Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Sunday, October 22, 2006

What Now for Cosina/Voigtländer?

I have been assessing the Cosina/Voigtländer line of rangefinder cameras, which now includes the following:

  • Bessa L
  • Bessa R
  • Bessa T
  • Bessa R2
  • Bessa R2S
  • Bessa R2C
  • Bessa R2A
  • Bessa R3A
  • Bessa R2M
  • Bessa R3M
  • Bessa R4M
  • Bessa R4A

Rather than being a diverse group of twelve complementary bodies, this might be more of an evolution of rangefinder bodies, each an improvement over the previous models while adding a few features (and sometimes dropping a few). Of course, some do have unique capabilities, such as the T, the Nikon-mount bodies, the Contax-mount bodies, and the upcoming ultra wide viewfinder model. This evolutionary sequence leaves me wondering what is next for Cosina/Voigtländer. They do seem to be committed to filling a niche in the classic style camera market. But those niches are running out. There is little doubt that these Voigtländer body offerings are, in part, a sort of hobby/labor of love for Mr. Kobayashi. I’m glad to see that he is concerned about filling the needs of fledgling photographers by creating the low end VSL43 manual SLR at 1970’s prices. And with a Pentax K mount (and an additional adaptor), a college student has access to a plethora of used lenses by Pentax, Zeiss, and a dozen other manufacturers (not to mention the Russian imported lenses). Which niches has he not filled?
  • Twin Lens Reflex – true, the original Voigtländer made twin lens reflexes many years ago. But the Japanese market today does not seem interested in such large, unwieldy cameras. It is a shame, as a twin lens reflex with a 50/3.5 Heliar taking lens would give us the functional equivalent of a Rolleiflex FW that costs around $4,000. But that would require developing a new camera and new lens from the ground up. Not likely. There are the Chinese-made Seagull TLR cameras, but those do not have a particularly good reputation for mechanical or optical quality.
  • Medium Format Rangefinder Camera – This might appeal more to the Japanese market. With the demise of the Fujifilm medium format cameras, the Mamiya 7 II, and the Bronica 645 RF, there are no current medium format rangefinder cameras. Would a “Texas Bessa” appeal to photographers? Maybe, but now that things are insanely digital, I don’t know if Cosina could make a profit. A medium format folder seems even less likely.
  • Digital Rangefinder Cameras – Epson used a Cosina-made body for their groundbreaking digital rangefinder but did the genre a disservice by letting them out of the factory in less that stellar condition. Horror stories of rangefinder alignment problems and focusing errors made this camera far less desirable than it should have been. Leica’s recent M8 prototype shown at Photokina in Cologne has convinced the world that this camera will actually be manufactured and sold. Will Cosina attempt to sell a cheaper rangefinder in M mount to compete with it? I have my doubts. They seem to like to coexist peacefully with Leica.
  • Compact Fixed Lens Rangefinder Camera – This seems to be the only niche that Cosina/Voigtländer has not occupied. I have seen photos of a Cosina autofocus camera, possibly from around 1980, and have seen a homely Cosina P&S that appeared to be a zone-focus camera. There are plenty of used Canon and Olympus fixed lens rangefinders out there on ebay, but most will have to be serviced and be recalibrated for mercury-free button batteries. I bought my Konica Auto S3 in about 1978 for $169. Using one of the inflation tables on the Internet, that calculates to $515 in today’s currency. Could Cosina make a fixed lens rangefinder and sell it for $515? I think not, unless of course it is really a Bessa R with a 35/2.5 P Skopar permanently glued to it. I think the best tactic would be to make one that sells for $900 that has a truly outstanding lens, a very sturdy, durable body, and a switchable spot meter and averaging meter. If rangefinder aficionados did not buy it for their own use, they might buy it for their spouse or children.
  • Decent, Sturdy, Small Handheld Exposure Meter - How about one with a photocell that doesn’t crap out over time? These are getting to be hard to find and hard to afford. Gossen and Sekonic have dropped all but their higher-end light meters. The lower end Pilot, Scout, etc., are gone. Minolta no longer appears to be making meters. Gossen does make a small plastic meter for under $200, but it tries to do too much (timer, alarm, thermometer, etc.). Just setting the ISO is a hassle. And it is shaped more like an egg than a deck of cards.
The Cosina/Voigtländer line of cameras, lenses, and photo accessories is fledgling by most standards, having been introduced in January of 1999. But Cosina has been making photographic equipment under various labels for many years. Their seven-year run has been appreciated and exciting. I hope that Mr. Kobayashi continues to dabble in producing what might be thought 21st century vintage-style cameras and lenses. He seems to enjoy surprising people like me with new innovations. I hope he continues to enjoy doing so.

