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Monday, April 30, 2007

4 Million


It's now 3:14 p.m. in the Midwest, and sometime within the past two or three minutes, The Online Photographer logged its 4,000,000th visitor.

Whoever it was has just won a NEW CAR! That's right, a brand new blue Infiniti G35 Coupe.

Oh, no, wait, that's for the 40 millionth visitor. Never mind.


(Seriously, many thanks to everyone who sees this. You're always welcome and please keep coming back. )

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Go, Kent, Go

Well, naturally I've gotten raked over the coals in many of the Leica forums this morning, for insufficient worship (here and here) of the M8. I'm getting called names, insulted, denigrated, accused of name dropping and bias and of having no qualifications, and of course everything I wrote was outrageously wrong in nine kinds of ways—one guy called my report "piffle" and another jumped in and listed the several specific kinds of piffle it was. (To another it was "tripe." Well, which is it, piffle or tripe? I'm afraid that's something they're going to have to work out amongst themselves.)

This is par for the course, and it's why Sean Reid (who has a large amount of editorial material about the M8 at his site) is wrong when he suggests that the "religion" analogy is a red herring. With some Leicaphiles, as with religion, if you're not a true believer then you're automatically an apostate. There's no such thing as the moderate middle ground. You really can't insert enough qualifiers or make the criticisms gentle enough—either you believe, or you suck.

I'm sorry if I upset anyone. It's really not such a big deal, though. The M8 is nice. I was disappointed, is all. I expected to like it better.

Of course, the over-the-top nature of some of the responses make me wonder if some of the acolytes don't themselves have doubts. If you're really secure about a decision you've made, why get so threatened just because some guy on the internet doesn't agree?

A much more secure and confident response came from my M8-toting friend Kent, whose response was to send me a bunch of pictures.

The attached note said, "I love this thing, warts and all."

Kent Phelan, Busch Stadium, Saturday, April 28th (Leica M8)

Cool by me. Go, Kent, go.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Sunday, April 29, 2007

'...You Just Had to Run'

"Sometimes it pays to get to the set before your crew, which I try to do on almost every picture. I like to get there first. I walk around, and figure out what I'm going to do that day. I got to the set while it was still dark and then I saw, as it got lighter, where the sun was going to rise. It was going to rise on the very flat area, and I suddenly had this idea. Luckily, thank God, the camera truck had arrived and there was one assistant and he was taking boxes out of the truck. I had the driver and the assistant take an 800mm lens out and stick it up on an Arri, and we ran with five sandbags. I ran into the makeup hut and grabbed these four Japanese who spoke no English. I gave them swords and put hats over their heads, and dragged them out to the field, and basically said, 'Do what we did yesterday. Do. Rehearse.' I took a sake cup: 'And do this and bow.' I ran back to the camera, which was about an eighth of a mile away. It was awful—this was before we had little motorcycles and golf carts—you just had to run. They were having trouble getting the magazine loaded because the guy who took the camera off the truck was not a loader, so we were both together loading the camera. I had never loaded an Arri before and you have to load it properly. By this time, the sun is five feet off the ground, and we're not going to make it in time. Finally, we closed the gate. I do an eye focus, turn on the camera, and scream as loud as I can, 'DO IT LIKE YESTERDAY.' It was like kismet, like magic, just where the sun needed to be. We filled the entire frame with the 800mm long lens. We were able to get that moment."
—Steven Spielberg
describing the shooting of a scene from
Empire of the Sun

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

A Photographic Project Idea: Dropout Teachers

The issue: Teacher retention. More and more school districts, especially but not exclusively in high-poverty areas, are experiencing what's called "high churn rate"—excessive teacher turnover due to burnout, low morale, and poor teaching conditions.

What could be pictured: Still active but "disillusioned teachers; teachers who've already dropped out, showing who they are and what they're doing now; illustrations of the top 10 reasons (named in the article) that teachers cite for leaving.

Might be a good project for: A teacher, a college student, anyone whose work takes them to schools, a photographer who can't travel much but can get to one or more area schools.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Featured Comment by Adam McAnaney: "I know this post (and this blog) are about photography, but this hit a nerve. No need to post this comment if you would rather avoid the controversy, but here are my thoughts. I briefly taught fourth and fifth graders in a public school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. I’m no longer a teacher.

"For starters, there are lots of reasons for the problems with our schools, but bad teachers have to be very low on the list. They obviously exist, but they are few in number and a product of the system. If you solved the other problems with our public schools, you would have far fewer bad teachers and the impact of those that remained would approach nil. Of course, there are so many problems with our public schools, that it is laughable to say something like 'If you solved the other problems with our public schools, then….' Indeed, I think the magnitude of the school problem has prevented serious efforts at solving it. I could go on and on, but there are plenty of books on this subject, written by people who have far more experience and better credentials than I do. I will point to two issues, however:

"1. While I suspect that David Jenkins and I would disagree on a great many issues, I sympathize with his feelings about the lack of discipline and the fact that kids know they are untouchable. Think about any and every form of discipline you every experienced as a child. All of those are probably considered corporal punishment and disallowed. No detention. No writing phrases 50x (though, to be honest, this always struck me as a silly punishment anyway). No sitting in the back of the class. Writing or calling home is pointless (partly due to a lack of discipline at home, partly due to parents overwhelmed by other problems and partly due to a reflexive tendency on the part of today’s parents to defend their children and blame other children or the teacher). So what’s left? Well, you can keep kids in during lunch and prevent them from playing on the playground. Except that only works every third day, because the school is overcrowed and supposedly 'temporary' trailers have been erected in the schoolyard, leaving only a fraction of the space available for lunchtime play. So the classes rotate days on which they are allowed to go out during lunchtime. On the other days, the students have to sit in the cafeteria the whole time. Disgraceful.

"2. Which brings us to the bigger problem with our schools. While money doesn’t solve everything (and I agree that teachers’ salaries aren’t the biggest problem), it helps. All of the issues raised by the article point to a lack of resources, and resources cost money. More administrative staff to reduce paperwork, more teachers, more classrooms, more teaching assistants, more money to make schools look like schools, rather than run-down penitentiaries. Of course, some schools have all of these things. Why? Because the vast majority of school funding in the United States is derived from local property taxes. Big surprise that kids in poorer areas with low property values underperform. And since parents tend to move from areas with below-average schools to areas with better schools once they have a high-enough income, this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. The well-off move to high-income areas with better schools, contributing their tax dollars to a system that is already doing well, and depriving their old neighborhood of a chance at turning the tide. This is such a perverse funding system, that nobody outside the U.S. could ever imagine why we established it. (Yes, I know there are historical reasons. But at some point we need to update our structures to confront modern realities.)

"Ultimately, however, people expect too much from schools. Students probably spend around six hours a day in class, receiving instruction. During the other 18 hours of each day, during weekends, during vacation and holidays, they are out of schools’ reach. We can’t expect schools to solve the greater problems in our society, although neglecting schools will certainly contribute to those problems.

"Okay, I’m done. Just thinking about this makes me angry and sad. I couldn’t say all I have to say if I had 100+ pages to say it in. I don’t have the time or the energy to try, and I know that even if I did, it wouldn’t make a difference. I could have made a difference if I had stayed, but I didn’t. Which makes me angrier (at myself) and sadder and a part of the problem."

Featured Comment by Robert Roaldi: "Most of the time, we get what we pay for.

"Public education used to be considered important because we believed that it was advantageous to a society that large numbers of people in it be able to read, think, and reason.

"The fact that we are seemingly not willing to pay for this any longer (I say we even though I live in Canada) seems to suggest that we don't see the link between an educated populace and a decent society in which to live. (Or at least, that it's okay if a lot of us don't have access to it.) It is a spectacular failure of imagination.

