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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author

 

“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  

 

Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 

 

Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."

 

I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!

 


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Old 01-17-2019   #41
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Again, just look at the images above and answer my question. These images correspond to the image being shot on a 36 x 24 millimeter FF sensor (they were, a Nikon D800), and then a 13.33 x 8.88 millimeter sensor, and finally a 9.33 x 6.22 millimeter sensor. Which is which?

I am not talking about sensor size or film size. I am talking about focal length and saying there is an effect coming from the use of focal length.
A medium format film or sensor uses a 80mm focal length to cover a field of view. A 35mm film uses a 50mm lens to cover that same field. The difference in the rendering of the same field by the diufferent optics is what makes those formats look so different. It´s in the focal lens you use.
The sensation of space and volume created on larger formats is due to longer lenses covering large fields. NOt only a sensation of volume is increased but a sensation of size of the image: an image created by longer focals feels bigger or wants to be bigger. There is a mathematical explanation for all those feelings.
We discuss sensor quality.. this is what the camera companies wants to discuss. They don´t want photographers to say: "hey.. you stole the violume, the sheer power of my images by coming w/ your small sensors."

What i am talking about is a huge reason to shoot film since a mf film camera is way more affordable than big digitals.
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Old 01-17-2019   #42
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You've clearly not read or looked at what I posted.

Those 3 images are (not in this order) taken with a 35mm, 50mm, and 135mm lenses, each with a corresponding "crop" to a "smaller" sensor. This is no different than comparing different film formats with lenses corresponding to the same field of view for each.

So again, please tell me, which is which?
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Old 01-17-2019   #43
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You've clearly not read or looked at what I posted.

Those 3 images are (not in this order) taken with a 35mm, 50mm, and 135mm lenses, each with a corresponding "crop" to a "smaller" sensor. This is no different than comparing different film formats with lenses corresponding to the same field of view for each.

So again, please tell me, which is which?
They look absolutely the same indeed. Otoh, i shot 35mm and 120 slides side by side for years and the difference in volume, presence, space was unbelievable. I would shoot 35mm w/ a 105mm lens and 120 w/ 165m lens, same subject, same light, same emulsion.. Fujichrome Provia. my 105 lens was as sharp or sharper than the 165mm and yet the big chromes had so much more depth. Same emulsion. What gives?
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Old 01-17-2019   #44
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Many people like larger film formats because of the smoother tonality imparted. This is in part from larger film area exposed, giving a higher sampling rate, as well as less enlargement to get the "same" size print. Oh, and less grain of course. For sake of argument, of course we should compare the same film emulsion.

I am not arguing against this - it's just not caused by the focal length of the lens used.

If you really dig into this, you can probably find examples of enlargement ratios where the differences are basically nil. For instance, an 8x10 enlargement from a 6x7 negative to me looks no different than a 4x5 enlargement of the "same" composition (using a longer focal length, of course, to get the same FoV). Once you get to 16x20 though, I can see differences.

I'm not even getting into lp/mm resolution tests or anything here, but of course there is a complex interaction between film size, resolution, both lens and film, developer, enlargement ratio, magnification, etc. etc. - but the point I am making is that the actual rendering of the image, specifically the relationship between perspective, distortion, etc. is not a product of the focal length or format but of the distance from the camera to the subject - and if we use the same actual aperture size in each format for a given FoV we will also still have the same DoF.
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Old 01-17-2019   #45
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Many people like larger film formats because of the smoother tonality imparted. This is in part from larger film area exposed, giving a higher sampling rate, as well as less enlargement to get the "same" size print. Oh, and less grain of course. For sake of argument, of course we should compare the same film emulsion.

I am not arguing against this - it's just not caused by the focal length of the lens used.

If you really dig into this, you can probably find examples of enlargement ratios where the differences are basically nil. For instance, an 8x10 enlargement from a 6x7 negative to me looks no different than a 4x5 enlargement of the "same" composition (using a longer focal length, of course, to get the same FoV). Once you get to 16x20 though, I can see differences.

