REVIEW: Olympus OMD-EM1

I have not done a gear review in a frightfully long time.

Over the past year I have moved away from the constant gear upgrade-cycle (despite what I was upgrading was generally not to the latest-and-greatest, but old film cameras), and my gear has not changed a lot. As many people who take photographs are, I was focusing more on equipment than actually taking photographs, and often relying on gaining inspiration to go take photos from the excitement that having a new camera can provide. Photography relies on gear, but that can often become a crutch. All artistic pursuits rely on gear to make art–painters need paints and brushes, musicians need instruments, and photographers need cameras–but to have one’s vision eclipsed by the constant need for new equipment is not healthy for any artist.

Camera companies rely on people buying constantly new cameras to boost their bottom line, and marketing is designed to urge people to consume more and more. The internet is full of message boards, review sites, and forums, and all of these reinforce the idea that whatever the newest camera is will be the magic bullet:

This next camera will be the one that makes your images better.

Except that it won’t. Your images will only get better through practice, critique, and dedication to your craft. I would argue that greater familiarity with the gear you use¬†will do more for your images than the newest sensor from your friendly camera manufacturer. That’s a hard thing to understand, I think–I know it has been for me.

I have done a number of reviews of various types of equipment over time on this blog, and they are always wildly successful. Almost all of my top-viewed posts of all time are camera reviews. What does that tell me? Does that mean my photographs are not anything special? Or perhaps that my gear reviews are particularly amazing? Maybe I’m reviewing cameras that are especially interesting to readers? Actually, I suspect it’s none of those. Like I did, people read gear reviews incessantly. Most of the time now, when I do read reviews it’s idle curiosity more than a desire to actually purchase; I follow the trends in camera technology, but don’t plan to really purchase any of them.

So the title of this post is “REVIEW: Olympus OMD-EM1”. I suppose I should actually talk about the camera in question at some point, so here goes: the camera is great. It is small and light, it has so many customizable functions and buttons I can’t even use them all, Olympus has a great selection of lenses to use with their micro four-thirds bodies, it has fast autofocus, it is weather-sealed, it has an app for your phone or tablet that allows you to control the shutter remotely and transfer images via built-in wi-fi, and it makes great images. I’m not sure what else to say about it, really. Dedicated review sites have dissected the camera to a degree that I have neither the expertise, time, or interest to do. If that is what you want, I’d encourage you to google one of them. Except that you probably won’t, because this is an “old” camera now, released almost two years ago. In digital camera terms, it is positively ancient.

Ever wonder why there are so few negative camera reviews? Most camera review sites make their money by contributing to the hyperbole created by marketing departments, and they get paid when you–spoiler alert!–buy the cameras they have reviewed so well. They generally have a convenient link within their review to find the camera they are discussing on Amazon, B&H, Adorama, etc. By clicking the link in that page, and buying something, they get a cut of the money you spend. Some reviewers are open about this, some are not. Other review sites take perks from camera companies (free access to new gear, review samples, preferential treatment or access at events) and review things well in a quid pro quo arrangement. There are also many people who simply review things because they like to, which is what I do. I don’t get a penny from this blog in any way.

Rant over. Now back to previously scheduled programming…

I have really enjoyed this camera, and have used it for months. The only limitation to making great images with this camera is my own talent with photography and skill with this camera. I have yet to come upon a situation where I thought the camera was somehow inhibiting my creative output. Far more often are situations where I have discovered yet another capability of the camera that opens up new possibilities for what I can create–I suspect that is the case for the overwhelming number of camera users.

This review is most likely not what you were expecting, and if you made it this far, I’m surprised. I had intended to write a more “normal” review of the camera but as I wrote, the words didn’t seem to want to come out that way. I have really enjoyed using this camera and would recommend it to just about anyone who is looking for a camera; for some people it is surely even too much camera: it has so many settings and functions that some users would surely find it overwhelming. But to someone with a background in photography, this is likely all the camera they would need.

On that note, let me address two real issues with this camera. First of all, there is no way around the price: this is an expensive camera. Olympus released the camera with a retail price somewhere around $1300, which is expensive. Even for what you get with this camera, I’d say it’s overpriced and should have come in a bit lower. That said, I got mine used and saved some money, and I don’t regret the purchase. It’s a great camera.

The second thing is not an “issue” so much as a perception of the sensor. For those who don’t know, this is a micro four-thirds camera, which means the sensor is half the size of a traditional 35mm-sized (“full frame”, the size of a 35mm negative) sensor. There are some trade-offs which come with a smaller sensor. First, the effective focal length and depth of field must be double from their full frame equivalents; a 35mm f/2 lens becomes a 70mm f/4 lens in real terms, but retains the visual properties of a 35mm perspective (for more on this, or to clarify, try Google). This means getting super shallow depth of field is very difficult, and many photographers use this (often as a crutch)¬†to establish subject isolation in images. It also means that extreme wide-angle lenses are rare–since all focal lengths are doubled–but not impossible to find. Again, wide-angle lenses are often not used well, which makes me often discount this as a valid issue. Both aforementioned trade-offs do have legitimate uses, but they aren’t huge problems, and can certainly be overcome.

Finally, the size of the sensor puts a restriction on the number of megapixels which can be crammed into the small space. The more megapixels that are put into a sensor, the more it can exhibit noise. Olympus has managed to pack in 16 megapixels into this sensor, which seems plenty for anyone, especially since most people only exhibit their work on computer monitors anyway–I know I do. What printing I do is generally limited to 8×10 or smaller, meaning my phone does a fine job, let alone the Olympus OMD-EM1. There are certainly people who need the 36 megapixels in the Nikon D800 or Sony A7R, or even the more than 50 megapixels announced in the upcoming Canon DSLR, but for most of us, 12-16 is more than enough.

I find the advantages of a small sensor–smaller, lighter camera bodies and smaller, lighter lenses–to outweigh the advantages of larger sensors. Additionally, I like the weather-sealed body and the electronic viewfinder (EVFs have advanced by leaps and bounds in the past few years and are now more advantageous than OVFs in most circumstances for most users). I find Olympus’ suite of lenses to be excellent as well, easily surpassing those offered by Sony at the moment for their a7-series cameras.

Having used the OMD-EM1 since late October 2014, I can say I am happy with the decision I made. This “review” was non-traditional to say the least, but hopefully some will find it useful, and maybe some will realize that the constant desire for more, newer cameras is a facade–the real issue is not a lack of satisfaction with your gear, but with your images. Getting a new camera won’t fix that.

That’s all for now.

-Trevor

Pakon F135: First Impressions

Faces – Porto, Portugal

I recently picked up a new film scanner that I hoped would work nicely to take care of all of my 35mm scanning. I haven’t been happy with my old Epson V500 for a long time, and my solution was to send it out to have it scanned for me. However, that gets expensive fast at the rate I shoot film, so needless to say, when a friend of mine told me about the Pakon F135 I was smitten. The Pakon will scan an entire roll of 35mm in about 3-4 minutes and give good quality files with enough resolution to go up to 8×10 safely I suspect. Any larger than that would likely degrade the resolution too much. The key here is the speed of the scanning.

Here is the link to my buddy Dave’s write-up on the Pakon, which is certainly far better than I could manage.

Selfie – Lisbon, Portugal

The trick with the Pakon is that it requires a specific software set-up, which was tough for me (thanks again to Dave for helping me out with this!) to get going. I’m not a technophobe by any means, but I’m not great with working outside the parameters of day-to-day computer issues. Still, the payoff was too good to resist, so I jumped in with both feet.

[NOTE: If anyone is interested in the Pakon scanner, this is where I got mine: http://www.aaaimaging.com/kodak-pakon-f135-film-scanner.html]

So after fiddling with getting Windows XP up and running on my Macbook, and managing to install all the necessary peripherals, I was up and running last night and managed to scan just a single roll.

