Author Archives: Leicaphila

Further Proof That the Apocalypse is Upon Us

These from an article titled, ironically enough, Modern Cameras: How They Make It Harder to Take a Bad Photo published here.

The photos above, taken by the author, are offered as examples of the “stunning” results modern cameras are capable of. Feel free to click through the author’s portfolio for further edification.

*************

On a completely unrelated note: Back in the day I used to drive a delivery truck in Paterson, New Jersey. I delivered laundry to residences, in the course of which I got to speak to and know many of my customers. I had this one who, when I asked him what he did for a living, told me he was a “painter.” Interesting, a painter? You paint houses, I asked? “No, a painter. I paint pictures.” Apparently, his modest little flat was full of his work. Very cool, I offered, and I meant it. So, over the course of months we talked often, and he talked about his paintings and described them for me. He was obviously really proud of the work he did. One day I asked him if I could see some of them, maybe buy one. He took me inside, and with great pride showed me the works that covered his walls from floor to ceiling. They were all paint-by-numbers.

So, I congratulated him on his beautiful work, politely declined to buy one, and went back to my truck. I was touched in a way; he wasn’t hurting anyone, and he took obvious delight in painting those paint-by-number pieces. Who was I to judge, right?

Is Photography Killing Imagination?

Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have the explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is.

Robert Haas, Twentieth-Century Pleasures (1984)

I’m just done reading a book it’s taken me 42 years to read, The Man With the Golden Arm. Great book, beautifully written by Nelson Algren, a once-famous author now thoroughly forgotten. I bought the book in 1977. I bought it because Algren was currently living in the next town over, Paterson, and was somewhat of a local celebrity, a Chicago born critically acclaimed writer who decided to move to Paterson just for the hell of it. Knowing Paterson, that took guts. The book is about junkies in Chicago in the 1940’s. It won the National Book award when it was first published in 1949. Hemmingway said it was one of the best American works of fiction of the first half-century. Algren, who went on to also write the cult classic A Walk on the Wild Side in 1956, was apparently a pretty interesting guy himself, a self-taught author, self-professed Communist and Anarchist who hung out with, and wrote of, Chicago’s junkies and prostitutes and petty criminals ( he also carried on with Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist philosopher and girlfriend of John Paul Sartre, throughout the 50’s and 60’s; anyone bad-ass enough to be banging Sartre’s girlfriend deserved attention).

That book sat on my shelves, unread, until a few weeks ago. Innumerable times over the years I’d open it, read a few of its dense pages, and put it down. It simply didn’t grab my imagination. And then, a week or so ago, I told myself I was going to read it. Period. The time had come. So, I did, and I loved it. In hindsight, it was a work that needed 42 years of my maturation to fully appreciate; Algren’s beautifully intricate writing style, full of metaphor, doesn’t lend itself to topical reading but requires your full attention. Given that, it’s a remarkably evocative novel, the writing easily lending itself to a vivid imagination.

Yesterday, I rented the film version, starring Frank Sinatra. Bad idea. Not only was it a shitty movie, it somehow poisoned my delight in the book itself. As a dedicated reader, I’ve learned one thing about film adaptations of books I’ve previously read: don’t watch them if you want to retain the imaginative enjoyment you derived from reading the book. That’s because, once viewed, irrespective of the quality of the movie itself, the movie’s image asserts its hegemony and wipes from your mind’s eye how you as a reader imagined the characters and unfolding plot. The visual image offered by the movie now has become truth, something more brutely powerful than your own memory and imagination. Like it or not, the movie’s interpretation is now mine. In fact, after seeing the movie, I can’t even remember how I had imagined the story I’d read. It’s gone, bludgeoned unconscious with the literalness of the photo image.

My experience with Algren’s book – and then watching the movie – points to a larger problem of images, that of how their literalness can interfere with the workings of our imagination. As noted by Owen Hulatt, a scholar of the cultural philosopher Theodor Adorno, the more our reality is comprised of the factuality of images, the less room there exists to exhibit ‘imagination and spontaneity’ – rather, images “sweep us along in a succession of predictable moments, each of which is so easy to digest that they can be ‘alertly consumed even in a state of distraction.”

