Tuesday 30 September 2014

The final mile

This entry has little to do with photography - although there is a tangential thread of relevance that runs through the tale with which I am about to regale you.

Like many of us these days I shop online for items large and small, expensive and cheap. I order from a variety of suppliers, who in turn rely upon a variety of couriers to get their goods "the final mile" to my door. Their choice of courier is critical, because a bad choice reflects in turn badly upon the supplier, calling their judgement into question, obliterating any goodwill they may have accrued through the product selection and ordering process and, ultimately, damaging their brand.

There is one courier in particular that operates within the UK market. For the purposes of this blog they shall remain nameless, more or less. For the sake of brevity I shall henceforth refer to them as "The Undeliverables". For unfathomable reasons a very large organisation that will also remain nameless - let's call them something totally unrecognisable, like ..."Danube" - rely upon them to fulfil many of their orders - in spite of page after page of complaints upon their own customer forums and consumer review sites elsewhere.

In recent weeks The Undeliverables have messed up deliveries to me on four separate occasions.  Reasons have ranged from "can't find address" (while everyone else on the planet, from prosthelytising God-botherers to pizza-delivery boys can...) via dumping parcels on the drive outside the front gate, to the old favourite "nobody home" (I was in, expecting them, and listening for the doorbell - which never rang...) My favourite was when the driver managed to walk straight past my large, white, front door with a big bell-push on it to knock timidly at the small, brown back door some feet beyond...  

Not my front door...

The Undeliverables pride themselves on having a high-tech approach to keeping you, the customer informed.  This only works if the information they provide is accurate and reliable.  Actually, it is worse than that... by tantalising you with a track on a map showing that you are "....delivery #20" and that your parcel is "...85 minutes away" it makes it a hundred times worse when your parcel does not in fact materialise for one of the reasons listed above.

The Undeliverables like to come across as media-savvy too, encouraging you to Tweet your experience.  I have - on every occasion.  Their standard response is to ask you to PM them your consignment number so that they can "look into it".  It took me three loops of this particular Kafkaesque cycle before I discovered that they don't keep details for more than 72 hours - thus each subsequent failure triggered no alarm in their systems, no "we've heard from this chap before".  Like goldfish, each new problem was, to them at least, really new...

As a result of these experiences I have taken to avoiding them at every opportunity. You'd think that this would make life difficult, but in fact it has been up to now quite straightforward.  At the mention of The Undeliverables name on my delivery notification, I email or telephone the supplier and request an alternate method of carriage.  Most up to now have been happy to oblige, particularly since I make the point that I am happy to pay extra carriage charges to avoid The Undeliverables having any part in the process.

Up to now.

Today I came across a company that refused to countenance my request to deliver via another means.  I offered to pay double their quoted carriage fees in order to avoid The Undeliverables, but they were having none of it.  The managing director himself, who appeared determined to explain and justify his every decision, refused point blank to countenance my request.  "We have insurance" (I don't care) "We have a contract" (I don't care) "We can't make exceptions" (I do care, since other, larger organisations can and do when reasonably requested to do so in return for additional fees) "They're as bad as all the others" (No, they're not - the others are merely incompetent; The Undeliverables seem to take a special delight in being spectacularly, inventively, creatively incompetent).

I explained my unwillingness to have my purchase entrusted to The Undeliverables.  The managing director remained determined to enlighten me as to why his way was the right way.  I was not interested.  Even after I explained - politely - that I was therefore cancelling my order, he remained hell-bent on justifying his stance.

I am the customer. I am not interested in why you have chosen to contract your order fulfilment with a brand-damaging courier.  All I want is the item I have ordered, delivered speedily and reliably.


Net result:
  • One lens order (see, I said I would get back to photography) cancelled 
  • One company that I have never dealt with before and now will never deal with again, has lost a sale
  • One negative tweet
  • One negative entry for said company on TrustPilot
  • One lens now ordered elsewhere, that will deliver tomorrow via Royal Mail (who have never yet had a problem finding my front door...)
  • One blog entry as above
So, apart from the fact that the item in question was a lens, what has this to do with photography, I hear you ask?

Remember the final mile?

Whether amateurs or professionals, as photographers we spend hundreds, nay thousands of pounds/euros/dollars/quatloos on our kit.  We spend more thousands in going out and about at home and overseas and taking photos with same.  Our task is not complete until we have then processed those photos and presented them, as prints or online, for others' enjoyment and approval.  Our final mile is delivering the image, to the best of our ability in our chosen medium.  It matters if we are professionals, because we are being paid to deliver. It matters if we are amateurs because we should take a pride in what we do.

It seems to be far easier than delivering a single poxy parcel... 

Monday 29 September 2014

Narrow your horizons

Here's a little thought-experiment for you to start with.  Apart from "family", how many of your "serious" photos have you taken within half a mile of your home?  Roughly, in percentage terms...

I'll wager it is a low number.  A very low number, unless you have a home studio or the like.  Most of us shoot while out and about, either because we have gone out to take photos, or have taken photos while we are out (there is a significant difference, but more of that another day).  The interesting thing about this thought experiment is that it doesn't matter where you live - you could be in the centre of the most fascinating metropolis on the planet, you could open your front door onto the Grand Canal in Venice, or you could be in the midst of the moors - habituation gets you every time.

Our Wikipedia friends define habituation as "...a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations".  You can't fight it - it happens to us all.   It is the same phenomenon that partly drives addictions - that quest for an ever-greater "high", whether that be an armful of heroin or a new camera (Gear Acquisition Syndrome or "GAS" is real, and causes considerable wallet pain.) In context of where we live, we stop seeing our immediate environs and treat them as part of our life furniture.