"We moronically complain about the cost of public education and related high taxes, but we never calculate the cost of not funding public education, even though those costs are staring us in the face every time we walk out the door.

"The occasional bad teacher during one's schooling is not in itself a bad thing. If nothing else it teaches you to recognize nitwits and that sometimes nitwits get into positions of authority. This can be a valuable lesson in life.

"I wish I knew how to turn this state of affairs into a photographic essay. It must be one of the most high profile failures of our culture. We used to have good public education and we are letting it slip away. How do you photograph stupidity?"

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Leica M8 Pro and Con: Con

Gman Music and Cosmic Records, Waukesha, Wisconsin


This half of my 2-part brief User Report of the Leica M8—the first part is here—is going to be an exercise in mind games. The perplex of device, psychology, history, function, status, loyalty, and tradition that is Leica is like a religion, in that it doesn't easily admit of soberly objective analysis. Some say you've either got to believe, or you don't get it; others think faith blinds the gullible and the fat old has-been Emperor is parading around in a Speedo. Some people think it's just another camera, and some people think it's magic juju, and a lot more people fall in between somewhere. Everybody vectors in on it from different directions, has different axes to grind and oxen to gore and sacred cows to bow down before. That's the reality; it is what it is. So to get a better handle on the M8—or to better communicate my take on it, perhaps I should say—allow me to set up and play with a few simple thought experiments (in a thought experiment, you simply take a situation that is not real, and imagine that it is real, and then examine the conclusions that derive therefrom).

Let us play.

What if the M8 were a Leica rangefinder, but not digital?
For a quarter-century and more, Leica's gotten hammered when it tries to think new, from the M5 flop to the tepid semi-acceptance of the R8. (Oddly, considering its signature camera has such a strong identity, it's like the company keeps struggling to find an identity.) It has learned its lesson: with the digital M, the designers clearly tried to preserve as much M as possible in the design—all the way to the removeable bottom plate, which is as much of a "technological male nipple" as any feature I've ever seen on a camera. The principle was very clearly "make it feel and behave as much like an M7 as possible."

How'd they do? Well, pretty well, as I elaborated yesterday. Then again, the gestalt of the Barnack camera was to sacrifice quality for stealth—for portability, small size, quiet operation, and unobtrusiveness. And in that regard, the world has shifted around the Leica while the Leica has stayed the same. Most any bread-and-butter digicam fits the original Leica gestalt better than the Leica does, these days—they're smaller, quieter, less obtrusive, more portable (see Mitch Alland's comment in the "Leica M8 Pro and Con: Pro" thread).

A "Barnack camera" (i.e., thread-mount Leica). Prior to roughly 1950, many serious amateurs and most professionals looked down their noses at 35mm cameras because of their low enlargement quality, often deriding them as "toys" and refusing to take them seriously.

Mind you, I'm not knocking Leica's choices. It made the M8 as much like an M as possible because that's what its faithful wanted, and giving your customers what they want can hardly be construed as a bad thing. The M8 is trying to be an M that just happens to be digital; but in terms of my thought experiment, if it were a film camera, it would feel not so much like a Leica but like a clunky, cheaper copy of a Leica. The feeling of build quality is almost there but not quite; the shutter delay doesn't have the razor-sharp responsiveness of the film M's (the Canon XTi to which I compared the M8 has a markedly better, quicker, and more responsive shutter feel); the controls, although nicely conceived, are somewhat slow and unsure; and the always-ready, always-on, tough-as-nails feel of the film cameras just doesn't translate to what is, after all, mainly a piece of electronics. Nice try—A for effort—but a miss. If it weren't a digital camera, the M8 wouldn't quite make it as a Leica.

But, of course, it is a digital camera. So if that's what you want, then there you are.

What about the opposite?
That is, what if the M8 were digital, but not a Leica?

With some of my shooting I got great files from the M8. It's clearly a DSLR-quality sensor capable of high-quality results. With more experience, no doubt I could do even better.

There's some question about the color accuracy, if the forums are any indication—one issue after another comes up and gets hashed to death. This may be a manifestation of the remorselessness of Leica-obsession, but I doubt that that's the entire cause. I can't draw any solid conclusions about colors because I didn't perform any real tests and I didn't use the M8 for very long. I had no problems with shadows. But the camera had pinkeye. I might be spoiled, as my regular camera has unusually good color accuracy. However, unbidden, my friend Nick H. reported, "Having shot about a dozen images on my little SD card with Mike L.'s loaner M8 and my 40 Rokkor, I ran them through the preliminary 'processing' routine last night. This involves laying out the images in Adobe Bridge and inspecting them in Camera Raw to see how much adjustment they need before being dumped into Photoshop for final tweaking and printing. The first thing that struck me was the color rendering. Your face was imaged in a lurid shade of deep pink not usually seen outside of Toys 'R' Us, and it was only with some heroic manipulations of the Color Temperature, Tint, and Saturation sliders that I could get you to appear mostly human although still not at all well."

(A note to skeptics: in real life I do indeed look like a well human.)

Second, the camera is slow. It writes files to the card slowly, and a "burst" is not very burst-like at all. Scrolling through images on the LCD screen, you can flick through three or four quickly before the camera has to pause to catch up. When magnifying the LCD image to look at details, if you zoom all the way in quickly, the image is at first coarsely pixelated until the buffer catches up and the "detailed detail" appears. This is like going back in time, to earlier generations of DSLRs, and it destroys the sense of undefeatable positive responsiveness that the film cameras always had. Speed performance, at any rate, is pretty marginal by current standards.

The shutter has a "rubbery" feel, more than the usual delay, and it's loud. It makes a muffled "thunk" sound followed by a grinding whirr. Not that it's bad in any objective sense; it's a soft-sounding noise, and it's lower than the shutter sound of many a DSLR (although the Canon XTi, in a direct comparison, is quieter). But it's louder than a film M, and, again, the world has changed—many digicams are silent. Silent, as in no noise at all. It's in these contexts that the M8 has to be judged as being on the loud side.

And finally (saving the worst for last), the LCD screen is downright poor. You have to change its brightness settings manually, and even so, in bright sunlight you can't see the image well enough to evaluate your cropping. Indoors, where the LCD image is visible, it's a bit grainy, with an oversharpened look (maybe that can be fixed in the settings)—and highly directional. The directionality is its real Achilles' heel. If you're as little as 10 or 20 degrees off-axis, the image is degraded such that you can't evaluate color or exposure even approximately. Worse, by the time you're off-axis by about 30 degrees or more looking down from above, the image disappears altogether.

On axis, above, the LCD is fine. As little as 30 degrees off axis from above, as in the picture below, and the image is all but invisible.

This isn't poor performance for a $4,800 camera—it's on the poor side for the average pocket digicam, and I don't know of any current DSLR that's anywhere close to as bad. In fact, just to be sure of myself here, it was at this point that I hopped in the car and zoomed down to the local Circuit City to compare it directly to the Canon XTi, and what I found was what I expected—the XTi's LCD screen (like that of the D80, D40, 30D, D200, E-500, A100, etc., etc.) was much better.

The best way to use the M8, then, is to ignore the LCD screen completely—just shoot, then look at your files for the first time after downloading them. I'm sure this suits many veteran Leicaphiles, but that's no excuse. It has a curious side-effect that's also very un-Leica-like...as far as the LCD screen is concerned, I felt somewhat "blinded" at times. This is directly contrary to the Leica's traditional virtue, which is that the bright, water-clear viewfinder always made it seem like you could always see everything, even when the light was bad.

