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October 2016

Forgotten cameras

One of the most forgotten cameras in the Leica Scuderia is the Leica M7. Purists select the MP or the M-A (which I happen to own and use!) or go digital. yet the M7, especially with the 0.85 finder is an excellent instrument. I use it often with a ISO 100 film and the SX 50 ASPH wide open. The exposure metering is quite accurate and the shutter is a joy to use. When taking pictures in low ambient light (around 1/8 to 1/15) the shutter noise is hardly audible and at 1/1000 the shutter produces the finest sound of every Leica shutter, including the new digital ones. The camera is very flexible: add a green filter for maximum sharpness and a ND filter to stay at wide apertures in full sunshine.
Evolutionary the M7 is the spring board for the M8 and all other digital Leica cameras. The current M is functionally almost identical to the M7.
The electronically controlled shutter is very accurate and sublimely quiet. Handling is very intuitive and the finder is bright with fast focusing. What else do you need or want.? This is a rhetoric question of course and I realize that the trend from negative to memory card is not reversible and it should not. The digital workflow has so many advantages that using a Speed Graphic is really anachronistic. On the other hand it is the film that separates the master from the pupil. Digital cameras are very close to industrial robots. Highly efficient and accurate, the robot is a living proof that the human operator is a clumsy competitor compared to the robot and artificial intelligence has more potential than human intelligence. The human brain is still capable of producing extraordinary ideas, but may researchers are confident that it is only a matter of time before a robot will be able to develop the string theory that Sheldon Cooper is focusing upon.
Using the M7 loaded with film is a fine and often necessary complement to the digital Leica M-camera.

heroes of analogue photography

Today I visited the Museum in Hilversum, Netherlands, the city of audiovisual companies and radio stations. The museum had an exhibition about “the heroes of analogue photography” in the Netherlands. The idea is to exhibit pictures of famous Dutch photographers who worked with analogue material between 1900 and 1970. In most cases the original cameras are still available. The next step was to select modern photographers who are mainly familiar with digital equipment, give them the original analogue cameras and ask them to take pictures in the sprit of the old masters. The results are quite intriguing and does provoke a discussion about the impact and meaning of the transition from negative to memory card. Most interesting are the street photography pictures, made with a wide variety of cameras, from Agfa Silette to Leica and Hasselblad, and from Rolleiflex to Speed Graphic and to Plaubel and Linhof.
It is evident that the traditional idea that the Leica camera is the best for candid and street photography may be obsolete and the equally traditional idea that photography is primarily directed by the brain or what is between the ears.
The most used camera by the way is the Rolleicord and Rolleiflex, followed by the technical and field camera. It is really amazing what these old masters could accomplish with cameras we now assume to be totally unsuitable for dynamic and instant photography.

Book series

My first book in the series (Leica Chronicle) was a description of the many products that the company of Leitz, later Leica has produced since 1849. It also contained a history of the company from 1849 to 2012. The photographic products since 1925 have not only been listed but also evaluated form my personal experience and testing procedures.
The second book (Leica Practicum) produced information about the ongoing discussion what a picture is, how to interpret it in a technical and artistic sense and what are the specifics of a Leica picture. Unavoidable is a discussion about the artistic - mechanistic dichotomy of the photography and how this dichotomy is explored in the world of chemical prints and of numerical images and the inkjet picture. Technically the focus is on the Zone System and theoretically I defended the position that genuine Leica photography accepts the external world as independent from the observer’s mind and that street photography in its documentary context is the guiding principle for true Leica photography. Between the lines I questioned the universal view that photography is an art form and proposed to see photography as a neutral recording process.
In the third book (Leica Lens Saga) I looked at the physical theories of light and optical design. The principles of optical design have changed since Berek designed the Elmar and the changes are reflected in the history of the Leica lens. I noted that optical theorists are not all interested in the topics of art versus mechanical reproduction or what the nature of reality is within the field of view of the lens in front of the camera. Designing a lens is a very complex process and the design is successful when there is a one-to-one correspondence (an isomorphism) between the objects in front of the lens and what is recorded on the capture medium. The objects in front of the lens are limited to the surfaces of these objects and their brightness distribution and intensity level. This aspect is the only characteristic of an object that a photograph can reproduce.
In the fourth book of the series I am looking at the camera itself and the act of photography. The main question will be what it is to take a picture with a Leica camera and how this will and can influence the character of the print and interpretation of its content and meaning. I will follow the ideas of the Dutch photographer, Aarsman, who argued that one needs a detective approach when analysing the content of a photograph. In addition I will expand on the theories of lens design that the lens/camera/recording medium is neutral and intrinsically meaningless. It is a theory from the science of perception that meaning has to be injected in a picture or in observing a scene. You see what you know and you do not know what you see. This is a Sherlock Holmes proposal that is close to the detective approach for the analysis of a picture. Cartier-Bresson has defined his theory of Leica photography as the decisive moment, a concept that has been discussed by Dyer in his book “The ongoing Moment”. Not well known is the influence of the chance factor in the process of taking a picture. One might reflect on the fact that the dominance of the Leica style of photography since the 1920s depends more on the ability to take 36 pictures, thereby reducing the chance element. The extended depth of field, made possible by the small format and the specific design of the Elmar lens, made possible the snapshot style of photography. There is much to explore in this exciting field and my fourth book will cover this search in depth.

