Review

Taking a piece of gear and testing it out.

Mark Marchesi, ‘Evangeline’

Evangeline, by Mark Marchesi

Over the holiday break, I used a (much appreciated) gift card to pick up Mark Marchesi’s photo book, Evangeline, based on his Acadia photo project.

This is my kind of photo project: about space, and history, featuring a tragic backstory. The photos of abandoned Victorian homes, and the tidewater landscapes – all with the background of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem.

It’s a beautiful book, with a soft fabric cover and lovely essay. And, because Marchesi’s project ran as a Kickstarter project, it has me thinking more and more about running my own crowdfunding campaign.

Pick up a copy at Daylight Books.


Book Review: ‘The Revenge of Analog,’ by David Sax

Central Camera - Chicago, IL

The physical world is what it is: messy, random, and tactile. The digital world, even at its best VR-helmeted incarnation, is a mere simulation.

A lot of the world is waking up to that fact. Even Silicon Valley, in all its ones and zeroes, realizes the value of IRL play, meditation, and good food.

This was one of the parting messages in David Sax’s book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. The book was a reading assignment from CJ Chilvers (read his review), and is a piece of non fiction that, along with Sound City, has helped me think more about physical things and why I value them.

The crux of Sax’s research: the culture and media that digital left behind, or revolutionized, (film photography, record albums, paper) are coming back as more than fads. People are writing notes in Moleskines, reading actual books, and opening up new vinyl pressing plants. Business owners are successfully expanding their book store empire. And yes, even Silicon Valley is finding physical things worth exploring.

A lot of people, for a lot of years, have said, “Print is dead.” Or, “no one reads magazines anymore.” Film photography is obsolete, and a hassle. A paper-free office is the goal. At my art museum job, in a very literate college town, I’ve even questioned the value of print media and products.

What Sax found, though, is that the very people we thought were abandoning the real world — young people — are actually the ones buying vinyl records and asking for paper textbooks at school. That’s comforting, for those of us that value analog media. It means the world isn’t as upside down as we had feared (although Sax neglected to talk to newspaper publishers – he mostly sticks to sunny stories of success).

Speaking of young people: Sax’s chapter on education was especially eye-opening. Digital tools in the classroom (think electronic whiteboards, tablets, video lessons, etc.) are an overhyped lie, Sax found, with no real metrics to show their much-bragged-about value. Digital is no savior. Those of us who work in higher education heard about the MOOC for a few years as this great college disruptor. But as Sax shows, only about 10 percent of online class takers ever finish the lesson, and many more people find a relationship with a real live teacher more worthwhile.

Amen! Think about the online photography video versus a one-on-one workshop with a photographer whose work you appreciate. If you want to pick up clone stamping, a Photoshop video can certainly teach you how in a few minutes. But to get real valuable advice on how to shape your artistic vision, nothing beats spending actual time with an actual person. Analog education matters more.

The findings in The Revenge of Analog pop up in the news with regularity. We get more and more news about classic film stocks coming back. Some of my favorite bands now release vinyl albums along with digital downloads. Just the other day I received a new magazine coming out of Detroit, asking for my advertising dollars. Look all around, and we feel analog’s return in our bones.

The truth is, for many of us, analog never left. No revenge was needed. I still read my books pulped page by pulped page, I still have two magazines arriving in my mailbox every month, and I write in actual notebooks with an actual pen. And don’t get me started on music.

Structured in case studies around companies that are giving analog a go, Sax’s book makes the point that analog can be a thriving business for a lot of people, even if it’s outside the majority. Good enough is good enough, and there’s still money to be made on the weirdos and normals alike.

 


‘Color Correction’ by Ernst Haas

Early color photograph holds a special place in my heart. The pioneers, like William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, showed that color photography could be used for more than advertising and editorial work, especially when taken out on the street.

But even before those two guys, and their comrades like Stephen Shore and Alex Webb, photographers in the 1950s were blazing a vibrant trail.