Putting aside for a moment the ghosts in the air and the weight of tradition, the Canon XTi that I pressed into service as a point of comparison emerged looking surprisingly good. It's better not just generically, but even at some of the things that are considered the Leica's traditional stocks-in-trade: the XTi is just as small, light, and portable; it's just as quiet, if not more so; it's considerably more responsive, positive, and fast; and—most damning to the German camera, bordering on a sacrilege—the Canon's shutter feel and shutter lag are both decidedly better than the Leica's. It doesn't have rangefinder viewing, of course, but, offsetting that, its LCD is easily superior. It can't take Leica primes, but it can use teles and zooms, which the M8 can't. Plus, its metering is more accurate, and users report fewer problems with color (hardly surprising, since Canon has vastly more experience with digital sensors). The M8 is far, far more nicely built, in accordance at least to some degree with the disparity in cost, and the Canon hasn't got a fraction of the Leica's panache. But point-for-point, even at some of the most Leica-esque of virtues, the XTi is arguably a better camera. And not just for the money. (Pity about that crappy viewfinder, and I sure hope users can defeat that zany mind-of-its-own pop-up flash in the settings menus.)

So, vis-à-vis thought experiment #2, if the M8 weren't a Leica rangefinder, it wouldn't rank very highly as a digital camera. It's okay; it's just that the entry-level Canon I compared it to is better, never mind the more expensive models.

Of course, it is a Leica rangefinder. So if that's what you want, there you go—again.

Cost is relative
there's one final issue that I haven't covered yet (which will eventually lead me to one last thought experiment). Namely, cost.

If you persist in demanding or expecting that your expenditure be efficient, the M8 doesn't make a whole lot of dollars-and-cents sense.

However, luxury goods are defined as goods which are more desirable, and sell better, when they cost more rather than less. The M8 is a luxury product, and consequently there's quite a premium to pay for it. Presumably, buyers like that about it.

Not me, though. I'm never going to pay $4,800 for a digital camera, personally. I'm just plain not rich enough, for one thing. But even if I were rich, I'd still be a cheapskate. And even if I weren't a cheapskate, I still wouldn't be very status-conscious, because I just don't care very much about that sort of thing (my watch is a big dopey-looking Timex, for instance. I like it because the face lights up in the dark). So nothing—well, no camera—can sell me on $4k worth of prestige. Or even $2k worth. It just isn't possible. I'm not susceptible.

Not only that, but as a camera reviewer and magazine writer, I would never recommend that anyone else pay $4,800 for a digital camera, either. The march of progress and the pace of obsolescence is just too swift. The premium the M8 demands over even a Canon 5D is $2k, which is, in terms of cost-efficiency, crazy.

Mind you, when I say I would never recommend a $4,800 camera to other people, that's not the same thing as saying other people shouldn't buy one. They should if they want to. And maybe they just can. If there's one thing I've learned in dealing with photography enthusiasts over the years, it's that price is relative.

A little story comes to mind. I had a girlfriend once who asked me to help her buy a nice stereo. I planned a whole afternoon of store-hopping, fully expecting to expose her to a lot of different equipment and educate her enough about the options so that she could make an intelligent choice. Almost as an afterthought, as we walked into the first store (it was a Myer-Emco in Washington, D.C.), I thought I'd have her "calibrate her ears" by first listening to the store's reference system. She listened to half of a song, and said, "Okay. I'll take it."

"No, no," I said, shocked. "I didn't mean you should actually buy this one. I just wanted you to hear it before we go upstairs to listen to some other speakers—"

"What do you mean? Are there better ones upstairs?"

"No, but—"

"Isn't this a good one?"

"Yes, it's a very good one, but—"

"So what's the problem? I like it," she chirped. "I'll take it."

The salesman had this bright, happy, dazed look.

So anyway, after loading $12k worth of stereo gear into her big black BMW (that was a lot of dough for a stereo back in the mid-'80s), we were on our way back to her place to set it up when we happened to pass an certain antiques store. "Ooh, I saw the most gorgeous little Renaissance madonna in there a few weeks ago," she exclaimed. "I'm going to stop and get it." Then, half to herself, she added, "No, on second thought, it's $6,000, and I've got to try to be good. I've already spent enough money for one day!"

Ahem. Anyway, like I say, this stuff is relative. A price that's out of sight for some is trivial to others. Same as it ever was. And it's not for a reviewer to judge what's worth what to whom.

The bottom line
But on to my last thought experiment. In this review, I can't fall back on the standard reviewer's parting "would I buy it" shot. I know I'm not going to buy it for what it costs. To get down to my own bottom-line verdict, I had to imagine that the M8 doesn't cost what it does. What if there were no premium to pay? What if the M8 cost, say, $1,500, roughly double the price of a Canon XTi?

To sum up from above, the M8 doesn't quite make it for me as an M camera. It's physically similar to the film versions but misses the gestalt, perhaps unavoidably. To me it ends up feeling more like a weird replica of an M than a real one. And it's a decent but not great digital camera, bettered by average DSLRs in both operability and, to a lesser extent, image quality. But if for some reason your digital camera must be a Leica or your Leica must be digital, then it's the only game in town. And I can see that. As ennumerated yesterday, there are some good reasons to want one.

I didn't hate the M8. I actually kinda liked it, for exactly the reason I'm supposed to, namely, that it reminded me of the film versions. I can see how others might like it, too. If it were my camera, I could get used to it. So would I buy one if it cost $1,500? Surprisingly, I actually didn't have to think very long or hard about this. The honest answer, I'm afraid, is no. I know some people are crazy about the lenses, but my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result. And I can't get excited enough about the lens quality to be willing to put up with such a compromised body, and a shooting experience that, while pleasant, is not spot-on.

This is just one guy's opinion, a single data input, nothing more. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

ERRATUM*: The quote that originally appeared at the top of this page was not an actual quote. My apologies for screwing up.

UPDATE: Read Colin Jago's response to this review.

Featured [partial] Comment by Carsten Bockermann: "...To continue the Leica tradition of small, fast cameras with truly excellent lenses, I think we need a new system designed from scratch." (See the full comment in the Comments section.)

Feature [partial] Comment by William: "...This camera suffers from distorted color performance due to its IR sensitivity. IR light is minimally at removed before the sensor by a very thin, relatively inefficient optical filter in order to achieve the highest possible optical performance (all filtering—analog or digital—degrades information content to some degree). So, Leica traded color fidelity for optical fidelity. This means that color photography must be done with an IR filter in front of the lens.

"I have looked at hundreds of on-line M8 photos since December because I love the rangefinder/M esthetic and the idea of a digital M mount rangefinder really appeals to me. Pixel-peeping clearly reveals the M8's excellent image quality. This camera takes full advantage of Leica lenses as well as glass from Voightlander, Zeiss, Rokkor and others. Leica's strategy to eliminate the pre-sensor anti-aliasing filter and use a thin IR filter is a success. But viewing even low-resolution, on-line M8 color images shows IR contamination is problematic on most images recorded without on-lens IR filters. No amount of post-processing manipulation can eliminate the color distortion (post-processing can produce some amount of improvement). While IR contamination is most evident in the blacks and greens, all colors are affected to some degree. The color on the majority of M8 images I've seen just isn't right." (See the full comment in the Comments section.)

*That's Latin for "egg on face."

Random Excellence

Bud Green, Statue on Construction Site, Las Vegas, Nevada

And if you want to see some examples of what Leicas are good for, check out Bud Green's flickr photostream.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, thanks to Rubén Osuna

CameraLabs.com on the Limiteds


Gordon at CameraLabs.com has posted a nice video overview of the Pentax 40mm and 70mm Limiteds, which, among other things, gives you the best idea short of seeing them in person just how small these lenses actually are. It's part of a more complete suite of Pentax reviews.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, thanks to Eolake

Featured Comment by Jeff Kott: "I recently acquired the K10D and the six Pentax limited lenses. After about a month of use I will probably be selling the DA 40 and DA 70 because I find I am using the 43mm ƒ/1.8 and 77mm ƒ/1.8 instead.

