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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”  

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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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Almost like film...
Old 05-16-2017   #1
Bill Pierce
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Almost like film...

Because of the speed of delivery, news photographers were among the first to use digital cameras. While the AP started equipping their staff with digital cameras in 1994 and went totally digital in 2001, they had actually used digitals to deliver the results of the presidential conventions even before that.

Those early digitals were technically gawdawful and expensive, but they had the one thing news photographers needed - speed of delivery. Over the years, the cameras got better and less expensive. Unlike film cameras, whose development had slowed and stabilized, digitals not only improved in quality but added innovative features. And photographers, not just news photographers, but all digital photographers, found themselves updating and replacing their ever evolving cameras at relatively frequent intervals - not only moving up, but even changing brands.

And, guess what… Many lost the ability to use their cameras without thinking about them, thinking about the many new set up options and menu choices. The simplicity of setting the exposure and focus and then concentrating on the subject got lost. The all important looking at the subject, finding the best frame and pushing the button at the best moment were dissipated by an abundance of other choices that were often executed in different ways with every new camera.

I recently got a new camera. In addition to menus, it has 8 programable function buttons. I’m proud to say I only use 2 of them (ISO and focus lock) and only 1 of them when I’m shooting (focus lock). It’s almost like shooting film. And I am paying more attention to what’s in front of the camera than the camera itself.

Your thoughts?
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Old 05-16-2017   #2
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Generally, the more "automated" the process, the less engaged the operator. This has been shown to be true in a variety of human endeavors, and most certainly in the case in the arts.

Maybe that is why we continue to do this "photography" thing---as a way of reminding ourselves that we are part of something interactive as opposed to just being along for the ride.
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Old 05-16-2017   #3
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Never had the urge (need) to go Digital Bill but I can imagine that the plethora of options could be truely mind blowing. It would leave a seasoned photographer feeling nostalgic for simpler times. You could complete the illusion and turn off the screen and fly blind. Trusting yourself to get the shot would surely be liberating in itself ?
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Old 05-16-2017   #4
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Shooting the majority of my work on film over the past few years has changed the way I shoot digital. For example, I have auto-review turned off. I don't look at the images until I get home and plug the SD card into the computer. Film has given me that confidence.

It never fails to amuse me when a doc/street photographer takes a shot and immediately looks at their screen.

Also, I find the engagement with rear LCD screens to be highly distracting and prefer a camera that lets me change all the meaningful settings with a button.
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Old 05-16-2017   #5
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Bill if you really want the 'film-like' experience of shooting, but not the back-end of film processing, this is a nice way to go:


M-D and Coffee
by Vince Lupo, on Flickr

I realized by using the M-D how much time I waste looking at the screen on the back of my other cameras. Funny but sometimes I find myself reflexively looking at the back of the M-D after I take a photo, and all I'm rewarded with is the beautiful view of the ISO dial
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Old 05-16-2017   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
And, guess what… Many lost the ability to use their cameras without thinking about them, thinking about the many new set up options and menu choices. The simplicity of setting the exposure and focus and then concentrating on the subject got lost. The all important looking at the subject, finding the best frame and pushing the button at the best moment were dissipated by an abundance of other choices that were often executed in different ways with every new camera.

I recently got a new camera. In addition to menus, it has 8 programable function buttons. I’m proud to say I only use 2 of them (ISO and focus lock) and only 1 of them when I’m shooting (focus lock). It’s almost like shooting film. And I am paying more attention to what’s in front of the camera than the camera itself.

Your thoughts?
I defer to your broader experience, but I would be surprised if professional photographers forgot how to use their cameras without thinking about them. I mainly shoot film, but I do have a digital camera, and I use it like I use my film camera. I rarely use the menus, except for occasionally changing ISO (I haven't set up any custom buttons, perhaps I should). You would think that a pro, who uses his camera every day, wouldn't be so befuddled.
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Old 05-16-2017   #7
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I make pictures in both digital and film media. My first digital camera in 06, was a Kodak 14n, it had about 100 menu options. It took some time to get on the digital path. But, it's been okay.

When working with film, I use light meters. With digital I don't, except for a flash meter when using electronic flash. I chimp like most others. I look at exposure data in the LCD. Kind of like using a Polaroid back. With film, mostly b+w these days, I'm working on personal projects.. and using cameras I've owned for years. I don't think about the camera at all.

