May 172012
 

Last week’s announcement of the Leica M9- Monochrom camera sparked off the Leica bug in me again. Whereas the new camera with its dedicated B&W sensor does not hold all that much appeal, despite my love of B&W photography and the great many images that I convert to B&W, I would still want the colour option in any camera that I might own.

Award winning photographer Edmond Terakopian has had the chance to put the Leica M9-M through its paces and without a doubt the results are mightily impressive.

I have seen some people say that they will now carry two Leicas, the M9 and the M9-M, citing the days of film when they carried two cameras – one loaded with colour film and one with black & white film. In those days, there was little option but to carry two cameras if you wished to shoot both colour and b&w shots but digital photography has freed photographers from that constraint or should I say burden. People are strange.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The Leica M9 prompts the old head versus heart dilemma in me. The head tells me that in terms of value for money far better cameras than the M9 are to be had. Who in their right mind would pay nearly $7,000 for a camera that boasts a 230,000 dot LCD screen, no AF capability, no live view and a top ISO of 2500?

The heart tells me that the Leica M9 offers unsurpassed full-frame image quality and one only has to look at images shot by skilled photographers to see that they have an image quality often referred to as the “Leica look”.

Factor in the weight of the M9, a mere 585g or 20.64oz, and its size — 139 x 80 x 37 mm or 5.47 x 3.15 x 1.46 ins – and suddenly the heart appears to be winning the argument.

The Canon and Nikon fanboys on DPReview take great delight in slagging off the Leica M9 as an overpriced under-featured camera, the plaything of doctors, dentists and lawyers who can afford the Leica price tag.

I would hazard a guess that many of those same fanboys have no direct experience of film SLR photography and are digital through and through. When they rant and rail against the Leica M9, as they often do, they are missing the point and one that came to me in a moment of epiphany after reading Thorsten Overgaard’s treatise on the Leica M9.

Leica is the only camera manufacturer that made a seamless transition from film cameras to digital ones. It kept the size, shape and form of the Leica M film cameras but gave them a digital heart. Thus those shooting film with a Leica M could switch to a Leica M8 and later M9 with a relatively shallow learning curve and without having an extra pound or two added to the weight of the camera.

For more than 25 years I shot with a Minolta XD-7 SLR camera, known as the Minolta XD-11 in the United States, which weighed 560 g or 19.75 oz and measured 136mm x 86 x 51mm or 5.35 x 3.38 x 2.01ins. My Canon 40D weighs in at 822 g or 29.0 oz and measures 146 x 108 x 74mm or 5.75 x 4.25 x 2.91ins and without the luxury of a being full frame. To achieve comparable performance with the Minolta, I would have to look at the Canon 5D Mark III, all 33.51 oz of it, or the 48.85-oz Canon 1Ds Mark III.

It is easy to see why so many photographers of my generation would love their Minolta XD-7, Nikon FE or Canon AE-1 fitted with a digital sensor. Those people who used to shoot with a Lecia M3, M4, M5 or M6 got exactly that with a Leica M9.

We can also cope with manual focus lenses and centre-weighted metering because that is how we learned our craft. AF is a convenient option but not an essential one if a camera has focusing aids in the viewfinder, which the Leica M9 has unlike the Canon models mentioned above. That being said, I still manage to focus manual Zeiss ZE lenses on my Canon 40D. Admittedly , it is a lot harder than focusing with the Minolta but it is still achievable.

Back in my film days, I kind of negated the weight benefits of the Minolta XD-7 by shooting with a 70-210 mm zoom lense. With age has come wisdom and the decision to only shoot with prime lenses. My days of lugging heavy camera equipment are long gone. If I miss a photo opportunity because of the focal length of the lens on the camera, so be it. I am no longer answerable to the demands of a picture editor. I shoot what I want to shoot.

