Sorry ‘Bout That!

Leicaphilia is back up and running after an unforeseen technical problem with my WordPress software. I’ve been getting a lot of malicious visits to the site recently and didn’t quite understand the potential for mischief; apparently someone somewhere got into the administrative end of the site and somehow corrupted the system software. Why someone would take an malignant interest in the site is beyond me. Must be all that “speaking truth to power” (rolls eyes).

In any event, thank’s to the assistance of helpful friends, I’m back and intend to start posting again shortly.

Meanwhile I’m off to NYC for the weekend, taking along a Fuji S5 Pro, which I bought new-in-box on a whim for $225 (how could you not, for that price?) and which I’ve found to take absolutely beautiful film-like b&w jpegs straight from the camera. Why that would be the case? It has to do with its “Super CCD” ‘R’ pixel, which has a lower sensitivity and is designed to capture detail above the saturation point of the its regular ‘S’ pixel; the camera then combines the information from the ‘S’ and ‘R’ pixels to produce an extended dynamic range “shoulder” much like the highlight exposure curve of film (remember, sensors are linear – no exposure curve; that’s partly why digital simply cannot replicate the ‘film-look’ without post-processing, and even then, only partially, for reasons most of you already know and I’ve written about here).

The camera itself was introduced by Fuji in 2007. Fuji took the Nikon d200 body and put their funky SuperCCD sensor in it to produce a camera that offers digital files with pretty impressive dynamic range. Granted, current 2018 sensor technology offers some serious dynamic range as well, but what’s fascinating about the Fuji is that the extended sensitivity is concentrated on the shoulder of the histogram, unlike the standard sensor that, even with greater dynamic range, is still linear in its light sensitivity. Cool camera no doubt, added to the coolness the fact that the camera has a b&w jpg capture mode that gives really nice film-like monochrome images up to  about 1250 ISO, certainly more than enough for those of us used to pushing HP5 for low-light work. And it takes Nikon F mount lenses. And it was $225. And apparently its “vintage” digital, something that’s actually a thing these days, which I’ve written about here. What’s not to love? I’ll be sure to write more about the S5 Pro in the future (and, if past conduct is a predictor of future conduct, I assume I’ll eventually get tired of it, write an impassioned blog post about how I’m selling all my digital cameras because they have no soul, and sell it to a reader; but that’s further down the road).

The de rigueur Leica cat picture. This one a jpg direct from my new toy, the Fuji S5 Pro. Very ‘filmic,’ wouldn’t you agree?

I’ll also be taking with me my IIIg, just back from a necessary CLA from Youxin Ye. While I’ve voiced the opinion elsewhere that the CLA mania which possesses many Leicaphiles is pretty stupid, my IIIg had a stuck shutter, so for about the same price as the purchase price of the S5 Pro, Mr. Ye took it apart and cleaned and lubricated everything and now it feels beautiful, “buttery smooth”, which we all know is the only proper way for any film Leica to feel.

Happy Holidays

A quick note wishing everyone an enjoyable holiday spent with those you love.

I’ve been writing this blog now for 4 years or so, and in that time I’ve had the pleasure to speak to many of you through the site. I’ve also met a few of you along the way, and I’ve sold some gear here and there, and I can honestly say I’ve not had an unpleasant interaction in any of it, even when we disagree.

Readers has been invariably thoughtful and kind, have helped keep the site going by submitting thoughtful content, and many have taught me things I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Thank you to all for following Leicaphilia. I intend to keep it chugging along for a while yet, unless I completely run out of things to say or just one day wake up and kill it. Hopefully I’ll not become boringly repetitious; if I do, please let me know, one friend to another.

And keep submitting things you’d like to see published on the site.

 

 

The Anti-Leica

Christmas Presents to Myself: a Weird Novel About the Death of Roland Barthes (The Guy Who Wrote Camera Lucida) and a Sigma SD Quattro

I love quirky things, whether it be cameras or motorcycles or cars or music. Or people, women in particular. If I were to buy another motorcycle, it would have to be a KTM RC390. Cool little 390cc one cylinder 40 hp “thumper” engine in a dedicated lightweight track bike package that will smoke a liter bike (1000cc) when the roads start to bend a little. Maximum fun in a small, affordable package. Let the 20-somethings with their 180 hp Kawasaki’s and Yamaha’s snicker; I’m happy to leave them for dead when the pace heats up and the road turns twisty.

