The Leica M8. My quest for the red dot.

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The Leica M8 is 8 years-old.  A lifetime in digital technology.  And yet, the M8 is as popular as ever.  There are dozens of new reviews online, all written within the last 2 years.  That is astonishing considering the fact that it has since been replaced by the M9 and the M240.

So why is the M8 still a highly desired camera in 2014?  Simple.  It’s a Leica.  To non-photographers, that means nothing.  To those that study the art and have a passion for cameras, Leica is arguably the best.  We can thank Oskar Barnack, working with Leitz, back in 1913 for essentially creating 35mm photography as we know it today.

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In 1954, the first Leica M camera was invented and from that point forward, not much has changed.  The M8 was Leica’s first digital rangefinder camera.  That alone means something to a lot of people in the world of photography.

So, back to the M8.  It is slow, noisy, and old-tech with a tiny LCD screen.  It also has a maximum usable ISO of about 1250.  ISO 2500 is dismal.  Oh, and I should mention that it is 100% manual with no auto-focus.  All this for more money than buying a good quality brand new Nikon DSLR with lens.  Am I nuts?  Maybe.  But all of those negatives I just listed are EXACTLY what many see as positives.  It is what most seasoned photographers seem to gravitate to after years of shooting with fast SLRs.  Pure photography with a precision-made piece of carved brass and magnesium alloy that was hand-built by the finest craftsmen in Germany.  Each Leica M is put together by individuals using screwdrivers and bare hands.  The result is a camera that feels like nothing else.  My Nikon D3 feels like a plastic toy in comparison.  That does not mean I don’t love my Nikons.  They’re just different.

When you shoot with a Leica M, you somehow just become more involved in the whole process of making a picture.  That’s because you are.  You are so involved in the act of making the image.  You have to set everything and focus manually.  This takes a little more time and the result is that you seem to choose your subjects more carefully, and with reason.  It slows you down and sort of makes you stop and look around.  After all, that is the point of photography is it not?  The M8 reminds me of shooting film.

The lenses?  Oh yes.  Well, Leitz (Leica) have been making optical lenses since the 1800s.  Leica glass is considered by many (dare I say most) to be the finest in the world.  They should be.  You won’t find a Nikon or Canon 50mm prime lens that sells for $4,000.

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You have to factor that into the mix when buying a Leica M8, M9, or M240.  Lenses aint cheap.  However, you can get these lenses used for not much more than a new pro Nikon or Canon lens.  What you do get with Leica lenses are basically optics with almost no imperfections.  Sharpness at the edges with minimal distortion.  An almost 3D image that some describe as the “Leica look.”  Below is a quick snapshot of my little gal Abigail.  Nothing fancy, but the contrast and overall feel of the image is very different than what I get out of my Nikons.  Almost cinematic.  Sharp, but yet soft in the delivery of tones with excellent dynamic range.  The M8′s CCD sensor, combined with Leica glass, is just amazing.  Photography has never been this rewarding.

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What about the ISO?  So limiting.  Is it?  Well, up until 10 years ago, all we had was film.  90% of the time we purchased 200 ASA or 400 ASA speed film rolls.  That equates to 200-400 digital ISO.  We did just fine.  In fact, I barely shoot above 1600 ISO at most weddings.  Just because we can, does not mean we should.  Leica’s CCD sensor, and next to no filters, rewards you immensely at ISO 160-640.  After that, the image gets noisy, but not in a bad way.  It retains a film-like grain.  Lightroom can clean up a noisy image with little detail loss and so far I am very pleased with the results.  I won’t bother with ISO 2500 because the camera was simply designed to be a low ISO camera…like film.  Also like $20,000 Hasselblads that look terrible past ISO 640.  These super sharp CCD sensors have their tradeoffs.  If you want to shoot in the dark, you always have your DSLR.

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Above is another shot of Haley at her violin lesson.  The range and contrast is intoxicating for such a simple snapshot.  It has such an analog feel.  That was at ISO 640.

So, is the Leica M8 a good choice in 2014?  You bet!  Why not?  It made stunning images 8 years ago.  It makes them today.  Leica cameras will never excel at high ISO.  They will never be fast.  They will be a bit quirky.  They will always be extremely expensive.  Collectors will buy them to put in a safe.  Rich folks will buy them because they can.  Photographers will buy them because they are handcrafted tools that enable one to create stunning images.

I have wanted a Leica for years.  I was worried that it would not live up to the hype.  It does.

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Shoot film!

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It’s 2014 and everyone shoots digital.  The iPhone is the new Polaroid.  It is an exciting time.  It is amazing because it has only been about 10 years since digital photography really took the world by storm.  Even then, it was too expensive for most people.  The Nikon D100, once a $5,000 technological marvel, can now be found on ebay for pennies.  I was married in 2003 and our photographer shot medium format.  A lot of kids today don’t even know what film is.  Some local places don’t even develop it anymore without sending it out.