And…HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS SOONER?!?

Boats – Lisbon, Portugal

I am not going to upload 100% scans to pixel-peep. That’s not what this post is about. I’m also not going to dissect the hardware specs or compare it with the other scanners out there. I’ve never used the Nikon Coolscans but I’ve heard great things. They are likely better than the Pakon, but they are also discontinued, at least 10x the price used, take 5-10x as long to scan a roll, and hard to find for sale anywhere. For my purposes, the Pakon F135 is damn good.

I’ll be scanning a lot more in the coming weeks (winter is here after all), and so you’ll be hearing a more detailed write-up on this at some point. But for now, I’ll leave you with a few more images from the first roll I scanned.

All images were taken in March 2012 on my trip to Portugal, with my Leica M6TTL, the Voigtlander Nokton 40/1.4 or Leica Tele-Elmarit-M 90/2.8, on Kodak Portra 160.

Outside – Porto, Portugal

Umbrella – Porto, Portugal

 

Narrow – Porto, Portugal

Generations – Porto, Portugal

Vila Nova da Gaia – Porto, Portugal

 

 

REVIEW: Sony RX1

Welcome, RX1

As I wrote in my last post, the Sony RX1 is the newest camera that I’ve acquired after selling off a bunch of gear that I had. As long-time readers will know, I have shot the¬†Fuji X100¬†and loved it for two years this month. It is currently off for repairs and should be back in a few weeks, but I was intrigued by this new full-frame, fixed-lens digital camera with a 35mm focal length.

On the surface, in fact, the RX1 and the X100 have a lot in common: they are both fixed-lens cameras, they both have the same effective focal length (the RX1 has a full-frame sensor with a 35mm lens, and the X100’s APS-C sensor gives its 23mm lens an effective field of view of 35mm), they both max out at f/2, and they both have the near-silent leaf shutter that I really loved about the X100.

There are also some important differences: the RX1 lacks a viewfinder, whereas the X100 has both the electronic viewfinder and the optical viewfinder, but the RX1 has a big sensor with double the megapixels (24 vs. 12) of the X100.

The trusty X100 – Baltimore, MD

Over my two years with the X100, I have loved using it from start to finish. It isn’t the fastest to autofocus, and it can have some quirky moments, but in general usage I loved it. I took it all over the world for the time I had it–it never missed a trip that I went on. The high ISO performance was amazing, and I loved how quiet it was. The optical viewfinder was really a treat too, and I found myself not using the EVF more than a handful of times, as I preferred seeing the world as it really was and not with the lag of an EVF.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can bestow upon the X100 is that over the past two years, it has completely changed the way I view the world. I have always enjoyed using prime lenses, and the 50mm lens was my bread and butter. That is, until I used the X100. It was such a fun camera, and so enjoyable to use, that it made me see things in 35mm. I use the 50mm lens almost never now, preferring the 35mm focal length in almost all situations. If that’s not high praise, I don’t know what is.

Having now established the 35mm focal length, the RX1 grabbed my attention after a friend of mine began raving about it. The more I read, the more I was interested. As it happened, this was exactly the time when I had begun to think about radically altering the landscape of my photographic equipment. Ultimately, I decided to make the switch from all the other equipment I had to this little camera, figuring I’d try it out while my beloved X100 was off for repairs to see if it could possibly replace that camera. I have to say…wait, I’ll save that part for the end. Stay with me!

Those Eyes – Converted to B&W using Silver Efex Pro 2

My first impression of the RX1: it is small. Like, really small. It is a technological marvel that they managed to cram this sensor into this body, with this lens. ¬†It has a nice heft to it, and feels really solid in my hands. I wish it had a slightly larger grip for my big clumsy hands, but it’s not terrible. It’s certainly more ergonomic than any Leica M (heresy!).

The build quality is really first-rate. The aperture clicks wonderfully, the focus ring has a nice turn to it, and everything is metal and feels precise and well crafted. As one would expect with a camera at this price point, it’s very well made. A small issue might be that it has no dedicated shutter speed dial, foregoing that for the more versatile (and common) soft dial that changes its functionality depending on the mode the camera is set in. I find this quite simple to use, but a dedicated shutter dial is always nice.

In terms of output, the sensor resolves as you’d expect with a sensor of this size. Resolution is very high, and the lens is very, very sharp. The dynamic range is better than any sensor that I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and there is a great deal of detail to be pulled out of the shadows with the files in post-production.

Below is an example of a shot taken indoors, taken straight from the camera, shot in RAW and converted to JPEG. As you can see, it’s pretty dark, but I exposed for the highlights at f/2, 1/100, ISO 125.

And below is the same shot, after adjusting the exposure in Lightroom 4, and converted to JPEG:

I didn’t adjust colors at all, reduce noise, or anything else. For a poorly-lit room, this seems to be pretty good output and gives you an idea of the flexibility that you have with the files from this camera. I found the files out of the X100 had a lot of detail to be recovered from the shadows, but not to this degree–the RX1 can really bail out a poor exposure. However, it’s always best to nail exposure correctly the first time.

The other frankly amazing part of the images from this camera is the high ISO performance. Let me just say that I’m sure technology will improve in terms of high ISO/low light capability, but I have no idea what kind of conditions I would need to have to require more than this sensor provides me. The first night I had the camera I went to an extremely dimly-lit restaurant in Minneapolis for dinner, and shot the RX1 comfortably at ISO 12,800. Here is an example:

ISO 12,800: a giant step for mankind?

I also have to say that this photo above is slightly cropped, and I used a film emulation that added grain to the image. That’s right, in order to mimic an ISO 400 film, I had to add grain to this image (we can talk about one would feel the need to use film emulators and add grain to images another day; I go back and forth on it myself). Here is another example shot at ISO 10,000 and with no post-production other than a JPEG-conversion:

“Wallflower” – shot at ISO 10,000

A lot has been made about the two issues that I was most worried about with respect to the RX1. First, the battery life. Many have complained that it is poor, and the fact that the RX1 uses the same battery as the RX100 should tell you something–the larger sensor requires much more power and should impact the battery life significantly. Sony states you should get 250-270 shots per charge. While that doesn’t blow my mind, it doesn’t really alarm me a whole lot either. Get a backup or two and you’ll be covered. A more serious lapse in judgement from Sony, however, came with the exclusion of a battery charger, meaning you have to charge the battery by plugging the camera into the wall, like a phone. That’s obnoxious, and at this price point, inexcusable in my opinion. You can get a 3rd-party charger fairly cheaply but you shouldn’t have to after spending this much on a camera.

The second issue is the autofocus speed. If you’re concerned about this, you’re not alone–I was too. Let me tell you that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. If you shoot day in, day out with the latest and greatest DSLRs and fast-AF lenses, you may be disappointed. After using the X100 and Olympus OMD, I didn’t really notice a huge drop-off. In low light it can hunt once in a while (I never use the AF-assist lamp, since it’s like shining a flashlight in someone’s eyes when it’s already dark) and has missed focus once or twice. But, we’re talking super low light (and contrast). When I shot the ISO 12,800 image above, for example, focus worked fine. If you know how to use contrast-detect AF, like most of us, you’ll be happy with it.

Autumn Leaf – Shot in RX1’s Macro Mode

My Conclusion

You’ve made it this far, so you’re obviously expressing at least a modicum of interest in this camera, and maybe even my thoughts on it. I’m no professional gear reviewer, but I have read many of them, and written a few of them in my day. I’ve also used a bunch of gear.

Compared to my trusty X100, which I find to be the closest parallel for reasons mentioned early on in this piece, I like the RX1–a lot. The RX1 meets or exceeds the X100 is virtually every significant way I can think of: high ISO, AF speed/accuracy, resolution, software/customization, etc. There are only two things I wish the RX1 did that the X100 does. One of them minor, the other more significant.

