In theory, one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can live undisturbed. So it is with time in one’s life.” — Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove
“…And While You’re at it Wrap Some Film Around your Head“
I’ve got to hand it to some of the self-promoters who’ve hitched their wagon to Leica. They are, in the proper sense of the word, ‘parasites’ i.e.
- An organism that lives and feeds on or in an organism of a different species; and/or
- One who lives off and flatters the rich; a sycophant.
Since starting this blog in 2013 I’ve gradually become (a very minor) part of the secondary Leica media machine, which has made me aware of others involved in the same thing. I suppose that makes me a parasite too, except that I don’t monetize the blog. I’ve probably spent over $10,000 in the last 9 years to keep this up and running without ads. I did add a “Buy Me a Coffee” thing to the site, for which I won’t apologize, because you are totally free not to buy me a coffee, and 99.9% of you freeloaders don’t (thank you to the .01% who do). You, dear reader, get it for nothing. Think of me as a benevolent parasite.
Recovered From the Way Back Machine: Back in 2014 He Was a Photo Journalist, Apparently. Most of it is Bullshit.
Let’s do a deep-dive on Mr. Thorsten [von] Overgaard, the gentleman above with the film wrapped around his face, the “Specialist in Reportage.” [von] Overgaard is, in my opinion, the premiere Leica parasite in the strict sense of that term. The picture itself is instructive. It implies that [von] Overgaard has a long history as a photographer who cut his teeth professionally in the film era (i.e. before 2000). Certainly that’s what I take from it and I think that’s what it means to do. The truth is he doesn’t have any photographic history stretching back to the film era. If my understanding is correct, he didn’t even begin to photograph until about that time. Prior to that he worked in the advertising industry and had no connection to photography of any sort. Apparently, at that time he became a Scientologist and had an epiphany that he could be a photographer, or at least that’s what I remember of a blog post from his early days that has since disappeared from the web (or, as I discuss subsequently, has been buried so deep it’s pretty much impossible to now find).
The film photo is what people in the ad business refer to as ‘puffery’, exaggerated claims used in the service of publicity. No overt claim need be made; it’s there to subtly plant the seed in your mind – Overgaard/film – this guy has competence that goes back to the film era, and era intimately intertwined with Leica history BTW.
It’s one small misrepresentation in a much larger history of misrepresenting much about himself, his history using Leica cameras, and his connection to Leica. He’s massively inflated – and sometimes outright made up – his background and career accomplishments. It’s a shame, because he does publish good information about Leica’s. And there’s a lot of it. It’s just that it’s in the service of all sorts of workshops, books, videos, correspondence courses, print sales that all rely on him being perceived as an expert, seasoned professional photographer. He’s not. He’s what the dictionary defines as a “huckster” i.e. one who uses aggressive, showy, and sometimes devious methods to promote or sell a product, most of it puffery and/or downright duplicity with an eye to selling $800 books and $5000 workshops to Leica owners.
What’s the proof, you ask? As someone trained as an attorney who spent 32 years deconstructing evidence given me by the opposing side, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding confabulations i.e. falsities, lies. Deviousness and confabulations are easy to uncover if you know the tells. Overgaard’s website is chock full of tells. Man, there’s a lot to unpack here, to put it mildly. So let’s go:
According to his self-written bio “Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish born multiple award-winning AP photographer, known for his writings about photography and Leica cameras.”
Claim 1. AP, Getty Image, Wire Image Photographer. Apparently Overgaard is or has been an AP Photographer. He does not, and never has “worked for Getty Images and Wire Image.” AP members are newspapers, broadcast stations and individuals that do their own original news reporting. Once you are a member, the AP has the right to take the local news you report and rewrite it for use elsewhere. While he apparently is a member of the AP, he’s not very prolific, to put it mildly. Run his name under the AP individual photographer search and you come up with 6 photos of Seal sitting on a bench and 6 photos of Kelly Preston…and I found 1 photo of Hans Blix on his website that he’s given the AP designation (why he would need an AP designation for his own work on his own site is a mystery). That’s the extent of his 20 year AP career. I can find no evidence that any of these 12 photos has been subsequently circulated by AP. There is no evidence he’s been commissioned to do any AP work. Ever. There’s no evidence that he’s been paid for work through the Associated Press. There are no photo credits on any site, or in any magazine that I can find, citing him as the AP photographer. None. As best I can tell, he’s never been to a war zone to report with his camera, never done a human interest story sold through AP, never covered a news event of any sort that was subsequently distributed nationally or internationally by AP. And there’s certainly no evidence that he’s a “multiple-award winning AP Photographer”; that claim is patently false, period. As for “Working for Getty Images and Wire Image”, complete fabrication. Getty Images is simply a stock photo agency. One does not “work for Getty Images.”Likewise, WireImage. Using his criteria, you too can work for WireImage – just submit a photo of your cat. Verdict: False.
Getty and Wire Image Search 11/22. Oops! I love the fact that 5 of the 7 Images he’s submitted to WireImage are of him. The 2 Denmark Royals are at a Public Event. Clearly, Getty and WireImage Aren’t Paying [von] Overgaard’s Rent
Tsunami Reportage? More Flim Flam
Claim 2. Awards? Nothing. No mention anywhere, on 3rd party sites or his own, of any specific award he’s received for his photography work. Certainly nothing for his work as “an AP photographer” (which is the implication). None. There is a screen shot from the APA “American Photographic Artists” claiming one of his photos won an award there in 2017. Entirely plausible…but frankly, not very impressive. The APA is a vanity organization. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can join and be a member. Just pay the fee ($350 if you want to be labeled a “Professional”) and you get a membership card and a “Pro Media ID card”., which, according to their website “is specifically designed to help expedite quick check-in service at airports, as well as to facilitate the pro media discount on excess baggage, available through many airlines.” Seriously. And, of course, they offer “photo contests”, (i.e. money making devices for the sponsor) where they charge people to enter a photo in a contest and some lucky guy or gal gets to claim they won and put it on their CV. Verdict: False.