Leafing through Thorsten Overgaard’s guide to the Leica M9 and reading how he shoots with it – set aperture priority, ISO at 200, manually focus on the subject and fire the shutter – reminded me of shooting with the Minolta XD-7, even down to the centre-weighted metering. And in a Road-to-Damascus moment, I could see the obvious appeal of the Leica M9 and why so many photographers value it so highly.

I think with a Leica M9, two or three Zeiss ZM lenses and possibly the Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2 lens, I would be set up for life. With my Minolta XD-7, I never experienced a moment of camera lust because I had what I considered to be the best camera for my photographic needs. I think the same would hold true for the Leica M9.

The only problem with using Zeiss ZM lenses is that they are not 6-bit coded. I am not sure how much of a disadvantage that would be, especially since I would shoot RAW rather than JPEG. And by not using Leica lenses, I probably wouldn’t achieve that 100 per cent Leica look but I think I would get close enough for my tastes.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

All that remains is to find the several thousand dollars it will take to make a photographic dream come true. I have already checked out a couple of secondhand Leica M9s to reduce the potential outlay, one of them being the M9-P, which appeals because of its understated appearance – it doesn’t carry the red dot or M9 motif – but, more importantly, because of the virtually unbreakable sapphire crystal covering on the LCD screen. This camera would be the last one that I would ever buy, so I would want it to last in good condition for as long as possible.

With that all settled, I am off to buy a lottery ticket or two. Wish me luck!

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Mar 302012
 

I took delivery of a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens last Thursday, my first autofocus lens. I had planned to shoot with it quite a bit this week but unfortunately I was laid low with a viral infection that can best be described as 48-hour flu. I am over the worst of it but its effects are lingering on in the form of feeling listless and lethargic. I did manage to get out and about at the weekend and was mightily pleased with the results.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Using an AF lens has involved a learning curve for me, albeit not a steep one. I am using back button focus, a method I read about a while back and considered by many to be preferable to half pressing the shutter to achieve focus. My thumb has quickly learned the position of the AE Lock button and I must say I enjoy this method of shooting. It did involve making a couple of adjustments to the Custom Functions of the Canon 40D and I have also set one of the camera settings C1 to shooting with AF.

When I go back to my trusty manual focus Zeiss Planar T*, I will simply switch back to Av mode.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

A few weeks ago on this blog I was lamenting the way that camera manufacturers do not seem to cater to the wishes of photographers like me by producing the digital equivalent of the Nikon F2, Nikon FM, Canon AE-1, Minolta XD7 or Pentax K1000.

My photographic friend Bob, in England, echoed my thoughts when we were corresponding about the specifications of the new Canon 5D Mark III.

Bob wrote:

It all seems so far removed from my type of photography (and I use the latter word to describe the whole exercise/experience in the field). The phrase “great quality sound” just about sums it up. How have we managed to get to the point where these three words apply to a Single Lens Reflex camera!!! If this were an old-fashioned letter, this would be the point at which my pencil broke on the page.

I wonder if anyone will ever take something like a Pentax Spotmatic F as a model, simply put a sensor where the film plane used to be, bung some elementary digital electronic gubbins and a battery where the film/cannister was and market it as the “Jurassodigimatic”. Race you to the front of the queue.

Bob is a down-to-earth Lancastrian who has been photographing for more than 40 years. He specializes in landscape photography, industrial photography and railway photography, particularly steam locomotives. His work has been published in British steam railway enthusiast magazines. His approach to photography often involves meticulous planning and the use of a tripod and is diametrically opposed to my journalist on-the-fly hand-held approach.

Imagine my surprise this morning when I read an interview with one of my favourite contemporary photographers, David Burnett, on The Online Photographer Web site. I admire Burnett’s reportage work immensely and he also comes across as a genuinely nice guy.

While the kindergarten classes on DPReview are arguing the merits of the Canon 5D Mk III versus the Nikon D800, Burnett is still shooting with a pair of the original Canon 5D cameras. To Burnett, and any self-respecting professional photographer, cameras are simply tools. It is how those tools are used that separates the men from the boys.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Burnett admitted that he does not own a digital camera capable of shooting at 100,000 ISO but did say that he had recently acquired a Leica M9 and went on to extol the virtues of rangefinder photography.

