Sunday, November 08, 2015

2015 Salon de la Photo - Part Two - Images over Equipment

In Part One of  2015 Salon de la Photo I ranted and raved and swung a bat over various camera and lens systems.  I was in a very cranky mood.  

Shocking as it may seem to some people, photography is more than selecting, collecting, and talking about equipment.  As we all could/should know, the reason for all this gear is to be able to make images.

Fortunately, the Salon de la Photo was (barely?) more than just a trade show.  This year there were a couple areas devoted to the works of well known artists.

Near the entrance to the show was an exhibition of mid to late 20th century images.  All were printed in black and white to silver paper.  The imaging themes were various.  I could see that there was a certain aesthetic that I could clearly identify as being a Japanese view of the world.  I felt that some of the images "worked" well and I enjoyed seeing them.

Toward the back of the building was a second show.  This consisted of a small show of somewhat large, again, black and white silver-based prints.  A quick look confirmed for me that the street photographer was American and I could see a classic New York point of view being expressed.  I'm not sure I enjoyed what I saw.  Perhaps it was too familiar.

Nearby were several booths devoted to the works of photographers who purchased space to hang, show, and sell their images.  Browsing this area revealed to me a certain European aesthetic.  The "look", regardless of the subject or theme, felt stark and somewhat remote.  This was capped by a long wall filled with images of naked women holding strategically placed bloody organs and entrails of farm animals.  I wondered why an artist would trade purely on shock value?  Where would a person hang such images?  On the living room wall??  Certainly not in my house.

Considering current imaging practice there were at least two areas in the middle of the show which caught my attention.  They contained large prints of yet again black and white landscapes and portraits.  The processing seemed to have made liberal use of Hipstamatic's Wetplate app.  The effect wasn't bad, actually.  I really enjoyed some of the portraits.  But more than anything else I could see where cell phone image capture and processing has already taken over enormous areas of imaging responsibilities from traditional approaches.

And you would you like to know something?  The large prints made from what were likely 8 mpixel cell phone cameras were very fine, indeed.  Shocking, isn't it?  But that's the truth.  Apple and Google (Android) have done a phenomenal job at taking the place of traditional imaging tools manufacturers.  Sure, Canon and Nikon will try to sell you on "flexibility" and "image quality".  But so what?  Very few of us ever shoot sporting events nor wildlife which might require long, big, expensive, large apertured optics.  I could clearly see there is no need for such lavish tools when something so small, so light, and so readily available can do the task for Us Mere Mortals.  I can easily see why Sony's QX series, Olympus' similar product, and DxO Mark's new device are starting to attract users.

I compared my visual experiences between the traditional and the current digital.  The earlier silver-based black and white images have a certain "feel" to them.  I feel in the highest expression of the art, prints can give a scene a "creamy" somewhat soft "look."  Images like these elicit a "warm" feeling from me, regardless of the subject, content, or theme.  Even many of St. Ansel's stark, cold, carefully controlled contrasty print style can have a certain "warmth."

Current digital print technique is far more flexible than the old silver-paper process.  Digital can easily match black and white film-based imaging "warmth".  It should be obvious there are a broad range of print papers and surface textures to choose from.  Then there are the high definition book publishing (with image qualities indistinguishable from an "original" print) and network based distribution and sharing options.  Each can way of sharing an image can lead a sensitive viewer in whatever direction the artist desires.  All of which puts ever greater pressure on an artist.

Gone are the days when commercially available materials and tools narrowly defined the limits of what was possible.  The Great Yellow Father (Kodak), Fuji Film, Agfa, and Ansco no longer set the limits of image capture and print making.  Viewers are no longer constrained to poor reproduction quality books, nor are they required to visit a small number of galleries to see an original high quality print.  

With an infinite variety of digital image processing outcomes, and a wide range of image print and networked distribution options, current practitioners of the photographic arts might feel a little overwhelmed.  An artist needs a clear idea of what they want to accomplish, otherwise image making can quickly become a struggle and can be a "hit or miss" visual expression (that is, some images are "better" than others and the artist might not understand why).

Wandering the large show at Salon de la Photo, Paris left me with a better understanding of why so many "photographers" concentrate their time and energies on the tools and materials.  It seems easier to talk about tools and materials capabilities as doing do sets boundaries and limits.  A person can get lost talking about the minutia of this setting or that ISO or another lens.  It probably feels "safe" to think materials and tools providers "will take care of them" by setting limits and boundaries that could induce a feeling of comfort, knowledge, and artistic competence.  

