Monday, May 30, 2011

Camera Matters

In the recent months, the ‘M9 fever’ seems to be spreading among people around me.  I’m not an experienced Leica-user, and definitely not a Leica evangelist.  But quite a few friends and people I know have either taken interests in the M9, or have already bought one.  I can’t help but wonder what makes the M9 so special.

Perhaps it’s the attraction of the rangefinder, or the fact that there are plenty of lenses, old, new and for every budget, available for the M9.  Or is it merely its classic appearance, and pure bragging rights?  Well, it is difficult to say.  What I can say, for me, is that the M9 seems to allow me to shoot more seamlessly than other cameras I own.  It doesn’t get in my way, nor my subject’s way when shooting.  How do I know this?  Recently I brought my DSLR out of the cabinet, along with a few prime lenses.  I had not used it for a little over a year since I bought the M9, mostly because of its weight and bulk.  Well, that has not changed much since it’s still the same camera.  My ‘default’ f2.8 zoom is now gone, and I’m left with two primes (one AF, and one MF).   So the kit maybe fractionally lighter, but its bulk remains. 

After several days, and a few hundred shots later, I’m vividly reminded why I stopped shooting DSLR.  It’s certainly not because of its poor image quality, far from it, in fact.  Image quality, IMHO, is second to none.  In some aspects, it’s superior to Leica M, namely in noise, and dynamic range in high ISO.  Be it manual or auto focus, DSLR can be just as fast as a Leica M.  So that’s not really a problem.  Sure the default focusing screen is not a split-screen type like old film bodies, so you rely more on the green light to confirm focus.  It’s not exactly inferior to rangefinder, IMHO, it’s just different.

My main reason for not using DSLR that much is the imposing size and mass of a pro DSLR.  Imagine yourself being photographed, you see a photographer approaching with a big black mass and a sub-bazooka-sized lens.  Fire a few shots, and the mirror swings and clicks audibly.  It can be quite intimidating being on the other side of the lens.  What else? The menu hierarchy is also perplexing with too many settings for, what I think, too many buttons on the camera.  Oh, and there’s that weight on my shoulder.  That’s it.

However, I’m quite sure that many others think just the opposite.  Its bulk offers sturdiness and ruggedness that are not commonly found in smaller cameras. The continuous shooting speed is perfect for action shots, while the comprehensive menu offers granular adjustments to suit every need and style of photography. 

I can also say a thing or two about compact cameras and Micro Four Thirds (MFT).  The compacts, being relatively inexpensive, usually come with lower expectations from the users. MFT system, however, can be costly depending on lenses, and models.  Many compacts can now shoot RAW, and have very fast lens up to f1.8 on some models.  Sure, they have their limitations like AF speed (less suitable for action photography) and noise in high ISO.  MFT system promises more and this is where trouble begins.  The format is not exactly new, yet there is only a limited selection of lenses for MFT bodies, namely from Panasonic and Olympus.  Not only is the selection of lens is small, the two companies are asking big money for their glasses.  Yet, theses lenses are only average in performance, while in some cases, are tied to manufacturer’s own bodies for optimum results.  Last but not least, there’s no optical viewfinder for MFT system.  Olympus EVF is a great example, but it’s still electronic, and makes the camera bulky. 

The bottom line is that you must choose a camera system that suits your style of photography most.  There's a good chance that the lightest and smallest system isn’t your best option.  If you like the speed of DSLR, its superior noise suppression, and vast lens selection, get the smallest DSLR that meets your needs.  You will have to live with the weight and bulk to get the pictures you want.  If you don’t need big zooms, fast AF, and if you’re fortunate enough to afford the M9, go for it.  But you’ll have to get used to the manual focus, a slightly different way to meter and to compose, and a good chance that your sensor will collect dust in no time.  Maybe your style of photography is suitable for MFT system where you enjoy good quality photos (that most compacts cannot deliver) with minimal weight and equipment to carry.  Don’t forget that most of the time, it’s the person behind the camera that matters most. 

The following set of images are taken with different types of camera, from compact, Micro Four Third, APS-C, full-frame DSLR, and the M9.  As long as they let me shoot what I want and how I want, I have no problem.  Unfortunately, some of these cameras did not deliver the user experience I had expected.  For me, what matters most is that a good camera should work with the photographer, enabling the photographer to make the right exposure at the right moment. Happy shooting!


Monday, May 2, 2011

Back to the Future

Years ago when I started my first photography class, I remembered start using black & white bulk films mainly because it was a cost effective way to capture images, flexible enough for processing, and durable enough to enjoy the result for years to come.  I also shot colors, and color transparencies over those years for convenience, and different challenges, respectively.  Color transparencies presented a whole new challenge when shooting by forcing one to think more before shooting.  Lighting, exposure, and especially composition must be nailed before firing that shutter.  There's no second chance to recompose color slides given how it was used and viewed.  

Fast forward to the new millennium and the early digital camera era.  Colors were generally inaccurate.  Dynamic range limited, and a whole new challenge with white balance.  After a decade or so, it seems that the real improvement has been made to improving dynamic range.  Newer generation cameras like Canon 5D (I and II), Nikon D700 sport very capable full frame sensors boasting impressive dynamic range.  White balance remains a game of hit and miss, and consequently color accuracy suffers.  RAW files and modern software like LightRoom and Aperture have largely transformed digital photography, paradoxically, to a more analog-like process.

I must be among the many photographers who have re-discovered the joy of photography in this ever-changing digital era.  Today, those RAW files are simply digital negatives, and software like LightRoom or Aperture are simply the darkroom as we used to know it.  While I do not deny that my Leica M9 has brought back the fun in photography for me, a big part of this fun came from the RAW file format and Aperture.  The latitude of adjustments is generally quite great, much like the control available when developing negatives, and printing.  Easily, a RAW file can be adjusted by a few stops without losing too much tonality and details (even though this flexibility reduces with higher ISO).  Colors and white balance can also be corrected with relative ease (but remains a challenge, still). 

What is great about RAW is that one can shoot first, and later decide to 'print' in either color, or black & white (or both).  This was not possible back in the film days.  Since I've taken ownership of the M, I have been regularly converting the photos to black & white for two main reasons.  One, sometimes the white balance is just hopeless, despite post-processing, it remains hopeless.  Two, and this is the main reason, I still prefer black & white, its tonality, contrast, and the way black & white photos draw the audience to the subject in ways color prints often distract.  Black and white reduces the essence of each photo to its subject, the mood, and the feeling its subject conveys.  Be it the eyes, the smile, the sky, they are presented in the most fundamental way without their natural colors so the viewer can focus more on what's going on.  

Modern software are well equipped with darkroom techniques such as burning, dodging, and contrast adjustment, which, two decades ago, was all that we needed.  I no longer have to rely on filters and effects to make the pictures look good (if they did at all).  Now I'm forced to make the pictures look good every time the shutter is released, much like shooting films and color transparencies. 

While prints from digital files may never have the same glow of gelatin silver prints (hmm, some would say, 'Never say never.'), it's still worthwhile to have so much control and flexibility with digital like we used to have with film.  So, I was a black & white convert, and now I can say that I remain so in this digital age.  It's Back to the Future.  

Below are some of my recent black & white favorites.  Enjoy.

Missus - M9 + 24 Summilux

Play - M9 + 50 Summicron

Party Smile - M9 + 50 Summicron

Smiles - M9 + 24 Summilux

Dad Contemplating - M9 + 24 Summilux

Fake Smile? - D-Lux 5

Birthday Smile - Nikon D700 + Nikkor 24/1.4