than the focusing zone or inside of a meter, you might want to switch to the EVF so that you get a true TTL representation of the picture. And as you approach a meter, you should always make sure that the focused subject more than fills the selected focusing zone. Fuji could have gone the extra mile by having the framelines shrink and grow in real time with the camera in AF-C mode (where it continuously focuses, even without the shutter pressed) – and that may be something for firmware.

* * * * *

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that seem a little off in other accounts of the X100. The camera looks fairly functional so far, and it is a nice piece of design and engineering work by Fujifilm. We’ll see how it goes and report back in a couple of months.

Fuji GA645 family of autofocus 6×4.5 cameras

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Introduction. I found this camera impossible to take seriously when it came out. What a toy. Who would buy that piece of plastic? Then I rented one for a trip to California. Then I bought the camera, right from rental. And so it began. I took it to Germany and Austria and the Czech Republic and Hungary and Italy and Spain and Portugal and Italy again and New Orleans and England and the Netherlands and Belgium and Chicago and Mexico.  Then again to Italy, then Thailand, Turkey, and so on.  You can see the pictures on this site. The shot counter reads about a zillion. And it’s still cranking away lovely pictures.

Concept. At least on paper, this camera is a follow-on to the Fuji GS645 6×4.5 folding camera and the GS645S model with the crash bars. What Fuji added was dual active/passive autofocus (with focus lock and manual zone focus), programmed and aperture-prority autoexposure (retaining manual mode, of course), exposure compensation, autoloading (a la Rollei Automat), automatic 120/220 changeover (push the pressure plate to the correct setting and the camera does the rest), and data imprinting (shutter speed/aperture/shooting mode or date/time) – outside the frame! On top of that, you get a popup fill flash.

This camera comes in five variations, four of which are essentially similar.

  • GA645 has a 60mm f/4 lens;
  • GA645 (v.2) increases the number of shots on 120 film to 16 (from 15) and the number on 220 to 32 (from 30), adds a little protective ridge around the AF button to prevent accidental pressing, and quiets down the focusing;
  • GA645W is the same as above but has a 45mm f/4 Biogon-style lens, a 0.4x finder, and a rectangular bayonet hood;
  • GA645i is similar to the GA645, except that it also has a second shutter release and barcode reader for Fuji medium-format films (it automatically sets the film speed);
  • GA645Wi has the improvements of the GA645i but the basic specs of the GA645W; and
  • GA645Zi has a 55-90mm zoom lens.  See more extensive description below.

Regular or wide?  Your immediate impulse might be to question why you would use the GA645W (or Wi), since it is the difference between a 37mm lens equivalent and a 28mm.  That’s actually quite a bit of difference.  Having now had a chance to use the wideangle (45mm model), my basic comment is that the finder has a very slightly lower magnification, the depth of field is much greater, the ability to capture tall objects (when the camera is held normally) is greatly enhanced, and the lens barrel is very slightly longer when retracted.  The one lingering question is how to assure that the camera is level – fairly critical when you have a lens as wide as a 28mm on a 24x36mm camera.  One definite caution is that the 60mm lens seems to represent the minimum for closeups of people.

Finder. The GA645 finder is about a 0.5x magnification, with parallax-corrected projected framelines. There is a central crosshair that signals the focusing sensitivity. At the bottom of the display is an LED readout showing the aperture, shutter speed, distance and if in manual mode, up-and-down arrows. There is also a lightning-bolt indicator for flash. In terms of the big picture, the finder has the usual Fuji blue-cast. But that matters very little, because you don’t use the finder to focus. I can say that the finder is much easier on your eyes than the new Fuji GA645zi zoom finders are. Like other modern Fujis, the eyepiece takes Nikon F3 (non-HP), FA/FE2/FM2 diopters, etc.

Lens/Shutter. The lens on the GA645 and GA645i is a Super-EBC Fujinon 6-element 5-group multicoated planar-type lens. The field of view for the 60mm lens is like that of a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera. The 45mm lens version (GA645w and GA645wi) has a field of view similar to that of a 24mm lens on a 35mm camera (angles of view are not entirely comparable because the 6×4.5 frame is closer to 4:5 than it is to the 2:3 of a typical 35mm frame.

All I need to say about the 60mm lens is that it is deadly sharp, and that wide-open, it is still pleasant. 