So here's thought experiment number 2.  How often do you actually walk out past the end of your drive or your front gate?  Many of us - though admittedly not all - can actually say seldom, because we get into the car parked on said drive and motor off to our destination.  It's convenient, easy and in many respects it isolates and insulates us from our immediate surroundings - we only ever see the next road and the road after that through our windscreens, never through our viewfinders.  Try this - how far away from home are you after five minutes behind the wheel of your car?  Two miles?  Three?  How long would it take you to walk the same distance?  Half an hour?  An hour?  The modern car is a wonderous thing, but like many other "advances" it detracts from our perception of the world immediately around us.

End of the road...

I recently spent a week or so unable to drive, following some minor surgery.  I was restricted to sitting at home, or going out for a walk with a camera; the latter won.  I have lived in the same area for going on 15 years now, but with a fresh eye and a narrowed horizon I saw more in that week than I have in the seven hundred and fifty-odd that preceded it.

My operation also forced a double-whammy on me.  It was to my right shoulder, so I could neither carry any great weight, nor hold a heavy camera to my face for any length of time.  I was thus forced by circumstance to "travel light".  In order to do so I chose to use a Fujifilm X-M1 mounted with a Fujinon XF 27mm f2.8 lens.  Even with a handgrip and a thumb-rest attached, this combination tips the scales at very little more than 500 of those modern gram things.  With an APS-C sensor in a tiny body, Fuji have reduced functionality from their more upmarket models but not by any means the quality of output.  Equally, the 27mm, with a focal length equivalent of a very useful 40-41mm is not only a good match but an under-rated and handy lens reminiscent of the 40mm Summicron from Leica and the 40mm Nokton from Voigtlander.  The lens and body combined brings back happy memories of using an Olympus Trip - and that is praise indeed.

The Whovians will enjoy this one:

...and this

I have bought an X-M1 twice, as it happens.  First of all as a backup to my X-E1 then when I acquired an X-T1 and replaced the X-E1 with an X-Pro1 three X mount bodies seemed a little extravagant, so I sold it on.  Then more recently I realised that a small, lightweight but capable backup to whichever of the X-Pro and X-T I was carrying as my main kit did in fact make sense, so...

What has surprised me - although it shouldn't if I had thought about it - is what a good little setup this is for street photography.  The 55.5 degree angle of view is ideal for urban action and set to manual focus, zone-focussed to 7-10 feet at f8 or thereabouts, the X-M1 and 27mm combination is a good 'un.  For years I have used Leica M and LTM for such endeavors, with a focal length between 35 and 50mm, ISO 400 film and Sunny-16 as my guide and I am happy to say that I can use the Fuji in the same basic way to good effect.


One advantage that I hadn't expected comes in the form of the "fly by wire" focussing of the 27mm.  Not only can I opt to have it turn the same way as my Leicas, but I have "discovered" (durr...) that turning the camera off and on does not effect the focal distance set; this is a boon to someone like me who drops the camera back into a bag and out of sight every so often.  Where it loses out is that I can't adjust focus by feel as I could with my Leicas before I brought them to my eye,  particularly with those lenses with focus tabs like the old 5cm Elmars.

Cast off those earthly underpants...

Anyway, enough of the kit chat.  The key point of today's "sermon" is that we are frequently exhorted to "broaden our horizons", seek new life and new civilisations (sorry, couldn't resist) and get out there to take our photos. The reality is that sometimes, just sometimes, it can give you more of a creative kick to narrow those horizons down to just the places you can easily walk to from home, with one small, lightweight camera and a single focal length lens.

Try it - you may be surprised...

Friday 19 September 2014

The day Leica left me

My M2, dated 1962 - just like me.  It's the last Leica I shall own. Funny how they have just brought it out again at Photokina 2014 in the form of the M-A...

Hello.  It's been a while.  It's about time I wrote again.

Those of you who have followed my meanderings over the years will know that I have used Leica rangefinder cameras for quite a while; their use was indeed the inspiration for the naming of this blog.  I bought my first - a secondhand M6, in the Summer of 1992; I recall the date because just a couple of months later we crashed out of the ERM and I remember the worry of having made such a large purchase at a time of economic uncertainty, and with a baby on the way.  The following Spring my Son was born and my M6 was there to record the event, loaded with Fuji 1600 colour print film.  That first foray into Leicadom was done on a budget; I managed to accumulate a Dual Range 50mm Summicron, a Collapsible Elmar 90mm f4 and a "bokeh king" 35mm Summicron IV.

Those were happy and carefree days.  My only companion in Leica ownership was Gunther Osterloh's book on the M system - the first one out of which the pages fell if you looked at it sideways.  I had no idea what Photokina was, much less anything of Leica's corporate structure or the parlous state of it's finances at the time.  This was just pre-internet, remember, pre-social media, pre-forums, pre-smartphones, pre-digital photography, in fact pre-just about most of the things that make the modern world spin at the speed it does.

It was not a smooth path for Leica, back in those early days; other systems competed for my affections.  My M6 co-existed alongside Contax SLRs, in particular the RX which came out in 1993, and was an adjunct to my Zeiss-lensed SLR system, rather than my main camera.  I was in my thirties, and thought nothing of lugging a big LowePro or Domke bag over my shoulder for hours on end. When Contax brought out the G1 in 1994 I acquired one and then when the G2 arrived in '96 my M6 and all the lenses went to finance a G2 with the 35mm and 90mm Sonnar to sit alongside the G1 with it's 45mm Planar.

I was happy with the swop; I even wrote an article about the G2 and just how good it was compared to the M6...


All was not right.  I yearned for the purity of the Leica M, the certainty that if I got it wrong it was my fault, and not a problem with the autofocus or the autoexposure, or the auto... This dissatisfaction grew, until I flipped back the other way - losing hundreds of pounds in the process - and re-acquired another M6 with a late model 50mm Summicron.  Over the years, the Contax SLR system faded away, replaced in my bag by Nikon, but the Leica Ms remained a constant.