Burnett said:

I have been quite amazed, actually, that neither Canon nor Nikon has come out with their own re-creation of one of their classic rangefinder cameras. In all the advances in photo technology, it just surprises me that none of the traditional makers other than Leica (the preeminent) has seen fit to create a camera (please, no harping about the Epson) which recreates all those great 1950s cameras.

The interview garnered plenty of comments, many from young photographers admiring Burnett’s work. As befitting the man, he added a comment to the interview, acknowledging those kind comments.

He went on to say:

My issue with the RFDR cameras is take a Nikon D700/Canon5D chip (proven, capable, cheap) put it in a new SPdigi, CanonP/7 digi body, put a screen on the back as good as any $400 point/shoot (there are plenty), and PUT A FRICKEN RANGEFINDER with an M mount on the body. It’s not rocket science though perhaps it’s being seen that way. God bless all the x100/X-Pro1, Sony 5NEX, etc., etc., etc. cameras. Let them all fight for the wannabe crowd but make a $1500 RFDR body, (no need for video, let it just be a PHOTO camera) and you will be a) Camera of the Year; b) unable to keep up with demand; and c) loved by a very loveable group of shooters.

On reading that, I immediately thought of Bob’s e-mail and my own wish for a digital version of the great SLRs of the 1960s and 1970s.

Of course, it begs the question as to why major camera manufacturers will not produce such a camera but continue to produce the behemoths that full-frame DSLR cameras have become and why a generation of photographers, those of us 45 years and plus, is being ignored by the camera giants.

Over to you Canon, Nikon, et al!

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Feb 072012
 

Nikon yesterday announced its replacement for the D700 and the rumours and speculation about the specifications of the D800 came to an end.

The new D800 features a massive 36.3 MP on a full frame sensor. Given the size of files such a huge amount of megapixels will create, I should imagine hard drive manufacturers are rubbing their hands with glee. I just hope they can start making hard drives readily available again and at the prices they were before the flooding in Thailand hit production. Something tells me the prices will be kept high in an attempt to recoup losses.

Canon 40D and Zeiss Planar T* ZE 1,4/50. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Nikon announced two versions of the camera — the D800 and the D800E. The latter strips away the anti-aliasing filter, a feature of the Leica M9 and Ricoh GXR A12 M-mount cameras — to increase resolution even further. Actually, the anti-aliasing filter is not physically removed from the D800E but its effects are cancelled. A potential buyer of the D800E will pay $300 more than the D800 for this option.  More details of the D800s can be found at Nikon USA.

B&H is taking pre-orders for the D800 and D800E, expected to be available in March and April respectively. Perhaps B&H might give me a hefty discount for that shameless plug.

But I am a Canon user and likely to remain one for the foreseeable future. It will be interesting to see how Canon responds to its arch-rival when it   releases details of the long-waited Canon 5D Mark III. Canon users keep waiting and waiting and waiting for details of this camera to be released. Perhaps the announcement of the Nikon D800 will spur Canon into a timely response.

The Canon 5D Mark II and Nikon D700 were always viewed as head-to-head rivals. When it came to megapixels, the 5D Mark II trounced the D700, offering 21 MP to the latter’s 12.1 MP but Nikon had the edge in terms of low-light ability.

Will Canon surrender to Nikon in the megapixel race or will it respond with an even higher megapixel count in the 5D Mark III to take the wind out of Nikon’s sails?

The greater amount of megapixels is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, 36.3 MP will provide greater detail in photographs and make cropping easier. On the other hand, it will test the resolving attributes of the lenses used and many lenses will fall short of delivering the goods.

One lens manufacturer likely to be able to take advantage of the increased number of megapixesl in the D800s is Zeiss. I would be interested to learn what provision the D800 makes to aid focusing for those photographers choosing to shoot with Zeiss MF lenses.

