You Are Not The Malcolm X of Cameras (Canon EOS-1D X)

You are not releasing the Malcolm X of cameras or software, so how about not using “X” on every new product: Canon EOS 1D X, OSX, FCPX, etc. I love technology, I like the positive revolutions technology brings to the world, be they social, economic, how we think, how we work, talk, love, and realize our potential as humans. It’s getting common now to use X to denote new releases like cameras and software packages, to make consumers feel like those new iterations on a product are revolutionary in their design and capabilities. The X could mean the 10th edition, taken from ancient Rome, but in general it’s used because it sounds cool – but the person who made X stand for cutting edge revolution was Malcolm.

I first read the Autobiography of Malcolm X while taking a class at Michigan State University, just a short from where Malcolm Little grew up in Michigan. The X represents the idea that Little was the name of the slave master of his father’s family, and that their heritage had been taken from them, hence he took the last name X to represent that loss of identity.

“The Muslim’s ‘X’ symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.” ( Malcolm X, Autobiography, Perry, p. 147)

It probably started with OS X, the 10th edition of the Apple operating system. The idea was that Mac OS version 10 was a redesign of the old system, the new being based on Unix and in large way lead to the turn around of Apple, which now dominates many sectors of desktop and mobile computing systems. When Apple released the new version of Final Cut Pro, borrowing heavily from iMovie they called it FCPX. Now Canon is jumping on the X marketing-wagon, naming their new flagship the EOS 1D-X. I foresee a trend here, like using cleaver Latin names on cars. The marketing taps into the power of the word, but does so to sell a product which doesn’t live up to the potential of humanity.

The Canon 1D X isn’t a revolution in video capable DSLRs. It wasn’t oppressed by Kodak-based slave masters or beaten down by Nikon thugs hiding behind white hoods. It’s a tool to shoot still images and videos with. The X is something which screams revolution, but don’t let the marketing guise dilute the true meaning of the letter. It stands for social change, it stands for people standing up and putting their lives on the line to push for a dramatic modification of the social framework of a city or a Nation.

Yes, I am Indeed A Gear Whore

I’ve been described as an equipment whore without brand loyalty. Or, I think that’s what I was called, in any event, it’s a completely authentic description. I thought about it for a second, searching for a witty response, but I knew Matt was correct, so I just agreed – and held my head high. But now with Photokina 2010 starting, I feel a desire to explain my compusion (for myself as much as for the reader). You see, the key to being a successful equipment fiend is to do it on a budget and with wanton determination. It should go without saying that you only buy things you’ll actually use. Otherwise you’re just buying crap to make yourself feel better, filling up a gear closet so you’ll always have the possibility (in the back of your mind) of doing something interesting one day with all the junk you’ve accumulated. For this reason, I rarely buy anything new at full price. Even my Sony A900 was bought used from a pro shop in Zurich. The Sigma HSM lenses I bought new, but most of the Minolta lens I own were bought used from MapCamera in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

I also have something of a bag fetish. Not hand bags (although I’m sort of addicted to the Scaramanga label) but rather all manner of MountainSmith, Pelican, Lowe Pro, Think Tank, random messenger bags from Ortlieb and Dana Design, but I’m not totally addicted, I’ve avoided buying any of the North Face shoulder bags. I have to admit to having two of their expedition duffels – however, in my defense, they “were” the ideal bags to pack mountaineering gear in when I flew to Bolivia. Walking through La Paz, I really felt like I was in one of those North Farce ads in Rock and Ice, (my favorite climbing magazine of the day) and I couldn’t resist buying some bags in the tourist shops. But bags are cheap, I would never lay a finger on a Louis Vetton.

How Many Cameras?

Cameras are a whole other subject. People are always asking me how many cameras I have, and I always need to recount in my head. And, should I say one for the two Holga/Woca cameras? They’re cheap enough to count as one. I’ve bought all my cameras used (with a few exceptions) and in today’s used market, when you find a Fuji GA645 here or there for $350, how can you say no? From I got a Mamiya 645 Pro, which goes great with the used Maimya 645 lenses I got from to adapt to my A900. And there’s no point in buying just one Sunpak 120J, you need at least two to feel good about yourself. Flashes work best in pairs anyways, and it feels professional to have variety. Then come the eBay purchases. My first digital camera was a Canon D2000, I figured it was good to start with a DSLR with horrible medium and high ISO performance. Then I would learn how to handle digital noise. I bought one Contax G1 with the 35mm lens because it’s a badass fotoapparat, but then I wanted to get more lenses, and scored another G1 with the 28mm, 45mm, and 90mm lenses plus the TLA-280 flash for less than $800. When one of the G1 babies died (probably corrosion from shooting on a sailing trip in Greece) I had another to fall back on (that’s called thinking ahead). I have two Fuji GA645 cameras (one needs repair after too much exposure in the Alps) and one GA645w. I’m always lusting after a Fuji 670, 680 or 690, and thank God I never bought a Polaroid modified 4×5 handheld.

Function Over Form

However, no camera can be considered beautiful if it’s a useless paperweight sitting on a shelf somewhere. I have no desire for a gold-plated Leica. I’ve used all my cameras at one point or another, and fully intend to use them all again in due course. The Contax G1 has been sailing in Greece, all through Zurich, shot many pics in Berlin, taken mountaineering in the Swiss Alps, and the 90mm Zeiss is a fantastic portrait lens. I recently picked up some Fuji Natura to use with the G1 to make some awesome low-light shots. The Minolta 7 film camera was with me in Bolivia, and for a trip through Eastern Europe and Germany. I shot every day with it for a month and my backpack was filed with one extra pair of pants  and boxes of 35mm and 120 Provia. The GA645 series have taken some amazing landscape images in Switzerland, been up Mt. Fuji and also gone through Eastern Europe and naturally been to Berlin. The Canon D2000 was, and still is a great DSLR for studio shots and parties. The D2000 enabled my first self-portraits and peaked my interested enough in digital to buy a Minolta 7D when they were liquidated in Zurich at a sweet price. The Ricoh GRD and Canon G10 are great mountaineering cameras to complement the GA645, and they’ve all found their place (although I sort of busted up the G10 ski touring). Now I’m shooting graffiti street and portrait images with my Sony A900 and couldn’t really ask for more from a well-exposed image. The picture is tack sharp from my Sigma lenses and you can see the definition of my softbox grid in the reflection on the eye of a person.

Never Obsolete

Now, why don’t I just buy and sell on eBay? Once you have these things you have to consider that you’ll make very little re-sale on the used market, so like old college text books, it just makes sense to keep them around. Or, I consider it a small resale value as compared with what I could do with the gear if I need to use it again. Although I’m a gear whore, I have no brand loyalty. I love Apple, but never got an iPhone because they’re over-priced for what they are (ok, the new 4th generation is a step in the right direction). I still use a dual 1 GHz G4 PowerMac because I didn’t want to drop $2000 (or more) on a new computer (when I could buy some Elinchrom lights instead), and I was getting along ok till now (a new iMac is on the desk). I’ll buy the camera which fits what I want it to do. I have a Canon G10 because it’s an awesome camera for mountaineering and travel, but love to pull out my Ricoh GRD for wide angle shooting and it packs better for sport climbing. I like the idea of North Face but buy my jackets from Mountain Hardware (on sale) and pants from Haglofs (they fit amazingly well) to complement my Osprey Exposure climbing pack. I love the North Face packs from the ads, but the Osprey Exposure fits me like a fine-tailored suit. Nothing which is useless can be beautiful to the user, and I love products with great design and are useful in real life (I’m also a UX/UI prima donna).

