Method, Mechanics, Art and Madness.

I spent some time shooting downtown in the middle of the day recently. When the sun is out and the sky is clear the light just doesn't change its intensity from minute to minute.  I find it very freeing to guess at the exposure, set it on the camera and then use it without changing as long as I'm working in the same direct light. My guesses aren't really guesses, they are suggestions from Kodak that I memorized long ago when working with Kodak transparency films.

I am sure I've mentioned more than once that, because of the nature of a camera's built-in, reflective metering a camera can be easily fooled into setting the wrong exposure if the metering elements are pointed at a scene dominated by bright colors or dark colors.  By setting a known exposure for the prevailing conditions (or by using an incident light meter) you eliminate the variations in exposure caused by difference levels of reflectance in a scene.  The old examples are still pertinent.  If you point a reflected meter at a white wall it will return a grey file.  If you point a reflected meter at a black wall it will return a grey file. The meter wanted to put every scene into a blender and render it some shade of neutral grey.  An incident meter measure the light falling on the subject and in this was it could be said to be objective.  A known light source, like the Summer sun is constant (from two hours after sunrise to two hours before sunset).  If your subject is illuminated by direct sunlight a standard setting can be set with no real fear of failure.

Many websites and authors of authoritative articles about metering make the exposure process much more daunting than it really is or needs to be. I think this is a result of the societal/cultural shift from art to measure. We've become a culture that is more adept at measuring stuff and comparing it than anything else.  I think being able to measure what we've decided to call processes gives the ready illusion that with measurement comes control.  I used to hear the heads of corporations talk in hushed tones about "metrics."  Many had more faith in metrics than in listening to actual customers and more than a few of their companies have exited the market.

Not all art is directed by process and the success of art rarely has much to do with metrics. If repeatability and quality were primary concerns of art we'd still be listening to Strauss waltzes and Souza marches exclusively instead of the rich diversity of the music-o-sphere.

Where does the madness come in? I must be mad, or at least intellectually deficient. I post things about the feel of a camera or my perceived differences concerning a file that began life in a digital camera compared to a file that started life in a medium format camera and a certain percentage of my readers (no doubt very advanced and so in control of their emotions and perceptions of reality that they rival the Vulcans...) chime in suggesting that equalizing all the parameters in similar cameras will net me a set of equivalent files.  Images with nearly identical values.  The idea being that my need to touch and handle certain cameras in order to make certain photographs is an emotional attachment on par with a child's security blanket. The implication being that if I only took the time to equalize the technical parameters the seeing between cameras would be identical. The judgement is that cameras are interchangeable as long as the specifications match.

And it must be madness on my part but for me every camera has a certain feel and a certain energy of inclusion or exclusion in relation to me.  I could probably figure it out and explain it in detail, given enough time. But in real life sometimes I'll pick up a camera and it will immediately perform some sort of Vulcan Mind Meld that makes me comfortable with its handling and operation, or not.  The haptics remove some sort of resistance to use that I feel with other cameras.

For instance, I like the overall idea of the Nikon D3200 camera.  It's files are good.  But it seems a bit lifeless in my hands.  It's not that the camera isn't intuitive, it just doesn't push a little button in my brain that starts up the subconscious engine that says, "Go Shoot, Go Shoot, Go Shoot." Rather, it says, "I can take a technically correct image at your direction."  And that doesn't sound nearly as good to the part of my brain that craves the adventure and romance of shooting. I held a friend's D800 over lunch recently and it was the opposite experience.  I was smitten by the feel and balance of the camera at first touch.

When we date we aren't just looking for partners who are proficient in the practice of sex we also desire the company of someone attractive and fun to be with. Features are fun but the overall user experience is more than the sum of the parts. And I find it the same with cameras.

When I take one of my medium format film cameras out to shoot I feel an affinity towards the camera that makes me want to be a  better shooter. I've owned four other brands of MF camera but my basic Hasselblad seems to ring that little mental bell better than any of the others.  I rented a Mamiya RZ67 for a while and hated it.  Although it was capable of taking great images.  I was not capable of taking great images with it.  Over time the thought of using the camera was a great incentive to sleep in. But I know other photographers who loved that crazy box.

