Thursday, December 19, 2013

Back to the Basics


Dad got his first Leica, a IIIf like the one on the right, after World War II. He bought me my first "real" camera, the all-manual SLR mamiya/sekor 500TL, for Christmas in 1974, launching my interest in photography. My new Fujifilm X-E2, bottom left, merges rangefinder styling with total manual operation if desired--a perfect "photographer's camera" in a mirrorless compact format.

For Christmas this year, I've entered my third "phase" of photography.  But really, it's a return to basics.

My parents bought me my first "real" camera for Christmas back in 1974, when my dad took me into downtown Salt Lake City to an aptly named place called "Fourth Floor Camera Den" to pick out my first SLR, an $80 Mamiya/Sekor 500TL with 50mm f2 normal lens and leatherette case.

Being a Leica man, I'm sure my father would've preferred to have gotten his son properly situated with a rangefinder camera. But me, being a teenager in the 1970s, when the swaggering photojournalist with a bag of Nikon F's was perhaps in fullest bloom as a culture symbol (Paul Simon, you may recall, mentioned Nikon in his paen to Kodachrome film in the song by the same name)--well, it was all about the SLR. At least it was even since my 7th grade classmate Eric Einhorn showed me his dad's big Nikon collection at their stylish modern home high up in the Olympus Cove. There they were, what seemed like a dozen Nikkor lenses, packaged in golden boxes, protected in plastic cases. His dad, a doctor, if I recall correctly, had a couple Nikon F bodies, too, including one with a motor drive. In a world of middling camera brands like Miranda, Hanimex and Ricoh, Nikon clearly stood alone at the top of the mountain, with Pentax and Canon far, far below.

My father, Lou, the Leica fan. With the M3, Lake Powell, Utah, 1976. I used that cool metal camera strap on the X-E2 today.

 The Japanese-built Nikon was sexy and hip, and a favorite of soldiers who'd picked them up in PX's coming back from Korea and Vietnam. My dad preferred the German Leicas, of course. The brand practically invented 35mm photography back in the 1920s, and they were popular among soldiers like my dad coming home from Europe in World War 2. Dad owned an M3 when I became infatuated with Dr. Einhorn's Nikon F. For me, there never was a question: it'd be an SLR. And though I'd have preferred a Nikon, well, our budget pretty much ruled that out.

 Love at first sight: The 1959 Nikon F, the model owned by Dr. Einhorn.

That first SLR was really the first big phase of my interest in photography. I beat up on that poor old Mamiya, mashing in the front filter ring on the marginally-sharp 50mm f/2 lens. I eventually replaced the Mamiya with a succession of Nikons--FM, FT3, FM2, finally F3HP-- as I decided on pursuing a career as a photojournalist. The bag of Nikons remained another nine years after I gave up the profession in 1994, until I decided to ditch the film cameras for one of the new digital SLR's starting to challenge traditional film photograph. The move to the budget 6 megapixel Canon Rebel would mark a second phase of my photography, letting go of the notion of exposing for a single type of film instead of a full spectrum of light sensitivity that one could change from exposure to exposure. That DSLR looked like a film camera, felt like a film camera, and certainly worked like a film camera. But pixels were definitely cheaper to expose, and my laziness at not changing a roll of film until it was too late was no longer an issue. There was still darkroom work, only it was done in front of a computer running Photoshop. With each successive camera purchased--from a Rebel XTI in 2008 to a EOS 60D in 2011--it became easier and easier to take great photographs without really thinking about the process of photography. Anyone can be a competent photographer these days, something that certainly wasn't the case when my dad placed that Mamiya in my hands back in 1974. (This is much to the chagrin of professional photographers, who've seen their work disappear and their rates drop as a result of the proliferation of photographers. Many have turned to giving workshops to make up for the loss of their clients, making their potential competitors, as a result, that much better!)

Me, the serious and earnest young photographer, with my first SLR, the Mamiya-Sekor 500TL, in 1975.

