10.18.2021

Bonus Blog: A few thoughts about the current market for cameras and stuff. Written while getting the oil changed and the 6 month maintenance done on the travel vehicle.

 

The Sigma fp is like the New York Times 
crossword puzzle of modern cameras. Lots of 
clues. Lots of blanks to fill in. Rewarding for 
those with skills. 

There is something meditative about driving on empty roads for hours at a time. One's mind tends to roam over a wide range of topics but mine eventually comes back to photography. And cameras. And lenses. And how we use them in our day to day lives. I've had the benefit of a front seat at the evolution of camera gear since the 1970s. So much has changed but so much has stayed very much the same. With all the advances in technology the distillation of it all winds up pretty much the same; we choose a camera that seems appropriate to our tasks, put the strap over one shoulder and head out the door to document the world around us. That part has stayed reassuringly the same. 

Camera makers have a couple of trajectories they've followed, one of which they've pursued since camera makers first introduced exposure automation, and that is to take complexity out of the actual making of photographs. They've tried to make the process more and more automatic. It's only accelerated with each successive generation of digital cameras. As a salve to traditionalists who grumble about automation the same camera makers have created deeper and deeper customization options with each camera, making them paradoxically more complex and functionally opaque than ever before. But before you mistake my assertion be clear that it's obvious one can put just about any new camera into a  totally programmed, automatic mode and just fire away as you would with a point-and-shoot camera. Photographers who learned at a time before rampant automation, who crave more "control" over their cameras and are willing to dive into complex and extensive menus with the idea of "mastering" the process, usually to the technical detriment of the process, are thus assuaged. Comforted that some barriers to entry still exist even if they are ancillary to making good pictures. 

I learned the craft of photography on 4x5 view cameras, 8x10 view cameras and all manner of smaller, film camera models, across a wide range of formats. I've souped and printed tens of thousands of images in chemical darkrooms and I find the desire to customize the parameters of modern cameras funny and a bit silly. I rarely need to nudge the image controls much to get what I need to and am, admittedly, baffled at the horrifying complexity of various AF modes in the most consumer oriented of the current cameras. It all reminds me of a movie called Wall-E in which privileged humans live on a luxurious city high above a ruined planet where they are waited on hand and foot by servile robots. The humans recline on floating chairs and when they want to move about they do so via their "floatie" chairs. They have lost their ability to run, walk or even get out of their floatie chairs having been catered to and coddled for so long. 

The humans have become enormously obese and, in effect, handicapped by their choices. I wonder if we will become so dependent on the automation in our cameras as to lose our ability to actually control the process and be "guided" to a homogenous mediocrity in our imaging. So often the nature of a tool manipulates the user to change direction. The weapon determines the course of battle...

Which brings me back to a camera that keeps showing up on my radar over and over again, the Sigma fp. 

It's a camera that is decidedly at odds with the current uniform nature of most of its "competitors." It's loaded with deal-killers and can be a bit ponderous to use as a photography tool; if your aim is to reduce all friction between the seeing of a subject and its subsequent acquisition. The Sigma fp requires my attention. And my intervention. If you use any of its filters or dynamic range expanding settings you must forgo fast frame to frame shooting and be prepared for the camera to stop and process images at its own speed. You'll never be able to use the fp in a fully continuous mode to get eye detection AF on fast moving sloths or greyhounds.

From the point of view of a Sony Alpha One camera user the entire concept of the fp makes it unusable. For someone who welcomes a simpler tool and a camera that provides frictional feedback the fp is a jewel. I even appreciate the underwhelming battery capacity. It all adds up to me being integrated firmly into the whole process of actually taking a photograph. Of shepherding an image to fruition.

On one hand consumers crave a camera that will do their thinking and operational tasks for them. On the other hand they want the appearance of intricate controllability even if it foils or belabors their actual intent. Are we far from "floatie" chair evolution in cameras?  I'm not sure...