Claim 3. Known for his writings .Yes, he is known for his writing about photography and Leica cameras… but that’s been built on the claim of his long, distinguished history as a famous photographer, a claim which is a complete fabrication. In his defense, he is a decent writer and he knows a lot about Leica’s and how to use them. Much of what he writes, stripped of the self-promotion, is valuable information that less-experienced Leica users can learn from. Verdict: True with a caveat.
Claim 4. Claims to have “thousands” of images for sale through Getty Images Etc. [First, see above] When you click the website link where he makes such claims you get nothing but a recursive loop runaround to a site called “PSI Photography Services Inc” (supposedly located with main office in Hollywood (No Address or phone number given) and a “studio office” in Clearwater, Florida (No address or phone number given)) which bills itself as “a full-service agency for photographers” but yet claims to represent only one client – you guessed it, Thorsten [von] Overgaard (see above). The site has no photos nor a link to any photos. There is no ability to view [von] Overgaard’s photographs or order his photographs. It is a complete dead end. It gives no physical address or even a phone number. The “Inc.” of course, indicates that it’s an incorporated business entity in CA (or maybe Florida). A quick check of incorporated business entities through the Secretary of State’s office in both CA and FL finds no such corporation. It’s a complete fabrication. It doesn’t exist.
Where ARE All these Images? Apparently, You’ll need a Forensic Computer Specialist to Find Them
Further digging unearthed this above. He claims to previously have shot for Life, AP, Getty Etc but “pulled his archive” from them in 2013 and moved them to PSI. Let’s parse this out. First, The idea that he shot for Life is simply ridiculous. Life folded in 2000; by his own admission elsewhere, he hadn’t even started photographing yet and was working at a Danish ad agency, and even if he had been around, Life wouldn’t have looked twice at an inexperienced hack like him. Second, claiming you pulled them all from these various archives is a convenient way of hiding the fact that you’ve never had any there to begin with, because it can’t be confirmed. Third, There’s nothing at PSI where these vast archives are supposed to have been moved. Nothing. PSI itself is a fabrication. PSI doesn’t exist except as a webpage buried behind a bunch of hyperlinks. There is no physical PSI location anywhere, though he claims it to be “located in Hollywood”. None of these “thousands of images” can be accessed anywhere I’ve been able to locate, which, if you’re a professional photographer partly subsisting on the sale of your images, isn’t a very good thing. I guess you have to contact PSI and talk to their “Director of Sales”. Good luck finding them. Verdict: False, coupled with serious deviousness to hide the fact from the public.
“By 2006 he was concentrating more on photography, specialising [sic] in more portrait work for international magazines and eventually for actresses and celebrities such as Seal, Kelly Preston, Anne Archer and for Bill Clinton and members of the Danish Royal Family.”
Claim 5. Photographed Bill Clinton: [von] Overgaard claims to have photographed Bill Clinton. Well, he has, in the sense that he stood outside somewhere with a bunch of other people and grabbed a snapshot of him as he got out of his car. If you do a deep dive on him with Google (“Thorsten Overgaard Bill Clinton”), you’ll find a few photos of Clinton getting out of a car amongst a throng of people (Thorsten just another member of the general public standing in a big crowd taking a photo) and one B&W photo, an informal shot of Clinton in the Oval Office – a photo he misleadingly uses on his website – that was taken by Robert McNeely. That’s it. Claiming you’ve photographed Clinton as part of your bio is like me claiming I’m friends with King Charles because I shook his hand once. Verdict: False.
Claim 6. He photographed Seal: Yes. Six informal photos of him sitting outdoors. That’s it. No studio sessions. Verdict: Puffery.
Claim 7 And Kelly Preston: B Grade celebrity and Scientologist. Six really banal photos of her, apparently in a studio. [von] Overgaard is a Scientologist. Verdict: Minor puffery.
Claim 8. And Ann Archer: B Grade celebrity and Scientologist. He photographed her while she was was presenting 50,000£ to charities on behalf of the L. Ron Hubbard Foundation, amongst them the East Grinstead Museum where [von] Overgaard shot a few quick “portraits” of her. He’s posted these to his website with a big article about how he photographed her. I’ll let you be the judge of his work. Verdict: Large puffery.
Claim 9. Portrait Work for International Magazines: His bio claims he has shot for Vanity Fair, GQ, Vogue and the Times (https://www.overgaard.com/about) in addition to the Life claims I’ve noted above. I can find no evidence for any of these claims. There’s nothing on his site to back up said claims. Run a search for “Overgaard Vogue” and you come up with lots of hits – all for Anders Overgaard, who is a legit fashion photographer. For Thorsten, Nothing. “Overgaard GQ”? More Anders Overgaard. Thorsten: Nothing. Vanity Fair? Well, you get where I’m going…. Any other legitimate “international magazines”? None that I can find. Verdict: False.
Claim 10. Royalty. [von] Overgaard claims royal lineage by virtue of the “von Overgaard” name change. This is a complete affectation. A few a years ago he gratuitously added the “von” to his name, apparently to claim some sort of noble lineage when in fact he comes from humble lower middle class roots in Denmark. This mirrors his wife, Joy Villa, another Scientologist who bills herself as “Princess Joy Villa” when in fact she’s a HS graduate from Orange California, although in her latest bio she’s dropped the Princess claim and now claims to be a famous recording star. She and [von] Overgaard are no longer married, apparently. Verdict: Royalty? False.
Claim 11. Has Photographed Members of the Danish Royal Family. Yes, he has. Verdict: True.
Claim 12. Has Photographed for Life Magazine. Oh boy. [major eye roll] Hilarity ensues. Verdict: No. Full Stop.
