No doubt I’m quite late to this party, but I finally took the plunge and got a Fujifilm camera. Not that I’m late to Fujifilm, mind you, because back when when I first picked up a film camera, it was usually a Fujifilm role of film that was inside of it. But lately, after hearing (and seeing) so much about the digital Fujifilm “look” being produced by its film simulation settings, curiosity and a bit of nostalgia has gotten the best of me. To cautiously dip into Fujifilm territory you could say that I went “low end” with the fixed-lens Fujifilm X70, which kept things neatly below the sub-$1,000 mark. Results? Wow. Their Classic Chrome simulation alone (picture above) is enough to make you begin to think JPEG again. After years of shooting with Leica and Nikon cameras, I have to wonder why those leading camera manufacturers don’t have anything that comes even close. And while I have yet to master this little X70 camera, it is a refreshing feeling to have my photographic eyes opened up again to all sorts of new creative possibilities. Maybe I’ve been spending my money in the wrong place all these years, or grew too complacent with the improvement drips coming out of those leading camera manufacturers. Who knows. But what I know for sure is that I will be giving Fujifilm cameras a more extended look in the future. I can’t say yet, but they may be the gems that were hiding in plain sight all along, and at a much lower price point. More later about all this, but in the meantime, these film simulation shots will definitely be a common presence on this blog.
Photographers are never a happy lot. If you are like most photographers, you tend to spend too much time reading photography sites and worrying about the gear you don’t have, or the photos you are not taking. Seldom will you check out a photo’s EXIF data and find yourself rejoicing. No, on the contrary. What’s more likely to happen is that all that technical data contained in those accompanying files will leave you with a sense of quiet desperation. One side of you will see that the great photo you’re looking at was taken with a more expensive camera/lens combination than what sits in your camera bag. Another side of you, and perhaps more painful to ego and wellbeing, will discover that the photograph was taken with a much cheaper camera/lens combination than what you dished-out for your precious. Whatever the case, your mind will immediately begin questioning your choices, and a raging war of words from pundits living in your subconscious will not waste a single second in turning your brain into a virtual battle zone. You need more, you need less, you need different, more time, more knowledge, more, more, less, less. It’s enough to get you committed to an institution. In the end, all you really need is the desire to take photos, and the ability to do so. Time and disposition are the key, and just like wine, whatever you think is good, is good enough. So best to purge those voices in your head and just go out and make photographs with whatever gear you’ve got. Believe me, I’ve been plenty envious of what some people are recording with their iPhones. But maybe it was because I didn’t have the right lens. Oh no, there again are those voices in my head.
Wide-angle photography is not everyone’s cup of tea. Ask any photographer out there what his or her favorite focal length is, and more-likely-than-not the answer will be other than a wide-angle lens. I count myself in this group, because throughout the years I’ve developed a real affinity for 50mm lenses. You could say that 50mm is my general visual comfort level, even if this sounds a lot less glamorous than the more technical explanations you’ll see on the Internet. But it is what it is, and no matter how many times I hit the streets with my camera, a 50mm is always inside my bag.
Having said that, it is also true that in the last year or so, I have also developed quite an affinity for the 21-28mm focal length. Perhaps because reality makes more sense when it appears in context or something, but ever since I acquired the incredible Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super-Elmar lens, my eyes have been opened wide, so to speak. These wide, optical marvels usually don’t come cheap (they can set you back as much as the cost of an European vacation), so my move into this area can best be described as hesitant at best. At least until recently, when I decided to give cheap a chance.
That’s where my incursion into the 24mm range comes in. It all started with a conversation that took place during my recent trip to Chelsea in NYC. During this trip I had the pleasure of meeting Olof Willoughby, one of the co-founders of the popular Leica Meet group. It just so happens that Olaf is quite fun of the Leica 24mm range (think European vacation here too), and the day I met him, that was all he was carrying. So, I started wondering that if such a distinguished photographer as Olaf loved that 24mm focal length, that perhaps I was missing something. Not that I haven’t dabbled into 24mm before. I have, and I was once the proud owner of the magnificent Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED lens. But weight and bulk considerations got the best of me, and after kind of abandoning this lens back at home for too long, I decided to part ways with it. Have I lived to regret this decision? Of course I have, but since that lens now retails for about $2,100 (which admittedly is way less than its Leica equivalent) I haven’t been too keen to replace it.
