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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.

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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.

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Fujifilm Fujinon XF 14mm f/2.8 R

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Beauty and the beast. The Fujinon 14mm f/2.8 encapsulates everything that is good and bad about the Fuji X-Pro1 system. The lens is a solidly constructed, masterful piece of optics, so well corrected that it doesn’t rely on computing power to eliminate distortion. It maxes at f/4 to f/5.6, the range where most rangefinder (and most SLR prime) lenses are wide open and challenged. The mechanical design is mostly elegant. Unlike with a Leica, where you bolt on a distorted accessory finder that may have a level in one orientation only – leaving you to DxO Optics Viewpoint for verticals – the Fuji lets you watch the action and align it on a gridded electronic viewfinder (EVF) (you can, of course, see a gridded distorted wide-angle optical viewfinder (OVF), too…).

But then on the minus side you’re using an X-Pro1, which although fast on its feet occasionally puts some of its buttons too close to your fingers (ahem, Q button, I’m talking to you), very occasionally stutters with AF, and might take a second to start up with OVF on. The optical resolution of the lens and the microscopic details it can resolve mercilessly expose the sorry state of Adobe Camera Raw conversion of X-Trans RAF files. The red smearing is gone, but when you shoot white against a blue sky, inducing any amount of overexposure, or cranking up the exposure in post, or dropping a color channel too much can give you bleed in a b/w conversion. Be careful with bright sunlit scenes. Careful work will be rewarded.

The nice thing, though, is that when/if a new X-Pro comes out with a higher-res sensor, X-Trans or not, this lens will hold its own.

The wide view. Wide-angle lenses are strange creatures. The first thing to remember is that truly wide lenses didn’t  come into their own until after World War II. Until then, most cameras used focal lengths that at the widest were the equivalent of a 35mm lens on a 24x36mm camera.  The postwar period and lens coating enabled a number of complicated new designs such as the Zeiss Biogon and the Schneider Super-Angulon, each of which used a staggering number of glass elements in a symmetrical pattern. The result was an undistorted picture, though the lenses required very small clearances between the rearmost glass element and the film (making them unsuitable for most SLRs).

And even though these existed, they were niche products – most people took Robert Capa’s advice that if one did not get the picture he wanted, he was not close enough – and superwides exacerbated the problem. So until about the 1990s, a 28mm to 35mm lens was the “wide” limit for most people. It is not unwarranted; 35mm in particular represents the central field of human vision with both eyes, does not mangle human faces, even at the edges of the rame, and does not create dramatic converging parallels when the camera is tilted. Many still consider it the ideal “only lens.”

By the mid 1990s, manufacturers had figured out how to make good wide-angle lenses that were usable on SLRs. Although they were retrofocus in design, modern glass, coatings, and (most importantly) computers made it possible to make highly corrected designs. Zoom lenses, which long had been maligned, became some of the best performers. For example, the 17-35mm f/2.8D AF-s Nikkor produced sharper and less distorted wide-angle images than almost any prime Nikkor lens that preceded it in its focal-length range.

When rangefinder cameras came back into fashion, lens manufacturers found that it was relatively easy to use modern technology to design great superwide lenses. Cosina and Kobalux fielded relatively economical and high-performing 21mm lenses. These were followed by Ricoh, which remounted its GR21 lens for rangefinder, and the coup came with Konica’s 21-35mm Dual Hexanon. Not to be outdone in capabilities (or price), Leica launched its 16-18-21mm Wide-Angle Tri-Elmar. Unfortunately evident through all of this, however, is that people do not fully understand that the point of a wide-angle lens is dynamic composition, not simply making the field of view wider and everything in it tinier.

Optical performance. There is plenty of test data out there that substantiates this author’s observation: this beats the stuffing out of even most modern 21mm FOV lenses. Peak performance is at f/4 or f/5.6 – depending on whether you value better corner sharpness at the expense of a little center sharpness. A lens like this might cause you to revise your religious beliefs. Needless to say, it outperforms all of the economical adapted Leica-mount lenses and most Leica M 21mm lenses, too. It’s fairly easy to substantiate that there is no in-camera correction of pincushion distortion. Because this lens doesn’t need it. It is one of the least distorted 21mm-equivalent lenses ever made. That won’t stop you from tilting the camera, though… Vingetting is not as apparent as reviewers would lead you to believe, and it is certainly less than symmetrical wide-angle lenses.