First, I love that the X100 has a built-in 3-stop ND filter. Honestly, this is a feature I love about it and not enough people seem to give Fuji tis due for including this. I can’t tell you how many times I used that feature when shooting in bright sunlight, as it allowed me some flexibility on the aperture in bright conditions that I otherwise hadn’t had. Can’t you just screw an ND filter onto the lens of the RX1, I hear you asking? Why yes, you can. But the fact that it’s built-in at the push of a button makes things much easier and smoother to operate. So, this is a minor issue.

A more glaring omission, for me, is the lack of any kind of viewfinder with the RX1. This is hard to justify in my opinion. Couldn’t Sony have scrapped the pop-up flash in favor of an EVF? I sure think so, even if it had added negligible size to the body. An NEX7-style viewfinder would have made this camera a no-brainer replacement for my X100 and would have rendered this argument dead on arrival. Seriously. Everything else about the RX1 is that good. (And yes, Sony makes an external EVF, but it looks stupid, costs a lot of money on top of a body that’s already twice the cost of an X100/s, and seems flimsy if you leave it attached. So no, I don’t consider that a viable option.)

Climbing – Shot into bright sunlight, showing off the dynamic range of the sensor

My final verdict is a close call, but I think the RX1 may pull ahead on this one. I think that the RX1 will remain with me, and force the sale of my beloved X100; I’m not sure what the point of two fixed-lens, 35mm focal length cameras is to be honest. So one of them has to move to a new home, and I think that someone is the X100. I reserve judgement for when I get the fixed X100 back, along with the new firmware, which is supposed to improve the function of the camera a good bit. But as of now, the X100 has a bit of catching up to do.

Back To Digital

Max – July, 2013

I have been frustrated lately at the speed at which my son moves. Sadly, it’s far faster than my fingers can focus. I can’t expose and focus fast enough. I could zone-focus, yes, or I could expose early in anticipation, but that’s harder than it sounds with kids. I decided that I wanted something I could carry around with and capture the candid moments of his life with. I used to use my Nikon D700 for this, but got sick and tired of lugging that tank around and sold it.

I finally took the plunge and got back into the world of digital cameras. After unloading my trusty (and heavy) Nikon D700 and all of my F lenses, I got back into the world of Micro Four-Thirds. I had a GF1 years ago that I thoroughly enjoyed but sold after M4/3 got a bit stale as a format. After I sold it Olympus got serious about optics, and has been releasing excellent glass for their cameras for a while now. I have tried the Sony NEX-series of cameras, and even went out today to try the NEX-6 as a finalist for my new digital, but after playing with it for about an hour at Best Buy, I decided it felt more like a computer than a camera. I really wanted to like the NEX-6. I wanted it to be a good fit for me, to maybe mount my old M-mount lenses on, to have a large sensor (that is quite excellent) and a built-in viewfinder, but…it wasn’t meant to be. It’s not enjoyable to hold or use, and that means a lot. And holding the camera doesn’t have to be enjoyable, per se, but it needs to feel like a camera. I guess it’s hard to put into words, but the NEX-6 wasn’t a camera I enjoyed using.

So on to the next store to try my other finalist: the Olympus PEN series. I looked at the EP-5, but ultimately I have decided that any camera I buy has to have a viewfinder. I enjoy using them. I got into photography with an old digital point-and-shoot, but I’m over that style of camera. I don’t want to hold my camera out in front of me anymore to take a photo–though I will do so with my phone–and so I tried the EP-5. The viewfinder is nice, but mounting it on top makes the camera bulky and ugly. So, as I was about to leave I tried one last camera: the Olympus OM-D EM-5.

As you can probably guess by now, I wound up leaving with the OM-D. It’s small–far smaller than I thought it would be from photos online–but not too small. It fits in my hand, but I sure wouldn’t want it any smaller. In fact, it could be a bit larger for my taste if I’m being picky, but it’s fine. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is quite good, and the autofocus speed (AF) is blazing fast. I shot probably ~100 photos in the store and it never missed focus once, and was instantly focused. Honestly, I don’t think you could have AF be any faster unless it was predicting for you where you might want to focus. Seriously, it’s that quick. At least, for a single exposure; I’m not sure about continuous or tracking focus. Time will tell. It has a bunch of other awesome features as well, and I got a good deal on it in my local camera shop.

I picked up the kit with the zoom lens, and added the excellent (by reputation) and very tiny 45/1.8 lens. I plan on adding other lenses at some point, but this gets me started today. I’m intrigued by the 75/1.8 but put off by the cost; I like 12/2 but am also wary of the cost. There are good lenses to be had for cheaper so I’ll try to nab one of them soon. I like the Panasonic 25/1.4 and also the 14/2.5 and 20/1.7 from Panasonic. The raison d’etre of the M4/3 system is size–so anything has to be small to make sense with this body, in my opinion.

So yeah…I have an OMD now. I’m excited to try it out. I will post a lengthier reaction with my thoughts later on. For now, I’m off to shoot a bit.

(The image at the top is a jpeg straight out of the camera. Not unimpressive at all.)

-T

Camera Shuffle

Over the past few months I have been shooting primarily with my Leica M6TTL 0.58x (for those unaware, the Leica M6TTL can come in three different viewfinder magnifications: 0.85x, 0.72x, and 0.58x). I took this with me out East and on my road trip out West, and it was my primary shooter both times. I also took my Hasselblad 501CM with me on both trips, but for me the Hasselblad system is too large to ever be a primary camera for me. I love the results but it is too large, too loud, and too slow to be a primary shooter; it’s a bit cumbersome at times, and takes up a lot of real estate in my bag. It can get heavy carrying it around all day as well. At least, this is what I tell myself…and then I get a roll of film back from it and I am instantly in love again. Still, the convenience of the smaller formats is really alluring.

But, I digress. 2013 has been primarily shot with the M6TTL 0.58 and it has gone just fine. I have used the X100 a little, but not much at all. I am pretty much shooting 90% film at the moment. I figured I’d post a quick thing about how I’ve been shooting recently, and the kind of gear I’ve been using.

I sold my Leica MP since I prefer the 0.58x magnification on the Leica M system; I had planned to perhaps get an MP in that magnification, but the MP is honestly just hard to justify at the cost it generally commands (which sometimes makes me regret selling the one I found for really cheap that I ended up selling), especially the viewfinder magnification that I prefer. I like the larger shutter speed dial of the M6TTL, and it’s a lot cheaper than the MP. I don’t mind the size of it (it’s marginally larger than the “traditional” Leica M), but some people do. Honestly, in the land of Leica, people get worked up about the strangest things. I also sold my Zeiss Ikon last fall, but recently ended up acquiring another for cheap; this time, in black. I do appreciate how much faster automatic exposure (AE) can make things at times, and I liked the viewfinder on the Zeiss quite a bit. I find it funny that the Zeiss Ikon can cost as little as half as much as an M6.

New Jersey, March 2013

I have been using the 35mm focal length quite a bit, as well as the 50mm that I’ve always loved (but doesn’t everyone love the “nifty fifty”?). To be honest, it was the X100 that pushed me into using 35mm at all; I’d always felt more comfortable with 50mm, but lots of time with the 35mm made me acquire a taste for it. I have also always liked the 90mm length, but don’t have one at the moment after selling my old one last year. I do think I’ll end up getting one again for portraits and the times I want to have more reach than I do with my 50mm. Before the trip out West I picked up a 15mm super-wide but haven’t seen any results from it yet, and also scored a cheap 28mm lens that I have used a bit but also haven’t seen any results from. It seems like too much to have 28, 35, and 50. 28 and 50 seem a good pair, but I prefer the 35 if I only go out with one lens. Hence, I’m hanging on to all three for now. Maybe I’ll move some at some point, but I’m not sure when.