The D800 will no doubt have many photographers salivating at the prospect of adding it to their photographic gear. Me, I just wish camera manufacturers would get back to basics and provide the digital equivalent of the Nikon F2, Nikon FM, Canon AE-1, Minolta XD7, Olympus OM film cameras.

The video capabilities of the Nikon D800, as with the Canon 5D Mark II, are wasted on me. I am not a videographer and have no desire to use a DSLR as a video camera. It would be most unlikely that the producers of the TV series House would ask me to film an episode with a DSLR, if indeed I had one that boasted video capability.

To me a photograph packs far more impact, and a lasting impact, than any moving video footage. The image of the naked girl running down a road in Vietnam after a napalm attack still lingers in my cerebral cortex, whereas the various graphic newsreels of that war no longer register and have disappeared without trace from my memory.

Perhaps that is where Leica with its uncomplicated M9 camera scores so highly with photographers — it keeps things simple. It is just a pity about the exorbitant price.

Since originally writing this piece, a rumour has surfaced that the replacement for the Canon 5D Mark II will be announced on February 28 and it will be known as the Canon EOS-5D X. Speculation has it that the camera will be available in April in order to deflect attention and potential purchasers from the Nikon D800.

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Feb 212011
 

For some weeks now I have been intrigued by a motorcycle parked outside some commerical premises in Riverside. The reason for my interest is the petrol tank, or gas tank as the Americans would say, is painted like the Union Jack.

©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Yesterday, I decided to stop and find out if a fellow Brit was the owner of the motorcycle. I took a couple of shots of said petrol tank and was a little disappointed to find that the motorbike was a Honda, the company that led to the eventual demise of the British motorcycle industry.

I then noticed a group of guys standing just inside the doorway of the building. One of them beckoned me over. I asked if he was British. He was not.

But Peter Hampton is a confirmed anglophile and owner of a new business — Ton Up Jacksonville — which caters to devotees of British and European motorcycles.

Ton Up Jacksonville sells motorcycle gear, offers space and tools for people to carry out repairs, and also aims to create the atmosphere of a motorcycle club where enthusiasts can chew the fat about their motorcycle passion.

Peter and I chatted about the great names of British motorcycles, which I remember from my youth — BSA, Matchless, AJS, Norton, Triumph, Vincent — and talked about their decline and eventual disappearance as motorcycle manufacturers.

 But Peter’s love of Britain goes beyond motorcycles. He is also an avid fan of British TV sitcoms and rates The Young Ones as one of his all time favourites. He is also partial to deep-fried Mars Bars.

He seemed genuinely excited to meet someone who was an actual Brit just as I was to meet someone who shared an interest and understanding of what constitutes the bulk of my life.

He also gave me an interesting insight into Harley-Davidson motorcycles, particularly the people who own them. It seems the majority of them are much like most people who buy Leica M9 cameras. Both are status symbols and bought for the purpose of  being seen and  noticed. And in the case of the Harleys, so middle-aged men can relive prom night from 35 or 40 years ago.

One of the things that shocked me when I first moved to Texas was the way people were allowed to ride motorcycles without crash helmets. I used to wince when I would see young girls as pillion passengers dressed in tiny shorts and skimpy tank tops. I just could not understand why they were unable to comprehend that they would be cut to ribbons if they ever came off those bikes. And the same holds true in Florida.

Peter shared my views and pointed to the corner of the room and a set of leathers. “That’s what I wore to come to work on my bike today, along with a crash helmet,” he said.

I guess the bandana-clad Harley riders just have more money than sense or an unshakeable belief that nothing untoward can ever happen to them. And in Florida, as in Texas, there is also the political dimension of “Why should the government tell me what I should or should not do?” Because it just might save your life one day.

Peter and I talked for a good 30 minutes and I was able to give him some useful information, regarding the location of the Latin American Motorcycle Association in Jacksonville. It’s about three blocks away from his premises. I also said that if he ever needed someone to check British authenticity, I was his man.