The 43/1.8 is not that much bigger than the DA 40, but you gain over a full stop and the 43mm is sharper than the 40mm at ƒ/2.8. I have started using the lens hood from the DA 40mm on the 43mm. The DA 40mm lens hood makes the 43mm very compact and it works great with the APS-C sensor. My never leave home without it camera is the K10D plus 43mm with the DA 40mm lens hood attached in a Lowepro Sliplock 50 pouch. BTW, the DA 40mm lens hood is available separaely from B&H.

"Similarly, the 77/1.8 Limited isn't that much bigger than the DA 70mm, but you get an extra stop.

"The 40mm and 70mm focus a little quicker than the 43mm and 77mm and have the quick shift focus option. But, for a minimal increase in size, I'll find myself going for the wider aperture of the 43mm and 77mm."

Friday, April 27, 2007

Leica M8 Pro and Con: Pro

Leicas are good.

The first Leica I ever saw was an M4-P at Industrial Photo in Silver Spring, Maryland, when I was a first-year photography student. I handled it for about 30 seconds, maybe a minute. It felt awkward, unfamiliar, and strange, and I made a distinct mental note: nope, this is not the one for me. I went back to looking at Yashica-era Contaxes, my favorites at the time.

Leicas strike at lot of people that way, at first. Accordingly—mainly in the many volumes of what is by far the largest body of literature devoted to a camera marque—a sort of protective lore has grown up around them, to prevent such snap misimpressions from festering. Nine years later, I bought my own first M Leica, an M6. An enthusiastic follower of the lore myself by then, I set about discerning, learning, and mastering all the camera-handling skills, arcane film-loading protocols, secret handshakes, and so forth.

Eventually that M6 went the way of all cameras, and I started using Olympus OM-4Ts (still probably my lifetime favorite cameras). About five years after I sold my M6, I ran into Nick Zavalishin at Photo East. Nick's a studio pro, but since he was on his own time he happened to be wearing a sparkling mint M6 around his neck. We were outside the Leica booth, where Ralph Gibson was signing books. Nick hadn't heard about pre-focusing, so I was telling him about it. By chance, Nick had a 4th-gen. 35mm Summicron on his M6, which had been my main lens. I took Nick's camera and, without lifting it to my eye, looked at Ralph, focused the camera, and handed it back to Nick. "See how I did," I said. "It should be focused on Ralph." Nick checked, and sure enough, it was.

It's like riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget.

And if you really get used to a Leica, nothing else will serve, either. It kinda gets under your skin. You get used to having nothing available but prime lenses—no zooms—in set increments within a fairly narrow range of focal lengths. (.72X Leicas can use lenses from 21mm to 135mm, but for practical purposes their best range is from 28mm to 90mm.) Your eye gets used to seeing like your lens does. You practice pre-focusing—that is, guestimating distance by eye and setting focus by feel—and get used to having a rather cavalier attitude toward the viewfinder, which you only use sometimes. You stop getting distracted by depth of field considerations, since you never look through the lens (think about it—with an SLR, you're always seeing the least d.o.f. the lens is capable of). You get used to the ultraresponsive shutter and addicted to the quiet little "snick," the one that splits into two parts at slow shutters speeds and that hardly anyone ever notices.

Something happened
But then something happened. It went about like this:

• 1994—We don't need no stinkin' digital.

• 1998—Please don't take away my film. Will they still make film? Somebody please tell me they're going to keep making film.

• 2002—Hey, this digital stuff ain't so bad.

• 2006—We don't need no stinkin' film.

2002 was the year that Leica conceded that maybe even consumers would be buying digital cameras in another two decades or more. (Leica lives behind the curve.)

We all know the history. The 3-megapixel, $3,000 Canon D30 changed the landscape, and the original Digital Rebel did it again. Before you knew it, film scanners had fallen off the map, never mind film cameras. And Leicaphiles started swapping rumors of a digital M.

It was a few years in coming, but that's nothing—the half-life of a Leica rumor must be a decade or so. By ordinary Leica standards, the M8 arrived lickety-split, a pleasant surprise. And lo and behold—Leica didn't reinvent the wheel, or play feature-wars with the Asians, or dare to be different—the company did exactly what the overwhelming majority of diehard Leica users wanted it to do: it made a digital M.

Cut to last week, a neat quarter-century since I saw that M4-P at Industrial Photo. I'm at Ancora Coffee in Madison, where some of Wayne Brabender's pictures are being exhibited, with a T.O.P. reader named Mike Lougee, from Minneapolis. I fully expected to take a look-see at Mike's M8 and nothing more, because I had checked with my insurance agent and found that somebody else's $5+k camera would not be covered while it was in my possession. I can't afford a $5k camera at all, but I certainly can't afford $5k to pay for someone else's camera that I break or lose—and that I don't get to keep!

But Mike had also checked with his insurance agent, and he was covered. Mike must be a generous guy, and trusting. The upshot was, I got to use a borrowed M8 for the better part of a week. Not long enough to really get to know it intimately, but long enough to get familiar with it. And remember—it's like riding that bike.

Riding shotgun
It was really nice to reacquaint with a Leica M c. 2007. It felt very familiar. Coming from my oversized, overweight Wunderplastik DSLR with its large and clumsy zoom lens, it was a positive pleasure to wear the M8 like a necklace without having it get in the way. Rangefinder focusing is always a bit awkward at first, but it wasn't long before it became second nature again.

Metering and default white balance outdoors seem fine. Voightlander 21mm lens.

There's not too much different about the M8. It's slightly larger than a real M camera—thicker—and there's no cocking lever to hook your right thumb on. I've never used an M7, so the "A" setting on the shutter speed dial was new to me, too. The oddest and most "precious" feature about the M8 is the fully detachable bottom plate, which never did have much of a rationale on the film cameras, and now has none at all, save the fact that it replicates what the film cameras had. Leica did a nice job with the digital controls, with one exception, which is that once you're in delete mode, you can switch files—pictures—in delete mode and delete the new one with a single click. This led to the first time I've ever deleted by mistake a picture I actually wanted to keep. Most DSLRs make you hit two buttons consecutively, which is safer. Other than that, the digital controls are simple, straightforward, nicely laid out, easy to understand and use.

The main felicity of an M camera is the way it rides shotgun, always there, always on the alert, always ready to go. The M8 is not really different, so long as you have charge in the battery and space on the card. Whereas most cameras want to make it possible to do more and more until you can do an infinite number of things, an M camera doesn't let you do a lot. It pares away what isn't really needed and just leaves what is. The M8's designers respected this principle.

I wasn't able to do a whole lot of shooting with the M8—five sessions, none very long or intense, resulting in not quite a whole 1-GB card. Outdoors the metering is pretty accurate and the default white balance good. The files are large and detailed, as you can see in the example below.

The whole frame. Voigtlander 35mm ƒ/1.7 Ultron.

A central detail (sharpened)

A note-taker, ever-ready
It strikes me that there are four really good reasons to want an M8. The first is if you want DSLR quality but you're accustomed to the feel and handling of rangefinders, especially if your other cameras happen to be M Leicas. Or you just got used to the interface over the years. It might be a relief not to have to switch over to a much more electronically-oriented DSLR to shoot digitally. Second reason is if you already have a lot of Leica M lenses and perhaps other accessories that you know and like and want to continue to use. Third, you might desire the exclusivity: few people can afford to pay the premium, so your M8 will always be the camera of choice for only a select few. Fourth, it comes passably close to the "DMD"—the "Decisive Moment Digital"—that I described some time ago: a handy, portable camera that has a large image sensor and accepts small, compact, but top-quality prime lenses. A note-taker, ever-ready. It's not exactly what I had in mind, but it serves the stated purpose.