*************

Photographic images are everywhere, increasingly curated for us; algorithms decide what we see, when we see it, and how we see it. While this is great for those who want to influence us (advertisers, politicians etc) this surfeit of images and our easy familiarity with them has caused us to become imaginatively lazy. Why? In Roland Barthe’s mind, what defines the image is its stubborn factuality. Photos are traces of things, real things out there. In this sense, they tell us a truth. I would submit that photographs give us, at best, an impoverished ‘truth,’ a truth of brute ‘facts’ that in its literalness leaves little room for imagination. This has nothing to do with popular criticisms of altered images and photoshopped realities. It’s more existential than that. Photos are “unisensory” i.e. no other sense nor the imagination itself is needed to understand them. Given they are unisensory, a photo cannot convey the full depth of experience, because nothing other than the visual is required to grasp them.

In his cult-classic The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976),** psychologist Julian Jaynes contends that imagination is fundamental to consciousness itself, or rather, more precisely, consciousness is imagination in the sense that all consciousness depends on metaphor, which is itself a type of imagination. Metaphoric thinking =  this is like this is like that.   Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), notes the inextricability of metaphor and imagination: ‘Metaphor requires a perceptual power and ability, a re-seeing, a re-analogizing’ … fostered through a ‘depth of attention’ that, in turn, breeds imagination.” Jaynes would say that’s the architecture of our minds. Reality is comparison, and comparison is imagination.

Metaphoric comparisons are not only part of the architecture of language and mind but they are elemental to human thought and imagination. To make sense of new things – to give them a reality – we compare them to other things, familiar things from our environment, our culture, our identities, things that we previously came to conceptualize by doing the same, ad infinitum. It is these mental connections that give rise to consciousness itself, which consists of the primary experience between ourselves and the world, as well as sensitivity to the nature and details of that experience. Metaphor is how we mentally access and internally narrate language, image, and sensory experience. And, it’s the basis of all human creativity. Aristotle, speaking of the poet, claimed that “the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”

*************

So, we’ve established that metaphorical thinking is really important and yet, in our hyper image-saturated world, I’m starting to suspect we are losing the imaginative power to create and find meaning through metaphor. As always, kids are the bellwether, kids who’ve found their reality via web-based versions of the real, the punchy over-saturated image or the 40 word tweet. Consider the experience of poet Sara Holbrook , who wrote a recent article for Forbes titled ‘The Writer Who Couldn’t Answer Standardized Test Questions About Her Own Work (Again)!’ which documented her frustration with her students’ desire to “dissect” her poems e.g. understand the ‘best reason’ for a simile she chose to use etc . “Forget joy of language and the fun of discovery in poetry;” what students wanted was “line-by-line dissection, painful and delivered without anesthetic,” as one might approach the dissection of a frog. This sort of literal, factual dissection of artistic creations was what they knew, having been bred into them as heirs to a culture where information is increasingly gleaned via the visual, and factual investigation has replaced imaginative interpretation as the standard by which creative expressions are critiqued.

In 2014, a Harvard research team set out to study the decline in creativity among high-school students by comparing both visual artworks and creative writing collected between 1990-95, and again between 2006-11. Examining the style, content and form of adolescent art-making, the team sought to define a potential ‘generational shift’ between pre- and post-internet creativity. What they claimed to find was that the creative-writing of the two groups showed a “significant increase in young authors’ adherence to conventional writing practices related to genre,” what they defined as a trend toward formulaic styles without significant imaginative deviation, while their visual creations were informed and inspired by “expansive mental repositories of visual imagery” [think: stock photography] easily available in the public domain. They noted in both “a significant increase in and adherence to strict realism,” and a turn away from metaphoric thinking. The team cited standardized testing as a likely source of this lack of creativity, but also the proliferation of visual culture and its role in new modes of casual communication – in other words, visual literalism (“selfies”, emojis etc) standing in for words and feelings.

