12.01.2021

Guest Host, Charlie Martini, begins a series of Highly Negative Camera reviews with this one today.

charlie sez: "Look at how lousy those Leica Jpegs are!"

Blog note: Charlie Martini has been an on again, off again adjunct writer and mega-influencer here at VSL. I would go on and on about his credentials but he would blush and go back to hide in his office again. Charlie is the person who often talks Kirk off the ledge when he falls into his "take no prisoners" mode about some aspect of mis/dis-information he's discovered on the internet. 

Interestingly, Charlie, hates most photo equipment and has never found a system, camera or lens that he is particularly fond of. Or even moderately okay with. Please enjoy his short review about Kirk's Leica CL...

Hi. I'm Charlie Martini and I don't think anybody has made a decent camera since the Nikon F2. And even it was flawed. But lately I saw just how bad things have gotten when I walked into Kirk's office and saw him cuddling his newest fascination; the Leica CL. I shook my head and walked back down the hall, closed my office door, and poured myself a strong drink. I'll need all the help I can get to write this counterpoint to his glowing and fawning articles about Leica's baldest marketing ploy. 

Leica should have continued only making M cameras for all eternity. When they tried to compete with film SLRs they kept burning their fingers and their customers. Anybody remember the Leica R4? Probably the most trouble-prone mess of a Minolta/Leica Frankenstein creation ever made. Sneeze near the camera and it failed. Send it for repairs and it failed even worse. At some point one prayed that the camera would be lost in shipping, back or forth, so the owner could at least salvage some of his money from the debacle. 

Funny thing is that Kirk bought that camera, and others like it, with gleeful enthusiasm. You can't keep a deluded camera nerd down, it seems. 

Leica fumbled through the later film years with horrifyingly bad cameras like the R8 and a whole series of M6 cameras which came standard with badly adjusted rangefinders. Rangefinders which seemed as vague and useless as a condom made out of fishing net material. A rangefinder works if it's calibrated but for a number of years at the end of the last century it looked like Leica never made the connection between simple calibration and customer success. And, by extension, profitable business.

Most of us photography veterans assumed Leica was dead in the water in the early part of this century and that they would squeak by making special, Jim Belushi Edition rangefinder cameras for an ever declining market of old farts with long memories and rose colored diopters. But they surprised us by introducing yet another failed on delivery camera introduction; this time with the carnival sparkle of digital tossed in. 

That camera would be the Leica M8 in which the sensor stack was so poorly designed that the company had to send out IR cutting filters to owners to fight a nasty purple fringing that affected not just images taken of high contrast stuff but everyday photos that were already slam dunk easy for even the cheapest point and shoot digital cameras. And that was before the sensors started to delaminate and massively fail. I think most of us were ready to write Leica off completely at that point. 

But there was my colleague, Kirk, with a smile on his face, doggedly trying to figure out how to make an M8 work and wasting his time with three Summarit lenses. You know, the lower priced Leica lenses with the elements taped into place in their barrels. I think even he threw in the towel when he realized that the frame lines in the M8 had no correlation to the lenses available for that camera. It was a bit of a final straw---even for an avowed optimist. 

And that brings me to his latest photo-gear passion, the Leica CL. No, not the original CL semaphore light meter lollypop film camera but the newer digital CL that shares a line of lenses with the even more hideous and confusing Leica TL(+2). 

I think, in a moment of sheer panic, after being bought out by a French scarf company, the people at Leica were grasping at straws. They had just launched their "flagship" Leica SL camera with its heavy, naked body and astronomic pricing. Had just been savaged for doing so by the world's biggest camera review site and desperately needed to find some way, any way, to sell products. They decided to momentarily abandon their whole history of making cameras around  the 24x36mm format and tried to pry some cash out of people who might be intellectually retrogressive and nostalgic enough to spend a small fortune on a camera with a much smaller and noisier APS-C sensor. Truncated features. Miserable handling and hideously tormenting battery life. 