I enjoyed my brief sortie with the M8. It's straightforward to use, and like most Leicas (indeed, most rangefinders) encourages you to pay attention to what you're looking at rather than what you're looking through. Using the M8 felt like old home week, 21st-century style. A pleasure.

My thanks to Mike Lougee for the kind loan.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "That's a nice backgrounder and summary, Mike.

"I've had an M8 since early February, have used it in all kinds of conditions and agree with your key points. The initial batch of M8s, shipped last November, had some serious problems which Leica has largely remedied through firmware and trips back to Solms. The M8 does, however, still have some quirks. The white balance can be quite adventurous; the power switch on many (mine included) is a bit funky; and cyan vignetting still occurs occasionally with wide-angle lenses. Aside from the power switch issue (which can apparently be fixed only by German elves) the other oddities seem indefinitely intractable and are just part of the camera's character. (The drop-plate bottom is a real hoot.)

"I originally bought an M7 to visit a different and simpler style of 35mm photography. Having a few M lenses from that excursion I was naturally eager for the 'digital M' to appear. In my experience, aside from some new product bumps, the M8 has offered a nearly perfect transition to digital for the M.

"I don't see the M8 as a 'status' symbol at all. The vast majority of the public think it looks like grandpa's old camera and have no idea what an 'M8' is. ('Look mommy, that man has to take his camera apart to change his SD card. That must be a really old camera!') Several years ago a friend's home was burglarized. He had several cameras, among them a Leica M6 and a couple of lenses. The burglars left that several-thousand-dollar kit behind, preferring to snatch a point-and-shoot. True story.

"The M8 is a wonderful little camera. The quality of M lenses, in combination with the unique optical relationship that those lenses have with the sensor, make the M8 quite capable of recording some breathtaking images. But, as yoou noted, rangefinder photography has its practical limits. (This is contrary to some new and born-again enthusiasts' opinions, rather like boys with a hammer seeing a nail-filled world.) I am delighted to have mine. But it's also made me appreciate just how really good and versatile today's digital SLR cameras really are. It's easy to see why the rangefinder camera was nearly wiped away by the SLR.

"By the way, if you're interested in seeing how an M8 is put together take a look at this M8 dissection by Mark Norton on the Leica User Forum. (Warning: Not for the faint.)"

Hawking Floats


Coolest picture of the week: Astrophysicist and bestselling science author Stephen Hawking, who is normally wheelchair-bound, floats on board a zero-gravity jet on Thursday, April 26th. Photo: AP/Zero Gravity Corp.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

There Goes Another Three Minutes

Hey, take a look at the featured photo on Flak Photo for April 27th. Cool, huh? There goes another three minutes of my allotted 15 minutes of fame....

Now, back to slogging away on my Leica M8 review.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Featured Comment by Ed Taylor: "First, let me say that I love the photo. I fully understand why it was selected. I think the title helped as well.

"But, one can't help but be struck with the randomness of what is considered great photography. There are many factors involved in determining what is a great photograph, including the reputation (deserved or otherwise) of the photographer. As I show my own portfolio to people, I notice that there is no consistency with regard to what photos are selected as the best or the most original. One person will rave about a photo and tell me it should be in a museum and another will see the same photo, make a strange face and say 'ah, good luck with that.' We all know of highly praised photographers whose work looks like the photos we routinely discard, and other photographers whose work is amazing, but no one seems to care. Photos of beautiful women often get praise for no reason, and, amazingly to me, I often see photos of another artist's sculpture or wall art generating praise for the photographer, not the artist. What is up with that?

"Many of us wonder why the photos in the museum are there and ours are not. Marketing has a lot to do with it, otherwise, who knows? The logic of it really is suspect. Of course, there are many photographs that just about everyone agrees are great photographs, but does appealing to the masses make a photo great? Maybe.

"Having been around a long time, I can tell you that there are some photographers whose photographs sell for big bucks today who were considered 'cheesecake' photographers in their day (and that was not a compliment at the time). It is hard to appreciate street photography and photojournalism as well as landscape and glamour, but I do.

"I guess I can explain it this way. Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If the beholder is in a position to publish, or display or promote, then the photographs that the beholder likes are 'art,' and the reputation of the photographer who made the 'art' will flourish. All subsequent works by that photographer will automatically be considered 'art.' It is the photographer's job to get his works to be viewed by the 'right' beholder."

Mike Replies: Your comment reminds me of a well-known photographer who was approached by a patron at an opening. The patron asked why the photographer's pictures were on the wall of the gallery and his (the patron's) weren't. The photographer looked at him with a deadpan expression and in a very dry tone of voice said, "because mine are great and yours are shit."

Rimshot, please....

Jokes aside, thanks for your compliment, but I'm hardly a "great" photographer. My pictures seldom get singled out for praise or attention. I'm quite certain that the reason this one got selected for Flak Photo was that the guy who runs Flak Photo liked it. That's all.

Your comment raises a lot of different issues, but it also contains an awful lot of assumptions that might or might not be supportable. As for the issue of "randomness"—it's usually not very random, in my experience. In my case it's that I've established a photography website that gets 15,000 or so hits a day (a number I'm proud of, but I'm still a very little fish in the ocean of the web), so when I put up one of my pictures, a number of people see it. It took me a lot of work to get to this point. That's hardly random. The same is true of many people whose pictures you may think get attention "randomly." It's probably not random at all; it's probably because they worked very hard to get where they are. Maybe you think your pictures are better than theirs, but the difference may be that they've worked to get theirs seen and maybe you haven't.

Second, if the pictures you're discarding look just like the ones you keep seeing on gallery walls, STOP DISCARDING THEM!

I'm serious, too. I really do think that most photographers don't know their own best work. Many photographers probably really do discard their very best shots.

Next, where is it written that everybody has to agree what's great? Do we all have to agree which women are prettiest, which sport is most fun, which music is good and bad, what kind of food tastes best? Sorry, but I don't understand this. Some people like certain of your pictures and others don't like the very same ones? Well, the nerve of those people.

There's nothing monolithic about "art" or the photographs that get shown on gallery walls. It's not like it's one big club where everyone who gets attention is a big success and they've collectively decided to keep you out. It's a great big stew of advocacy and advantage, serendipity and bad breaks, unfair conditions, luck, hard work, persistence, the trading of favors, and money, and on and on and on. Do you have any idea how many "successful" art photographers in history were simply people who had money? They made their own fame, but the opportunity they got was boughten. And for what it's worth, maybe half of the "great" photographers I've met or befriended think they've been unfairly ignored and that they haven't gotten their share of the pie. So it's not just you.

Featured Comment by Chuck A: "Finding fame in the photographic art world is like trying to hit the bullseye on a dartboard from 50 feet away. It takes an enormous amount of trial and error and lots of luck. The vast majority of photographers will net even get close.

"Whether or not you become famous or get 'a piece of the pie' as Mike said is irrelevant. Why not take photos for yourself, hone your vision and skill and show your work as much as you can. If you get known well that is great. But I really think that it is like grasping at the wind."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Gone Again

Apparently John Szarkowski's Looking At Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Museum of Modern Art is now once again out of print—Amazon was not able to fill a recent order for a friend. I've removed the link from the list of books here on the site. This is one of the great books of delectation and erudition—I hope you got yours while you had the chance.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Pretend You're My Editor...

...What would you assign me to review?