The X100, which I still enjoy, has taken a back seat. While I like it a lot, I am increasingly frustrated with the “quirks” that it came with. The autofocus speed is pretty poor, and it does weird things at times: the exposure will go haywire randomly, it can lag, and the battery life seems to get worse all the time. When I try to use it to make images of my son…forget it. It’s way too slow. After playing with the X100s in the B&H Superstore in New York City, I think that could be a solid option in the future. Ideally I’d like to have a digital version of my Leica M, but I’m unwilling to pay the steep cost for a digital camera.

My frustration with the X100, and my failure to find a real digital solution that I’d be happy investing in has pushed me into doing film pretty much all the time. I think that at some point I’ll get back into digital, but I’m not sure how and when. I finally sold my old Nikon D700, since it has been gathering dust for nearly two years. I also sold off all of my F-mount lenses that were unused as well.

As I said, I used the M6TTL with the 35mm and 50mm basically for everything for all the time out East and was content. Perhaps stripping things down would be nice, but it is nice to have choices at times. I need to figure out, once I have the time and space in my new house, a process for developing and scanning my own film at home. This would help save on costs (as I now send out all my film), and would also allow me to get things processed more quickly.

So for now I’m shooting mostly with the Ikon and M6TTL primarily. The Hasselblad and X100 get some use, but it’s infrequent. I’ll try to keep blogging more and post some more photos of my journey out East, and eventually, of my trip out West. I hope you keep coming back and that you enjoy the photos when they do appear. All this talk of gear makes me want to stop thinking about gear and go out shooting.

What’s In My (Other) Bag

What’s In My (Other) Bag – November 2012

**Update: You can also find this post featured on Japan Camera Hunter.**

I did a post the other day about what I carry around in my bag (you can read that here if you missed it), and I thought I should also include my other bag. While my previous bag was focused around rangefinders (and rangefinder-style digital cameras like the Fuji X100), this one is a different format entirely. I also have other gear around which doesn’t get quite as much use, but I figure I should give a shout-out to all the same. But first, the contents of this bag in the photo above:

  1. Black Domke bag – I don’t honestly know what style it is, but it’s from the mid-1980s and they were throwing two of them away at work. Despite over 20 years of use by photojournalists traveling all over the world and using it hard, it looks great. So I took one off their hands. Domke bags are great.
  2. Hasselblad 501CM with Planar 80mm f/2.8 CFE T* lens – a great camera that I acquired earlier this year. I enjoy medium format, and the results from this camera always blow my mind. The lens is out of this world. This combo I got almost mint condition, with boxes, paperwork, and all original accessories, with the upgraded Acute Matte split screen (makes focusing easier), and manufactured in 2002. The original owner didn’t use it much; it’s lovely.
  3. Fuji Instax 210 – this is a fun camera that is absurdly large for the size print you get, but I like the results. It is incredibly light and easy to carry around, and if I’m already carrying a bag with the ‘Blad in it, this one doesn’t add any weight.
  4. Film – I love shooting Ektachrome E100G, but it is sadly now discontinued. This is my last box before I move on to Provia 100F for good, although that film is no slouch either. Portra 400 is as good in 120 as it is in 35mm; I also use Kodak’s 400TX, and Fuji’s Pro 400H–largely the same film stock I carry for 35mm use. I like consistency.
  5. Phone and wallet – these are the same as in the previous post, the ones I’ve had for quite some time.

I also have a boat-load of other gear around the house:

  • Nikon D700 that I use for work, sports, and gear shots,
  • Nikon N80 that I use my Nikon AF lenses with when I want to shoot film,
  • Pentax ME Super that I use now and again that belonged to my father,
  • Mamiya C220 that was my first medium format camera,
  • FED3 with a Jupiter 50mm f/2 lens that I picked up for a song with a recent CLA,
  • Holga that my wife uses sometimes that I acquired along the way, and
  • Olympus XA2 point-and-shoot that I got for a project I worked on over the summer and is now done, but I still use from time to time.

Excessive? Yes, but I enjoy using all of it occasionally.

Questions? Comments? Let’s hear them. I’d love to hear what you all are carrying around and using as well!

What’s In My Bag – Mark II

**Update: You can also find this post featured on Japan Camera Hunter.**

As long-time readers will know, I posted a bag shot a few months ago with my then-current setup for shooting. This was inspired by the excellent series on Japan Camera Hunter, which featured my bag earlier this year. At that time, I had a different spread than I do now, so I figured it was only fair that I share what I use regularly now. I have done reviews on a number of items that I use, and I will be continuing reviews going forward, so stay tuned if I haven’t covered something yet. If you have questions about anything I use or have used, I’m always happy to give my thoughts either on the blog or in an email to you–just get in touch!

Here is my bag from February 2012:

What’s in My Bag – February 2012

1. Bag ‚Äď It‚Äôs a Domke F-803. I got this bag a few months ago, and love it. The size is great; it holds two bodies, some lenses, a waterbottle‚Ķeverything I need for a day of shooting. I used it every day when in England for 2 weeks and it held everything I needed day in, day out.
2. Fuji X100 ‚Äď I just did a review on this camera, and as of now it is really the only digital camera for me. I love it. I could not spring for the Fuji filter + hood combo (rip off!) so I got the generic version.
3. Leica M3 DS (double stroke), Zhou leather half case, leather strap; Summicron 50mm f/2 ‚Äď I am a big fan of this camera. It‚Äôs very old school, no meter, no electronics, but it‚Äôs a classic. The viewfinder is 1:1 and really great for the 50mm lens, which is my favorite focal length. Based on the serial #, made in January 1955.
4. Leica Tele-Elmarit 90mm f/2.8 ‚Äď Just recently acquired, it‚Äôs the lightest and smallest 90mm Leica makes. Great lens, very good for traveling.
5. Film ‚Äď These are some of the films I have been carrying lately: Kodak Ektar 100, Ilford HP5+, and Fuji Superia 1600. I carry 1-2 rolls of each, which covers any lighting conditions I might run into. The grain on the Superia is very nice, in my opinion.
6. Leica M6TTL 0.85, Artist & Artisan cloth strap, soft release; M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 ‚Äď I can‚Äôt decide which of the Leicas I like more‚Äďthey are both amazing. I love the slightly wider viewfinder on the M6 over the M3, and the meter is handy at times too. It is one of the last M6TTLs made, ca. 2002-03, judging by the serial #. The M-Rokkor 40/2 is a great lens, super small and light and always gives me great results.
7. Spare Digital Items ‚Äď memory cards and extra battery for the X100.
8. Bikkuri Film Case ‚Äď Another great item from Japan Camera Hunter! I just got this in the mail but it will for sure be in my bag from this day forward. Holds 10 rolls of film in the Fujifilm hard plastic case, which are now discontinued. Oh, and Bellamy Hunt informed me that I got THE LAST ONE!
9. Rocket blower ‚Äď this is a leftover from when I carried around my D700, but I keep it around. It‚Äôs light and you never know when you might need it!
10. Water Bottle ‚Äď You have to stay hydrated!
11. iPhone 4 + headphones ‚Äď ‚ÄėNuff said.
12. Notebook/Pen ‚Äď It‚Äôs a moleskine and my all-time favorite pen‚Ķit‚Äôs a Parker something-or-other, but it‚Äôs great. And I‚Äôm picky about my pens.
13. Gum ‚Äď I‚Äôm not really loyal to any brand, but it has to be cinnamon.

But, as they say…that was then, and this is now.

Over the last year, I have been experimenting with different gear and trying new set-ups. I touched on a bit of my photographic journey in a previous post, so you should check that out if you’re interested.