More lenses were purchased, including a 50mm Elmar M - possibly my favourite lens of all time - and others from 28 to 135mm, not to mention various Voigtlander lenses including the delightful 40mm 1.4.  The M6 was joined, then replaced by, an M7 .85 -  I had one of the first half dozen into the country. Over time, I diversified, with forays into LTM - a beautiful black paint IID - and even into the R system, with a silky-smooth R7, both with lenses to match.  My investment in Leica, albeit in some cases, pre-owned, stretched into thousands of pounds.

In the world of the internet, single-brand forums had started to appear.  I found one - the Leica User Forum, and was one of the earliest to join.  Fair to say it formed a backbone to my photo-social life for the next dozen years, during which I started the One Challenge (one city, one camera, one lens, 36 exposures in one hour, one entry - one winner) that has just celebrated it's first decade.  Also the "D-Lux Challenge" and the "Barnack Challenge", both still going strong.  I also kicked off the Leica Forum Book, which is now in it's third edition and has raised thousands of pounds for cancer research.  I made many friends there, but also saw all too often the darker side of Leica ownership - or obsession; the single-minded snobbery and arrogance that is ridiculed by non-Leica owners is real, believe me.  Part of the problem is the "entry fee" - Leica ownership today is a rich man's pastime and seems to attract more than its' fair share of big, "I'm never wrong" egos with keyboards.

But I digress.  Leica was king of the hill, in the world of 35mm film cameras - and then digital happened.  It took many, not least Leica themselves, by surprise. In the space of a few short years the bottom dropped out of the film market as digital cameras improved exponentially in a short space of time and film simply had no answer once output quality reached the point of acceptability - not even parity, but "good enough".  Leica faffed and floundered, at first appearing to be in denial, then partnering initially with Fuji then with Panasonic to make it's first serious forays into the world of consumer pixels.  Their first big success was the Digilux 2 (or the LC-1 in Panasonic-speak).  Typically, they knew best, and only produced it in "silver chrome" (painted plastic) and left black to Panasonic.  Although inwardly and optically identical, they were outwardly two different cameras in handling and I went for the Panasonic version.

It is interesting to cast the mind back to those early digital days.  Film was still very much the "serious" choice; file sizes were tiny, as were sensors.  Digital was an "as well as" choice, rather than the primary.

In Leica-world that changed with the arrival of the M8 in 2006.  A true "marmite camera", it would be fair to say that the M8 saved Leica by the skin of it's teeth, but not without consequences.  It was just barely good enough, taking M lenses with a crop factor.  It was not the first digital camera to do so, of course - that well-known and hugely respected(!) camera manufacturer Epson beat them to it by two years with the R-D1, a generally better thought-out product, but without the heritage - or the will - to truly capitalise upon their first-mover advantage.

The M8 was a cludge - an M-body with middle-age spread, still made in "the old way" with a mass of circuitry and soldering shoehorned in between the mount and the screen.  M8s were bedeviled with problems from the outset - the infamous magenta colour cast, the coffee-stain, the fragile baseplate lugs - the list goes on.  It didn't help that Steven K. Lee was Leica's CEO at the time - a man so semi-detached from technical reality that he introduced the "perpetual upgrade program" to general derision - albeit sadly there were some who believed him and still harbour resentment towards Leica to this day as a direct result. The M8.2 was a better camera all around, but by then the M9 was on the way.

The M9 was the camera that the M8 should have been, if technology had allowed at the time. Full frame, with a more logical layout and more processor capacity, it announced Leica's re-entry into the front rank of photo manufacturers.  It was not without it's problems - most notably sensor cracking and flaky firmware - but it was an all-around better camera.

So where do I fit in to all this?  The M8 was simply not for me.  It offered no advantages and a number of disadvantages over my M7.  I tried one, more than once, in both original and M8.2 form, but that thick body and the "there's a space, stick it there" approach to button placement left me cold.  I had high hopes for the M9, but with the honourable exception of the full-frame sensor it was still that tubby old M8 in handling terms.  One of the things that had attracted me to Leica in the first place was the elegant compactness of the body and lenses.  At one point I had my M7 and a Nikon F100.  Both could take pictures, but one took up a lot less space and gave my chiropractor a lot less income. With the advent of the digital Leicas much of that advantage evaporated.

I soldiered on with my film Leicas for a few more years.  My film consumption actually increased with the acquisition of the aforementioned IID; while the rest of the Leica world was getting excited about the M8.2, I was getting excited about the results I was getting from a camera that first saw the light of day in the 1920s as a Leica I, and was still going strong more than 80 years later.  I should have known then.

The final estrangement took a while longer; it resulted from two triggers, one technology and the other people-related.  The there-is-a-viable-alternative rot set in for me when Ricoh introduced the M-Module for their innovative GXR digital body in 2009.  To this day this combination outperforms pretty well every other crop-sensor Leica-mounted body.  The Module was made for the rangefinder lenses in a way unexpected from a manufacturer other than Leica - in fact the execution was better than Leica have yet to manage.

Then Leica, in 2012, introduced the inexplicably and confusingly named M9 successor, the M.  Yes, just the M.  You can tell the marketing people have taken over can't you?  I thought that this time, this time, they might give me something I want - the power of digital in a film-M sized body.  Others were doing it, so why not Leica?  C'mon, Leica, this time... Slim down the body, make the lens mount stand proud, if necessary, but give us back that classic shape...


Another chubster.  Another body with the ergonomics of a soap dish.  Another disappointment.

So there I was.  About a dozen Leica lenses, three M bodies (proper M, that is, the M2 and M7, and an a la carte MP4), an R7 and a brace and a half of  of R lenses and of course the IID with a handful of LTM lenses from Leica and Voigtlander. I had already started to deviate, with a GXR, although the handling left a lot to be desired compared to the simple purity of a film M.