Paradox of automation

Airplanes fly most of the time on automated pilot using so-called fly-by-wire systems. These are translators, mediating between machine and human. When the human pilot initiates a maneuver manually, the system will sense what the pilot tries to accomplish and overrules the action with a more precise controlled series of activities when it assumes that the pilot is in error.
Automation is now everywhere and soon even cars will move by automation. Cameras have been automated before the inclusion of focal plane arrays and the image-processing software. The better the automated systems, the less inclined the human operator will be to exercise basic control skills. The bad point is of course that when the automatic control system breaks down, the human operator can no longer cope with atypical situations. When a modern camera has a battery failure, the whole system breaks down. And even when the battery is functioning, but the software lets you down who can determine the level of exposure or even guess the distance between camera and object when need arises.
Automatic systems accommodate incompetence by being easy to operate (never mind the 300 pages of a camera manual)and by automatically correcting mistakes. Even when operators are skilled, they will use the skill hardly ever and even worse, when a skilful response is required because the automation fails in unusual situations, the operator lacks the experience.

This is one of the reasons why I use the filmloading basic Leica cameras because they require the basic photographic skills to operate.

The other reason to use traditional chemical means to record a scene, is simply fun. It is a kind of existential pursuit of happiness, so brillantly expressed by Robert Penn in his book: “It’s all about the bike”.

A basic dilemma

The first choice is the film: the Ilford Delta100 for now. This choice also limits the selection of the lens: the most compact is the Summarit-M 2.5/50 mm. Because I intend to take pictures in situations where the light intensity is low, the Summilux-M 50 mm will be the choice. I feel dubious about the Apo-Summicron-M 50 mm because of its higher level of definition at the wider apertures, but the ability to collect the faintest photons that can hit the emulsion settles it. Then the camera: the M3 has the finest finder and the most pleasant shutter noise and the smoothest shutter release. The M-A is almost identical, but has a brighter finder and a more accurate shutter. The 0.72 finder has to be supplemented by the magnifier which makes the body a bit more voluminous. Both cameras require an external exposure meter. The Gossen with the 1 degree spot is the obvious candidate, but only when the pictures are Zone System oriented. Exposure metering with the incident light method is extremely simple and adjustments can be made by experience. I am a bit lazy for now, as I wish to explore some new techniques of photography. Then the M7 with the 0.85 finder will do. The semi-automatic mode suits the style of photography and the accuracy of the shutter is excellent. The shutter sound is hardly audible. This M7 has been cleaned and adjusted recently, and should be in perfect state.
As Wim Wenders noted, the beauty of the analogue photography (in itself a strange reference as the digital photography is also analogue to start with, but the word is now so familiar that it makes no sense to be purist) is the expectation to see later what has been captured and to reflect on the captured details. Usually we see only what we know and the detective approach (to know what we see) takes some effort. Not every photographer is a Sherlock Holmes. The Dutch photographer, Aarsman, has made it a specialty: the photo-detective to collect information from the photograph that was not intended by the photographer when he took the picture. The time period between taking the picture and observing the photograph helps to hone this attitude. And you have to focus on picture taking as there is no second chance. In this respect the immediate review possible with the digital camera makes things easier, but also less attentive. There is no single stairway to heaven!