Nowadays, I take almost an entirely different set of equipment to photograph with. First of all, I no longer have most of what was in that picture; both film cameras, all three lenses are gone. They have been sold off to find new homes as for one reason or another, I couldn’t settle down with them. Choosing camera gear often feels like dating. The X100 remains, and the Domke bag is still here as well. The Fujifilm plastic film case (if you recall, I got the last one) has been supplemented with another, this one branded by Japan Camera Hunter–it’s a slightly different color, but is functionally exactly the same. I quite like it, and may even add a third, but three is a lot to carry around, unless I’m traveling and they’re in my suitcase.¬†The phone is the same, the notebook is the same…accessories don’t change much.

What’s in My Bag – November 2012

A. Leica MP 0.72x – I love this camera. This is, as I have said before, the last Leica for me. However, it has recently become clear that I require a lower magnification viewfinder in order to be able to see the framelines when shooting, as I wear glasses. This has become my go-to body for the 50mm focal length. It has a lovely character to it, has the standard viewfinder magnification, and is built like a tank. It will be with me forever and always, and I hope that in 30 years it’s as scuffed and scratched and brassed as I can make it. I grow more attached to it every day.

B. Leica M6TTL 0.58 – This is a new addition, as with glasses it can be hard to see the 35mm framelines with the 0.72x magnification on my MP. This allows me to have my 35mm Summicron mounted all the time, though it can also be used with other focal lengths as well. I prefer the handling of the M6TTL to the MP in some ways; the shutter dial turns the correct way (relative to the meter, opposite of the traditional M series) and the larger dial means I can access the shutter dial with my finger without taking the camera from my eye.

C. Fuji X100 – I have spoken about this camera often, and always glowingly. I love the size, weight, performance, lens, viewfinder…pretty much everything. There are a few minor quibbles but nothing serious. Far and away my favorite digital camera to date. I don’t use digital a lot these days, but when I do, I use the X100.

D. Lenses:

  • Color-Skopar 25mm f/4 – I don’t go wide often, but when I do this is a lovely little lens to have. I used to have the 21mm Color-Skopar, but found 21mm too wide for me, and found 28mm to be too close to my favored 35mm focal length. This is a good compromise. I love the small size, and it was very cheap.
  • Summicron-M 35mm f/2 ASPH – This is my go-to lens. It wasn’t cheap, but it is the best 35mm lens that Leica makes (some say the best it has ever made). I used to shoot more with the 50mm focal length but enough time shooting with the Fuji X100 has taught me that I prefer 35mm, as you get more in the frame. The square hood is annoying, and I generally avoid hoods, but I had some problem with flare on this lens (which I didn’t expect!) so I keep it on now.
  • Nokton 50mm f/1.5 ASPH – This lens is almost indistinguishable from the pre-ASPH Summilux, at a fraction of the cost. Other than bragging rights for actually owning a Summilux, I’m not sure why you’d choose that one over this lens. It is fast, not too large, and not very expensive; performance is very good throughout the aperture.
  • Elmar-M 50mm f/2.8 – I generally prefer not to have two lenses of the same focal length, but I make an exception for this little gem. About half the price of the Summicron-M 50mm f/2, I love the rendering of it, and it’s small size for traveling. You can collapse it and throw it in your pocket easily. One drawback: at f/8 and above, there are no half stops in the aperture.

E. Domke bag – This bag is great, fits all I need for a day of shooting, and is small and light. There is no velcro to draw attention to myself when opening/closing the bag, and the metal buckle keeps things secure (it’s actually really hard to open, so I won’t get robbed!).

F. Fujifilm/Japan Camera Hunter film cases – These are really awesome, and as I mentioned in my initial post, I got the last Fujifilm one from JCH earlier this year. Bellamy now has a range of JPH-branded cases and I highly recommend them. I don’t usually go out with more than 10 rolls at a time, but for traveling abroad it’s lovely to have all my film in these cases. I have 5 of them for longer trips.

G. Film – Alright, here is what you’ve been waiting for. What kind of film do I shoot generally? The answer is, quite a few kinds. I used to shoot Ilford HP5+ mostly when I started on film 5 years ago, but have moved to Tri-X/Arista Premium for most of my monochrome nowadays. I like them both equally, but I can get Arista for around half the price of the Ilford, so I shoot that mostly. For color I shoot a bit of Ektar, but have moved away from it as I don’t always love the results; Portra 400 is probably my favorite color film, but I also enjoy Fuji Pro 400H, and I’ve got loads of that stuff around the house (70 rolls or so!), so I’m shooting a lot of it these days. With the way color film costs keep going up and up, I’m moving toward more black and white. Once my color film is gone, I’m not sure what I’ll do–at nearly $10/roll it’s a lot to ask to shoot color negative film. I’ve all but stopped shooting color reversal film, prices have gone way up and developing costs have risen as well. Another of my favorite films, Superia 1600, has become scarce and ridiculously expensive (over $12/roll when you can find it) so I have begun experimenting with Ilford Delta 3200 and (the recently-discontinued) TMAX P3200, which I try to shoot at 1600 to give myself a fast option.

Black and white:

  1. Kodak 400TX/Arista Premium 400 (very cheap!)
  2. Ilford HP5+ 400
  3. Ilford Delta 3200
  4. Kodak TMAX P3200 (recently discontinued)

Color:

  1. Kodak Portra 400
  2. Fuji Pro 400H
  3. Kodak Ektar
  4. Superia 1600 (less lately with scarcity and cost increasing)

H. Leica SF-20 flash – I recently acquired this for a project I am going to be starting next year that I’ll need more light for. Shooting with a flash generally isn’t my style, but I got it used for pretty cheap, and it works well in my tests so far.

I. iPhone 4 – still using the same phone, going on two years. It works and I have little reason to upgrade, considering how effing expensive these things are these days.

J. Wallet – I got this from Dynomighty and really enjoy it. It’s thin and light, and they have a lot of sweet designs. Made of some kind of paper, they are almost indestructible. Check them out.

So that’s my general bag setup as of now. I don’t always carry all three cameras–in fact, I never do–but usually two of them, or just one if I’m going out without the sole intention of making photographs. Which one I take depends on my mood, and what I think I’ll encounter during my time out shooting.

Hope you all enjoyed this…questions? Comments? Ask away!

Why Gear Matters (or, The Curious Case of Tokyo Camera Style)

“Jeep” – Fargo, ND

Now, the title of this post may stir up some emotion among photographers. Perhaps in some flippant sense, that is the point–after all, marketing is half the battle, and I do want you to click and read the entry–but it is also very true. ¬†There seems to be a fad of saying that gear doesn’t matter, or it’s not the camera, but the photographer who makes the image, and I agree with this whole-heartedly. ¬†Then again, there is ample evidence to the contrary. ¬†First, let me clarify what I mean by “photographer”: I mean someone who regularly makes images with a camera (digital or film); has used/tried a variety of cameras, even if they haven’t owned them; is at least somewhat active in the online photographic community (and in case you’re unaware, it’s HUGE); and enjoys looking at, and talking about, photography in some sense and probably does so in some fashion online (because yes, for most of us, life is increasingly lived online). ¬†This is an incredibly broad working definition, but the point here is to be inclusive, not exclusive.

Most of the photographers I am talking about obsess about gear in some way. ¬†Now, that isn’t to say they are collectors in the strictest sense–though there are a good many of them too–but that they are interested in photography gear (yes, part of this has to do with advertising and the capitalist need to sell more in search of profits, but let’s leave that alone for now). ¬†They enjoy looking at it, playing with it, and making images with it. ¬†They wonder if the newest digital camera is an improvement worth upgrading for, consider if that f/1.4 lens is something they need, and marvel at the beauty of the latest lens by _____ (insert preferred camera manufacturer here). ¬†Many of them troll the internet for reviews on a wide variety of gear before the buy, or just if they’re interested. ¬†There are always pronouncements by various bloggers or photographers that gear doesn’t matter. ¬†As I will explain later, I disagree.