Here’s the thing about being a gear whore, you’ll never find the perfect bag or camera, so I don’t even try. Above all else, I use what I have to the fullest extent possible (or so I believe). I use the cameras I have till they break and am still amazed at how far I’ve been able to push my Quicksilver 2002 PowerMac. If you don’t have the right tools you won’t get the job done. True, I have more tools than I need, but it’s nice having too many flashes on hand because I can do whatever lighting setup I want. I don’t used my ice tools every year, but when you want to climb a frozen waterfall, they’re essential. Now, the blowtorch nozzle is a little extreme, but it’s getting a lot of attention in my latest photo shoots, and if needed, I’m sure I can sell it – (but probably I won’t). An effective living space is one with interesting things to play with and discover. This was as true as when I was five as it is now that I’m pushing 33 years of age. Photokina 2010 is opening, and a whole new line of toys is coming onto the market to fuel my gear compulsion.

Related Gear Whore Articles

A Sony Alpha A900 Gorilla Eyes the DSLR Jungle

The end is near, and hack camera writers across the web are digging in for the mad-capped pseudo blood-bath set to be unleashed on the digital camera world. The release of the Sony A900, the full-framed 24 Megapixel beast will be launched before the end of 2008. There’s little doubt that Sony will unveil a DSLR marketing spectacle like the world has never seen at Photokina 2008 in Cologne (September 23rd-28th), and it might even be worth attending this year.

For give-or-take a decade now the DSLR market has been dominated by small sensor APS-sensor sized offerings, and Full Frame 35mm sized image sensors have been integrated into only a few cameras models, such as in the release of high-end Canon cameras such as the EOS-1Ds and more affordable 5D models, plus a few washout releases by Kodak. Full-frame 35mm image sensors have many advantages, in particular that the majority of DSLR lenses are designed for that sensor size. All the benefits of selective focus and shallow depth of field can be fully exploited when paired with 35mm sensors, which are less pronounced when one uses a 35mm-designed lens on an APS-sized camera body. So far the benefits of larger imaging sensors have stayed in the plus of $2500-$3000 (at the low end). Even the recent release of the affordable ($3000 MSRP) 35mm full-frame camera by Nikon; the D700 is really only there for professionals and gear heads thirsty to drop money on a new trophy camera. The D700 competes directly with the Canon 5D, which originally brought full-frame capabilities to pros and advanced amateurs the world over for the lowly MSRP price of $3299. The release of the Canon 5D and Nikon D700 were significant, but for true innovation the market need competition.

Competition benefits the consumer, and Canon has been the Microsoft of the digital camera market, nearly fully dominating the 35mm full-frame digital segment since it started. There’s good reason for it; Canon does cameras, lenses, sensors, and software/firmware, all of which are key components needed to produce a successful digital camera. Canon has the means of developing all of these essential components in-house using one design strategy.

By comparison, every other DSLR company has been able to do maybe two of the above (at most), but without the last piece of the development puzzle it’s been difficult to match Canon, which generally means the ability to develop and manufacture the imaging sensor. Many companies, such as Nikon have relied on partner companies to design and manufacture the imaging sensors. So while Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, Leica and Olympus could design great cameras and lenses, they couldn’t build DSLRs without sensors from companies like Sony. Sony produces many of the imaging sensors used in current point-and-shoot as wells as DSLR cameras. But it wasn’t until Sony bought the camera technology from Minolta that they could start developing the Alpha DSLR System. The true strength of Canon has been its ability to develop, manufacture, and release DSLR models faster and with more precision than the competition. Even Nikon hasn’t kept up with the Canon camera release cycle and only released its first full-frame model a year ago in the form of the D3. Nikon is improving in this respect, but there is now another beast in the DSLR Jungle.


Enter an 800 Pound Gorilla…

Unlike every other camera company, Sony can actually match and beat Canon in the camera development game. Sony bought the camera and lens technology from Minolta, who got out of the camera business because it couldn’t develop and release cameras at the rate of competitors. Sony has partnered with Carl Zeiss, who now designs and oversees production of high-end lenses and markets the Zeiss ZA line for the Sony Alpha mount. And as a final piece in the puzzle, Sony can design and produce their own imaging sensors, which is something only Canon does at the moment (although Nikon has recently started down this road with the D3 and D700). Add to that the fact that Sony is huge, with distribution centers and marketing people in every corner of the globe, and it’s a sure bet that with an aggressive business strategy they’ll change the DSLR playing field. Why? Because Sony doesn’t enter markets just to release products, they’re a contender. Sony over turned the high-end video and camcorder markets, and they’re poised to do the same with DSLRs – with the new A900.

The soon to be released A900 from Sony could change the status quo of the DSLR world. The release of the A900 will mean that together with Canon and Nikon, there will be three major development and manufacturing entities producing and marketing DSLRs with full-framed 35mm image sensors to the general consumer market. The potential technology infusion and price reductions could be the first real signs of an end (or at a least plateau) to the DSLR evolution game. The 2007/08 DSLR offerings from Sony have been significant. The A700 was released in late 2007.  Essentially the upgrade to the Minolta 7D, which fans of the camera had been waiting for, which showed the world that Sony can design and manufacture a serious DSLR.  Sony has implemented excellent Live-View capabilities as well as vibration reduction technology into their camera bodies (like the Sony A350), at prices which make the Alpha system extremely attractive for camera buyers transitioning from point-and-shoot models to DSLRs.

Once one transitions from a Sony W300 point-and-shoot to an A200, A300, A350, or A700 DSLR; the energized customer will be thirsty for something…more. The A900 will be the ultimate fulfillment of that thirst (at least until the next model), and has the potential to establish Sony as a serious camera Brand – not a rebagged Minolta camera maker, not a me-too-jump-on-the-bandwagen DSLR distributer, but a full-time serious contender in the DSLR Jungle. The most important notion here is that a full-frame DSLR from Sony will have to have a price lower than that of Nikon and Canon to be competitive.  The A900 will have Sony Super SteadyShot (SSS) built into the body as well as a 24.6 Megapixel CMOS imaging sensor. According to Mark Weir (Sony Digital Imaging and Audio Division), the senior technology and marketing manager of the Alpha camera line, the 24.6 Megapixel sensor will achieve very low noise due to an intelligent A/D converter technique (as reported at PMA 2008 in a Calumet Photo interveiw).  This could be significant, since it is generally felt that sensor noise has to dramatically increase with high pixel density.  If the A900 retains it’s high resolution with low noise levels and is offered at a price point below that of the competitors, the A900 could be an excellent options for photographers needing medium format resolution in a 35mm sized body.  The next camera with such features is the Canon 1Ds-Mark III, which boasts 21 Megapixels and retails for nearly $8,000. 

