A bowl in the sink. A weird little camera.

The Sigma fp is a weird, little camera. Like a chameleon it sometimes presents itself to me as a formidable video camera, festooned with all the regalia of motion picture production. Sometimes it wears a "cage" and has an SSD and an external monitor mounted on it. At times it also sports a shotgun microphone to capture scratch audio. When in its guise as a production video camera it also hauls around an LCD finder that's as big as the camera.

But there are those days, especially after I've had a hard and introspective look at old work resting patiently in the form of flat, black and white prints, I feel compelled to strip the little bugger down to its very minimal essentials and take it out for a regular guy shoot. 

My first foray with "naked fp" was on Sunday evening when I dropped by Zach Theatre to see how the outside concert series was coming along. The cast of five, on a very narrow stage (front to back = 10 feet),  was doing a dress rehearsal and I wanted to see how they would handle the new stage, holiday program and new space. I also thought it would a good, low stress, low expectation moment in which to try out the Sigma fp on a newly acquired, Zhiyun Weebill S gimbal. Maybe it would give me a chance to check out a little moving video footage.

The Sigma fp with the 45mm f2.8 lens is the lightest combination I've tried on a full sized gimbal yet. It's far smaller and lighter than the GH5 or G9 which are my "go to" cameras for gimbal work. And the fp has a secret weapon for night time gimbal work; it's outrageously noise free at most ISOs. Certainly noiseless when shooting video at 3200 or even 6400 ISO.

While it was obvious from my experiences that evening that I need more practice with the new gimbal it was also obvious that the Sigma, by dint of its compact form and lower weight, gave the gimbal (and my left arm) a running start. All imperfections of production were on me. The lighter weight of the camera package made that gimbal sing. I was just a less perfect accomplice. 

When I filmed that evening I worked in a different way than I had with video in the past. I set the camera to ISO 4000, used the 180° shutter angle (1/60 @ 30 fps), set the camera to the All-I, 4K mode and then resisted the usual compulsion to shoot with the lens near wide open and instead tried shooting at f11. WTF?

Why? Well, the Sigma fp might as well not have included C-AF on its menu because in low light, on a moving gimbal, with moving subjects, the C-AF is worse than worthless. It's counterproductive. I figured my best shot at video greatness, in the moment, was to work with the idea of hyperfocal lengths. With the focus set around 15 feet and the aperture at f11 I calculated that I probably had enough depth of field to render subjects between 10 and 25 felt with acceptable-to-great sharpness. And, damned if it didn't work perfectly. The combination of hyperfocal distance focusing and Promethean ISO performance was awesome. All I needed to worry about from that point on was piloting the still alien in my hands gimbal.

When I looked at the footage the next morning I was amused to see that it was at least as good (and maybe better) at 8 bit, 4:2:0 than some footage I've recently shot in other cameras at 10 bit, 4:2:2. Which, considering its competitors, speaks highly about the sensor and color science in the fp.

And all that pre-loaded thinking pushed me to want to further explore this camera again as a photography tool. 

I took the little brick beast out for a walk yesterday, all through the city. The only accessory being a neck strap. No rear loupe, no cage, no stuff. Rather than my usual f2.8-f4.0 fixation I played around with f8 and f11 as my preferred apertures and felt freed from the constraints of having to produce images with limited depth of field. And in the process discovered that the lens, at f8 and f11 was magnificent; though probably no better than many, many other lenses when stopped down so far.

The sun was bright so the rear panel was difficult to see in certain situations. In any use where the screen was not in direct sun it was fine but it did remind me how habituated I have become to eye level finders. Maybe the phones will somewhat cure me of that over time.

One control on the camera that I played with a lot was "fill light." It's got five steps up and five steps down of adjustment rationed in thirds of a step. When you set it the camera takes two exposures and processes them together to give you a fixed amount of increased or decreased "fill" light. Since there is processing involved it's a feature only available in single frame shooting; no bursts. And it takes a few seconds to finish processing before you can see the result. But it really does work. This tames wildly dynamic scenes as surely as the shadow slider in Lightroom. 

I included the scooter shots above so you could see the results of a 1.66 x increase in fill light when shooting against the sun. It almost looks as though I shot with fill flash but it is just the "fill light" control. I'll be experimenting with that a lot.

An interesting point, at least about my reaction to shooting with the camera, is that I don't feel compelled to shoot multiple frames of the same subject with it. I seem to take a bit more time in composing but once I really look at my proposed composition and exposure on the finder I feel comfortable taking one frame and moving on. 