There is, in the photographic community, what has come to be known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome (or GAS for short). ¬†The most vocal of the “gear doesn’t matter” crowd is usually trying to dissuade his/her own impulses. ¬†We all have them, and that’s fine. ¬†GAS affects all of us and drives people to buy the latest f/1.2 lens, that shiny new body with the clean ISO 25,800, or whatever else is released.

A quick search on flickr found that there are over 60,000 images tagged with “in your bag”, and over 1,400 groups about the contents of your camera bag. ¬†People interested in photography are almost inherently drawn to gear, partly because photography is a very technical art; it’s also just part of the hobby. ¬†Even genuine professional photographers (a classification that barely holds meaning any longer, but that is a different article) are interested insofar as how something can make their job easier, and deliver a better product to their consumers/clients.

“Coffee News” – Saint Paul, MN

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with focusing on gear. In fact, to each his own: if it makes you happy, then who am I to say it’s wrong?

All of this is to preface what I really want to talk about. ¬†One of the sites that I really enjoy online–along with many others around the world–is the somewhat ubiquitous Tokyo Camera Style. ¬†This website, run by an American living in Japan, has been copied repeatedly and now there are “_____ (enter a city) Camera Style” sites everywhere–just try google and see how many there are (the original TCS also lists a few on the sidebar of the site). ¬†Why is Tokyo Camera Style so interesting, and why has it become so popular? ¬†That is really the central theme of this post, and what I have been thinking about, off and on, for quite some time. ¬†What is it about snapshots of people’s analog cameras that draws so many viewers and imitators? ¬†Why would anyone go through page after page of this stuff? ¬†To anyone not interested in photography, it makes no sense. ¬†In fact, many of those who are interested in photography might turn up their noses at this stuff, too. ¬†On first glance, it can appear as cheesy consumerism, appealing to the basest impulses: buy more stuff.¬†

In fact, I think it’s much more than that.

Tokyo Camera Style, is in fact, about people. ¬†Despite the fact that the only human element present in the vast majority of the snapshots does not change this fact. ¬†TCS shows people and some of their most prized possessions, the items they carry and use everyday, and are more than happy to show others. ¬†Some of the cameras and lenses are¬†astronomically expensive; others¬†are not. ¬†The site doesn’t only photograph the luxury Leica-branded cameras, though there are plenty on the site. ¬†There are rare cameras, cheap point-and-shoot cameras, and cameras of various formats on display. ¬†There is even¬†the odd digital camera¬†to be seen. ¬†But the human element shines in every image. ¬†The people who are featured on the site have allowed TCS to photograph them at their most intimate. ¬†The owners are tremendously proud of their cameras, and the internet is not a very forgiving place–they are opening themselves up to scrutiny from a large and diverse group of online members.

What strikes me most about the TCS gallery is the level of customization on some of these cameras. ¬†From¬†stickers¬†to¬†other adornments, people have customized these cameras, since they have become an extension of themselves. ¬†People who are passionate about photography use photography as a way to see the world and experience life; as a result, their cameras are more than simply a device for capturing quick shots for sending to facebook–hell, anyone with a phone can do that nowadays. ¬†They are crating art, and living life, through the viewfinder. ¬†It might sound hokey, but people are really passionate about their art, and it is a piece of themselves. ¬†Their camera is the way they do that and so they have a very intimate bond with it. ¬†It is not uncommon for photographers to have emotional attachments to a camera (or more than one) once they find one they really connect with.

“Sintra Selfie” – Sintra, Portugal

Another word that comes to mind with the Tokyo Camera Style site is community. ¬†There is a real sense of community here, not least because the vast majority of the non-photography world has no idea about the difference between the Hexar AF and the Hexar RF, or why some prefer the M2 over the M3 (yeah, I don’t get that last one either, but to each his own). ¬†But this site is full of people who bond over photography (like this couple).

So let me get to the point of this essay–gear does matter. ¬†As someone who takes photographs, and wants more than phone snapshots, what you’re making images with matters. ¬†Now, there are certainly photographers who use simple-enough equipment. ¬†Does an $8,000 digital Leica with a $7,000 lens take wonderful images? ¬†Almost certainly, in the right photographer’s hands. ¬†Could that same photographer make beautiful images with a second-hand Nikon SLR/lens combo from a thrift store? ¬†Of course they could. ¬†There are also plenty of good images made with phones (I use my phone camera often), since the best camera is the one you have with you. ¬†But a camera has to connect with its owner and allow its user to make images without the camera becoming a hindrance. ¬†With time and practice, the user and the camera become a single process and work together seamlessly. ¬†Ideally, the camera becomes an extension of the photographer’s hand and eye, and functions the way it should to assist in capturing the vision and creating art. ¬†At least, that’s the goal.

So gear does matter. ¬†One’s relationship with the gear matters, and a sense of community can develop over a piece of gear. ¬†I think a relationship could develop over a great image, or book, or gallery too–but those aren’t things we carry with us each day. ¬†The countless forums and groups online that host regular “meet-ups” for locals to get together and talk, drink, and make images together underscore what I am saying. ¬†One of my favorite places to visit online has become Rangefinderforum.com, a place that has discussions about a wide variety of topics, all of which are not centered on photography, but most are. ¬†The title of the forum itself is centered on gear, so people have come together over a love of a certain type of camera; there are forums devoted to Nikon, Canon, Leica, and other brands, as well as formats like compact cameras or micro-four-thirds. ¬†I have been approached on several occasions by people who noticed a particular camera I was carrying and struck up a conversation around the world. ¬†The French couple I met in Lisbon this past March exchanged a few words with me ¬†after we each noticed the other carrying cameras. ¬†She had her trusty Nikon F3HP/Nikkor 50/1.8 AIS and he had a Leica M3/Summicron 50/2 DR.

“Analog Couple” – Lisbon, Portugal

I will use a personal example to help illuminate my point that gear matters to me. ¬†I make a lot of photographs using a lot of different cameras and formats. ¬†I use both digital and film cameras, and I enjoy both for their own reasons. ¬†In a nutshell, I love the ease and speed of digital, but I love the process and longevity I get with film. ¬†There are other considerations for me as well. ¬†One thing I love is using rangefinder cameras. ¬†I have used a host of them, ranging from a $20 Canonet QL17 G-III to a much more expensive Leica MP, over the past half-decade. ¬†I enjoy using a rangefinder, and though it isn’t the fastest camera to use, that doesn’t matter to me. ¬†Generally when I am doing paid work for a client (like sports or wedding photography), clients demand digital output, which works for me since it involves fewer overhead costs and speeds up delivery of the images. ¬†For that I have a DSLR. ¬†I don’t particularly enjoy using a DSLR, however; I find them too big, bulky, noisy, and they seem to have more in common with my laptop than my Leica. ¬†The process isn’t enjoyable, but they don’t really disappoint when it comes to the final product. ¬†Shooting film on a rangefinder sometimes involves missed shots, which I don’t know about until I get my film back (usually it’s my fault, but sometimes it has to do with not being fast enough to focus or see a scene, not having the right film speed, or exposure problems). ¬†However, the process is much more enjoyable, and honestly, for a hobby isn’t that the whole point?

So, in this photographer’s humble opinion, gear does matter. ¬†It can help to engender a sense of community based on a common interest or sub-group of that interest (such as Tokyo Camera Style’s primary focus on analog cameras, or a forum’s particular focus on a certain brand or format).¬† I think that photography is inextricably linked with photographic equipment and it isn’t likely to change anytime soon, but that’s okay. ¬†GAS can become unhealthy, so I am not saying that people should buy gear until they are blue in the face or in debt up to their eyeballs, but it would be equally ignorant not to admit that there is nothing wrong with a healthy interest in, and focus on, photographic gear. ¬†Not anyone can make good images, but a good image can come from any camera. ¬†But to qualify that, I will say that the likelihood of a good image coming out of a camera increases if the photographer and the camera are in sync, and work together to produce the vision of the person holding the camera.

