Archive | Editorials RSS for this section

Does a rangefinder camera make you a better photographer?

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


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

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

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

I find it easier to compose with a rangefinder.

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

Seeing outside the framelines really helps.

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

Rangefinder cameras are smaller and more concealable.

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

Leicas are soooo quiet.

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

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

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

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

Rangefinders focus more accurately.

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

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

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

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

Rangefinders have less camera shake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# # # # #

Advertisements

The terrorists have not won

LeicaM60

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well played, Leica.

Cameras, proles and animals are free

25444_D700_front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# # # # #

All that science

20100807_154414

Sometimes, when I want to remember what the world used to be like, I go to a local used bookstore housed in a  former glove factory. There, amid the dusty wooden floors and endless miles of shelves lit by fluorescent lights on pull chains, I like to thumb through old photography books.

There are books with glossy slip covers, faded where they could see the light; books with red or green library bindings and crude spine-stamping; and yellowed pamphlets with holes for spiral binding.

There are volumes and volumes and volumes of data, compiled by innumerable Rochester research scientists, showing plots of spectral sensitivity, response curves, guide numbers, and filter factors.

There are manuals telling the average person how to poison himself performing color negative development at home, books explaining studio lighting, and various materials describing how to do processes that had to be done once and done right.

One of the most tragic things about the dismantling of film photography, and particularly the Kodak empire, is the loss of so much science. Years of people’s lives went into the products and quality control and testing and data booklets for products that in the past decade have become townsmen of a stiller town. Those scientists have long since moved on; the research labs have been razed; and there is no one left to make any new products.  Even for the handful of historic best sellers remaining in the current Kodak, Ilford and Fuji lines, it is questionable whether the people running those lines would have the capital or know-how to recover from a major equipment failure or change in environmental regulations. They are caretakers and sellers – but no longer creators.

Writing from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it seems strange that anyone would ever mix plastic, animal glue and silver halide crystals to do anything; it barely seems a step away from alchemy. Yet replicating this alchemy – the object of nearly every digital photography R&D exercise – has required gargantuan engineering efforts and massive computational power. This is a testament to the quality of the work that went into silver halide technology. Slide rules, graph paper and microscopes made it that good. But with such primitive tools came a primitive faith – that a seemingly opaque piece of film could be subjected to a liquid sacrifice, blessed by gestures, and yet result in a viewable image.

The fact that film is even available 18 years after the Quicktake 100 is somewhat remarkable. Film aficionados decry the demise of the medium as if this is an isolated occurrence. The reality is that everyday technology has changed more in the past 20 years than we realize.  Consider that if you graduated from high school in 1990, all of these were mainstream then but barely used (and in some cases illegal) today: answering machines; bias-ply tires; carbon paper; credit card imprinters; day planners, dial-up modems; dictation machines; dot-matrix printers; encyclopedias; fax machines; floppy disks; gummed postage stamps; home movies; hood ornaments; household fuses; hub caps; incandescent light bulbs; leaded gas; library card catalogs; LPs, cassettes, CDs, MiniDiscs, LaserDiscs, Beta, VHS, 8mm video; mercury thermometers; mimeograph machines; overhead projectors; pagers; paper calculators; paper maps; pay phones; standalone PDAs; phone books; rotary telephones; sea mail; shortwave radio; slide shows; telegrams, teletypes, and telex machines; tube televisions and CRTs; typewriters; UHF television; video rentals; and wind-up clocks. Although other eras have had rapid technological changes, they have resulted in a greater diversity of everyday objects; the late 20th and early 21st centuries primarily have been consolidations of function and extinction events.

Why does film seem like such a big deal amidst a sea change in everyday technology? Part of it may be that when people think of photography, they imagine artifacts of film: fading, sprocket holes, edge printing. There is some embedded belief that the fact of ephermality can only be expressed by a fixed, identifiable and conventional state of decay: thus Instagram.  Others seem to believe that  negatives and slides visible to humans are the only real method for long-term storage or “real” photography, notwithstanding the gradual disappearance of the means to turn them into finished images. But it may also be that various people have various points of nostalgia and that photographic enthusiasts are a self-selected set.

Even among the film faithful, there is little consciousness of how far they have drifted. The semi-digital workflow that makes it possible to use film and display its images given the pace of modern life is also the one that divorces film from its historic antecedents and all that underlying science: Frontier systems digitize film, correct away its original tonal response, and laser-print copies of images on silver paper. The essential use of the negative for projection printing has changed. There is little discussion of this, and seldom does Captain Kirk appear to tell the Yangs that their prayer is in fact the Constitution.

Things are in a constant state of evolution, and as Tancredi so aptly put it, «Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è, bisogna che tutto cambi.»