But here is where the “hiding in plain sight” story comes in. I’m referring to the Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D lens, a small gem originally designed in the 1990’s. Retailing for $391 and weighing a mere 270 grams (9.5 oz), it is no wonder why the lens has remained quite popular with travel photographers. Affordable, lightweight, and tack-sharp, this lens produces incredible results while ensuring you stay away from your chiropractor’s office. Nano crystal coating? No. Any aspherical elements? Nope. Class leading element/group combo? Of course not. Modern design? You must be joking. Great photos while saving you thousands of dollars you could put towards that European vacation? You bet. Modern glass, while unquestionably great, is not providing thousands of dollars worth of optical performance gain to justify their ever-growing cost. That is specially the case when you factor in the capabilities of modern processing software. Blasphemy? Not really, but perhaps a kitchen analogy will help explain it. It is often said that buying a modern knife will not necessarily result in making anyone a better cook. The secret to better meals is just to learn how to cook better rather than to keep spending tons of money on the latest kitchen gadgets. Too simple? Perhaps, but something that entire generations of Italian grandmothers figured out a long time ago.
I’ve written about the Ricoh GR before, but the little wonder just never ceases to amaze me. This “backup camera” is simply one of those technological feats that when paired with its natural street photography habitat, could easily challenge any DSLR out there. Not that it will necessarily give you any more dynamic range or sharpness, but rather that when you consider what the little rocket brings to the table, its shortcomings are easy to forget. You see, when you are out and about trying to record everyday life and scenes on the street, the GR is almost unparalleled in its ability to silently move in, snap that photograph, and capture that scene. Quick, silent, and covering enough photographic real estate to make sure nothing is left out of that picture. With its snap mode and ability to quickly compensate for available light, this little camera and its large APS-C sensor will be about as close to ideal as you’ll ever get in the street photography arena. Perfect? Nope. But when I leave my Leica M240 at home for the day to hang out with the Ricoh GR, that’s telling you something. Will it replace the incredible Leica out on the street? Absolutely not, but it will surely be in my pocket when every time I venture out to capture bigger photographic game.
Ever heard of the idea of going out shopping as a form of therapy? Well, just recently I subjected myself to a little of this therapy. Don’t know about you, but as a photographer, I sometimes need a little change from seeing the world at 50mm, or 35mm for that matter. Not that there’s anything wrong with sticking to a single focal length (after all, some of the great photographers out there do exactly that), but rather than mixing things up sometimes does have the therapeudic effect that we photographer may need from time to time. With that in mind, and not knowing whether I would ever really use an 18mm lens much in the future to justify the expense on a much more expensive Leica lens, I went out and grabbed a Zeiss Distagon T* 4/18 ZM for my Leica M Type 240. A few of the results from my first outing with this lens appear above. How did I feel shooting with this lens? Actually, pretty good. It is indeed very wide, so it takes a little getting used to having so much real estate in your viewfinder. However, the wide coverage does allow you to get in close to your subjects, or capture the whole scene in tight places where a 28mm or a 35mm would simply not work. So, will I use this lens on a regular basis in the future? Perhaps not, but knowing that this compact 18mm lens is within arms reach for those rare occasions when I have to go really wide, is indeed a comforting feeling. For all other occasions, that Leica glass will be firmly attached to my M.
Ah, nostalgic pedicabs (i.e., rickshaws) gracing the city streets while helping to clean the environment. Pedal power, no CO2, humans helping other humans. Hmmm. This is generally the picture that emerges when we think of the great import that are pedicabs. Reality, though, could be a bit more earthy, shall we say. In many city downtowns with fast-moving vehicular traffic, rickshaws are more-often-than-not forced into sharing the same busy streets where a non-choreographed dance of polluting city buses, taxis, and POV’s are constantly trying to outdo each other to the next light. Needless to say, there’s a lot of weaving, sharp turns, and sudden stops involved in this urban kabuki dance. Strangely enough, I had problems finding collision statistics for the DC area (or for any other city for that matter). Who knows, maybe these pedicabs are safer than we think. Just in case, though, I think that I’m going to stick to walking for now. After all, I do need the exercise.