Likewise with cameras. You’ve probably noticed my penchant for the much-maligned Leica’s in the M series – the M5 and the M8 – and the quirky Ricoh GXR with its modular lens system. Great cameras all. The GXR is my absolute favorite digital camera of all-time. I absolutely love it. It’s the KTM RC390 of digital cameras – small, light, produces beautiful files with a certain character, performs great in the real world as opposed to on the spec sheet, and it’s different in a cool way. I much prefer it to both the D3S and D800 I’ve owned, the D3S too bulky, the D800 with unnecessarily massive files. The GXR hits the sweet spot. Of course, by an iron logic inaccessible to me, this also meant that it would be a commercial failure, which it was (general consensus was that it was a good idea in theory, but in practice just didn’t cut it for some undefined reason). There’s something about the “general consensus” that always gets my contrarian juices flowing. “Common opinion” is just that: common. Look up the definition and get back to me if you think that’s a good thing.

As far as digital cameras go, you can’t get more “much-maligned” than the Sigma Foveon cameras. They are glacially slow (as a friend says – “slower than a wet fart”), basically useless at any ISO over 400 (just like film), produce huge files and most require proprietary Sigma RAW software that runs at a snail’s pace and frequently crashes. They also, when used correctly, produce stunningly sharp and nuanced Black and White images that rival the best Medium Format. Of course, given the above, I had to have one.

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You might remind me that I’ve spent years denigrating the obsession with photographic “IQ” and wonder about the inconsistency and why I appear to be doing an about-face now. Guilty as charged. As a general rule, I am of the opinion that a 12MP APS-C sensor is sufficient for most any photographic need short of massive prints larger than 20×30 inches that need to hold fine detail. 12MP files from my GXR certainly can hold their own against fine-grained 35mm film negatives (Panatomic-X for instance) carefully shot with Leitz or Zeiss optics, and in most instances,  medium format 21/4 negatives as well. I’ve got a 40×60 inch print of my quirky wife hanging over our bed (the print is hanging over our bed, not the wife), taken with the 16MP GXR APS-C Zoom lens module. It’s stunning, even at that enlargement, the detail even when viewed close up really amazing. Why any general interest photographer would need more is beyond me. I just don’t understand the point of 36 or 42 or 50MP sensors given how people generally view and display their photos; detail in even a ‘middling’ 24MP full frame camera cannot be fully articulated on a 4k monitor or in any reasonable size print. 12MP is more than enough.

Taken with a 16MP APS-C Ricoh GXR and printed at 40×60 inches. Looks Great.

I will admit, however, there are times, very infrequent for me and I suspect for most everyone else, when you simply need the most resolute image you can get. Back in the day, you’d grab a 6×9 MF camera like a Fuji 690, or you’d rent a 4×5 or larger view camera to get what you needed. You certainly wouldn’t use your 35mm Leica, even with the sharpest Summicron. Medium format cameras were often bulky and a pain in the ass to shoot, usually requiring a fine grained film and a tripod, but when you nailed it the results were stunning. The resulting negative could be printed as large as you wanted with minimal loss of quality. That need does still exist today, even more so given the massive print sizes made available to even the most casual happy-snapper with the use of inkjet printing, at least for those absolutely needing to print big. Of course photography is not just about IQ, but it is nice to have maximum IQ in these certain limited instances and for the money, Sigma Foveon cameras offer eye-wateringly sharp images at ISO 100-400 that MF systems costing 10x as much would envy. The SD Quattro, Sigma’s latest Foveon camera, can shoot DNG and thus does away with the need to use Sigma’s abysmal RAW software. Interesting camera, cheap too.

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So, in the spirit of Christmas (i.e. buy a bunch of shiny crap you don’t need) I took the plunge and bought a Sigma SD Quattro with massive 17-50 zoom attached. I bought it for one specific purpose – to shoot very large b&w prints for a documentary series I’m doing about the old Dorothea Dix Hospital grounds here in Raleigh, a beautiful historic state mental hospital complex that’s being bulldozed to make way for a city park. I live directly across the street from its entrance and have watched it transformed from a bustling hospital that treated our most vulnerable citizens to a decaying warren of unoccupied  buildings set amongst pristine grounds full of beautiful huge old oaks. All soon to be uprooted.