I'm not even getting into lp/mm resolution tests or anything here, but of course there is a complex interaction between film size, resolution, both lens and film, developer, enlargement ratio, magnification, etc. etc. - but the point I am making is that the actual rendering of the image, specifically the relationship between perspective, distortion, etc. is not a product of the focal length or format but of the distance from the camera to the subject - and if we use the same actual aperture size in each format for a given FoV we will also still have the same DoF.
But when it comes to slides, i am looking at small sizes all the time using a light box. Same emulsion, same light, same subject. It is tangible before i print anything.
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Old 01-17-2019   #46
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Well of course a 35mm slide doesn't look as "impressive" as a 6x7 slide. This doesn't really have anything to do with the actual rendering of the scene, and once enlarged to the same size, that should be apparent. But again, there may be some differences in tonality and overall look from the larger film, but it's not the focal length doing anything.

I love larger formats (film) for many reasons, but all I am saying is your original premise regarding focal length is incorrect, and a common misconception.
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Old 01-17-2019   #47
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Well of course a 35mm slide doesn't look as "impressive" as a 6x7 slide. This doesn't really have anything to do with the actual rendering of the scene, and once enlarged to the same size, that should be apparent. But again, there may be some differences in tonality and overall look from the larger film, but it's not the focal length doing anything.

I love larger formats (film) for many reasons, but all I am saying is your original premise regarding focal length is incorrect, and a common misconception.
35mm tends to flatten the scenes while MF brings a 3d feeling.

Cartier Bresson used the flatness playing w/ subjects in different planes. Even if shoot at f32 on a 120 camera you won´t get the flatness.
Otoh you won´t get the same sculpture like quality of Penn´s portraits w/ 35mm.

So to me MF and small formats are almost different photo languages. I am exaggerating but each format gives me a different mind frame.

Digital messed these things up ... my first cameras were cropped. Digital separates color in a way i never saw before. So i set my mind on color instead of volume. This is subjective and may sound absurd but that´s how it is for me.
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Old 01-17-2019   #48
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??... that´s silly. no one needs a tripod when shooting 1/250th of a second.
You never shoot slower than 1/250 second?
And the longer the focal length, the more a tripod can help, if the shooting situation will allow for it.

Also that saying is from the film era (the stuff I still shoot) and with digital able to be set ISO 'gazillion', well half a gazillion anyway......well us film folks just don't have that advantage.

And, the point back then was; if you pay big bucks for a great lens, and then always hand hold in all shooting scenarios, even when you could use a tripod, then you could be throwing away a lot of the potential lens performance.
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Old 01-17-2019   #49
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colker, you can believe whatever subjective thing you want. I don't find 35mm flat at all, or I should say, any flatter than larger formats, when shot similarly.

I shoot plenty of f/64 and beyond images on 8x10 / 8x20 and in terms of DOF my objective is "flat" - in other words, the DOF covering everything in the frame.

8x10 shot at f/64 is similar to shooting 35mm at around f/8 or f/9, so movements are employed to orient the plane of focus to best fit the scene.
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Old 01-17-2019   #50
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Corran, thank you for your clear explanation... Useful to know and keep in mind.
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Old 01-17-2019   #51
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Thanks Bill.

1. I remember stabilizing the lenshood of a 28mm 2.8 ASPH on a window with the Monochrom at 1/125s taking an architectural shot. I was stunned at the sharpness of that photo.

2. I have generally found that the inverse of ISO for shutter speed doesn’t hold as well for digital Leicas as for film. Using a 90 I will want at least 1/250s.

3. Eisenstaedt had a little Leica on a tripod outdoors. Some smart Alec, when his question about the shutter speed was answered, 1/60s, told Eisenstaedt that he could hand hold that. Eisenstaedt mildly told him that so could he, but he didn’t know whether this photograph might not soon be 12 feet high on a billboard so the sharper the better.
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Old 01-17-2019   #52
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135mm, 35mm, 50mm.
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Old 01-18-2019   #53
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OT but surely Colker is right. Medium format has a look. My 60mm f3.5 is wide angle on MF, but the depth of field is shallow and indeed the volume of a subject, because of the different transition to out of focus, does indeed have a different presence. I read something about the Rolleiflex the other day, its human scale, but I couldn't find it today to add here. Cinematographers know these aspects of the mood and feel of their choices when shooting different formats. Maybe it's less obvious to us..
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Old 01-18-2019   #54
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Nothing to do w/ coatings. A longer lens as a normal gives a sensation of volume to the subject unequaled by smaller formats.
...
I have no idea what this means or how format alone is relevant.