Size/weight. This is not a small lens; it is barely smaller than the 18-55mm zoom. It is still a little bit smaller than an aspherical 21mm Elmarit for a Leica. The weight is very light; these lenses are aluminum and magnesium, not brass.  The lens does not unbalance the camera, and an X-Pro1 with this lens still feels unnaturally light. The lens takes 58mm filters, a size last seen on Canon SLRs. This would not be notable except that Fuji has been all over the place on filter sizes.

The focusing ring. This is a big attractor for a lot of people. So let’s start with the bad news: it’s still focus by wire, and it actually stops past the indicated infinity mark. This is not a big deal. But what is a big deal is that Fuji had to elect a focusing direction. Here, Fuji went with the Nikon direction and abandoned both the Leica and former Fuji MF rotation directions to get to infinity. So although you might set your X-Pro1 or XE-1 to focus like a Leica or your old Fujica, this lens will always be an outlier. But you might not care. This is a “set it and forget it” lens.

The selector. The focusing ring is the main auto/manual focus switch. Here are the modes, and they may not be what you expect:

  • Lens in “manual.”  Regardless of camera mode, the lens focuses via the ring (and by wire). There is no distance indicator in the viewfinder.
  • Lens in “auto.” The focusing ring does not turn at all. With the camera in AF mode (AF-S or AF-C), the lens autofocuses like any other Fujinon XF lens. With the camera in manual, you can use the AE/AF button to focus. Both ways, you get a distance scale in the viewfinder.

Now here’s the catch – if you thought that you were going to set the lens scale for your favorite zone-focus distance and switch AF on and off via the ring, you may lose your distance setting on switching modes. The focusing ring only pushes forward into discrete positions, which put the infinity mark (a) between f/22 and f/16, (b) at f/8, and (c) at f/2.8.  If you are not in one of these positions when you push the ring, it will cam into one of these as it goes forward. There are a number of other positions in the sub-one-meter area, but they are not really relevant.

Some people have complained that the selector is easy to knock out of position. It is actually quite stiff – and the bigger danger is forgetting that the lens is in manual mode (although during testing, I repeatedly and accidentally set the aperture at f/5.6, failed to change the hyperfocal setting from f/8, and everything came out fine).

Distance scale. The distance scale shown by the lens in manual-focus mode is fairly compressed and reflects the very short throw of manual focusing. According to the scale, at f/8, the lens can keep cover 1m to ∞ in focus. According to the viewfinder scale, though, it is 3m to infinity. Actual use suggests that the lens barrel DOF indications are very close to reality. The great depth of field of a 14mm lens puts tremendous pressure on composition – depth of focus will not be a factor in most pictures.

Viewfinder picture. Where the camera is set to the OVF, the low magnification setting will just cover the lens field of view (you will see “corners” rather than framelines). The EVF shows 100% of the field (marginally more than the OVF). Either way, you will want to turn on the gridlines and to activate the digital horizon indicator. There is not much point in using an external viewfinder unless you need a 2-direction level (c.f. Leica Universal Wideangle Finder M) – but even then, these only really work in “landscape” orientation.

AF speed. There are varying accounts of AF speed out there. This lens has the same type of AF motor as the 35/1.4, and it is very fast in most light. If you get into low light and it slows down too much, try switching to EVF and change the size of the focusing zone. The reality is that with this lens, you only really need AF from f/2.8-5.6.

Should I buy it? This is Fuji’s second solid hit after the 18-55mm zoom. The best (if not only) arguments against this lens are (1) that it is an XF-mount lens and (2) it’s expensive. If Fuji never went beyond the X-Pro in terms of sensor technology, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the combination outperforms any 35mm film camera with a 21mm lens (and most digital cameras); moreover, with its easy manual focus, any real or perceived shortcomings of the X-Pro or XE-1 in focus are pretty insignificant. As for the price, it is not very high in comparison to 21mm lenses: in the same range as the ZM primes, a couple hundred higher than the Cosina-Voigtlander 21mm M lens, and at least a thousand less than any modern Leica 21mm.

