Allen's Blog
September, 2013

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“My X-Trans-formation”: Switching from Canon DSLR to Fuji X Mirrorless

Each week, it seems that I spend a lot of time talking about the evolution of photography in the digital age with Raj Tavadia, our Technology Director. I’m coming from a long tradition of film-based, pre-Photoshop, photojournalism and corporate assignments — still somewhat romanticizing the way things used to be. At the same time, I’m trying to accept the legitimacy of Instagram and the billions of images taken each day that record all the minutiae as well as the really important moments that document our world.

I’m very lucky (at least I think so most of the time) to have worked for decades when I could own all the rights to my work, be well paid for my assignments, travel without post-9/11 constraints and anxieties, and when the outlets for my work were far more numerous than today.

A good part of our conversations is about the equipment we used and are using now. In the simplest terms, it’s about the iPhone vs. high-end DSLRs, and everything in between. I’ve written about this before, but Raj brings his own perspective, informed both by his fine skills as a photographer, technology enthusiast, and father. Here are his thoughts…  — AG

A few years ago, my life underwent a major change.

Raj, steward to all things electronic

I’ve been Tech Director for Visual Departures for some time now, which has allowed me to work on a wide variety of projects, from web sites to video production to social media and more. I’m lucky to be able to say I can talk shop with a CBS News director, TIME-LIFE Magazine photographer, and successful entrepreneur on a daily basis… and all at the same desk! Allen doesn’t tend to brag about this sort of thing, but, well, this is a guy who’s found himself skiing with President Gerald Ford (apparently, he was the only one in the press pool that day who knew how.) You’re bound get a different perspective from someone like that (like: “what do you mean you can’t ski?!”) Well, what can I say? I grew up in Queens.

Joining the Visual Departures team wasn’t the big change, though.

I’ve owned a Canon 5D Mark II for nearly as long as I’ve worked with Visual Departures. My “walking around” lens was the drop-dead gorgeous Canon 24-70 f/2.8L zoom. I know it’s not the most beastly rig one can imagine, but even so, it’s awfully large and expensive. Overkill? Perhaps. (To my credit, I don’t own a Hummer or a big-screen TV.) My ophthalmologist once noted during an exam that I am a “clarity freak”, so it seems I am biologically unable to ignore sub-par lenses. And I am flattered by Allen’s rating me a “very fine photographer”, as that usually goes beyond the ability to simply make a sharp image and balanced histogram.

At any rate, I’m a fit fellow, and I usually didn’t mind carrying those seven pounds on hikes around New York City, various Hawaiian islands, and anywhere else my wife and I were lucky enough to find ourselves. I loved my “5D2”, and it seemed to love me back. With practice, we reached that point where photographs were made without hesitation. I envisioned a scene 20 years into the future, with me admiring the worn-down spots where I had gripped that same camera for two decades.

Everything changed when we learned that we were going to have a baby.

Forty weeks later (just as my initial shock was starting to wear off) our baby was delivered. During labor, I remembered Allen’s complaint about some people’s failure to experience things with their own eyes; it seems that whatever monumental event they could be witnessing, they feel it more important to document it (essentially watching it through a 4-inch screen) than to live the moment. So, when I got to meet my son, I set my camera to a forgiving aperture, snapped away from chest high, and regarded him with my own eyes, exclusively.

First Touch

The first year was very difficult for us all, but I was constantly grateful for the high speed and quality of the 5D2. I resolved that my son would have beautiful photographs of his early life, which, one day, he would treasure. Tens of thousands of exposures were made in the hopes of capturing just the right expression or pose to sum up that moment in time. I was digging a hole that my sleep-deprived eyes wouldn’t be able to climb out of for years.

The second year was not easy, but manageable. We took the little guy to Oahu for a memorial service, and I hiked up craters and through forests with him on my back. Thanks to hefting the 5D around all those years, he didn’t seem that heavy!

Now, he’s closing in on his third birthday and is bigger, faster, and more independent than before. And I started to wonder: between his gear and my own, how realistic would it be to keep hauling it all around the Bronx Zoo, the National Mall in Washington DC, Diamond Head crater, or wherever else we might be spending our day? Might there be another option? As a technologist, I had to ask: where had the leading edge moved in the five years since the 5D2 was released (and had changed everything)?

Serendipitously, I had started to notice a lot of people talking excitedly about the new Fuji X Series cameras. Fuji’s engineers claimed to have solved the moire problem of traditional Bayer-type digital sensors by using a new pixel layout, which they called “X-Trans“. Eliminating the moire issues meant that they could now drop the low-pass filter, which has been a standard part of nearly all high-quality digital sensors. Naturally, the fewer filters you use, the better clarity of the image hitting the sensor. Both well- and lesser-known photographers were talking excitedly about these new compact, mirrorless cameras with great ergonomics and image quality… some even went so far as to say “Fuji is the new Leica”.

