In Part 1 of this article, I discussed why my Canon digital SLR system, so integral to so many of my photo endeavors, failed miserably as a street camera. With its excessive bulk to weigh me down, its bazooka-like lenses to frighten my subjects, and its missing (or microscopic) depth-of-field markings to negate the possibility of “blind” manual focusing, I was forced to seek an alternate solution. I then recounted my efforts to force the innocent little Panasonic LX to live up to its lens lineage and body styling. Regrettably, while the diminutive LX can go places the Canon could never dream of (like a coat pocket), street photography was no more its forte than the mighty dSLR’s.
So now, four years after first trying to force the dSLR into street duty, and two years after trying to force the LX series to do the same, I’m wielding the crowbar once again. What camera should I next try to force into performing a function for which it was never designed?
The Law of Supply and Demand
Those who wonder why I don’t simply use the right tool for the job have obviously not read Part 1. The reason is simple. The right tool is a rangefinder and, at this point in time, there is only one digital rangefinder on the market — the $6000 Leica M8.2. A camera that, when combined with a couple of Leica Summilux lenses, demands $15,000 from one’s wallet. This is why Leicas are owned by more doctors, dentists, and actors than by actual photographers. It’s an obscene amount of money for a camera that has fewer features than most modern, consumer-level point-and-shoots. Most people, including many actual photographers, can’t even comprehend why Leica is still in business. These people want their cameras laden with all manner of bells and whistles. But the majority of these ringing, dinging camera doodads place themselves squarely between the photographer and his subject, second guessing his every decision and, in general, serve no function other than to protect the photographer from himself. The Leica does none of this. It simply does what you tell it. If you tell it to do something wrong, you’ll have a lousy photo.
In other words, you actually need to understand photography to use a Leica. But most people don’t want to learn to take a picture, they want their camera to do it for them. The result is an upside-down marketplace: For a couple hundred dollars, you can buy a camera with more high-tech features than you’ll ever use. But a camera that does nothing except what you tell it to do costs $6,000! Those who remember their basic economics will recognized this as The Law of Supply and Demand. The vast majority of consumers want a camera that does their thinking for them. The scant few of us that don’t want that are left unserved by the market—except for Leica, who can charge a surgeon’s ransom for an astonishingly basic camera.
But it’s the utter simplicity of the Leica that makes it ideal for street photography. Nothing gets between you and your picture. The camera doesn’t try to second guess you. It doesn’t fight you. The photographer is in charge. He tells the camera what to do and it obliges without complaint or judgement. This is why I’d like a Leica. But, since so few others share this need, the Law of Supply and Demand forces me to continue my quest for something that’s like a Leica… or at least something that will allow me to capture more street shots than either the dSLR or the point-and-shoot “solutions” I’ve been attempting these last few years.
The Faux Rangefinder Follies
The Panasonic LX3, which I discussed in Part 1, isn’t the only camera to take its design cues from rangefinder cameras. There are many so-called “enthusiast” cameras styled after the rangefinders of yore. Like the Panasonic LX series, they’re essentially point-and-shoot cameras that up the ante on their dime-a-dozen siblings by giving the user a bit more manual control, a RAW file format, and some improved optics. A perusal of the latest offerings from Canon, Sigma, and Ricoh all revealed the same thing: while these manufacturers all offer a camera that appeals to those who like the styling of a rangefinder, none of their products are actually anything remotely like a rangefinder. In form, yes. In function, no. Like the LX3, they’re still glorified point-and-shoots playing dress-up—and I’ve been down that road already. I don’t need a replacement for the LX3. I need a street camera. So my search continues.
Taking a Drive to Retroville
I have, throughout this series of articles, identified the rangefinder as the perfect street camera. While I’ve been using that term synonymously with “Leica,” there are, in fact, several companies that manufacture rangefinder cameras — it’s just that Leica is the only one currently making a digital rangefinder. Zeiss, for example, makes the Zeiss Ikon — a beautiful and thoroughly modern film rangefinder. It’s pricey, but it’s substantially cheaper than a Leica. Voigtländer’s Bessa range is the “Honda Civic” of the rangefinder world: they might lack the fit and finish of a Lincoln, but they’re a heck of a lot better than commuting 100 miles/day by bicycle. Leica, too, continues to make film cameras—all of which are more reasonably priced than the M8.2 digital body.
So if I’m seeking the perfect street camera, and the perfect street camera is a rangefinder, why not go back to film? A Bessa R3A and a couple of inexpensive Voigtländer Nokton lenses might not give me images with quite the same “pop” as a Leica, but they’ll still exceed anything I take with a point-and-shoot. And the best part is, I’ll have the right tool for the job. It’s tempting…
… So tempting, in fact, that I started to research local film labs. I checked into who’s making new film stock, and what stocks have disappeared since I last shot film. I researched transparency scanners, and even toyed around with shooting B&W film exclusively, so I could again process my own film without requiring the services of a lab. A quick cost analysis revealed that, even with the cost of film and processing, plus the need for a slide scanner, the Voigtländer rangefinder system made good, solid financial sense.
But something kept nagging at me. I kept wondering if, by going back to film, I wouldn’t simply remove one impediment (the camera) and replace it with another (the processing). Like most of us photographers who’ve reached a certain age, I learned my craft on film. I processed my own B&W images, and I printed them in a darkroom. I really disliked developing film, but I disliked paying for film development even more. My least favorite part of the entire process was printing — the chemicals actually made me ill.
In the 1980′s, I’d been at the forefront of the music technology revolution. I’d helped design many of the tools and techniques that ushered in the demise of analog recording and dedicated hardware—replacing them with digital recording and computer software. Back in 1991, I knew the same fate would eventually befall analog photography, and I gleefully abandoned my enlarger for a scanner and a copy of Photoshop v2.0. For many years in the 1990′s, I shot film, scanned it, and processed it digitally. I couldn’t wait for the day when I no longer needed to shoot film. I began purchasing digital cameras when, at best, they captured 640×480 pixel images, of which half those pixels were noise. And I started using those grainy, awful, first generation digital cameras in place of my far superior film cameras. The future couldn’t come soon enough for me.
So here I am, in 2009, thinking that the only way I can “move forward” is to “go back” to 1991. Yes, I’m aware of the irony. I’ve taken a drive to Retroville, and I’ve priced the housing market. Will I move here? All will be answered when I publish Part 3.
©2009 grEGORy simpson
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