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July 2017

The Leica dilemma

The important difference between chemically based and solid-state based photography is not the capture technology. It is in fact unimportant whether the projected image by the lens is recorded by a sensor or in the emulsion layer. The main difference is the closed and open character of both capture technologies. The chemically based photography is a closed system with its own techniques, procedures and rituals: to take a picture one has to step outside the daily flow of events and activities. It is a conscious decision with products that are only useful for the process of photography. A film, a developer, a darkroom has no other use that to produce a printed photograph. It is a closed ecosystem. Digital photography on the other hand is an open ecosystem, integrated with modern electronics and digital technology. Everyone uses a computer nowadays and the digital files of the digital camera can be seamlessly integrated with modern consumer-electronics and its culture of Instagram and Facebook.
The Leica camera was leading in the 1950s, when the ecosystem was quite closed, but lost its position to the Japanese companies that were more inventive to incorporate electro-mechanical interfaces in their cameras, paving the way for electronics and automation. The Canon EOS system shows the ease with which digital engineering could be incorporated into a basically electro-mechanical body. There was space enough inside the body!
The evolution from M7 to M8/M9 was not an easy path and many engineering obstacles had to be cleared away. In the modern open ecosystem, the Leica cameras have lost their edge and are technologically marginalized, whatever the marketing department and the many Leica aficionados assert. Optically the Leica company is still leading, but the incorporation of AF and IS in the current line of TL and SL lenses shows a worrisome convergence with other leading optical companies.
Optical qualities were once very important: the image chain was a range of steps where every step degraded the original negative image: it was important to start with the best design possible. With modern imaging algorithms the situation is reversed: you can start with a medium quality lens and the imaging software will enhance the original image: it is now simple to manipulate the individual pixels and improve the final image. It goes without saying that the image quality of the current Leica lens is still beyond reproach, but is no longer the main criterium. In a closed ecosystem there is a limited number of benchmarks, but in an open system there is a longer list of benchmarks and the integration with current consumer-electronic products and technologies becomes the main criterion.
The flavour of the closed ecosystem can be experienced when a film-loading Leica camera is used: one has to think consciously about the type of film and the type of developer and in order to produce a print a fully equipped darkroom is required. The digital path is much simpler: just take pictures and use one of many processing software to produce the picture while being immersed in the consumer-electronics world. You do not have to leave your desk to develop and upload the picture. It has been said that the average digital photographer produces more pictures in two hours that all photographers produced during the full nineteenth century. This may be exaggerated, but the point is well made. Producing digital pictures is an effortless and almost subconscious activity, embedded in the usual daily flow. Here lies Leica’s dilemma: how to incorporate the values of the 1950s into modern mass consumerism.

Summer musings

The last few months I have been taking pictures with a 50 mm lens, almost exclusively! The Apo-Summicron 50, the modern workhorse, is my most used lens (the next one is the current SX 50). Both lenses are very well suited to a style of photography that may be called ‘producing documents’. A document is a source of information and should be neutral, devoid of subjective intention. Most persons would think of the decisive moment as the iconic method for documentary photography. It is remarkable that the original French title of his book (Images à la sauvette) in correct translation means “pictures in a hurry” which is quite different from the idea of a creative and conscious decision to wait for all picture elements to fall harmoniously in place. ‘In a hurry’ refers to the vernacular snapshot style of photography, the document par excellence! This style and the kind of photographers using it are diametrically opposed to the other extreme of the spectrum: the art photography. One can discuss and even speculate about the possibility that a mechanical instrument, like the camera, can ever been capable of producing art (Szarkowski would claim that it can!). The theory of photography that assigns a heavy weight on the influence of the operator on the final result (injecting intention and meaning) disregards the chance element of photography. No one is able to see exactly what happens in that tiny part of a second (1/50 to 1/1000). Photographers with digital cameras use prolonged bursts of pictures to get the one they need or like.
But I am digressing. My choice of the 50 mm lens implies that a range of lenses I own are no longer needed: originally bought as companions to the M8, the Summarit range 2.5/35-50-75-90 was intended as a travel set: very high quality and with a compact size that takes little space in a photo bag.
I am now selling this set of lenses, complete with pouches and lens hoods.