When I started to use Fuji X series cameras two years ago, the estrangement took on a new impetus.  Now I not only had a camera system that could take Leica lenses, I had a system that had lenses that were capable of producing results every bit as good.

And it was lighter.

And it was cheaper.

And it was more reliable.

And it was regularly updated.

Let me just focus on that last point for a moment.  One of the joys of film was that you could "upgrade" your camera and lens by dropping in a more advanced roll of film.  Today with digital, it is what it is - except that it isn't.  Ten years ago the average photographer thought firmware was a shirt with a starched collar; today it is the route to owning a better camera two years after you bought it than the day you did.  One of the things that Leica have yet to get right is the understanding that firmware upgrades are not a luxury, they are a necessity.  Companies like Fuji and Ricoh get this. They do not release a camera and let it die on the shelf without "adding value" in the months to come with one or more upgrades.

Now I am a patient man, but my patience was by now exhausted.  What has happened over the past two years is that the composition of my camera shelf has shifted from 90% Leica and Leica compatible, to 90% Fuji.  I have wearied of waiting for Leica to bring out a digital camera that actually appealed to me; a digital M with the svelte dimensions of the film bodies.  Don't let anyone tell you it is not possible - of course it is. Other manufacturers manage bodies of that thickness and less; they have not shrugged their shoulders and tried to make a virtue of middle-age-spread as Leica has.  "Oh but we cannot fit it all in" - then shrink, miniaturise and gain the necessary distance from lens flange to sensor by making the mount protrude... It's not rocket science.

Instead, Leica has brought out a range of bodies of dubious value to try to increase the number of niches in which they play.  As the M has reached stratospheric asking prices new, so the vacuum below has been not-quite filled by the X and more recently the T series.  These are disappointing attempts at digitising the Leica mythos and bottling the M essence in something smaller and cheaper.  This reached it's nadir in the monumentally ill-conceived "Mini M" advertising campaign that heralded the lamentable X-Vario.  The faithful were whipped into a fever of anticipation - could this finally be the "Digital CL" that had been anticipated and requested for so long? No.  What eventually came out was a disappointment, with functionality and performance that would have been average three years ago - and a clip on EVF...  Now, even though the Vario finally received a firmware upgrade at this year's Photokina, it is being very heavily discounted, and appears not long for this world.

The T was the most recent mis-step.  In my younger days, "polisher" was a slang term for a young man who self-abused himself to the extent of going cross-eyed.  What then to make of a video of the new T being hand-polished to within an inch of it's life for 45 minutes...?

...back to the plot.  To summarise, Leica has lost it's lustre for me.  I'm not the first, and I won't be the last.  It's not the end of the world, nor will it be the end of Leica, but I fear it is the beginning of the end.  I was loyal to Leica for a couple of decades; not long in the lifetime either of the company or indeed myself, but long enough to form a physical and emotional attachment.  I care about the company, and I lament when I see the products it is releasing.  I'm not going to turn this into a long "armchair CEO" diatribe - that is not my style - but my disappointment and frustration is palpable.

I mentioned incidentally that there were two triggers to my estrangement.  The first I have now explained, but the second requires a word or two more.  The premier non-Leica funded presence on the web is the Leica User Forum.  As an early member I have seen it grow and change to what it is today - and I do not like it.  A forum is the sum of it's membership and as one who until quite recently did not frequent other forums it has been an eye-opener to me that sarcasm, snobbishness and vicious back-biting is neither the norm nor a necessity.  Oh make no mistake - there are some very good people on there - people I am proud to call friends - but they are out-numbered by a grand guignol cast of trolls, nay-sayers, egocentrics and mediocre snappers longing for some of the Leica magic to rub off on them through the kit they can afford but don't understand.

So, today, I am content.  I have two Leicas still in my possession, my IID and M2, both wearing 50mm collapsible lenses.  They get regular outings, but I no longer share the images I take with them - I just don't need the validation anymore.  Today, I mainly use Fuji.  In the past two years I have built up a collection of three bodies (X-M1, X-Pro1 and X-T1) and nine X-Mount lenses.  I also have a Ricoh GR, which accompanies me everywhere when I am travelling "without a camera".  All of the above have Leica "equivalents" (-ish).  None of the Leica equivalents match the Fujis in any department, but all are more expensive.

Why Fuji? In the X-series they have managed to produce pretty well my ideal range of cameras.  Compact quality (X-M1) Rangefinder-form (X-Pro1) Weatherproof SLR-form (X-T1) all of which take the same lenses.  I'll just say that again, because it is important - all of which take the same lenses.  Thus if I am having a rangefinder day, I take the X-Pro, or an SLR day I take the X-T and I only need one set of lenses.  They take all my other lenses too - LTM and M, plus a scattering of Nikon and Olympus OM primes (great value and compact, and highly usable as a long-lens solution for the X bodies).

The bodies are robust and well-made, designed by photographers for photographers.  Some refer to the rangefinder-form as "retro" but I prefer to think of it as ergonomic; I do not have an eye in the centre of my forehead, after all. although perhaps after 20-odd years of using "true" rangefinders, I am myself retro...

Support is good - on the odd occasion I have had to deal with Fuji UK everything has gone smoothly and reasonably.  Firmware upgrades are frequent, and prove that as a company, Fuji actually listens to it's users. As a result, their cameras get better as the months wear on from the day of their first release. A new X-Pro1 is a great buy these days, less than half the price when new, but twice the camera -  I will vouch for that because I have just bought one.

They have a cohesive product strategy, and a published roadmap - a far cry from the smoke and mirrors employed by Leica, and coming from a film background, Fuji is capitalising upon 70 years of experience and provides profiles that resemble our favourite films.  What's not to like?

Bear in mind that the money I have spent in the past two years or so on Fuji cameras would in the past have been spent on more Leica - if Leica had not left me and my needs largely unmet ever since they moved into digital.  Loyalty is one thing, but it is not blind.  I am content with my choices, and don't regret for an instant the time I spent as a "Leica Ambassador" but they are now on a path that I choose not to tread - Leica and my loss, and Fuji's gain.