Having found this little oasis steeped in all things British, I told Peter I would be back from time to time. And I will.

Feb 052011
 

This week Ricoh announced it was developing an M-mount module for its GXR cameras. As much as I love Ricoh cameras, this module and the GXR will not be at the top of my shopping list.

I do not own any Leica M-mount lenses; if I did, I would be shooting with a Leica M9 camera, which blows the GXR, fine camera that it is, out of the water.

I am also somewhat troubled by this announcement because it seems to fly in the face of what Ricoh was saying when it first launched the GXR system — a system where the lens and sensor are combined into a module that some call a lensor.

Introducing this new concept in digital cameras, Ricoh stated:

It is the lens that gives life to the photograph. In interchangeable lens camera systems up to now, the distance from the mount and the back of the lens to the sensor image plane was subject to requirements for flange back distance and back focal length. This made it difficult to achieve both compactness and high optical performance. Eliminating the lens mount, however, means that the back focal length can be freely defined for the GXR, enabling the new system to use the most optically efficient lens designs and giving it excellent potential for future expansion. This practical concept has given birth to camera units that achieve compact size without compromising image quality.

In order to make the best use of the inherent power of the lens and the image sensor, the ideal solution is to combine both in a single unit. Consider, for example, the low-pass filter covering the surface of the image sensor. The dilemma faced is that while the filter helps prevent color noise and color moiré, increasing this benefit results in an ever greater sacrifice in lens resolution. Traditional interchangeable lens systems use a single low-pass filter for all lenses so they are unable to avoid situations where the filter effect is excessive or inadequate. With the GXR, on the other hand, we can design a filter optimized for the resolution of the specific lens. In this way, Ricoh has succeeded in effectively preventing color noise while suppressing filter influence on lens resolution.

The ease with which dust can adhere to image sensors has been a system problem for interchangeable lens digital cameras up to now. In the case of GXR camera units, however, the lens and the image sensor are integrated into a single unit. This structure makes it difficult for dust to get in since it is not necessary to expose the inside of the camera when changing lenses. In addition, the inside of the units are highly airtight with light-shielded walls. Even in highly dusty shooting environments, camera units can be changed without hesitation.

The planned introduction of an interchangeable lens mount in autumn suggests to me that all the above was advertizing hype. Having made the case for not introducing a camera that allows interchangeable lenses, Ricoh appear to have done a U-turn.

The M-mount module has been well received by most people on the Ricoh Forum of DPReview, although a few people do express concerns similar to mine.

In theory it sounds fine to be able to fit one of the the best lenses in the world, Leica lenses undoubtedly are as their cost reflects, but focusing them is not going to be an easy task. The electronic viewfinder that can be bought as an accessory for the GXR will become an essential item for anyone wishing to use manual focus lenses. Trying to focus a heavy lens at arm’s length using the LCD will not be easy, unless your arms have muscles of steel.

No doubt those people who persevere with the GXR and an attached Leica lens will produce good results but not with every shot they take. They will have to get used bracket focusing, for want of a better term, whereby you get the subject in focus and then keep tweaking the focus a fraction on successive shots. Viewing all the shots on a computer screen will reveal the one truly in focus. That approach is fine for static subjects, not so good for anything that moves. And those that think focus confirmation is the answer are in for a rude awakening. Focus confirmation can assist but it will not nail the sharpest focus.

When I bought my GRD III, I was torn between waiting six months or so for the launch of the GXR with a 28mm lens module. The great advantage the GRD III has over the GXR is its compactness, which means the GRD is always with me. There is no denying that the APS-C sensor of the GXR is far superior to the CCD sensor in the GRD III but that superiority only becomes really marked at higher ISO settings. But what good would that superior image quality be if the camera is sitting on the desk in my office.

As the saying goes, the best camera is the one that you have with you and for me that is the Ricoh GRD III.

I would have much preferred Ricoh to have expanded its range of lens modules for the GXR and so make it a more complete, as well as innovative system, to compete with the micro four-thirds cameras.