Improving the Ricoh GR digital camera

After the age of 40, most folks suffer from a progressive condition called presbyopia. This is basically the inability to see close objects due to the lenses in the eyes losing their elasticity. Of course, the answer is to wear bifocals or reading glasses, or to simply hold anything one wishes to read at arm’s length while squinting. Combine this affliction with a pocket-sized digital camera, and you have a middle-aged photographer holding a tiny camera at arm’s length trying to view the LCD screen in the mid-day glare. When I ordered the new digital equivalent to the legendary Ricoh GR1s 35mm camera, I assumed that the small window along the top front of the camera was an optical viewfinder. Wrong. There is no optical viewfinder. For those who prefer an optical viewfinder, Ricoh offered the 21/28 GV-1 External Viewfinder for an additional $199. I almost never shoot with a 21mm lens, so a 21/28 viewfinder had limited appeal. Also, that particular viewfinder is massive compared to the GR Digital camera body, appearing to be about the same size as a standard Voigtländer external viewfinder. Bottom line? I stopped using the Ricoh GR Digital.

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the www.cameraquest.com site and happened upon a new, very small 28/35 accessory viewfinder. That had more appeal as it was $30 cheaper, had two focal length views that I often use, and was very small. And it turned out to be just the ticket for that tiny Ricoh.

With this diminutive viewfinder, the Ricoh is now both pocketable and usable. It is just about the same depth as the widest part of the Ricoh body, and looks like it was made for that camera. Highly recommended for those over 40 using the GR Digital.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

50/1.5 Zeiss Ikon Sonnar – Second Look

My initial impressions of the newly-released Zeiss Ikon 50/1.5 Sonnar were based on images taken under dim light on fast film. While it was possible to glean some information on the signature of the lens when used wide open, it showed little about the lens’ sharpness at smaller apertures. In this test, I tried to kill two birds with one stone. Scientifically-speaking, that’s never a good idea. It wasn’t here either. To test the resolving capabilities of the Sonnar, I used Rollei 25 film (good idea). Then I developed it in Rodinal to see how it fares with Rollei 25 (bad idea). Rodinal was formulated in the 1800’s and has been in production continuously until about a year ago. It was developed when photographers used negatives that were the size of prints. While it is a great developer for 8”x10” negatives, it unabashedly doesn't reduce grain. So, when the negative is 24mm x 36mm, expect grain, even from Rollei 25.

Today was very bright and very humid. Instead of hassling with highlights and shadows of buildings, I drove out to a swamp. It was bright enough to shoot at f/5.6 at 1/60, so that’s what I did. This image is of some run down fishing camps off Airline Highway. The full frame doesn’t reveal much as I am too far from the camps. But enlarging a small area of the negative gives a good impression of what to expect from this lens (and film + developer).

For me, this lens is plenty sharp enough for my use. I tend to use 200 to 400 ISO films, and I think the weak link in the chain will be the resolving capabilities of the film, not this lens. I find Rollei 25 to be insufferably slow, to the point that I would not consider it for anything except landscape photography (with a tripod). I do think that the Voigtländer Heliar 50/3.5 is a much sharper lens, but it, too, is slow.

As much as I like high definition, I don't expect it when shooting 35mm. If I want large prints, I'll use a camera with large negatives.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

First Look: Zeiss Ikon 50/1.5 Sonnar M lens

Well, this is groundbreaking. Not the 50/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar lens. Zeiss had 50/1.5 lenses before I was born. I’m referring to the fact that I’m giving it a “First Look” review ahead of just about everyone else. A while back, Zeiss Ikon decided to close down their gray market outlets in the United States. And I have yet to see the lens appear on the web sites of the big distributors like B&H and Adorama. I didn’t see them for sale anywhere until some popped up on ebay from a store in Japan. Then Mehrdad Sadat, a fellow on the Leica Users Group, pointed out that www.popflash.com had them for sale in Los Angeles. As far as I know, that is the only place in the United States selling them as this writing.

