Category Archives: Digital Photograhy

Maybe I Need to Rethink This

Leica M8

The M8. I Had a Love/Hate With This Camera for Many Years

As you know, I’ve been, at best, ambivalent about Leica in the digital age. I’ve taken a lot of cheap shots at their digital cameras over the years, M digitals included. I’ve been skeptical that the Leica M film experience could be transposed to the digital age. Part of the problem is digital capture simply doesn’t lend itself to simplicity – it requires electronics and LCD screens and nested menus and all the afflatus that gives rise to digital bloat, and Leica isn’t immune to it in spite of their best intentions to keep things simple.

It seemed, at least in the beginning, that Leica’s continued emphasis on simplicity had become less a design ethos than a marketing slogan, or worse yet, a cynical way of attempting to paper over inferior product. It’s not like Leica, as anyone selling a widget, isn’t above self-serving puffery. Let’s face it: the M8, pleasing to look at and fondle like previous film Leicas, arrived with some serious issues: buggy electronics, color capture issues, battery problems, dismal ISO capabilities, a shutter that sounded like a construction-grade staple gun. The M9 fixed some of it, but I couldn’t help but think that Leica was over their heads in the digital age, where quality had less to do with traditional Leica hand-craftsmanship and more with technical expertise, technical expertise being the forte of large manufacturers like Nikon and Canon.

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Leica M3

And then there was the Leica ergonomic, the felt experience of operating one that was so seductive with their film M’s. The film M’s just feel right. Refined yet simple. No intercession of electronics to do things for you (before the M7 at least). Radically minimalist design, uncluttered viewfinder, big bright mechanical rangefinder. Simple wind-on, imperceptible shutter click, rewind. Advancing the film offered just enough throw and resistance to make the act pleasurable as its own experience. Many Leicaphiles carried our M’s around the house with us – why? because they stimulated that part of the lizard brain connected to the hand. Film M’s made you a gearhead.

I’m not sure that ergonomic simplicity transfers over to the digital M’s, or at least I was skeptical at best. While my M8 looked like an M it didn’t feel like one. Whatever magic they packed into the M4 was simply not there in the M8. Where the M4 felt fluidly effortless and simple, the M8 felt clunky and convoluted. Where the M4 shutter whispered, the M8 sounded like it was shooting high-velocity projectiles. Figuring out how to format a card or change ISO invariably devolved into multi-thumb fumbling of wheels, buttons, and menu options, all while your subject fleeing as if from a school shooter. Efficient it wasn’t.

But …. if your interest was traditional B&W photography, as opposed to digital hyper-realism, in spite of what sensor rankings and 100% cropping geeks declaimed, the M8’s output was astonishing. B&W from the M8 just had the look, a function of the CCD sensor and its increased IR sensitivity which produced thick, film-like B&W files. All you needed to do was add a bit of grain. I was willing to put up with the quirks – the random freeze-ups, the glacial boot-up times, the god-awful swack of the shutter – to get that B&W output. It was that good, a monochrome camera to rival the Monochrom.

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Leica M240

This is all prelude to the fact that I’m having to rethink my opinions these days [shock!]. I bought a used M240 a while ago, not expecting much, and found that I really liked it, as in really. Wanting a digital camera to compliment my aging GXR and my exasperating Sigma SD Quattro (another love/hate thing), I’d thought of the usual alternatives – an X100, X-Pro, D4s – and then decided against them. It was time to buy a digital M.

To make a long story short – I liked the M240 so much I splurged and bought the camera I’d always really wanted – the Monochrom, the original CCD version based on the M9 platform. Found a nice one with an updated, non-corrosive sensor. I’ve totally fallen in love. It’s a digital M4. It’s got the feel. Hell, it even looks just like a black chrome M4. As for output, I’m convinced there’s a roll of Ilford HP5 rated at 800 ISO hidden in there somewhere.

An M5 w/ HP5 @ 800 ISO, an M240 DNG Run Through Silver Efex … or a Leica Monochrom?

So, going forward I’ve decided to go all Steve Huff on you, amusing you with various posts about the Mono and the M240 and how they compare to an M5 with HP5. This weekend, I’m going out with the M5 and a 35mm VC loaded with HP5, the Mono and the M240 and see how they each render the same subject. If you’ll indulge my geekiness, I promise no 100% crops or duplicate shots of fence posts. I’ll try to keep shots of the wife and cats to a minimum.

Leica Monochrom
Leica M9M

Leica is F**king With Us Again

Leica M10-P Reporter

Leica Camera has announced a limited edition M10-P “Reporter” as a homage to press photographers.

The M10-P Reporter features a dark green design and Kevlar covering, a high-strength synthetic fiber used in ballistic-protective clothing.  This Kevlar covering will gradually turn the same color as its top and base plates through exposure to sunlight, “developing its own patina, which means that each camera will become a unique signature of its owner.” Leica M10-P Reporter sells for $8,795.00 and is limited to 450 units. No word on whether there will be a subsequent Lenny Kravitz version.

My Question: is there a guy who sits at a desk in Wetzlar tasked with thinking up shit like this that will drive us crazy?

The Leica M10-P Reporter in pre-patina state

The Myth of the Big Fat Leica M240

Leica M 240

“There’s no question: time to dump your old M240 while you still can. It was too big to be considered a real LEICA… Who were they kidding? Ditch your M240 while you still can. I never kept my M240; I sent it back and have been using my M9 ever since for its smaller size and much faster and simpler operation” — Ken Rockwell in his review of the M10

And You Thought the M240 was Big

Small dimension changes can feel quite different. When the M3 came out there were complaints about the size from IIIf users; Leica bragged the M5 was only a finger-width larger than the M4 – but people thought it was huge; the M9 felt too thick compared to an M6; etc. Then there are the people who complain about the size of the M240 and then add shit to it (half case, grip, EVF, thumbs up, soft release, etc.) And then there’s Ken Rockwell.