Ernst Haas was one of these trailblazers, exploring streets and urban scenes in the ’50s, and making his living as a Magnum photographer. A reissued book of Haas’s photography, Color Correction, is out from Steidl, and it’s a great overview of Haas’s personal work.

Haas sits in the same photography family as early color photographers like Saul Leiter. You get the sense that color, light, and abstraction were all tools Haas (and Leiter) used to express his personal vision.

It’s Haas’s use of light and shadow that really gets me excited. That low-key work, combined with the vibrant colors, is what attracted me to Haas in the first place.

Color Correction is an affordable look into that midcentury color photography that’s timeless and continually satisfying.


40mm and Go

40mm And Go

Everyone talks about 50mm being the focal length for 35mm photography. And I mostly agree.

But lately, my 40mm pancake lens is getting a lot of use – for good reason.

Five millimeters north of a 35mm lens, and just a hair wider than 50mm, 40mm sits in a sweet spot. It’s wide enough to get landscapes and cityscapes, and yet short enough to do people well, and get details.

I took a chance on my own Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens. Not that it’s not a good lens. It’s a great lens. And very affordable – especially when you buy it refurbished, like I did.

No, I took a chance because I thought, “I so love 50mm, why do I bother with 40mm?” It turns out that because of the lens’s size, weight, and utility, it’s now my most-used lens. It’s almost permanently strapped to my 5D. I just pick it up and go.

The 40mm doesn’t stick out from the camera, making it great for close-up shots of the kids at home, or of people out in the city. It’s a great front-seat lens that goes with me to and from work every day for the random landscape shot. It’s flexible for the kind of shooting I do, and I appreciate it more and more every day.

And now that I’ve had it for about a year, I’m getting to see the world in 40mm – just as I did with 50mm (both are natural, of course, being “normal” lenses). My Canonet probably helped warm me up to 40mm before that, as did my Fuji X-E1 with the 27mm (40mm equivalent) pancake lens.

While the 50mm gets all the creative credit in the photo world, it’s good to know there’s a handy, slightly-wider alternative in the 40mm lens.

 


Fujifilm X-E1: A Review

Fujifilm X-E1: Fujinon 27mm f/2.8

Last year, for my birthday, I purchased a gently used Fuji X-E1 from fredmiranda.com, ushering in my entry to the Fujifilm system.

After many months of using (and a bit of abusing) this great little camera, I’m going to run down some thoughts on it.

Attraction

Hey – it was my birthday. What other excuse do I need to buy a new camera?

But really, it was after seeing the incredible work of La Roque and others that first attracted me to the Fujifilm system. There was a magic in these cameras, they told me, similar to Leica and Apple and all those cultish (and quality) consumer brands.

The key was to buy into the system at a discount, which is why I went with a used Fuji X-E1, the consumer-grade Fujifilm camera. For $300, I bought into a whole new camera and lens system. I also purchased the Fujinon 27mm pancake lens during last spring’s rebate. Everything was affordable, and I felt I wasn’t losing much even if my new-camera experiment didn’t work out.

It was an easy way to see what all the fuss was about. So I did it.

Happy birthday, me!

 

Hare Krishna: Dance

Handling

First, much like my Canon EOS M, I can see why photographers are singing the praise of mirrorless cameras. The lightness and portability are a definite plus.

In fact, the X-E1 is almost too light – or too hollow. That’s why I’m thankful my X-E1 seller included a leather case. The heft the case adds feels more natural in my hands. Even with that, though, the camera and lens combo is light. Featherweight, even. It makes my Canon M feel like a solid brick of metal.

The pancake lens adds almost nothing to the weight, and very little to the size. That may be a different story with something like the Fujinon 35mm, but I set this system up to be portable and small.

 

Downtown Jackson: B-Z-Bee Cafe

I knew that this wasn’t a DSLR, and that not everything would be accessible as a button or switch. So menu hunting gets a little old sometimes. But as long as I’m thoughtful, and think through a shooting session, I get by okay.