Sensations are subjective impressions. Sensations can't be validated nor can they be invalidated. Subjective impressions should be respected and I respect yours.

Optics, on the other hand, is an objective field bound by physical and empirical observations.

Joseph James summarized the situation in this essay. I quote a summary below.

The last bullet point underscores the role of lens differences that significantly affect subjective preferences for lens rendering. But focal length alone is not one of these. Differences in asymmetry in DOF with respect to focus point, lens micro-contrast, MTF50 are some of the variables that affect the perception of 3D ("sensation of volume"?) rendering.

"A 50mm f/1.4 lens is a 50mm f/1.4 lens regardless of the sensor that sits behind it. However, the effect of 50mm f/1.4, in terms of the visual properties of the recorded photo, depend very much on the sensor that sits behind the lens:

25mm f/1.4 on mFT (4/3) is equivalent to 31mm f/1.8 on 1.6x (Canon APS-C), 33mm f/1.9 on 1.5x (APS-C for everyone else), and 50mm f/2.8 on FF (FX), where "equivalent to" means:

o The photos all have the same AOV (diagonal angle of view) and aperture (entrance pupil) diameter: 25mm / 1.4 = 31mm / 1.8 = 33mm / 1.9 = 50mm / 2.8 = 18mm.

o The photos all have the same DOF (as well as diffraction softening) when they have same perspective (subject- camera distance), AOV, aperture diameter, and display size.

o The photos all have the same motion blur and the same total amount of light falls on the sensor when the aperture diameter and shutter speed are the same. ...

o The photos all have the same same noise when the same total amount of light falls on the sensor if the sensors are equally efficient ...

o Other elements of IQ, such as resolution, bokeh, flare resistance, etc., as well as elements of operation, such as AF speed/accuracy, size, weight, etc., are not covered in this use of the term "equivalent".
"


The rest of the essay provides the tedious details for these statements. This includes lens factors that are independent of sensor area, focal length and lens-to-subject distance.
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Old 01-18-2019   #55
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Differences in asymmetry in DOF with respect to focus point, lens micro-contrast, MTF50 are some of the variables that affect the perception of 3D ("sensation of volume"?) rendering.
Let me also propose something else, with regard to the sensation of "3D rendering."

For years I have pushed back on the idea that the feeling of "3D-ness" in a photograph was a property of the lens or format. I believe that in this era of exemplary lenses, with very fast and accurate AF, and the availability of f/1.4 and beyond, that the common usage of very wide apertures to get the shallowest DOF possible irrespective of the actual image "look" has dominated over traditional moderate-aperture usage in years past.

Specifically, I think that the 3D "feel" to an image is most often characterized by a subject being fully inside of the DOF, with a moderate amount of background blur enhanced by the subject's distance from said background. In opposition of this is the usage of the fastest aperture possible, making it so that only the subject's eyes are in true focus and a background that becomes more of a wash of color, as opposed to feeling like an actual background. One could also point out that modern lenses often prioritize sharpness over the out-of-focus rendering, further hurting the look of the image by imparting a distracting look to the background blur.

Now consider medium / large format. It is much more common to shoot these cameras at moderate apertures, where most assume the best results arise, as a consequence of lens designs being imperfect and DOF being more limited compared to 35mm or smaller. A 6x7 photograph made with a normal to mid-tele lens at f/8, with a full-body subject completely within the DOF, will definitely have a 3D "look." I think a similar composition with a 35mm camera at f/1.4 will probably have less perceptual volume, because there is less DOF. You can abuse DOF with medium format as well though - consider the Pentax 67 and 105mm f/2.4. I see images shot wide-open with that lens that have the same short-DOF issue, but shot at f/4-f/8 the lens renders amazing images with a real feeling of 3D-ness. But is it just the lens or the DOF?

Similarly, I find the recent style of close-up, large or ultra-large format portraits / headshots where the ears, nose, and mouth are completely blurred out due to the limited DOF of a fast, long lens to be both distasteful and lacking in volume, due to the spatial incoherence of this thin DOF. A 35mm headshot at f/8 will have a more 3D look, IMO.

Of course none of this takes into account the huge part lighting has to the look of an image.