The lens delivers enough resolution to sustain a 4000dpi scan and then a perspective correction in Photoshop (see the picture at top).

The shutter is an electronic (stepper-motor-driven) #00 that has manual settings up to 1/500 sec (1/700 sec if you are shooting at f/11 or f/16. 

Exposure system. The camera meters scenes through the viewfinder. In my experience, the metering system is typically about 1/3 to 1/2 stop under on bright daylit scenes, which is well within the tolerances of any film you would use in a 6×4.5 camera (slide film especially needs normal-to-under exposure). On a shot-to-shot basis, the system is so accurate that the density changes between negatives in wildly varying light conditions (inside cathedrals, outdoors, sunny and overcast) are within 1/10 of a stop. So you can trust the meter…

Focus. So the question you’ve been dying to ask is how does it autofocus? In a word, well. I remember reading somewhere (I don’t think it was in the manual, which I at any rate lost) that the GA645 uses a 900-step autofocusing system. This is more than enough to cover the entire focusing range of 0.6m (2.3 feet) to infinity. You can have the camera focus, and then lock (for single, you just hold in the shutter release partway; for multiple shots, you hold the MF button under the lens).

Manual focus is a little bit different. Since there is no focusing aid, the way you handle this is to tap the AF button on the top, hold the MF button on the bottom, and to turn the control wheel. This cycles through various fixed distances (for example, in feet: 2.3-2.5-3.0-3.5-4-5-6-7-8-10-15-30-INF). The best thing to do is to Xerox the back page of the manual with the DOF scales. This is a mode I use a lot. It would have been nice to have a depth-of-field scale on the camera, but after 150 rolls with this camera, I don’t really need it anymore.

You can set the camera to beep after each exposure and three times at the 14th (or 28th) frame on a roll, but it is annoying and you should turn it off (how to do that is in the manual).

Flash. Did I mention that the camera has a built-in flash? You can use the built-in automatic flash for all exposure modes. In Program, the flash operates in automatic (although it sets an excruciatingly-low shutter speed of 1/30 sec – and why do they call it “Flashmatic?” That terms refers to something else entirely). Ditto for aperture-priority mode. I don’t know what it is doing in manual, but I believe that that mode causes the flash to operate in automatic as well. GN is wimpy, so if your subject is more than 10 feet away, forget it. I wish I could tell you more, but I don’t ever use the flash (maybe 8 shots in 150+ rolls of film so far).

You can mount a shoe-mount flash on the hot shoe (or you can mount a Nikon AS-15 hot-shoe-to-PC adapter and use an off-camera flash like a Metz. The camera did not self-destruct with my old Vivitar 283 flash, but I would not recommend using high-sync-voltage flashes. Make sure your flash has 28mm coverage (remember, 6×4.5 is a vertical format with this camera).

Transport. The film transport is a little loud, as is the AF. But it’s not enough to cause anyone to notice the camera. The camera has a sensor that picks up the start of the film so that once you get the film threaded on the takeup spool, you snap the camera shut and it goes to town. The camera gives you 15 shots on 120 and 30 on 220 (why it shorts you that extra frame is beyond me). The film-tensioning system works well, and none of my negatives exhibit light leaks. Spools eject by little red buttons underneath each spool (definitely a step up from older Fuji and Zeiss folders).

Ergonomics. This is where you learn to love or hate it. The GA645’s feminine curves feels great in your hand, and the shutter button falls right under your index finder (much as it does with an F4s or an F3 with MD-4. The bummer is that the mode selector is right next to the eyepiece. But if that’s the worst of your problems… the control wheel falls naturally under your right thumb.

Size/weight. There is no denying that a GA645 is bigger than a Super Ikonta A. But it is a lot smaller than 645 SLRs. The lens retracts into the body, so that you can fit the camera into a good-sized coat pocket or a thin briefcase with no problem whatsoever. The overall size is about the same as an F100 with the new pancake 45mm Nikkor. Of course, your negatives will come out better.