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Featured Comment by Michael Seltzer: How about the Pentax Digital 645?

Oh, that's right...there is no Pentax 645D!

I'm thinking of starting a new magazine called The Vaporware Review. It would include product announcements, interviews with designers and manufacturers, and in-depth product reviews. I imagine this would well serve the photographic trade (maybe the entire technology industry).

As a first go, I'd like to see if I could get my hands on the obviously mal-formed under-glass model of the 645D. If I can’t, I can always build one. Doesn’t look like it would be too difficult. Maybe out of cardboard, or a lump of clay I pushed on here or there and painted black. Or better yet, Bakelite. Wonderful stuff, Bakelite, especially in that 1950’s yellow—a color not seen in nature and, like the secret pigments of some of the (long dead) great artists, one no one has been able to correctly reproduce since. Anyway, once I get a mock-up, I’d take it out for a field test, see what it can do. I’d try to cram a CF card into it, press down on the fake shutter release until something goes click, then write up the results (“On the plus side, this baby’s practically noise-free, unless you drop it. Trip the shutter and there’s no mirror noise, no vibration, no mirror slap at all, because there’s no mirror, no shutter to trip, and even if there were, there’s no way to trip it! And you can set this beauty up on a tripod, press as hard as you want on the shutter release and leave it for hours, and there will be no luminance or chroma noise—absolutely none! On the other hand, the resolution’s not so good”).

I mean, why wait for product to do a review? Why wait for data? In a world with such announcements, where people become celebrities not because of anything they’ve said or can do, but simply because…well, God knows; where even the government doesn’t allow pesky little things like data, information, or understanding, and certainly not the cries of the well-informed, to stop them from doing what they “know” to be right, why wait at all? Let’s go marching boldly forward, advancing the tide of ignorance (and trying to make a buck in the process). Hey, that could be the magazine’s tag line. What do you think?

Uhh—that you're having a bad day at the office? —MJ

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bzzz!

Reader ambroseliao nominates the Sanyo Xacti VPC-CG6 as the ugliest digital camera, because he left his in the bathroom and came back to find his father trying to shave with it.*

So is this the best/worst we can do?

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

*Not really.

The Man Who Made Mapplethorpe

By Philip Gefter, The New York Times

Tall, handsome and rich would be one way to describe Sam Wagstaff, a legendary figure in the international art world of the 1970s and ’80s. Urbane is another. Iconoclastic, certainly. And glamorous, without a doubt. But the word that keeps cropping up in “Black White + Gray,” a new documentary about Mr. Wagstaff by a first-time director, James Crump, that will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival next week, is “visionary.”

Mr. Wagstaff was one of the first private art collectors to start buying photographs as early as 1973, long before there was a serious market for them. His photography collection came to be regarded not only for its scholarship. It was also original and unorthodox, and turned out to be extremely valuable. Mr. Wagstaff sold it to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1984 for $5 million, a fortune at the time, establishing that institution’s collection of photographs, now among the finest in the world....

READ ON

Posted by: DAVID EMERICK

Bakelite Gone Mad

Remember our discussions last year about The World's Ugliest Camera? One reader has found another good candidate. It's the Coronet Popular Twelve, made in England some 55 years ago.

Hmm, I wonder what would get the nod as the ugliest digital camera in current production?

And don't forget our eventual prizewinner. Still the champion!

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, thanks to Craig

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Duck on Captions


"What the Duck" by Aaron Johnson, used with permission. Click on the strip to see it larger.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, hat tip to Adrian

B9180 Watch: Full Review

My review of the Hewlett-Packard B9180 pigment-ink printer has been published in the English Black & White Photography magazine.

Black & White Photography issue #71, April 2007

The review appears in two parts: Part I, which appears in issue #71 (April, 2007) covers general use and operation and color photographic printing, and Part II, devoted entirely to the B9180 as a black-and-white photographic printer, is in issue #72 (May 2007).

Black & White Photography issue #72, May 2007

The magazine is widely available in the U.K., where the April issue has just gone off newsstands. In the U.S. and Canada, where the April issue will still be current for another week or two, it is most easily found at Barnes & Noble bookstore newsstands and other large bookstore chain newsstands.

The review is not available online.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Featured Comment by John: And Mike, one should add that (even without your contributions) it's a super magazine and well worth a subscription.

Thanks John...I think. —MJ

Gisele Freund on Captions

The Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, seen here articulating the word of God as he understands it, has announced that his flock will picket the funerals of the Virginia Tech victims with signs saying things like "You're Going to Hell" and "God Hates You." A Church spokesperson told CBS News, "The evidence is they were not Christian. God does not do that to his servants."

Another important aspect of ethical reportage is accurate captioning. Real pictures with fake captions is a common enough comic trope—whole humor books are made out of the idea—but of course misleading, mistaken, or mismatched captions can communicate inaccuracies as easily as manipulation of the photograph itself.

Gisele Freund discusses this (and many other aspects of the misuse of photographs) in her 1974 book Photographie et Société:

"Few photojournalists...are able to impose their own points of view. It takes very little on the part of an editor to give photographs a meaning diametrically opposed to the photographer's intention. I experienced this problem from the outset of my career. Before the Second World War, share trading at the Paris stock exchange still took place outdoors, under the arcades. One day I took a series of photographs there, using a certain stockbroker as my principal target. Sometimes smiling, sometimes distressed, he was always mopping the sweat from his round face and urging the crowd with sweeping gestures. I sent these photographs to several European magazines with the harmeless title, 'Snapshots of the Paris Stock Exchange.' Sometime later, I received clippings from a Belgian newspaper which, to my surprise, had printed my photographs with a headline reading: 'Rise in the Paris Stock Exchange: stocks reach fabulous prices.' Thanks to some clever captions, my innocent little story took on the air of a financial event. My astonishment bordered on shock when I discovered the same photographs sometime later in a German newspaper with yet another caption: 'Panic at the Paris Stock Exchange: fortunes collapse, thousands are ruined.' My photographs illustrated perfectly the stockbroker's despair and the speculator's panic as stock value dropped. The two publications had used my photographs in opposite ways, each according to its own purpose. The objectivity of a photograph is only an illusion. The captions that provide the commentary can change the meaning entirely."*


The caption under the top picture is a real news item, from last week (the Church has since called off its pickets of the VT victims' funerals after being offered radio time, according to godhatesamerica.com.) But of course it doesn't actually go with that picture. The real "Reverend" Phelps is at left—sorry for slandering the gorilla. Here's the real caption, from the AP:

Kimani, a 2-year old western lowland gorilla, presses her face against the glass of the enclosure at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, Sunday, April 22, 2007. The zoo held special activities and workshops in conjunction with Earth Day on Sunday. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)


Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON


*Gisele Freund, Photography and Society, Boston: David R. Godine, 1980, p. 162 ff. The book is unfortunately long out of print. I once tried to revive it, and got as far as discussing it with a VP from Godine. Unfortunately, we concluded that the rights and permissions would be very difficult, if not impossible, to secure. That's too bad; it's a wonderful little book, one that more photographers should be familiar with.

Featured Comment by Chris Gibbs: And this article speaks for itself!

Featured Comment by Yoram Nevo: Can't remember who said: "a picture is worth a thousand words, but a picture without a few words beneath it is worth nothing."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Canon Scoop

"Trying to write something meaningful on every aspect of the EOS-1D Mark III is impossible, because there's just too much that's new."
Rob Galbraith

Rob Galbraith has scooped the other digital tech sites* by publishing an extensive first look at the new Canon pro flagship, the 1D Mark III. This is an iteration not of the full-frame, highest-megapixel 1Ds, but the high frame rate, reduced sensor size camera meant for professional news, editorial, and sports shooters. The 1D Mark III features a 10-MP, 1.3X CMOS sensor and an extremely long list of features.