I should love the Olympus OMD EM5 but every time I pick it up I find the only thing I like about it is its density.  When I give the camera back to its owner I'm relieved.  There's something in the mix that keeps us from meshing.  On the other hand I've loved the feel of the Sony a77 from the minute I picked it up.

I liked the files from the Canon 5Dmk2 but there was no resistance to giving it up.  The bigger 1DSmk2 was the opposite.  The files were okay but the feel was so nice. More direct and more real.

I'll make a controversial statement here, if you haven't fallen in love with the way your camera fits in your hand, works and sounds, then you haven't found your camera(s) yet.

The shot above was done with a Hasselblad 501 CM camera and the standard 80mm Zeiss Planar. I scanned the file at 7000 by 7000 pixels and I'm sad not be able to print it out and mail a copy at full res to everyone of you to look at.  It's really pretty.  I imagine that one of the 60 or 80 megapixel digital backs from a company like Phase One would out resolve it.  But I'm equally sure (having handled them) that I wouldn't have nearly as much fun wandering the streets and shooting with one.  Of course, your mileage will vary.  Which is what makes all this interesting.

Of course, this could all just be a result of a big Camera Placebo Effect in which I have an emotional attachment that subconsciously informs and improves my ability to work.

When I made the image above I'd spent the better part of an afternoon walking around and shooting.  I never moved the exposure controls. Every frame on the two rolls was perfectly exposed and I had a smile on my face the whole time.

I'm not trying to denigrate the people who think differently than me.  There's the very real possibility that they may be right...


Alexander Bardua said...

So true, but also only to be understood when experienced by oneself.

Richard Alan Fox said...

Yes I agree the D800 feels great in the hand, my D800E fits perfectly except for the weight. For the past couple of years I have been using primarily Olympus E-620's right sized and weight for my hand and frame. I also use a GF3 with 14mm and an EP2 with the 45mm, hang on a shoulder or around the neck and forget.
I have been using the D800E for a month now but my true love of the machine is not how it feels but the prints that I can produce with the files.
I am completely astounded by what comes out of my 3880, it is like Hieronymous Bosch, every little detail in a scene, twigs hairs blades of grass.
I am 62 years old and refused to wear distance glasses until recently, reading of course I need those, but I assumed that I saw the world around me well enough, but yikes when I left the optometrist and walked down the street (Montague in Brooklyn) that is what it is like printing 17x22 coming from 12 mpix to 36 mpix.
That is love.

Aaron said...

Amen! Preach it brother Kirk!
Kirk, what a great post. I love the ephemeral, the hard to explain, the stuff that doesn't make sense but that you just feel and feel deeply.
Ever since you wrote about the Oly E1 I've wanted one purely for the way you described the ergonomics. 2003 technology be damned, I still want to try one. Tell us about the E1 again Uncle Kirk. :)

I flip from being captivated by folks that have intentionally chosen their equipment for the symbiotic fit that comes from a well designed tool. I'm equally captivated by the folks for whom the tool is given only cursory consideration. Will it do what I need? Yes? No?

Keep the posts coming, I'm enjoying the ride.

Bryan said...

So thats why I keep changing, it isn't technology, its the heft and balance and ergonomics of the tool. I was trying to justify why I dislike my Olympus E-5 and keep wanting to use my E-1, now I get it.

Michael Ferron said...

That Kodak sensor on the E1 was very fine. Gave a film-like look with great highlight retention.

Nice blues on that sky Kirk. New technologies can't always match that.

Loïc Lacombe said...

I do totally agree. When I handle a specific camera, with its specific shortcomings and issues, I do a specific kind of pictures. D700? Portraits. Telemetric camera? Random landscapes, street photography and family pictures. 645 MF? Powerful, expressive landscapes.
It's like these cameras hold a swappable part of my photographic brain, and I got to plug it in to use it.

Noons said...