The funny - or maybe not so funny - thing is what I mentioned earlier.  Leica's first foray into digital came in partnership with Fuji.  I don't know why that relationship ended, but I'm sorry it did...

Monday 21 November 2011

f8 and Be There

There aren't too many of us who have pockets large enough to walk about with a large format view camera upon our persons. By the same token almost everyone has a portable telephone that can be used to take pictures (even if it can't be used very well to make calls). They probably represent the extremes of photographic portability (I'm not counting here the wheelie-bin full of lenses, laptops, lighting and latte-makers that studio work demands). Both are trade-offs. One for quality and the other for Angry Birds.

The demise of the compact camera has been forecast for some time now, as more and more compromise and settle for the shampoo commercial approach to photography - "Take two image capture devices into the streets? Not me!" I do believe there continues to be a niche for a high quality compact camera that handles like a compact camera and not like a frozen slab of raspberry panna cotta. I have long said that I will take portable telephones seriously as an image capture device when they start showing up with tripod sockets but even I cannot fault some of the photos that come out from the likes of the Nokia N8 and others.

They are not cameras though, any more than a Swiss Army knife is a kitchen tool. It can do many of the tasks that you need in a kitchen but you would not use it to cook day in, day out because it is a compromise and an uncomfortable one at that. The last bastion of the compact camera is and will remain for some time the "high end compact". This has always been a rarefied and slightly odd niche, populated in years past by companies such as Rollei with the 35 and Contax with the T series. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon at some time - who can forget the Nikon 35ti and its beautiful dials? They were designed to be as much expressions of wealth as picture taking machines - nobody who used a gold Rollei 35 could ever seriously describe it as the easiest camera they had ever used to take a snap of their Persian cat...

The current crop is all digital, of course, and there are some crackers out there. The Canon G11 and Nikon P7100 represent the "prosumer" end of things - cameras that are big and complex enough to be almost as capable as their big DSLR brothers while still being portable (perhaps "luggable" is a better term). Leica has the D-Lux 5 and Panasonic its LX sibling while Olympus have the XZ-1. All are well thought of and all have zooms large and small.

Then there is Ricoh... They appear to follow their own trajectory, largely untroubled by such niceties as fashion and the latest trends. I was a Ricoh user many years ago, when they produced a quietly excellent SLR called the XR-X which took Pentax lenses. Today I already own a GXR with the M-Mount module that allows me to put Leica LTM, M or R lenses in front of an APS sized sensor and snap away to my hearts' content. Recently and as a result of my experiences with this setup I also acquired a GR Digital III. This is the penultimate expression of a line of cameras that echoes back to the film-consuming GR1 and continues with the recently released GRD IV. I picked my III up cheaply due to its having been superseded, at least in the minds of the marketing men and the early adopters for whom the next shiny thing is their sole raison d'etre.

Right from the early days the GR and now GRD line have been characterised by two key attributes - small size and a 28mm lens. The computation of that lens has changed over the years but there is still a striking family resemblance from first to last. Oh, the other defining characteristic worthy of a mention is the quality of the output, easily belying the size of the unit. The GRD is small, light and discreet. In use it reminds me of nothing less than my Leica II - almost instinctive to use and capable of punching well above its weight in all but the most exotic of company.

One of the simple joys of the GRD is its black and white performance. It really does produce outputs reminiscent of film. We don't all want to render the world all the time in razor sharpness or in shortbread tin hues and the little GRD is ideal for those who are more concerned with the image than their image. I am sure that the more recent GRD IV is better in all sorts of interesting ways but the III works for me.

Which brings me to the point of today's sermon. I have a number of cameras, all in regular use. If leaving the house on business or pleasure I always pop one into a pocket, a briefcase or a bag. Over the years my "camera I bring when I don't want to use a camera" has varied from an Olympus Mju-II to a Rollei 35, from a Yashica T4 to a Contax T2, from a Minox B to a Leica D-Lux 4 with a few others along the way. Today it is the Ricoh. It is not a Leica, it is not even a Nikon, but it is more than capable of acting as my visual notebook. If I had not been carrying it the other day I wouldn't have got this shot. If I hadn't got this shot I wouldn't have felt moved to write this piece.

What goes around...


- All images on this blog are copyright Bill Palmer and may not be reproduced in any format or medium without permission.

Friday 7 October 2011

Replacement therapy

More thoughts on the GXR and the M Module...

LinkThe more I use this combination with Leica lenses the more I am growing accustomed to it and the more it resonates with an earlier experience. As I said in my last, it is not a replacement for an M, or a Barnack. It could never be that. What it is, however, is very evocative of my first "real" digital camera, the Panasonic LC-1. The LC-1 was of course the sexy black bodied version of the Leica Digilux 2, which was otherwise only available with a "silver chrome" top-plate. The estimable Thorsten Overgaard's views on this remarkable camera can be found here. Thorsten refers to the camera as a "New Classic" and I have to say that I understand where he was coming from with those words. The LC-1/Digilux 2 was an oddity in many ways - although both variants were manufactured by Panasonic the Leica DNA was clearly evident from the shape and handling to the remarkable "28-90"mm Vario-Summicron that to this day knocks more recent lenses into a cocked hat with its rendition.

I loved my LC-1, which worked like a dream up to the day that it suffered the dreaded sensor death (and subsequent resurrection after a bit of a barney with Panasonic UK). But it is a number of generations behind the curve now - something that matters far more with digital cameras than film - and I regretfully sold it on last year. The LC-1/D2 was one of those cameras that comes along occasionally that is more than the sum of its parts and thus becomes the perfect tool by supporting and encouraging the realisation of the photographer's vision rather than by acting as a lump of plastic that simply gets in the way. This is an experience I have only had a few times in my life; the M Leicas, of course, share this attribute by virtue of their handling and their pellucidly clear viewfinder. My Leica II is also a pleasure to use in the same way (although strangely enough not my IIIc which it replaced). Otherwise the only other camera that I can think of that has ever fallen into this category for me was my Contax RX.