I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I find the Google search result above very suspicious. Do a search on [von] Overgaard and, after two or three pages of links to his website and a bunch of self-written bios, you get this. And you get literally pages and pages of it, again and again and again and again, ad nauseum. Click on it and you get a link to a nonsense PDF that you can’t access without membership. Now, a few years back, had you done the same Google search, after 3 or 4 pages of self-promotion you’d have found a number of interesting articles about [von] Overgaard – one a long-ago bio post he had written himself when he not yet a photographer and was working for an ad agency. A lot of what he said then flatly contradicts the history he’s since spun about himself. You’d also have found a post by a former friend – apparently a photographer who helped him gain membership to AP – calling him out for all his false claims about his backstory and labelling him a liar. These things don’t come up anymore, because they’re buried behind endless pages of this site above.
More egregiously, his name is linked there to Humans of New York as if that was his blog or that he has something to do with it. It isn’t. He doesn’t. He’s got nothing to do with it. Started in November 2010 by photographer Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York developed a large following through social media. Stanton’s book based on the blog subsequently spent almost a year on the New York Times Bestseller list. The closest [von] Overgaard ever got to that blog is that he probably read it once or twice. Another laughably cheap, duplicitous attempt at appropriating other people’s work, purposely done to deceive (it takes time and effort to create a link that shows up so many times in a Google search. Somebody who knew what they were doing created that link).
I’m convinced someone has created and placed that PDF site and tagged it in such a way that it comes up again and again in order to bury sites critical of [von] Overgaard or that contradict his current backstory while also insinuating that he has some connection to the Humans of New York project. To put it mildly, it’s just low, patently dishonest and a grave disservice to Mr. Stanton and all the great work he’s done on his blog. [von] Overgaard should be ashamed. He owes Mr. Stanton an apology if nothing else.
Which brings a larger question: Why isn’t the mainstream photo press calling him out for all this? You’d think that at least one of them would do some basic fact checking. 30 minutes and a few clicks of the mouse and you’d be aware of some serious issues.
UPDATE: I owe La Vida Leica an apology. They actually called [von] Overgaard out way back in 2014. Well done.
Thorsten [von] Overgaard Obsessing Over Aesthetics
“Obsessed with the aesthetics of the world, Overgaard has been blessed with an innate ability to paint with the light he sees.” More word salad. I do understand the need ‘to sell oneself.’ I get that’s what he’s doing, mixed in as it is with a lot of downright fabrications. And, it’s not like there isn’t a veritable cottage industry of famous people who’ve invented backstories. The ‘Art World’ is full of them. [von] Overgaard is selling a dream to people dreaming the same dream – it’s the dream of exclusivity, access and specialized knowledge. So what if it’s all an illusion. There’s always going to be people happy to partake of the illusion. Thorsten [von] Overgaard is just giving them what they want, right? Unfortunately, the dream he’s selling is fabricated, parasitical of the hard work of legitimate photographers who’ve used a Leica and all the associations that come along with it.
Surely, a Prolific Famous Award Winning Photo Journalist Like [von] Overgaard has a Book or Two of his Collected Work on Amazon, Right?
And, as I said previously, I do think that he is doing some good things. His site has a ton of information about Leica’s; he’s obviously put a lot of work into it. People who take his workshops say he’s a nice guy and that they’ve enjoyed the experience. Fair enough. I give him credit for all this. I just wish he’d stop with all the puffery. Is he, or has he ever been, a photographer seriously embedded in day to day photography practice either as a freelance photographer, a staff photographer, or a gallery represented ‘Art Photographer’ or the author of industry published and recognized photo books? No. Does he have any significant ‘body of work’ that singles him out as an accomplished photographer either from an artistic or popular perspective? No. Does he have a gallery that represents his interests, exhibits his body of work and offers it for sale? No. As best I can tell, he is not, and never has been, represented by a gallery anywhere, let alone one in the usual centers of artistic practice – NYC, Paris, Berlin, LA. Again, as best I can tell, the only gallery shows he’s ever had have been self-generated vanity projects where the artist rents the space and throws a party to himself. As best I can tell, there are no extant reviews of his work by any recognized, independent photography or art critic associated with any independent publication or website, ever. He doesn’t even appear to have, or have ever had, a studio where he practices his “portrait work.” His own website doesn’t seem to have a gallery of his best “portrait work.” The only thing his For Sale Gallery page offers is 7 photographs, one of a horse, one of a girl sitting by a window, one of a guy in a snowstorm. You get the idea.
Has he offered a site – ignoring the self-generated puffery – with a lot of good, practical information about Leica’s? Yes. That should be good enough. Hell, without all the puffery and self-aggrandizement I’d be a fan. Starting from basically nothing in 2000, he’s taught himself a lot about Leica, and he’s used his website, among other things, to impart that knowledge to the public. That’s impressive. I admire him for it. It’s all the other things I’ve noted here where he loses me; they’re the product of a calculated deviousness that most people with a conscience can’t pull off with a straight face. [von] Overgaard, meanwhile, seems to have doubled down on it all.
Do a Standard Industry Search for “Photo by Thorsten Overgaard.” That should uncover all those industry credits for his remarkable work, right? This is what you get – Nothing but links to his website. I especially like the photo of him dressed up as Shakespeare…or is that Francis Bacon?
Here’s what [von] Overgaard should do: He should scrub his website of all the false, misleading information. He should scrub all the false links. He doesn’t even have to acknowledge any of it; no mea culpa’s necessary. He’s now been given a means of saving face. Just bill himself as an educator, someone who knows everything about Leica, their history, their cameras; he DOES know a lot. Invite real photographers – folks with recognized experience and expertise to talk at his seminars. Given how much he’s invested in the whole thing, it should be easy enough.
The business model he’s currently operating under is fraudulent. People are spending good money for his books, seminars, etc based on fraudulent claims. Someday, somewhere, an enterprising attorney is going to file a class action lawsuit against him for fraud. Plaintiffs will be those people who spent money on his courses, books, video presentations based on the expectation that they were going to receive instruction from someone who actually had the experience and past success he claims to have. In other words, they were induced to spend money based on patently false claims and the claimant knew they were false and made them for the purpose of inducing the public to buy what he’s offering. As part of the class action suit, serve him with interrogatories requesting proof of each of his claims. Sit him down and depose him under oath. Someone could have a field day with this. Just a thought.