I would like to consider the topic a little deeper in my own work.  To feel a little more fulfilled as an artist I'd like to try to see the art and craft from other perspectives than from the point of view of a commercially driven trade show.

Given such vast imaging capabilities and possibilities, where might be the words that express what is creatively possible? 

Even as it's too easy to place our faith in providers of tools and materials, how do we find a way to place faith in ourselves as artists?

Friday, November 06, 2015

2015 Salon de la Photo - Part One - Cameras and Lenses

Wherein I Pontificate in a most Pontificative Manner.  That is to say, here in image and word are my Rather Highly Opinionated views of the 2015 Salon de la Photo, Paris.

Warning: I'm more than a little cranky.


Great toys for those with money to burn and a need to impress The Great Unknowing Unwashed.

But why?  Because Leica can sell enough to keep production lines open?  Because the world economy is doing well enough that Every Man can dream of owning one and there are enough Hedge Fund Thieves and an enormous emerging Chinese Upper Class?  I can't understand what they're doing outside the context of wealth doing what wealth does.

Maybe it's the price one pays for Bragging Rights.  But to brag over what?    Images coming from these devices are virtually indistinguishable from any other imaging device.  Seriously.  Look anywhere in the world at any image and tell me "... now _that_ was made with a Leica..."  You can't.  So there.


Sigma makes some very nice optics and sells them for nearly reasonable prices.  It was good to see my old 300-800mm f/5.6 EX HSM.  I miss that old lens, but it was impractical to use here in France.  It's long, big, and heavy.  Yet I dream of the days when I photographed Bufflehead ducks on the run.  For those dreams I've picked up a smaller and nearly as long Bigron 150-600mm SP, so life isn't all woe and pain.

Sigma had their new 24mm f/1.4 Art lens on display.  It looks like the other lenses in the family of Art optics for DSLRs.  It's big, heavy, and sharp (from what other people report).  If I could put up with the mass and size of a DSLR, one of each of Sigma's Art lenses could do the trick.

As if to prove Sigma can keep up with other players in the lens market in terms of size, weight, and Other Insanity, the team showed off their ever popular 200-500mm f/2.8 Monster.  Yep.  Just what one needs... um... when?  I have no idea, when.  Huh.  Silly, this.  Just because you can, does it mean you should?  [see Zeiss in the following section]


Et voila!  More True Insanity.  You can't see it here, but this lens is nearly the size of a small child.  Zeiss seems to be showing they can build the Very Best lenses commercially available.  Still, this is ludicrous.  I suspect the Very Well Heeled will be the only folks ever to buy these.  The question is, will they ever use them?  As I said, just because you can, does it mean you should?

To balance this snarky attack, I was happy to see Zeiss is still capable of building small if not still expensive lenses in various sizes and shapes.  While one must come from the Rather Well Heeled Upper Classes to be able to buy them, at least a few aforementioned persons can carry them somewhere.  This means those lenses stand a chance of actually being used to, well, photograph something.


It's interesting to me that Panasonic and Olympus have selected the same spec sensor, a micro 4/3rds.  It's even more interesting to me just how different the two manufacturers have approached the same format.  Panasonic feels to me much more like a video than a stills imaging company.  Their GX7 and GX8 cameras feel larger and heavier in the hand than a Canon SL1/100D DSLR.

I also checked out Panasonic's FZ300 and FZ1000 "bridge" superzoom cameras.  [shaking my head]  What's going on?  These things are as big and heavy as any of Nikon or Canon's entry-level DSLR.   Why would a person buy a "bridge" camera when the flexibility of lens interchangeability of a DSLR package is no heavier nor larger?  What's the differentiation/market placement story?  Price?  Nope.  Size/weight?  Nope.  Flexibility?  Tough call.  Bizarre, me-thinks.


Back when men were men and cameras used film, Fuji was a great film manufacturer and offered sometimes interesting cameras in which to load their great film.  Fast forward to the Digital Era and it seems as if Fuji's old camera tooling have been pulled out of mothballs and pressed into further use.  The sizes of their cameras and lenses really haven't changed in, what?, 40 years.  From what I read, their sensors haven't changed all that much, either.

So, what do we have in Fuji?  Well, if you're an Old Fart like me, then these devices can seem familiar and I'll bet you'll know instantly how to use one.

In fact, if I didn't mind the Old Film Era camera size and if I could only own one camera for, say, the next 5 years, I might be tempted by Fuji's X100T.  But only as long as I could have the two focal length converters on offer as well.  The shutter is silent and the flash sync speed goes to the moon, which can come in handy when shooting in full, er, sun.