LC1/D2... sheer enjoyment - in the old style

What made the LC1/D2 great was not one thing, it was a combination of things, mostly related to handling and rendition, as I have already said. It felt balanced in the hand, and was light enough to be carried around all day without getting a stiff neck. The shutter - effectively silent - was almost sensual with its soft, caressing snick to tell you - if you were listening carefully - that the shot was in the bag. And that lens... The fact that the zoom was manual was pleasurable enough, but that you also got an aperture ring and a manual focus ring that felt like those on a "real" camera were the icing on an already admirable cake. Digital snapping suddenly felt less like using a computer with a bottle on the front and more like "real" photography.

Finally, a word on the outputs. The raw files were a delight - easy to work on and immensely rewarding - but more importantly the LC1/D2 delivered jpegs straight out of camera that were not only usable but delicately beautiful in their own right.

As an aside I have a real issue with the school of thought that says jpeg is for cissies and real men use raw - it harks back to the "good old days" when "amateurs" had their photos developed in Boots the Chemist and "real photographers" spent all their time in the darkroom and smelled of hypo. The modern equivalent is those photographers who spend all their evenings using Lightroom, endlessly twiddling sliders and polishing their pixels - I can only conclude that they are the children of those men who avoided speaking to their wives by spending their leisure time in the bathroom and under-stairs darkrooms of the 1960s - which does make you wonder how they were conceived in the first place... What I think is lacking these days is the digital equivalent of Kodachrome - so much better than the prints from Boots but without the hassle of self-developing.

But enough of that, back to the plot. The more I have used the GXR the more I have found myself settling back into the metre and rhythm of those halcyon days spent with my LC-1. The controls fall easily to hand, the viewfinder, although irritatingly detachable and about as discreet as Quasimodo's hump, is a leap ahead from that of the LC-1. The handling is similar - well it is bound to be with a lump of Leica glass stuck on the front. Most similar in that respect is the 60mm Elmarit-R 2.8 which of course equates to approximately 90mm on the APS-sized sensor once the crop factor is taken into consideration. In fact the physically more bulky R lenses in general are more evocative of the handling of old than the M glass, even the smaller 28mm Elmarit-R.

R-glass, Leitax, Novoflex... very reminiscent

But what, I hear you say, about the output? Well, it is still early days but... the more I use this combination the more that the sheer quality of the Leica glass shines through. The much bigger sensor (5mp vs 12mp) makes a huge difference of course, but I am increasingly impressed by the quality of the out-of-camera jpegs. I shoot raw+jpeg at the moment but there has so far been only one shot that has cried out for the slider twiddling treatment.

The journey continues, but the scenery thus far is most enjoyable...


- All images on this blog are copyright Bill Palmer and may not be reproduced in any format or medium without permission.

Friday 30 September 2011

New lamps for old...

Ironically, I started this blog with a review, and here I am a couple of years later writing another. The world has moved on, however, and now I am writing about a different concept, one that did not exist when I started.

I have recently acquired a Ricoh GXR in anticipation of the introduction of the M-Module A12. This module allows the mounting of Leica M (and other) lenses to the Ricoh body. An interesting concept that, if it lives up to its promise, could offer considerable scope and flexibility not to say a new lease of life for older lenses. The GXR itself has been around now for about 18 months, with a small set of dedicated "Lensors" - lenses and sensors combined into a single "dust free" unit. The GXR system is not cheap, and the four Lensors thus far available have themselves been quite pricey. The GXR concept is intriguing, but for a long time has looked like a solution in search of a problem. The GXR body is rugged and well-made and by all accounts designed by photographers for photographers but it has enjoyed only modest sales success in a market that seems awash with mirrorless interchangable compacts - Micro Four Thirds and others - from Sony, Samsung, Olympus, Panasonic, Nikon and now (amusingly) Nikon. Against that backdrop the Ricoh has been seen as innovative but just a bit odd - a bit like Saabs used to be before they were assimilated by GM.

The GXR kit I picked up came with the 28-300 lensor (I added the VF-2 viewfinder soon thereafter). This little setup is a competent but frankly lacklustre "travel zoom" that produces ok results but nothing to write home about. Ideal for slipping in a pocket and handing to a waiter in the beach restaurant to catch that snap of you and your loved one partly hidden behind unfeasibly large cocktails. Honestly, if this was all there was to the system the answer would be no. The two prime lenses (28 and 50mm) come with bigger sensors and are reputed to be a lot better, but I have neither tried them nor intend to.

I rummaged around looking for a UK price for the module and ended up visiting my friendly neighbourhood local "crack dealer". London Camera Exchange in Guildford has been my primary source for all things Leica for many years, both new and secondhand. The manager there knows me and was more than happy to give me first dibs on the first M Module that he was able to get his hands on. A week or three later the phone rang and I trundled over on a sunny Saturday afternoon with a bagful of lenses.

It was busy as usual in the shop but one of the staff handed over the box and they left me to it. First surprise, the Lensor once attached prompts you through a firmware upgrade - none of that sticking a file on an SD card and loading it up. The upgrade gave my GXR body the necessary changes to menus etc to accommodate the M Module. It fits like a glove, of course, with a bulge that doesn't appear on the other Lensors which actually adds to the handling. My first, hurried shots in and outside the shop were what you would expect - crap - but good enough to show promise. Card details were provided and I walked out with another of those brown cardboard Ricoh boxes that looks as if it has been recycled from old cereal packets - very green, very now.