And can we talk about style? For someone’s who’s not concerned with fashion, getting the fun “is that a film camera?” comments has been a hoot for me. It becomes a topic of conversation, even with strangers.

 

Red Barn Doors [Explored]

Photo Files

Everyone’s right: there’s something very special about these Fuji photo files. I knew that from my few weeks using a Fujifilm X100 a few summers back.

I’ll say that the X100 had something really special about it. I look back at those files and realize that the X-E1′s don’t quite match up. It could be the lens that makes the difference. I don’t know. But there is a difference – those X100 images are stellar.

 

Springtime on Campus

The X-E1′s? Still great. There’s a coldness to them, but they’re certainly sharp. I’ve found that I don’t enjoy using the film simulation modes. They do things with colors that are not pleasing to my eye. The black and white modes work pretty well, though.

Ben Brooks has some nice thoughts on his XE-2, and I really enjoyed his parting words on using a Fuji for the style:

The color rendering, the feel, the controls. It’s not a system that is quantitatively better if you ask me, but it is a system that just makes you feel like you have the chance to create something special every time you press the shutter release because the cameras and lenses themselves feel very special to use.

The cameras? Yes. The photo files? Maybe.

It could be that my eyes are use to seeing Canon files. It could be the sharpness is off-putting sometimes – it’s hard to describe, but there’s a crispness to the images that’s almost too much.

 

Birthday Presents

The Future

All in all, the Fuji X-E1 has been a great little camera. Portable, flexible, fashionable, and not obnoxious. It certainly has its quirks.

I do find myself missing Canon image files. Maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten so used to them, but the “coldness” in the Fuji files, and something about the color, isn’t as pleasing to me.

For the near future, I do see trying out a Fujinon 35mm. The 27mm makes for a fine walk-around lens, but to get truly creative, I feel like the shallow depth of field on the 35mm will open some options. And people have (mostly) nothing but good things to say about it.

I see this as primarily my travel camera. When I go somewhere, the X-E1 will go with me.

You can view some of the images I’ve made with this camera at my Flickr album.


Low-End Photography: Canon 5D Classic

Taking something like low-end photography (much like low-end computing) seriously involves using classic gear to get your artistic goals accomplished.

The “classic” part is the key. It’s not enough to use any old retro digital camera. It still has to work well and produce good files.

That’s why I ended up grabbing a Canon 5D (mark I, natch) a few months ago off of fredmiranda.com. Many would agree that it’s a classic camera: sturdy, innovative at release, and capable of producing beautiful photos.

It’s also my first foray into the world of full-frame digital photography. My Canon Rebel T1i has done me well these past four years, but I’m prepping myself for a Canon 6D purchase this summer. Before I take that plunge, I wanted to test out a full frame camera, so I went shopping for a 5D.

It has not disappointed. It’s built like a tank, it produces sharp, beautiful photo files, and it’s not that much bigger or heavier than my T1i. And the reach! Those EF lenses are at their best when they showcase their maximum focal length.

What doesn’t it do? It doesn’t do movies. Or HDR (thank goodness). Or double exposures. Or even Auto ISO. The Canon 5D is closer to a photographer’s camera – purely focused on photography – that just about anything released these days. All you can do is make photos with it.

Grab a CF card (still available) and a card reader, and Lightroom has access to everything the 5D produces. In that way, it’s as relevant today as it was when it was released almost a decade ago.

No, the ISO isn’t as bump-able as today’s Mark III version. And the file size is smaller. But I share my photos mainly online, with a few 8×10″ prints here and there, and for those reasons the classic 5D is good enough. And I’m not alone – some of my favorite photographers working today still use the 5D (with one lens!).

I also saved a bunch of money on a full-frame camera.

Eventually the thing will wear out. The 100k shutter lifespan is quickly approaching. Even when it does die, I imagine I’ll have taken lots of photos with it. It will serve me well in, what, a few years? Maybe more?

It’s a low-end approach to photography: buy a classic camera that’s in good shape, save some money, and enjoy the benefits of Good Enough.