So, film work is like driving the car to work. It's thoughtless. With digital, it's not as free-flowing. There are many things to go wrong. Push the wrong button by accident (my thumb constantly bumped the rear command dial on a Nikon, changing the shutter speed) and you may find yourself in menu hell. Checking to see if a new memory card is writing properly.. all kinds of nonsense... all while trying to work.

One thing I would love is to be able to disable -- unwanted menu options that I never use. Camera designers think we need "toy camera" mode, with 10 choices of light leak FX. I'm around a lot of digital gear, from Phase One on a Sinar to APS-C sensor stuff. It's not as smooth a process for me as film work was/is.

Digital gear pays the bills. If I were rich, I might own a point and shoot digital. Nothing more.. a smart phone might serve the purpose.. I'm happy working with film. I see much better and react more quickly.

Edit: working tethered is great, but often has its own set of problems. Especially with big files produced rapidly. Faster than changing film holders but buffer speed is an issue. You glance at a monitor and you're looking at an image 3 frames back.. But that's faster than waiting for rush E6 in past days. But, then there was time for coffee and BSing. I guess I liked the old work flow better. As for quality, a scanned 8x10 chrome holds up well to anything digital I've seen.
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Old 05-16-2017   #8
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hahaha I struggled with the programmable function buttons on my x100t... particularly at night if I accidently pressed one or the other and couldn't figure out how to get back to 'normal' without a flashlight... As well I turned most of them off except for flash and face recognition... and I still spend some time checking the settings before use...

The User Pre-sets are useful (for example Canon C1-C2-C3) ...
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Old 05-16-2017   #9
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To me the most important aspects of photography are framing and content. I think I had to think just as much about what I was shooting with a M6 as I did a M9. With the X-Pro2 and Auto ISO... I can choose the shutter speed and aperture I really want and just let the ISO run up and down a range. That, coupled with the move from MF to FAST AF, has allowed me to think about the most important aspects of photography better (framing and content). I don't use any programable buttons and generally only go into the menus to format my cards.
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Old 05-16-2017   #10
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Today, the real life picture worth of the news (to me) is most likely taken with mobile phone. Which has only one button. And one program (the camera). The only aspect which is worth in this kind of picture is what the actual news is visible. This is it. Visible.
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Old 05-16-2017   #11
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A Canon 5D Mark II is my newest digital camera, and I have used it a lot. If I let it sit for awhile then go to use it again, I will vaguely remember that a setting I need exists, but where the heck is it in the menu? Many minutes fiddling and cursing my less that photographic memory ensues.

I have had an Olympus OM-1 MD since 1979, have taken hundreds of rolls of film with it, and to this day, I still sometimes mess up when using it: forget to meter a shot, or focus, or even to put film in the thing.

So it really is a memory and attention issue. There is just a lot more to remember and pay attention to on a digital camera.
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Old 05-16-2017   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jsrockit View Post
I don't use any programable buttons and generally only go into the menus to format my cards.
Don't need the menus for that. Press and hold down the trash button, after three seconds press in the rear command dial.

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Old 05-16-2017   #13
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Don't need the menus for that. Press and hold down the trash button, after three seconds press in the rear command dial.

Shawn
True, but does it work for dual cards? It was flaky in older Fujis too. I'm quick with the menus and was speaking of cameras outside of Fuji as well.
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Old 05-16-2017   #14
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Yup, a window pops up asking which card you want to format.

Shawn
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Old 05-16-2017   #15
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My first two digital cameras were compacts that I at first used like a P&S. It was later on before I delved into the different settings, finding out how they really worked.

When I got my DSLR (used, old, and cheap), it was more complicated, but there were plenty of buttons to take you to particular sections of the menu without using the LED screen, just the LCD on the top or inside the viewfinder. I try to operate it like a film camera, using manual settings when I can take the time, and Program when I need to move fast. But I can still control the Program mode with the back dial on the D80, changing up or down depending on whether I want a wider aperture, or slower shutter speed.

I keep the Live View off, except for checking the first shot to see if any of the settings are off, or if I forgot to change them from the last time I used the camera. After that it's viewfinder only. Sometimes I will run through a series of shots to make sure I haven't missed something, like a particular angle or background.

The viewfinder was the main reason I got the DSLR. I got tired of trying to see what I was photographing in that glossy screen, which was usually reflecting my face. Mostly I was looking over the top of the camera, hoping I had the framing where it should be.

I still haven't used most of the menu items. I don't care to do in-camera effects.