Oh, and Rob's pictures that accompany the article ought to be titled "How to cover a volleyball game." Camera and photographer combine to create some outstanding sports work.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

*Whoops! Except Imaging-Resource.com. My bad.

Don't Make News

by Ctein

There is a clear and powerful rationale behind the NPPA rules against digital manipulation. News photos are important. Not just because they convey daily information to thee and me, but because they are the primary historical record in the modern world. News archives have become the most important cultural database and are vital to historians. Watch a show like the History Detectives and see how often they wind up in some newspaper's morgue to pin down otherwise unverifiable facts. That's not a convenient TV fiction, that's real.

Even the trivial can be significant. I don't think anyone is competent to judge the import of content. I sure know I'm not. An artist thinks nothing about deleting power lines from photos. For the historian and the energy researcher, presence or absence of power lines in photos is very important to charting and analyzing the process of electrification and urban modernization in America. Epidemiologists use photo records to plot historical patterns of EMF.

At casual glance, Adnan Hajj's faked "smoke" picture is only an aesthetic change. But, the original shows one fire burning. The fake implies three or four. When so-called "precision targeting" is a hot political issue, this is not a trivial difference! The fake also shows buildings, both damaged and intact, that don't exist.

(Fun fact: after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, city officials altered photos of the downtown to show buildings intact but burning. In fact, they had collapsed in the quake. The East Coast insurance companies would pay off on fire claims, but they didn't cover earthquake damage. The fraud worked, by the way.)

Even white balance changes can matter. Give me a photo of a slightly hazy day in downtown LA (is there any other kind?) and I can change it from healthy air to a second stage smog alert just by messing with the overall color balance.

Who knew power lines or RAW could be of such import?

Without hard guidelines people will alter important new content, either by intention or innocent ignorance. Alteration is simply too easy and too useful, either for reasons of aesthetics or agenda.

And then there's credibility. With most news sources legitimately challenged over objectivity (an uncapturable beast), engaging in active deception, benign as the intent might be, is suicidal.

It's so tempting to make the picture nicer. So the penalties for violation must be stiff and inflexible, because it must be unacceptable. Journalism is not about writing the prettiest words or making the prettiest photo, it's about doing the best you can within the rules that try to keep the profession credible and useful. If you can't live with those rules, don't be a journalist.

Posted by: CTEIN

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Light Meters c. 2007

"My DSLR is the best light meter I've ever used."

My radar screen has lots and lots of low-level blips on it, and I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out which ones are planes and which seagulls. One such faint blip that I've been "sort of" aware of and "sort of" tracking is the rejuvenation of the old Minolta light meter line by Kenko, imported by THK in the U.S.

I'm a little worried about my screen-reading skills on this one. Try as I might, I can't really interpret who's going to buy these things, or who's going to care, or who should.

I might be wrong, but it seems to me that if any species of photographic kit has been rendered 100% redundant—and hence, obsolete—by digital, it's light meters.

I mean, light meters were never any fun to use. They added nothing to the experience of photography. They just existed to help you see in the dark. You didn't know how the exposure was going to look until you had the film developed, so you set the camera based on the light meter. I suppose there were studio pros who used light meters to calculate lighting ratios, but the studio pros I knew—and their ranks included some serious high-dollar shooters—didn't. One pro I worked for briefly, who had two separate stages at his studio and more than $100,000 invested in C-stands and other Matthews gear, to give you an idea of the level he was at—never touched a light meter. "Polaroids are my light meter," he proclaimed. He did everything from the Polaroids. The light meter stayed in the cart drawer.

Digital, of course, is the apotheosis of the Polaroid. Its feedback is instant. Mine shows me a "proof" of the scene with the overexposed highlights or underexposed shadows (or both!) blinking. I can get a color histogram at the touch of a button. It works equally well for ambient and flash. Frankly, if these features had been available in a handheld light meter back in, say, the '80s, the manufacturer could have charged $1k for them and they would have sold like cold beers on Bay Bridge.

My DSLR is the best light meter I've ever used. The picture above was taken with an off-camera monoblock on a stand, through a white umbrella. Setting the exposure was laughably simple—with the shutter set to the sync speed and exposure on manual, I just fired off a few test shots, adjusting the aperture until the exposure was perfect. It might have taken a whole minute if I wasn't hurrying.

I know that many photographers are still shooting film in medium- and large-format cameras. Maybe some of them prefer light meters (and don't already own one). In any event, if I've missed something here, and you're eager to buy a handheld light meter, Kenko's got the goods.

Me? I'd buy a DLSR and just use that. (It has other uses, too.)

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Saturday, April 21, 2007

M'ate!

I spent part of the day today photographing hither and yon with a Leica M8, loaned to me by Mike L., a T.O.P.-reader friend from Minneapolis. He and I met in Madison the other day to look at work and talk photography, and he's apparently one of those admirable fellows who actually keeps his camera insurance payments current. So off I waltzed with his M8 and a couple of lenses, for a brief trial.

I can't imagine that more "tests" of this already-famous camera are needed or even wanted, so I imagine I'll restrict my eventual comments entirely to "user impressions." Mike needs his camera back on Friday of this coming week, so look for my comments to be posted on or near next weekend.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Bad Cloning Everywhere

Apropos the Detrich controversy at the Toldeo Blade, PDN is reporting that the New York Times ran an Editor's Note on Wednesday admitting that it had run a page-wide color photo in its Metro section that had been digitally retouched.

The excuse in this case was that the picture was taken by a NYT staffer who was not a staff photographer and was therefore presumably ignorant of the paper's rules. The Times stated, "Had editors been aware of the manipulation and seen the original picture, they would have either published the picture with the blemish or not used it."

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

So You Thought You Had Good Buffer Depth

"...We can comfortably say that in 10 years photojournalists will only be carrying video cameras."

—Dirck Halstead

Many readers have recommended Dirck Halstead's editorial essay "The Coming Earthquake in Photography" from the April 2007 issue of The Digital Journalist. Predicting the future has never been a high-percentage business, and it's possible that some of Dirck's predictions are "mileu-specific"—that is, he's looking at photography through the prism of photojournalism—quite naturally, since that's his bailiwick. You might not read the same predictions in the pages of PDN, for instance—I can't see studio advertising photographers succumbing to a pressing need to shoot video—and of course the camera market as a whole, despite the preturnatural popularity of the deathless marketing word "pro," is almost entirely driven by amateurs, enthusiasts, and consumers. It's a fascinating essay nonetheless.

And check out the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company's Red One, which to me looks for all the world like the over-the-top plastic alien-zapping space guns I used to buy for Zander at the Toys'R'Us when he was a little guy. It'll shoot 60 12-megapixel frames per second. And you thought your Canikon had good buffer depth.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, thanks to erlik

Featured Comment by Juan Buhler: Regardless of whether still photography dies completely, this is extremely interesting. Imagine what would happen to street, 'decisive moment' photography when there is a device that fits in the palm of your hand and can capture 60 12MP images per second. Will pictures that we would consider great today lose some of their value?

I think this goes right in the heart of what is art and what isn't. Is the difficulty involved in making an image an intrinsic part of the image's value? It is a fascinating issue.

Featured Comment by Matthew Miller: This is just the first step. In the somewhat farther future, but very possibly within our lifetimes, lenses will be obsolete.

Instead, a sensor will capture the unfocused image and transform it digitally into the focused one—you'll pick focus point, focal length, and aperture in post-processing. Combine with the idea of constant recording, and you can choose the instant you want and select "exposure" too. The shutter button just becomes a handy way of tagging interesting points.