Like most good things, I suspect we won’t miss any of it until it’s gone, and then we’ll realize nobody thought to memorialize it. Nobody seems to paying attention to the fact this local landmark, so important in our city and state’s history, soon will be a memory. The few I see sitting in the grass while their dogs run seem too busy looking at their phones to admire the faded beauty of the place and the majestic oaks they’re sitting under. So, given my training as a documentarian, I’ve decided to shoulder the responsibility myself and make a record of the place before its gone, and given current visual culture, nobody is going to pay me any mind if I ultimately propose to exhibit 8×10 B&W silver prints; too small, not sharp enough, simply not cool enough. What they’ll want are huge, hyper tack sharp prints. Hence the Sigma SD Quattro.

It certainly lives up to its reputation: it’s slow, and quirky and produces eye-poppingly sharp photos you can blow up to massive sizes with minimal loss of detail. To my eye, sharper and more pleasing than the files from the D800. Would I use it as I would my Leica or GXR. No, those fit different needs. But when I need big and sharp, while you can’t tell it from a computer screen, it’s about as good as it gets.

Gift Cam

A Gift From a Friend: a Leica IIIf

By Ron Himebaugh

It’s unusual to use film nowadays. With the advantages of digital technology using film can seem pointless. That is unless process is the point. And if that is so, then why not go all in, with a rangefinder, even a bottom loading “Barnack” camera? Compared to contemporary digicam-o-matics there are a few hurdles, but once you are used to viewing through a peephole finder, focusing through another, trimming the leader, setting the film counter, mastering a cumbersome loading procedure and keeping your finger off a spinning shutter dial, it all falls into place.

These nuisance factors aside, film not only has its own image characteristics but the process itself of using film holds its own reward. That process requires an investment of attention and respect for the medium that seems missing in the iPhone age. Not that something has to be difficult to be worthwhile, but can some things be just too easy? (for a great argument for the iPhone, see this). It is hard to escape the feeling, which has been noted since photography was invented, that the easier it is to take pictures the easier it is to make them bad. Of course the idea is to take more good pictures, and in this regard the older technology can encourage thoughtful engagement. I think.

Old cameras are cool, with the look of precision, the heft of substance. They feel good to use because they respond in a satisfying tactile and audible way. Does anyone fondle a Canon SureShot? I think that if you like the way something feels when you use it, then you will use it and get better at using it, and the better you get, the more you will use it, etc.

Remember the Kodak Instamatic? It was designed for folks who couldn’t be bothered going through this sort of trial just to get a film loaded. In the thirties the Barnack loading scheme must have looked pretty good to the plate camera crowd. Even the M3 was a bottom loader albeit with a hinged back for easier access to the film. Not until the Leicaflex did Leitz think a conventional side hinge provided enough rigidity for the necessary film flatness.

I am thinking these things because someone gave me a camera.

My friend Chris, visiting from out of town and, knowing my interest in film photography, asked if I had a Leica and would I like one? He had meant to bring it and would send it when he returned home. A week later it came: a lllf, and– bonus! – it was the self timer model. It is the kind of camera I like to get, showing some dirt, a little history, accumulated effects of time passed, needing love, warmth, and a rubdown.

Ta da!

How nice this, my favorite screw mount camera, the penultimate Leitz bottom loader. It is to my mind the most attractive of all Leicas and surpassed in sheer industrial beauty only by the Zeiss Contax lla, of the same time period. The Contax was more advanced, with a combined view- and rangefinder, removable back, and spectacular, as opposed to merely excellent lenses.

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My own experience with Leica could be said to have started with my first good camera, a Made-in-Occupied Japan Canon, with a very Elmar-like Serenar lens. It was 4 weeks of paper route earnings, $20 in 1961. I was 13 and my next big buy was a 13th edition Leica Manual, filled with sophisticated photo topics: document copy work, forensic and lab microscopy, sports photography, photo-journalism, medical and scientific documentation, lens formulations, and terms like Newton’s rings and circles of confusion. The manual was intimidating but churned a need for a lllf and a Summitar lens—the M3 was impossibly out of reach. Wanting to know what was inside the camera I took the Canon apart—regrettably easy to do—and had a paper bag of parts and no idea how to put them back together. Some time later the hard sought lllf and Summitar landed.