So, that's the camera system I'll be reviewing today. In part to save you from making yet another Kirk-driven camera buying mistake but also out of spite. Spite because Kirk eliminated holiday bonuses this year in order to buy more cheap, Chinese made, kludgy lenses for his latest pet camera. His lack of financial compassion means I won't be able to make a tax deductible contribution to the Help Jeff Bezos Buy Up the rest of the Planet Foundation. And God knows we need to honor our superior capitalist overlords in any fashion that we're able.

Let's get started. First off, the body of the CL. I hate body-shaming as much as the next guy but this is such a ripe target it screams for incoming fire. The marketers like to say that the camera's designers spent ages figuring out just the right shapes and structures to use but this body is a Xerox copy of the early 20th century Leicas. Whichever sports car designer they threw money at (in vain) to design this camera body probably looked at an old, 1930s camera brochure and then spent his lunch break pencilling in a few different dials onto an old IIIf. That's about it. It's the same "too small" and "too cramped" design the company was so eager to move on from in the 1950s. They rushed to abandon their small, screw mount bodies in favor of the larger and easier to handle M3, M2, etc. They were tired of being sued for loss of finger function due to the misguided anti-ergonomics. 

I played with Tuck's new heart throb and figured out two things: The camera is so small and rounded (no right hand grip --- none) that one must add a thumb grip or thumb rest to the body via the hot shoe. Once one does this access to the leftmost dial is so restricted as to be paralyzing. Imagine being in a situation where there is a quickly unfolding scene in front of you that must be documented. You need to change a setting on the camera. Your fingers are blocked by the thumb grip from accessing the button. You must stop and remove the grip and then make the adjustment, afterwards reapplying the grip so you can use the camera without it falling out of your hands. 

Just as with the under $500 cameras the tiny, tiny battery and one SD card are both inserted through the same door on the bottom of the camera. Only one card and no option to add a battery grip. I guess the true believers just carry along a diaper bag filled with after market batteries which they feed into the camera every twenty minutes or so of actual run time. I can't imagine how such a low res EVF consumes so much electricity. It's almost as if the camera is powering a hair dryer or toaster in the near background. If you live in an area where coal powers your home then the carbon footprint created by your CL is probably on par with the carbon footprint of the heater in your 4,000 square foot house...

Funny, the camera uses the same battery as many Panasonic cameras but seems to get less mileage. And it's not that Kirk is using aftermarket batteries; no, he's got three of the Leica branded versions. Or about equal to the cost of the average monthly mortgage payment worth of batteries. Poor sap never complains.

But it gets worse. I wanted to download some files from his camera the other day so I could show you just how bad Leica Jpeg files are and how noisy the raw files are at a low ISO like 6400. Piece of cake for my Sony A7III but a pointillist mess out of the CL. But the real frustration came when I went to plug the camera into my laptop computer. The damn camera doesn't have ANY ports. No mic. No headphones. No USB. No HDMI. Nothing. If you don't have a card reader on your computer then you are largely dead in the water. 

I guess when the new designer was working on the new plans (I mean copying the 1951 era Leica IIIf screw mount camera plans) they didn't see any electronic ports on the old camera so they figured they probably wouldn't be needed on the new digital camera. So.....no ports. Nothing easy here. 

But Kirk would breathlessly tell me just how great the camera is at making image files. He'd say that I might have to put up with bad handling and a raft of inconveniences but that it would all be worth it because of the special Leica look. I poured a few doubles and then looked around his office for those vaunted Leica lenses. But here's the deal. The original lenses for this camera and its ugly sister, the TLx are an orphan system of lenses. They only work completely on these two cameras. It's a foregone conclusion that the TL series is over; cancelled. And it can't be long for the CL either. So buying these lenses would mean you own dedicated lenses for a series of cameras that won't continue onward. 

But the Leica-hypnotized counter argument is that one can use either the L mount lenses made by Leica, Sigma and Panasonic, or use adapted M series Leica lenses on the camera as well. Side-stepping the dead-end prognosis. Ah yes. Let's hang a gigantic Sigma Art lens, designed for full frame, off the front of a camera that's already too small to operate comfortably. Or drop $6,000 on a Leica lens to use on a $3,000 body. One that only uses a small portion of the full frame lens circle. That's a good idea. NOT.