The true profits for digital camera makers is not in the cameras but in the system. Sony lenses, memory cards, flashes, and other random add-ons is where the long-term profit strategy exists. The point is to get people into the Alpha System, because once you have a sweet 24 megapixel beast in your hand, you want to fully exploit its potential with a Carl Zeiss 24-70 f/2.8, Sony 80-200 f/2.8, or any of the variety of other lenses which are currently available – as well as those that will be released into the marketplace. Not to mention a vertical grip to make the camera look cool, as well as the flagship Sony FL-58 flash, which actually has one of the most innovative head designs of any other maker, and boasts excellent wireless control for additional flashes.

I’m looking forward to the Sony A900, and might actually buy one. The successful Canon 5D is now essentailly discontinued and can be had for less than $2000, but only until the successor is released (probably called the Canon 6D). Aside from the new Canon 5D replacement and the new offerings from Nikon (the just released D700 and soon to be here D3x), the Sony A900 should have the biggest impact on the DSLR market in 2009. It will affect camera prices, encourage (more like force) innovation, and no matter your favorite brand, the release of the A900 will have a positive impact on the DSLR Jungle.



Ricoh GR Digital – Climbing Review

Fuji GA645wi Ricoh GR DigitalOne reason I bought the Ricoh GR Digital (GRD) was to use as a climbing and mountaineering camera. What follows is a user review and my impressions of the GRD in the mountain environment.

I live in Switzerland and mountain trips are frequently on my schedule. A basic day trip involves an elevation gain (and equally large loss) of 800-1200 meters, and involves hiking, rock scrambling or sections of actual climbing. This means that any weight savings makes a difference in terms of how fast and how far I can go on any given trip. It also means that if I want to use a camera, I don’t always have the benefit of using two hands when taking a picture. Sometimes trips just need to be documented, a shot for the blog, or just to record the day. Other times I go with the intention of bringing back some good-looking, printable photos. My current list of cameras includes: Contax G1 (28,45,90mm lenses), Fuji GA645, GA645wi, Minolta 7D.

In general, none of these cameras have been ideal in the mountains, although the Fuji GA cameras come pretty close to being perfect for landscapes. The Contax G1/G2 is a good choice, but if I’m just documenting a trip, then I don’t need or want to go through the costs of processing 35mm film, and then taking the time to scan the images. Plus, while 35mm film can produce some very nice detail and colors, it leaves me wanting more for landscapes. The Fuji GA645 and GA645wi are my favorite film cameras for mountaineering, but (aside from the developing costs) they don’t have a close focusing distance, which only makes them good for landscape shots, and is not ideal for focusing on close objects. The Minolta 7D is great, but generally needs to be accessed from my backpack and can’t be comfortably held with one hand for shooting purposes. Plus, a 7D with lenses is not a light kit to carry into the hills.

Climbing Ricoh GR Digital GRDFrom a certain perspective, the Ricoh GRD was seemingly made for mountaineers. The fixed 28mm and 21mm add-on lenses are ideal for landscapes and the camera is incredibly compact. In fact, it’s not a stretch to call the Ricoh GRD (and GRD-II) as well as the GX100/GX200 some of the most compact wide-angle cameras on the market. In addition, the GRD is incredibly light. The Contax G1/G2 is also a compact camera, but it isn’t really light from a pack-weight point of view.

My first mountain trip with the Ricoh GRD was up Mt. Fuji in Japan, where I also took my Fuji GA645wi. The Ricoh performed wonderfully, but since Mt. Fuji can’t really be considered more than a hike, it wasn’t until I got back to mountaineering in Switzerland that I could get a feeling for how the GRD performs in a mountain touring environment, which is the focus of this article.

To date, I’ve taken my GRD ice climbing, mountain touring in Graubünden, hiking up Säntis in the Alpstein, and climbing on a klettersteig in Braunwald. I plan on ascending some higher peaks and undertaking some longer tours soon and think the GRD will be up to snuff. There are a few main criteria I’ll be focusing on including how well the GRD can be operated while climbing, it’s attributes such as the LCD screen, and creating good exposures in the mountains.

Braunwald Klettersteig Ricoh GRDOperation – One of the GRD’s strengths has always been customization and user control. I can hold the camera up to a scene, automatically see if the histogram looks good, and if not, two small clicks on the exposure compensation button and I know I can take a picture without blowing away the highlights. Similarly, the ISO, focusing mode, file type/size, shutter speed, and aperture can all be changed within a few seconds using one-handed operation. I can’t do that with any other camera I own without the risk of dropping the camera. While seemingly unimportant or at best a convenience for city use, when one hand is holding onto the mountainside, one-handed operation really does make the difference between possibly falling or getting the shot I want. With the GRD I can easily have my left hand secured on a handhold while operating the camera with my right hand.

Image Quality – As a small sensor camera, the Ricoh GR Digital obviously can’t compare with DSLRs or medium format film cameras for image quality. However, you don’t always need a perfect landscape image worthy of pixel-peeping. For trip documenting and small prints, the Ricoh GRD does pretty good. When the images are exposed correctly the contain a great deal of detail and you won’t have a problem creating large prints. Small sensor camera image quality degrades as ISO increases, however, in the mountain environment you generally have more than enough natural sunlight to create exposures with shutter speeds above 1/200 using ISO 64 (the base ISO of the GRD). Since these landscapes will nearly always be with a low ISO, noise won’t be much of an issue. I love the colors I get from GRD files and so long as the images aren’t over-exposed you’ll be pleased with the results.

Braunwald Towards OrtstockRAW Write Time – This is by far the greatest drawback of the original GRD. When deciding to buy the GRD, one of the biggest draws was its ability to write RAW files at a time when pretty much every other pocket camera would only do jpeg. Depending on SD card type, the time to write a RAW file is about 9-12 seconds using the original GR Digital. Many users have produced reports detailing which cards write faster, but generally the difference is only a few seconds at best, and the three cards I have all write at different speeds. Depending on your shooting style, for landscape use the RAW write time is sort of irrelevant. With the exception of creating multiple images for stitched panoramas, I haven’t found the long write time to be a significant problem for landscape images. On the other hand, when you’re moving fast over a mountain landscape and trying to document the climb, I would no doubt love the improved RAW write time of the GX100/GX200 and GRD-II, which from what I read are on the order of 4-5 seconds.

Battery Life – At least with the GRD (not considering the GRD-II as I haven’t used one) the battery life and performance could be better. I find that I’m always getting low by the end of a climb, and although I always carry a second battery, this is one area that I would like to see improvement in. For multi-day trips nothing sucks more than running out of juice, which is one reason I still love my Fuji GA and other film cameras, as I’ve never had a similar battery problem. Cold also seems to be an issue, and hampered by ability to use the GRD while ice climbing during December.