Elements for Fraudulent Inducement in Florida:
Defendant made a false statement regarding a material fact;
Defendant knew or should have known the representation was false;
Defendant intended that the representation induce plaintiff to act on it; and
Plaintiff suffered damages in justifiable reliance on the representation.
My bio, [von] Overgaard style:
“Award-winning photographer, photojournalist and gallery represented Abstract Expressionist painter whose photos and paintings hang in private collections both in the States and in Europe. His photos have been published in B&W Magazine and Vis A Vis Paris and exhibited at SPEOS Gallery in Paris and Sizl gallery in Carrboro, North Carolina. He has been gallery represented both for his photography and his painting by Sizl until their untimely closure in 2008. In 2006 his paintings and photographs were exhibited in a 2 man show along with award-winning Macedonian painter Robert Cvetkovski at Sizl. His photography permanently graced the walls of the iconic Crooks Corner Restaurant, an eatery whose recent closing literally made the front page of the New York Times. He is friends with King Charles and has dined with numerous celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and James Spader. He has sat at table with Susan Sontag in Paris and discussed her iconic book On Photography. He has shared a room with Henri Cartier-Bresson. He has travelled to numerous countries on 4 continents photographing in his unique, muscular B&W style. He has bumped into many famous people while engaged in ‘street photography’ in Paris and on the Lower East Side and Soho in NYC, but is sophisticated enough to leave them be. His photographic education includes study at The New School in NYC, The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and SPEOS Paris, where he studied under Cartier-Bresson’s Master Printer George Fevre. Being a man of great integrity, he has consistently rejected commercializing his work, as such standing in the tradition of uncompromising artists like Robert Frank. He has also earned graduate degrees in religion/law/history from Duke University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a matriculated graduate student at Harvard (consistently ranked as the world’s finest University) until he was stricken with cancer. He is noted for his trenchant writing on his influential award-winning Leicaphilia blog. Photographing seriously since he was 12, he has been blessed with an innate ability to photograph with light he sees. In 2005, he brought that innate sense to his remarkable large canvas paintings. He always wears a camera.”
See how that works?
Andreas Kaufman (Leica Bigwig) and Lenny Kravitz Share an Inside Joke
“The Leica M-P “Correspondent” is an homage to Lenny’s lifelong passion for photography that started with the Leicaflex he received from his father on his 21st birthday.” – Kravitz Design. One question: How does one start a “lifelong passion” at 21?
Here’s the “unboxing” video of the Lenny Kravitz MP. The camera and lenses of the Kravitz set are identical to the production MP’s technical specifications i.e. the only difference is the faux wear and the Lenny Kravitz stamp of approval. Give Leica credit: only Leica could introduce an artificially worn camera named after a B-grade rock star, label it the “Correspondence Edition”, require that it be handled with white gloves, charge 3 times the price of the normal petty bourgeois version ($24,500 US), and sell them all.
Make Sure You Wear Those White Gloves While Handling That Old, Beat Up Camera!
Apparently, Leicaphiles eat these absurdities up. In doing a Google search on the camera’s introduction, I can find nothing but breathless fawning by people who should know better – PetaPixel, Leica Rumors, Steve Huff Photo, et al. Critical thinking has always been in short supply among the secondary Leica press. Lesson to be learned: just know when you read these sites that you’re not getting objective information; you’re getting recycled press releases and boot-licking sycophancy whose main objective, as best I can tell, is to stay on the good side of Leica in hopes of catching some scraps from the table.
You may have noticed that I’m seemingly on an extended Lenny Kravitz rant. To clarify: Lenny Kravitz is a very talented guy, much more so than I could ever be. He’s not some self-promoting hack hawking the illusion of his own competence; he’s just a guy who’s outside of his lane when it comes to photography, hawking a vanity project with the complicity of Leica who makes money from it. Apparently, his dad was a professional photographer who used a Leica. His dad gave him a Leicaflex when he was 21 and he’s had an interest in photography since that time. All perfectly legit. He’s also a famous musician…which he’s parlayed into his gig with Leica, and Leica has pimped him as a photographer, giving him exhibits and publishing his vanity project – “Flash” – whose print run, except for a bunch given away for promotional purposes, has probably long ago been remaindered and pulped.
The secondary press has actively promoted the whole schtick, often with great enthusiasm, which says a lot about what they must think of you, their reader. You’d think at least one critic, someone with a media platform like the ones above, would question the whole thing – or at least not smugly play along – but apparently no one did. The reality is this: those sites are just further marketing arms for camera manufacturers, Leica foremost among them. They’re not there to look out for your interests. They’re parasitical to the whole Leica marketing enterprise, there to manipulate your interests and make money doing it.
The Re-Introduced Leica M6
And Yet. If you can get past all the nonsense – what I like to refer to as the ‘Overgaardization’ of the brand – Leica continues to do some pretty remarkable things. The reintroduction of M6 production, almost 40 years after its initial offering, is a case in point. What other camera company is producing and marketing mechanical film cameras in 2022? Nobody. Now, with the new M6, Leica offers three (yes, 3) mechanical film cameras, the MA, the MP and the M6. And they sell every one they produce. As I understand it, Leica is now more fiscally healthy than it’s ever been, whereas twenty years ago they were on the verge of bankruptcy. Cleary as a money-making operation they are wildly successful. And they deserve to be, given their continued commitment to what got them here i.e. mechanical film cameras.
Who’s buying these currently offered film Leica’s is anyone’s guess. Professionals? I doubt it. Old, crusty guys looking to relive their photographic youth? Maybe. Are a lot of them being used to create really shitty “street photography” i.e. seemingly any picture taken outdoors with a Leica? No doubt. Are some people using them to produce meaningful work? Of course. In this respect, the Leica buyer’s demographic has changed little in the last 40 years.
