6.12.2013

Leica Swings. And misses? All depends on what you want from a camera...


  
Leica X Vario.

So, what photographer in their right mind pays $2850 for a compact camera with no viewfinder? Probably the same type of person who buys a Sony RX1 (also with no viewfinder...). This is the kind of camera offering that will drive the rank and file camera buyers nuts because it's hard to quantify within the various niches of the photo gear world.

I'm going to give Leica the benefit of the doubt on three fronts. I'm going to presume that they've created a simplified and straightforward menu system for the camera just as they've done for the full fledged M cameras. I'll presume that they've sourced a really good 16+ megapixel sensor that's perfectly optimized for the lens system and I'll assume that the lens system (while afflicted with very pedestrian maximum apertures) is sharp and contrasty and wonderfully embue'd with luscious micro contrast over it's entire range.

But since it's a contrast detect AF system I'll have to guess that the focusing speed is less than stellar and that continuous auto focus is nearly non-existent, no matter what the comical brochure they've produced says.

If I decided to buy this camera I'm sure all of you would know that my very next purchase would be an EVF (plug is there for the accessory) finder but before I plunked hard for the Leica version of the Olympus version of the Epson technology I would want to test the new Olympus VF-4 to see if it worked with the camera at half the price. If that was a "no-go" I'd pick up a VF-2 for around $200 and work with that.

The Leica brochure of this model shows lots of studio shots with studio lighting being used. There is one particularly campy image that shows a photographer straddling a model, who is lying on the ground, and the photographer is pointing the camera at the model's face. Tacky shades of the movie, "Blow Up." I can't imagine that this camera would be the first choice of a studio fashion or portrait photographer. The lens' maximum focal length isn't long enough and the handling, without an EVF would be atrocious for studio work illuminated by modeling lights.  I'm sure that the camera would produce the same kind of image a Nikon or Canon would make with a similar lens attached because the positive effects of the studio lighting would mask most quality differences and, if we compared them all at the Leica's maximum telephoto aperture of f6.3, they'd all be operating in the sweet spot of their designs.

I still believe in the West German fairy tale of the last 2% of production perfection so something inside me says that if all three brands were shot side by side and all the images were blown up large and printed that the Leica would out art the other two. More micro contrast? Maybe. Maybe just better color. But that's my prejudice from the times in the past when the differences were demonstrable. 

So, if the Leica X Vario isn't for commercial studio photographers then who is it really for? I'd wager to say that there are some artists/photographs who routinely work in good light and in the provided focal range who will buy the camera because, in the category is may provide the ultimate image quality. Think of a small camera version of Andreas Gursky for whom more depth of field is nearly always better and who has a slow and deliberate working methodology. This might be a good camera for the diminished "Gursky" effect. 

If I never needed to sell an image and I wanted a beautifully designed and relatively burden-less camera to carry everywhere, and if I had unlimited funds for eccentric gear acquisitions I would probably pre-order one right now.

But suppose I'm not being kind enough to the camera. imagine if the lens is the "second coming" of zoom lenses and every image is special and marvelous. I mean really marvelous in the same way that the 90mm Apo Summicron was when compared to just about any lens on the market when it was first launched. What if the lens is as good as the Leica R 28-90mm lens that is currently fetching $6000+ from photographers in the know who are converting for use on Canon 5Dmk3's and other cameras whose optics don't quite reach the same stellar heights? Nikon, Canon and Sony Alpha users are currently tossing down $2,000+ for big, fat zooms in the same range and Canon is pushing the price up into the $2500 arena. If the performance of the Leica is demonstrably better...or just as good...but you also get a body for just a couple hundred dollars more, is that a convincing argument?

I guess the target buyer is someone who wants a small camera with very high imaging performance, has no interest in conventional sports photography (and I'm in that particular camp) and doesn't mind paying a higher price for better performance from a camera with a simpler interface but fewer bells and whistles.  Just like the purchaser of a Sony RX1 with the exception being that the Leica buyer understands the value of additional focal lengths.

I personally think that Leica blew one part of this camera. I think people would be more motivated to buy it if the camera had a built in EVF. Or, if the accessory EVF was included in the purchase price. Most savvy buyers understand that the slow max. aperture is part of a size and weight trade off and I'm sure many are okay with that. 

The real question is would you rather have this combination of features and compromises or, for less than half the price, the same basic camera in a Fuji EX1?  I haven't held the X Vario but I'm thinking the EX1 might be the front runner. It has the one missing feature that the Leica does not: It's a high IQ camera but with a price that most of us can afford...

An afternoon of "mixed media" shooting by the Visual Science Lab executive staff. On location with toys!

Film maker, Ben Tuck, shoots behind the scenes video on our Clutch Creative adventure.

Some shoots are just drop dead fun. Yesterday's creative shoot for a small ad agency (filled with big brains and even bigger ideas) was one of those really fun and satisfying jobs. I was hired to shoot photographs to be used on their website revision and Ben got hired to shoot the behind the scenes video of the sessions. As always he packed his trusty Sony a57 camera with kit lens, his Rode Videomic and his Gitzo tripod with a small, Manfrotto video head. That and a small bag containing a few batteries, memory cards and miscellaneous stuff.