LCD Screen – The LCD screen on the GRD leaves much to be desired in the mountain environment. It just sucks in bright sunlight, and is only good for framing the subject. I do have the external viewfinder, and I’m glad I bought it, but don’t use it very much in the mountains. Since the live histogram is available (and easy to see in sunlight), I’m of the opinion that having a perfect image on the LCD screen isn’t really a big deal. More exact framing can be accomplished with the aid of the external viewfinder. Here’s the thing, If you can monitor the histogram, you know if the highlights will be blown and can adjust the exposure as you like. It doesn’t really matter if you have a bright, perfectly defined image when framing a shot. Often times upon review, the images on the GRD LCD screen look extremely dark in bright sun, but when reviewed later indoors, the images are perfect. As long as you base your exposure on the live histogram, the quality of the image on the LCD is somewhat unimportant. The lack of a live histogram display is one big reason I’ve decided not to buy the Sigma DP-1. The live histogram is invaluable in producing well-exposed images the first time, and eliminates the need to reshoot a scene. It’s one of the things I love about digital cameras to start with, and the primary reason I want live-view in the next DSLR I buy (probably the Sony A900). As the DP-1 lacks this seemingly basic function, I’d rather take a Fuji GA rangefinder on a climb.

Edelweiss in Braunwald Ricoh GRDMacro Focusing – This is where the GRD really beats all my other cameras and is one big reason why I love climbing with it. You can get as close as 1cm from your subject to create sharp macro images of anything on a tour whenever you feel inspired. You might just think this is great for flower shots – and it is, but what I love is creating wide-angle macro shots during climbing for point-of-view (POV) images. I love getting the Ricoh close to my equipment or looking out over rock edges and creating unique shots that I haven’t seen before. The only way to get similar images with my current equipment is using my Minolta 7 film camera with the Sigma 20mm lens (very close focusing ability), which also is rather large, heavy, and also produces images with just a bit more distortion than I would like. Plus, with the Sigma 20mm you have a much shallower depth of field and a lot of Bokeh (diffused image areas), which isn’t a bad thing, but at the moment for climbing, I like close-up images with a good deal of sharpness across the image. With the small sensor of the GRD, you get really deep depth of field, and combined with the 28mm lens and one-handed operation, this means the ability to take crisp images that are more or less unobtainable with other camera systems.

Compact Size – This is one of the main requirements for a mountaineering camera, it needs as small and light as possible. The GRD is great because I can put it in a case and clip it to the chest strap on my backpack. This keeps it away from my carabiners or quick-draws, and is accessible whenever I want to shoot. It also means it won’t interfere with my climbing movements.

Wide Angle Lens – The lens on the GR Digital is very good, as has been reported elsewhere. I have the 21mm add-on lens, which supplements the fixed 28mm lens. The wide angle still sets the Ricoh apart from other compact cameras. Even the top of the line Canon G9 only has about a 37mm (in 35mm terms) lens, which is not ideal for landscapes. Distortion is very low and the lens will render a sharp image across its entire frame. For mountain landscapes, and in particular for climbing, the wide angle lenses on the GRD are unique and much more useful than those of competing cameras. Using the wide lens of the GRD I’ve been able to obtain shots in the mountains that would not have been possible otherwise.

Braunwald Klettersteig Bridge

So, Why Do I Take My Ricoh GRD Mountaineering?

Great image quality
Unique macro image ability
Low weight
One-hand operation
Live histogram display

What Needs Improvement?

Battery life
RAW write time
LCD screen performance
Image stabilization would be nice

The strengths far outweigh the drawbacks of the GRD. It remains a high quality, extremely packable digital camera. If you’re in the market for a climbing and mountaineering camera, I highly recommend one of the Ricoh designs, including the GR Digital, GRD2, GX100, and GX200. In addition to using the GRD as a traditional landscape and portrait tool, it also works well for off-camera lighting, and I plan to do more trips packing the GR Digital with a small strobe flash and radio triggers.

Further Reading:

Ricoh GRD Articles

Hiking Mt. Fuji with the GRD

Fuji GA Camera Articles

Ricoh GR Digital Mountianeering

Sigma DP1 – Revelations from the Camera Shrine

When an 800 pound Gorilla walks into a room, everyone notices.? When a world class lens company releases a new camera, few will barely have the inclination to even suggest turning their eyes to acknowledge noticing. ?Sony owned the PMA 2008 news like no other, and the other companies seemed to know it.? That’s what it means to be an 800 pound Gorilla, your competitors have to sit back and watch the beast do what it wants because there’s no way to realistically deny your presence. ?Aside from the Sony DSLR releases there was one lone camera release by Sigma, the lens company which also makes a DSLR which has one of the smallest user bases of any current camera maker.? It could probably be argued that the Sigma DSLR user bases is actually smaller than those of some defunct camera lines like Contax. ?Sigma produces lenses for nearly every camera type, from Canon to Pentax, and even for their own DSLR camera, the SD14 – a camera which has been discounted as much as any camera in history, except for those which were officially discontinued – because despite their best intentions to market a “competitor” few take Sigma seriously when it comes to making digitally enhanced light-tight boxes.? At least, until their development of a pocket camera with a large APS-sized imaging sensor.

At Photokina 2006 Sigma announced they were developing a camera from heavens, and showed a prototype at PMA 2007 of the small and powerful DP1 – which was enough to create a butterfly marketing breeze strong enough to light up every photo website on the net and generate universal interest from nearly every user group, from Canon to Minolta.

Then came the delays and speculation.? The DP1 didn’t materialize at PMA 2007 and the word “Vaporware” started to spread.? There are many examples of awesome camera products like the Pentax Medium Format Digital, which had nice mock-ups at the PMA and Photokina shows but never materialized in the marketplace.? So it was with great mega-pixel glee that camera geeks across the globe read the news of the DP1 launch at PMA 2008.

Like every camera maker, Sigma has a user base of die-hards committed to loving their products till life slips from their fingers – no matter the actual performance and usability of the camera system. ?However, Sigma is a little different than Canikon, because although their core user base will jump on any product they produce (like the SD14), it doesn’t mean that their customer base will grow by any measurable amount. ?Enter: The Sigma DP1, a camera that a lot of photographers would be willing to drop dollars on if it would only be released – and according to, the DP1 will be available on March 25, 2008 with a price tag of $799.

The Sigma DP1 with 14 megapixel FOVEON X3 is set to go on sale in late March.? It will have a fixed f/4 16.6mm (28mm equiv.) lens, with manual focusing capabilities, a hot shoe, optional external viewfinder, and 2.5″ LCD screen.? This means a compact camera with a high resolution sensor and a pixel size of 7.8 microns – promising to render smooth images with dynamic range beyond that of every other hand sized camera on the market today.

Now the digital camera market has come of age with a compact point-and-shoot camera with a APS-sized sensor, all the image quality capabilities of a DSLR in the palm of your hand.? In short, the God-send camera users have been calling for.? It is true deliverance from the camera Gods, a high resolution, high quality compact camera with an affordable price, something not seen since the film days when a compact Contax G1/G2 could match the image quality of any top-shelf SLR.

Of course, many people have already counted the DP1 as being a flop.? The rationale being that with a 28mm equivalent lens and a “slow” aperture of only f/4, and a maximum ISO of only 800, a number of folks don’t even want to consider it as a digital imaging tool.? Which is sort of the reception the Ricoh GRD first received, but it since risen to become a cult camera favorite.

