Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Camera Lust

Leica CL
Leica CL.

I've put my Canon EOS system on the block. If you're in Finland and want a piece of it, you'll find it here.1 It's a very good system. I spent the better part of ten years building it, and it has served me well.

I haven't given up on photography. Thing is, both cameras and my way of taking pictures have evolved over the years. Digital compact cameras have reached a point where I can get acceptable quality out of them hand-held in relatively low light, and they perform well enough to get the picture in the box. I've become more spontaneous and perhaps less ambitious with my photography. I take pictures of stuff that catches my eye, and that's it.

The balance has shifted to the point that the portability and low intimidation factor of a compact are more important for me than the shootability, versatility, and image quality of a dSLR. I do very much miss the snap a big sensor or film frame and sharp, bright prime give my pictures. Despite that, my very nice camera system has been sleeping in a bag on my shelf.

Another significant development has been the emergence of EVIL. That's Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, for the non-gearheads reading. These are system cameras with sensor sizes midway between the 24 x 36 mm size on my EOS-5D and the fingernail-sized ones on compact cameras. They're capable of very high picture quality in a much more compact size. The major tradeoff is with the viewfinder—being electronic, they lack the immediacy of a good optical one. It's possible that I'll spring for one of those, somewhere along the line.

Yeah, camera lust. Boy do I know that disease.

Back in film days, it was relatively straightforward. Cameras didn't change all that much, all that fast. I had a Canon FD system with a few lenses, which served me well from about 1987 to 1997 or thereabouts. When digital rolled along, things got really ugly.

I love the freedom of digital photography. No more finishing a roll. No more running out of film. No more considering whether to shoot or not to save film. Just shoot. Shoot another one. When home, grab it, archive it, mess with it, publish it.

The problem with digital is that until recently, things kept getting better quickly—and, for a long time, the gear really was inadequate, in some significant ways. Compact cameras were sluggish, had poor ergonomics, and performed poorly in low light. SLR's reached the level of film gear around 2002 or thereabouts, but because the sensors were APS-C sized rather than 36 x 24, the lens systems didn't quite fit. They still don't, if you happen to like to shoot with normal-range fixed focal-length lenses—unless you shoot Pentax, which has marketed a series of bright, sharp primes specially for APS-C, or one of the full-frame dSLR's, like the 5D I have.

So I kept upgrading my cameras, both the main one—the Canon dSLR—and the compact ones. I kept shooting film on the side, too. The Leica CL is still the most satisfying camera to shoot with that I've had. It's compact, all the necessary controls are at my fingertips, the viewfinder is sharp, bright, and clear, it's easy to focus, and the lens is fantastic. But it's film, which means I have to (a) buy it, (b) finish the roll, (c) develop it, and (c) digitize it, which is a drag.

That means that I don't use it either.

I have a Sigma DP1. That's a camera I'd love to love, but just can't. It has a beautiful lens and a big sensor, but it's very sluggish in use, and I just don't work well with the Foveon sensor—it takes a lot of tweaking to get decent color out of it, which makes the post-processing almost as much of a drag as with film. The relatively slow f/4.0 aperture of the lens and the relatively poor high-ISO performance of the sensor also mean that it kinda blows for available-light work. For me, it combines the sluggish performance and poor shootability of an early-Noughties compact digital camera with the inconvenience of film, which just doesn't work for me. Maximum points for effort, too bad about the execution.

The current object of my camera lust is the just-announced Fujifilm Finepix X100. On the face of it, it promises to combine everything I like about the Leica CL with everything I like about digital cameras. If there's a converter or a sister model with a 50 mm lens or thereabouts, I just might get one of those and call it a system—I really do almost all of my photography between those focal lengths anyway.

I especially like the fact that it's a fixed-lens. Interchangeable-lens cameras are inevitably compromises. A camera built around a single lens can be made into a seamless whole. The Leica CL is almost like that—while it does take M bayonet lenses, it really was designed around the Summicron 40/2.0 that it shipped with. Put on something shorter or longer or brighter, and the experience suffers. A fixed lens means that the viewfinder is perfectly fitted for it, there are no problems with dust, the camera is more robust for any given price and weight, and the sensor can be optimized to work with that particular lens.

So yeah, I want that one, going by what we know now anyway. We'll see what the reality is like, once it hits the shelves in another six months.

Consumer society. Gotta love it.

1I've nothing against selling it to someone outside Finland either, so if you want it and feel like messing with the Translate function on Google Chrome or otherwise navigating a Finnish-language auction site, by all means bid.

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