On Experimenting

Long-time readers will recall that I’ve had and reported my occasional dalliances with digital cameras. These never last long, and usually end in (sometimes bitter) disappointment. But no matter how long I’ve been clean, the temptation is always there, hovering just on the edge of my sight, urging me to try just once more. I only have so much willpower, so such lapses are an inevitability to which I have resigned myself.

The latest bout was over a weekend trip to Maine. It’s a relatively frequent destination for me, and as I was revisiting familiar locations, I felt that it was a good time to see how I fared with a digital as my primary camera (I also had a film camera, but that was part of another experiment that’s a story for another post). This meant the Fuji X-E1, as this is my only digital camera at this point. Rather than the modern Voigtländer Snapshot Skopar 25/4 it usually wears, I mounted my beloved W.Acall 35/3.5 for a more classic look and a 50mm equivalent FOV.

The trouble begins as soon as one starts shooting. With film, once you’ve loaded the camera, all you’ve got left to decide is how you’re going to get to your chosen exposure. It’s far more complicated with digital; besides aperture and shutter speed, you’ve got a big pile of other choices to make. Color or black-and-white? Contrast? Color saturation? Film simulation mode? ISO? It’s frankly ridiculous. I generally shoot the X-E1 in Aperture Priority and try to make as few adjustments as possible, but when you look at a scene you can’t help but think about these things when you know that they can be easily changed.

On the X-E1 there are seven available presets. I have these programmed with my most used settings, with the intent being that I can just switch between them and not have to dig down into the next level of micromanagement. I use only two ISO settings – 400 and 3200. B&W 400 modes are set for each of the three built-in contrast filters – yellow, red, and green; the 3200 B&W is without filtration, and all of these are optimized for differentiated looks. Color modes – two at 400 and one at 3200 – are tweaked for results that I’ve settled on after testing. With these presets I find a rarely have to make further changes (with the exception of exposure compensation, which has its own dial on the top plate and is fast and easy), which at least keeps the shooting process reasonably quick most of the time.

All things considered, the X-E1 is about as painless a digital camera experience as I’ve had, assuming I maintain some semblance of discipline and don’t start screwing around. The JPEG results straight out of the camera are generally quite satisfactory to my tastes, enough so that I can’t be bothered to shoot RAW for the marginal gains it might afford. Knowing I have essentially unlimited capacity – my freshly formatted 16GB SD card has space for something over 2000 frames – means that I am more inclined to try multiple shots where one might suffice with film. Note that when I say “multiple” I mean two or three, not 25. Of course, my relative unfamiliarity with the response of the sensor versus film means that I may need these to better achieve the result I’m after, but that’s my own problem rather than an equipment issue.

What makes the using the little Fuji a more attractive option than other digital cameras I’ve used is how much it resembles shooting the sort of film cameras I normally work with. To be sure, it lacks the tactile pleasures of the best of the old rangefinders on my shelf, but the basic experience is not fundamentally different. Since I use my LTM lenses with it, there’s no concern about remembering which way to crank the focus or aperture. With some forethought, the X-E1 can be controlled pretty much the same way as a film rangefinder, and that’s a good thing.

The photos can be satisfying as well, though I have to say that for my money they still come in second to film, especially in black-and-white; digital monochrome always looks too clean to my eyes, particularly night shots. In this episode, using a lens with very classic rendering characteristics, I got probably as close to the sort of look I prefer as I’ve ever managed with digital. The photos I’m showing here are mostly very close to how they came out of the camera. Perfect? No, but another step toward having a digital option I don’t actively dislike. It’s good to have acceptable options, even if you don’t intend to use them much.

Vemödalen Project: Vintage Cars

There’s no question that I’ve taken a lot of photos of vintage cars in my life, so they seemed like obvious subjects for my sporadically-implemented Vemödalen Project. When I went on my annual pilgrimage to the Lime Rock Historics (which used to be called the Vintage Festival, which was a much better name) I took along what is the usual kit these days: a Leica body, in this case with a classic Elmar 50/3.5 screwed on the front and loaded with Kodak Ektar.

The plan was to get in close; this is not an entirely new approach for me, I know. I really wanted to try to emphasize graphical compositions, not to the point of total abstraction (which would be difficult in any case), but to get away from the instantly recognizable shape of a car and toward something that requires a bit more attention and thought on the part of the viewer. To my eye some of the shots I’ve chosen to show here are more successful that others in this regard, but that’s part of the process.

The other question raised here is the use of color versus monochrome film. There’s no doubt that black-and-white is by its nature more abstract than color, a point confirmed by a little experimentation with digital desaturation in post-processing. I chose to shoot in color because 1) I don’t do it that often, and practice is good, and 2) it added to the challenge. The fact is that some, if not all, of these shots might be better in black-and-white, but the Vemödalen Project is not really about the end result as much as it is about how one gets to it.

You can judge for yourself.



Leicas in the South of France, Part 2

In the first post in this series, I suggested that I would be dividing the photos up into two groups. In looking at what remains, I’ve decided that three posts is probably more appropriate. This second set of photos includes those from the two day trips that took me out of Nice proper: one to the small medieval walled town of Entrevaux, and another to the seaside principality of Monaco.

While it might seem at first glance that these two destinations could not be more different, they have similar origins. The original hilltop citadel remains the visual center of Monaco when viewed from the sea, with the palace and the dramatic clifftop oceanography museum dominating the small old town center. But where Monaco developed into a sprawling and opulent modern city – one that seems to be under a state of permanent reconstruction – that now dwarfs the centuries-old core, Entrevaux remains today much as it when it was built hundreds of years ago. With its own castle perched on the ridge above the town, the walls that protected the town remain its boundaries today as it still commands a strategic bend in steep valley cut by the River Var.

Monaco was reached by boat, leaving the port of Nice and sailing along the coast as ships have done for thousands of years. I’ve long believed that port cities are best understood and appreciated – at least in the macro sense – if first approached from the water, and this was no exception. The journey to Entrevaux was taken by train, running along a narrow-gauge line more than a century old that parallels the Var first north then west from Nice. Here too the historical route was followed, between the increasingly steep ridges that rise above the river, arriving to much the same view as that of travelers in centuries past, passing across the same bridge and through the same gate to enter the town proper. In addition to modern trains like the one I took, a steam train runs along the route in the summer; I was lucky to catch a shot of it as it came through Entrevaux station, adding to the illusion of a place where time has slowed considerably.

Marking the history of the region with what are perhaps two extreme examples seemed an interesting way to present a distinct set of photos, so that’s what I’ve done here. I hope you enjoy them.