*************

What’s the point of all of this? Hell if I know. The fact that I’m on my third bourbon, neat, isn’t helping to clarify things, except I do see a transition I’ve been making – probably subconsciously in response to the issues I’ve articulated here – in my photography. I was trained as a documentarian, and my idea of the photo has traditionally been less a means of creative expression than as a vehicle to transmit knowledge. However, lately I find myself more focused on producing images that possess ambiguity, that need to be read into. Maybe it’s a subliminal response to what I consider all the regressive trends currently ascendant in photographic culture – sharpness, image quality, technical brilliance etc – and in visual culture generally, the use of images as a means of documenting what is presented as “the real” [selfies and all the airbrushed nonsense people post on social media sites]. I’m increasingly getting to a point where I want my photos to be explicitely about the “not real,” about what might be imagined as opposed to what I claim is. That’s the place I want to share, if that’s possible, to make of stubborn facts something more than just what is via the viewer’s imagination. That’s what Nelson Algren did with his writing. Of course, he died broke and friendless in a cold-water flat in Paterson, New Jersey, completely forgotten.

Time for another bourbon.


** One of the truly mind-bending books I’ve ever read. Every educated person should read it at least once.

Becoming the Cliche

“There’s a passage in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential brick-book, Being and Nothingness, where the author describes a waiter who carries his towel just-so, who is attentive, who does all the things a waiter should do. He is the perfect waiter. Except, of course, he is not. He is a man who has the freedom to spill the wine on obnoxious customers, to spit in the soup, to walk away from the job. His pretense at being a perfect waiter is a performance in Bad Faith, a loss-of-freedom that is untrue to his authentic conscious self.

The same idea can be applied to photographers. Wear that Leica too heavily, start believing in your own legend, fetishize your style and you become the photographic equivalent of Sartre’s waiter, a caricature of a photographer who does the things that photographers do because those are the things that photographers do. ” Sohrab Hura, Magnum Photo

Send Her Back

I live in North Carolina. It’s a Southern state that’s traditionally been considered “progressive” as far as Southern states go. It has an admirable history of having established and funded the United State’s first public university, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which, to this day, is considered one the America’s premier research universities. It’s what brought me to North Carolina 37 years ago as a graduate student in the humanities, which was one of the best things I ever did. The state proudly refers to Chapel Hill as “The University of the People” and until recently purposefully kept tuition low so that bright kids from modest families had access to a world-class education, every bit the equal of the education plutocrat’s kids received 8 miles away at Duke University, an uber-expensive elite university in Durham. Chapel Hill (read: the State of North Carolina) educated me as both a historian and an attorney, allowing me entrance to their flagship University and essentially paying my way. I’ve since attended both Duke and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but my emotional loyalties will always remain in North Carolina with the good people whose generosity enabled this working-class boy to receive a world-class education.

When I first arrived in North Carolina, it was a solidly Democratic state, both urban and rural. That started to change in the 90’s as the divide between city and country intensified. Within the last 15 years, state government has become solidly Republican, the rural areas gaining power through gerrymandering at the expense of the urban majority. North Carolina voted for Obama twice, but in 2016 voted for Trump. There’s a reason for that. While urban areas like Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte prosper, rural North Carolina is in a death spiral – no jobs, failing education, willful ignorance and reactionary evangelical religion mutually reinforcing each other. It’s sad to see, but it’s the reality.

I mention all this because American politics is currently being roiled by a new nativism, the kind that used to tell people they could love America…or leave it. Our latest jingoism is of the “Send Her Back” variety, an unfortunate chant taken up by folks at a recent Donald Trump rally, addressed to a Somali-born American congresswoman from Minnesota at odds with Trumpism. The whole thing has, rightfully so, gotten a lot of media attention, not all of it good for North Carolina, given it occurred at a Trump rally in …. Greenville, North Carolina, a medium-sized town in rural eastern North Carolina. I cringed when I heard it had happened there, for two reasons: first, I love North Carolina and am grateful to it for all it’s done for me. My North Carolina (Raleigh/Durham) is diverse, inclusive, forward-thinking…and affluent and so unlike what most folks might think of the state based on this; and second, I’m familiar with eastern North Carolina and Greenville in particular…and I like the people there. It’s beautiful country, and the folks who live there are nice people, friendly, pleasant courteous and always ready to help when I’m stranded on the side of the road with a flat bicycle tire.

*************

I’ve spent the last few years taking photos throughout eastern North Carolina while biking its country roads. No need for a Leica or dedicated camera. The iPhone is the perfect documentarian’s tool – always with you when you need it, the images more than acceptable for journalistic applications. This weekend I finally figured how to download them from iCloud (why does everything digital have to be so fucking complicated?) and I worked a few up in Lightroom. My intent is to put together a series of photographs that somehow tell a truth about the people who live in eastern North Carolina and felt it OK to chant “Send Her Back” at a political rally. That’s what good photojournalism does, and I’m convinced there’s still room for it. Pictures sometimes tell truths that can’t be conveyed with words. Compelling issues like what’s happening politically in America are not simple to explain or understand. Sometimes seeing can inform us in ways words can’t. I hope the photos I’ve chosen do that.