It's like making a skinny man wear a 50 pound hat. 

In closing, I think Kirk is bordering on insane for touting a small sensor camera that costs an outrageous amount of money. The camera has NO image stabilization, which is the holiest of camera features. The EVF is nothing to write home about and the famous "Leica Look" seems to be absent from this model as far as my experiments can determine. It's just a bridge too far. 

Don't let his enthusiasm for the half pint Leica infect you. Quarantine his posts whenever he mentions the CL. We've known him for a long, long time. This Leica CL insanity? This too will pass. 

Finally, you folks get the blog post you deserve. Now, over to MJ's to learn all about record player needles and billiard chalk. 

Kirk is on a short, working sabbatical but will surely be back the minute he reads what Charlie has written. Stay tuned for the inevitable rebuttal. 




11.30.2021

The Holiday Season is Upon Us. Now is the Time to Spend More Hours Taking Photos and Fewer Hours on the Web. (Web = sticky, sticky, deadly....like a spider web).

 

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Marley. 
Dicken's "Christmas Carol." 

December marks the start of the holiday season and with it comes more free time to plod through websites, blogs and videos on the web. Most are either directly or indirectly trying to get me to buy more stuff. All kinds of stuff. Any stuff. It almost worked over the weekend. I had nearly convinced myself that I needed a second Leica CL. Someone close to me suggested I learn to use the one I already have before lighting another $3,100 on fire and tossing the burning embers into the fire pit of commerce. In the cold, hard light of day they were absolutely right. I was misguided. I should stay focused on the Leica Q2 instead! (Joking, just joking. It seemed to write itself...). 

I hate the fact that if I look up the price of a camera on B&H Photo or Amazon I can "look forward" to seeing an infinite number of ads for the same camera pop up as ads on all my newsfeeds. There's an ad for X camera on the Washington Post site and here's the same ad on the business section of the New York Times site. And the ads are kinetic. The camera in the ad keeps jumping out at me from a whole ad full of similar products. 

Business tends to slow down around the holidays. With my parents gone and the locus of celebrations dispersed there's less required attendance and supplication to family events than ever before. It essentially means that I'm more free to do things like supervise this morning's repair of our septic system or to wait on the phone to schedule having the same system pumped, later in the week. I might even have enough holes in my schedule to be present for that exciting event as well. 

Since my small, nuclear family has been well provided for no one really needs or especially wants to get presents galore. In fact, everyone I know is busy trying to clean out clutter, to simplify their lives, and to remove all the over-aggregated possessions they've spent so much time and money getting in the first place. The running joke in our house is that I buy everything I want when I want it so instead of trying to be creative and finding the one thing I haven't gotten for myself the family can just come out to the office, sort through the cameras, wrap up the newest and shiniest one and put it under the Christmas tree. No muss and no fuss. 

To a person we're all more interested in sharing a great meal with friends or buying stuff for extended family members who are still struggling to get established. It's much more fun that "getting something." 

But, as photographers, I think the coolest gift we can reward ourselves with is the free time and the permission to go out on adventures taking photographs hither and yon. So, right now I have choices; I can sit in front of the computer and talk myself into ever more expensive and mostly useless (to me) camera gear or I can plan out shooting trips, get in the car with the right camera and lens (which I already own) and go have an adventure. I can watch tutorials on YouTube or I can go out and live my own tutorials in the world outside of my computer. 

I love walking through various downtowns at late afternoon and early evenings, in new places, with a camera in my hands. I need to head to San Antonio during the holidays and spend a few evenings photographing the holiday trappings along the river walk. I need to head to Johnson City to see the 1,000,000 Christmas lights that Pedernales Electric Co-op puts up in the trees around their H.Q. and I really want to make it to San Angelo to see how they decorate their historic downtown for the season. 

Since a lot of people are taking time off around the holidays I think it's high time I pressed some of this needlessly expensive photo gear I've been buying into taking personal portraits of all the friends I've wanted to have come over to sit in front of the lights and camera for me. 