It will be interesting to see who buys the new M6. I suspect it will be one of two types: 1) Younger people who’ve never shot much film and want to engage with, and learn, film photography and 2) everyone else who’ll buy it and never take it out of the box. As for the former, good for them. If your goal is to get back to the basics and cultivate film photography as a viable medium – and you’ve got some disposable income – a new M6 is a worthy way to go about it. I also suspect that, after the initial, all too predictable post-release feeding fenzy, in a year or two you’ll see a lot of ‘Mint’ new M6’s for sale on the secondary market, digital-age photographers having discovered that the reality of film photography and its theoretical allure are often two different things.
The Utterly Weird, but Compellingly Fascinating Sigma SD Quattro
I’ve always been a lover of quirky, neglected and/or unfairly maligned cameras. Hence, my allegiance to the Leica M5 and the Ricoh GXR, two of my favorite cameras, both of which were critical and popular disappointments. I also own, and love, the Sigma SD Quattro. Sigma says its 20MP APS-C sensor produces a resolution “equivalent” to 39MP. In reality, it’s way better than that. My experience is, when shot at ISO100, it easily resolves fine details much better than the 36MP D800E, which was, at the time of the Quattro’s introduction, the Mack Daddy of high resolution full-frame DSLRs, and I suspect it can hold its own against the current crop of 60MP mirrorless. All of this out of a 20MP APS-C sensor.
The SD Quattro’s Foveon* sensor is what makes the SD Quattro unique and allows it to punch so high above its weight. Traditional high resolution digital sensors employ a Bayer filter sensor where red, green and blue photosensors are positioned at discrete locations. The Bayer filter then ‘interpolates’ them (i.e. makes an educated guess about what, for example, red would look like in a position where there is no red photosensor) to produce a full color image. The Foveon sensor ‘stacks’ the red, green and blue photosensors on top of each other at the same location ( in other words, there’s a red, green and blue pixel at every position) producing significantly sharper files than a Bayer filter sensor at same resolution. Frankly, it’s not even close. ‘Why’ it would do so, from a technical standpoint, is beyond my expertise. Just know that it does. If sharp resolution files are your thing, a Foveon sensor is what you want.
It also produces really nice, tonally rich B&W files that remind me of the look of Panatomic-X, and does so right out of the camera with exceptional jpeg files. While I’m hesitant to admit it, given my love of the M9 CCD Monchrom’s output, I think the Quattro is the better B&W camera. It’s that good.
ISO 200 B&W Conversion in Silver Efex
Build quality is excellent. This is no cheap, plastic-y camera. Made from a magnesium alloy, fit and finish is really nice. Buttons and dials feel robust. Ergonomics are surprisingly intuitive, much more so than digital Leica’s and contemporary DSLR’s and mirrorless offered by Canon/Nikon et al.
In spite of all the above, the Sigma SD Quattro (and the Quattro H) are most decidedly not for everyone. They aren’t a camera you’re going to grab going out the door if you’ve got other less complicated options. They’re cumbersome in any situation in involving live action – people photography, ‘street photography’ , sports. They’re bulky and super slow in operation. If you’re shooting RAW, don’t even think about shooting them at any ISO above 400; in fact, it’s advisable to not shoot at anything other than its native sensor sensitivity of 100 ISO… or 200 ISO in a pinch. (Shooting jpegs is another story, which I’ll address shortly).
But man, when you use it as it was meant to be used – 100 ISO steadily handheld in sunlight, or on a tripod – the results are remarkable. It gives you DNG files that allow almost endless manipulation to get whatever look you’re after. They are particularly good for B&W conversions. They are incredibly sharp even at large magnifications, and their Foveon-ish* sensor produces a noticeable something that even current 60MP sensors don’t. Viewing the output of my M9 Monochrom (itself capable of really sharp, clean fines at lower ISO way better than you’d expect from an 18MP sensor) with an out-of-camera JPEG from the Quattro makes it clear just how good 1) Quattro jpegs are and 2) the Foveon sensor is in B&W.
Out of Camera jpeg from the Quattro using the 4:5 Aspect Ratio In Camera Crop
A DNG RAW file from the M9 Monochrom – Processed in Lightroom
The ability to shoot DNG RAW files is a major upgrade from Sigma’s previous Foveon cameras, which shot a proprietary RAW version that required conversion in clunky, bug-ridden Sigma software. In 2004 Adobe created the DNG file format to replace the various proprietary Raw (.RAW) formats of differing digital cameras. The goal was to provide a standardized file format that could be processed on any computer system or viewer without special proprietary software. DNG files are supported in software such as Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, Camera Raw.
With the Quattro, you also have the ability to avoid shooting RAW format entirely: the jpeg processing engine is really good, which allows you some ability to shoot at higher ISO’s – expose properly and you can shoot jpegs in color up to ISO 400, and black and white to ISO 800. Yes there is some degradation as you increase ISO, but because of the clarity of the Foveon pixels you can still print and display at very large sizes. One upside of shooting jpeg is the reduced file size; the DNG files out of the Quattro are enormous and take a lot of processing power to work with. Of course, the downside is you’re stuck with the rendering the jpeg engine gives you. Suffice it to say that the Quattro is the only camera I feel comfortable shooting in jpeg mode.
Out of Camera jpeg From the SD Quattro – Me Looking Like Uncle Festor
And then there’s the issue of lens choice. The Quattro employs the Sigma SA mount, a mount Sigma used for all its SLR and mirrorless cameras until they discontinued it in 2018. As such, you’re limited to pre-2018 Sigma optics (of which there are plenty and most of which are really good, the trade off being most are also quite large). I’m currently using the Sigma DC 17-50 2.8 EX HSM which is solidly built and sharp at all apertures. If you need a ‘standard’ prime, the excellent Sigma 30mm 1.4 ART lens fits the bill nicely (that’s it on the photo that leads off the piece). Just realize that you’re going to be limited to already existing Sigma optics.
Sigma discontinued the camera in 2018. They’ve replaced it with the fp, which uses a full-frame Bayer sensor. This means that the Quattro is probably going to be the last in the line of commercially produced Foveon-sensored cameras, as Sigma wholly owns the Foveon patent. I applaud Sigma for doing something different; their Foveon cameras, from the original 4MP DP series through the Merrills and ending with the Quattro are all fascinating departures from the norm. IMO, their strengths – super sharp, super detailed RAW files – transcend their obvious limitations. It’s a shame the marketplace killed it. I suspect Foveons, and the Quattro in particular, are eventually going to achieve cult status, with in-the-box examples bringing exorbitant prices. Ten years maybe?