I went all crazy and took a break from the Sony DSLT cameras in favor of using a bag full of Nex cameras. I packed two Nex 7's and one Nex 6, along with the 19mm and 30mm Sigma lenses, the 50mm 1.8, the image stabilized 18-55mm lens, and an assortment of Olympus Pen F prime lenses, with adapters, as support tools. My favorite non-Sony lens is still the Pen 60mm 1.5 lens which, when stopped down to f2 and beyond is just unreasonably sharp and snappy.

I'm not sure the Nex cameras make absolute sense in this kind of situation if you use them solely as available light systems but I decided to shoot with electronic flash and a big umbrella so the usual caveats about handholding and slower apertures really didn't apply. And given the right glass (like the 50mm or the 60mm Pen) these cameras are as state of the art (image-wise) as just about anything else.

My lighting consisted of my Elinchrom Ranger RX AS pack with one head firing into a Photek 60 inch Softlighter 2 umbrella. Worked very, very well.


Ben and I ate lunch at home and then we filled up the CR-V with our toys and headed over to the agency offices. Ben is learning to drive this Summer so he was piloting the craft. I was trying to both pay hyper-vigilant attention to all danger and also seem casually uninterested and unperturbed so I wouldn't undermine his confidence. We made it with no close calls and no father hand prints permanently embedded in the arm rests.


Ben rolled about an hour's worth of good, clean video and I shot a bunch of expressions and different set ups. It added up to about 700 images. I'm editing them down today. I decided to use the Nex cameras because I made the mistake of venturing over to one of the online discussion forums at the world's biggest website about photography and was overwhelmed with all the useless misinformation about what constitutes "professional photography." Their focus was all about "pro gear."

Where do the rubes get all this stuff? It's like a Spanish Inquisition about cameras. There's a whole deviant theology about how things can and can't be done (professionally) and most of the correspondents in the groups seem to be in lock step agreement about the liturgy of equipment. To wit: All professional cameras must: 1. Be large, bulky and bulletproof. 2. Be able to withstand a monsoon or breaking waves at Wakiki. 3. Be able to shoot frames almost as fast as a movie camera. 4. Must be able to focus almost entirely automatically and at the speed of light. 5. Must be frightfully expensive. 6. Must have an optical viewfinder. 7. Must come with lenses that range from 8mm fisheyes to 1200mm, f4 telephotos. 8. Must be able to transmit images wirelessly at the drop of a hat. 9.  Must help you build muscle mass by providing impromptu weight lifting substitutes. 10. Must be either Nikon or Canon branded.


As I've said many times before, this kind of rigid adherence to the idea of how the business must  have been run in the olden days is laughable. I'd go so far as to say that if you can't make a good image with the cameras you want to work with it's not worth pursuing the career in the first place. The inventory of gear is becoming more and more meaningless by the day. We don't need Arriflex movie cameras in order to make good videos for Vimeo and YouTube. We don't need Maseratis for an afternoon, rush hour commute and we sure don't need any stinking DSLRs to make great images for websites. Or anything else for that matter.

Ben's generation gets it. I offer him more esoteric cameras to shoot with but he routinely produces better programming than I can in video because he understands how important story telling, editing and catching the right action at the right angle is. While camera "A" may be marginally better than camera "B" it's all the intangible human talents that make something watchable or horrifyingly boring. And it's the same in still photography. If I were still working at an ad agency I think I would have come, by now, to fear the photographer in a khaki fishing vest who has the requisite three cameras and the requisite three lenses. Three Nikon D800s or Three Canon 5Dmk3s. The optically mundane 16 or 17mm to 35mm f2.8 lens. The  beastly, large, ponderous and wallowing 24-70mm f2.8 and the OMG, everyone has the identical 70mm to 200mm f2.8 zoom lens. All of them in lock step. Everyone producing safe and boring images that all look alike.

Oh, I almost forgot; the nod to shallow depth of field....the 85mm 1.4 or 1.2 behemoth. Can't leave the studio without the fast glass bling. It's all so mundane and predictable. The supporting script is that somehow all the advertising professionals and magazine (which ones are still left?) photo editors are consumed with only using people who use an approved inventory of gear. My art director friends and my favorite graphic designer of 28 years are amazed that photographers buy this line of insanity for even a minute. They (the ad people) hire because they see images that they like in your portfolio and on your website. The cameras are meaningless to them. Totally irrelevant. If you show great work they believe you can deliver the same for them, and that all technical considerations are the responsibility of the artist. Almost always. There are exceptions but they are damn few. 

Personally, I'd say that your presentation of post production skills trump magic glass every single time. But so do all the intangibles, like imagination and gesture and timing.


We can go both ways here. On the days I need to feel the ego life preserver of over the top gear I can borrow a Leica S2 and some Leica glass from one of my photographer friends. I can rent a Red One camera from GEAR. I can rent a Bentley from the specialty car rental place in town. But you know what? I've never had the need. And neither have my clients.

I like the images I produced for the ad agency. And they must like my work because they keep asking me back. We've shot for them with Fuji, Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and Kodak cameras. We even did a project on the old Sony R1 for them (which was gorgeous...). Same with lights. At the end of the day the most powerful tools are the ability to get along with people, the ability to see composition and lighting solutions clearly and emphatically, and the ability to make it fun.  Yeah, fun. We purposely avoided getting jobs in cubicles or behind cash registers. The reason we did was to be able to make a living creating stuff. Walking around. Meeting people. Sharing ideas. Sharing visions. Telling a marketing story. We don't make our living as an all purpose rental house. And I don't think real clients want that either...