Book Review: ‘A Lesser Photographer’

Think about all you’ve learned about photography. Think about the photo blogs, the podcasts, the seminars, the preset packs.

It’s not really “photography.” It’s the business of photography. That’s mostly what we hear about on the web. The gear, the reviews, the tips and tricks. It’s photography as commercialism.

CJ Chilvers woke up from all that one day, hiking in woods in Illinois (I’ve been there – it’s lovely). He woke up from the “gear talk” that pervades most of what is photography culture, sold all his DSLR equipment, and started over.

Then he started the A Lesser Photographer blog, and shared a different philosophy: What if we cared more about the photos and ideas than the camera and lenses? What if we quit obsessing about technique and kept things simple?

Now Chilvers took the best of the A Lesser Photographer blog and put it into book form – short “chapters” with simple ideas and great accompanying art. The chapters are little nuggets to think about. There’s one on The Best Photos of the Year (hint: they’re yours, and they’re wonderfully imperfect), and one on not shooting the clichéd and obvious. Live your life instead of shooting all the time. And (my favorite) embracing the “amateur” in amateur photographer.

That last one really resonated with me. Yes, I do make a little side money from photography. And yes, it’s a part of my jobby-job. But mostly, it’s a hobby. I’m not looking to make a lot (or even a fraction) of my income from photography – either paid gigs or selling prints. So what do I need a portfolio for? My work will (most likely) never hang in a museum. And I have plenty of outlets for my work (Flickr, Instagram, this blog).

Chilvers’ message is today’s photography counterculture. Photography as a hobby is all about gear and technique – about special effects (HDR, light painting, etc.) rather than emotion. Chilvers says, “Enough.”

The perfect camera for you? “Check to make sure you don’t already have a camera.”

It’s an easy trap to fall into, all that gear lust. Starting out, I remember caring about fast primes and ISO sensitivity and all that. I wanted to try cameras and buy the latest and greatest. That urge still grabs me every time I visit canonpricewatch.com.

Technique wasn’t so interesting to me, luckily. I mostly cared about taking good, interesting photos and capturing my friends and relatives. But the gear, man.

Maybe it’s a guy thing, to care about the specs. The latest and greatest. I do care about the tools in the same way I care about my car. There needs to be a certain amount of comfort and flexibility that allows me to get the job done (photos, driving, whatever). And the sports model is always something to drool over.

But Chilvers’ advice is to spend money on the images instead of the gear. Buy a plane ticket and shoot the hell out of your destination. With your old, clunky, dented camera. That still takes good-enough images.

Not all of us can be pro photographers who get to fly to India and test out the latest Fuji. But we can fly to India. I bet our old cameras still work there.

A Lesser Photographer is a good, pointed, fast read, and it does make you question how you approach this hobby. If you’re a pro, says Chilvers, you already know this stuff.

It’s the rest of us “advanced amateurs” that need reminding.

–  –  –  –

Pick up A Lesser Photographer: Escaping the Gear Trap to Focus on What Matters at Craft & Vision for $5 (cheap), and follow the blog.


Camera Review: Canon EOS M

Canon EOS M: Body

After toying around with the mirrorless camera world, I got to appreciate the conveniences – what I call the throw-it-in-the-car effect. Mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X100 are light, small, and not prone to bang into things with a lens sticking out of the front.

That’s why, when Canon had a fire sale, I jumped on the Canon EOS M mirrorless camera with the stock EF-M 22mm lens.

Canon EOS M: EF-M 22mm

Just $300 for a small, portable camera with a prime pancake lens and a Rebel T4i-caliber sensor. Touchscreen controls. Firmware update that speeds up the autofocus.

The only bummer? The white one was discontinued. Otherwise I would’ve (and believe me, I tried) purchased that one in a heartbeat.

As it was, with just the black model, I did think about the purchase for a few days. Did I need this camera? Would I put it to good use? Was the quality enough that I wouldn’t be frustrated with it?

No, yes, and maybe.

Canon EOS M

Camera Design

After the Canon EOS M arrived, it was pretty fun to unbox it. There’s lots of stuff that Canon packs in that box – and the minority of the material was the actual camera.