Lithium-ion: a modest proposal

Entia multiplicanda sine necessitate. Lithium-ion batteries are great for digital cameras. They are lightweight, charge quickly, self-discharge relatively slowly, and provide a lot of power on impulse. The problem is that there are too many differentiated types of batteries for the same basic use, which causes waste and difficult disposal.  Given this, the proposal is that manufacturers should form an association (or use an organization like ISO) to standardize battery sizes and voltages (capacities, no, for reasons to be discussed).

1.  Questionable differentiation.  First, there is no reason for there to be hundreds of types and shapes of batteries to fit digital cameras. The batteries themselves start with 3.7V cells, a voltage defined by the basic chemistry.  Other cells start with a chemically fixed voltage too: lithium-manganese disposable battery voltage is 1.8V, silver oxide is 1.55V, alkaline is 1.5V, zinc-air is 1.4V, mercury is 1.35V, and NiMH are 1.2V).  Rechargeable lithium cells come in a number of commoditized sizes and shapes that are combined serially (to raise voltage) or in parallel (to increase current capacity).  The combination is fitted with a printed charge protection circuit and put into a plastic case that is the housing for the battery. Some manufacturers use additional circuitry to transmit detailed charge state information in to the camera (example: Sony’s InfoLithium).
Needless to say, most “proprietary” Li-Ion batteries are still reverse-engineered and sold in generic form within a couple of weeks of a camera’s release. And most of the time, they function well. And all of them charge so similarly that companies like Delkin and Lenmar can make universal Li-Ion chargers that can charge pretty much anything.
Manufacturers explain that their batteries are differentiated due to packaging requirements in digital cameras. When you consider that everything on a digital camera except the space behind the lens can be designed fairly arbitrarily, this statement seems suspect. It seems even more suspect when you consider that even during the late film era, cameras were all built around standard cell types: MS76, AA, CR123A, 2CR5, etc.: buttons, cylinders, or boxes.

The real reason manufacturers differentiate their rechargeable batteries is to make money. Canon doesn’t sell Nikon-compatible batteries, Nikon doesn’t sell Pentax-compatible batteries, and none of them wants you to use knockoffs (and you’ll see why: the OEM batteries cost almost five times as much as generics, despite similar basic manufacturing costs). Sometimes the extra power-management circuitry (like InfoLithium) is provided as a carrot to stay with the “official” battery; sometimes it is used as a stick (as with the Leica M9).

And in fact, when you line a bunch of batteries up, you see that there is really a finite number of sizes.  The list below is not an exhaustive list, but you can see how this really comes down to three voltages and sizes – the MaH capacity really only bears on how long they last and to a lesser degree on instant current capability – but within any one of these bands, one camera is not significantly different from the next:

  • Large SLR: Canon LP-E4, Nikon EN-EL4, 11.1v (these go in cameras that in the days of film would have taken 8xAA batteries)
  • Mid-sized: Fuji NP-W126, Nikon EN-EL3e, Canon DLCE6, 7.4v  (these cameras would have taken two CR123As or a 2CR5 back in the day)
  • Small: Fuji NP-95, Ricoh DB-60 – 3.7v (one CR123A or a CR2).

(There are certainly other permutations of

Within this range, there may not be any reason to differentiate midsized camera from midsized camcorder batteries. And for some applications, removable end caps could fulfill latching or appearance requirements (as they currently do with some Nikon batteries). And as commodity cell capacity vs. size improves, the same batteries could be built with more and more capacity.

2.  Battery waste management and risk. It is very well documented that Li-Ion batteries (a) must be kept at an appropriate storage charge not to lose capacity; (b) only live for a certain number of charges (usually a few hundred); and (c) have a finite life in any event. Sub-optimal use of Li-ion batteries moves there products toward the waste stream faster, and the more batteries a person is trying to juggle, the faster batteries lose capacity and are discarded. In the waste stream, the Li-Ion battery that worked well for 400 full charges or hit its usable life still consists of plastic (landfill life: 1,000 years), lead solder (often present), and power cells that if breached can evolve hydrogen gas and difficult-to-extinguish fires. Oh yes, and there is the “non-toxic” lithium, which is obtained at a price to the environment and a fairly big one to the people who do the work.

If you think Li-Ion batteries are “recycled,” that’s not exactly the case. Electronics “recycling” in the Western Hemisphere often means a toxic waste landfill, en masse shipment to the third world for metal reclamation in unregulated environments, or at best in organized battery recycling facilities, effectively burning the batteries in smelters (see this description). This mitigates environmental impacts, but it uses a lot of energy.

3.  Device death.  It’s one thing for a single battery to become useless and need to be replaced. It’s worse when the end of production for a specialty battery spells the end of a device’s useful life. This has happened quite a bit with older digitals that ran on NiMH cells: it is getting very difficult to keep a Nikon D1, a Kodak DCS760 or a Leica Digital Modul R in (good) batteries now – unless you are into very generic Chinese ones that are now sold at extortionate prices.