And I would discount the DP1 too if I listened to the gadget-junky-fools on the net.? The thing is, I like to “use” the cameras that I buy, and getting down to Brass Tacs, my Fuji GA645 and GA645w film cameras (both with a slow f/4 lens) produce incredibly sharp, amazing results in a relatively small package.? The Fuji auto-focus 6×4.5 rangefinders did well in their day, but with the advent of digital the cameras didn’t make the impact they deserved and are now only found on the used market.

But the Sigma DP1 is different, it will find a profitable niche, because once people start using it, they’ll no doubt find that having a high performance tool in the palm of your hand is much better than a $2,000 DSLR-lens combo which sits around on your desk half the time because it isn’t convenient to take everywhere. ?I know for a fact deep down in my heart that at the very least the DP1 will be a killer landscape tool for the mountaineers and travelers of the world, and if a wide angle and telephoto converter were offered, (as are available for the Ricoh GRD line) it would be the perfect travel package to tool around the globe with.

Essential Links:

Sigma DP1
Sample Pics on Dpreview
Press Release on Dpreview

PMA 2008 – Sony Digital Junky Live View Nuclear Madness

Now we have come of Age
Descended from the Hills and Caves

This humble year of our Lord called 2008 is set to explode in the mind of this camera-politico-junky dream.  Forces are in motion and old battle scores are set to be replayed on the global stage.  We in the pro-amature photo industry news business take these things very seriously – more intently and at a higher adrenalin level than any fool CNN political commentator War junky journalist on the Net today.

The Photo Marketing Association held it’s yearly show, and among camera announcments from Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Pentax and others, Sony is set to transform the digital camera market.

The stakes are higher than those wars overseas and every online junky comes out of the digital net to blast competitor companies and raise their favorite brand to Buddha like reverence with the crafty spirit of a Sun Tzu trained assassin.

First, let’s set the stage:

For those in the know, the competition between digital single lense reflex (DSLR) camera manufacturers is nothing less than a precision guerrilla war on the global chess board.  In any competition there are those on the top and there are underdogs.  The Goliath of the camera industry is Canon.  Dominant in the pro sports market their lenses and bodies penetrate the consiousness of anyone who has seen a main stream camera in the past 20 years.  Canon was really the first camera maker to develop its own imaging sensors and use full frame (35mm film sized) sensors.  Their pro cameras are always at the top of the performance charts and have dominantly defined the direction of digital camera technology since Kodak dropped the ball in developing DSLR technology.

Canon is the Golaith to knock off, and Nikon started the real assault late in 2007 with the release of the D3, a full frame high ISO DSLR beast which is creating a movement of dollars back to the Nikon brand.  Aside from Nikon, the small companies like Pentax, Olympus, and the now defunct Konica-Minolta released cool technologies like in camera images stabilization, anti-dust, and Live View innovations, which were either capatilized upon, improved, or ignored by Canikon.

Unlike War, the photography battles occur at prearranged places, generally the yearly PMA and biannual Photokina.  This year they’re both going down and the bloody push for market share is fierce.

The stage is set to explode because one last vestiage of the samurai inspired Nihon-Camera tradition has begun to growl and show its silver back.

An 800 lbs Gorilla is in the room – Sony started is mobilizing in the DSLR business about 2 years ago with all the vigor and quiet calm of a Tsunami – after aquiring the camera technology from Minolta.  Now the hurgry beast has declared a desire to capture 10% of the DSLR market in 2008.  At this time in 2007 Sony had one DSLR and a hand full of lenses on sale.  Now the line boasts the A100, A200, A300, A350, and A700.  Partnered with Carl Zeiss, the mystic German lens house to design and oversee high-end lens production – the pieces are coming into place for Sony to make some serious market penetration.  And then, just a few days before PMA opened and other manufacturers finished their announcements, a quiet press release was made:

Sony announces the development of 24.81 Megapixel Full Frame Sensor

The general camera geek consumer has been waiting for a hammer to drop… that full frame DSLRs would be produced is such numbers that they would actually become affordable and Canon would be knocked on its head – and this is one large step closer to reality.

Sony is more or less leap-frogging over Olympus and Pentax, which Minolta was incapatble of doing.  With in-house sensor manufacturing abilities and global marketing reach, Sony has the power to do what Nikon has had trouble with – entering a head-to-head Ram style war for the high resolution Pro-oriented DSLR market.

Let’s Focus…

The combination of Minolta camera technology, Zeiss lenses and a 24.81 megapixel CMOS imaging sensor is the camera industry equivalent of a country aquiring full-blown nuclear capabilities with ICBM cluster delivery systems overnight.  No matter your moral affiliations it means something, and the world will never seem the same again.  Of course, we’re dealing with cameras here, not atomic demons, but the analogy will stick for now.

The hammer is coming children…and it’s set to slam against the ground with the full force of an 800 lbs Japanese Gorilla behind it – and all the camera junkies are laying money down on Sony in announcing their Alpha 9/A900 full frame DSLR at Photokina in September 2008.

Rioch GRD II – Deliverence from the Gods

In our digital age the Gods are real and our prayers answered with ever increasing frequency.  Two years ago the Japanese God Ricoh Ltd. gave to this Earth the digital incarnation of his most special creation – the Ricoh GRD, a digital version of the fabled razor sharp Ricoh GR and GR21.  Now the prayers of GR pilgrims has again been answered, in the form of an updated GRD-II.

The Ricoh GRD-II was announced this November and is due out in stores just before December.  The GRD2 looks pretty much exactly like the GRD and sports every new feature a GR fanatic could want.  The Raw write time has been reduced to a few seconds, higher ISO images will sport less noise and a 40 mm add-on lens will be available as well as a new smaller external viewfinder. 

The coolest thing about the GRD2 is that most of this new technology will be available to and compatible with the existing GRD model.  The 21 mm lens from the GRD works on  the GRD2, and the new 40 mm lens works with the GRD.  Ricoh isn’t just releasing a marketing hyped camera to replace your year old-one like most camera makers generally do.  Once again Ricoh is actually adding value to an existing product through a new firmware upgrade and accessories.  This pretty much cements my economic commitment to Ricoh for compact cameras, with the new 40 mm lens there’s far less reason to look at a Canon G9 for a compact portrait camera.

The only missing feature in the GRD2 is shake reduction.  An anti-shake function is built into the Ricoh GX100 and R-Series cameras, so many were GR disciples were expecting it to be in the GRD2 as well.  To be honest this isn’t a huge thing for me.  I shoot with a Minolta 7D, the first anti-shake DSLR, but with my GRD I often shoot at low speeds approaching 1/10 of a second with minimal blur.  The fact is that with a short focal length lens, anti-shake isn’t such a big deal.  Does it help?  Yes, but so does a camera strap wrapped around your shoulder, and that doesn’t increase manufacturing costs of the final product.

I see the minor upgrades of the GRD2 as an affirmation of Ricoh’s place as one of the best digital camera makers.  Aside from more resolution, anti-shake, better raw write time, and a mild-telephoto lens, there was nothing to improve upon with the GRD2.  Much like the Canon G9 is pretty much the same as the G7, but with the Raw format and a better LCD screen.