Stack o’manuals, gift -cam and Nikon F. The F came along 3 years after the 3f in this picture was built. It represented a quantum leap in capability over the Leica.

I have digressed.

The camera Chris sent to me had belonged to his Dad, who, as I understand it, used it in his work, principally to take pictures for instruction guides that he wrote. It had been long in disuse, which is death to a Leica. Chris has no real interest in photography, and—thank you, Chris–generously gave it to someone who would use and value it. I am grateful.

A beautiful 3f in need of a little make-over

Q-tips, mineral spirit, toothpicks, an hour or so and the job is done. The chrome was pitting in a few areas. It had, I believe, interacted with moisture and leather over time to build a residue of vertigris, but it came off more easily than I thought it would.

A new skin from Cameraleathers.com replaced the failing vulcanite, and while a traditionalist (or would not be using Leica in the first place), I have a fondness for gray leather covering. Or, in this case, faux leather.

Here is what it looks like:

The winding has a slight hitch, not bad but it isn’t quite right. The one second works well when limbered up, but characteristic of old timers, is stiff after sitting awhile. It will go to Youxin Ye for a tune-up. He is a short drive away and I like watching him work and he seems to enjoy the company.

One useful item for these peephole rangefinders is a bright line finder and of course Leitz makes a nice one, the SBOOI.

My Gift Leica with the Leitz  SBOOI viewfinder

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The 1/15th shutter speed works great.

The photo above was taken with my new IIIf, the one below taken with a different lllf that I  happened to have in my pocket. It was some affair where I would not ordinarily take a camera. It shows the usefulness of a small and handy camera that was the impetus for Max Barnack’s invention in the first place.

I suppose we all have a small handy camera nearby, but this one uses film. I don’t say it’s better.

Yes I do.

Better and more fun.


Ron Himebaugh is a fellow bourbon drinker who has followed photography since he was twelve – “followed” meaning an equal interest in cameras, images, and the act of taking pictures. He has a “disturbingly large collection” of photo books  rivaled by an even less healthy impulse to accumulate classic film cameras. You can find some of his work on Flickr, at Hank Carter,  an ironic reference to Elliott Erwitt’s nickname for Cartier Bresson.

 

Unfortunately There’s No Free Lunch

The cause of these ruminations

I’m currently housebound in Raleigh, North Carolina- 4:00 PM, raining like hell outside, iTunes blasting Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl through headphones while working through my third snifter of  Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a bottle of which a friend was foolish enough to leave here the other night with the promise that it’d be here the next time he visits (the bottle most certainly will be).  I’m printing work prints on an Epson R3000 for an exhibition I’ve entitled Car Window. There’s a couple of things presently on my  mind other than the fact that I’m glad my friend was dumb enough to leave his bottle of bourbon in my possession: first, how is it possible that the music I’m currently blasting from my iTunes account sounds so god-awful compared to what I used listen to with my Marantz amp and KLH speakers, way back in the ice-age of the 70’s?

I thought technological innovation i.e. digitization was going to revolutionize my hi-fidelity listening experience? Didn’t happen, not even close; go listen to the album I’m currently listening to – Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere – on vinyl on any half-decent turntable, amp and speakers, and then listen to it run thru iTunes as an mp3 and you’ll be shocked at the diminunition in audio quality we now accept as a given in the interests of quick and easy. It pisses me off when I think of the vinyl collection I once had – the usual 60’s and 70’s era Rock and Roll, but also an impressive collection of 50’s and 60’s era jazz: Coltrane, Rollins, Shorter, Monk, Gordon, Adderley, Webster, Coleman, Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Evans – all now mp3 files on my computer and phone, pushed out through earbud headphones or streamed through my Apple TV to the attached Bose sound system, where they sound like shit – thin, tinny, screechy, hollow – whenever you try to play them at a decent volume (if ever there was a song that deserved to played loud, it’s Cinnamon Girl).

Car Window prints.  All shot with a film camera. Not sharp, bad corners, harsh bokeh.

Of course, ruminating about hi-fidelity leads me logically to the next subject, the fact that the prints I’m producing, while nice enough by current digital standards, just don’t have the depth and fullness of a comparable silver print printed in a darkroom, the tonal transitions just a little too abrupt, the obvious sharpness somehow slightly unpleasant to a discerning eye. In their defense, they certainly are easier to produce. No nasty chemicals, endless repeatability as opposed to the laborious reproducibility of a fine silver print. And those born into the digital era probably won’t even understand the differences.