UPDATE: Maybe not…..
July 2022: Sigma CEO Says More Foveons Coming. Yay!
Should you buy one? Yes. Full Stop. These things are currently bargains used. Buy one – or an equally weird Merrill or DP Quattro – and use it. The question is which one. I’ve owned most iterations – the 4MP DP2x, the DP2 Merrill and the Quattro. I loved the pocket-sized ‘4MP’ DP2x with its fixed 24mm 2.8 that produced beautiful color files looking like those from a camera with 5 times its resolution but, alas, the lower pixel count precluded you from printing big. The Merrill’s produce stunning output, but unfortunately tether you to Sigma’s RAW processor, which is a nightmare to work with. Were I to choose one my preference would be the Quattro, as it offers the ability to shoot DNG files you can post-process in Photoshop or Lightroom without recourse to the dedicated Sigma software and it allows use of the entire range of Sigma SA optics. It also shoots really good jpegs, which the Merrill did not. I haven’t used the DP Quattro series, which Sigma offered after the Merrill and before the SD, but I assume the image quality is on par with the SD. As I understand it, the DP series is the SD with fixed lenses (and a very weird design).
The Quattro H, a slightly larger sensor than the Quattro (1.3 crop as opposed to the 1.5 crop of the base Quattro) commands a premium over the APS-C base Quattro, but I don’t see much functional distinction between the two. Given the price difference, I’d stick with the base APS-C model. Current prices are all over the map, as you can see from the Ebay offerings below. Having watched past auctions, $800 should get you a lightly used Quattro body and either the 30mm 1.4 Art lens, or my choice, the 17-50DC EX with IS. What you’ll get is an APS-C camera that easily out-resolves the latest Leica M, isn’t going to ever become “obsolete,” and will keep your interest permanently. Certainly, if you aspire to landscape photography, take things slow and use a tripod, this is the camera for you. Plus, this thing just oozes cache; pull it out and start pointing it around and every DSLR toting Ansel Adams and Leica M HCB wannabe is going to be secretly envious. Thorsten [von] Overgaard will be completely flummoxed. Try doing that for $800 in Leica land.
Get the PG-41 Power Grip and Extra Batteries. You’re Going to Need Them.
We talk of Leica being the one camera company offering digital cameras that hearken back to – and retain vestigial features of – film era cameras and their operation. I’d suggest that the Sigma SD Quattro does the same. Operation is reminiscent of a MF film camera loaded with a high resolution low ISO film. Think of a Hasselblad loaded with Panatomic-X.
The Quattro requires you to slow down and think about what you’re doing. Its slow start up and interminable write times give you no choice. Its energy hungry sensor eats batteries, so, much like film, you’re best to make every shot count. There’s no doing it wrong and having the camera’s automation correct you. But do it right and work around the camera’s inherent limitations and the results can be stunning. It rewards pre-visualization and proper technique with subtle color detail or wonderfully detailed, tonally rich B&W files. Those who’ve worked with MF film cameras will feel right at home.
Mine. Yes it’s Big. So is a Hasselblad 501CM with 80mm Planar.
*The X3 Quattro sensor used in the SQ Quattro is slightly different than the original Foveon sensor. The blue photosensor layer at top has 4 times the high resolution of the red and green photosensor layers underneath it are of lower (1/4th) resolution.
Pinhole Camera Photo (Unmanipulated), Luxembourg Gardens, Paris 2003
“Does time ever stand still? The years that have come exist no more; those that are to come have no existence yet. Past years have already slipped away, and future years will slip away in their turn. The same is true of a single day.” – Augustine
North Carolina State Fair, Raleigh 2022
Having been dragooned into attending the NC State Fair by visiting friends, I decided to try the M240 as a ‘street photography’ camera. 21mm f4, ISO 800, f8 and scale focus. Basically point and shoot. As I’ve mentioned innumerable times, my preferred ‘street photography’ set-up is the Ricoh GXR with the 21mm via the M-Mount module using the same settings. Given the GXR’s crop sensor, its the equivalent of shooting a 32mm on a full frame.
Having now experienced both, I’m still partial to the Ricoh for street work. It’s smaller, lighter, less obtrusive, and mated to the 21mm gives the perfect focal length for drive by shooting (the 21mm used full frame is simply a bit too wide for my tastes, not allowing you to get the feeling of being on top of subjects in a way the same lens on a 1.5 crop sensor does. The M240’s 24mpx sensor does, however, give you much more leeway to crop, unlike the GXR’s 10 mpx, but I’m pretty much a ‘no crop’ guy anyway). Here’s the best of what I could do with the M240 in 150 minutes at the fair. The one above and the one directly below are cropped. IMHO, nothing exceptional, but then again I was there 2.5 hours, so I wasn’t expecting a body of work. But the two previous times I’ve been to the fair with the GXR I’ve been amazed at the amount of interesting photos it’s brought back.
Another thing I’ve noticed with the larger megapixel sensors is that it’s more difficult to dirty them up in post-processing. With lower pixel count cameras – the old CCD Nikon D200 or the Ricoh, both 10 megapixel – it’s easy enough to push a few buttons in Silver Efex and get a gritty image resembling Neopan 1600 or Tri-X pushed a few stops. It seems the pixel density of 20+ megapixel sensors resist such treatment. One more reason I find the digital sensor sweet spot to be 10-16 megapixels; of course, if you’re shooting with sharpness and clarity in mind, or are looking to produce 40×60 prints, lower resolution sensors aren’t going to cut it. But for street photography you’re going to display digitally or print in reasonable sizes i.e. 12×18 max, they work.
Anyone else shoot them both? I’d love to hear reader’s preferred cameras for street work…..
