8.16.2021

The most eccentric, ungainly, power hungry and counter-intuitive camera I own. And why I appreciate it very much.

 

Believe me, I get that some of my camera choices are far from what many photographers think of as "good" cameras. For some (most photographers?) a camera should be as transparent as possible so that nothing gets in the way of taking "the" photograph. The autofocus should intuitively find the subject that your brain would like to have in focus. The camera should fit your hand like a custom made glove so that no muscle or nerve ending is unduly inconvenienced in the making of your photographs. The finder should have 60 million pixels of super charged resolution to replicate what you had come to expect from your film camera's optical finder. There should be a rear screen that swivels into 720 degrees of rotation so you can compose your photographs no matter what your orientation to the camera. The camera should shoot at 100 fps so you don't have to worry about nailing "the decisive moment." And there should be an automatic raw to Jpeg converter operating in real time so you can shoot with no regard for technical settings because you can let the machine learning of the camera make those pesky conversions for you. All your zoom lenses should be f2.0 or faster, etc. etc. 

If this (above) is how you feel your camera should be then, definitely, the Sigma fp is NOT the camera you should be buying. In fact, it will probably frustrate you to no end. If you are brave enough to doubt my warning just be sure to buy it from a retailer with a liberal return policy...

But I come to praise the Sigma fp, not to bury it. 

I've owned an fp since it was first delivered to our little neck of the woods about a year and a half ago. Like a rogue satellite it has cruised in and out of my orbit on some wildly elliptical path largely dictated by what kind of work I fancied myself doing in the moment. The slower and clumsy-to-use auto focusing system makes it a non-starter for shooting live shows in performance while the need to shoot in a Raw video format, which necessitates the use of an external SSD drive and more layers of software, puts it out of the running for most video projects. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if the camera had any redeeming use cases at all... But then, in moments of doubt, I'd put an interesting lens on the body, go out and shoot an image so beautiful that I'd never want to be without the potential of the camera. No guarantee on the day-to-day nature of my own skills.

I was in one of those moods on Saturday when I was making plans to go out and shoot at two vineyards on Sunday (good samples here): https://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2021/08/toiling-in-fields-of-photography-and.html I thought I'd inject the Sigma and a big zoom lens into the mix just to see how it handled a loose, carefree and hand held morning of unstructured photography. My original inclination was to just bring a couple of Fuji X100V cameras with me but I couldn't make myself pack them exclusively since, at heart, I am a longer lens practitioner and would feel naked without a 50mm; and even better, a 70mm. I'd already discovered that the Sigma 24-70mm Art lens was a really nice lens and I thought it would play well for occasional shots with the fp. Into the bag it went, in full dress with the big lens hanging off the front and the enormous rear LCD loupe hanging off the back. The only nod to ergonomics being the larger Sigma handgrip for a better purchase on the package. 

One more flaw in the use of my Sigma fp is that I don't have a neckstrap for it, or the lugs which would allow attaching one. In a singular Sigma function-over-reality play the strap lugs are removable from the body so without them no strap works. If you carry the camera and lens and hood into the field with you and you've lost the lugs you can look forward to carrying the system in one hand all day long or you can add a small camera bag to your mix for moments of respite. 

Why oh why didn't I just grab the Leica SL2 and the Leica 24-90mm and be done with it? Yeah. I've thought a lot about it and it all seems to boil down to this...at least for me: A camera that is too easy to use and too perfect coupled with a lens that won't even consider allowing you to take a technically bad shot is just...boring to use on personal projects. Sorry. I said it. Perfection is boring. I might be an anomaly (although I doubt it) but I think I work best when I have to pay attention, have to struggle a bit to maintain total control of my camera, have to work the controls to get exactly what I want, and I think I have the best time photographing when I've bored down to manual control everywhere. This is something that the Sigma fp just prods you into accepting. 

So instead of working with a camera that is perfectly fitted to my hands, has an enormous and gorgeous electronic viewfinder, and comes complete with permanent strap lugs, I ended up shooting with a camera and lens with none of this. To add insult to injury neither the Sigma camera nor the lens has the modern must have image stabilization. But the chunky, weird system turned out to be so much fun to use. 

In the field I hold the whole package with my left hand under the lens so I can manually focus it as I go along. The eyepiece is jammed up to my eye because otherwise you aren't going to see either the preview of the image or any of the menu screens. The rear screen is the end all and be all of that camera's operation. Fortunately the fp is part of the L mount alliance and when used in manual focus mode a touch on the focusing ring brings up a magnified live preview of your composition. 

I use my right hand to control whatever I need to on the body as I shoot. This includes mainly three things: the shutter speed (gotta think about freezing the movement of those fast moving grasshoppers), aperture (gotta make sure I got the stuff I want in and out of focus in the right categories) and occasionally I've gotta jump in and tweak ISO. 