It's time for me to stop shopping for gear and start using what I've amassed. It's also time to turn off the mercenary photo sites and start looking around for things like good holiday movies, great cookie recipes and fun events I haven't discovered yet. If you can't make time for some of this stuff you might be working too hard. (But if that's fun for you then go ahead and do it. Advice seems specific to the particular human giving it). 

It's a good time to write a few checks to the charities we support. It's time to remember friends who seem to inadvertently fallen off the radar. But it's mostly a time to celebrate making it as far as we have with as much grace as we can muster. 

I guess when you hit a certain age you become happy all on your own and you finally realize that making other people happier is the secret.

Besides, the sales are generally better in January....

Don't look for gear links here. We're not part of the sales team.


11.29.2021

Random Observations. Monday Morning Opinions, Etc.

Loving the diagonal.

 I spent some quality time walking up and down Austin's current "most popular" tourist area this weekend. That would be South Congress Ave. or, as some locals call it, "SoCo." The street is lined with trendy restaurants, boutique hotels, coffee shops galore and many, many local and national retailers. If the weather is nice the sidewalks are crowded and the outdoor coffee shops even more so. 

While I was walking along with my camera it occurred to me on Saturday that I'd been out on that popular walkway for the better part of two hours and in all that time, passing by hundreds and hundreds of people, I had not seen a single person carrying or using a dedicated camera. 

Sure; there were plenty of people taking selfies, group shots or photographs of buildings that amused them but not one...single...person carrying a Canon, Nikon, Sony, Leica, etc. Had this same venue existed when I first became interested in photography I can assure you that every second or third person would have had their Pentax, Olympus, Nikon or Canon over one shoulder, usually on a wide strap with colorful embroidery. 

Later in the weekend, yesterday, it was beautiful outdoors. The temperatures in the afternoon were barely into the 70s and the sky was post-rain, clean and beautiful blue. Downtown as getting its dose of new Christmas lights and ornaments. Shop windows boasted new displays and the coffee shops were doing good business. But, again, not a single person in the whole of downtown that I walked through had any sort of camera other than what was included with their phone. In the space of a couple of years cameras have vanished. Just vanished. 

And it's not like Austin isn't a tourist destination. In 400 yards of walking on Second St. I heard Spanish, French and German spoken by different groups people. And, I think, one of the Scandinavian languages as well... but in all groups from everywhere else --- no cameras. None. Non-existent. 

At first I considered that this might be the result of a demographic shift; that younger people were so glued to their phones that any other implementalia would just be a distraction for them. But dashing my assumption was a preponderance of silver-haired tourists. And, again, no cameras. No zoom lenses. Nothing. 

You may live in a city that has far more tourist traffic than does Austin and you may still see people out photographing with real cameras but I think Austin is somewhat of a "canary in a coal mine" city that tends to trend out stuff a bit ahead of the rest of the country. And it looks like we're done with cameras. 

Personal anecdote: I swim with a number of people who are somewhere around my age or younger. Three of them in the past week have, in an off-hand way, asked me if I'd like to have their cameras. Not an offer to sell, none of them need the money, but an offer to present the cameras to me as a gift; with no strings attached. I demurred and suggested they donate to one of the photo programs at the community colleges. I don't need extra cameras either. But it's telling that, to a person, they told me the cameras hadn't been used since the person acquired some recent generation of smart phone which answers all their needs for photography. 

I think we've hit a tipping point and I wonder if it's equally reflected in declining sales from the major camera makers. It's my assumption that, with the exception of people who "need" to use a camera for specific work or art tasks, that we are witnessing the slow but accelerating death of all manner of traditional cameras; mirrorless or DSLR. The grim reaper of old trends isn't differentiating. 

Writing this in no way implies that I think we should quit our jobs as photographers or stop enjoying our hobby or passion as photographers. It's just an observation. I intend to go on just as I have been and merrily sporting cameras around town. It's just that I  fear I'm going to start sticking out like a neon brilliant sore thumb in short order...

Electronic Shutters. For those of us who might keep using and buying cameras I think we're about to experience another one of those technology shifts with our gear. First Sony and now Nikon have introduced cameras with electronic shutters that have jumped over the hurdle of working well with flash sync and also reading out information fast enough to combat obvious rolling shutter effects. What was required to let makers eliminate the necessity for mechanical shutters was sensors that can read out tons of information at a deliriously fast pace along with processing components that could handle the torrent of data with equal dispatch. And I think we've hit that spot. 