Entirely agree on the "feel" thing. For me, it's the Nikon F6 and the Mamiya 645 pro-tl: they just "work" for me. For digital, the EPL1 is still my main fallback. With the little vf2 on top, that thing is just me. I'm not yet sure about the OM-D or the Nex7,the two that have been knocking at my mind's door for a while now. They just don't feel quite "there". Going to try the OM-D with the battery handle, that might do the trick.
Ah yes, metering!.. I wish I had a cent for the times I've simply pointed my palm at the light, measured off it and added +1: still hasn't failed me, after all these years! ;)

Art in LA said...

Ah yes, a variation of the old "Sunny 16" rule. Regarding cameras, it's like shoes, tennis rackets and cars for me. I pick the one that feels right. Some of my choices are "high end" (camera gear (high end, but not super high end!), rackets), but others are rather plebian (my Honda Civic). We all live by the Goldilocks rule -- find stuff that's "just right". First world problem? We're so lucky to have some many choices.

Jan Klier said...

Nice take on both issues (exposure & camera character).

Photography (as opposed to image capture) is a craft, and craftsmen like to master their art and their tools. There is an emotional interaction between the you and the tool - whether it's a camera, a car, a horse, a chisel, or a sail boat. It has its own mind, it challenges you, and you have to be determined and mentally engaged to control it, make it conform to your mind. And in doing so, we become engaged in the process and do some of our best work. We're not on auto-pilot, we are focused and deliberate.

It's nice to have something like 5DM2 if you just need to capture that everyday work image quick and easy, and know it will work. Like clockwork.

But it's nothing like working with my RZ67 (sorry, I love mine). It feels good in my hands. It has a recognizable shutter noise, just like the well-known sound of a classic bike. You can configure it to your mood - waist level or prism, film or digital, tethered or to the card. And even if it's unhappy and you forgot your replacement battery, it will take that shot for you in full-mechanical backup mode at 1/400s no questions asked. And while it's a modern camera, it always starts a conversation because people don't seem them that often. People will comment on your 'rig' and are unlikely to say 'I just bought one like that for my vacation'...

kirk tuck said...

But the most important thing of all is that you like it and like working with it. That's the sweet spot.

Gregg Mack said...

Excellent post, Kirk. Thanks!

cidereye said...

Closest I've ever got to a camera feeling just right is probably the Oly OM-3, never had a camera that fits like a glove so well and is a dream to use - best inbuilt light meter EVER too. I include my beloved Leica M's in that too. I've promised never to sell my beloved, battered old OM-3 and it's a promise I intend to keep, I really must use it more often though to justify the logic.

Claire said...

Terrific post here. Although if I look at my pics throughout the years there is a common theme and look to them, I can still very easily remember what camera one was made with, partly from memory but also from the unique rendering of each body. Pixelpeepers and gearheads seem to think that all *technically* similar settings result in equally looking pictures, which in my experience, is just not true. I've argued countless time with an ex FF (Nikon) shooter claiming his m4/3 gear can boast similar IQ. My answer to that is, some people can't see the difference. I certainly can. To me, cameras are two things : a sensor, with its specific IQ abilities, and a body, that does or does not fit/suit you. When the two don't satisfy you to the same level, it can be absolutely maddening (the D200 had a wonderful body and a terrible sensor, the early Fuji S bodies, the other way around). Too slow, too big, too small, too noisy, as long as you keep searching it means you haven't had your equipment epiphany yet.
The personal, emotional, affective, "gut" aspect of things is lost to gearheads, but not to photographers. Sometimes everything cannot be explained (at least not rationally). I've shot nearly every Nikon D body ever released and my response to them was neither predictable nor logical (loved the D100, 70, 50, 90, hated the D200, 80, 300, go figure). Each camera has a behavior, a signature, dare I say a soul ? (anyone who's shot a Canon 5D classic will know what I mean). Some bodies remain favorites, like well remembered lovers, S2, D100, D90, K20, 450D, among those a couple stand out, 1DmkII, 5D, D700. The we have the current spouse, the one we turn to and rely on *today* (in my life, is a Lumix GX-1 I can't fell out of love with yet)...
People telling you larger sensors don't truly deliver IQ magic are idiots. Or blind. Or both. Laws of physics and optics are not gonna change tomorrow (or the day after that. Or ever). I wouldn't count on it anyway. FF mirroless, on the other hand, is bound to happen, sooner than later. Can't wait...