What about the GA645zi?  Surprisingly, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison with the other GA series cameras.  I took one of these to Africa (South Africa and Namibia) in 2006.  It performed flawlessly.  Here are the differences from the “regular” GA line:

  • 55-90mm zoom lens (35mm-55mm) f/4.5-6.9.   The zoom is useful for landscapes – since you can’t get appreciably closer to infinity by walking toward it.  55mm is only very slightly wider than the 60mm on the GA645.  90mm (for which you sacrifice significant lens speed) is like a 50mm on a 35mm camera.  Lens is not noticeably different in sharpment from original GA lenses (all in all, lens is net positive over the GAs, although variable and slow maximum aperture pushes this camera more into the daylight/flash range);
  • Zoom viewfinder with LCD framelines, LCD distance scale, LCD shutter speed and aperture readouts, fixed eyepiece, built-in diopter correction (net slight negative; this is the user interface, and the visibility is not as good as the LEDs in the original);
  • Relocated mode dial on top deck (net positive if you haven’t used another variety of GA645).
  • Backlit LCD status indicator (frame number, ISO, exposure comp, etc.) is now on the back door (backlighting is a positibe, display placement is a subjective factor, but net negative to have such a critical display located on a moving part via ribbon connector).
  • Lens cap detection warning – viewfinder info flashes.  (net positive if you use lens caps instead of UV filters);
  • Improved flash operation with slow synch/no slow synch modes, external PC connection.  Flash is moved to upper right corner of camera (from front) (net positive);
  • Metal bottom plate – more attractive, more easily damaged (net neutral);
  • Improved weather sealing (net positive);
  • Back to one shutter release button, down on the front grip (net neutral);
  • Ability to change between 120 and 220 pressure plate settings while the film is loaded(!) (net positive, though 220 film is getting close to extinct).
  • Data imprinting expanded to show focal length and AF mode (net negative – why does anyone need to know the exposure mode except the photographer?); and
  • Your choice of black or champagne color (on the latter, 1987 called and wants its color scheme back).

Ultimately, I did not bond with the GA645zi because I had been using the older GAs for years and sheer muscle memory made it very difficult to adapt to the changed control layout.  That said, it is a much more refined camera – the Leica of Fuji 645s.

Bottom-Line. This is a painless way to shoot medium-format and for $450-600 used (60mm version) you can’t go wrong. Fuji just discontinued this whole series, so buy it before someone figures out how good it is and makes it a cult item.

Mamiya 6 vs. Fuji GA645

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Part 1: Configuration and Basics

I chose to compare these two cameras because when I borrowed a Mamiya 6, I figured out that although they have different feature sets, they are aimed at the same types of applications.

Generalities: the Mamiya 6 MF is a 6×6 cm (55x55mm) camera that takes 12 shots on 120 film and 24 on 220 film.  It has manual focus, manual wind, and both manual and automatic exposure.  It has three available lenses, a 50mm, 75mm and 150mm, all of which fit in a collapsible lens mount.  Each lens has an electronically-timed leaf shutter and couples to the rangefinder in the camera.  The 6 MF with its 75mm f/3.5 lens runs about $900-1200 used.

The Fuji GA645 is a 6×4.5cm (55x42mm) camera that takes 15 shots on 120 or 30 shots on 220 film.  It comes in two variants, one with a 60mm f/4 lens (corrected for angle of view and film grain, it would be a 35mm f/2 on a 35mm camera) and one with a 45mm f/4 lens (like a 24mm on a 35mm camera).  It has autoloading; auto or manual zone focusing; program, aperture and manual exposure modes; a built-in data imprinter; and built in flash.   These sell used for $500-600.

Build quality: despite complaints about its “plastic feel” seen on the internet, the Mamiya is a pretty solid camera, quite a bit heavier than older-style 6×6 rangefinders like the Super Ikonta A.  It has a metal chassis and black plastic covers.  All markings are done in paint, including (incredibly) lens distance and aperture markings.  It feels like a very substantial camera, and there is no play in the lens. Focusing is smooth and solid.

The Fuji GA645, which is of almost identical size (except front to back) to the Mamiya, is much more lightweight.  Its covers are a dark grey and they are reasonably tough. The camera’s frame, lens barrel and focusing mechanism are metal.

Design influences:  The MamiyaÕs collapsing lens mount looks a lot like the one on a Retina IIc, right down to the internal bellows.  The grip and shutter release feel a lot like the one on a Nikon MD-4, albeit a tiny bit rounder. I don’t know where the huge shutter speed dial came from.

The Fuji GA645 came in on the same alien satellite that brought the Andromeda Strain to earth.  Actually, it appears to have been carved from a single block of soap. I have had this camera for four years, and I still could not tell you what it is supposed to look like.