Just my subjective opinion here - no "proofs" or anything like that. But I've shot plenty of images where I saw a "3D effect," on 35mm up to large formats.
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Old 01-18-2019   #56
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Let me also propose something else, with regard to the sensation of "3D rendering."

For years I have pushed back on the idea that the feeling of "3D-ness" in a photograph was a property of the lens or format. I believe that in this era of exemplary lenses, with very fast and accurate AF, and the availability of f/1.4 and beyond, that the common usage of very wide apertures to get the shallowest DOF possible irrespective of the actual image "look" has dominated over traditional moderate-aperture usage in years past.

Specifically, I think that the 3D "feel" to an image is most often characterized by a subject being fully inside of the DOF, with a moderate amount of background blur enhanced by the subject's distance from said background. In opposition of this is the usage of the fastest aperture possible, making it so that only the subject's eyes are in true focus and a background that becomes more of a wash of color, as opposed to feeling like an actual background. One could also point out that modern lenses often prioritize sharpness over the out-of-focus rendering, further hurting the look of the image by imparting a distracting look to the background blur.

Now consider medium / large format. It is much more common to shoot these cameras at moderate apertures, where most assume the best results arise, as a consequence of lens designs being imperfect and DOF being more limited compared to 35mm or smaller. A 6x7 photograph made with a normal to mid-tele lens at f/8, with a full-body subject completely within the DOF, will definitely have a 3D "look." I think a similar composition with a 35mm camera at f/1.4 will probably have less perceptual volume, because there is less DOF. You can abuse DOF with medium format as well though - consider the Pentax 67 and 105mm f/2.4. I see images shot wide-open with that lens that have the same short-DOF issue, but shot at f/4-f/8 the lens renders amazing images with a real feeling of 3D-ness. But is it just the lens or the DOF?

Similarly, I find the recent style of close-up, large or ultra-large format portraits / headshots where the ears, nose, and mouth are completely blurred out due to the limited DOF of a fast, long lens to be both distasteful and lacking in volume, due to the spatial incoherence of this thin DOF. A 35mm headshot at f/8 will have a more 3D look, IMO.

Of course none of this takes into account the huge part lighting has to the look of an image.

Just my subjective opinion here - no "proofs" or anything like that. But I've shot plenty of images where I saw a "3D effect," on 35mm up to large formats.
So when does light and shadow come into play with "3D rendering" Its funny everyone can sit here and just spew out numbers and such.... It all comes down to light and shadow or highlights and shadows... Screw the numbers
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Old 01-18-2019   #57
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Read my second to last sentence.

Basically I think that even if the light and shadow interplay would make an image have a lot of volume and pop it can be destroyed by the overuse of short DOF.
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Old 01-18-2019   #58
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So when does light and shadow come into play with "3D rendering" Its funny everyone can sit here and just spew out numbers and such.... It all comes down to light and shadow or highlights and shadows... Screw the numbers
Photography in my book is about three things; subject, composition and lighting. Composition for me includes all those variables that go into creating the image 'technically' including the effects of lens used, aperture and so on.

There is also an interaction between subject, composition and lighting which is what makes it difficult, if not impossible, to quantify which bit is responsible for what result. The choices we make in terms of equipment used and its effect on the final image and whether they all enhance a specific attribute (such as '3-Dness') is similarly difficult to quantify.

Al that said if an effect exists it can be quantified .....
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Old 01-18-2019   #59
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Read my second to last sentence.

Basically I think that even if the light and shadow interplay would make an image have a lot of volume and pop it can be destroyed by the overuse of short DOF.
Sorry... That should have been the first and only sentence
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Old 01-18-2019   #60
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No. There is just as much importance to the choice of aperture and subject distance etc. in the look of an image as the lighting.
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Old 01-18-2019   #61
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Let me also propose something else, with regard to the sensation of "3D rendering."

For years I have pushed back on the idea that the feeling of "3D-ness" in a photograph was a property of the lens or format. I believe that in this era of exemplary lenses, with very fast and accurate AF, and the availability of f/1.4 and beyond, that the common usage of very wide apertures to get the shallowest DOF possible irrespective of the actual image "look" has dominated over traditional moderate-aperture usage in years past.

