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.

From Away, Part 19

Last one from the Fuji. I’ll be closing out the series with a few black-and-white film shots from Portland.

Fuji X-E1, Canon 100/3.5
Fuji X-E1, Canon 100/3.5