Further Foveon Geekiness (With Some Deeper Thinking Included)

4.8 megapixels, from the SIGMA DP2x Foveon Sensor

I know. I know. I claim to despise the pixel-peeping insanity that passes for camera evaluation many other places. Nothing worse than 100% views of receding fenceposts or closeups of the family cat to critique a sensor’s “IQ” or “corners,” or, God forbid, an optic’s “bokeh.” It’s such a blinkered, limited understanding of photo tech and the priority it should be given in assessing the relative strengths and demerits of the photographic tool you chose. It’s the equivalent of judging the aesthetic value of a Redwood tree by examining its leaves as opposed to standing back and taking the larger view of the entire tree in context. The larger view is the instructive view, obviously, and will tell you why Redwoods are such incredibly amazing trees. Examining the leaf will…tell you about the leaf. And yet…here I am with another post about the intriguing quality of the images I’m getting from my latest photographic crush, the SIGMA Foveon sensor. Bear with me.

*************

2640×1760 (4.8 megs) DP2x, RAW conversion in SPP, tweaking in Lightroom

I’m currently reading (actually listening to on Audible) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, written by David Epstein. It’s an interesting book, as far as books popularizing social science research can be, and I’m struck by a point he makes in refuting the currently popular notion that true excellence is only developed via long, intense, focused interest and practice in the specific skill you’re seeking to master (the “10,000 hour” rule, etc). He cites research into the various factors most likely to be seen in the education and development of exceptional musicians. The common denominator among them is not the early age at which they took up the instrument, the assistance of parents in facilitating opportunities for rigorous instruction, or the hours spent in learning that particular instrument as opposed to more generalized musical training but rather...did the musician like his instrument. Did he or she love the violin or piano or tuba or whatever; was there, early on, a bond that the nascent musician felt with the musical tool he’d chosen (or, too often, in the case of young children, that was chosen for them). That’s it. That’s what correlates most strongly with subsequent mastery of the instrument.

SIGMA DP2x, 2640×1760 (4.8 Megs) RAW @ 100 ISO, desaturated in SPP (Pretty Much What Came out of the Camera)

This is something we, as users of traditional Leica Barnack and M cameras, understand. It’s the importance of a felt, emotional connection with your creative tool, in our case, our camera. It matters. In theory, yes, you can be as exceptional an image maker using a Pentax K1000 as you can with a Leica M4. It’s just a light-tight box, right? But we all know it’s not that simple. Nothing is really “simple” when we seek to understand the resonances of our creative impulses, what nourishes them and what thwarts their expression. When we’re talking of creative expression necessarily mediated by tools – e.g. photography – emotional and psychological fit with that tool matters. A lot.

My Boy Buddy. DP2x, 100 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Silver Efex Pro

Of course, the more cynical (or stupid) among us will claim to be above such things. Don’t believe a word of it. They really don’t, and neither should you. A large part of what makes us avid enthusiasts is our interest in the tools themselves. Cameras are cool things from any number of perspectives – both their superficial and functional aesthetics of endless fascination apart from their technical specifications, but so too their tech specs, they being, at base, quantifications of qualities inherent in the camera’s output, and, when all is said and done, that’s what we all claim is important – the photograph.

*************

Sigma sd Quattro, 400 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Color Efex Pro I Wouldn’t Have Taken This Photo With a Leica

So, that’s a long-winded way of saying the truth of the matter: the equipment you use matters. It matters because, in creative endeavors, the tools you use to accomplish your ends are themselves an extension of you. Your camera isn’t something set apart from your body and mind, something distinct from your creative act. It’s an integral part of the creative act, the necessary pre-condition of the act itself. As such, it needs to be something that’s functional…but also its use itself needs to appeal to our aesthetic sense. It’s that aesthetic component of use that initially drew many of us to photography, and certainly, it’s behind why many of us retain an emotional allegiance to our film Leicas.

