Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is the Fuji X Pro1 a Leica replacement?

Is the Fuji X Pro1 the next Leica?  A recent trip to Australia with the camera and 18-55 lens left me very impressed, and makes me wonder.  It’s the first time I have ever gotten consistently professional results from any camera this size that wasn’t a Leica.

Fuji X Pro1 with Fujinon 18-55 lens - John Elder Robison

At the same time, the X Pro1 delivered images under conditions where the Leica would not have worked at all, and it did so with far greater usability.  It makes me wonder what a rangefinder really is or should be.

When it appeared the Leica was a revolutionary concept – a camera that could return quality images from a small indestructible package that would work anywhere, under any conditions.  Leica became the Rolex of the camera world – a rugged professional tool that everyone wanted.

Time passed and electronics came onto the scene.  Just as Rolex was elbowed aside by the new quartz and silicon watches, electronic cameras from Nikon and Canon pushed Leica into more of a niche role.  SLR cameras came to dominate the world of action shooting but a place remained for the Leica, just as people still buy Rolex watches even when Swatch and Casio are displayed alongside.

For many years I have carried Leica rangefinders and Nikon SLRs for my professional work.  I’ve used the SLR’s with long lenses to capture performers in the ring and on stage.  Then, in quieter times, I’ve used the Leica to capture candid moments backstage, and to shoot discreetly on streets and midways.
The SLR and long lens is powerful, but bulky.  There is nothing subtle about it.  You can’t photograph unobtrusively with a rig like that, but at the same time, nothing less will bring home performance images under tough circumstances.

Today I’m on my fifth or sixth generation of heavy-duty SLR.  They get better and better, and the best now is very good indeed.   A D4 or D3S can capture images that print life size with detail that was never possible with film. They shoot in the rain and deliver amazing images in the dark.  They lock focus on cars coming at me at 150 miles per hour.  They do things that were unheard-of, ten years ago.
The Leica excels at a different kind of photography.  For many years I’ve used Leica cameras (first film; now digital) to capture people on the street, and people relaxing in natural settings.  I’ve also used Leica cameras to capture sports and action with a different eye.  In an age where published action imagery is dominated by long lens close-ups the wide shots from a rangefinder are a refreshing change.

UMass Basketball - Leica M8

Leica M8 / 35 1.4 ASPH

I’ve also used the Leica when I wanted superior travel images, because the lenses are second to none and the package is small enough to carry on a plane.  You can take an M9 and three lenses anywhere; it all fits in your pocket.  And you never have to worry about quality.  If you use the Leica correctly, the images are second to none.

Leica M9, 35 1.4 lens at f8

Dead Trees in Winter - Leica M9 

Radio City seen with a Leica M9 and 35mm  2.0

John Sebastian captured onstage with a Leica M8, 50mm 1.4 lens

But that is the rub – “used correctly.”  The Leica system consists of superior manual focus lenses, a body with a good (but not the best) digital sensor, and a primitive metering system.  You get beautiful results by taking your time to deliberately focus the camera, set the aperture, and judge the exposure.  The lack of automation in the Leica causes you to think through every element of your picture, and if things are not moving too fast, and you have the skills, you get excellent results.

The rangefinder camera, by its very nature, uses wide to standard lenses.  So the images you get are close to natural in their perspective.  You won’t get striking macro shots nor will you get closeups of distant birds. 

That strategy works very well for much travel photography where you are shooting scenes with wide lenses, small apertures, and most everything in focus.  It works well when you shoot sports or performance with a wide lens that’s been distance focused using the scales on the focus ring.  It works well when you shoot people, carefully focused, in intimate settings with big apertures.  Nothing renders the background like the fast Leica lenses.

Yet those are all “hard” things to do.  You need to be concentrating on your photography all the time, to get decent results. Otherwise, you get junk.  There’s no such thing as P mode on a Leica.  You can’t pop it out and shoot.  That means some opportunities will be missed.  The Leica has other limitations, too.  You can’t use long lenses, except with difficulty.  You can’t shoot digital at high ISO like an SLR, and it’s not well suited to flash.   Leica purists will say those are not things Leica photographers do, but the fact is, photographers (whatever they use) find themselves in those settings and it’s advantageous to have a camera that performs.