Loading: On the M6, the pivoting pressure plate (rotates 90 degrees) sets the film plane and the counter for 120 or 220.  It also activates a window on the camera back which shows you what type of film you are using.  You pop out the spools by sliding two rectangular levers.  Film loads from left to right.  You line up the arrows on the paper backing with metal arrows in the film chamber by advancing the wind lever (one stroke per frame).  You then close the back and advance to frame 1.  Note: you cannot dry-fire a Mamiya 6 Ð if you want to play, you can wind discarded paper backing onto a 120 spool and use it that way.  Or you can pop the back open. After 12 frames with 120 or 24 with 220, the camera will keep winding.  The Mamiya is slightly harder to load, because it has a key-slot spool for the supply side Ð this provides extra tension on the film (supply side), apparently to prevent light leaks.

On the Fuji, you slide the pressure plate off its two pins and flip it over.  The camera then shows 120 or 220 on the LCD panel and sets the digital counter accordingly.  Loading is exceptionally simple.  Two red push buttons pop the spools.  Bring the backing over left to right, turn the control wheel to wind on, and as soon as it catches, close the back.  The camera detects the film start and winds to frame 1 accordingly.  There is no tensioning mechanism other than the spring on the supply spool, but I have had no light leaks from this arrangement. Film winds automatically with each exposure.  At the end of 15 or 30 exposures, the camera will wind up the film automatically (there is a button for doing that early, too).  You can set the camera to beep on the 14th or 28th frame to warn you that you will soon be out of film.

Viewfinder: The Mamiya 6 MF has an approximate 0.7x magnification and has aluminized (color-neutral) beamsplitters).  It features a rangefinder spot with vernier (hard) edges, a red LED shutter speed scale, and a warning light which comes on when the darkslide is closed or the camera is not cocked.  The 6 MF (as opposed to the 6) also has internal frame markings for 6×4.5 (horizontal) and 24x55mm panoramic.  These switch sizes depending on which lens you have mounted.  Framelines are parallax-corrected (position) but not field-corrected (image size). The Mamiya 6 viewfinder (except for the shape and the particular framelines) is identical to that on the Hexar RF.  The viewfinder is about the brightest, clearest I have seen on a medium-format rangefinder.  The shutter speed scale tends to get lost when you are shooting in bright light (just like it does on the Hexar).  This is a little problematic, since shading the VF affects the metering.  So the trick is to set the aperture for something you know will work if you have the camera on AE.  Camera reads exposure from the viewfinder.  Diopter correction is via supplemental lenses which push into the generous rubber eyecup. Like Leicas and Hexars, the Mamiya 6 finder is a little bit sensitive to eye position.

The Fuji GA645 carries forward the gold-beamsplitter rangefinder from the GS645S (“crash bar”) model and the GS645 folder.  It has framelines that shrink to show the parallax- and field-corrected view. I suspect that if this is like older Fujis, the framelines show 100% of the field at the closest focus and something like 85% at infinity.  It also has a central crosshairs for the AF system.  Across the bottom of the field is a segmented LED display which shows aperture (f/4 to f/22), shutter speed (slow to 1/700 sec), distance, flash (if enabled) and over/under indicators for manual metering.  The Fuji finder is not as bright, in part because the meter cell (as it does in other Fuji 645s) reads off the reflection on the front of the beamsplitter.  This makes the meter fairly sensitive to yellowish light and makes the field look bluish.  Diopters are standard Nikon FE/FM/FA size Ð not that you really need dioptric correction on an AF camera.

Both cameras have ample eye relief for glasses.

Shutter release: both cameras have both an electromagnetic shutter release and a standard cable release socket on the side. The Mamiya shutter release has far less travel (because it is a 2, not 3 stage switch).

Flash: both cameras have an X-synch hot shoe.  The Mamiya also has an X PC terminal on the back, right under the flash shoe.  The Fuji has a built-in pop-up flash that while wimpy, is pretty handy in a pinch. I am not sure if either camera would be fried by high-voltage synch, but I seem to remember sticking a Vivitar 283 on my Fuji at some point.

Lens: Aha!  Here is where the fun starts.  The Mamiya standard lens is a collapsible 75mm f/3.5 with 6 elements in 4 groups, multicoated.  The incorporated electronic leaf shutter has speeds to 1/500 sec.  Filter size is a massive 58mm (consider that a 28mm filter covers a RolleiflexÕs lens of equal size, coverage and speed).  This lens is the equivalent (horizontally) of a 45mm lens on a 35mm camera.  With a 1m minimum focus, this reaches 0.081x on film.  If you consider this lens on a 6×4.5 image, as you can with the optional mask, it is also a 45mm equivalent.