In addition to being necessary, it’s formative in the sense that the photos you create will, to a certain extent, be conditioned by the strengths and weaknesses of your instrument. Leica cameras became famous because they were small and unobtrusive and could be carried places larger cameras couldn’t. It certainly wasn’t because they had better image quality. For that, a view camera or a Speed Graphic. Photographers early on understood and utilized the Leica’s strengths, creating new genres of documentary photography – war photography, street photography, candid personal documentary. Meanwhile, “Fine Art” photographers necessarily used large-format view cameras so they could print large with maximum detail and subtlety.

With the digital age, some of these use distinctions are breaking down. Technology has become so good. Amateur level digital cameras are capable of routinely producing film era medium format quality. Unfortunately, our understanding of what constitutes a competent photo also seems to have shifted, more now involving technical excellence than creative vision, and this is the area where gear mania becomes counterproductive, wherein the enjoyment of the tool subsumes the larger creative act itself. Too many photographers chase technical excellence without any understanding or concern with creative excellence, which are two distinct things. Hence, we’re now inundated with banal, technically excellent photographs that digital era photographers confuse with creative excellence. It’s the triumph of the superficial, where excellence comes easily, over against the subtle and profound and visionary, where excellence is rare and always hard-won. It’s the difference between Kenny G and John Coltrane.

Technically Excellent? Not Really. Creatively Excellent? Yes. A Work of Art.

The key, I think, is to match your creative vision to the correct instrument as opposed to allowing your equipment to drive your output. And that has created my current intellectual conundrum. Truth be told, I really like my little Foveon DP2x. I find it endlessly fascinating that a camera little more the size of my iPhone, that can be bought for $200, 4.8 effective megapixels no less, can create such stunning photographs, photos that aren’t merely about details but seem to have a solidity to them that can’t be described but is most definitely there. And so, I’ve been out and about with it, taking the sort of static views you see reproduced here, potential photos I’m only seeing now because of the type of camera I have in my hands. So, the question is: is the DP2x dictating my vision to me, or am I dictating my vision to it? Does it even matter?

Sigma FP Announced

On cue, SIGMA has introduced the FP, a Bayer sensored Fullframe.

Common knowledge was that Sigma was working on a new camera since the announcement of the L Mount alliance, but the assumption was that it would be a full-frame Foveon sensor. The FP uses a Bayer sensor, although there remain plans to offer the FP with a Foveon sensor in the future. Lightweight and compact, the FP measures 112.6 × 69.9 × 45.3mm and weighs just 370g (422g with the battery and SD card inserted).

The SIGMA FP w/ L-Mount 45mm

As mentioned, the FP uses a 24.6MP BSI-CMOS sensor with a traditional Bayer filter, not the Foveon sensor. This sensor is placed inside a body that has been extensively weather sealed and fitted with a 3.2-inch 2.1M-dot touchscreen, SD card slot, HDMI port, flash sync port, mic and headphone ports, USB 3.1 port, and remote shutter port.

The FP will be modular in design, with accessories including a hot shoe, LCD viewfinder, handgrips and etc.

Give SIGMA some credit. While Leica is producing “Urban Jungle CL’s” SIGMA is sticking their neck out with truly innovative cameras. Get back to me when they introduce the Foveon version.

Leica’s “Urban Jungle” CL

Leica has introduced a new CL model, designed “in collaboration” with French-Italian “photographer” and mega-yacht owner Jean Pigozzi, based on the original CL released two years ago.  Mr. Pigozzi is the same guy who in 2017 designed the Sofort “LimoLand” instant camera. Mr. Pigozzi’s “affinity for small, unobtrusive cameras and his love for the Leica brand inspired the French-Italian photographer, entrepreneur and art collector to design the ‘Leica CL URBAN JUNGLE by JEAN PIGOZZI’. ”

Mr. Pigozzi’s 67 Meter Yacht. True

Apparently, what’s “new” is the leatherette covering, which reflects the undeniable panache of Mr. Pigozzi, and a new “award winning” grey rope strap “to match the body’s styling” [Who knew there were awards for camera straps?] Internals are the same as before – a 24.2MP APS-C sensor, EyeRes viewfinder, Maestro processor and Elmarit-TL 18 mm f/2.8 ASPH lens, which gives the user an effective focal length of 27mm. It’s available in Leica stores for $3950 as of June 25.