The camera has some faults. The C-AF is slow and ponderous. The rear screen is overwhelmed by direct sunlight (but what isn't?). The battery lasts about as long as warm mayonnaise at a picnic in the Texas Summer. And I wish the non-raw video files could offer more bit depth and more color information. But it's a camera that is sincere and honest. It's a wonderful way to drive out the demons of over-featurization and get back to fundamentals of still shooting. With L-mount lenses it's a breeze to shoot in manual since one touch of the focusing ring brings up a central window with a magnified view of the frame. 

What I like most about the Sigma fp is the feeling of solidity and quality. The camera feels indestructible and  darn near bulletproof. It's a disaster of a camera for people that need to operate quickly. It's an unexpected pleasure for people who work, as I do, slowly and methodically. It's a bad "sneaky" street camera. But it's got loads of nice, non-threatening character for those of us who are comfortable approaching and engaging with our subjects. 

Blogger note: I go in tomorrow at 11:00 am to have the sutures (stitches?) removed from my left cheek. I have followed every step of the surgeon's orders. I've not exercised (almost killed me with pent up energy and ensuing boredom). I've cleaned, treated and bandaged the site on the proscribed schedules. I've done a course of oral antibiotics. I've even customized my own bandages for this ordeal.

The incision was about one and 1/8th inch long, running vertically. It's hard to tell with the stitches still there but I think the skin is recovering nicely and there's no redness or discomfort. 

In fact, the lack of pain or bleeding/gore has been a high point in this little medical adventure. I anticipated becoming good friends with Mr. Extra Strength Tylenol (much to the anticipated chagrin of my liver....) but the lack of pain made it superfluous. 

I've already put a Saturday and Sunday swim back on the schedule, predicated on the anticipated approval of my "medical team." I hope this comes to fruition. 

One more note about cameras in general: There seems to be much discussion about needing a dedicated monochrome camera on MJ's site: TheOnlinePhotographer. I'm always curious about stuff like this and I get Michael's point that it's nicer on the brain if the camera works in a way that's in thrall to our desired outcome. I, for one, can't stand having to pre-determine cropping when working with a camera that doesn't feature the ability to change aspect ratios. 

While I'd like to have a monochrome camera I'm not sure how the maker would handle so many different understandings of what the curves and feel of a black and white file should look like. How is my soft, Ektalure G rendering of Belinda going to be interpreted versus the chalk and soot of a Ralph Gibson vision? And will the makers provide the tools to affect a specific vision of what monochrome is to me?

Interesting questions. I'm certainly not the least bit interested in dropping kilo dollars on a Leica Monochrome of any variety. But I might be interested in the black and white profiles in a Fuji camera or I might just need to fine tune my understanding of the Sigma fp's mono setting.

What is the general consensus of black and white fans here? Drop me a comment if you have time between napping and secret missions.


Eric Rose said...

Love your B&W's from your FP. I'm a sucker for anything metallic. For a quick and dirty small camera shooting B&W I haul out my old GX1 and set it to the flattest B&W profile it has. The magic happens later in PS. I agree with you I don't see how a manufacturer could provide a one profile fits all. Even if they provide a number of different profiles who wants to scroll through them to find just the right one for the shot you want to take.

I use a Canon Pro printer to render my images as something you can hold or hang on the wall. I love that I can use all kinds of different papers with various textures and tonality. In the old days used a LOT of Kodak Medalist paper. Loved the stuff.


ps. Don't be in a rush to swim. Lots of bugs in that water.

Robert Roaldi said...

No particular expertise in B&W here nor much history with it, but I wonder if it's the case that if a maker designs a body strictly for B&W that they could then re-design the in-camera features/menu to accommodate exactly those things you bring up, e.g., film look. So far it doesn't seem as if any engineers have given it much thought but there may be something there if they did.

An unrelated thought occurred to me. Have you or others been making many B&W videos with digital cameras? Might be fun to see what you/they come up with.

TMJ said...

Files from the Fuji GXR-50 convert very nicely to B&W. Fuji UK very kindly gave me a free loaner GXR-50 and 32-64mm lens for a few days.

The mid-tones, tonal transitions are wonderful. I have shot my share of B&W over the years, 35mm, 6x6, 6x7, 4x5 and the Fuji files are superb.

amolitor said...

I pretty much only produce black and white, color being too much for me to handle. Everyone says my color photos are less bad than my black and white photos, but I ignore them.