Specifically, I think that the 3D "feel" to an image is most often characterized by a subject being fully inside of the DOF, with a moderate amount of background blur enhanced by the subject's distance from said background. In opposition of this is the usage of the fastest aperture possible, making it so that only the subject's eyes are in true focus and a background that becomes more of a wash of color, as opposed to feeling like an actual background. One could also point out that modern lenses often prioritize sharpness over the out-of-focus rendering, further hurting the look of the image by imparting a distracting look to the background blur.

Now consider medium / large format. It is much more common to shoot these cameras at moderate apertures, where most assume the best results arise, as a consequence of lens designs being imperfect and DOF being more limited compared to 35mm or smaller. A 6x7 photograph made with a normal to mid-tele lens at f/8, with a full-body subject completely within the DOF, will definitely have a 3D "look." I think a similar composition with a 35mm camera at f/1.4 will probably have less perceptual volume, because there is less DOF. You can abuse DOF with medium format as well though - consider the Pentax 67 and 105mm f/2.4. I see images shot wide-open with that lens that have the same short-DOF issue, but shot at f/4-f/8 the lens renders amazing images with a real feeling of 3D-ness. But is it just the lens or the DOF?

Similarly, I find the recent style of close-up, large or ultra-large format portraits / headshots where the ears, nose, and mouth are completely blurred out due to the limited DOF of a fast, long lens to be both distasteful and lacking in volume, due to the spatial incoherence of this thin DOF. A 35mm headshot at f/8 will have a more 3D look, IMO.

Of course none of this takes into account the huge part lighting has to the look of an image.

Just my subjective opinion here - no "proofs" or anything like that. But I've shot plenty of images where I saw a "3D effect," on 35mm up to large formats.
These are excellent points. Marek Fogiel always states here that the C Sonnar 1.5 Zeiss gives the ideal portrait at f2.8.

Here is my old Elmar 50 3.5, at 3.5: the rose is within the sharper depth of field but there is a pleasing enough background blur -


Leica II Elmar 50 3.5
by Richard, on Flickr

But back on Bill Pierce's topic, sometimes the very sharpness and stilling of motion can make for a dull picture. Panning produces a nice still, sharp impression, isolated from the motion blurred background, but a not quite stopped panned subject, blurred slightly that is, can add something worth having too.


Monday evening Dec 15, Melbourne 2014
by Richard, on Flickr

Certainly some lenses are promoted for portraits as they are not too sharp, but certain shutter speeds may matter too. Jane Bown liked 1/60s at f2.8 and she worked hand-held. I reckon if she'd had a Monochrom and could have used 1/1000 at f2.8 and an ISO of 3200, she wouldn't have wanted to.
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Old 01-19-2019   #62
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The benefits of using a tripod when shooting with smaller format cameras are nothing new as people who couldn't afford a medium format camera back in the film era (before people started dumping MF camera on the used market) would often use a tripod to shoot landscapes in order allow them to use the lowest ISO film available and thereby be able to make the large prints with relatively low grain. While the same benefits still apply today, the fact that most digital camera have a base ISO between 100 to 200 means that scene/shoots that required a tripod in the past may not require one today ie ISO 50 F11 at 125 would be F11 at 1/250 on a digital camera with a base ISO of 100 and F11 at 1/500 on a camera with a base ISO of 200. Now of course if one is using filters when shooting landscapes these numbers can changes greatly thereby requiring the use of a tripod.
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Old 01-20-2019   #63
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The benefits of using a tripod when shooting with smaller format cameras are nothing new as people who couldn't afford a medium format camera back in the film era (before people started dumping MF camera on the used market) would often use a tripod to shoot landscapes in order allow them to use the lowest ISO film available and thereby be able to make the large prints with relatively low grain... .
Exactly... Back in the late 60's and early 70's I used a few dozen rolls of Agfa Isopan FF, ISO 25 black & white, in my Pentax Spotmatic, often on tripod for maximum output quality. Trying for medium format quality, it turned out excellent. Then a couple years later I got my first Pentax 6x7 (used), just easier to use MF for MF quality!
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Old 01-20-2019   #64
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True high-resolution photo imply tripod and compatible subjects. I am as lazy as many photographer but keep some nostalgy of the time of my Linhof Master Technika. I presently have no serious digital camera. Among other options, I think more and more about an M43 Pen-F. With its high-resolution mode, maybe I will feel like using a dusty tripod I have ? For the remaining, it will be more easy to keep with me than many others superb cameras.
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