Yo, Ken: Leicaphiles bitched about the 2.5″ LCD of the M9. Leica put a bigger one in the M240. People bitched about the battery capacity of the M9. Leica fixed that with the M240. Those two upgrades take up room. The difference between the M240 and M9 can be attributed to the need to accommodate the larger rear display and the thumbwheel/rest. Even so, the 240 is virtually the same size as the M8/9 and only a few mm thicker (and the same width and height) than the M6TTL.

Here are some relevant numbers – M240: 139x80x42 millimeters – M9: 140x80x38 millimeters – M6: 138x77x38 millimeters. The M240 is 0.15748 inches thicker than the M9 and M6.  

If you’re looking for a digital M, the M240 currently a screaming deal, not much more than a ratty old M8 and about the same as the much inferior M9. You can buy two lightly used M240’s for less than the price of a used M10. I beg you to find any significant difference in their output (If you’re one of those insufferable people who judges a digital camera on its DXO score, the M240 and the M10 are basically identical in terms of claimed IQ, the M240 actually scoring better overall dynamic range while the M10 has marginal better high ISO performance).

The M240 isn’t bigger, it’s heavier. More weight can cause users to grip the camera differently, affecting the perception of size. The Barnack IIIf weighed 430 grams (.947 lbs), for instance, while the film M’s weigh in the neighborhood of 600 grams (1.32 lbs). The Leica M9 is 585 grams (1.28 lbs). The M240 is 678 grams (1.49 lbs). The ‘added weight’ of the M240 over the film M’s (.17 lbs!) is due to the larger battery, which is the first digital M battery that’ll last a whole day of shooting. The film era sized 2017 M10, while lighter than the M240, is back to the smaller, less powerful battery of the M9, and users are back juggling multiple batteries if they intend to shoot all day. But hey, it’s .15 inches less thick. One step forward, one step back.

Walking the Dog

“I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” Garry Winogrand

One of the things I appreciate about photography is that it gives you permission to look. Most of the time I don’t. I’m usually operating on auto-pilot, oblivious to anything around me except something that’s outside normal expectations. I suspect we all live this way, conserving our limited attention for when evolution had bred in us a need – fight/flight, sex, food. What about our aesthetic sense – which evolution has clearly prioritized as a basic human need? How might we indulge a sense of beauty? Does being a photographer assist in some way? I think it does.

Garry Winogrand was onto something when he decided to photograph things to see what they looked like when photographed. He was one of the first photographers to recognize the camera’s potential to make us see things. It both gives us permission to look and creates new visual realities, showing us things we otherwise wouldn’t see. The nice thing about the digital age is I now always carry a camera with me, which allows me to always be looking at things in terms of what they might look like photographed. Back in the film era, that really wasn’t possible, unless you were a lunatic like Winogrand who left behind 6500 unprocessed rolls of film at his death. Today, all you need is your iPhone and some attention. Winogrand would have gone nuts with an iphone.

Think of photography as a means to discover things, a way of saying “Look at what I saw!’ Often times (not always) it’s not so much a way of documenting what is but rather discovering new ways things might look if you leave yourself open to it. And because it’s about leaving yourself open to seeing how things might look, everything is opened up to you as a subject. An afternoon walk with the dogs and an iPhone can become an exercise in seeing things. This is a profound gift digital photography gives us. It turns a routine walk into an aesthetic experience…if we let it. That’s pretty cool.

All photos taken with an iPhone 8 and processed in camera with Snapseed

I Just Don’t Get It

Above is a limited edition “Correspondent” version of the Leica M-P digital rangefinder, “designed by Lenny Kravitz”, currently for sale on Ebay for 15k. The special edition is “strictly limited” to 125 sets worldwide. This is 029/125.

It’s not a bad looking camera if one simply takes it for what it is. The ‘artificial’ weathering is fairly tasteful if that’s your thing, and it doesn’t have Lenny’s signature, which would irrevocably mar an otherwise nice camera body. My question is: Why would Leica think that Lenny Kravitz would have any significance for a Leicaphile…or for a collector for that matter? I’m truly stumped. The incongruity of calling it a Lenny Kravitz “Correspondent” Leica is even weirder. Leica could have simply released the camera without the Kravitz designation – a limited edition “Correspondent” MP. Price it accordingly.

This is not to denigrate Lenny Kravitz. He’s a talented guy doing what he does. Let’s not confuse him with Robert Capa or Susan Meiselas however. The whole thing reflects poorly on both Leica and Kravitz. The irony is that the digital MP is a really nice camera – I’ve been playing around with one for a few weeks, and I like it. And, while I’m not that up on Lenny Kravitz, the one thing he does that I’m familiar with evidences some musical chops. But, given gimmicks like this, it sort of creeps me out to be seen in public with a digital Leica. Being out and about with a Leica used to give you massive street cred back in the day – then, a beat-up M4 with a ratty 35mm Summicron. Now it conjures up rich poseurs and clueless dilettantes, which is a shame. And Leica has no one but themselves to blame.

So, what’s in it for Leica in naming it after a B-grade rock star? And what’s in it for Lenny Kravitz?

I’d love to hear your thoughts…..

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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.