So, looking for a bit more challenge to my creativity,   I start my third phase in photography this Christmas. I just sold off the last of the Canon DSLR gear to finance a leapinto somewhat uncharted waters by going all-in on a Fujifilm X-series "mirrorless" digital system. If you read the photo blogs, you'll know that many predict the mirrorless cameras to be the future of serious digital photography. With camera phones gutting much of the point-and-shoot market, developing photo technology has allowed small, compact camera bodies with a rangefinder-like digital viewfinders to equal the performance of much larger DSLR's in nearly every category, The DSLR's for now still hold the edge in several areas, among them fast focusing on moving subjects (as in sporting events) and in fast aperture long-telephoto lenses--so for now, the DSLR will remain THE camera for sports and wildlife photography. And the large sensor size of the high-end DSLR's will keep them employed by most professionals who require optimum sharpness and the largest file sizes. And, lets face it, you hire a professional, and you expect them to show up with "impressive" cameras.

That's not to downplay the quality of the Fuji X-series image. I purchased the new X-E2 body to replace my Canon 60D largely because a big bag of Canon gear was getting too heavy to schlepp around. The X-E2 body is considerably smaller and less than half the weight (.77 lb) compared to the 60D.  The range of Fuji zoom lenses, while not small compare to other compact camera offerings, are still much smaller than the Canon gear. The big bag of DSLR gear was such a drag to lug around to most places that I'd bought a much smaller camera to travel with. I found that the smaller, less intimidating camera was much easier to photograph people with.

I'd digested a lot of on-line reviews on the current crop of these mirrorless digitals, and ultimately chose the Fuji X-E2 for its comparative large sensor (same size as that on the 60D, by the way), fast focus, availability of high-quality lenses, continued and constant firmware upgrades by Fuji, and familiarity with the basic design and function of controls gained by using the X10/X20 point-and-shoot compacts over the past 18 months. And, it's a sharp looking little camera, to tell you the truth.

I've found in using the little X10/X20s that, in addition to the quality of the images they produce, that they're FUN to use as well. I recall how photography used to be in the film camera era, where a photographer had to not only compose but EXPOSE the picture properly, and the Fuji X-series makes this return to enjoyment of CREATING an essential element of their cameras. You can, of course, just keep the thing in automatic exposure and bang away like a point and shoot, but here's a camera with a shutter speed dial, with lenses that can actually be focused, zoomed and the aperture adjusted by manipulating the lens!

They're not REALLY rangefinders, these new Fujis, but they're more like rangefinders, to me, than they are DSLRs. I'm sure there will be a learning curve in transitioning to the X-E2, but I'm jazzed about it. I'm just like that 14 year old in the Fourth Floor Camera Den. And that can't be a bad thing.

I'm sure my dad, the Leica Rangefinder Fan, would have approved of this camera.


Charles Freericks said...

Very interesting read. I am actually getting back pain from lugging DSLR equipment around. Much to consider.

Nick Fotis said...

Nice read.
My current photo bag for extended photo trips includes two Canon DSLRs (40D and a 5D - both bought second-hand) and two zooms (17-40/4L for the 40D and 70-200/2.8L IS for the 5D). I plan to replace the 40D with a full frame body (perhaps a 6D?) in the future, with a 24-70/2.8L I own already.
And often I carry the 550EX flash (plus a reflector) for indoor shots at conferences etc.

These mirrorless Fuji remind me the 'Texas Leica' I still own - the 6x9 rangefinders. Wonderful machines, but the cost of 120 film is becoming too much these days...

For me, the investment into Canon lenses is too great (and I like telephoto photography) to part with.


B. Kooistra said...

I've found that with the L series glass, you can pretty much sell them used for what you paid for them, so unloading the Canon stuff and turning around and getting the Fuji is a fairly minimal outlay of new cash, at least relative to the improvement in image quality the Fuji sensor is over the 60D's. The Fuji 55-200 looks to be pretty damn sharp; pixel picker reviewers have put it on a par with the Canon L, but a stop slower.

Nick Fotis said...

It is true that L glass holds its value very well, I own the 70-200/2.8L IS for nearly a decade and never disappointed me.

Heck, I can even focus in interiors (conference rooms) with the pathetic AF of the 5D with this lens! I am looking forward to get returned my confiscated 24-70/2.8L and 5D combo (long story, I don't remember if I told you it).

Another Greek railfan bought the "Run 8" train simulator, and he raves about its multiplayer capabilities and its realism. To me, the display looks a bit unnatural, though. Look for yourself at
Me, I just contributed to a Kickstarter project for a major upgrade to Trainz train simulator.

Enjoy your Xmas,