Your camera might be as expensive or flashy as can be, but if it gets in your way at all, it’s no good.

If a piece of equipment helps you to realize your vision and create art, then it matters.  If a piece of equipment helps to strike up a conversation, create a friendship, and bring you joy in use, then it matters.  If it limits your creativity or constricts your vision, or gets in your way with idiotic menu layouts, then it matters.

Ultimately, gear does matter.  And Tokyo Camera Style shows us how we are with the things that we are most passionate about.

And for that, I’m thankful.

Photographic Musings

“Snowfall” – Saint Paul, MN

Long-time readers of the blog will know that this blog, closing in on a year old, has changed quite a bit. It went from showcasing some of my smaller projects, to having daily posts of my daily goings-on, to having longer breaks lately. I have shifted both the things I photograph and the manner in which I photograph them. The first few months I posted mostly photos, usually 3-6 at a time, and didn’t write much. Since then, I have begun writing more. I am always torn, since this started out as primarily a blog about photography. Or rather, not about photography so much as a blog simply of photographs. After all, who would really care too much about what I had to say? I am not a professional photographer, nor do I have a wealth of experience or knowledge to impart in these posts.

Then again, blogs are pretty informal spaces for sharing. So why not? After all, some of the best photographs and photography insight that I have found has been through other bloggers who are also not professionals, or only marginally so–this could lead into a discussion of what a professional photographer actually is anymore, and if we need to adapt that title to the times in which we live, but it won’t.

If I continue to write, and don’t post photographs, will people still visit the blog? If I cease posting images, will all my followers abandon the blog, and stip visiting? Will anyone care about anything I’ve written, or do people only come here for photographs?

Here are some of the platforms for sharing online that I have sampled or used in the past:

  1. I used to put a lot of photographs on flickr, years ago. I have stopped that to a large degree, and almost abandoned flickr altogether a while back, if it weren’t for someone’s advice that is essentially, at its most basic level, really cheap cloud storage. So I kept it. Five or six years ago, I thought flickr was great; I can’t tell if it has gotten worse, or if I have gotten better (photographically speaking). I don’t like the way it relies on a photo-stream, which focuses on single images at the expense of a larger, visual, thematic narrative. Yes, you can create sets of images, but the platform is still essentially set up to focus on one image at a time. The community aspect has also let me down. Rather than getting any meaningful feedback, people rely on the quid pro quo approach to commenting–that is, you give me one, and I’ll give you one–and simply saturate long lists of contacts with banal comments ranging from “nice shot” to “congrats on explore!”…these are not helpful. In fact, they aren’t designed to be. It’s simply designed to get someone to comment in return, thus increasing the exposure and likelihood that one will have an image selected for flickr’s explore (a daily selection of images chosen by a computer algorithm). This becomes the goal. Beyond using flickr to store images and have access to them on other machines, I have grown tired of it.
  2. I have never really used facebook for sharing photos other than what facebook is useful for: sharing snapshots of friends, family, or people one has become¬†acquainted¬†with on some level and has been saddled with the “friend” label by facebook. Facebook is really not designed to share work of any kind, unless it’s with instagram and involves one’s pet or baby. I¬†exaggerate¬†a bit, but you get my point.
  3. Tumblr takes flickr-style photo-sharing to its natural conclusion for the generation of people who have grown up with zero attention span. It is momentary, and anything beyond a single shot is wasted on an audience. It’s more about re-blogging someone else’s content that actually creating your own. I tried it, hated it, and got rid of it.

Then we have my blog and my website. My website is mostly reserved for my best work, and projects that are finished. The blog, then, has become the de facto place to share images that I am working on, to try to get feedback on portions of projects that are not yet finished, as a sounding board for ideas, and a platform to share my views on photography and the photographic process.

Which brings me back to the initial question: if I stop posting images, will my online presence evaporate?

I’m not sure. I prefer to let my images gestate for a while anyway (I generally let my film sit for 3-4 months before processing it, and my digital images are similar) so posting less is helpful. That helps me to not get caught up in a series of single images, and allows me to focus on medium- to long-term projects. It also puts the emphasis on shooting, and not editing or posting or sharing.

So I’m toying with the idea of no longer posting images online, other than snapshots that I share with friends and family via the social network of my choice. I think that this may help me develop and progress as a photographer. My website would have my very best work only–completed projects and street/documentary work. It is important, I think, as a photographer to only show your very best work, which means heavily editing to ensure that artistically I’m always putting my best foot forward. The blog would be reserved for select images, or snapshots of what I’ve been up to lately; news of my comings and goings, thoughts on my latest ongoing projects, announcements, or essays on various topics.

This is part of a comprehensive re-thinking and re-imagining of my ideas of myself as a photographer and artist, and what I need or want to do to get myself to the next level with my photography. I’ve become frustrated with what feels, at times, like stagnation in the development of my photography.

Any thoughts?

REVIEW: Leica MP

“Eye” – Saint Paul, MN

To preface this review, let me talk a little about my photographic evolution. I became interested in photography about 10 years ago, and got a small digital Kodak point-and-shoot. It had sever limitations, but I spent some time taking photographs after I moved to California. In 2006, I got a super-zoom point-and-shoot, and in early 2007 I moved to my first DSLR, a Nikon D80. I spent 2007 working with (what were at the time) high-end professional Nikons as I worked as a photographer for a newspaper. I got the film bug in 2008, and used an old Nikon N80, and a Nikon FM2, at first. I also used a Nikon F4, an Olympus ME Super, and other film SLRs. During that time I also experimented with a series of old fixed-lens rangefinders–Yashica GSN, Canonet QL17 G-III, Olympus 35RC, and others–that I enjoyed but for one reason or another didn’t quite click.¬†However, I continued to use the D80 digital SLR until late 2009 when I upgraded to a full-frame D700. I have used a variety of Nikon lenses, but have disliked zoom lenses almost since the start; primes have been better for me in many ways.

I became frustrated with the size and weight of the Nikon, and got into the Micro Four-Thirds system early on in 2009 with the Lumix GF1. I enjoyed that camera, and used it quite a bit. When it came time to upgrade, I was faced with a world of new cameras. It seems, at times, like there is a new camera every week from a whole suite of manufacturers. I tried the GF3, thinking I could use my old lenses; I tried the Sony NEX-5n, with a larger sensor and the ability to mount older, “legacy”, glass. Finally I made a decision that has shaped my photography ever since: I tried the relatively new Fuji X100.

“Red Light” – Provo, UT

I immediately loved the X100, and you can read my review of that camera if you want to know more about it, and my feelings toward it. I still use the camera to this day and it is easily my favorite digital camera ever; it is my most-used digital camera day in, day out.

And just like that, I was hooked. I caught the rangefinder bug. Shortly thereafter, I got a great deal on a local Minolta CL, complete with 2 lenses: the M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 and the M-Rokkor 90mm f/4. The size and compactness of the system was wonderful. The near-silent sound of the shutter was similar to my X100, and I loved shooting film again. I had been shooting less and less film over the year before that. It was great to get back to it. I then moved on to an M3, then to an M6TTL, next a Zeiss Ikon, and finally, most recently, a Leica MP. The CL had been harder to focus and the film-loading was a pain; the M3 was great but had a limited 0.91x viewfinder and no light meter; the M6 had been a 0.85x magnification, which was still a little too tight for me; the MP has a 0.72x, which is the Leica standard. It also has no ornamentation, and since it’s a used one–not at all mint–I got a great deal. In fact, due to the scuffs and brassing it exhibits, I’m not afraid to simply throw it in my bag and shoot it. That’s a big relief; many people are so worried with the exterior of their Leica M that they forget that it is a very sturdy mechanical machine built to be used, and used hard. For many, the M is a “shelf queen” for fear of ruining the resale value of their investment.