So, why on earth would you shoot film?

The reasons are simple.  First, it will make you a better photographer.  There is something that just makes sense when you use something like an old Nikon FE.  You read the analog meter in the viewfinder.  You watch the little mechanical needle move up/down (depending on light) and then set the aperture and shutter speed accordingly.  You need to know the film speed, typically 200-800 ASA (equal to digital ISO).  Once you have your settings, you have 24-36 photos.  You don’t have unlimited digital files.  What does all this mean?  For me, it taught me to be patient.  It still teaches me to “see the scene” and think.  You really miss out on the importance of photography when you just click, click, click, then delete.  You might get a few decent shots digitally.  But, when you learn exposure, combined with patience, something magical happens and you are rewarded with more memorable moments.  Think about the albums of 4×6 prints you or your parents have.  There are a lot of keepers in there.  The few wasted clicks are in the trash.

Secondly, film has something hard to explain that digital just cannot replicate.  Sure, a D800 with 36mp comes real close.  Even better in many ways.  But, the dynamic range with true printed film is infinite.  There are no finite pixels.  Colors just bleed together giving film a natural look.  Even film grain is tastefully joyful when compared to harsh digital noise.  There are expensive programs you can buy that make your squeaky clean digital image look like old Fuji Velvia 50 with moderate grain.  Hmmm.

Instead, I just buy Fuji Velvia 50 film from Amazon or Adorama.com, shoot the actual scene with a 1970s $100 Nikon FE from ebay, then scan the negatives I get back from the store.  You get the best of both worlds!  Sure, this seems like a little too much complexity for many, but then again if you are reading my blog, you enjoy photography and are perhaps as passionate about it as I am.  It really is not that much harder and in the end, you are rewarded.

Below is a scene shot with a Nikon FE.  Nothing really “special.”  But, it has a little extra indescribable something.  The way the dynamic range seems a tad smoother.  Maybe even a little less crisp.  Not better than digital, just different.  More pleasing to me in many ways.

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Here some shots below using a very old Yashica-D Medium Format TLR, or twins reflex camera.  This takes bigger square 120 film.  I scanned the negatives into my computer with an Epson V600 photo scanner.  I brought them into Adobe Lightroom and just enhanced the colors a bit.  I love the dynamic range.

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I don’t shoot film every day.  But, I try to shoot film often.  It is certainly not going to replace the act of using your iPhone to take a snapshot and then upload it to Facebook for the world to see in 10 seconds.  That technology is simply amazing and allows for so many people to share their images that otherwise would reside in photo albums collecting dust in some basement.  But, like those that refuse to give up their vinyl, I am not ready to shelf my film cameras.  When I am bored (and semi-numb) culling through 10,000 digital RAW files, it is a breath of fresh air to load my camera with 120 speed Fujifilm and try to capture something worth photographing.

When you go back and pick up your digital camera, the lessons learned with film are not lost.  In fact, they’re so present that you approach the scene with wider eyes, a little more patience, and a lot more skill.

If you are a beginner to film, go to ebay and search for a used Nikon FE and 50mm AI-S f/1.8 manual lens.  The total cost will be under $200.  Grab some cheap 400 speed film from Walmart and go for it.  As your skills improve, you can buy more expensive films like Fuji Velvia or Ilford Black & White.  If you want to shoot larger medium format film, you can grab a Yashica TLR for $100-200 (has built-in lens).

…go shoot film!

-Chris

A photograph.

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I was watching an interview this week with one of the most influential photographers on the planet, Joe McNally.  He was talking about how there are so many “technically perfect” images out there, but they all lack something.  Let’s face it, with the birth of digital photography, the number of photographers out there has exploded.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make you pause for a moment.

What makes a great image?  To me, it is a “real” image.  I’ll admit that I love all the technical aspects of cameras and lenses.  I am a gear addict and I have the credit card bills to prove it.  However, I don’t aspire to be the photographer that posts hundreds of photos online of just very nice perfectly exposed images of (enter subject) ______________ .

To me, you lose sight of the real purpose of the camera when you actually have hundreds of images you like!  I only have a handful of images that really stand out in my mind.  Images that I look at from time to time and feel like “Yea, I nailed it.”  It does not even have to be exposed great.  But, it has to speak to me.  To you.  To someone.

So, what is a great image?  A couple of clients recently told me that they enjoyed my work because it captured the essence of them.  That was such a huge compliment because to me, that is photography.  The camera is just a tool.  When I look through the lens at someone, I am not really thinking about exposure.  Sure, I have to properly expose the image.  But, I want to take my photos to the next level.  I want you to look at one of my images and “know” that person, family, etc.  Their quirks.  Their mood.  The good.  Heck, even the bad.  It’s real.