A few years ago, while in Los Angeles, I saw a Walker Evans exhibition of his 1930’s Cuba photos at the Getty. Gorgeous 8×10 silver contact prints, one in particular, a frontal portrait of a Cuban stevedore that just blew me away with its simple beauty. That’s it, to the left, where, reproduced digitally and viewed on a computer monitor, it’s just another picture of some guy, nothing special. Were I to post it to some forum for critique I’m sure critics would take issue with any number of things – the framing, the lighting, the sharpness, the lack of acceptable bokeh etc etc, the usual herd animal opinions. Luckily, I saw that same print again in Paris this past Summer at the Evans exhibition at the Pompidou Center. So simple, yet profoundly arresting, impossible to look at and appreciate through the facile categories of sharpness, resolution, ease of capture, repeatabilty. It was a singular work that someone had laboriously produced in a darkroom. Art of the highest order, the exquisite confluence of singular critical decisions by Walker as to both construction and production, things that took time and thought and energy, all things the digital age promised us we could do without in our mad rush for the quick and easy.

I’ve been to my share of art exhibits and museums in my 59 years, and I can think of a number of times when I was profoundly moved by a work of art – Walker’s Cuban Stevedore, the van Gogh self-portrait at the Fogg Museum At Harvard, a huge Jackson Pollack I saw in Paris, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi in Florence, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican – all of them the product of a slow, discriminating  process of creation, the very processes that the digital era promises to liberate us from.  Of course, I look at myself in the mirror and see, surprisingly, just another old man, my opinions considered by the current digital generation the sad ravings of a man who’s era has come and gone. Fair enough. But remember, there’s no ‘free lunch;’ everything you gain is purchased at the cost of something else. Consider that when you’re upgrading your Nikon D whatever every two years, or you’re listening to your music with those shitty earbuds or you’re running your plastic-looking digital photos through Silver Efex. Everything has its price.

Is CCD the New Film?

Are these about to become “hip?”

“A lot of interviews I read on photography sites end with a sort of adage about the best camera being the one you have with you or how film inspires you to just think and shoot rather than pixel peep. I think photography is more than just capturing an image though; it’s also about imposing your vision on it. The best camera is the one that’s right for the vision, with the right noise profile, lens distortions, etc. “


DPReview has a very interesting article about Sofi Lee, a Seattle photographer who shoots with “vintage” (read 8 years or older) CCD lower resolution digital cameras, essentially her reaction against the clinical excellence of modern digital photography:

At the time, I observed to myself that the re-emergent fascination with film was probably ephemeral, specific to the current zeitgeist and highly rooted in nostalgia. So I asked myself, ‘What will be the thing people look back to next, after film?’ I started digging through Flickr archives of photos taken on older point and shoot digital cameras, or ‘digicams’ as some people called them, and felt there was something different about them.

They stood out in a way apart from modern digital files: The dynamic range is narrower and the shadows have a character that looks different from those of modern CMOS cameras [due to the lower pixel count and simplistic noise reduction.

Apparently Ms. Lee studied at a “commercial photography trade school” in 2014 and watched many of her peers either shooting film or trying to recreate the aesthetics of film in editing. “There were definitely a lot of talks in class about photographs looking ‘too digital’ as well as instructions on how to add more of an ‘organic, analog’ feel to your images.” Her response was to embrace the technical imperfections of older CDD digital tech.

Ms. Lee is obviously of the digital generation i.e. her interest in photography dates to the digital age, which might explain her reflexive (and wrong) dismissal of film photography as “ephemeral” and rooted in “nostalgia.” She might want to read a book or two about the history of photography before she makes facile statements about the “ephemeral” nature of current film use. I suspect she’s never run a roll of film through a camera in her life and wouldn’t know what to do if she tried, which would explain her ignorance of, and antipathy to, film. One could obviously make the same criticisms about her fixation with dated CCD technology, the impulse being the same, the means simply being different. What’s interesting to me about the piece is that she articulates the same criticisms of digital capture as film partisans and does so in an articulate way.  I suspect as well that at some point in the near future someone will lend her a film camera and she’ll have her own Eric Kim moment.