The perfect camera would have the flexibility and performance of an SLR, the size and build quality of a Leica, and the smooth lens performance of Leitz glass.  And it would have the weight of a pocket point-and-shoot.

Knowing that camera does not exist, I’d found a place for my various devices.  My SLR camera does the heavy lifting.  I had a place for the Leica, and I carried an inexpensive small camera on trips (something like a Canon G12 or Nikon V2)  I accepted the compromises inherent in each and used them where they worked best.

Then Fuji introduced the X Pro1 - a pocketable camera that delivers professional quality images that print up to two feet wide, shoots up to ISO 6400 with excellent quality, has the discreet size of a Leica, and handles easily under most any conditions.

Fuji has a Leica lens adapter, so I can use the Leitz glass and focus by the distance scale, just like a traditional Leica street photographer.  But I can also use Fuji’s excellent autofocus lenses and the camera will focus for me, and do it right most of the time.  It will also meter correctly, and there is a compact snap-on flash.

I can still think about my images, but the camera will do quite a lot more of the work if asked.  That means I can be slow and deliberate, but I can also choose P mode and snap a quick picture if an opportunity presents itself.

Sydney Harbour, Fuji XPro1 18-55 lens

The image quality is this camera’s most striking feature.  Fuji says its 16MP sensor gives sharper results than other similar sized sensors because the RGB cell arrangement is different, and the camera does not need a filter in front of the sensor.  While I agree the sensor renders sharp images I think its best feature is the depth it captures.  Using Lightroom 5 I can pull good image data from farther into the light and dark areas than most any camera I’ve seen.

Cape Byron Lighthouse   Fuji XPro1 18-55 lens hand held

That dynamic range finding is borne out by a number of online reviews.  It’s quite impressive in real  life.  These images show what I am talking about.  In the first, the late day sun was shining on the back of the Cape Byron lighthouse.  The rocky cliffs were in deep shadow.  But I was able to pull up that data while still holding onto the sky.  The following morning I was able to capture tremendous range in the moments before sunrise.  I do not know of any other pocket size camera that could have done this.

Australian flowers captured with my Fuji XPro1 18-55 lens

Another neat thing it will do – thanks to the electronic finder – is a macro mode.  These flowers would have been very hard to capture with a traditional rangefinder because of the parallax in the finder window up close.  The camera works like an SLR in macro mode for shots like these

The Fuji has an interesting viewfinder arrangement.  It’s got a switchable optical or electronic finder in the place you’d expect it to be on a rangefinder camera.  If you choose optical mode the camera makes rangefinder frame lines electronically and you get the traditional rangefinder benefit of seeing all around the frame.  If you choose the electronic finder you see the frame as it will be captured, just as you would with an SLR.

With the addition of autofocus and an electronic viewfinder the rangefinder limitation on lens length goes away. And indeed Fuji has a 55-200 (300 35mm equivalent) lens.  So you can now carry two pocket size short lenses and a long zoom, with which you can photograph most anything a traveler will find.

When this camera came out it had a set of short prime lenses, but Fuji introduced a high grade 18-55 zoom, and that’s actually the lens I took with me to Australia.  The idea of a zoom seems incompatible with a rangefinder but this Fuji camera copes just fine, especially with the electronic finder. 

Amherst Swamp - Fuji XPro1 with 55-200 Fujinon lens (c) John Elder Robison

This camera will do an outstanding job of travel photography.  It will capture quick images in P mode, and allow deliberate rangefinder style shooting in manual mode.  Then you can fit that long zoom and capture birds, animals, and other distant things.  You can’t catch action like an SLR because the focus speed is too slow, other readers may have their own favorites, but I think this Fuji is a step beyond anything else on the market today.

It also automates traditional street photography and captures those intimate wide-aperture portraits the Leica always excelled at.  Now that I have it, I actually think it will get more use than my Leica bodies.  All in all, it’s a very impressive camera.  For $1,200 the body is truly a bargain, especially when compared to an M9 or the new M.  Lens adapters allow the fitment of a wide range of lenses, and Fuji’s native offerings are quite impressive.