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Old 05-16-2017   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Many lost the ability to use their cameras without thinking about them, thinking about the many new set up options and menu choices. The simplicity of setting the exposure and focus and then concentrating on the subject got lost.

Well I can't speak for others, but I use my digital cameras just like I used to use my Nikon FM, except for the AF which is a great addition, and of course choosing the most appropriate ISO.
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Old 05-16-2017   #17
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My digital is set to M. Sometimes I use the autofocus button.

Since things are controlled by 4 menus, I set them before the job starts. Each represents a different film type and speed.

Spray and pray will not produce just as it did not with film. Digital it cheaper and faster, but you still need to work for quality
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Old 05-17-2017   #18
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Originally Posted by Pablito View Post
Well I can't speak for others, but I use my digital cameras just like I used to use my Nikon FM, except for the AF which is a great addition, and of course choosing the most appropriate ISO.
Me too.

Initially takes a bit of effort to learn how to set things up. But then life can be pleasantly simple if you want it to be.

I used my X-Pro 1 this way and now do the same with the X100T. Even though the latter has reliable sophisticated AF, I often just use the OVF a single centered focus region and then focus and recompose as if I had an optical RF.

Raw file exposure can be minimalistic as well. I typically use apppropriate manual settings at ISO 200 and increase global image brightness as required during post-prodcution.

So, all I have to do is avoid overexposing the sensor when the shutter is open. This means minimal attention to the light meter no menu diving, no auto-ISO, and no exposure compensation required. For the occasional scene with extreme dynamic range, I auto-bracket three exposures aperture in 1/3 or 1/2 step increments and use the exposure with optimum highlights.

Digital cameras with out ISO-invarient data streams require a bit more work. These camera typically produce optimum shadow detail at two or three different ISO settings. So changing ISO as ambient light levels change is an additional step.

In-camera JPEGs also require paying close attention to the meter, ISO and occasionally to exposure compensation settings.
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Old 05-17-2017   #19
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The new DSLR cameras can do things as far as focus tracking, Super High ISO, and the like, that my old film SLR could only dream of. But I agree with you, to set them up properly takes time and effort. I had two cameras that I used for sports, and they were set up and worked great for fast moving subjects and in really horrible light (for High School sports). But each one had over a dozen specific settings that need to be customized, and when I would use them for news events (where I changed the settings), and then went back to a sporting event, I would invariably miss shots because I had missed changing back one or more of the custom settings and the tracking/follow focus would be off. And in the moment, I couldn't remember what settings I hadn't changed back. Finally dedicated a separate camera for news events, and one for sports, so they can each be set up at home (where I have the manual to go over all the settings) and then I leave them completely alone when I'm out shooting.

Best,
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Old 05-17-2017   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Timmyjoe View Post
The new DSLR cameras can do things as far as focus tracking, Super High ISO, and the like, that my old film SLR could only dream of. But I agree with you, to set them up properly takes time and effort. I had two cameras that I used for sports, and they were set up and worked great for fast moving subjects and in really horrible light (for High School sports). But each one had over a dozen specific settings that need to be customized, and when I would use them for news events (where I changed the settings), and then went back to a sporting event, I would invariably miss shots because I had missed changing back one or more of the custom settings and the tracking/follow focus would be off. And in the moment, I couldn't remember what settings I hadn't changed back. Finally dedicated a separate camera for news events, and one for sports, so they can each be set up at home (where I have the manual to go over all the settings) and then I leave them completely alone when I'm out shooting.

Best,
-Tim
I think most on here set their cameras up for one task. The one they do most often. Those of us that may work indoors with flash and still life one day and outdoor fill flash portraits the next have a different story to tell, as with your AF settings. I keep a notebook of setting info for the two different cameras most used. I would rather that I could just insert a card with all the settings for a particular tasks than spend 15 minutes setting and checking menu items each time. And without the list, I forget some.. I've done this. Also, all cameras in manual mode, always. AF usually with people, MF with static CU objects.
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Old 05-17-2017   #21
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<shrug>
Mountains out of molehills...

1. All the professional or serious photographers I know have the talent to see and capture an event or scene regardless of how much or little they use the features of their digital cameras. That single key ability is what makes them photographers.

2. Digital cameras are of course designed so you can use as few or as many features as you desire. They can be used in exactly the same way as, say, a manual 1950s camera without the "bells and whistles" causing any compromise whatsoever.