Donna and Nicki, Dubrovnik 2021, taken with my M9 CCD Monochrom
In a recent post I claimed that Leica’s Service Department Sucked. I’m taking that back. Let me explain.
Last September, while in Dubrovnik, I dropped my M9 Monochrom from a very low table (2 feet maybe) onto a carpeted floor. Should be nothing to worry about, except that the shutter wouldn’t fire now. I envisioned thousand dollar repairs and 1 year waits via Leica’s New Jersey Service Department. As such, upon arriving home I shelved the camera and forgot about it. I’ve got a bunch of other cameras, an M240 which I really like in particular, and I wasn’t shooting much of anything anyway. When I got my terminal diagnosis recently, I realized I needed to get the Monochrom fixed or it would probably end up in the trash after I died due to my estate assuming it was just an inoperable camera with no inherent value…so I sent it off to Leica USA and waited. They acknowledged receipt on August 23rd and then…crickets.
About 3 weeks ago I sent the Leica Service folks the following email:
Can you give me a timeframe for my repair? Believe it or not, I’m
terminally ill – have a few months left – and I’d love to get my
monochrom back for just a bit before I head off to oblivion.
To which they replied immediately, indicating they were moving my repair to the front of the line. Which they did (my apologies to all those Leicaphiles waiting for their camera to get fixed; I just jumped to the front of the line!) I’ve got my Monochrom back, rangefinder adjusted, sensor cleaned, shutter firing (apparently it was just a loose wire somewhere).
That’s good service. Thank you, Leica.
Basic Out-of-Camera Monochromed M240 DNG File
Of course, what this calls for in celebration is a totally anecdotal ‘test’ comparing the B&W output of the Leica M240 against the M9 Mono. The M240 has a 24 mp CMOS sensor, the MM an 18 mp CCD sensor. The same lens – a VC 35mm f2.5 (great lens BTW) – was used for both, making for a ballpark oranges to oranges comparison. (Pixel peeping at x400 magnification will have to wait for another post). Above is an M240 DNG file that imported into LR and very basic adjustments made, essentially just playing with the exposure curves a bit. Directly below is a Monochrom DG subjected to the exact same initial treatment as the M240 file above:
Basic Out-of-Camera Monochrom DNG File
Like most Monochrom DNG files, it’s a bit flat. That’s OK. It’s OK, because Monohrom DNG files, as opposed to in-camera jpgs, are meant to be post-processed. Leica even sent purchasers a copy of Silver Efex along wit the camera. And as a dedicated B&W shooter I always run my files through Silver Efex for a final print or something posted digitally. (I’ve made these files big enough so you can click on them and get somewhat of a larger view). It’s there that I notice the increased flexibility of the Monochrom DNG versus the M240 DNG converted to B&W and then worked up.
Above are the M240 and the MM files respectively, again, this time worked up in Silver Efex to emulate an HP5 negative. The changes made varied between the two files; what I was looking to do was get the best end result I could be each file, and this necessarily required different adjustments.
Nothing wrong with the M240 version – it certainly can stand on its own – but the MM print just has a sharpness and pop that the M240 print doesn’t. Of course, I could have jacked up the contrast and sharpness just a bit more in the M240 print after I’d compared it to the MM print. That’s typically what we’d do in the wet darkroom, right? We’d print it again, knowing we wanted more contrast, this time using a more contrasty grade of paper and, for maximum sharpness, a grain focuser.
So what you see below is the M240 file previously edited in LR, now with some added contrast and sharpness:
Still not up to the MM final print. Arguably not as good as the previous M240 file above. Who knows. All of this is subjective and really is arguing over relatively small differences. Does it make any difference in real life? For most photographers, probably not. For those of us dedicated B&W shooters with an eye cultivated through long experience with both film and digital B&W, yes. It does.
Leica advertising has always been stylish. Here’s two in particular that I admire. The first, above, is an early ’50s Modernist advert. Angular orientation with embedded triangles, sans serif typefaces coupled with old school italic script typeface…and the Piccadilly Circus Eros Statute. Eros is one of the primordial gods that emerged from Chaos when the world began, and is the driving force behind the unions of the primordial gods that initiated creation. Subtle. Well done. Someone was familiar with classic Greek mythology who expected his target audience to be so as well.
As for the camera, this “automatic focusing” Leica is an IIIa with a 50mm Summar. Beautiful.
Sixty years later and this ad for the M Monochrom. Monochrome (as in black and white) design can easily appear dull. But it’s perfect here (it is a Monochrom camera after all). This one cleverly uses font-weight to bold certain letters and make them stand out against the monochrome design. The bold camera and letters give a point of focus, while the small text does two things: It draws the reader in and helps align the bolded text. It’s “edgy”. It works.
In between these two are any number of inspired advertising designs. Here are a few more I like, all of them graphically simple while drawing your eye to where it needs to go:
With the exception of the Monochrom ad (a nice throw back to the glory days), the advertising wonks at Leitz who designed these are long gone, replaced by a new, hip generation of 20 something Parsons Design grads who have no conception of the incredibly rich history of Leitz they could draw on. Who’ve been educated, not with the Greek classics, but via Facebook and social media.
So we get the argument from authority sublimated via the cult of personality: famous people achieving their photographic vision with their newest Leica, Lenny Kravitz stalking his prey in the East Village while rocking his rosta hat and a camera designed by Jackson Pollock.
Photo by Lenny Kravitz. Leica gave This Guy a Show at a NYC Gallery. This was the Photo they Used to Advertise It. Seriously.
Erik van Straten. Exceptional.
Meanwhile, there are more than a few Leica users quietly producing stunning work. Look hard enough on the net and you’ll find them – not, mind you in some curated corner where money is looking to be made, or amongst the beautiful people of NYC or some self-appointed expert shill man looking to make a buck off the low-hanging Leicaphile fruit – but everyday people who’ve been using Leicas forever, producing bodies of work that should humble the “Leica Photographers” producing the banal shit above. Leica needs to start recognizing them, because they’re why Leica is famous. Leica should think about returning the favor.
Dragan Novakovac. Just a Guy With a Leica.