Yes dear digital imaging children it’s true, in certain circles the digital camera technology revolution is starting to plateau, technology is maturing, and one doesn’t have to worry about their camera being obsolete in a year.

Ricoh GRD Review
Tokyo Strobist Ricoh GRD
Ricoh GRD on Mt. Fuji

More info at:

Ricoh GRD II Page
GRD Blog

Ricoh GRD – Tokyo Strobist and Shoestring Lighting

There are many thing to do in Tokyo, but on a Monday night after riding the metro one needs to relax. One of my favorite relaxing activities is the impromptu self-portrait session with a digital camera. This session focused on using off-camera flash with the Ricoh GRD. But here’s the problem, while checking in for my flight to Tokyo I was made aware of the fact that I was 15 kilos over weight, I’d either have to dump half my baggage or pay great fool-damned weight penalty.?While tossing things out of my luggage at Zurich I tried to cut it down to the essentials. The crampons and ice axe had to go, but perhaps a bit more regretful was leaving behind my light stand. Yes, I’ve made a habit of taking various cameras and at least one flash everywhere I fly to. As a compromise I kept the umbrella and flash bracket, thinking I’d find a solution in Tokyo.

Shooting in a cramped dorm room in Tokyo can be a bit limiting. With a desk, bed, and bookshelf there’s pretty much no room to do anything. I wanted a clear background and that meant setting up in the hallway. The cramped hallway presented an interesting shooting situation.? At only four feet wide, there was really no room for a normal camera to focus and capture the subject (me). Ah, but I had in my possession the fabled and non-standard wide angle Ricoh GRD digital camera. I setup a tripod and decided to go with the GRD and the 21mm add-on lens. This gave me a wide angle setup perfect for the cramped hallway.

For the lighting, I had a set of Gadget Infinity radio triggers to trip my old Contax TLA280 flash. The Contax flash was fired on manual mode into a 40 inch umbrella, in the narrow hallway this provided a rather large body of light, perfect for the random portrait session. However, without a stand, it’s pretty hard to set up an umbrella anywhere. To solve this problem I borrowed from my climbing mind and decided the best course of action would be to suspend the umbrella and flash (with bracket) using two shoelaces from my running shoes.

In my experience, the Ricoh GRD has been awesome for mountaineering and city shooting, but I’d never used it with off-camera strobes before. One difficulty with self-portraits is triggering the camera. The GRD has a nice interval timer, I set it for a 5 second delay and started shooting after a few test shots to get a nice exposure setting. Doing off-camera flash with the GRD was totally painless. Using the interval setting the GRD refocuses for each shot and will keep shooting till the battery runs out or the SD card is full. Five seconds is perfect for changing poses and waiting for the camera to focus.

Compact digital cameras are generally ignored with it comes to flash work, and usually have horrible small flashes that create unnaturally ugly images. The Gadget Infinity radio trigger is very small, and fits extremely well on the GRD hotshoe. It means you have the freedom to take a small flash wherever you’re going and bounce it or diffuse it for awesome lighting on the fly and create excellent flash photos, even with a point and shoot digital like the GRD, Canon G9, or any digital with a hotshoe.

The extreme wide angle of the GRD was very cool to work with. The GRD has an awesome lens, and worked extremely well in the tight confines of mine small dorm room. I took to shooting myself in various combinations of the clothes I brought to Tokyo. It’s not rocket science, the images aren’t fantastic art or crazy creative, but I like them and plan to expand on the wide angle portrait technique.

Traditional portrait guidelines call for a camera with a focal length around 85mm (in 35mm format). Wide angle lenses are generally not used since distortions in the face can be considered unflattering. I found the 21mm GRD lens just awesome for portraits. The advantage is, with a few movements forward or backward and left or right, you can control which parts of your body are slightly distorted, made larger or small due to the distortions inherent in the lens. This means you can easily modify the subject of your portraits by making parts of the body larger or smaller, distorted or normal. Positioning various parts of your subject in the distorted range of the lens can dramatically increase how the subject is communicated to the viewer of the images.

I had an awesome time shooting with the Ricoh GRD and off-camera flash for the exposure. The wide angle 21mm lens gives the brave photographer a number of creative opportunities to portray your subject in ways not possible with traditional mid-telephoto lenses. The compact size of the GRD means you can set up anywhere, and break the myth that flash and small compact cameras doesn’t work.

If you found this information helpful and would like to experiment for yourself, check out Strobist for lighting info with off-camera flashes.

Gadget Freak – Pimp Your Digital Camera

As a gadget freak, cameras are just cool to hold and use.? However, some days you get the feeling that the camera shouldn’t just be a tool to record events, but also an integral part of your look.? The classic photographer response is something like:“The photographer is an observer, and as such should be on the side-lines, recording events and being unobtrusive.”

The thing is, I’ve developed a communication style care of Hunter S. Thompson literature, and sometimes the line between participant and observer should be blurred.? That’s why the writer should be part of the novel, and the photographer part of the picture.?Choosing a camera for the night can be as hard as picking the right sunglasses.? A full DSLR might look good slung over your shoulder when wearing a Lowe Alpine jacket, but a Canon 1D type camera might be too much when sporting a pinstripe suit.? Camera pimping allows one to add or remove accessories as desired.

Pimping a camera out is pretty easy in the world of internet auctions and mail order.? The integration of cheap manufacturing and eBay means you can get whatever you want in the way of camera accessories.? That wouldn’t have been possible even two years ago.

One of the most functional and cosmetic extension for a DSLR is the vertical grip.? Most cameras are landscape oriented, so the photo frame or sensor is wider than it is tall.? But for portraits it’s often nice to make the picture taller than it is wide.? The easiest way to do this tilt the camera 90 degrees.? But then your hand is crooked, and in a non-optimal shooting configuration.? Most prosumer cameras have the option of a vertical grip, it screws into the camera base and generally includes more batteries so you can shoot longer.? The VC-7 for my Minolta 7D is kick-ass but cheap manufacturing technologies from China and commerce via eBay means you can get one for pretty much any DSLR.

The term “Photography” refers light painting, so controlling the light is essential to making images.? Light painting is easiest to do via a camera flash placed away from the subject.? Flashes are plentiful and easy to get off the used market.? Any flash that is big, offers manual control, and can swivel will add instant “cool” to any camera.? Things like flash cards add a professional look as well as providing even flash coverage, and really will improve the look of your photos.

The flash bracket is a timeless camera pimp-out.? Cheap ones can be found for any camera type, even point-and-shoots.? By moving the flash away from the lens you reduce red-eye in photos produced by on-camera flash bouncing off the retinas of your subject.? It also adds bulk and a “professional” look, and those people who don’t know that equipment alone doesn’t equate to quality photos might be impressed.? In addition, it makes the camera easier to hold and adds bulk if you need to use it as a blunt instrument to make a quick escape or are attacked in a dark alley.? A number of expensive and cheap brackets are on the market.? Some of nicer mid-priced but very cool and functional brackets are made by ALZO Digital.