The camera itself is a solidly-built little instrument. It feels dense, but not heavy, so that it feels like a good, quality hunk of camera.

Canon EOS M: EF-M 22mm

The 22mm lens is light and well-built as well, although I’m not a fan of the sound it makes as you screw it into the camera. It feels like it’s rubbing or scratching agains something it shouldn’t be.

Canon EOS M: Screen

The back screen is large and bright enough to be seen in most situations, although with screens of this type, it does get tough to see what you’re shooting in bright sunlight (more on this later).

Canon includes a thin camera strap with little metal hooks that slide into the rivets on the camera – a nice system. Putting the EOS M around my neck helped me appreciate how small and light it is.

8/1/13 - Driveway Grass

Image Quality

Touring around with the Fuji X100, and my Canon T1i, I had weak expectations for the image quality on the EOS M.

Happily, this camera beat those low expectations handily.

Jackson County Fair 2013

Bright scenes, dark scenes, color and contrast – they’re all great, and I was shooting mainly JPGs. I found the image files flexible enough to grab the details I needed in Lightroom.

The 22mm focal length is a bit wider than I like, but it does make the M flexible for most situations: landscapes, architecture, street-type scenes, macro, even portraits. Pairing the EOS M with a quality 35mm or 40mm prime lens would be perfect for the way I shoot.

So the quality of images isn’t where this camera gets annoying. Not at all.

8/20/13 - Foggy Sunrise

Camera Positives

Since participating in On Taking Pictures’s daily photo challenge, I’ve almost exclusively used the Canon EOS M.

I felt it was a good exercise to get used to the camera, and to learn its ins and outs.

Given that, this thing was perfect as an everyday carry-around camera. I could swing it over my shoulder heading out the door, throw it in the front seat, and carry it with me wherever I went. When I did go out and shoot, it was light and small enough to not get in the way.

The pancake lens simplifies things, too. Just one focal length, with a wide enough aperture to do what I like to do. All I have to think about is taking the lens cap off.

8/18/13 - Locally Grown

It’s not quite iPhone camera simple, or point-and-shoot simple, but it’s more simple than choosing a lens, lugging the DSLR around, etc. My DSLR is a pro tool that gets me exactly what I see in my head. The EOS M is what I carry around with day to day that’s convenient enough to be useful.

That’s been the breakthrough for me with this camera, and the Fuji X100 before this. The portability, the convenience, and the image quality make these mirrorless cameras the equivalent of the iPad: in between the iPhone’s race car and the Mac’s utility truck lies just the right touch of Good Enough.

And, it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun to carry this thing around and just have it there, being simple, and grabbing nice images.

Cruise Night: No Parking

Camera Quirks

I’ll say that my number one issue with this camera is the random exposures it takes because of the touch shutter. In the bottom left of the screen is a Touch Shutter Enable/Disable button – but seemingly at random, it switches modes. It could be because of an accidental touch, but I get enough random exposures from the camera bumping into me that it gets annoying. Quickly.

If I could turn off that entire area of the touchscreen, I would.

Also, the 22mm lens will sometimes search endlessly for focus, especially for macro-type shots. I find that switching the camera off and on again helps, but sometimes it doesn’t and I need to take the lens off the camera.

Finally, the touch-screen buttons seem randomly and frustratingly placed. I have to stop and think about where I need to put my finger to change the white balance, say, whereas with DSLR canons my fingers can go automatically to some dial or button for instant access.

Nothing Stops Detroit: Down

More On the Touchscreen

Yes, the touchscreen is hard to see in bright sunlight (especially if you wear sunglasses). And yes, that touch-to-take-a-phone feature is a downer for me.

Overall, the touchscreen is just a big ball of frustration. Touching to focus, so easy on an iPhone, is cumbersome on this thing. I find the focus point randomly moves around because of accidental touches, and changing settings like aperture and ISO are clunky.