If you read a lot of the popular photography literature out there, you would think that when it came to focal lengths, not much has changed for lenses over the past 100 years or so. To this day, lots of print is devoted to Robert Capa’s dictum that, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.” Now, I’m not sure whether Mr. Capa was referring to optical or physical distance, but my guess is that he was perhaps referring to the proportion of the subject in the photograph to the overall frame of the photo. I can only surmise this because Mr. Capa was more interesting on the drama of a photograph than where the photographer happened to have his or her feet planted. A great image, after all, is never hostage to a particular focal length.
But something has changed a bit since Mr. Capa’s days. Call it the loss of innocence, societal mistrust, or whatever, but people are no longer as relaxed when having their picture taken by a stranger as they used to be. Governments have also jumped into the focal length controversy by creating all sorts of conditions under which a photographer can be labeled an intruder of some sort. Under modern privacy rights considerations, that invisible privacy zone around people has become a virtual minefield for photographers. Enter at your own peril, and successful navigation through it will require a great deal of luck, not to mention personal charm. This zone, which used to be easily traversed with a 50mm focal length, has become a lot harder to deal with. Awareness, perception, and distrust have to a large extent forced the average photographer on the street to move back a bit. Photographers may perceive themselves as creatives capturing a moment in history, but their subjects are growingly seeing them as trespassers, perverts, and untrustworthy social media trolls. But that is precisely where a 75mm or 85mm lens comes into play. These lenses allow you to move back a bit, be less conspicuous, less intrusive, and more discreet. Not that you always want to be that detached from the people you are photographing, but if you don’t have the time to invest in building those relationships (like a photographer in the middle of a festival, procession, or market), then distance could easily prove to be your best friend, and a mid-sized telephoto lens will easily subtract the added distance from your subject. That is why these days, my trusted Leica 75mm f/2 Summicron-M, as well as my Nikon 85mm f/1.4G workhorse, are getting a lot more saddle time on my camera. Ah, and then there’s that glorious bokeh, but that is a subject for another day.
Ah, La Dolce Vita. To be captured on film by Federico Fellini while traversing the narrow streets of an Italian city on a Vespa scooter with a loved one’s arms wrapped around your waist on your way to a weekend rendezvous at a cliffside hotel in Positano, Italy. Well, that’s certainly, if not ideally, one way of riding a Vespa. Another way, and perhaps a little closer to reality, is around the busy streets of our nation’s capital, with taxis zooming past you while you attempt to control your scooter as it putters along potholes, construction sites, and drivers bent on getting you and your annoying Italian cricket off the street. Don’t know which way you would prefer, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m definitely putting all my hopes on Federico, so I better start practicing my Italian.
Where is a tripod when you really need one? Like so many of you, I don’t particularly enjoy hauling a tripod with me when I go out with my camera. Not that there’s anything wrong with a tripod (I actually own three of them and use them quite regularly), but rather that no matter how light and compact they are, they are just one more thing to carry when you are trying to reduce your load in the first place. Of course, no sooner after you leave your tripod back at home or at your hotel, that you find yourself in desperate need of one. That was the case with the shot above. Finding myself walking through beautiful European cities at night, I couldn’t help but constantly regret leaving behind that tripod I had on my hands when the airport taxi showed up. Yes, in order to “save some weight,” I put it down and walked out the door.
So what to do when you come to a scene like this one at night and your tripod is 3,000 miles away? Answer: you desperately look for any surface you can find to support your camera. In order to avoid blaming myself for being lazy, I have chosen to hide my shortcomings by referring to all sorts of support structures out there as photographic structural support compensation items. OK, maybe not, but I guess my point is that there’s always a Plan B, even if it is not as pretty as Plan A. What I have discovered about shooting at night without a tripod is that there are two elements that are absolutely crucial: patience and any type of support structure. I say patience because speed and motion do seem to go together when night photography is concerned. You have to look around checking for smooth surfaces, for people to get out of the way, for people to get in the way, for checking your breathing, and for slowly pressing that shutter release. Not that patience can totally compensate for a good tripod, but if you take the time to adjust your position and angle based on whatever surface you have available to you, you’ll be able to get a fairly stable shot at a low ISO number. But routinely counting on good luck and providence when shooting photographs at night without a tripod will always be a high-wire act. Without a doubt, it will lead to a lot more rejects than keepers; and when you are out there for hours looking for that magical shot, having wasted most of your time is not the feeling you want to be left with at the end of the day. That’s why that contraption is going with me next time I’m headed out with a camera after dark, whether it’s a mile or 3,000 miles from home.