I shoot with a Nikon D800E dSLR. Most of the time I use manual-focus lenses with the camera in manual mode with centre-weighted exposure and single-point focus, and typically only two controls: shutter speed and aperture. I rarely change the ISO from 400. (It's a little embarrassing when I lend my camera to friends as they can ask how to set or change something but I often have no idea!)

But I like having the option of more features (I do use my camera in auto mode sometimes, eg on holiday)

As an aside, I see no advantages to a "fully manual" dSLR. It wouldn't be much smaller or lighter or easier to use, but as few people would want it the price would be horrific so as to cover costs and make a reasonable profit. Not to mention loss of versatility.
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Old 05-17-2017   #22
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I feel like it's all been downhill since people stopped mixing their own emulsions and coating plates...

But seriously, it's amazing how each technical advanced has been greeted with enthusiasm because they solved real problems. Whether it be metering, focus, framing, or whatever, the tools to address these fundamentals of photography have only gotten better. In addition, these new features allow camera makers to continue to sell new models and drive consumer demand. So did it turn out that we didn't really need all these bells and whistles and that a simple box camera is enough? Haven't we gone full circle, and the promise of "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest" has actually been fulfilled?

In a fast-moving business, like photojournalism, where in the early days of digital, with new equipment being swapped in frequently, one has a viable excuse, but these days, why not actually learn how to use one's camera in depth?
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Old 05-17-2017   #23
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Almost all the extraneous buttons on my cameras are set to either "None" or they're locked in the "Off" position. The way I shoot is basic and simple. I don't need most of the stuff camera manufacturers put on their products these days.
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Old 05-17-2017   #24
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Bill, I'll give you an example along your line.

I generally set my cameras' options before going out to shoot. So, I'm not thinking much at all about the camera, focusing on the shot instead.

Then, knowledgable photo tour leaders started working on me to ETTR. I'm pliable, and I tried it. Two things I concluded: 1) It was easy to over-do ETTR or to pick an ETTR adjustment in one lighting that didn't work with the light changed. That is, I concluded it would take a lot more thought to do ETTR right. And, 2) all this was taking my attention away from the shot.

I've gone back to basic settings. Take advantage of RAW and dynamic range to handle most exposure issues. Regain mindfulness and focus while making the shot. Works much better for me.

When you start thinking about the gizmos and settings, I think that's working against the mindful focus that makes the best photography.

Thanks for bringing up this topic.
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Old 05-18-2017   #25
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My wife often shoots a DSLR. Desiring a smaller camera, the camera to have always in your hands, I bought for her a small compact, high quality one, m4/3 sensor. It's small, light, photo quality is good for what they are needed.
But the manual is more than 250 pages... and if you hit by mistake the wrong key it's a nightmare....
A few days ago during a family meeting neither she nor I know what happened but we were no more able to find the ISO setting... at the end only switching off, taking out the battery for a few minutes solved the mystery :-)
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Old 05-20-2017   #26
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Like many who have posted, I have no problem with being overwhelmed by choices because I set it up the way I like it and leave it. Shooting 35mm stills film for 40 years and being an occasional cinematographer(in motion picture photography, everything is manual)
I'm wondering if things would be even simpler if I used an external light meter. Hell, if the sun is out you can guess the exposure without consulting a meter.
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Old 05-20-2017   #27
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Quote:
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... Recall the anticipation over the Df getting there, but ultimately not. I think there's a market for that sort of interface.

John
I was (and in part still I'm) very interested in the DF but disappointed when I saw they camera in real, too many buttons, took many menus and sub menus.
Since a few weeks I own the M10 which seems to be simple enough for me...

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Old 05-20-2017   #28
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It's surprising to me that no OEM has adopted Leica's model of the minimal interface. Even for one model in their line. Fuji gets closest but the computer feel is still evident. Recall the anticipation over the Df getting there, but ultimately not. I think there's a market for that sort of interface.

John
Same here.
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Old 05-20-2017   #29
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One of the great things about a modern DSLR, which I don't have, is presets. If you are in aperture priority and you suddenly see something you want to shoot at 1/30s, you can just press a button. Constantly using a high end Canon or Nikon digital must be great.