And trying to focus on something below or above you, with the screen barely in view? I agree with others: make it a swivel display and you could solve a few of these problems.

Hitting the “Info” button, I’ve learned, helps to help with some of those accidental touches, since the “buttons” on the screen disappear. And pressing the delete button on the scroll wheel helps place the focus point back at center.

But trying to do all this while holding and the camera and pressing the shutter button – maybe it’s just going to take some getting use to. I find I often take too many accidental exposures fumbling with the settings and getting the camera ready to shoot.

Jackson Cruise Night 508

Final Thoughts

The Canon EOS M was the first step for Canon in the mirrorless world, and with a few needed firmware updates, they’ve made their initial product a decent one – especially at $300.

I can see going fully mirrorless someday, should these cameras become as practical and fast to use as a DSLR (and if they stick around). Until then, these cameras are a lot of fun to use – and I think that counts for a lot, especially for a hobbyist like me.

Canon EOS M: Sensor

Adding a nice portrait-length prime lens to the EF-M lineup would be killer, especially fast lenses in the f/2 range like the stock 22mm.

Rumors are that a new EOS M model is headed our way, so we’ll see what Canon does. I’m happy that I pulled the trigger on this first model, no matter what comes.

It’s added a new dimension to my hobby that’s been a lot of fun to explore.

View more Canon EOS M photos at my Flickr album.


My Two Weeks With A Fuji X100

Harbor Barber: Tools

Renting a camera is the perfect way to try before you buy. It’s also the perfect way just to try – and that’s why I rented a Fuji X100 for two weeks. Just to try.

I see other photographers that I admire doing fantastic work with the Fuji system, and speaking its praise as the Next Big Thing. Being a Canon guy, it was tempting to see what all the fuss is about.

Fuji X100: Bay Harbor Yacht Club

I also rented it because I was covering a wedding for two co-workers, and thought it would be fun to take it to their destination ceremony in Petoskey, Mich.

There, it performed very well. I had to make sure to keep it on a setting that worked for whatever situation I was in, but from there I just pointed, framed, and shot.

Harbor Barber: Edges

The things this camera can do with mixed light situations, dynamic lighting, and low light is spectacular. And sharpness? Just perfect.

There were times when I felt lost. That feeling probably comes from knowing my Canons so well. I also like having things like ISO and white balance ready at a button push. Too often, with the X100, I had to dive into the menu system to switch up the settings.

Fuji X100: Crossroad

I’ve read that people use the X100 as a slower device. Take your time, adjust your settings, frame your shot, click. So maybe throwing it into a fast-paced wedding situation wasn’t entirely fair.

For those instances where I could take my time, it was perfect. The size, too, made it a handy carry-around camera. It’s a throw-it-in-the-front-seat-of-my-car camera – a walk-around-the-neighborhood camera. And it was light enough to feel like a regular accessory to the day.

Fuji X100: Sparks Park Pond

The film modes are fun (like the Velvia setting above), but were an extra step in the process. I found taking the RAW files and adjusting them was more my style.

At first, I blanched at the idea of using the Electronic Viewfinder. But the rangefinder-style Optical Viewfinder missed focus points just enough to get pretty annoying, so I switched as time went on fairly easily.

Fuji X100: Bee on Echinacea

Switching to Macro Mode, however, to get those close shots was not easy. I never quite got the hang of it, and would often forget which mode I was in and shoot in the wrong mode.

Fuji X100: Clouds Moving In

The picture files? Glorious to work with. Plenty of flexibility to lift shadows or pull back highlights – again, especially in those mixed lighting situations. Skies, especially, were lovely. For a lot of my shots, using the VSCO Film Fuji profiles worked well.

All in all, using the Fuji X100 really was like shooting with a film camera. The photo files had personality, and flexibility, and were a lot of fun to play around with.

Fuji X100: Red Barn

The camera itself was an adjustment. I feel like, with more time, I’d get used to its particular quirks. Maybe not.

But sometimes it was nice to set the setting and not touch them, and just worry about making nice photos.

Fuji X100: See-Through