4.  Spillover effects. There are a lot of things that could run on Li-ion batteries, if they were standardized and a predictable future supply could be assured. The manufacturer of a $2 flashlight, for example, is not going to engineer a whole new Li-ion battery system to run it. But if a battery with a predictable size and voltage is available off the shelf, it is more likely that the manufacturer would move away from AAs (which only come in three varieties: disposable and not worth recycling, containing nickel that is nasty to mine, and containing cadmium, which is toxic). The same is true for camera flashes, high-drain devices which almost universally run on 6V provided by 4 x AA cells (to say nothing of the fact that a Matsushita division makes most of them anyway). Some things will never be practical for something like  Li-ion or standardized rechargeable batteries (low, constant drain devices; smoke detectors; devices with embedded power sources). But manufacturers should not give up on minimizing disposable (alkaline) battery use.

5.  Inconvenience. Proliferation of battery types leads to clutter.  Imagine the household with a compact camera, a larger DSLR, and an HD camcorder.  Enthusiasts may have more than one of each. It’s not just the batteries – it’s also the proprietary chargers with their cords, both of which cost money to make, take up space in the workplace or home, and represent their own waste streams (AC cords very commonly contain lead solder, for example).

Standardizing on a finite number of physical shapes, sizes, and voltages of Li-ion cells for purposes of basic compatibility would not stifle all competition in the battery arena. With only the shells and the basic standards of compatibility defined, manufacturers would still be free to compete on the basis of capacity (due to the use of newer or different internal cells), power management and camera communication.

In addition to standardization for physical and electrical qualities, the same standards or trade organization setting sizes could also set up and audit basic safety standards. No one wants to think that a $10 generic battery from Ebay will burn the house down, but a certification like CE or UL might make people sleep better while their batteries are charging.

None of this, of course, would come to pass without considerable consumer pressure on manufacturers – something that may never happen in a consumerist society that is just as likely to dispose of the digital camera as its worn-out rechargeable battery. And none of this is to exonerate disposable batteries, although they can be used in multiple devices and only rarely die of neglect.

# # # # #

Automation vs. automatons

crania

The human brain has been shrinking since the time of H. neanderthalensis. The apparent cause is the rise of written and pictographic language, which relieve the necessity to have so much grey matter.  Some photographers claim that the use of autoexposure, autofocus, and auto-advance (or even their availability on modern cameras) are evidence of this shrinkage (or, alternatively, its causes). The catch is that the aforementioned aspects of photography often leave little room for free will – only a choice of what will be the prime mover physically.

1.  Film really sets the stage for photographic determinism, and loading a roll of it – particularly a roll of 24 or 36 in a 35mm camera – commits to an initial set of variables (color or black and white? low, medium or high contrast? what kind of curve?).  The ASA (now ISO) rating of the film and its characteristic curve operate as the baseline for everything else that happens.  That rating is the setting at which – in the manufacturer’s view – the toe and shoulder are in the right places and relationship, and the right range and linearity exists from low tones to high. It is possible to manipulate things at the developing stage, but these only result in a different fixed universe, which might – depending on the treatment – result in blocked shadows, shouldered highlights, or unreal midtones. And the expedients used – push-processing, pull-processing, or standing development – may work for some pictures on a roll but seriously compromise others.

Many photographers shoot for the normal in most scenes: lighting on the main subject and what looks to the eye like a normal range of tones from low to high (call it the “98%”). Once a photographer is locked into a film, the “normal” scene requires an exposure within a fairly narrow range to work best. Averaging meters (in-camera and handheld) get the exposure into this range – after which post-processing or optical printing calibrates that last little bit.  Automatic cameras achieve the 98% of “normal” scenes fairly handily (witness that pictures in the western world are now predominantly taken with iPhones that have zero manual exposure control). Even the information that used to be printed inside film boxes could get you close enough during daylight hours. It is difficult to argue that manual controls provide any additional advantage; regardless of whether you set both variables (aperture and shutter speed) or set the more important one to you (say aperture) and let the camera choose the other (let’s call this single-variable AE), you are still operating within a finite range of aperture-shutter pairings. Using a camera in manual mode does, however, create an ability to sometimes miss exposure in this normal 98% of scenes – so if your best case is getting to the same result as with an automatic, just slower, then manual cameras may even seem to be a bit inferior.