I wish I could say that I just see in black and white, but I don't. I see form and, in the very broadest of strokes, tone, but I am invariably surprised by what the camera actually does in terms of turning color in to tone.

To be honest, I don't care? I adjust the "color filter" in post to emphasize whatever form I want emphasized, and that's that.

Chuck Albertson said...

I bought the original M Monochrom, my first digicam, after Kodak discontinued TMax 3200, and still shoot it a lot (save for the six months it spent in the shop to replace a corroded sensor). You can find examples used for a lot less, but make sure it has gone through the sensor replacement already - if you buy one with the original sensor and it goes sour, you're pretty much out of luck. Leica is no longer replacing the sensor, though a third-party vendor has popped up to do this. Also, finding batts may entail some scavenging.

The original came with licenses for Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro, which I use most of the time. The RAW file cranked out by the Monochrom is relatively flat, which gives you a lot of latitude for processing. Silver Efex Pro can do a lot with these files, and it also includes film simulations if you like to play around with those. The quality of the in-camera JPEGs is really good, too. The sensor is "only" 18MP, but I've printed up to 20"x30" and the prints are gorgeous. The two subsequent versions of the Monochrom have greater resolution, better high-ISO performance and faster processors (I think a lot of the battery consumption of the original is down to the blinking light that tells you the camera is still processing your last shot), but I haven't felt the urge to upgrade. I occasionally do b&w conversions of RAW color files, but they just don't look as good to my eyes as the Monochrom images.

David said...

I just got a Pen-f on cyber Monday. so will need to play with its color profile mode and especially the monochrome mode. Its rated as one of the best monochrome m43rds cameras and many profiles are available. You can share profiles easily as all the information is stored in the jpeg tags. So you can use someone's receipe or fine tune your own in workspace. Should be fun and get a live preview, which my Nikon Df lacks. For it you need to use online tools to save the profiles and you only get 10 presets.

Gato said...

To me that old Ansel Adams thing about the score versus the performance still applies, just that today we work with digital files rather than physical negatives and prints.

At least for my work, most of the "magic" of black and white film photography happened at the enlarger -- choice of paper, exposure and contrast choices, dodging and burning, perhaps a little manipulation in the developing tray with warm water or a touch of ferricyanide. The kinds of things we do today in the computer.

What I get from the camera is just a starting point, and pretty much any digital camera can give me files more consistent than I got with Tri-X exposed by the camera meter and hand developed. Given the range of controls on current cameras seems like almost any photographer ought to be able to find something that works for their vision.

adam said...

I've been meaning to try using colour sliders to tone images in monochrome like I saw in a book once, can't remember exact process, starts with a colour image, it was turn up green for something etc, perhaps I'll give it a try now, see if rawtherapee can do it :)

MikeR said...

1. Huawei P20 Pro?

2. Nikon DSLR has a thing they call "picture control." There are a bunch of unique custom profiles on the website. I had 10 selected ones on my (now gone) D700, including a couple B&W. AND, if so inclined, you can roll your own.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

HI MikeR, can't do the Huawei phone. My security people have cautioned me not to use it for any of my Top Secret social media photos. I can only use Apple phones. Can't buck the system.

Nikons are actually pretty good B&W performers in my experience. I will say that I'm also partial to Nik Silver FX Pro from DXO. Nice pre-baked profiles.

scott kirkpatrick said...

Mike Johnston's post about eliminating color completely from the seeing, visioning, capturing, processing and finally viewing process was immediately followed by a repost of his exercise from a decade ago to turn a single color shot into everything from Carleton Watkins to Hasselblad 500C to Leica M rendering. A little cognitive dissonance here? Anyway I see in color, even when the color isn't a particularly critical part of the story/image. I have never found that a picture that wasn't working in color would come alive by redoing it in monochrome.

I'm looking forward, however, to seeing "Mank," shot in digital black and white, as an homage to Gregg Toland's cinematography

Luke Miller said...

Another Leica Monochrom shooter. I have both the original version and the M246. Part of the appeal is they take me back to a simpler time when B&W was all that was available to the general public. I can't say that I "see in B&W", but I have a well defined sense of the subjects I prefer to capture in B&W. I find images with a lot of detail, textures, or subtle tones are recorded by the Monochroms better than a B&W conversion from my D850. The Monochroms have spoiled me. While B&W conversions from my color bodies can product excellent and appealing images I almost never go that route.