I don't see this as necessarily a big win for buyers and users of the gear. We have cameras now that offer both electronic shutters and mechanical shutters and the ability to switch seamlessly between the two at need. We can have good flash performance and very fast shutter speeds in the same box. 

Yes, the images that are taken with fast electronic shutters will now have less rolling shutter effect or motion artifacts but I think few users really experienced problems from these things since the mechanical shutters do a great job right up to 1/8,000th of a second, in most of the popular cameras. Sure, now it's easier to shoot 20 or 30 fps with the electronic shutters but when has that ever been a rational and passionately felt need?

What is really means is that camera makers will be able to remove the very last set of parts that materially effects camera reliability: the actual, mechanical shutters. After the removal of moving mirrors with the introduction of EVFs a few years ago the mechanical shutters became the single most frequent reliability weak spot in all current cameras. They are fragile and all of them, no matter how great and wonderful the camera, eventually just wear out. Some far sooner than others. As the camera manufacturers move to make electronic shutters the only shutter in their cameras they are removing a big headache for themselves. They will reduce the amount of warranty work required by a huge amount. They will eliminate the entire structure of moving parts. In theory, once the investment in fast processors is amortized the cost savings should be profound. 

But don't worry. The cost savings will NOT be passed on to consumers. No, I'm betting that camera makers market the electronic shutter as a new feature and something highly desirable. And you'll pay more for it. Instead of reading advertising about dynamic range or megapixel count get ready to hear breathless accounts from the camera maker's influencer lackeys about how shooting at 20, 30 or 50 fps has changed their lives....how they are able to capture the more perfectly perfect moment in time. The ne plus ultra of fleeting expressions. And be prepared to withstand their condolences for those poor schmucks whose cameras limit them to only 8 or 10 frames per second. A whole swath of users relegated to shooting only things that don't move. At all. 

The New Virus. Ah shit. We're back in the middle of the pandemic again. I just ordered another 100 face masks because we tend to go through them as quickly as kitchen paper towels. Once again I'm putting much desired travel plans on hold. Once again I'm anticipating clients extending their work-from-home policies (and no "face to face" photography policies) and once again I'm bracing myself to hear from a bevy of brain dead conspiracy theorists who, if they would just shut up and get their vaccines, could possibly have helped prevent this latest outbreak ..... or at least minimized its consequences. 

I'm trying to look on the bright side. Another lockdown means I won't be buying a couple of business class airline tickets to Europe or Japan any time soon. I might as well use that budget for something over the top like a Leica S3 medium format camera and some lenses. I'm not getting any younger waiting around for everything to open up again. Maybe blowing a huge amount of cash will trigger my usual personal consequences. Meaning that the minute I drop twenty or thirty thousand dollars on a camera system I don't need the virus will mysteriously vanish and I'll have to start saving for airfare all over again. I might have to take this path as a community service.... you can thank me later...

So, what are you up to on Monday morning? 

Final thought in reading around the usual suspects this morning: Are we of a certain generation condemned to live in the past and endlessly cherish the products and trappings of our youth? Is it ever okay to accept the current state of the art and enjoy it or are we forever joined at the hip with The Beach Boys, Cool Jazz, Bitchin Camaros, and analog? Is that Lady GaGa on my stream? I think so....

11.28.2021

Finally...a nice afternoon on which to break-in my new lens. Out for a constitutional with the Sigma 18-50mm and its new friend, the Leica CL.

One of those handheld, ISO 6400 shots that you just hope will turn out. 

Big, concrete blocks.


Once again I'd like to thank the W Hotel for their fine hospitality and clean rest rooms.










Holiday Lighting at the Power Plant.
 

Solitary Afternoon Coffee.


 Ben left his coffee cup on the kitchen table. I walked by and saw the shadows and light. I rushed to my office to grab a camera. I was momentarily transfixed. It feels odd when happenstance does all of your "styling" for you. 

Leica CL + Sigma 18-50mm.