What’s cooler than wireless?? It’s in computers and phones – video flies through the air like ghosts of the 4th dimension.? And now you can cheaply get it for your flash as well.? One goes on the camera via flash-shoe or PC socket, the receiver goes on the flash.? This means you can do crazy lighting on the fly.? You can hold the flash above your head, put it on a stand to add awesome pop to your images.? The added gadget and wires pimps out the camera look, and thanks to Chinese manufacturing and eBay they’re a breeze to buy.? Check out Gadget Infinity.? To learn about using an off-camera flash with radio remotes, check out Strobist.


So the next time you’re heading out and want to pimp your camera to fit your look, be expressive, take a fashion risk, add the flash or accessories you need to complete your aura.

Ricoh GRD Awesome Digital Camera Experience

As a prelude to a forth coming stay in Japan and the desire to lower my mountain pack weight, I picked up a Ricoh GRD digital camera creative set with the 21 mm add-on lens.

Rioch GRD

The Ricoh GRD is a point-and-shoot 8 Mega-pixel digital camera with a fixed 28 mm and 21 mm add-on lens (from a 35 mm camera focal length prespective).  I’d been salivating after the GRD since it was released two years ago.  Like every digital camera, it’s value has dropped after being around so long, and with the release of the Ricoh GX100 and forth coming Ricoh GRD2, the price of the GRD Creative set has become very attractive here in Switzerland.

My motivations for getting the GRD were image quality, size/weight and wide angle lens capability.  After years of hauling various cameras through Europe and around the mountains of Bolivia, Colordao, New Mexico, and Switzerland I’ve come to asess the usability of a camera in relation to how much volume it takes up and how much it weighs as compared with the quality of the resulting photos.  The trade-off between performance and weight or volume is critical for travel and mountaineering.  I bought the Ricoh GRD because it offers high image quality with a wide angle lens in a light weight design.

I also bought the GRD because with its macro capabilities, it opens up more options to explore.  Therefore, the Ricoh GRD was pretty much a no-brainer for me.  Wide angle lenses are generally harder to design and implement in any camera platform.  That’s why most digital cameras have focal lengths from about 35 mm onwards.  This posses a problem for a traveler/mountaineer, since the subjects, mountains and buildings are often times too close to be captured effectively using the 35 mm focal length.  When balanced on a razor rock edge, there’s no possiblity of taking a few steps back to get more of that mountain in the picture frame.  Hence, a wide angle lens is essential for my travels.

People tend to get lost in the Mega-pixel debate.  A consumer is liable to check out the price of a Canon Rebel or Nikon D40 and not give a thought to the lenses that would really excel with those bodies.  An 8 Mega-pixel point-and-shoot with a sub-par lens might be on par with a 2 Mega-pixel DSLR (like the Canon D2000) simply because of the lense quality difference between the two cameras.

So it really makes sense to design a camera and lens together, which is basically what one has with the Ricoh GRD.  The lens is tack sharp as can be, and the image quality with the 28 mm or 21 mm lenses is just outstanding.  But no lens-sensor combination is worth anything without kick-ass user control.  The Ricoh GRD and GX100 are the only point-and-shoots with full manual control.  Yes there’s the Fujis and Leicas/Panasonics which claim full manual, but they don’t have adjustment wheels, you have to do it via menus.  The Canon G7 and G9 come close, but you only have one control wheel.  Plus, and this is huge, the Ricoh GRD has the Raw image format.

Now, it does suck that the time required to write a Raw file on the GRD is a tad long, on the order of 10-15 seconds.  Amateur camera critics and professional equipment complainers throughout the internet have decreed the long Raw write time as a "deal breaker" meaning that they’ll feel entitled to not buy the camera and then waste a great deal of their day complaining about the GRD instead of taking photos in the real world.  The Raw write time is an issue, but it hasn’t been an obstacle for me.

The GRD has no built-in viewfinder.  But an external high-quality finder fits into the hotshoe.  I love this combination because it allows me to get the exposure right by monitoring the historgram on the LCD screen and then composing using the viewfinder for excellent framing and stabilization.  The viewfinder is bright and works great with eyeglasses, sunglasses, or no glasses.  In a sense, the GRD actually exceeds the capabilities of my DSLRs because I get exposure information in realtime (via the live historgram) and only need to take one image.  With a DSLR I have to take an image and then review the historgram (chimp the image), then retake the shot if the exposure was off.  It doesn’t matter if your DSLR can take multiple Raw images per second if the exposure isn’t correct.  So, for a landscape shot, I actually waste more time getting the exposure right with a DSLR than with the 10-15 seconds Raw writing time with the GRD.  Hence, the long Raw write time is a non-issue with me.  Now, it’s true that the new crop of DSLRs have live-view, so one can get the exposure right the first time, but it will be a while before I pick one up.

So far the Ricoh GRD has been along on trips through Zurich, the Alps, and now Tokyo.  I love the GRD, I love the image quality, I love the manual control, and I love how easy it is to use.  When you buy a Ricoh, you’re also supporting the camera design efforts of a company which actually listens to it’s users.  Ricoh cameras like the GRD and GX100 will include a number of firmware updates.  Some will say this is proof that the camera was released too soon, and should have gone through more testing before release.  I see it as Ricoh listening to their customers and providing support to improve the funtionality of their product after the sale.  Ricoh is one of the most foreward looking and innovative camera makers today, and I like the idea of supporting them.  If you’re looking for a take everywhere high-quality camera with wide angle lens, manual control, and Raw image capabilities, the GRD might be for you.  The GRD is stealthy and robust.  It can go dressed up in the city or rugged into the mountains and continually retain its cool factor.

Fuji GA645 wi Wide Angle Film Camera Wonder

The Fuji GA645wi is another hold-over from the Pro Film era. An often over-looked camera in the long history of photography. The 645wi is in the 6×4.5 cm medium format, with a 45mm f/4 fixed lens. In this age of digital the bandwagon camera geek might take pause and pose the question: “What manner of foolishness is this? Film is dead my friend. Can I recommend the Canon G9? It does RAW!”?

First, a thousand discussions on hundreds of photography web forums suggests that film is not dead. Finger painting didn’t die when brushes were invented. Painting with brushes didn’t stop when the large format camera became available. Large format photography is still in fashion, despite the high-quality 35 mm options. And despite the rise of digital photography, film is still on of my preferred medium for capturing images.

Debating film vs. digital is worse than debating assisted suicide, abortion rights, the war in Iraq, or Israel vs. Hezbolla – because the film vs. digital debate is by definition a colossal waste of time. Use what works for you. What I know is that I get kick-ass photos with film, Fuji Provia is my friend, I like wide angle, I like medium format – and that was enough of a reason to drop 700 USD on a used Fuji GA645wi.

The GA645wi is built with and embodies that age old simplicity design aura, that so many companies ignore. A camera is a light box. Modern ones include automatic shutters and exposure meters, add a bright viewfinder, and not much else matters. The compact Fuji medium format cameras are unique in the camera world, and will for sure never be made again. For travel and mountaineering considerations, the list of equivalent cameras to the Fuji GA645wi is about zero.

It was built to pro standards, is still serviced by Fuji, and produces excellent results. When paired with pro film like Provia, Velvia, Fuji, Kodak, etc., the resulting images are vibrant, sharp, and unlike anything you could get with a comparably priced digital.