Somehow, I can’t escape the incongruity of the uber-rich claiming identification with the “urban jungle.” Then again, this is Leica World, where fake aristocrats and third tier pop stars with no photographic chops get feted as visionary creatives.

Leica and Sigma

At Photokina 2018, Leica Camera AG announced a strategic partnership with SIGMA, referred to as the ‘L-Mount Alliance’. The collaboration enables SIGMA to use the Leica’s L-Mount for SIGMA bodies and to offer both cameras and lenses utilizing this lens mount.  The L-Mount lens mount is currently used in the Leica SL full-frame camera system and the Leica CL, TL2 and TL APS-C camera models. L-Mount lenses can be used on all these cameras without adapters and without any functional limitations.

In particular, SIGMA plans to offer a full-frame Foveon sensor body with L-Mount capacity by 2020. The sensor is reputed to be 60 mpx.  Coupled with Leica optics, it should be a killer in terms of resolution.

*************

Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, Chairman of the Board, Leica Camera AG: “For photographers, the ability to choose from a wide range of lenses for their system of preference is extremely important. Especially in the strongly growing market for mirrorless system cameras, users seek increasingly greater product diversity to fulfill a wide range of different photographic needs. We have therefore decided to work together with SIGMA as an immediate response to these needs. SIGMA is a highly respected company that has become firmly established especially in the areas of optical design and lens manufacturing and is able to perfectly complement our existing portfolio of L-Mount products. We are convinced that we and our partners can realize mutual and sustainable growth for all our products.”

Kazuto Yamaki, CEO, SIGMA: “SIGMA is joining this alliance to develop mirrorless cameras benefiting from a short flange back. As SIGMA strives to develop high performance, high quality, and innovative products, this alliance will strengthen the level of completion and the extensibility of our camera system and provide greater user benefits. Leica is a magnificent company that has been contributing to photographic culture for more than 100 years. Together with SIGMA’s unique, high performance and high-quality products, the L-Mount will evolve as an extremely attractive system for users.”

The L-Mount was introduced by Leica Camera in 2014 with the Leica T. A diameter of 51.6 millimeters was chosen to make the L-Mount suitable for use both with full-frame and APS-C sensors. A short register of 20 millimeters enables a short distance between the lens and the sensor, which in turn enables considerably more compact construction – particularly helpful for developments in the wide-angle lens segment. L-Mount bayonets are manufactured from wear-resistant stainless steel and with four flange segments that prevent canting and ensure particularly secure and precisely positioned lens attachment. The standardized L-Mount contact strip ensures trouble-free communication between the electronic components of the lens and the camera – including the possibility of installing future firmware updates for lenses to react to technological advances and exploit the full performance potentials of the lens.

*************

A 4.7 Meg Foveon JPG from the Sigma DP2x, RAW Capture, Developed in Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) 6.6. Click on it to see full res. It’s stunning how much a measly 4.7 Megs resolves

I’ll admit it: I’m intrigued by SIGMA’s Foveon cameras. If anything could turn me into a pixel-peeping tech geek, it’s a Foveon sensor, if only because you can’t help but admire what it’s capable of. The Merrills and Quattros are remarkable for their price – literally medium format IQ in a pocket camera. Plus, they’re wonderfully understated. They aim to do one thing well – produce medium format quality from an APS-C sensor, and they’ve succeeded.  They’ve had to entertain some compromises to reach that goal, but they’re marginal in relation to the payoff, which is stunning detail and color fidelity. Both the Merrills and the Quattros (a slight variation on the 3 layer sensor theme) are built for hard-core photo enthusiasts, nothing superfluous baked into them to appease dilettantes or videographers, no modes, no HDR, no facial recognition or any other bullshit designed with your assumed stupidity in mind.

It’s interesting to me that Leica has chosen to partner with SIGMA, of all people. I’m assuming they’re interested in the potential of the Foveon technology and how the Foveon sensor can resolve Leica’s exacting optics. Additionally, It’s going to allow SIGMA to produce optics to be used on their SL, T and C models, which will undoubtedly prove popular given their (assumed) significantly lower price. This seems to be a partnership that makes sense, focused as it is not on the production of status objects but dedicated photographic instruments.

A 14.8 Meg Foveon JPG from the Sigma DP1 Merrill, RAW Capture, Developed in Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) 6.6. Click on it to see full res. Yikes.