Mode problems are a bugbear of any complex system. What ISO is set right now? Is lens selection on Auto or is my 50 Summicron selected? That's not too many mode traps on my digital Ms. When I am out with my M2 or M6 with a 21mm I sometimes have a panic and wonder whether I've selected the correct lens focal length in the menu....No such requirement.
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Old 05-20-2017   #30
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Something to keep in mind, about everything:

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I repeat Sturgeon's Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
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Old 05-20-2017   #31
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I hear you. As my father used to say - "Free advice is worth every penny you pay for it." =)

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Something to keep in mind, about everything:
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Old 05-20-2017   #32
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It's surprising to me that no OEM has adopted Leica's model of the minimal interface. Even for one model in their line. Fuji gets closest but the computer feel is still evident. Recall the anticipation over the Df getting there, but ultimately not. I think there's a market for that sort of interface.
You can get a Fuji to be just about the same. Take an XP2, set it to shoot raw and then put it in a half case that has a full back to cover all rear screen and all the buttons. That leaves you will the ISO dial, shutter dial, aperture dial, exp. comp, VF control and a dial to switch from MF, AFS, AFC and the power switch. The nice part is when you want to do something more advanced you still have those options available such as changing metering mode or whatever.

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Old 05-20-2017   #33
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Originally Posted by shawn View Post
You can get a Fuji to be just about the same. Take an XP2, set it to shoot raw and then put it in a half case that has a full back to cover all rear screen and all the buttons. That leaves you will the ISO dial, shutter dial, aperture dial, exp. comp, VF control and a dial to switch from MF, AFS, AFC and the power switch. The nice part is when you want to do something more advanced you still have those options available such as changing metering mode or whatever.
You can also just turn off the rear screen which is what I do with my XE2.
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Old 05-20-2017   #34
lukitas
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Originally Posted by ptpdprinter View Post
You can also just turn off the rear screen which is what I do with my XE2.
With the serendipitous advantage of significantly less battery drainage.

Not too happy about the look of the view-finder, especially with peaking on. But that is what I have to do to make my Summitar work at f2.

I avoid chimping. And try to keep the camera set so I don't have to fight it. But the fuji keeps surprising me with unwanted settings changes. If i had my 'druthers, i'd get an M10.

The ricoh GR, even though it has a 'modern' interface, where you can set the front and back wheel to aperture and speed respectively, feels a lot closer to the film camera experience. And that without a viewfinder. But then, I find I often take but the most perfunctory glance at the screen, and stay focused on the subject while pressing the button. I need reading glasses, often it is a bother to put them on; the screen remains in a close-up blur, and I can't do more than a quick and dirty check of framing. One could say I use the ricoh as if it were a rangefinder without a viewfinder.

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Old 05-20-2017   #35
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Because of the speed of delivery, news photographers were among the first to use digital cameras. While the AP started equipping their staff with digital cameras in 1994 and went totally digital in 2001, they had actually used digitals to deliver the results of the presidential conventions even before that.
Yep, I was one of those, a staff guy at the third paper in the U.S. to go fully digital in 1994.

I beta tested for John Gaps III at AP using NC2000 and eventually Nikon E2 digital cameras...remember the horrible direct flash problems the NC2000 had with otherwise stellar TTL speed lights? I had Mary Ellen Mark look upon me in sympathy when the non-removable battery prematurely died on my NC2000e while coving the Bob Dole campaign trail. She was using her Hasselblad. Thankfully I had an F4 loaded with Fuji 400 press as a backup and got Charlie Riedel at the Hays Daily to soup it for me.

Those were interesting times. But two things that you mention in your blog entry did not happen to me...

1. Digital never got better than film for me, even after some 1,000,000++ exposures on the stuff. I now use film more than ever and find a lot of art directors, editors and art buyers love that I use it, the genuine article.

2. As I progressed through countless pool and personal digital cameras, I never really had an issue with learning the ropes of each. Being more film derived these days, I am less apt to "upgrade" but the song remains the same, I am decades into this digital stuff now and can, like film, do it in my sleep.

I choose intuitive systems to use in terms of learning and leaning on them. For example, I have zero interest in any digital camera system (Sony, Fuji, Phase, etc.) that I can not use a film body or back on. So I use Nikon, Leica and Hasselblad, all with seamlessly interchangeable film and digital components.

This makes the whole operation a lot easier to master because there is frequency, fluency and familiarity in using equipment in that way.

But that is just me, I am the outlier among my peers in this day and age and I am fine with that.
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Old 06-27-2017   #36
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Originally Posted by KM-25 View Post
I choose intuitive systems to use in terms of learning and leaning on them. For example, I have zero interest in any digital camera system (Sony, Fuji, Phase, etc.) that I can not use a film body or back on. So I use Nikon, Leica and Hasselblad, all with seamlessly interchangeable film and digital components.
Great point!
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