Where to begin?  What is the company willing to do to enter into a new century?  When are they going to wake up?  Yes, the 20D, and 5D MkII were ground breaking devices in the way they opened markets and wallets and enabled image making creativity, but times change.

Take the SL1/100D, for instance.  Indeed, it's the smallest DSLR currently available.  But that's it.  No WiFi.  No GPS (for those who don't mind the NSA and Apple tracking them).  No swivel LCD display.  No top of industry sensor (it relies on a rapidly aging-fab 18mpixel APS-C).  Why would anyone want one when they could have something at similar prices that give broader capabilities?

It was fascinating to see all the "Pros" walking the show with their "Pro" badges on lanyards around the neck and Canon 5DSR + battery grip + 24-70 f/2.8 L-glass slung over the shoulder.  When they set them on a countertop to talk "shop" with makers of smaller, more capable cameras it was obvious Canon is selling to dinosaurs.  Sure, there are a LOT of dinosaurs out there.  Yet in two years I doubt Canon will be the Pro Camera of Choice.


Everyone was swooning over Sony's new A7rII Super Toy.  It's nice.  It's feature packed.  It's heavy.  It felt like picking up a semi-pro camera from Nikon or Canon.  Where is the mirrorless size/weight advantage?  And don't give me that "big hands" argument requiring big cameras.  That's _not_ what the Mirrorless Revolution was about.  I find this camera just plain silly heavy.

I took a moment to check out Sony's RX10II "bridge" camera.  As with Panasonic's product offerings in this space I'm gob-smacked.  The camera is huge and rather heavy.  An entry-level DSLR...  um... I've already covered what I feel about that (see "Panasonic" above).

By contrast, Sony's RX1 is an absolute jewel of a photographic imaging device.  It's nice and small.  It's powerful.  It's feature packed.  The new version even comes with EVF built in.  Yes, it has a fixed focal length lens, but how many lenses do you really want and need?  Yes, it's expensive.  Um, and that's why I can't have one.  I have to put this one on the lower end of Pure Camera Bling.  It's on the same scale where I put Leica (with those German devices much nearer the upper end of the Camera As Bling Insanity).


Lovely little cameras, these.  Like Fuji, Olympus seems to have dusted off their old film camera tooling when they started making these.  But in the case of Olympus, they started out with small cameras in the first place and their modern image makers remain pleasantly small and comfortable in the hand.

Last year Olympus announced a wonderful looking little lens.  It's an f/2.8 zoom that would be interesting when coupled to their 1.4x teleconverter.  The setup is small for this kind of telephoto magnification.  I'd be tempted if I wasn't already heavily invested in my Sony gear.

IMNSHO, Olympus offers wonderful gear for making stills images.  While I'm sure their video capabilities are more than adequate, it's their Old Time film camera feel that seem "right."   They're smaller than Fuji and not much larger than the Masters of Small Sony APS-C NEX.  Olympus has put an impressive level of technology into a small and supremely capable package.  If you're truly an Old Fart and want film-camera era "feel" to your gear, these guys seem to do the job the way the Photographic Gods meant it to be.


It's obvious that consumers of imaging/video products have many many wonderful products to choose from.  The manufacturers are doing their best to get you to separate you from you money in exchange for a nice camera and lens.  Competition is sharp.  Any of these devices is quite capable of helping a photographer achieve very high levels of image quality.

One way at looking at choosing a new imaging tool is to decide if you want a camera from a traditional gear manufacturer or if you prefer the networking interconnect capabilities provided by electronics suppliers.  I can see where Old Farts (like myself) could take the first approach and where newer generations of folks could feel more comfortable with something from an electronics company.

In this vein, I think traditionalists could be very very happy with something from Olympus.  If they don't mind a slightly larger package, Fuji makes some great things.  Watching how images are consumed leads me to believe that Canon and Nikon's pools of "pro" consumers backed by Big Wads of money for Big Telephotos with Big Apertures are living on borrowed time (even as they're loosing their high paying photography jobs at a horrific pace).

For those who grew up on electronics (or in my case, helped develop the tech in the first place), gear from someone like Sony could be a safe bet for stepping further down the road into a well networked high image quality future.  Like so many people I'm working with little APS-C mirrorless cameras to capture something, WiFi it to a tablet, process it, and then upload it directly to the 'net.  This, as far as I can see, is where image making "lives."  Present, not future, tense.