We’ve heard it a million times: get a Leica or any other non-DSLR camera and you will become invisible when taking photos. It sounds kind of convincing, and like thousands of photographers out there, I too bought into this myth. I say that it is a myth because after endless hours of walking the streets with my assortment of small cameras, I have grown convinced that it is not the camera that makes you inconspicuous to your photographic subjects. Rather, it is the environment and the noise level that do the trick. Why is this the case? Because no matter how small that camera gets, the unmistakable fact is that you are attached to it, and like they say, “you is a big thing.” Stop within a few meters of anyone on the street when there’s no one else around and believe me, you will get noticed. Don’t you notice people within your peripheral vision all the time? It all boils down to how much you as a person stand out in your environment. The photograph above was taken with the famous Ricoh GR, the darling of street photographers. The gentleman was talking to the young lady trying to sell her one of this paintings, but somehow through his peripheral vision he became aware of my split-second presence with the diminutive Ricoh GR. It had nothing to do with my choice of camera, but it had everything to do with my 5’11” frame and muscular (OK, pudgy if you insist on exactitude) complexion. Had I had a crowd around me, he would never had noticed my presence, even if I had a large Nikon DSLR strapped around my neck. The same with noise. The sound level of a shutter release is a big deal in street photography. That loud click from your DSLR will get you all the unwanted attention every time. Here’s where cameras like the Leica M 240 and the Ricoh GR excel in a big way. They are nearly silent, and normal street noise levels will easily drown any sound coming from them. Noise, then, is all relative. It will only get you noticed if the noise you generate reverberates over all the other environmental noise around you.
So what’s the point? Basically, that all this invisible camera hype on the Internet is mostly just that, hype. The real secret is blending in with the environment and connecting with your subject. This last point was highlighted very well in Greg Koch’s recent article, where the virtues of connecting with the people you are photographing could not have been better stated. Too many photographers de-humanize the photographic process by merely pointing their cameras in the direction of their subjects, clicking, and then walking away. Sure, that works sometimes, but nothing beats establishing some sort of connection with these folks. A nod of your head, a V sign, some small talk, or whatever, it is all better than mere silence and a hasty departure. So blend in and be friendly and you’ll see that the type of camera you use will not matter as much.
Nothing like getting your hands on a new Leica M camera to get your photographic blood pumping a little. But not just any M, mind you, but rather the new (and still very hard to get) Leica M 240 from the folks at Solms, Germany. How good is this camera? Very, very good, in my humble opinion. I’m no gear analyst by any stretch of the imagination, but I would be remiss if I didn’t stop for a second and describe what it feels like to go out shooting with this remarkable work of art. At the risk of being labeled a bleeding Leica fanboy, I have to tell you that this camera is about as close as anyone will get to enjoying the feeling of photographic poetry. The best camera in the world? Of course not. No sports shooter here my friend. The only camera you would take to document the swamp people in the Amazon River? Nope. This camera is definitely not about the extremes, even if some incredible daring photographers out there would just go for it. But if you are thinking street, documentary, fine art, or studio work, then the Leica M would be a powerful photographic tool in your hand.
I have read many blogs where the Leica M has been described as a totally new camera when compared with its predecessor, the Leica M9. And you know what? The blogs were right (see Steve Huff’s wonderful review here). This is an amazing camera. Richer colors, nearly silent operation, great contrast, extensive customization, live view, focus peaking, fantastic battery, and retention of the famous “Leica look.” I could go on and on about the specs, but others a lot more qualified have already provided this information (see Ming Thein’s article and Sam Hurd’s take on this camera). But why the excitement about all these functions that have already made their appearance in other camera brands, and at a lot less money? The answer to this question lies precisely on the fact that we are talking about Leica here. Ever heard of tradition? Well, Leica takes this concept significantly beyond the point to which the patriarch Tevye did in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, and by a long shot. In fact, it is precisely this “remain in touch with the past” attitude that brings so many photographers into the Leica camp. Change, any change, is big news in the Leica community, with equal amounts of proponents and detractors taking their positions at opposite sides of the trenches. In the end, what I know is this: that recording the world around you with a Leica M is a very special thing–a feeling that is only intensified by the new Leica M 240. Simplicity at its very best. And at a price.