The Sigma fp does get some stuff quite right though. I can rely on its auto white balance; at least when shooting Raw files, and I generally agree with its metering suggestions --- even though I like to keep my own hands on the steering wheel. And really, that's all there is as far as control goes for the kind of work I really, really like to do. 

If you aren't using the camera the way I did yesterday, all suited up with a big lens and a big loupe, you can strip the camera down to its essentials and carry it almost as easily as you would a fat, fat smart phone. If the light is right I sometimes pull off all the stuff, put on the Sigma 45mm f2.8 lens (almost always stopped down to f4.0) and just use the rear screen for composing. When I use the camera this way I'm using the smallest full frame, 24 megapixel camera on the market but I do rely on its one point AF in this configuration because focusing on the rear screen in bright daylight can be daunting...on any camera.

I had complained before about short battery life but long term use has taught me (on many cameras) to always use the "power saving" settings in the menu. If the camera is set to turn itself off pretty quickly and comes right back up at the touch of a shutter button then battery life can be really decent. I shot for nearly three hours yesterday on only one battery. That's right in line with most of the cameras I shoot. 

My takeaway from all this is to acknowledge the benefit of cameras that make you work for it. To work toward realizing a good shot. If there's not a bit of friction then the pleasure of creation seems to evaporate. You don't want to get blisters from the friction but neither do you want to turn the process of creation into something akin to cotton candy and high technology hand-holding either. 

As I was writing this I was thinking back to a particularly productive period in my career. Mid-1990s. I was mostly shooting lifestyle and portrait work with a medium format Hasselblad. The camera had NO meter, NO autofocusing (in fact the dim focusing screens and lack of magnification could be daunting), and NO automated exposure settings. I was limited to 12 exposures on each roll of film and the only "preview" that existed was the excruciatingly slow process of pulling Polaroid test images which could take up to 90 seconds to appear, and were no where near accurate representations of the final film images.

But the work I did was some of my favorite and the mechanics and logistics of the shooting process were partly responsible. Thye provided a level of process friction that slowed down my impetuousness and made me concentrate. I accept, of course, that many people will need all the help they can get from a camera and the idea of adding friction to their process is insane to them. By the same token I can't imagine not being immersed and in control of my own camera engagement and in a singular way the Sigma fp helps me realize that. 

With the Sigma fp I bring along a couple of extra batteries and a bucket full of patience but when I get back to the office later and start to edit all I see are the manifest advantages of being fully engaged in image making. Not relegated to "pushing the button and letting the camera to the rest." 

And that's why I keep it around. 

Not really sure why but...I love this photograph.

 

Image taken with a Sigma fp camera and a Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 DN DG Art lens.

The gentleman on the left with the pristine, white t-shirt, is one of the owners of this particular vineyard and is also a practicing radiologist. The gentleman on the right in the ill-advised black tank top is a very good chef. This photograph was taken after the purple grapes in the vineyard have been harvested by the big machine I photographed and wrote about yesterday. The duo above is going through the tubs and skimming big grasshoppers off the top of the grapes in each container. It's pretty much the default method for getting rid of grape-addled grasshoppers (I just like the way that sounded). 

Once the bugs are on the ground they become prey for the legion of chickens that scout the terrain at high alert and maintain order. 

I was photographing for the fun of it yesterday and I wasn't working to a shot list, a brief, a comp or even an overarching idea. Just got up early to see what a mechanical grape harvest looked like and spent the morning doing what newspaper photographers used to call, "Enterprise." Searching for interesting images.

The temperature was still nice and the rain was several hours away. No one had "soaked through" their clothing yet. I was getting used to shooting fast bursts of uncompressed raw files and I thought this action looked interesting and fun. I fired off a bunch of frames and when I edited them down later this frame stood out to me. 

I guess I like that both men's hand gestures are the same, but reversed. I suppose I like the idea of the grasshopper frozen in mid-air between them. I also like the four horizon layers at the bottom third of the frame; the tub line, the mountain of purple grapes, the lighter colored vineyard against the darker tree line butting up against the sky. And the richness of the blue sky. 

But one of the things I know I like is the wonderful way which the camera caught the dynamic range of the scene to give me lush detail in the white t-shirt on the doctor. I'm particularly happy that retaining the detail all the way through the bright shirt didn't come at the expense of under-exposure or blocked up shadows. 

In the past I would have been leery about shooting a bright white shirt in full sun. I might have fallen back on aging trade craft by sticking a fill flash into the mix or marshaling a team of assistants to hold up reflectors. But now (thank God!) I don't have to. I can just get the exposure correct and rely on the forward march of camera tech. 

It's interesting that some images speak to me and others which are very similar don't. I rarely pause enough to ask "why?" but this morning I felt a sense of different sense of freedom inviting me to stop and think about it. 

I have a new respect for the Sigma fp. It's a very eccentric camera and provides ample friction in use but the files are much better than I had hoped for. It's a camera meant for odd photographers.