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The first known photograph was around 1826.  Was it a posed image?  No, it was two guys on a roof in France.  (snooze) But, it was real.  It documented something.  A moment.

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I try to document someone each time I pick up the camera.  Are they funny?  Are they boring?  Do they hate being photographed?  Do they hate me?  I don’t know.  But, I want to find out.  I don’t really pose people because I feel like you lose something when you do that.  Sometimes I’ll just stand there staring through the lens at two very uncomfortable people for like 3 min.  Awkwardness will always give way to something real.  You just have to be patient and ready to press that button.  But, it will always happen.

Here is a moment.  I did nothing but hide behind a tree.  I waited for a few minutes.  Staring.  (stalking – LOL)  After forgetting about me and what the heck I was doing, this couple just started being, well, them.  This photo will not win any awards, but it was one of their favorite pictures.  That’s all that matters to me.

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I guess I am a documentary photographer.  But, what does that really mean?  Any time we pick up a camera, aren’t we doing it with the sole purpose to document something?  A moment in time.  A good moment.  A bad moment.  A happy photo.  A sad photo.

Life.

Sometimes you just catch a moment like this.  LOL  They were fun…

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My favorite photographs say something, without words.  They let you in.  I love people.  I love being let into these little worlds for an hour.  Sometimes 8-10 hours.  To see people for who they are.

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Chambers 2274I get what Joe McNally was saying and it makes sense.  Sometimes I feel like as photographers, we are competing with each other to make the best image using the best recipe of photoshop actions in order to achieve some mystical looking image.  However, that image, no matter how perfectly exposed or processed, is just a pretty picture.

-Chris

My gear, updated for 2014

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It seems that we (and when I say “we” I am referring to us photography geeks as a whole) simply love to talk about gear.  I know I do.  I have always viewed photography as a beautiful fusion of art and technology, using these amazing instruments capable of controlling light to capture moments in print or screen.  Images often say more, and without words.

People often ask “What gear do you need to shoot a wedding?”  Well, the simple answer is “a lot.”  To do it correctly, you need to choose the best lens for each shot.  Some people use a single zoom lens the entire day.  I don’t like that approach.  You can’t really make a motion picture with one lens.  You need to mix it up in order to create a certain mood or look.  That’s my opinion at least.  I use at least 4-5 lenses every time I shoot a wedding.  I might use 3 to do a simple family session.

So, above is an iPhone shot of my gear tonight.  It was time to clean out my bag so I felt inspired to organize these tools for a formal group shot.  Enjoy…

 

Manfrotto Professional Roller Bag 70

Nikon D3
Nikon D800
Nikon FE (35mm film camera from the late 1970s)

Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8  A workhorse lens.
Nikkor 70-200mm VR f/2.8 Pure optical perfection. My favorite.
Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Mostly used as a backup.
Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G The “Cream Machine.” Great portrait lens.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G Inexpensive, but classic.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 ai-s Old manual focus lens.
Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 AF-D For wide shots.
Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 AF-D Micro Macro lens.
Nikkor 70-210mm f/4-5.6 AF-D Back-up telephoto lens from 1980s.

Nikon SB-910 Speedlight
Vivitar 285-HV Speedlights, 2 of them (re-issue tanks from the 1980s)

Phottix Strato II Multi 5-1 Triggers & Receivers

Lexar and Sandisk Compact Flash & SDHC cards

Powerex and Eneloop AA & AAA rechargeable batteries - These are a must

Hoodman Loupe - Great to check the LCD in bright sun (and feel like Spielberg)

Rocket Blower - To get rid of dust and keep sensor clean

If I need to use a studio strobe, I take my lighting bag, which has an Alien Bees B800 320 watt strobe and Lithium Battery Pack.  I use a large Paul C Buff Soft Box all mounted to a Manfrotto light stand.  It is a simple set-up for portraits in the field.  If I need another light, I will just use the Nikon SB-910 with a diffuser.IMG_4768

The Nikon D800

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I went against my own word this week.  I have been telling fellow photographers over the last year or so that I would never, ever, under any circumstances, get a Nikon D800.  The file sizes are too big.  I don’t need 36 megapixels.  Etc.

Well, I was wrong.  The files are still huge.  But, and this is a very big but, they don’t really have to be.  I was looking at the RAW file sizes from my D610 and they were running around 21-30mb each.  I read that the D800 files are around 70mb each.  Yes, they can be, but that is only if you shoot 14 bit uncompressed RAW.  If you change the D800 to capture in 12 bit lossless compressed mode, you can cut the file size down to ~35mb, similar to a D610 in 14 bit mode.  Ok, but 12 bit is not as “good” as 14 bit.  Really?  Maybe not.  However, I would challenge anyone to take a RAW image in both 12 bit and 14 bit modes, process them in Lightroom, and then post or print those photos for others to see the difference.  From all the research I have done, there is no substantial difference unless you are pixel-peeping the highlights at 500% zoom…and even then it is negligible.