By Damon Chetson. Mr. Chetson is an Attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Leicaphilia readers know a different Tim from the Tim I know. Until recently, I didn’t know Tim took photographs with an old German camera and called them art. Or at least debated about whether they were art, depending on whether he saw a photo he took as a kid 40 years later on a poster advertising an exhibition in Brno, Czech Republic, or assembled them in a book where, as best I can tell, the central complaint, among much praise, was: too grainy. On that point, said critic and I agree. Too grainy.
Since Tim has been sick I’ve made a point of visiting him often. It was the least I could do, fellow criminal defense attorney he is ( I am what the current elected District Attorney in Raleigh claimed in recent campaign against me to be a “Sex Attorney”). Often I bring Peruvian chicken, which Tim likes, and which he says washes down well with whatever beer/whiskey/calvados he happens to be drinking in that moment. In gratitude, Tim has given me a copy of Car Sick. He also gave me a stack of unreadable books, including James Joyce’s Ulysses. Said they wouldn’t be needed any more and I might learn something from them. My thoughts: 1) No way am I reading Ulysses, and 2) surely a Nikon digital camera takes sharper pictures than the questionable ones that constitute Car Sick; He needs to get one of those.
Tim calls me a Philistine. Tim blames the graininess on the emulsification process. I tell him that I want the world represented wie es eigentlich gewesen. Blaming your failure to render the object as the subject viewed it on your inability to mix chemicals just right seems a poor excuse.
Picture quality aside, Car Sick is my kind of book. It tells of a country in decline, where the storefronts are boarded up, where American Jesus will not save you (which is not to say that Jesus will not save you, but that’s for another blog), where looming out of frame is the specter of liberal capitalism that lays waste to whole communities and downtowns and storefronts and other places where people once gathered and communed. I do wish he’d have fixed the crack in his windshield though.
This is why Tim and I get along, and why Tim is the most human type of liberal subject. He is curious, but not so curious that he doesn’t take stands, whether when he’s taking photos or when he’s taking a testifying cop to task for failing to properly do his job. He’s a guy who recognizes there’s a System, but who knows there are times when you need to kick against the pricks. Tim is a consuming American who understands what his consumption has wrought, and it’s there in the pages of Car Sick.
I keep telling Tim we’re all going to die. Tim says the life-death issue is a little more pressing for him. Maybe so, but he has and is living a life worth living. And if you live in our neck of North Carolina, and you bring over some Dogfish 90 Minute IPA (not the 60 minute stuff), he’ll tell you about it, but he’ll also have the patience to listen to your stories and try to understand you. And maybe he’ll give you a copy of Car Sick. Because you’re certainly not getting mine, a book of grainy photos I will always treasure.
[Editor’s Note: I’ve asked Mr. Chetson for his book back, as my second run has already sold out].
Craig Semetko is a “Leica Pro Photographer”, whatever that means. I assume he’s paid by Leica to shill their product. Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course; I’d love it if Leica paid me to shill their products. And I’m sure Mr. Semetko is a fine guy, probably worth sitting down and talking shop with, although, after watching his video I’m taking any advice he wants to give me with a grain of salt.
In the above video, he argues that the Leica M is the perfect camera for ‘achieving your vision’ (oh boy) doing street photography i.e. taking pictures of strangers in public places. IMHO, everything he says to justify that claim is simply wrong, or at best verbal filler, nonsense that makes for banal, self-conscious photos much like the picture above that serves to introduce the video. According to Semetko, there are three camera functions the M simplifies – framing, focusing, and exposure – making it the ideal camera for street work.
The truth is that control over those variables is essentially irrelevant in the street photography context. Let me explain.
Scale focus, Point and Shoot. See What you Get. Pretty Simple, Actually.
I’m not arguing that the M isn’t a good camera for street photography. It is, but just not for the reasons Mr. Semetko says it is. The video is marketing word salad, designed to bypass the viewer’s critical faculties through an argument from authority i.e. ‘famous’ NYC photographer tutors me, camera-bug insurance salesman from Toronto, how I too can become a “street photographer”. Just buy the new M11 and frame, focus and expose. Yup, stand there, point the camera at some guy with funny sunglasses pushing a hot dog cart in Soho, put your $9000 M11 to your face and frame (always looking at what’s outside the frame because, unlike other cameras, you can do that with a Leica), now focus carefully with the focus patch (see details in manual), fiddle with the f-stop and aperture settings in a way that achieves your photographic vision, and press the shutter. Voila! A perfect “street photo.”
Prior to watching this video, I’d not heard of Craig Semetko. I googled some of his photos and they’re not bad. One thing I’m fairly certain of is he wasn’t framing, focusing and exposing as part of his process. Frame, focus and expose is a recipe for the worst type of “street photography”, banal photos of self-conscious subjects mugging for the camera. You might as well ask your subjects to say “Cheese!”
A Girl With Funny Sunglasses. In This Case, I Achieved My Photographic Vision With a Ratty Old Ricoh That’s Too Cheap to Include a Rangefinder/Viewfinder
Digital rangefinders like Leica are good for street photography, just not the for reasons Mr. Semetko would have you believe. Because they’re manual focus they allow you to scale focus i.e. set a focus point and forget about it. They are full frame and allow a 21 or 28mm optic for tons of DOF. Their sensors are good enough to allow you to set your ISO to 3200, your aperture to f8, and forget about it. They’re small and discreet, not freaking people out when you approach with what looks like a bazooka; you can simply hold it in your hands at waist level and shoot. To hell with framing. Find the good ones on your contact sheet later, because, whatever Craig Semetko, Leica Pro Photographer would have you believe, most of it’s 1) serendipity coupled with 2) an eye trained by years of looking at photos to recognize a good one when you see it.
Of course, you can make the same argument about any number of other cameras, but you’re not going to feel like a famous Leica Pro Photographer walking the mean streets of Akron with your Ricoh GXR ( which, with an M-Mount module and a VC 21mm f4 is the perfect “street photography” camera). But Mr. Semetko isn’t paid by Leica to say that.