I assume that, like the previous Zeiss Ikon lenses in the M mount, this lens was designed by Carl Zeiss in Germany and is being manufactured by Cosina in Japan (That is not true of the Zeiss Ikon extreme ultra wide M lenses which are apparently designed and manufactured in Germany. These German lenses can be identified by their extreme price.). Physically, the 50/1.5 Sonnar is pleasingly small. When I opened the packaging, my first thought was that they erred and sent me the 50/2 Planar. It may not be as small as the original Contax mount 50/1.5 Sonnar (I cannot find mine in the plethora of bags piled in the corner). I also cannot find my calipers under the plethora of junk on my desk. I’m glad this is a first look at the lens. Let’s just say that it is very close in size to the Leica 50/2 Summicron, only shorter. Both lenses are about 17.5mm in circumference at their widest point, and the Sonnar is a few mm shorter. In practice, I know of very few photographers who use cases, so lens length differences here are moot. Of course, the front element on the Zeiss lens is much larger. There is no pull-out hood on the Zeiss, so the vented bayonet mount lens hood is recommended. Like the recent Zeiss and Voigtländer lenses, this hood can stay in place while removing and replacing the lens cap. Unlike the most recent Summicron, there is a protuberance on the bottom of the focusing ring. In practice, I’m not sure I could accurately tell if I were using the 50/2 Summicron, 50/1.5 Sonnar, or the 50/1.5 pre-asph Summilux based on size alone. The fit and finish of the new Sonnar are first rate, very similar to the Leica lenses but perhaps with slightly sharper edges.
The aperture ring has a half-click stop between f/1.5 and f/2, and 1/3 click stops from f/2 to f/16.

My first roll of film using this lens was TRI-X shot at the nominal ISO and developed in Harvey's Panthermic 777 developer. This is not a fine grain film, so conclusions regarding the lens' resolution wide open are not very conclusive. To me, the resolution seems adequate and the contrast very good, not surprising for Zeiss glass. But in a fast lens, bokeh becomes a big issue for me. Some fast lenses such as theVoigtländer 50/1.5 Nokton have bokeh that some photographers do not like. The bokeh of the Sonnar 50/1.5 seems very pleasing to me, at least in the initial shots I have viewed.

The edges of out of focus objects are smooth, and hard sources of bright light do not produce discoid platters with hard edges. Very nice.

I will try to get some additional shots this week using slower film with greater resolution. For now, I could not be happier with this lens, particularly at 1/3 the price of the comparable Leica 50/1.4 Summilux.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson

I admit to being overly partial to some people. Andrés Segovia is one. He invented a genre of music, that of the classical guitar. This was classical (baroque might be more accurate) music played on a Spanish guitar. He did it first, he did it extremely well, and all others who follow are compared to him. He wasn’t perfect. John Williams might be a better technician. Segovia’s hardened fingertips screeched on the strings, he slowed down and sped up in a way that was sometimes jazz-like, not baroque-like. It wasn’t perfect, but if he did it, it was right.

Henri Cartier-Bresson affects me the same way. It is difficult to find a photographer who will berate HCB’s printed legacy. He invented and mastered the genre of well-mannered street photography. He left us a large volume of work which, like Segovia’s work, is often imitated but not matched. And, like Segovia’s recorded legacy, it is hard to acquire all of the works nowadays without getting an enormous amount of duplication. Maybe duplication is the wrong word. It sounds like “two of”. Maybe multiplication is more like it. I have about 20 CDs of Andrés Segovia’s music. Among these CDs, I probably have Bach’s Chaconne 10 times. And I must have Granados’ Spanish Dance No. five 15 times. Collections of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work are published, then out of print, then others are published, then out of print. If you buy 20 volumes of his photographs, you can expect to see some of the same photos 20 times.

It was with this sense of foreboding that I ordered “In Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson.” I have many copies of HCB’s portraits of Truman Capote, Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, and Jean-Paul Sartre. And now I have another copy of each as they are included in this collection. But my pleasant surprise was that there are many portraits here than I had not seen. And I can find something to like in all of them. They aren’t perfect; he didn’t shoot them in a studio, and he used a 35mm camera. The very first portrait, that of French painter Georges Rouault, is not perfect. The fabric of his coat is in sharper focus than are the reflections in his eyes. The fingers of his right hand are chopped off by the bottom edge of the frame. A cross and lamp shade are situated awkwardly behind and to the right of him. But these blemishes are not fatal to the portrait. The lighting is gentle, the reflections are soft, the tonality is rich, and the subject is not reacting to camera or photographer. Other portraits have even more prominent distractions. Henri Cartier-Bresson was not averse to allowing the sprocket holes of his 35mm film to appear on his prints. Some portraits are grainy and soft. Some have overexposed highlights. But despite these quibbles, the portraits work well and not simply because most of the subjects are renowned. They work because he framed his subjects well and pulled the trigger at the right time. And sometimes timing is everything. Some of the portraits are of average or even underprivileged people who didn’t know HCB but allowed him to shoot without returning a guarded expression. That was perhaps what made him the photographer he was. He could approach a subject, frame it, and know just when the pull the trigger while not alarming or annoying the person he was shooting. That’s something I aspire to but will never really master.