review

On Camera Reviews

Waiting For Another

Om Malik, on the cruddy quality of camera reviews:

All I want to know from reviews is how it feels in hand, the pictures it makes and what is the actual performance from a daily usage stand point. The sensor size, the sensor type and what kind of processors mean absolutely nothing — what matters is the photos.

Even more helpful: give me a year-out view, after you’ve spent some quality time with the camera, and really tested its capabilities.

What would make me love it more than what I already have? What are the limits of its use? Where have you taken it, and what did you see?

A few of the big photo sites take a stab at this philosophy, but I value reviews from individual photographers more than any review-heavy site.

(via CJ Chilvers)


‘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.


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.


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.


VSCO Film 06

Had a chance to give the new VSCO Film 06 Alternative Process Collection for a spin this afternoon. Each preset is in the caption of the photo.

The fall colors here in Michigan gave these presets a great workout. So far, I’m really digging the Provia and Portra sets. The cross processing is a fun effect, and a bit more subtle than the obnoxious filters a lot of the mobile photo apps employ.

This pack reminds me of a cross between VSCO Film 01, 03 and 05, and now the preset names are getting pretty intense (with superscript!) to show how far the digital files are “pushed.” The high-contrast, high-saturation look with a lot of these film stocks fits my style pretty well.

Love the moods throughout.


REVIEW: Saul Leiter, ‘Early Black and White’

After some searching and some digging, I finally earned my copy of Saul Leiter’s posthumous new collection, Early Black and White.

It’s the follow up to Steidl’s popular (and delightful) Early Color monograph, which has gone through five editions since 2007. The Black and White series comes in two books, “Interior” and “Exterior.”

Saul Leiter self portrait

You can learn more about Leiter’s biography and style influences from Photo-Eye and Faded+Blurred, but suffice it to say that Leiter’s work, especially his color work, is a recent discovery in the art world. Now we get to see more of his monochromatic work.

The two-book package is nice. The slip cover is a little flimsy, but the books’ paper and quality and top-notch. Often I felt like the photos could’ve been a little larger – some of them scream to be printed 8×10″ on the page. But Early Black and White’s size matches that of Early Color, so at least it’s consistent.

Something I noticed: “Interior” doesn’t necessarily mean just photos that Leiter took indoors. No, “Interior” seems to represent Leiter’s relationships – inside his personal life, with family, friends, and kids. There are photos of relations on the streets, on walks and on rooftops.

Similarly, “Exterior” is outward-looking: strangers, city scenes, classic candid street photography. This is the classic Leiter we’re familiar with from his color work, with reflections, windows, and slanted glances of strangers throughout the book.

There are pieces of both books that I appreciate, but the “Exterior” edition recalls the Leiter that inspires me. There are a lot of photos in “Interior” that seem simple snapshots of friends at parties. I wouldn’t dare argue that these are outside of “art,” but they aren’t as moving. Sometimes they feel like filler.

There are exceptions. In many cases, Leiter makes art of of photos of friends and lovers, as above.

It’s the “Exterior” stuff that shows what Leiter can do, even if it’s not the color stuff that made him famous.

And on that, I will say that, while his monochrome work is delightful, you start to miss Leiter-in-color as you pour through each book. He makes the black and white tones do a lot of work, but they’re not as poetic as those early color photographs.

Leiter’s collection of work still surpasses most street photographers. His way of seeing the world is truly unique, and poetic, and over the course of several books his subject matter becomes truly his. Umbrellas, windows, weather, pedestrians – everyday stuff, illuminated.

Lately, I’ve devoured photography books from the masters, and out of all of those Leiter’s work (and perhaps William Eggleston’s) speaks to me the most.

I hope that these Early books are the just the beginning of the publication of Leiter’s work. The essayists hint that he always had a camera on him. It would be great to see how Leiter, through his camera lens, saw ‘80s, ’90s, and 2000s

A note on purchasing

It’s tough to figure out how to buy this book series. You can’t purchase it directly from Steidl’s website, and the Amazon listing is a series of third-party book sellers.

I found my copy through the Book Depository, a UK outfit, even though it’s perpetually out of stock. The site does offer a nice “email me when it’s in stock” option, though it took me a few tries to hit the “add to cart” button in time.

But the books arrived quickly and at a decent price, and delivery is free. So you may have some luck in finding a copy.


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.