Should I wait for the 10-20mm f/4 OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) lens? Fuji does have a zoom lens on the roadmap that covers this focal length. It will have a lot of appeal to a lot of people – but not necessarily for the same people who would be looking at a super-performing 14mm. From all available prototype pictures, it will be like the 18-55mm, with a flared front end (it takes 72mm filters).  The plusses are that it will likely have a stepper motor focusing mechanism (=fast), has a constant aperture (albeit f/4)  and will cover the 15-30mm range. On the other hand, it is huge, has no focusing scale like the 14mm, will require software distortion correction, and if the 18-55mm is a guide, manual aperture control will be easy to knock out of the desired setting. OIS is a plus – but the Fuji system draws a good amount of power, it takes a second or so to spin up in the mode where it is only activated for the shot, and can be squeaky in the wintertime.

How about the Zeiss 12mm? This is a tougher question that might be determined more by economics (it’s pricey) and aesthetics (it’s flared in a not-so-attractive way). I will be the one to speculate on this: these lenses are being made with the cooperation of Fuji, possibly in the same plant that makes Fuji lenses. That’s why they keep getting mentioned in Fuji videos and are now shown as an ancillary part of the Fuji lens road map.

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Lomo Belair-X 6×12: In Hand

Lomo Belair X 6x12

This writeup is based on the midrange Jet-Setter model ($188 after all early-adopter discounts; $299 regular price; $254 current discounted price).  The Lomo Belair-X is definitely built to a price point (cheap to manufacture, expensive to buy) but is relatively well thought out. It will take a couple of weeks to put it through its optical paces, but these are some notes on construction – and some things that have not been brought up before in “reviews.” Lomo does a good job of making the first two pages of Google search hits point to its own commercial web sites. Then there are gadget sites regurgitating Lomo press releases. Then some Flickr discussions devoid of any frame of reference relevant to people who use bourgeois cameras.

Chassis. The Belair-X is based on a two piece chassis: front and back. The underlying structure is black polystrene; the covers are fairly heavy (almost 1mm) aluminum sheet with a nice sandblasted finish.  The back comes off completely via two levers on the bottom; it has the hot shoe attached and connects to the shutterand front shell via two contacts. The mount for the viewfinders is on the top; it’s a hexagonal opening into which you insert the foot and twist 90 degrees. It’s actually a pretty well thought-out way of attaching a finder without losing it in use. The frame mask (6×6, 6×9 or 6×12) drops into the open back. Leatherette is synthetic (as you can imagine). There is an off-center tripod socket. The bellows release is a chrome button in the center of the bottom.

Winding. There is a two-position ruby window (6×6/6×12 and 6×9) that is always open to one of these settings.  To load the camera, you pull up on the winding knob (not intuitive, but there are always the directions…), insert the tongue into the take up reel, turn a time or two, close the back, and look for the frame number in the window).  The knob is ratcheted in the crudest way possible (quality cameras have a roller ratchet that makes no noise). The only tension on the film seems to come from two foam pads around the supply spool. It is unclear how the film stays tight on the takeup spool (usually, cameras have leaf springs pushing inward on the roll at each end). There is no pressure plate whatsoever, leading to the question of just how flat the film will stay. Small apertures like f/8 or f/16 do not put tremendous demands on film flatness (at least at the center of the frame), but even so, this is s a reason why you might want to reconsider buying the new expensive Russian glass lenses for this camera.

Bellows. Shockingly, these are made of cast rubber. They also smell a little like new tennis shoes or a rocket-style air blower.  These are obviously less labor-intensive to make than folded leather, they are heavier, and they will probably not pinhole – just catastrophically fail by cracking some day (so take good care of them). The scissor-strut that supports the bellows is solid and mechanically simple. It is as about as stable as a Polaroid auto pack camera bellows and folds simply by pushing the buttons at the crossover point (top and bottom of the struts) and collapsing. Interestingly, as you collapse it, the front standard slides left and then right and then into position. It is hard to gauge front-standard alignment because the metal trim piece is slightly warped (the underlying piece that actually holds the lens looks properly aligned).