Apart from the Lensor, the box contains a sheaf of instruction books and stuff and a little bit of plastic that resembles one of those drain sieves that stops bits of carrot from blocking the U bend in the kitchen. This neat device is actually a "lens gauge" that allows the user to check if their lenses will mount without fouling the sensor. First (but not unexpected) disappointment - my three collapsible lenses, 5cm Elmar, 50mm Elmar M and 90mm Elmarit, cannot be mounted and collapsed - c'est la vie, but a shame since two of that three are my favourites.

Lenses that do mount, I am here to tell you, do so with a satisfying snick - there is no play in this mount. So far I have tried it with a range of lenses from Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander and have yet to be disappointed. M Mount lenses fit and perform of course, but so do LTM (Leica Thread Mount, or Screwmount, or "Barnack") lenses such as the tiny 3.5cm Elmar and the 15mm Cosina Voigtlander Color Heliar. No accessory viewfinders needed, of course, since the view, on the rear screen or through the Electronic Viewfinder ("EVF") is WYSIWYG (TTL). I have tried it so far with focal lengths of 15, 28, 35, 50, 60 90 and 135mm and have yet to observe any significant vignetting, darkening or colour shift at the corners.

You notice I listed 60mm in there - that's not M, but R... I have three Leica R Mount Elmarit lenses - 28, 60 (macro) and 135mm - that I have already converted with Leitax mounts to use upon Nikon bodies (in my case an FM3A). With the addition of a Novoflex "Lem/Nik" converter from the nice people at SRB Griturn, they can also be mounted to the M Mount and thus the GXR body. The same would be true, of course, of any Nikon AI, AIS, AF or AFD lens although you could not mount the G lenses with this combination without losing aperture control. (By the way I initially tried a "cheap" mount that I found on eBay. It was looser than a footballer's morals; the lens drooped from the mount like the "before" metaphor in an impotence advert. The Novoflex, on the other hand, is tighter than a 10th generation Scotsman's sporran clip; proof of the old adage "buy cheap, buy twice"...)

So, I have a single platform that is able to take any Leica LTM, M or R mount lens (with a litttle prior adaptation). I can use glass from the 1920s to 2011 with a modern, APS-C sized sensor. As a backup this is ideal, but it also has advantages as a primary system under certain circumstances.

So, what's it like to use and does it deliver the results?

We all get there, Sonnar or later...

The most important thing for me is that this combination allows the character of each lens to come through. I have chosen the lens "palette" that I have for good reasons - each performs differently and delivers a different rendition. The GXR sensor does not get in the way but instead delivers a faithful result. Each focal length is multiplied by 1.5x, of course but in practice this is workable and certainly won't come as a surprise to those who come to the GXR from the M8, M8.2 or Epson R-D1. Where the little GXR scores over the M8 of course is that it doesn't require UV/IR filters, let alone dedicated viewfinders for the wider focal lengths. That, coupled with the ability to take lenses of greater than 135mm focal length, starts to add up to a compelling package.

Handling takes a little getting used to. The need to grip the body while manually focussing the lens means that one has to think about where to put one's fingers... Initially I found myself regularly pressing buttons on the rear with my right thumb - irritating, but soom remedied with some self-discipline. Larger lenses are heavier, of course, but not unduly so. The offset tripod socket may be a little irritating, however and for lenses larger than the 135mm Elmarit R I think I would be happier with a tripod mount on the lens rather than relying upon the body.

Focussing is via two different Modes - much has been written about these already from a technical standpoint so I will focus (pun intended) on the practicalities. Mode 1 provides a "marching ants" white dotted outline around anything within the plane of focus. It offers the advantage of maintaining a "natural" view of your subject, in colour (if set) but is not that easy to use, particularly in very bright or low light. Mode 2 provides a monochrome view that again highlights the plane of focus with whiteness but this time against a grey background. Although less "realistic", I find this easier to use in all conditions. A half-press of the shutter release gives you a normal view and I find myself toggling between the two easily. For critical focussing applications it is possible to enlarge the view, either as a central "picture in picture" or filling the screen. I have tried this but don't find it particularly useful. Focussing close up with the Macro Elmarit is particularly interesting with Mode 2; it's easy to rock back and forth and watch the plane of focus wash across your subject until it is were you want it to be.

Overall, how easy is it to focus? Here is a very subjective, very personal league table - you may be able to relate to it, but then again, maybe not...

  • M2 - simply the clearest of all
  • MP/M7 - mine are both .85. My MP only has four framelines so is marginally clearer than the M7
  • Contax RX - about the best film SLR I ever owned
  • Nikon FM3A with R lenses
  • M6 "classic" - I've had a couple of .72 Too many framelines for my taste
  • Epson R-D1
  • Ricoh GXR with M Module
  • Leica II
  • Leica IIIc
  • Olympus XA
  • Panasonic LC-1 (Digilux 2)
  • D-Lux 4
  • Olympus E-P1 with M lenses

So far I have not had the time or opportunity to do much more than scratch the surface with the M Module. All of my shots have been test shots, with no "soul". I'll address that in the weeks and months to come. For now, you can see the fruits of my experimentation here, together with a bit of "camera porn" that shows a number of lenses mounted, either directly or with the Novoflex adaptor.

So... the verdict so far is a qualified but approving thumbs-up. The GXR system comes of age with the M Module and it will be fascinating to look back in about 12 months time and see what has developed next. For now, the GXR has a firm place in my kit bag. It does not replace my M or Barnack cameras but it augments them well and gives my Leica glass - all my Leica glass - a strong digital platform.


- All images on this blog are copyright Bill Palmer and may not be reproduced in any format or medium without permission.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Me and my shadow


Did you jump at that? Are you the sort of person that worries about what's around the next corner? Do you lose sleep over losing sleep? Above all, do you worry about using your expensive camera equipment out of doors?