Loving the Unloved Camera

 

B&W From the Fuji S5 Sensor

I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog. It’s been that way as long as I remember. Back in 1966, when I was 8, I thought – no, I knew – Muhammad Ali was both a great fighter and an even greater human being, and my holier-than-thou aunts and uncles and teachers and friends, who hated him because he wouldn’t go kill Vietnamese, were all full of shit.  His explanation for why he wouldn’t be inducted into the US Army cut through all the patriotic war-mongering nonsense and made perfect sense to me – no Vietnamese had ever called him nigger, which was more than he could say about his fellow Americans who insisted it was his duty to go kill them. An unassailably elegant and irrefutable answer. I remember lying under the covers with my AM radio, listening to Ali fight Ernie Terrell – the guy who refused to call him by his chosen name, calling him “Cassius Clay” instead – strangely satisfied when Ali gave Terrell the savage beating he deserved, each time he hit him asking him “What’s my name?” As a grade school kid in 68, while the proto-fascists I went to church school with brainlessly wore the Nixon buttons their parents pinned on them, I was all in for Eugene McCarthy and then Hubert Humphrey. I even preferred the Stones to the Beatles, thinking “Paint it Black” was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.

Ten years later, I was buying an M5 as my first Leica. Enough said. I’ve carried that contrarian attitude into the digital age. I’m enamored of oddball cameras – specifically, the Ricoh GXR with its swappable sensors and M-mount, and the Fuji S5 Pro with its 12 mp “extended dynamic range” SuperCCD SR sensor, which to my mind produces the nicest digital B&W files I’ve ever seen (this includes files from the Leica MM). While I’ve bought and sold any number of high-resolution full-frame D800’s etc, the Ricoh and the S5 Pro are the cameras I most often grab, even today. They’re cheap as dirt too. While the consumerist herd chases marginal technological gains at maximum cost (just what camera makers and their online shills tell them they should be doing). you can feast on their throwaways at minimum cost.

Lately, I’ve gone full-bore contrarian, having developed a thing for Sigma’s Foveon cameras, now owning the DP2, the DP1M and the sd Quattro.  The Foveons are the oddest of odd-duck digital technology – slow, clunky, limited to daylight capture, but producing remarkable files when done right, the sd Quattro and DP1 Merrill versions producing stunningly detailed color files easily the better of what I was getting from my D800E. The Merrill, with dedicated tack-sharp 28mm Sigma lens, I bought for $350. That’s crazy.

*************

Sidewalk Mosaic, Omaha, Nebraska. Sigma DP1 Merrill

In 1907, the Lumière brothers of France introduced the first commercial color photography process, called Autochrome.  The Autochrome process used a filter of grains of potato-starch colored red, blue and green (the primary colors of light). This starch filter was spread over a glass plate, and colors were recorded horizontally i.e. all at the same surface level.  In later years, color film photography evolved by a method in which three layers of photosensitive material were stacked vertically, and processes using a horizontal orientation, like the Autochrome process, were forgotten. It’s this vertically stacked RGB layered capture that gives the classic color film look.

Ironically, with the advent of digital photography, vertically stacked RGB capture disappeared and horizontally-oriented Autochrome- like color capture again became standard, (absent the potato-starch). Apart from Sigma Foveon sensors, digital cameras use monochrome “Bayer” sensors that capture Red, Green and Blue light intensities horizontally i.e. all on the same sensor level. Because these sensors do not capture color data but only luminosity values, a color filter with a mosaic of pixels for the three primary colors – red, blue and green (RGB) – is mounted on top so that color data can be represented. But each light-sensing photodiode (a “pixel”) has a one-color filter, which means that each pixel can only represent one color, the data for the other two colors being ignored by the pixel. A color “interpolation” process known as demosaicing is then performed on the image, restoring the colors lost by individual pixels.

Digital sensors are monochromatic – they measure luminosity, not color. Pixel sites on a digital sensor are light meters: they measure the brightness of the light. That’s it; they don’t register color. What represents the color is the filter placed over the pixel and the interpolation algorithm that guesses the missing colors by analyzing the neighboring pixels and then adding the missing colors back in.