Front standard.  This assembly contains two button cells, the shutter, and the lens mount. The shutter (top speed: 1/125 second) is essentially a #1 press shutter (more than 30mm wide) sunk about 1cm into the front standard. With no batteries, it shoots at 1/125. With batteries, it will go down to several seconds. The action is not as rough as some people would have you believe; as with many a target pistol, there is a long and/or heavy takeup with a tiny bit of additional pressure tripping it. There is also a tiny click that happens right before the shutter trips – the easy way to shoot this without excessive vibration is to press until the tiny click and then trip with that last little bit. It would be nice to have a cable release, but c’est la vie.  There is no double-exposure interlock. The photocell is to the side of the lens, and just behind it, there is an ISO dial.

Finders. The finders are actually fairly well finished, with clear and remarkably undistorted views. There is no parallax correction, and there are little “points” (none too visible when using the finder) that show the 6×6 and 6×9 frames. It’s too bad these are not available with standard ISO feet.

Lenses. The tiny lenses are uncoated plastic (no surprise), and the optical resin should not be worse than your eyeglasses (or, indeed, uncoated Zeiss folders from the 1950s). The apertures are f/8-f/16: and only those two. The f/8 setting is a natural circular opening; f/16 is a Waterhouse stop that folds in two pieces. Why just these two settings? Probably easier to link into the AE system. There are no filter threads.  The barrels themselves are hideous, semiglossy plastic whose irregular gloss looks like a product of uneven molding finish. All markings are pad-printed. A nice touch, though, is the product name with a Zeiss-blue line under it (this is on the underside when mounted) The lenses friction-click into place (longevity may be a question if you are a compulsive lens changer; focusing is an unlubricated helicoid that makes the whole lens front rotate, but at least the aperture settings are snappy. The lenses do come with both caps (and the body has a cap as well).

Hacking? The thing that makes this camera hackable is its 6×12 film opening, low price, plastic frame and shutter that sits behind the lens. And it’s a plus that the AE sensor is a good distance from the lens axis. One thing that might make hacking difficult is that the lenses have about a 90mm register distance (the 58mm is very clearly retrofocus) – which is going to limit what you can mount in terms of wide-angles. The workaround,might be to collapse the bellows (which brings the distance down considerably). But it would be a good idea to clamp it closed to maintain some semblance of alignment.

Shutter placement is a double-edged sword. Most medium and large-format lenses anticipate a leaf shutter placed at the nodal point of the lens. Accordingly, most such lenses and shutters have standard threads. The Belair-X has a fairly large, 5-bladed leaf shutter with a conventional-looking operation, but it lacks threads. Its intended use behind the lens is advantageous for longer lenses (which would simply mount in front – think Packard shutters and Sinar auto shutters) but would be a problem with symmetrical wideangle lenses – because you would either have to find a way to mount the front and rear cells to the front standard or mount the whole thing ahead of the shutter (which would exacerbate problems with the already-long register of the body). Of course, you could just gut the existing shutter, which would allow you to hack on a complete lens/shutter assembly from a 4×5 camera. This is in essence what happens when you hack a lens/shutter onto a Polaroid pack camera.

It is also worth noting that because the body has no focusing mechanism built in, any hacked application would involve fixed focus or a helicoid-enabled lens ($$$).

Focusing aids? None. But you don’t need any.  A 6×12 with a 58mm lens is like a 35mm camera with a 21mm lens. Focusing at 3m at f/16 gives you good focus from 1.52m to 146.3 meters – in essence, everything from 5 feet on. Get on DOFMaster, print some guidelines that fit your application, and go on your merry way. The owners manual for the camera also includes some DOF guides that you can photocopy and carry with you. If you get really freaked out, you can insert a Kodak Service Rangefinder into the accessory shoe and manually call the distance.

Upshot? This is a so-so proposition in the $180-200 range, promising some fun at a price point where a total loss in value would not be the end of the world. And as long as you internalize a few basic things about focusing and exposure, it should produce at least printable negatives. Beyond that price point (such as at the $299 rack rate), or for any serious (or prolonged) 6×12 use, it’s worth looking into other options.  As a 6×6 or 6×9 camera, it’s large and satisfies the Lomo aesthetic requirements (soft lenses, double-exposures, and other low-fidelity work), but there are cheaper and better options for serious work in those formats.

Look for an update on optics in an upcoming installment.

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