The Fuji has a 60mm f/4 lens with 7 elements in 6 groups, multicoated.  Maximum shutter speed is 1/400 sec, with 1/700 sec at f/11 and f/16.  Filter size is 52mm.  This lens is the equivalent of a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera.  With its 0.7m minimum focus, this lens reaches 0.093x, or 15% bigger than the Mamiya, despite the wide-angle lens.

Ok, time for an editorial.  With any interchangeable lens medium-format RF,  the highest-magnification lens there is is the normal lens.  Telephotos for these cameras never exceed the coverage of an 85mm lens for a 35mm camera, and even then they tend to focus at 2m or more at the closest.  So if you pick up a telephoto, you might consider it primarily a landscape lens. You might want to consider that apparent distortion picks up closer than about 1.5m, so you might consider enlargement as a better way of “zooming-in.”

Part 2: Operation

Collapsible lenses: both cameras feature collapsible lenses.  These make the cameras more compact, but even then it is a tight fit for the Fuji in a pocket.  The Mamiya is about 1 cm bigger, which makes it easier to fit in a bag but just about a total loss for a coat pocket.

Focusing: the Mamiya has a wonderful coupled rangefinder that is very bright and very clear.  That said, it is somewhat slow to focus because the grip on the focusing ring is quite small.  It does have a lot of snap, but when you are focusing on human eyes at the minimum focusing distance, you need to turn the camera 90 degrees to focus on an eyelid.  This is mainly a feature of the magnification, which has to be low enough to accommodate 50mm framelines.  The rangefinder does not work when the lens is collapsed.  In practice, the Mamiya is quick to focus and shoot.

The Fuji finder is not as bright and not as clear, but it does not need to be, since it is a framing aid only.  There are three focus modes with the Fuji: auto, manual and auto with hold.  Manual focus lets you set predetermined distances with which you can hyperfocal-focus (as I do 99% of the time).  The AF mechanism uses both active and passive elements and in more than 150 rolls of film now has missed maybe once.  The viewfinder display indicates distance and confirms where the camera is focused.  The Fuji is quick to shoot if you have some idea of what you are doing.  I think that the AF is most useful for low-light situations and it is pretty accurate.

Exposure: On the Mamiya, you set the exposure mode (AE or AE lock) or shutter speed via the large (yeah!) shutter speed dial.  You can also set film speed and exposure compensation (+/- 2 stops in 1/3-stop increments) via coaxial dials.  Aperture you set yourself on the lens.  There are over and under indicators for out of range, you match-diode by matching indicated shutter speed with the flashing one, but there is no exposure compensation warning.  In essence, if you can hack a 70s SLR or a Hexar RF, you can handle this one.

On the Fuji, the exposure mode (P, A or M) is set on the back of the camera.  In A, you turn the control wheel to set apeture and in M you press the Tv button down to change the shutter speed.  Exposure compensation (+/-2 stops, half-stop increments) is set by pressing the +/- button and turning the wheel.  There are up and down arrows in the viewfinder.  If the shutter is out of range, the speed flashes.  The EV compensation warning shows up on the LCD panel.  This takes some getting used to Ð unless  you are already an EOS owner.

Shooting: the Mamiya has no shutter lag and is very, very quiet (a lot more quiet than a Bessa-R).  Winding feels a little rougher than a Nikon F3, but it is similar in feel.  Single stroke advance is a welcome innovation for someone like me who is used to huge double-stroke Fujis.

The Fuji has some shutter lag if you have not already focused, and its winding mechanism and focus can be loud (although they are not obtrusive indoors).  The Fuji advances about 1 frame per second, single shot only.

Focusing: the Mamiya has interlocks to prevent you from focusing or shooting with the lens retracted or with the darkslide activated (the farbic internal darkslide is well-engineered not to be activated or opened by accident). The Fuji has no interlocks because when the lens is retracted, the camera is off, and it does not have a darkslide because it has a fixed lens.

Part 3: Format wars

One reviewer has called the Mamiya 6 MF’s multiformat finder “idotic,” “stupid,” and “cockamamie” and has decried the viewfinder as being full of “distracting blips.” His conclusion is that “Smart people just shoot the full 6×6 aperture and crop later.” This is something of an overreaction.