45 mm on 6×4.5 is rather unique. Since the lens retracts into the body, you can take the GA645 into many situations, but retain the quality expected of a much larger camera. Much like the GA645 (60 mm lens), there’s program, shutter, and aperture priority shooting modes. Manual focus is possible, but is mainly used only if photographing sunsets that fool the autofocus. The “i” version has two shutter releases, one for portrait, one for landscape orientation.? There’s a built in flash and it will take 120 or 220 film. The autofocus is good, but it’s best when used with static objects. The metering is dead on, it’s designed well and delivers results.

Few things suck more than not being able to capture the image you want after hiking into the Alps or flying across unknown seas. The reason I bought the GA645w is the lens. At 45 mm, the EBC Fujion has an angle of view close to 24 mm on a 35 mm camera body. This is my ideal focal length for land and cityscape shooting. Not so wide that details or subjects are lost, not so telephoto that you can’t fit the whole subject into the viewfinder.

To envision the GA645w, think of a Ricoh GRD or the unreleased Sigma DP1 and stick a syringe of growth hormones into your imagination. A high quality lens paired with a large image capture area. When you buy a Fuji rangefinder, you’re buying a lens with a minimalist, highly engineered body.

The ardent digital defender might say,

“Well, you need to know how to process your photos, with film the lab does all the work, you just don’t know what you’re doing. If you did, you’d shoot digital with RAW.”

This might be partially true. But what I know is that I capture a lot of detail and a large dynamic range with film. It’s a cool look that has over a hundred years of design and development behind it. It just looks good, I know this from experience. Photographing the Swiss Alps or the streets of Europe is awesome with film. Fewer highlights get blown out, and I have more detail in the shadows. I still like film, love digital, and love a wide angle lens, which is also why I’m taking the Fuji GA645wi along on my three month trip to Tokyo, as well as my Ricoh GRD.

I’ve taken some quick shots in Zurich and just love shooting with the GA645wi. The body is rugged and the viewfinder is just an awesome and bright, the way a camera should be. If you’re looking for a compact high quality camera, I recommend seeking one out.

Fuji GA645 – The Awesome Film Camera

pict3343.jpgIf you define a professional camera as one that actually says professional on it, then the Fuji GA645 was my first pro caliber photo tool. When first released in the early 1990’s it went for something near to 1500 USD. Now they are commonly found on eBay for 300-500 USD. For professionals it means a camera with near point-and-shoot convince and killer tack-sharp medium format “pop”. It really is point-and-shoot. You depress the shutter button half-way, it focuses, depress further, it takes the picture. Given its geometry and size, the GA645 is easy to hold steady in low-light situations. As I mainly do travel and landscape with this camera. The lens is a 60mm Fujion with an f/4 aperture. Many people have found fault with this design, complaining that f/4 is just too slow, the same people who have shot down the Sigma DP1, which sports an f/4 objective. Of course, numbers on paper are just that, in practice I haven’t found the f/4 lens to be limiting. Toss in some ISO 400 or 800 speed film and you have the ability to shoot in low-light situations, and since you’re shooting with a 6×4.5 film size, the quality of the resulting image will still be fantastic, especially for such a mobile camera design. The automatic focus however, can be a bit frustrating. Every camera has limitations, and the autofocus is what adds a rain-cloud texture to the overall fantastically sunny experience of shooting with a GA645. See, once in a while I get my negatives or transparencies back and find the subject was out of focus and blurry. For this reason, in general the GA645 is best used for static subjects. The focus distance is displayed in the viewfinder, so you can always look there to make sure it’s about right. It’s also possible to do manual focusing, which is nice because the focus was easily fooled when I traversed from Bettmerhorn to Eggishorn in intermittent fog cover in the Swiss Alps. Shooting into the rising sun can also screw with the focus system, and in such situations I set the focus to infinity. Despite the autofocus limitations, the metering system is dead-on and I rarely have any exposure problems.

pict3352.jpgThe Fuji GA line sports a few accessories, which one is still able to pick up if one is so inclined. A flash bracket and flash we produced, the basic GA bracket is shown here. Somehow I’ve acquired one bracket and two flashes, both of which I never actually use with my GA645. If you do use them however, the flash exposes very nicely with a butter popping sound. The bracket has a tilting head, so when you rotate the camera to shoot in landscape orientation, you can rotate the flash 90 degrees (similar to the Sony HVL-58). I sometimes use the bracket with my Minolta 7D. Since neither is produced anymore, they can be had on the used market for either reasonable or absurd prices. The one useful accessory I do use often is the tripod bracket. It lets you mount the camera and rotate around the axis of the lens, perfectly balanced and engineered. A macro attachment is also available, but doing macro work without being able to check the actual focus is bit hit and miss – and with medium format film, a tad expensive.

Zurich Night Limmatstrasse GA645
I mainly use my GA645 for travel and mountaineering. What does this mean? It’s been packed along on a month-long trip through Europe, throughout the American Southwest, in White Sands (New Mexico), sand dunes in Colorado, numerous trips in the Swiss Alps, atop Mt. Fuji in Japan, it’s been to the Zurich Street Parade, been used for night photography, and is my favorite camera when I stroll through Berlin. When you consider the quality of the Fuji EBC lens with the 6×45 format and a pack volume equal to that of a DSLR, it’s really a killer camera to take into the mountains. My GA645 has been all through Western Europe, Greece, the American Southwest, and is still taking kickass photos. Mine got a tad wet when I got lost on the Oberaletschglacier in Switzerland and slept next to a rock, but the next day it was shooting fine. The sand dunes of Colorado also did little against the durability of the GA645.
What place does a sweet film camera like the GA645 have in the digital world? A fair question, why does one need to shoot 6×4.5? Well, one doesn’t need to do anything but eat, sleep, and drink water. However, if you’re looking to capture a great deal of information on a photographic capture medium, the GA series is a fantastic answer when paired with something like the Nikon LS-9000 scanner. After three or four years of shooting with my GA cameras I rented the Nikon 9000 for a weekend to see what a decent scanner does with film from the GA. The raw files from the 9000 using Vuescan come out around 400 Mb. I also export a downsized tiff file to work with in Photoshop. Using techniques I’ve developed for portrait photography I manipulated the shadow tones and intensity to render a fantastic scene from a hike in the Swiss National Park near Zernez. The result is just fantastic.
Whispers of a Journey Into the Night

Whispers of a Journey Into the Night

Berlin walk-way GA645The general risk with buying old discontinued Pro technology is that, if it breaks – you’re screwed. So it’s actually sort of cool that you can still send in the GA645 to Fuji for a tune-up. About two years ago I picked up some surplus GA645 parts from eBay, including some shutters and body pieces, so aside from Fuji, I’m somewhat confident I could fix basic problems should they arise. The Fuji GA line is just the start, you can also get into the GW and GSW cameras, which can be bough in 6×7, 6×8, and 6×9 versions, all offering jaw-dropping razon tack-sharp images. So getting down to Brass-Tax, in the age of digital sensors and megapixels the Fuji GA645 is a film camera which still rocks hardcore. If you have some spar funds I highly recommend picking one up.

Read more about the GA645 at dante stella.