Another issue I ruminated over while watching tumbleweeds race across the highway, propelled by 50 to 60 miles per hour wind gusts, is the continuous rise in the price of new cameras. There seems to be downward pressure on medium format cameras and a surprisingly strong upward pressure on pricing for all manner of 35mm style and APS-C style cameras. The Leica SL2 had a price increase of $895 in the U.S.A. this year alone. It's currently $6895, retail. But not to be outdone the less amiable (but fully equipped with hood scoops, wings, pinstriping and dozens of cupholders) Sony Alpha One is priced at 
an imputed retail of $6400 but since it's in thin supply the current listing on Amazon.com is for about $7500. I guess if you find yourself operating on the cutting edge of something you'd be able to rationalize such a camera but for day to day photography? Not likely. 

Nor is the Leica SL2 any more logical. But at least it's better built...and much more interesting.

Where is this all headed? Who will buy the stratospherically priced cameras once all the boomers retire?
I think camera makers are trying to maximize profitability by going after the most affluent consumers in their customer bases. They are trying to generate as much buzz as they can during this period of shipping issues and materials shortages by turning as much margin as they can by offering the high end products at the expense of entry level and medium priced cameras and lenses. But I would suggest that it's an unsustainable strategy that will mostly just drive more and more potential customers away from unimproved entry level options (which create dedicated future customers) and more vigorously towards phone cameras. Which are getting better with every passing generation. 

At some point the pandemic will recede, the recessions it has caused will cycle back into booms, the population outside the traditional "first world" will grow in income, personal wealth and opportunity and camera makers will have an opportunity to seize the entry level market once again. If they can wean themselves from the margins they are currently getting because of shortages and heavy targeting of the people still standing with extra cash.

If I were a betting person I'd lay my money on only three or four traditional camera companies surviving the next wave. The camera makers traditionally and historically have a hard, hard time turning "big boats" around quickly. They'll soon be replaced by companies that emerge from the ever rising manufacturing sectors in lower wage countries such as China and India and, perhaps Vietnam and parts of Eastern Europe. At that juncture we'll start to see more competition at the lower end of the product spectrum along with much improved adaptation rates. It might be the renaissance we've long imagined but just not in the way we imagine it on a granular level. 

As I sat in the fast moving car scanning the horizon, looking for the next highway rest stop I did admit to myself that this could all be anecdotal bullshit with no wider relevance beyond my own personal experiences. But if that was the case how then to explain even the existence of the Sigma fp? The wider embrace of $6000+ consumer cameras? And the increasingly good photo products currently emerging from China?

There is always a market that is declining and being replaced by a different market ascending. Locking into one way of thinking or buying is a danger but nothing life threatening. At least not when it comes to something like personal photography. 

When I look back at images made with digital cameras from three and four generations back
I marvel to find that the images from them have not been rendered obsolete...

We love to harken back to the "good old days" of film photography often forgetting 
the hit and miss nature of its undertaking and minimizing through convenient 
memory the arduous practice of making a good image and then scanning 
it into a system successfully.  But it did work just fine. Even without 
AF, various modes, I.S., built-in histograms, ultra fast frame rates and 
all the other mostly useless crap on offer. 

It's a wonder we could actually make images back in the day.
It's a wonder we're still amused and entertained by the process today...

The Long Overdue Vacation. Part One.

The best camera so far. 

We've got friends who love to go to Santa Fe frequently. They are thinking about buying second homes there, up in the mountains surrounding the small adobe covered town. When they go to Santa Fe they generally climb into their cars and drive straight through from Austin. They tell me that the trip takes about ten and one half hours but I should add five to ten minutes every three or four hours in order to change drivers and fill up the gas tank. All of this flies in the face of the idea that it's not the destination, it's the journey that matters. I get the ethos of efficiency and I've been like my fast, long-ranging friends when working on tightly scheduled jobs. But on vacation? No. Not so much. And B even less...

When B and I mapped out our agenda we decided to head to Santa Fe in stages. I set the initial schedule by insisting on heading to morning swim practice before the start of the trip. This would have been sacrilege to my father who was a military officer trained to get up at 5:00 a.m. and be on the road for just about anything by 5:30. I remember "vacations" back in the 1960s and 1970s that started with us kids being rousted out of bed long before dawn, handed a juice box and a pop tart and herded into the family car to start a long and fraught journey to see some sites along the way and to eventually end up a couple of hellish days later at a grandparent's house somewhere in Pennsylvania. 