Computational versus chemical photography

Slowly and without remorse (‘we have to look/move forward’, said Mr. Kaufmann, discussing the possible demise of the X-Vario) the current technology of image/signal processing enters the era of the dominant algorithm and the numeric computation. The act of photography becomes almost trivial and subconscious, because the computational power will produce in almost every case and situation a decent, and often even a perfect image. This is the good point. The bad point is the inevitable convergence to one standard style and quality of imagery. And of course the loss of control, because the algorithms determine the result. Photographers may state that the post-processing tools in Photoshop and its companions will reclaim the loss of control. For some it may be the case. And using high-end cameras with RAW files there is indeed a modicum of control. Technology however has its own will and will more or less gently push the photographer in one direction to the area where the technology does rule. When one looks at the zillions of (amateur) images on the social media and the thousands of (professional) images in the magazines and the books about digital photography, only one conclusion is possible. People do produce images within their own comfort zone as defined by the technology they use. This is possibly one of the major reasons why there is such pressure to acquire ever more sophisticated instruments: they promise a more diversified portfolio of images: the demand for ever higher numbers of pixels per square area and ever more exposure latitude and higher speeds is not based on real needs, but on the possibility to distinguish one self from the crowd.
There is no more progress in chemical emulsion technology: you have to do with what is being offered on the market since decades. The Kodak Tri-X and Tmax 400 and the Ilford 100D are almost stone age emulsions and the range of developers is also quite stable although some small manufacturers amaze the user with newer and interesting developers. Some new tools for the darkroom are being designed and manufactured. The good point is that the stability of the products allows one to optimize the workflow and to experiment with the available chemicals. There is no hurry and one does not need to be afraid that a new disruptive product will wipe out the established base. What is good now will be good forever.
Film choices are a most decisive factor for the quality and style of the photographs that can be taken. A conscious choice must be made when one puts a roll of film in the camera: the grain/speed character defines the level of detail and the exposure latitude and even the style of the pictures taken. The choice of developer may alter the relationship a bit, but only within strictly defined limits. The worst advice that some emulsion theorists can give to users is the idea that the darkroom processes have to be kept within tight limits to be useful. The whole idea that the development process depends on a fraction of time or temperature is not a good advice. Developing a film for 10 minutes or 10.2 minutes will not change the quality of the negative. It is indeed the case that grain will grow and sharpness will be reduced in cases of overexposure and overdevelopment, but the ‘over’ has to be measured in double digit percentages and not in single digit percentages.
Today I developed a range of films (from APX100 to Tri-X) in FX39, the classical acutance developer. The compensating effect of the developer gives enough latitude to get good pictures from under/over-exposed negatives. The next stage is the printing stage. Modern photographers are hardly accustomed to produce, see and handle prints (chemical or inkjet), as the standard medium is the computer, laptop or smartphone screen. Assessing the final quality of an image from the i-pad screen is a bit dangerous, because of the hidden algorithms that produce the image on the screen. I prefer the comparison between prints, because the print is an honest arbiter and the artifact for the artist and technical analyst.

Photography of the future: algorithms will replace lenses!

The establishment of the Max Berek Innovation Lab (MBIL) in Wetzlar by Leica and Huawei is not a gimmick, but a bold entry into the future of photography.

Long time ago I wrote an article on the internet that with the adoption of digital imagery, the classical art of photography was dead. I was severely ridiculed by the then active cognoscenti that I did not understand the digital world and should wash my mouth with soap and start learning about the true essence of digital technologies.
Now the advance of the technique is even more visible than it was then. The new camera of the future will be an app in which algorithms will define what and how a scene is being recorded. The announced Summicron-SL lenses may be the last one will ever see from Leica.The OBLW will produce a new type of camera obscura with so-called computational photography that will correct and enhance the images. A very simple application is the reduction of distortion and vignetting in modern Leica cameras and lenses, but this is the start not the end
The era of the honest photograph (the unaltered reproduction of the reality) once the exclusive characteristic of the Leica way of photography will be a relic of the past.
The iPhone will take over and the included algorithms. Leica and Huawei are the beginning of the end of the classical Leica photography!
Time to pick up the Leica M-A and a box of Ilford Delta films!
Like it or not: straight photography has gone and the smartphonography rules.

the fading urge to buy

The current Leica strategy has lots in common with that other German iconic manufacturer, the BMW motorcycle. It is no coincicdence that in 1954 both companies announced the most prestigeous products ever: the Leica M3 and the BMW R50/60/69.
Since then both companies followed the same path: almost killed by mdern japanese companies (Honda Black Bomber and Canon/Nikon F-series)) they stubbornly kept faith in their own competences (the R100 and the M6) and just in time saw the light (watecooled boxer engines and digital cameras (M8-M9). Both companies are actively reflecting on their roots and know that history is an asset in current times of mnimalism and nostalgia. BMW has just announced the R5 Hommage, a pure replica of the classical R5, but with modern technology. Leica has announced the M-D and is working on even more classical-oriented models.The BMW planners however seem to be be more daring and clear-focused and less pre-occupied with marketing research and socail media opinions than the Leica planners.
Modern marketing research has shown that the focus on brand creation and image promotion, focus groups and social media and much of the current maketing hype is useless when one wishes to establish a loyal following.
Leica needs the type of products that BMW has: products with the famous Wow-factor and the instant impulse: this is what I want to have (and buy).
The current Leica cameras and lenses are very competently designed and engineered and offer a performance on a very high level, but not distinguished enough from the competion to warrant the urge to own. A few of course will buy everything Leica makes (the Q seems to be a good seller, but not with the numbers that Fuji or Sony might be satisfied with) but the fact that Leica issues special editions is an indication that normal sales are not what they were. The amount of special editions of the M6 increased at the end of its life cycle. The year 2017 may see a large amount of new announcements that will increase the sales volume, but the true urge to buy has yet to emerge.