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's an award-winning photographer and the author of the bestselling books Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Difference Between Knowing and Believing

Do we believe the plant has captured the Volkswagen, or do we know it?
Knowledge vs. Belief . . . that is the question

Much is made of the concept of proof in the world of science, math, and physics.  Proof is what separates knowledge from belief in those disciplines.  What separates knowledge from belief in daily life? 

We are forever getting into trouble because we confuse belief with proof, and we’re all too often wrong.  If something can be proven, we can say we know it.  If something is merely believed, it cannot truly be known. Yet we make decisions based on belief all the time.

Oftentimes, we take two things that are believed, tie them together, and assert a third thing to be known as a result.  But it’s not.  Two beliefs add up to two beliefs.  They do not equal one proof.

Yet responsible people in our society act that way every day.  They confuse believing with knowing, and make flawed decisions as a result.  Most often this happens because we do not understand what’s needed to actually prove something.  Here’s an example:

You believe your acquaintance Robert lives in Miami;
- and -
You know Miami is a city in Florida.

Therefore, you feel confident saying, “Robert lives in Florida.”

But you’re wrong.  You don’t know it.  You merely believe it, and belief is nothing more than conjecture. Why would that matter?  Let’s say Robert died, or got divorced.  You might make totally wrong assumptions about what would happen to him or his estate based on your knowledge of Florida law, which could turn out to be totally irrelevant.

Mistakes like this happen all the time, at the personal level and even at higher levels.  All stem from the same cause – failing to recognize the difference between belief and knowledge.  This confusion causes us all sorts of harm.

Proving something in the world of science – to truly know it – involves the use of logic and mathematics.  Few of us do that, or even understand the process.  Instead, we have our own definitions of “daily life proof,” which we might use to prove that Miami is a city in Florida.

As it happens, the techniques of mathematical proof can apply here as well, even if we don’t think of them.  We can look at a map, locate Florida, and see that it is within the bounds of the state of Florida.  The mathematics of set theory allows us to construct a proof that Miami is within the state of Florida.  Of course, most people just point to the map, and say, “Miami is obviously part of Florida.”

This is an example of something we know that has a simple, easily understood proof.

What about the belief that Robert lives in Miami?  That’s not so obvious, when you think about it.  There is no map with “Robert” on it.  Instead, we assess what we know about him:
  • He’s mailed us letters from Miami, and our address book says he lives there
  • He meets us in Miami when we go there for conferences
  • He talks about living under the warm Florida sun

We put all that together in our minds, and say, “Robert lives in Miami.”

We assume that is knowledge, but it’s really just belief.  If you combine something that is believed with something that is known, the result remains a belief.  Adding an additional conjecture does not – by itself - make for proof.

It may increase the odds, but that’s a rather different proposition than actually proving something.  For example, we could look at the evidence for Robert living in Miami and say it suggests Robert lives in Florida, even if he is not a resident of Miami.  He might live just outside the city limits, and still meet us, talk about being there, and so on.  But that’s still not knowledge.  Its just more informed conjecture.

What if we asked Robert?  Finally, the “truth” comes out.  He reveals that he also has a home in Colorado, and Colorado has always been “his real home.”  All this time, Colorado was not even on our radar.  Then we look in the newspaper, and find the Florida Dept of Revenue is suing Robert, claiming he’s really a resident of their state after all.  We realize that Robert’s residency is something amorphous; truly not known to anyone.

The lesson here is that cities can only be in one place.  But people can live in many houses while calling one or several “home.”  And observers can define “home” in different ways.  That’s obvious when I say it, but it wasn’t obvious to the people who assumed Robert lived in Miami all this time.  When we look at the barrage of data flowing into our heads, it can be very hard to separate what’s known from what’s believed, and make choices with the best chances of a correct outcome.

The fact is, not everything can be known.  We must make some decisions based on belief and even hope or fear.  But we should do our best to understand when we are doing so, and when we operate from a position of proof - of knowledge.

What do you think?  Has confusion of knowing and believing affected your life?  How so?

John Elder Robison