Friday, 7 March 2014

Rétro: the way we shoot, or the way we shot?

A couple of years ago, beginning with the Olympus E-M5, a new kind of cameras appeared out of nothing,  looking like the old reflex cameras of the film era, with a central hump and a wheel, as if camera makers had a nostalgia of when cameras made of metal, and everything was done by hand.

With the exception of the Nikon Df  35mm  however the new cameras are all mirrorless. They don't even have a pentaprism inside the hump, but an  Electronic ViewFinder. So why go back to the controls of a bygone era?

Now I will briefly introduce one of the latest models, the Fuji X-T1, allegedly one of the most desirable of the season. 

All made in metal (Magnesium body, Aluminum wheels) with a 16 Mpx sensor of the Xtrans CMOS kind with primary color filter, it has a different array of photosites than other APS-C sensors, supposedly giving  a better tonal control and sensitivity.

Typical of the Fuji X cameras is to have traditional controls, with a Film simulation processor that gives you the old Velvia and Provia Film kind of signature. The images look very film like, with deep shadows and sumptuous colours.

The X-T1 the camera goes to even greater lengths to simulate a reflex camera, with a surfeit of *three* controls wheels on top of the camera. 

 Olympus, Panasonic and Sony  instead have one P-A-S-M wheel and two unlabeled wheels to control Aperture and EV correction.  Instead the Fuji has a dedicated wheel for shutter speed, another wheel for  EV correction one with +/-  marks and a third ISO wheel, with a scale for sensitivity. The Fuji lenses also have an Aperture scale.

Exactly like the manual cameras of 50 yrs. ago, where you set the Triangle of Exposure  by hand, and could tell how the camera was set just by looking at the controls.The Triangle of Exposure however has changed:

Now the question: is it better to shoot the retro way, or  the Auto way? With a Fuji  you can prepare the camera *before* the shot  and remember how it is set, even when shut down.

In my Olympus I have no way to remember how it is set. Instead I must  put it on and watch inside the EVF the exposure values; or leave Auto-everything do its thing.

The final result is the same, but clearly there is a 'haptic' pleasure in using the Fuji wheels with all the old marks of a long time ago. One feels a bit like a goldsmith.

Here is a Hands On review:

There are counters too, though. The ISO wheel has a lock button, which is is quite hard to budge.The EV correction wheel is rigid, so you lose precious time to set it, with a loss of precious instants. 

My main objection is that when I don't shoot in A, like Aperture priority, I use P like Program and Auto ISO.

This way I have maximum shooting speed for my street scenes that require 'the decisive instant'. To me manual controls  are wasted. I prefer to leave the camera 'gain'  by itself according to its own  tone curve, with minimal corrections of the EV wheel, in case the shadows are to deep.
This way I have maximum operational speed, and usually a good interpretation of the scene.

 Setting the camera rigidly for a set scene won't do. It might even prevent a timely shot.

50 years ago when the Fuji type of controls saw the light all the cameras were Manual. By the beginning of the Vietnam war, Nikon  launched the first lightmeter coupled to Aperture,  and war reporters readily adopted it.

It  was cumbersome: in the VF you had to collimate a needle on a mark, the needle position varying according to the shutter speed chosen on a wheel, or the aperture mark on the lens. 

Additionally there was no AutoFocus, you had to manually set the focus, and choose the right  Depth Of Field, according to scales on the lens.

In fact if one thinks of what cameras can do today automatically, you'd think that one had to be a magician in those days to operate a camera quick enough to get a keeper.

There was a price to pay. When a few years ago I decided to scan and digitize my old slides, some of which I had sold to newspapers, what a shame it was to notice that most of them were slightly out of focus. My sight and handshake had limits that the electronic pixel-peeping  had revealed.

This would never do today. With my Olympus I have one of the fastest AF of the industry, and the best electronic stabilizer, a 5 axis one, which ensures perfect crispness.

The lightmeter works almost by magic, I have tons of sensitivity for low light, and even the most tricky of measures, White Balance, works remarkably well in artificial light, giving pleasing skin tones.

I take therefore full advantage of the operational speed of the camera, and often shoot from the hip unnoticed, trusting all the auto controls and especially the blazing AF. People simply don't have the time to notice me. 

In fact, I wonder, would I ever  benefit from the scales of the Fuji when shooting from the hip? Usually I have no time at all to check the controls. Everything happens so fast with chance meetings, that I must rely on intuition and automation.

Here is an interesting comparison between a Sony A7, a GH3, and a Fuji X-T1:

As you see they are basically even. I am not really losing anything.

To me Rétro is just a figure of speech nowadays, mere designer rhetoric to bait the noobs.

I don't doubt that Fuji will meet the  shooting way of a lot of trendy customers, but for me I prefer the faster approach of m4/3 cameras. 

m4/3 are not Art or Landscape Cameras like the Fuji , they are Reportage tools, allowing blazing reactions and basically that's how I work. When catching the decisive moment, one cannot think twice. Machine speed is a godsend.

You can see some of my Street work here:

People and Street

You can buy the X-T1 at Amazon

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