Having been continuously improved over an extended period, this image-processing method is now good enough for most folks. But too often, because colors are interpolated from neighboring pixels, the subtle color nuances of the original subject are lost. Color filter arrays also generate color artifacts – colors not found in the original subject – during the demosaicing processing. This is due to the action of the color filter (generally a Bayer filter), which tries to regulate the color distribution if the subject contains too much detail (high-frequency areas). Conventional digital cameras using a Bayer color filter also have an optical low pass filter, interposed between the lens and the sensor, in order to suppress color artifacts. The optical low pass filter acts on the images resolved at a high level by the imaging lens, its job being to eliminate any detailed elements likely to generate color artifacts (high-frequency areas above a certain level), immediately before they reach the sensor. So it can effectively suppress the generation of color artifacts.

The bottom line of all of these workarounds to produce color – color array filters, low pass optical filters to suppress color artifacts caused by the array filters, interpolation algorithms – is that all of it, separately and together, cause a diminution of the fine detail recorded by the monochrome sensor. In other words, we pay a price to transform a native monochrome sensor into a color sensor, and that price is loss of resolution and lack of color fidelity.

*************

DP1 Merrill

Sigma’s Foveon sensor takes a different approach. Rather than a single layer of pixels, the Foveon has three layers, which take advantage of the fact that different colors of light possess different wavelengths. Pixels on the top layer of the Foveon sensor can see every color of visible light. The second layer sees only the green and red parts of the spectrum,  since the thickness of the top layer serves to filter out the short-wavelength blue light. The third sensor layer sees only the red part of the spectrum, since the thickness of the top two layers is such that it filters out the mid-wavelength green light, allowing only the long-wavelength red light to reach the bottom.  An algorithm then examines each separate pixel layer  and — by analyzing the relative proportion of luminosity reported by each layer — determines the actual color of each pixel on each layer.

As such, the Foveon sensor doesn’t add or discard color. Different wavelengths of light (i.e. different colors) penetrate the Foveon sensor at different depths, achieving full-color capture in a single-pixel site configuration. No color filter is required. Like modern color film cameras, it uses a method that captures all the colors vertically. Because it does not need color interpolation or a low-pass filter, the Foveon produces natively sharp images without the need of computer interpolation. It’s why Foveon images have a truly nuanced, sharp feel and are visibly superior to Bayer images of the same resolution.

The benefits of Foveon tech: 1) Increased color purity — The camera is able to determine the color of light on every stacked photosite, rather than approximating each color based on the relative luminosities of several neighboring photosites; 2) Increased resolution — Each pixel in the final image contains accurate luminance information, as measured by the sensor’s photosites (in contrast to a color filter array, which must interpolate a luminance value for each pixel); and, 3) Less noise (at low ISO settings) — Because each photosite doesn’t have a colored filter in front of it (nor, possibly, an anti-aliasing filter to alleviate the moiré patterns inherent in the demosaicing process), the top sensor layer requires far less signal amplification than a Bayer-type sensor, meaning less noise.

I can attest to one thing. The Foveon sensor produces very subtle color files, photos that look a lot like traditional film color, without the artificial saturated effect often produced by Bayer sensors.

*************

Omaha. DP1 Merrill

However, I’m a B&W photographer, and my interest in camera technology is typically limited to B&W capture. For a B&W photographer, Bayer filters and interpolation algorithms are useless. A sensor has the ability to record an unadulterated monochromatic version of the scene before it without interpolation or filtration. And yet the Bayer sensors holds us hostage to its colorization schema, which we then greyscale out as unneeded. Unfortunately, all the image degradation remains. Not so with the Foveon. Shouldn’t there also be some advantage when shooting monochrome?

Somewhere Over the Midwest. Sigma DP2

So, I’m embarked on a new learning curve – figuring out how to maximize the Foveon sensor for B&W. My sense is that it has the potential to produce a unique B&W look, super-sharp and detailed as opposed to the luscious creaminess of the S5 Pro’s B&W output. Digital Panatomic-X. Now the goal is to figure out how. The RGB layers open up intriguing possibilities and make all sorts of things, common in the film age, theoretically possible again ( including, unfortunately, having to work with ISO in the 100-400 range, which to me is a small price to pay for what you’re getting in return, which in the DPM series is 6×9 format quality in a pocket camera). Back to glass filters maybe?

Omaha Zoo. DP1 Merrill