“Mirror, Mirror” – Saint Paul, MN

The MP, is, as you may know, an exquisitely-crafted tool. It brings together the best point of the decades of Leica M cameras into what is surely the last film camera that will be made by Leica. The MP is still made and sold new to this day, along with the more automated M7. The MP is all brass construction, and mechanical; it uses a battery only for the light meter inside. If the batteries die or if one removes them, the camera operates as normal, leaving the exposure to the user. It has no ornamentation on the front–the red dot that has become standard with the M6 is gone in favor of the simpler design of older M cameras like the M3 or M4–which is refreshing. Personally, I find the red dot a bit distasteful. There is a simple engraving on the top plate.

The exterior of the MP looks great, but that is not, ultimately, what one buys a camera for (well, some do, but that is silly). Looks are part of the package, but what really matters is how it works. So how is it in actual usage?

The camera is heavy. An all-brass interior and exterior construction means there is a heft to the MP that there isn’t, for example, with my Zeiss Ikon. Even my M6TTL was lighter than the MP. As I said before, the MP brings together decades of Leica rangefinder design into the pinnacle of the series; it looks very similar to the cameras that have come before it. Due to the weight and the lack of a real grip, it can be difficult to hold for long periods of time (I generally use a wrist strap, so my hand is actually carrying the camera the entire time I’m shooting). For a day of shooting in the streets, for example, this can be taxing. A neck strap might take care of this, however. The film advance lever of the MP is the one used on the M3, and I prefer the plastic-tipped lever of the M6, which is what my MP has (they are¬†customizable). It makes operation much smoother, but others may prefer the all-metal M3-style lever. The film rewind is done with the M3-style crank instead of the spinning dial of the M4/M6. Some say this makes it slower to rewind, but honestly, who shoots a Leica M for speed? Not me. I prefer the more solid-feeling crank of the MP. But again, personal style has something to do with this. With an investment of this magnitude, it is nice that there are some options to customize the Leica to suit its owner.

“Angles” – Minneapolis, MN

Film loading is the same as all previous Leica M cameras. The Zeiss Ikon, for example, has the more common swing-back that is associated with most film cameras that you will have ever used. The MP, or any other Leica M for that matter, has no window to let you know what film is loaded into it. Many other cameras have this feature which is nice if you don’t finish a roll for a while–as I sometimes do. These are mostly things that one is familiar with if one has previously used a Leica M, however.

The viewfinder of the MP is very nice. However, I prefer the viewfinder of the Zeiss Ikon for most situations. The Ikon is bigger, brighter, and easier to focus a lot of the time. I find the MP’s finder to be cramped at times, especially when I wear my eyeglasses; the framelines can be difficult to see, depending on which focal length is selected.

However, I am happy to report that the MP is a joy to use. It’s simplicity of use makes it fast and effortless to use. After a bit of time with it, I find that its operation becomes second nature. I have enough experience with exposure that I can assess a scene by adjusting shutter speed and aperture before I bring the camera to my eye, and use the internal light meter for slight adjustments once I am looking through the viewfinder by sliding the aperture as needed. It’s generally a single stop, if less. Focusing is fast and easy, but this also depends to a large degree on what lens is mounted on the camera. The maximum aperture, available light, and the length of the lens’ focus throw all play into how fast one can focus.

“Sunlight” – Minneapolis, MN

The film rewinding and film loading do not take that long, and with practice are just as simple as any other film camera. Loading my Hasselblad 501CM, for example, is much slower. Like I said, if you have used a Leica M rangefinder before, you will be aware of what you’re getting into.

The Leica MP is built to withstand heavy usage, and not reliant on electronics for the operation of the camera. This is one area where the M7 and the Zeiss Ikon fall behind the MP for me. Without batteries, the MP works as normal; the other two do not work at all if you lose battery power. Electronics can fail with exposure to extreme temperatures, or moisture, and will eventually fail in time regardless of how careful one is with them. With the Leica MP costing what it does, I intend for this camera to be the last film rangefinder I will ever need to buy. As such, I need many years out of it.

The shutter of the MP is near-silent, helping to stay inconspicuous when shooting people up close. In fact, the Leica rangefinder is touted by many as the “ultimate street photography camera” due to the fact that it does not attract attention when shooting it in public like a big, heavy DSLR does. To an extent, I agree with this assessment. While the compact design and discreet shutter to indeed help one avoid catching the attention of anyone being photographed, the Leica brand has become well-known over the last few years, and many people who are even marginally interested in photography know what a Leica M looks like. They are expensive and not often seen; this attracts attention and questions at times. On the other hand, while my D700 is clunky and has a shutter like a small pistol, DSLRs are now so ubiquitous that many don’t give them a second glance, allowing the shooter to fade into the background. So I can go either way on that argument.

“Watching” – Minneapolis, MN

The biggest reason for me getting my MP was the fact that I simply love the experience of shooting with a rangefinder. The process is more enjoyable, and since photography, for me, is about ¬†more than simply creating images, that matters. The final image is not all that counts, as some would have you believe. Just ask the guy who travels overseas with his heavy DSLR, collection of expensive zoom lenses, flash, and tripod, among other accessories. He may have gotten the images, but his back hurts from carrying all that gear and he didn’t enjoy himself on his trip. Contrast that with traveling simply with a Leica M body and a Fuji X100 (as I did this past year in Portgual for two weeks); not only did I get nice images (as least I think they’re nice!) but I also had a light bag to carry my gear in, and I didn’t have to spend time setting it up. I also wasn’t a target for thieves with an obviously expensive collection of gear–unless they know something about cameras. Even then, it’s a film camera. As I would ask any thief who tried to take it: “what would you do with that?”

Seriously though, the MP is enjoyable to use, easy to carry, and does not suffer from “digital rot” (the term for the rapid depreciation of digital cameras). It uses film and will continue to work as it does today forever, as long as I have it CLA’ed (cleaned, lubed, and adjusted) periodically, and take reasonable care of it. I am not concerned with the resale value of it, as I do not plan on ever selling it.

“Transaction” – Minneapolis, MN

But the one question on your mind, if you are reading this (and you are), is: is the Leica MP the right camera for me? If you have to ask, then probably not. The MP is a fine camera but you can get alternatives that are much cheaper and work just as well if not better. On the used market, you can get a Zeiss Ikon for around $1000, or a used M6 for slightly more. Then why would you pay double or triple that for a used MP? Well, the differences between the MP and the M6 are very slight and not worth worrying over for most people. I don’t mean that to be condescending in any way, it’s just a fact. Most people won’t care about the brass construction, rather than the zinc of the M6. Most photographers won’t mind the red dot on the front, or if they do–they will find that electrical tape takes care of the red logo just as well, and is far cheaper. Others will not be interested based on the fact that this is not a digital camera. Still others will want the automation of the Zeiss Ikon or the M7.

If you desire a rangefinder, and can justify the money, then I think you’ll find the MP is an excellent tool. There are slight differences to the M6, and it is also–in some cases–20+ years newer than many M6s.It may not suit your needs like it suits mine, but I can highly recommend the Leica MP to anyone who is interested. The camera will not make you Henri Cartier-Bresson. If you want to capture the “decisive moment”, you can do it just as well with another camera. I would say that the Leica MP is not a camera you buy simply for the end result; rather, it’s a camera you buy to enjoy the experience of making photographs. I find that in actual usage, the camera is a joy and fun to use. It’s slower and more deliberate than any autofocus camera I have ever used. But that is fine with me. I understand that it isn’t ideal for all situations–“horses for courses”, as they say. But it works for me most of the time. And when it works, it works very well.

“Bloom” – Saint Paul, MN

For me, it was worth it, and I’m happy I did. I look forward to many years with the MP, which I think of as less camera and more of a companion every time I use it. Either way, it’s a tool that works for my needs and it will be the last film Leica that I ever buy…unless I can get a nice M3 as a backup to my MP ūüėČ

Cheers,

Trevor