Stop laughing at the back there - this is a serious question. In the Northern hemisphere at least, it is Summer and the holiday season. Many are thinking of packing their bags and going somewhere new and hopefully worth a snap or two. They are packing their trunks, their sun cream, a big thick book and... Judging by the number of questions that start "Is [insert location of your choice] safe for my Leica?" or "Should I just take my [insert cheaper kit] to [x]?" there are an awful lot of people who worry about whether they will come back tanned, tubbier and robbed.

I appreciate that when we are talking about an MP, M7 or M9, plus a lens or two, you are looking at a substantial wodge of cash hung around your neck. But what did you buy it for? Do you really only want to use your "investment" in your home town, or worse, within the confines of your own home?

Let's look at this logically. In most parts of the world the average thief is a) an opportunist b) a coward c) ill-informed as to the value of a Leica. What they see is a convertible commodity - a camera that can be converted into cash. It doesn't matter to them whether it is a Holga or an S2 - if they think it has a value it is fair game. Ditto bags. Don't make their lives easy by wandering around in a daze with that split-screen Morris Minor of bags a Fogg over your shoulder - it just screams "more money than sense" - or indeed taste. Equally, don't fall into a false sense of security with your nappy sack/Gap messenger bag. Even the lowliest holdall these days can be relied upon to contain an iPod or it's bloated brother an iPad. Just the fact that you have a bag means you are of interest; your friendly neighbourhood thief can take first, value later if you are careless.
Dangerous or safe? You decide.

So you are by definition a target. Fact. What can you do about it? There are some simple rules.

1. Don't be a victim
A few years ago, a team of clinical psychologists showed photos and videos of people in the street to felons in a local prison. They were simply asked to nominate who they would mug. A clear pattern emerged, with the would-be robbers singling out those who looked like they were least likely to fight back, and those who appeared most unaware of their surroundings. That in and of itself is interesting enough. When the researchers correlated those results with the people pictured they found that many of those would-be victims had already been mugged or had suffered violent assaults ranging from playground bullying through to marital abuse. They concluded, in simple terms, that if you look like a victim you raise your chances of being one. The corollary is straightforward. Val Doonican had it about right. Walk tall, walk straight and look the world right in the eye. Look as if you mean business and you are more likely to be left alone. Look as if you are uneasy or afraid and you are, quite literally, asking for trouble.

2. Fit in
When in Rome, look like a Roman. When in Birmingham... Well, you get the idea. If you stick out like a sore thumb you will attract attention, potentially unwelcome. This doesn't mean that you have to buy an Armani suit for your next visit to Verona. It does mean that you should try to avoid shouting to the rooftops that you are new in town. When I was in Hanoi a few years ago I learned a useful trick. I certainly couldn't pass for a local - I was nearly 2 feet taller than most - but I could walk slowly. By doing so I gave the impression that I had all the time in the world. I was not obviously a tourist on a schedule ("if this is Tuesday it must be Ho's tomb") I was clearly a visitor, but one who "knew the ropes". As a result, I was largely left alone by the street traders as somebody who had probably heard it all, already. Other useful tips include avoiding socks with sandals, zip off shorts, flip-flops in the city, and any hat with writing upon it. Another trick that works surprisingly well is to carry a local newspaper; the implication that you can understand the language well enough to read about the ins and outs of local bin collection politics infers that you are not a newbie. Try to learn about your destination before you go. Conduct your own "threat assessment" and act accordingly. Don't ask for trouble by being a soft-touch.

3. Think
An ex-mother-in-law of mine used to say that the strange thing about common sense was that it was so uncommon. In that, at the very least, she was right. It's not the hardest thing in the world to keep your wits about you and by extension your property in your possession. Never leave your pride and joy unattended for a moment, no matter how "safe" you feel. A posh hotel lobby is a target-rich environment for the opportunist thief - like shooting fish in a barrel. Likewise keep your kit in sight at all times. Keep your bag over your shoulder or with an arm or a leg through the strap. Hold it at the front, don't sling it at the back. Take it with you to the salad cart - and to the gents. The only person you can trust is you.

4. Don't rely on gadgets
Put very simply, they don't work. cable locks, motion sensitive bag alarms and the like are targeted at the nervous and sold in their millions all around the world. They neither deter the determined thief nor protect your investment for more than a moment. Worst of all are the straps with a steel cable running through an otherwise normal leather or fabric strap. They may defeat the sneak with a sharp knife, but they are a completely suicidal idea in those parts of the world where the preferred modus operandii is to snatch and ride off in a car or on a scooter. You may think you can stand your ground and manfully wrench control of the situation and your camera back from the robbers, but believe me I would rather let go than be dragged along down a cobbled street behind a Fiat Panda.

5. Stand beside a victim
This may sound callous, but it's true. The best way to avoid being bitten by a mosquito is to put on repellent AND stand beside someone who hasn't. If you look like a harder target than the man standing next to you, you improve your chances of being the one that lightning does not hit.

6. Insure
I never cease to be amazed how many people overlook this point. When all else fails, claim and buy another one. Don't risk your life for a camera, no matter how valuable. Hand it over with a smile, report the crime, get a police report number and file a claim. I would rather be a living insurance claimant than a dead have-a-go hero.

Oh, and while I am in advice-dispensing mode, one more point. It's easy to laugh at and ridicule those who ask such questions and seek such advice, but we must remember that not everybody is a well-travelled man (or woman) of the world with the chameleon-like ability to blend in wherever they find themselves. Not everybody is 6'3". Not everybody is young, or steady on their feet, or even just confident. It takes all sorts to make a world, and it is up to those with that confidence to try to share it with those for whom taking their kit out of doors is a genuine worry.

So, there we have it. Whether you are roaming through Italy, or peeking at China, the ground rules are the same. Don't look like an easy target, keep your wits about you and take out insurance. Above all, don't be afraid of your own shadow - it's actually quite photogenic...


- All images on this blog are copyright Bill Palmer and may not be reproduced in any format or medium without permission.