Here is a great video comparing the D800 to a $20,000 Hasselblad with a 40 megapixel sensor.  The Hassy is running in 16 bit mode and even then, these photographers were shocked at how well the D800 compared to the medium format camera.

Of course, there are advantages to a $20,000 medium format camera, but are those advantages worth $18,500 more?  Not to mention the cost of a lens, which could run you another $5,000?  I know I cannot justify that cost.  Of course, I am also not shooting for Cosmo and getting paid $50,000 per session.  The advantages of medium format are inflated in the digital world.  They’re there, but as you can see in that video, they’re not as critical as in the film days.

So, back to me being wrong.  The D800 is actually quite versatile.  You can shoot RAW 12 or 14 bit files into card slot #1 (compact flash) and JPEG small basic files into card slot #2 (SDHC).  For fun family photos you can shoot with this great camera and use small JPEGSs.  When it comes time to put these massive 36 megapixels to work, you can use the big RAW files.  When I shoot my next wedding, I will likely use 12 bit RAW compressed files, which will keep my workflow smooth.  For family sessions and portraits, I will likely shoot 14 bit uncompressed files because I will only be taking about 50-100 photos.

Moving forward, I am thrilled to have the D800 in my bag.  The D3 will remain my primary photojournalistic tool.  I see no reason to upgrade to the D3s or D4 yet.  The D3 is a tank and shoots 9 frames/sec with 12 megapixels and can easily produce usable images up to ISO 6400.  The D3 is no-nonsense.  No video.  Nothing fancy.  It just goes.  It has been dropped, kicked, and run over by a car (yes, see my October 2012 post).  The D800 will be my portrait camera.  I see this as a great combo that covers everything from weddings, sports, family, and to formal portraits.

In the end, not many people “need” 36 megapixels, but it sure is nice to know they’re there if you want them.

Making a shot: “Daring family”

Sometimes you work with a family that just loves to have fun.  This is one such family.  The mom wanted a shot in front of the beautiful red bush across the street.  Mind you, this was not their property.  First, we got permission.  Once we secured the rights, it was go time.

There were many problems in this setup.  First, the sun was behind that red bush making this side the only option.  It was 3pm and the scene was very bright.  Sweaty uncomfortable bright for a September.  I needed some level of shade for my lens.  I also wanted a nice long throw (focal length) to compress the scene and not make them look too awkward so close to the bush given the limited space we had.  I could not put them on their own yard as the sun was just too overhead and bright.  That would require 3 assistants and huge reflectors.  It was just me, myself, and I.

So, the plan.  We carried the couch across the street and placed it in front of the bush as best we could without being directly touching.  The space was limited to about 5-7 feet between the active road and the bush.  Next I set up my strobe.  I used and Alien Bees single strobe on a Manfrotto light stand with large Paul C. Buff soft box set to 1/4 power (400 watts).  This was camera right and served to wash a nice soft blend of light across the family to compensate for the brightness and the dappled light that would occur.  It was not the best setup, but it was the only real option.

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making a shot

CAMERA SETTINGS: Nikon D3 with 70-200 f/2.8 lens shot at 125mm.  F/6.3 at 1/160 ISO 200 and Cloudy WB.  Phottix wireless triggers communicating between the camera and the strobe.  Roughly 40 feet away from the family.

So, with a little safety secured and no cars immediately passing by, I had the family pose as fast as possible and managed to get some nice photographs.

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In the end, it looks like a simple outside shot in their backyard with no real setup required.  But, in reality, it was very tricky and I am quite pleased with the results given all of the variables involved.

Things are not always as they seem in photography and people often ask me how I got a shot.  Well, most of the time it is just “being there” in good light or working a situation really really hard to achieve the final product.  This was one of those shots where I knew they wanted something and I had to be confident that I could get it.  …no matter what.

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A moment…

This is one of my favorite shots in 2014. Technically, it is not “perfect.” For the ‘togs reading this, the only light source was a window. I turned all the lights off in the room and used that window. (sort of a big soft box given the hazy day outside)

Nikon D3 with 24-70 f/2.8 lens at ISO 4000

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The reason I love this photo so much is that it is NOT technically perfect. But, to the family, it is an amazing image. That little girl was so intrigued by the dress, perhaps wondering what it was like to be a princess herself. I waited and waited and then there it was. The light from outside washes softly on her face as she stares in awe.

Moments like these fire me up to go out and shoot again. They don’t always happen, but when they do it’s great!

-Chris