We keep hearing that monumental changes are taking place in the world of photography today, and were we to judge these assertions based on the new breed of APS-C sensor small cameras making their market appearance lately, it would seem impossible to disagree. I certainly couldn’t after spending one day with the darling of street photographers everywhere: the new Ricoh GR camera. Small and totally inconspicuous, this computer-in-a-pocket wonder is not just fast, it is amazingly audience-friendly–a major plus when it comes to street photography. With an APS-C 16.2 megapixel-sized sensor (the size of what you typically find in most DSLR’s out there), this little camera delivers, and in a big way. Sure, the fixed 18.3mm (28mm equivalent) may be somewhat limiting if you want to cover all your photographic bases, but for what it was intended to excel at, the Ricoh GR may arguably be the best there is out there. From the ground up, this camera was brilliantly and unapologetically designed with one single purpose in mind: street photography (see Steve Huff’s great review here), and to say that Ricoh delivered would be a gross understatement. Will it replace the trusted Nikon or beloved Leica in my camera bag? Don’t think so, but it will never be left behind when I step out the door with its larger and more expensive siblings. Thank you Ricoh.
You have to admit that some photographs are thought-provoking. This is more so when what was captured was the result of happenstance rather than design. In most of these instances you find yourself either walking into the scene by chance or visualizing the scene before it happens (in which case you just stand there waiting for the right moment). In those moments, and to quote the the famous photographer Chase Jarvis, “the best camera is the one that’s with you.” On this particular day, my best camera was the one that I threw into my pocket on the way out to the grocery store: the compact wonder that is the Sony RX100. Oh, and you may be wondering what happened here? Well, nothing did. The gentleman made it safely to the other side of the road and the UPS folks followed all the rules of the road. “All’s well that ends well.”
First it was farmers’ markets, then retro camera, and now sewing machines. No matter where you look, old has become new again. Is it mere nostalgia, or is there something deeper going on around us? For starters, enough time has passed since the popularity of these trends to justify the current generation’s fascination with the old technology and the way people used to buy their goods. I can understand that. But today, and like archeological sleuths, trendy city dwellers today seem quite fascinated with “the ways of the old” as if we were talking hundreds of years ago. Retro has become the new buzz word, and anyone who can produce anything with their hands these days (besides typing, of course), is generally hailed as a master craftsperson who can command some good prices for whatever it happens to be that they are producing. Of course, this may have to do with the fact that most of us in the service economy make a living moving data and information from here to there, so anyone that can actually make something is worthy of some level of admiration. I guess times have changed, but I have to admit that seeing technology that was crucial to our lives while growing up being displayed as curious antiques of a bygone era is a little disturbing. When store clerks approach me after they catch me staring at these old items, I immediately try to masquerade my nostalgia by asking: “Hey, what is that?” Now I can only wonder if anyone is buying my line.
In describing the Sony RX100, the New York Times said that “No photos this good have ever come from a camera this small,” so having recently purchased one of these tiny wonders, I decided to take it out for a spin on a dreary, cold Washington, DC day. Guess what, they weren’t kidding. The Sony RX100 with its diminutive size and large sensor has to be one of the best things that ever happened to photography in 2012. I’m no camera review geek, but shooting in the streets with this incredibly adjustable digital camera is nothing short of ideal. For starters, no one notices you taking those street photos. No matter how much I tried to be conspicuous, not a single person ever turned around to look at me when I pressed the shutter. Not only is the camera extremely quiet, but because of its advanced set of features like face-tracking and super quick focusing, you don’t even need to raise the camera to your eye level before snapping a shot. I pretty much shot from the hip all day without much regard for camera shake. What’s more, people don’t even take you seriously when you stand around them with this little rocket on your hand. On one occasion I tried the same shot, and from the same position, with both my Sony RX100 and my Nikon D800 DSLR, and you can guess which camera got all the attention. When the monster Nikon came up, eyes started turning in my direction, and believe me, it was not because they wanted to pose for the photograph. Frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever hit the streets again without this little wonder in my pocket. Score a big one for Sony on this one.