Sounds crazy? Consider this: a lens is just an analog computer which does a mathematical transform on the input data (light rays striking the front element). Anything an analog computer can do can be approximated with a digital one with the right algorithms and processing power. We don't have that yet, but it's a very safe prediction to say that we will. At that point, instead of primarily analog cameras with a digital recording element, we'll have real digital cameras.

Quote o' the Day

"I have no idea what a 'megapixel' is. No idea. But I'll pay $300 for an extra one."
Craig Ferguson, on the Late Late Show

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Status of Still Pictures

I guess I hadn't realized how far still photos have fallen in status and prestige in the popular imagination.

For news reportage, video has many clear advantages over still pictures. But one of its big disadvatanges is that it's difficult to get video footage of unexpected news events as they occur. That fact, coupled with the national media habit of saturation coverage and its subsequent voracious appetite for footage, means that sometimes some pretty inadequate video is heavily overused.

This situation is especially bad with regard to the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech. The two most-repeated video clips seem to be a jiggly view of a parking lot with pops of gunfire heard on the audio portion, and a clip of an obese law enforcement officer in a brown uniform running up an incline. I've seen the latter at least thirty times, and it hasn't added anything useful to my understanding of the event past viewing #1.

Into this void came the killer's own videos, which have naturally been overexposed as well, to widespread objections.

Still, it startled me when a TV news commentator said something like, "Surprisingly, some of the most powerful images of the tragedy have been still pictures."

Who is surprised by that, exactly? Not me. But then, maybe the tendency to overvalue still photographs and undervalue videography is another of my personal idiosyncrasies. I don't know.

Whether by chance or design, the shooting spree occurred at the very beginning of the publication cycle of the weekly news magazines here in the United States. I anticipate that as the new issues of the newsweeklies hit the newsstands over the next few days, we're going to be reminded again how powerful still images can be.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Chris Jordan

Wow—talk about photo-illustration!

Any idea what this is?

Over the past few days we've had a few posts about the differences between photojournalism and manipulated photographs, with manipulated photographs claimed to qualify as photo-illustration. That might actually shortchange photo-illustration pretty severely. Real photo-illustration can be far more than an ordinary photograph with a few power lines removed—it can be conceptual, imaginitive, abstract, decorative—and powerful. All those descriptives apply to Chris Jordan's American Self-Portrait project.

One more description applies—"statistical." Jordan's project makes statistics visible. "Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing," he writes, "making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 426,000 cell phones retired every day. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs."

Here's a detail, at close to actual size if you click on it to enlarge it, of the picture at the top. It—the top picture—represents 60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the U.S. every five seconds.

Note that Jordan also says, "My only caveat about this series is that the prints must be seen in person to be experienced the way they are intended." Which must surely be true—"Plastic Bags, 2007" in the original is 60x72 inches. Still, I think they already have a pretty powerful impact at monitor size. Cool stuff.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, thanks to Stephen Bartlett

Hypothetical Questions

OTA*

The study of ethics often deals with hypothetical questions, and it's always exasperating when people refuse to grasp that the conditions of a hypothetical question are provisional. For instance:

Questioner: If the world were going to end tomorrow, would you take the day off from work?

Respondant: The world's not going to end tomorrow.

Sigh.

(The answer is non-responsive, of course. The whole point of making a question hypothetical is so you don't have to get sidetracked arguing about the premises and conditions. Don't they teach this in schools?)

Amateur beekeeper pouring bees into a hive. Photo by smthng (used with permission)

Anyway, you've probably heard of an emerging potential crisis that's just beginning to catch the world's attention—colony collapse disorder (CCD). To make a long story short, bees are disappearing—abruptly, mysteriously, and in large numbers.

This issue about the bees is going to be interesting, and most of the questions I have are (as usual) hypothetical. If (provisional condition), as the most recent research suggests, it turns out that cell phones are responsible for CCD, and if (additional provisional condition) it could be demonstrated that this syndrome were going to be total, causing the collapse of human agriculture and resulting in widespread starvation, would the world's governments have the will to ban cell phones and destroy the cell phone industry? Or would we politicize the premises and gab our way straight to perdition? Hypothetical question.

One premise here that's not conditional is the importance of bees. Not to nature—to us. Here's something Albert Einstein supposedly said: "No bees, no food for mankind. The bee is the basis of life on this earth." Another quote ascribed to Einstein: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

The content of these statements is true enough—bees are essential to agriculture—but the arguments over the premises are going to be fierce. What's killing the bees? (Genetically modified crops and pesticides have also come under scrutiny for blame.) How important are bees? Unlike, say, puppies, or panda bears, most people don't have any attachment to bees. There's no helpful sentimental construct or anthropomorphic link to fit them to. (Another small trouble is that it's doubtful Einstein ever made the abovementioned statements, at least according to his most recent biographer, Walter Isaacson, former editor of TIME magazine. Einstein is one of the most frequent misattributions for quotations; whenever someone has some point to make that needs the indisputable imprimatur of science, one quick and easy way to secure such an endorsement is to ascribe it to Einstein. What they're trying to do is subvert the idiotic arguments about premises we should all know well enough to take for granted.)

When the premise seems absurd—and you only wish it were
The other side of this coin is illustrated heartrendingly by some of the responses to the calamity Monday at Virginia Tech. An item from the New York Times: "'As a parent, I am totally outraged,' said Fran Bernhards of Sterling, Va., whose daughter Kirsten attends Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, as it is formally known. 'I would like to know why the university did not immediately shut down.'"

Before the fact, the hypothetical would have had to have been constructed like this: "If you knew in advance that a shadowy anonymous murderer were going to go on a killing rampage unprecendented in modern society hours after either he or someone else murdered two people in a dorm room, would you try to close down a thriving institution of some 34,000 people (24,000 students, 10,000 university employees) after the first two murders had occurred?"

I suppose you might, although we could argue as to whether such a move would be either feasible or effective. The problem with the question is that, lacking foreknowledge, any sane person would simply have to dispute the stated condition. As a premise, it appears to be nearly as absurd as saying "If the world were going to end tomorrow...." There's utterly no way anyone could have foreseen that 30 more murders would follow the first two. Not only is it atypical, it had literally never happened before. Murders happen every day; like it or not, they do. But the police aren't in the habit of shutting down a whole city or town after a single murder, and you can't shut down a whole huge campus after two, either. It wouldn't be rational. In advance of the event, it barely makes sense even to consider it...except as a hypothetical.

If only that's all it had been. Fran Bernhards' outrage is completely understandable, but its nature is psychological—it's the result of fear and a desperate desire to believe that the horrific event of Monday was a) foreseeable and b) preventable, if only someone who should have known better or done something differently had acted in a different way. It's a desperately fond hope, something most of us would dearly love to be able to believe. Regrettably, the more probable reality is that random violence of such magnitude is unforeseeable and unpreventable, rather than the result of a essentially benevolent authority simply making a mistake.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

*Off-topic alert


ADDENDUM: I've disallowed a number of the comments about bees. Not because I don't appreciate learning about them, but because I'm feeling a bit...wounded. Rightly or wrongly, I fancy that I'm at least a fair-to-middling writer, with an above-average ability to express myself clearly. But here in this post I went way out of my way to explain exactly how, and why, my hypothetical question was not about bees. It was about responses to threats.

You know, like how the first question is not about whether the world will end tomorrow?

I guess that was not clear. I suppose I am not as articulate as I think I am. (Actually, for many years, one of the words I could never quite remember, and thus typically stumbed over in conversation, was "articulate." Maybe the gods were trying to tell me something?)

Anyway, thank you, but let's talk about the bees some other time. VT was what was really on my mind.