The other 2% are situations that are often induced intentionally for aesthetic purposes: shooting into the sun, shooting low- or high-key, basing the entire exposure off the darkest shadow or brightest highlight, or taking multiple spot readings to define the lighting range of a scene. These are situations that require, to varying degrees, more than simply pointing some kind of averaging meter at a subject or following the Sunny-16 rule. Situations like these absolutely require the photographer to think about the desired final result. It is far from clear, even in these situations, that shooting a manual camera (or an automatic camera in M) presents any unique advantage aside from setting a fixed exposure that never changes. Even the original single-variable AE systems, like the Konica Autoreflex T, allowed a reading to be locked, permitting the user to meter the foreground and largely ignore the backlit  portions of the frame. Subsequent cameras featured exposure compensation dials that allowed a consistent exposure offset through a session (and even before that, the ISO setting could be adjusted up and down). Multipattern metering cuts into the idea of multiple independent spot readings, and exposing for the shadows (or highlights) was vastly simplified by the advent of in-camera spotmeters. Although at some gut level, automation may seem to be useless, plenty of it is well-suited to serving creative goals.

Manual-only cameras also tend to have some exposure-related features that actually degrade their usefulness for careful work:

  • Some metered manual cameras have primitive match-needle (or -diode) readouts that actually obscure what is happening. Using any Leica rangefinder, for example, gives you only indications that the exposure is one or more stops off, that it is half a stop off, or that it is on. All the time you are turning the shutter speed dial or aperture ring to make it match, you are disconnected from both numeric values. Although some people may successfully memorize the aperture ring direction and mentally keep track of where it is set, some shutter speed dials turn all the way around, and for most, this is an invitation to guess and randomly attain (or not) the correct exposure. This actually has all of the randomness of a camera running in Program mode – only there is no consistent program. Some cameras display the settings at the same time they display the match needle or diodw (like a Nikon FM2n), but the match-needle still acts only as the roughest indicator.
  • Meterless manual cameras beg the use of handheld meters, which almost universally are averaging meters (either incident or reflected). Not only does the use of these devices inject an extra step into the process, it is often also hard to tell – given the questionable ergonomics of most reflected meters – exactly what they are measuring.
  • Many manual cameras only have whole stops for apertures and shutter speeds. High precision, high thought work may want an intermediate speed or intermediate f/stop. Cameras that set these variables tend to be able to set them continuously or in one-half to one-third stops.

And there is rarely a reason to choose a manual camera over an automated one with manual override (assuming the automatic one otherwise does what you want to do – and recognizing that sometimes the manual camera is the one you happen to own).

2.  Manual focus seems illusory. Although it is true that manual focus lenses are actuated by human hands, almost all modern (post 1970) manual-focus cameras utilize focusing aids: split-image rangefinders, fresnel spots, split prisms, or aerial crosshairs.  All of these aids are located in the center of the viewfinder (granted, the focused subject can then be moved off-center), but more importantly, all of them operate in binary mode: they either show objects as (1) in focus or (0) out of focus. They all drive binary decisions by the photographer (“is this in focus?”).  Aside from moving lens elements via twists of the hand, there is no difference between any of the systems above and a phase-detect AF reticle, a contrast-detection scheme aimed at a particular spot, or active infrared rangefinding at a defined point in the viewfinder field. Against this, active and multipattern AF also have the ability to do something a human cannot: instantly determine – and focus on – the closest object in the frame.  Cameras with manual focusing modes do allow fixed zone focusing for landscapes, but most serious AF cameras also allow the AF to be switched off.  And aside from the rare completely unadorned groundglass focusing screen, no design – manual or automatic – provides a realistic picture of what is in focus with the lens stopped down (don’t kid yourself – that fresnel-brightened screen blacks out before it shows you the depth of field).

3.  Manual winding adds no value. It is always in the photographer’s interest to have an unexposed frame of film behind the shutter and ready for action. If one looks to manual winding primarily for “contemplation,” the exorbitant price of film today is now the better reason to contemplate each shot. Manual winding has, for many years, satisfied an engineering consideration: power-consumption.  The winding stroke(s) both moved the film and cocked a spring-driven shutter.  As shutters took on more accurate electronic timing and ultimately, servo motor drive, the value of that thumb lever began to decline. By the mid-1990s, all pro 35mm cameras were motorized, and the only serious cameras left with manual wind were nostalgia-driven rangefinders, legacy designs, or medium-format cameras whose prodigious size and bulk would be compromised further by motors (or that were so slow in use that faster film availability was not a big concern).  The preponderance of auto-advance cameras is not unlike the domination of Olympic shooting by semiautomatic target pistols: you need to keep your eye on the target.

None of this is to say that photography is otherwise preprogrammed; it is just to point out that performing some things “manually” is not very meaningful if it invariably reaches the same result that a robot camera would have achieved in the first place. Acceptance of technology allows you to use your diminished H. sapiens brain capacity on composition, focus selection (rather than execution), tone balance, and lighting – all of which are at the heart of a picture. And there are plenty of legitimate reasons to select a manual-only camera – but most of them have to do with unique capabilities, film format or other qualities that carry through to the final image. Anything else verges on conflating the happenstance of ancient mechanical engineering with some Zen stroke of genius.

# # # # #