My parent's were notoriously frugal and never owned a car with air conditioning until long after the last child had finished college and moved on to gainful employment. An odd approach to life, considering that we spent a great deal of time in central Texas. I cherish my air conditioning every time I get into my own car.

Because of my early vacation traumas B and I take an opposite strategy for vacations. We try to limit driving to half a day or less between destinations. When we looked at all the mapping info at hand we decided we'd strike out for San Angelo, Texas first, have a look around, have a nice dinner at a good restaurant and then spend the night. It's an easy half day from Austin. The next day would be spent getting to and seeing the sites in Roswell, NM, and on the third day we'd leave Roswell and make the final push ( a whopping three hours...) to Santa Fe. That's exactly what we did and we had a few surprises along the way. A few unintended bouts of surprising better than expected finds and one or two letdowns. 

But maybe I'd better back up and cover the ritual of choosing and packing camera gear. I vacillated back and forth before settling on my equipment inventory. I wanted to bravely limit myself to just bringing along the two Fuji X100V cameras but that would have been too sensible and I would have spent the week re-hashing the decision each time I saw some image that might have been much better served by a camera with interchangeable lens. I thought that a fair amount of stuff would need the wide angle chops of a 24mm lens while I was almost certain that a 90mm would come in very handy once we got settled at our farthest destination. 

In the end I packed a Leica SL and a Leica SL2. I kept the lens tally reasonable. I brought along the monster-big Leica 24-90mm zoom lens, the Lilliputian Sigma 45 and 90mm f2.8 lenses, and I also brought along the Carl Zeiss ZF 35mm f2.0 manual focus lens just because it was the lens already attached to the front of one of the cameras and seemed like a reasonable excuse for a body cap...

Funny (at least to me) but the SL (the older, used camera) was the one I wanted to use the most. That, and the 35mm lens which had been almost an afterthought. The second most used lens was the Sigma 45mm and then the remaining two could have just stayed home. I used the zoom for one afternoon of walking around my new favorite Texas town, San Angelo, and I think I used the 90mm for about an hour one afternoon in Santa Fe just because I felt guilty about packing it but not using it. 

I can't quite figure out what it is about the original Leica SL that makes me prefer it over the newer and much pricier SL2 but that's the way it keeps falling out. There's something buried in the design and construction that just makes me happier. And when it comes to the images I have to confess that I think I like the color palette and contrast of the older cameras better. Kinda crazy, but there it is.

The lens is less mysterious to me in retrospect. It's a solid lens that constantly reminds me of how simple and effective the days of manual focusing really were. I've now looked at thousands of images taken with the 35mm Zeiss lens and I find myself impressed at nearly every juncture and at every f-stop from f2.0 on down the line. Two quick presses of the bottom left button on the back of the SL and I get a highly magnified image with which to fine focus. The focus peaking is also very useful. 

The combination of the two looks; the Leica and the Zeiss visual fingerprints, match up well and provide files that are chewy and airy at the same time. It's also a great combination for monotone work. 

When we packed the car each day and headed off for our next stop I'd put the rest of the gear back in the cargo area of the car and then stick the SL with the 35mm lens attached within reach. If I saw something that just had to be photographed it was easy as pie to stop, grab the camera and bang away until I got an image I liked. 

If I could go back in time with some fabulous time machine I might decide to bring just the X100V cameras; that was my first instinct and probably a correct one. But philosophy tells us that there are never multiple paths to revisit, just the path you chose. Also, if I had a time machine I probably wouldn't spend my time in the past dicking around choosing cameras. I'd be buying stocks with my knowledge of the future. But then it would probably turn out like a Star Trek episode where I go back and being there changes the future and everything I invest in as a time traveler goes bankrupt instead. 

I certainly didn't give my choice of cameras much thought once we headed down the road at the start of our journey. There was no turning back and the whole idea of the vacation was just to get away and enjoy the travel, the downtime and the interesting stuff to look at along the road. I did pack a tripod that never got used but that particular tripod is dedicated to the car so it would have come along for the ride regardless of what other gear tagged along.