Fuji X-E1 beside the Leica M3

It actually looked like there was a scene forming around these cameras. David Hobby took to YouTube for a 40-minute demo of the Fuji X100S, and, of course, posted great tips for how to take advantage of the X100 series’ special features. Zack Arias openly mocked Canon and Nikon, characterizing them as out-of-touch geezers. He ran several blog posts on the topic, including one showing off his new, compact gig bag packed with four X-series cameras plus assorted gear. The kicker: it still fits under an airplane seat. Chris Cookley said he’d shot more often and more happily with his young X-E1 than his years-old top-line Nikon rig. Many more had similar sentiments. Fuji’s marketing team could see what was happening, and started to adopt the “switcher” theme on their social media streams. As a 20+ year PC user who changed over to Mac last year, I was about to do about the same thing this year on the camera side.

In future posts, I’ll talk about what was better, worse, or just different. I’d also really enjoy hearing about your experiences (or questions), whether you’re a Fuji switcher, on the fence, or a DSLR die-hard. Please feel free to tweet @visdep, or drop us a line on Facebook or Google+.

The “Other” Competitors at the U.S. Open

Early 80s Nikon ad (scanned by Esox lucius @ MFLenses.com)

When Canon first decided to get really competitive in high-end SLR cameras and lenses, a field totally dominated by Nikon and long before the digital era, some marketing genius realized that those white barrels on long lenses would stand out both on television and to the crowds at sporting events. And that helps sell gear.

I know that there are those who maintain it’s all about the fact that white reflects, rather than absorbs, heat and that this better protects some of Canon’s lens elements.

I prefer to see it as a way to literally improve Canon’s visibility in the pro photographic marketplace. And it worked. The lenses were (and are) great, and after a while it seemed that there was a sea of white telephotos and the occasional Nikon interloper at the Super Bowl, the World Series, etc. It’s no secret or accident that Nikon did a great job of matching or beating the competition (I’m a Nikon shooter for a full 50 years), and I still find myself taking a quick survey whenever TV coverage provides a view of the still photo corral at a major event.

Canon L lenses at the 2013 US Open

That was the case during the semis of the U.S. Open this week in New York. Late in the match, there was about a ten-second cutaway when the announcers were calling attention to the fact that all photographic eyes were on Djkovic just before the victory that would put him in the finals. With always-helpful TiVo, I froze the scene and did a quick and totally unscientific lens count — at that moment, at least, the results were 7-5 in Canon’s favor. Of course, had CBS’s camera panned a bit left or right, the numbers might easily have been reversed.

The only point here is that competition is healthy on and off the court.

The Nine Days of POTUS

It’s become part of the summer routine for President Obama and his family to spend a week or so here on Martha’s Vineyard, much of it with old friends and with a lot of hours on the Vineyard’s several golf courses. In the past, my work for the Vineyard Gazette has put me in the middle of things, but this year I had no intention of getting caught up in any of it.

Obama_Vineyard_vacation_front_page

So, Thursday morning two weeks ago (Day 6 of the visit), when I heard the sound of Eight Harleys Roaring (past our house) and turning down the road towards the neighboring golf course, I knew that would be followed by Twenty Agents Guarding and One POTUS Golfing. While the State Police motorcycle escort took a break, I stayed inside, determined to let things be. But then, Julia Wells, the Gazette’s editor texted and asked by to see what I could produce in the way of pictures when the President arrived at the 8th green. Mr. Obama likes his privacy (who can blame him) — just ask Gazette staffer Ivy Ashe, who dutifully spent a day in the press pool from 8:30 AM until after midnight and never got a glimpse of Mr. Obama. FYI, the Gazette, founded in 1846, is one of the great local papers in the U.S. and well worth reading. Their presses roll each Thursday night in Edgartown, Mass.

I respect the Secret Service’s routines, and it all makes very good sense. The President came over to a group of us, and I got the front page of that week’s edition. The light was a nightmare — deep shadows where we were (his cap and sunglasses didn’t help) and strong sunlight on the green behind him. For those interested, it was shot with my Nikon D800 and the very, very good 24-70/f2.8. Steve Durkee, the paper’s design wizard, opened up the shadows, making for a fine picture, both in print and online. For other images — a quick change to the 70-200mm.

President Obama leaving the putting green

While on the subject of gear, I’ve been helping the friend of a friend dispose of some vintage Leica rangefinder equipment, and at the same time I’m seriously looking into buying one of Fuji’s X-series cameras. Beyond all the rave reviews these cameras are getting, with comparisons to the Leica M-series (both film and digital) making for some very good reading, it’s interesting to put an M3 next to the Fuji X-E1. There’s never been a camera that felt as natural in my hands as the M3 (or the M4 for that matter). That’s a large part of why this group of Fuji cameras is so appealing. It’s not that they consciously set out to copy Leica’s design (or maybe they did), but rather that they have made the “feel,” the ergonomics of the camera, such an important consideration, just as the engineers at Leica did more than 50 years ago. If I were starting a long assignment right now, and had to lock in to one camera to document all aspects of the trip, it almost certainly would be one of these.

Fuji X-E1 and Leica M3 (top view)

The next thing I’m looking for is WiFi capability. No hurry at the moment. I’m hoping the PhotoPlus show in NYC next month will help clear the air (and my mind). I see that Fuji have reserved a healthy-sized booth… what do you suppose they’ll be showing off?