First, starting with the 6MF finder, the “blips” are small marks along the frame edges. They do not intrude into the frame by more than 1mm, viewed in the “virtual” size of the finder. These are actually quite useful, because the horizontal 6×4.5 frame defined in the viewfinder shows you what can be cropped into a 6×4.5 aspect (or more practicaly, an 8×10 print). While some people can apparently shoot a 6×6 frame and crop it perfectly down to 6×4.5, it helps to have some indication of how much scene fits into 6×4.5. So framelines are good.

Second, on the format adapters, I have to agree that any 6×4.5 mask that doesn’t increase the number of frames per roll (i.e., is not vertically-oriented) is not very useful. One aspect which should not be overlooked is that most 6×4.5 enlarging masks have the long side of the frame perpendicular to the length of the film. So you would have to use a 6×6 enlarging mask (or glass carrier) to print 6×4.5 negs turned out by the Mamiya 6 MF. Contrast this to the Rolleiflex T 16-frame adapter, which converted the Rolleiflex’s 6×6 frame to a 6×4.5, giving normally-oriented 6×4.5 negatives. The Rollei was a far more practical setup. Nor am I certain whether or not the 24×55 adapter is very useful. Although it has been pointed out that 35mm film, when shot in 55mm widths is just as expensive as MF film, there are a ton of 35mm films that do not come in medium-format (Kodachrome, Supra and Neopan 1600 being notable examples). The panoramic format does not look too terribly wide, but to each his own.

On the greater issue of 6×6 and 6×4.5 (Mamiya vs. Fuji), I think it is something of a wash.

If you anticipate that your final output will be rectangular, 6×4.5 has just as much usable film area as 6×6 and requires an equal amount of enlargement to reach a given size. Against this, the shorter lenses used on 6×4.5 cameras provide more depth of field. Film cost is something of a non-issue if you do black and white work, since TMY is $2/roll at B&H.

On the other hand, 6×6 is good if you like square compositions. You can, with a lot of discipline, compose so that it can be “cropped either way,” but in my experience, you will back up too far from the subject in an attempt to leave room for cropping. This means that the on-film image will actually be smaller than it would be on 6×4.5. Moreover, most subjects I have seen just don’t crop both ways. Head shots in square format can look really good.

Part 4: Optical Performance

Above is a shot taken with the Mamiya’s 75mm f/3.5 from the second floor of a parking deck across a street from Comerica Park in Detroit. Exposure was on Verichrome Pan, f/8 and 1/500 sec. Below is the tiny section of the negative that shows a batter, the catcher, and the umpire (visible as dots right above the center of the five statues). As a section at 4000 dpi brought up to 1:1 on screen, this is more than a 50x enlargement. Not too shabby, and you almost have to wonder if with a finer-grained film (is there one?), the Mamiya would be even better.

mamiya6general

mamiya6detail

Part 5: Bear vs. Shark – Mamiya 6 vs. Fuji GA645

Ok, kids, this is what you’ve been waiting for. The $1200 Mamiya 6 vs. the lowly $450 Fuji GA645. The test shot is on Verichrome Pan 120, shot at the same mid-aperture (f/8), developed in Aculux 2 and scanned on a Sprintscan 120 with a glass carrier. The differences in comparison pictures are due to the different viewing angles of the lenses. The Mamiya 6 is the equivalent of a 42mm lens; the GA645 has the equivalent of a 37mm lens. Black point was set to the film base; white point was set to the imprint.

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Above: Lower end of the tonal scale. Mamiya 6 (left); Fuji GA645 (right). No advantage either way – both cameras are resolving details as small as the film grain. The Mamiya has a slight edge in the stone seams.

Above: Highlights. Mamiya 6 (above); Fuji GA645 (below). Fuji has a slight edge in separating highlights, but it may well be that the Mamiya is giving marginally more exposure, putting the film over its shoulder (admittedly taking a lot of exposure to do that on VP).

Above: High-contrast object. Mamiya 6 (left); Fuji GA645 (right). No palpable advantage either way – the Mamiya looks more contrasty, but this may be an exposure difference (more) or even a higher magnification.

So what’s the call? Hard to say. It’s a dead heat between the two, and it may boil down solely to your personal preference in terms.

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