There is something about driving an almost new car that adds to the relaxation on a trip. At 3,000 miles the car had crested the first period in which major flaws of manufacturing arise. Everything is clean and unsullied and every part of the mechanism is tight and vibration free. With just the two of us in the Subaru Forester there was ample space to spread out and enjoy the interior space. I love that I got the tire pressure exactly the same in all four tires and that it stayed that way throughout the journey. I think it's a kind of magic that, with the flick of a switch, while driving 75 MPH,  one can check the current tire pressure. Just marvelous. 

For the most part we drove on the secondary highways of Texas and New Mexico. The parts between Austin and San Angelo were nice. Rolling hills peppered with some fun S curves and top speed limits of 75 MPH. A far cry from the frantic and crowded  traffic stream we encounter on IH 35 when we have to travel to Dallas or San Antonio. 

Since we were traveling by car instead of commercial airplanes we were able to bring ample printed books to read during our downtime, books on CD to listen to on the three hour segments of west Texas driving, and any and all the different clothes we thought we might need. From shorts and sandals to warm jackets, gloves and hats. And we used all of it. Our first day ended in San Angelo where the temperatures were in the mid-90s. In the middle of the week we were in Santa Fe and the temperatures dropped under 30° on two nights. B's scarf and coat and my thick jacket and PolarTec hat were most welcome.

I was nervous about leaving home. Who knows why? I've spent so much of my adult life being responsible and reliably available to clients and family that this particular vacation felt unbounded and free. But with all freedom comes some anxiety at the release of the constraints that usually handily border our working lives. I vacationed sporadically in the past and always used the pursuit of photography as an excuse to justify the time away from "important stuff." But this trip was different. The photography was profoundly less important. It seemed like  the practice of taking photos this time was more like a proficient swimmer still holding onto floaties or a life jacket, getting ready to let go and paddle free. 

I'd carry a camera over one shoulder for most of each day at a location. If something looked cool I'd ease the Leica off my shoulder and bring the camera up to my eye and shoot. Instead of my usual manic overshooting; which could have generated dozens of images of each subject with only the slightest differences between them, I felt comfortable (for once!) taking one or two frames and then moving on. It was very relaxing to remove the sense that the priority of the had to be photographic. 

On a totally different note I want to discuss technology and long distance driving on poorly marked backroads, which required frequent turns on to even less well marked two lane highways. 

My car is set up to make it easy to plug in my phone and get turn-by-turn directions. I also get a nice, active map on the screen in the middle of the dashboard. This is a great way to travel because the map application announces through the car's stereo system when turns are coming up and how to navigate a series of quick lefts and rights. And it shows you these instructions on the screen. The added advantage this time around was the unexpected pleasure of having the information also transmitted to my Apple Watch. Without taking my eyes off the road I could glance at my wrist and get a visual indicator of an upcoming change, route change, etc. 

When the application decided to announce some action I would need to take the watch would thump my wrist gently and make a chime noise. I'd glance at my wrist without interrupting my "ten and two" hand positions and get the gist of the message in a glance. The one thing that's annoying with "Maps" is when you decide to pull off the road for gas or a restroom break and the watch and phone get irritated and demand that you "return to the route." Go long enough off the main road and you'll get a verbal message that says, "re-routing" over and over again until you get back on what the electronics consider to be the true path. One last thing about the map applications is that you can see at a glance on your car's screen your ETA, the length of time (hours and minutes) remaining, and the miles remaining. It even shows the posted speed limit along your current path. 

I guess my big lesson after this very successful vacation is that my choice of cameras is/was inconsequential to enjoying my time with my much beloved partner. I could have gone with just the phone and been equally happy. I might have missed some shots but if they were really that important to me I could hop on a flight back and shoot by myself with full intensity. Didn't happen. Eliminating the priority of always being photographing made everything else that much more fun. And helped me look at each new thing more intently. 

Photos and more details coming tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day....

Hope you were happy and well in my absence. Catching up will be fun.